We've seen a lot around here, but this guy is definitely trying something different. Using available open-source technology, Onyx Ashanti created his own controller system to be able to play Live, improvised music he calls Beatjazz. The system includes elements strapped to his body and mouth pieces. But rather than explaining it to you, let's take a look at a video of one of his performances.
Ashanti is basically making music in his own way, letting his creativity flow freely in a Live setting, mixing art and technology. We asked the self-proclaimed "Cyborg-Musician" to tell us more about what he's doing. - Lou C-D
Are you a trained musician who happens to be a geek, or a geek who taught himself how to play music? I am a trained musician who was also born a geek. When I was in elementary school, I had, by way of my grade, become convinced that I was terrible in math and thus could not succeed in my chosen dream career; engineer. So I became a musician. Later I realized that I was simply not “synergizing” with the way that math was taught to me and that the internet is a much better place to learn so my two loves have been intertwining ever since.
How the hell did this all start in your mind? Who wakes up one day and says "I will play music with electronic inventions strapped on my body for a living"? :)
It’s a combination of things. First, in 1993, I found a used wind midi controller (a digital sax) in a pawn shop, I lived in Atlanta at the time. I bought it, not knowing anything about synths or midi, but the night after I bought it, I had a dream of crazy synth music, I couldn’t quite make out what it sounded like… thus are dreams. But it made me want to know. And this started what would become Beatjazz and a series of dreams. Literal dreams that I could remember the next day that were so mental at the time I used to dismiss them, but now, they are my road map.
Even way back then, I thought to myself; "if this is digital, i.e. a 'controller' rather than a tube for generating sound, why do I have to use my hands in this configuration?!"; playing sax and wind controller to me, were like playing with a neck brace on. But back then, when I looked into trying to get [my own controller system] built, it was prohibitively expensive and most of the technology didn’t exist in an affordable form (wireless, FSR’s, real-time software processing, etc.). So I put it on the back burner until a few years ago, stopped again after I decided to prep to move to Berlin… it wasn’t until this last winter that I could sit down and focus on it. The benefit of waiting is that now, all the technology I needed is available, inexpensive and associated with thousands of instructional blogs, forums and tutorials. It's been in my head so long, it was almost like cheating.
You see jazz as a concept, not as a music genre. Tell us about your idea of what jazz is. (here, we often have to explain that to us punk is not just punk rock, but a concept, a state of mind)
Jazz is improvisation. Jazz is a language. Jazz is the ability to interpret the world and describe it to others, and yourself, without the linearity of words. Although still linear, because that is the way we hear, its not necessarily the way we understand. To me, jazz is to be in the moment… in a moment, to express what you want to express and make it conducive to that moment.
Beatjazz is being able to use electronic sound to paint with people's expectations. You may start out with a dubstep groove, but over time it becomes something else that is still relative to that original groove, mutated into something else that is still funky in a relative, or distinctly non-relative way. I tend to have phases where stuff I play ventures in different directions; the chords say one thing but the beat says something else entirely but then a lead part goes somewhere totally weird, BUT, together it has a statement relative to the moment that it is being played, and there is a part of the brain that puts this strange statement together and it makes sense somehow.
You're an open-source advocate: why is that important to you? What are the problems with not having open-source?
This project would not exist without open-source hardware and software. Someone(s) somewhere(s) decided to allow me to use their creation freely and openly so I feel I should do the same. People have been asking me “why don’t you patent your idea?” to which I say no, because I want people to be able to study this and maybe think “I want to do this” and be able to do it without having to spend loads of money; or to say “this guy sucks, I could do that waaay better” and have the opportunity to do so.
To me, trying to patent an idea like this, is like trying to succeed on a major label in 2011. It’s a different world, obscurity is much worse than piracy. I believe that you should do whatever it is that you do, to the best of your ability, and let the rest come from that. A better usage of energy is in innovating rather than trying to build a fence around ones ideas.
What's your relationship to your art? Is it a "healthy", loving one, or more of a love/hate & "tortured" one?
Hahaha… all of the above. Art is a word. My “art” is my nationality, my culture, my geekism, my anxieties and failures, my urges, my inner child, all expressing themselves at once, so there is going to be much angst mixed with much euphoria, which always leads to more angst. They all seem to be getting along a bit better lately, probably owing to living in such an artisitically integrated city as Berlin. They call us the “creative class” here. To associate “creative” with a “class” of its own gives the amount of time, energy and soul searching that an artist's life requires, a bit of validation that I found hard in other places I lived, so it's much less tortured now, other than metaphorically.
What's your relationship to the "artist life", making a living as an artist, etc.? How do you reconcile making "alternative" artistic choices/artistic freedom with the reality of the business?
I made a choice to live this life, with its ups and downs. What that means is that if I am starving, I will find some artistic means of feeding myself. Jobs are no longer an option. This is who I am and I have made peace with that, so what I do with my time, every single day, is create. Sometimes that means 3 months of doing not so much which is what some people do not understand about art and science. Huge stretches of time are spent simply thinking. Dreaming. Conjuring up spirits and ideas. During this time, you might have to eat rice 3 times a day and wash your clothes in the tub, but it is important to respect the time when your mind is trying to figure something out and give it its time to do so. “Doing” is the easy part. Coming up with something “TO DO” is the hard part. Once you realize this simple thing, then you can adjust. I have a decent flat and a bike and I cook inexpensively. If interest in my work goes away, I have a tent, a camping stove, a bike trailer and a battery to power my laptop and speaker so I can still go out and play and create and have shelter. But if interest increases, I bring in people to deal with the things that would detract from my artistic process. If playing big shows starts to detract from the core creative urge and it simply becomes karaoke, I will go back to a simpler existence, while still fulfilling my promise to myself as an artist.
Are you down with catchier music styles (e.g. vocal deep house music, pop music, R&B, etc.), or are you exclusively interested in somewhat experimental sounds?
I am very into Dubstep, DnB, Hip Hop, glitch… I’m really digging what Flying Lotus and Mike Gao and those cats are doing out in LA, as well as Glitch Mob, Beardyman… loads of stuff, but I also love noise, the genre. Big huge washes of sound. And then most stuff from the 70’s and 80’s but my hero is John Coltrane. He kept evolving his sound in the face of people saying he was crazy and thinking it was noise, and he showed them all. He stayed true to his artistic trajectory . I respect that immensely.
What's your idea of success? Is it more about making a living, or being free and content as an artist? Or does it have to be both?
A balanced combination of all of those while also, being able to have a family at some point. Success in exact terms, for me, would be being able to have the resources to learn and build this concept up and to be able to share it with others through new types of interaction that I am working on right now, so that when I am tired or need 2-3 years to do something else, Beatjazz would live on in others.
As for making a living and being free, those tend to be features of the place you live. If I am in a place where I feel like a potential criminal every time I leave home, then I cant completely be “free” to do the things I feel. Same goes for making a living. If you have to work 60 hours a week to pay the rent, it distracts greatly from your ability to be the best artist you can be. If the banks are “fee-ing” you to death, and the you’re racking up $20-30k In debt and the government is trying to yank the carpet from under you, it is very hard to make a living as an artist or be successful, together or individually.
Success would be having enough “resources”, not necessarily cash, to create your vision(s), but not so much that you become lethargic or beholden to someone(s) that expect a return in a structured manner, and/or doesn’t share or support your vision; and having people around you that inspire, challenge and support you.