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Electric Cello Has New Sound

September 20, 1986|NANCY REED | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — Cellist Jeffrey McFarland-Johnson played rock 'n' roll in garage bands and classical music in community orchestras as a teen-ager in Modesto. Though he went on to serious study of music, he never abandoned his love of amplified sound. So he built an electric cello.

Trained in classical music at UC San Diego, University of the Pacific and Sibelius Academy in Finland, Johnson this year won the UCSD Friends of Music String Fellowship Competition and earned his graduate degree.

When he came to La Jolla, he had more than a master's degree in mind--he brought along the prototype body of an electric instrument and the drive to innovate. He found a fertile environment in the UC San Diego music department, where experiment is part and parcel of music-making.

"I feel like a front-liner, a pioneer. The innovations I am making are going to take years before they are accepted," Johnson said.

"It took until the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix before the electric guitar started becoming the standard. I feel it's important to be electrified. But as an all-out communication device, the cello is not there yet."

He did not invent the electric cello, but he did come up with a unique instrument in both design and sound. It has taken nine years to complete the prototype, and he hasn't finished experimenting yet.

A violin maker trained in Paris helped Johnson make the solid maple cello body, and a Cadillac painter coated Johnson's cello with the same durable paint used for airplanes. Johnson transports the long-necked, un-fretted electronically equipped instrument in a modified golf cart.

"It's a cosmic-looking instrument. And it looks great with a tuxedo," Johnson said.

In San Diego, he sought out electronics experts to teach him how to electrify the cello body he had made.

"The unique thing about an electric instrument is that you have an isolated signal. Going to the mixer board or the amplifier you can have this wall of sound--yet each different voice will be isolated," he said.

Classical purists have so far rejected Johnson's electric cello.

"It has a totally different palette," he said. "I brought it to a classical concert and it was totally foreign--they didn't want to have anything to do with it."

Johnson played as a tuxedoed cellist in a classical ensemble at the U.S. Grant Hotel to augment his income. As a soloist at UCSD concerts, he experimented with his electric cello.

"People are intrigued by the sound. I didn't play things like musical scales, I got into more re-creating the sound of trickling water or wind--elemental sounds--like when you walk through the forest and get an apparition," he said.

"These are often unknown types of sounds, like the sound I call 'Druids Chanting at Stonehenge.' I use a high-tech medium to produce natural sounds. Some listeners have suggested I apply it to movie music."

Rather than "evolving" sounds that make one think of the country, Johnson places an actual Audubon bird call on the bridge of the electric instrument.

"I get real bird sounds as opposed to exploiting melody as Beethoven does with the 'Pastoral Symphony,' " he said. "It's like an oratorio, opera without stage."

Until recently, Johnson played his own compositions. He is now working on pieces sent to him by John Cage, a leading composer of experimental music.

His graduate studies were completed this summer, and Johnson moved to Sacramento over the Labor Day weekend, carrying his prototype and a dream to merge his varied interests.

He would like to form an ensemble--but foresees difficulty. "I can't find musicians like me," he said. "Compliance is a problem. I find good classical players who play jazz in a very sterile fashion. I want to use the technique of the acoustic world and apply it to the electronic world.

"All technology is geared toward pluck instruments, there has not been technology for a bowed sound." So classical musicians are not ready to accept his innovative instrument.

With the help of a computer, he hopes to perform alone.

"Bands come and go. I want to compose on computer and tour using cello as solo instrument with tape," he said. "The type of music I do is almost like a film score. With the advent of electronics, I can create orchestral sound--not in volume, but in texture."

Computer research is an adjunct to his electronic exploration of music. He created a software program to plot musical notation and plans to refine it. In Sacramento, he will look for jobs at computer companies--and for teaching positions at colleges.

"Right now my dream is divided into three areas, and they are all going to grow and culminate soon," he said. "One is the pioneering effort with the electric cello; two is the computer research to broaden the whole scope of music, and three is teaching.

"I want to do my own composing and arranging and use the computer to write music with. I can take the ideas of Bach and Beethoven--they were way beyond their time."

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