Jacob Collier is making orchestras out of his audiences, and it's wild
The world's greatest living musical genius (IMHO) is mastering an extraordinary new instrument: a dance-controlled human pipe organ with a built-in drum kit, built from scratch every night in real time, with the sonic horsepower of a football crowd.
British wunderkind Jacob Collier is the most limitless musical genius I've seen in my lifetime, and over the last year he's been working on what I suspect could become the greatest improvisational musical instrument ever created.
Guitars, pianos, violins, drums, they can make beautiful sounds, and they can convey incredible emotion. In the hands of a multi-instrumental creative phenomenon like Jacob Collier, they can become a direct channel from the imagination to the audience. But they can't feel the emotion they're playing. Humans can, and our voices can be more expressive than any instrument. The key is working out how to play a large group of humans, beyond the standard call-and-response stuff that's been part of concerts forever.
Before we kick off too far on this esoteric musical nerdgasm, you probably should read our introduction to the world of Jacob Collier from a few years ago. This guy is an outlier of the grandest order, a once-in-a-generation whimsical polymath bursting with fearsome intellect, boundless curiosity and extraordinary energy. Since that piece, he's won more Grammy awards and expanded his monstrous list of collaborations to include the likes of John Mayer, BTS, Stormzy, Lizzy McAlpine, Steve Vai, Coldplay and many others. If you know me, you know I'm not afraid of a little hyperbole – but read that first piece and you'll get a glimpse of just how different this young man is.
He seems unique in his ability to dive into any given corner of music, vacuum up information at lightning speed, master it and then start joyfully knocking down walls to take it to places it's never been. This off-the-cuff demonstration of a nigh-impossible polyrhythm between the fingers of his left hand (which can be sped up into a major chord due to the frequency ratios) is one routinely ridiculous example of his first-principles, no-boundaries approach. What he's doing with the humble concept of the audience choir is another.
Years ago, Bobby McFerrin hopped around on stage and let the singing world know that if you attract a crowd of music nerds to your show and put some trust in them, they'll sing whatever you ask them to... Well, anything in the pentatonic scale, anyway. McFerrin played the audience like a one-note-at-a-time pentatonic piano, and sang his own improvisations over the top. It was amazing, and clearly an uplifting thing to be a part of.
A decade or more later, 28-year-old Collier is pushing the boundaries of this concept to places nobody considered possible – as he seems to do with every musical concept he encounters. He's just wrapped up a 91-show tour through 28 countries with a 15-piece band, and his usual boatload of instruments, but for the highlight of each night he's been taking 2,000-seat concert halls full of people who have never met one another, and trusting them to operate as a single instrument playing three-note harmonies, driven entirely by hand signals and body movements. Here's an early iteration.
Throughout the Djesse World Tour, he's been getting better and better at playing this instrument, which is always a fresh batch of completely random people. So while he's performing this piece of music, as a segue off the end of an improvised piano solo, he's gauging the ability of the crowd and finding ways to communicate exactly what he wants to three different groups.
This thing starts out very simply, and he lets the concepts sit with each group while he teaches the others. Then he starts playing melodies. Then he starts playing two-part melodies. Then he starts asking groups to move in different directions, creating the soaring classical piece above, that seems to rise and rise forever.
By the time the tour made it to Rome, he felt ready to start breaking out of the diatonic safety of the major scale. So, using some added hand signals, he started to introduce the chromatic "in between" notes he'd need to start playing this instrument at another level. The audience in Rome knew they were taking the first steps out into uncharted waters here, but this first nibble at extra complexity went ahead effortlessly.
By the time he made it to Melbourne, where I managed to catch the show, he was mastering the art of teaching this stuff and fixing tuning problems on the fly, and essentially starting to play two thousand strangers better than a lot of people can play the piano. He hasn't released any video from this part of the tour yet, but there's bootleg footage out there.
As an audience member, the whole thing is an intense, high-focus learning challenge that also sounds like a song. And while he's taking three groups through this heady exercise in turn, he's also starting to direct emotion with body language, like an orchestral conductor. You make a joyful movement asking thousands of people to sing with joy, and unsurprisingly, the sound that happens is extremely joyful. And in the audience choir, you can't hear that without starting to feel joy. So before you know it, you're like Hendrix's guitar resting on the speaker, the sound waves from the amp stirring the strings into wild harmonics. A feedback wave of emotion starts sweeping through the room, and people start getting overcome.
I was there with a couple of battle-hardened singing dudes I spent 15-odd years working with, trying to get decent enough at harmony that we could start conveying some emotion. Between us, we've seen and done some pretty awesome stuff in the singing world. Never once did we make two thousand people start sobbing as one, and then elevate them through joy to triumph. This, like every other bastarding thing that captures Collier's attention enough for him to try it, is next level.
And while it's been changing pretty much every day on the road, this is essentially a written piece of music. Collier has had to plan ahead as he's taught himself how to play this instrument, refining his body language and the ways he introduces each concept, so he can hone his brand new instrument a little faster every night, and to a finer tune. But written pieces aren't where he really shines; once he masters an instrument, and there have been many, his real strength is in real-time improvisation. That's one place this looks like it's leading; he's going to start improvising jazz with his audience choirs.
But it's certainly not the only place it's leading. A couple of nights after I saw his show, the Djesse tour headed to New Zealand, and more bootleg video shows him turning a crowd of thousands into a six-piece air drum set, and then using that air drum set to play polyrhythmic six-part dance beats, complete with drum fills. And then Collier starts to beatbox and sing over it. And then he starts to play keyboard to it. Well, not just keyboard, because he's Jacob Collier and it's a new type of harmonizer he's been developing that splits his voice into an unlimited keyboard-driven choir, that can now do frequency sweeps between notes. And then he brings in the three-part audience harmony over the top. And then... And then...
It's a constant, rolling experiment; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it's always moving forward. There appears to be no end with this guy. I'm starting to believe he could sit down with Nikola Tesla and Leonardo da Vinci, and invent a machine to solve climate change. And it's clear this is all play to a fearless young performer that just doesn't recognize the boundaries everyone else works within.
If anyone could pull this concept off in an arena-sized show, this bundle of creative and physical energy is the one. At some point in the near future, Collier will become the first true virtuoso of an instrument the world has never seen, a multi-part, real-time choir of a hundred thousand strangers. A dance-controlled pipe organ with a built-in drum kit, assembled in real time, with the sonic horsepower of a football crowd and the emotional punch of... Well, real emotion.
At the end of the show, we saw him assembling a test rig for another experiment. Throughout 91 shows all over the world, he's asked every audience to sing certain vowel shapes at certain pitches, and he's recorded them all to assemble into another new hundred thousand-voice instrument, a digital one this time, that's presumably going to appear on an upcoming recording. Or maybe this too becomes another staple in the wild arsenal of musical instruments he's mastered.
Time and time again, this guy cracks walls I didn't know were there. I don't think I've ever seen somebody more limitless. It's the nerdiest ticket in town at the moment, but I defy anyone to stand in that hall and not feel what this guy creates. I hope this young genius becomes a global phenomenon, because I feel like he'd do things with that position that nobody else has ever thought of, and make the world a more interesting place in the process.
Source: Jacob Collier