UI professor went from small town Texas to building a musical chessboard, inventing the modern laser light show

Reunion John Cage and Marcel Duchamp play chess on Cross’ electronic board. — illustration by Blair Gauntt

“Lubbock or leave it,” the old saying goes, so Lowell Cross decided to leave the straight life behind for avant-garde adventures abroad. Born in 1938 and largely raised in that Texas town, this former University of Iowa music professor is a man of many unique firsts. Not only did he invent the modern laser light show (developed in part on the UI campus), but when Cross was a graduate student at the University of Toronto he collaborated with the paradigm-shifting composer and theorist John Cage.

Cage is best known for 4’ 33”, a “composition” that instructs musicians to lift a piano keyboard dust cover and sit in silence for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Though it is sometimes reduced to a kind of art prank, 4’ 33” also expanded the sonic possibilities of music-making by integrating ambient and environmental sounds into the performance (such as uncomfortable audience murmurs, creaking seats, noise from outside the auditorium, etcetera).

When Cage called Cross at his Toronto apartment in 1968 and asked him to build a cool chess board that could generate electronic sounds, it was a no-brainer, right? Actually, no.

“The professors that I had to deal with in the faculty of music at the University of Toronto hated such ideas,” he said, “and didn’t want to even talk to me about it.”

Given their dim view of Cage, and Cross’ own need to complete his graduate thesis, he politely declined this very tempting invitation.

“Then he told me his opponent in the chess game would be Marcel Duchamp,” Cross said, referring to the Dada legend who once painted a mustache on a reprint of the Mona Lisa and had the audacity to call it art. “And so that did it.”

Cross began dabbling in experimental music and building electronic gear as a teenager in Lubbock, eventually earning degrees in English, math and music at the local university where his father taught, Texas Tech. He made the most of his time there, but it wasn’t exactly the kind of place where musique concrète-loving artists thrived.

“I was interested in getting as far away from Lubbock, Texas as I could,” Cross said, “and so I went to the University of Toronto.” He studied there from 1964 to 1968, when he built the famous chessboard that Cage and Duchamp “played” (in both a musical and gaming sense). Cross dove into the project, ignoring the furrowed brows of his professors who disliked Cage’s embrace of chance operations and indeterminacy — both of which were at the heart of the performance piece that became known as Reunion.

Cross explained that the board he designed contained sixteen different audio inputs that were triggered during the course of the game. The specific musical sounds were generated by four composers in attendance — Cross, Gordon Mumma, David Tudor and David Behrman — whose audio signals were turned on and off whenever a chess piece was moved to and from a particular square.

“The way the chessboard was wired,” Cross said, “it started in silence. Then the first move, like the king’s pawn or whatever it was, turned on the sound when the piece was lifted off that square and turned on another sound when it was put out closer to the center of the chessboard.” Lowell used his own pre-recorded electronic music that was played back on tape machines, and the other three composers performed live electronic music on home-brewed, DIY electronic gadgetry — creating a cacophony of collaged sounds.

Cross also set up his oscilloscopes, which visualized audio signals on a cathode-ray screen during the game.

“David Tudor got interested in what I was doing with the oscilloscopes, and he asked if he could plug into my oscilloscopes, and I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ And so that was the beginning of David Tudor’s interest in visual results from electronic equipment.” His use of the oscilloscope eventually led Cross to develop the world’s first musical laser light shows in the late 1960s.

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Before he made that transition, Cage brought Cross, Tudor and others back together for one more Reunion in 1968, this time at the Electric Circus in downtown New York.

“It was a discotheque,” Lowell said. “There was a whole lot of cigarette smoking, and other kinds of smoking, and acid going on. It was very casual, not very structured at all. And that fit right into what Cage liked. They just invited Cage to do this, and he invited all the rest of us to get involved in it, and so we did.”

Cross was unsatisfied with the size of the oscilloscope screens used in Toronto and New York — which were far too small for audiences to see — so he began modifying video projectors that could display visual renderings of audio inputs. While teaching electronic music at Mills College in California, he began collaborating with UC-Berkeley physics professor Carson Jeffries to develop laser technologies that could visualize his musical compositions. Pepsi-Cola sponsored their crazy idea at the Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, after which Cross took a job at the University of Iowa.

“And so we built for the University of Iowa an improved version of what was at Expo ’70,” he said, “and the Expo ’70 system was an improved version of our very first device that was used at Mills College.”

The next thing Cross knew, groups like Pink Floyd began using lasers in their live concerts — though he feels they were rather primitive and limited, because the laser imagery wasn’t really integrated into the live musical dynamics.

“Whereas what I was doing was deliberately composing electronic sounds that I thought made interesting visual imagery,” said Cross. He then added, “but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

Kembrew McLeod invites readers to join him in a conceptual game of laser tag. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 224.

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