In music, the term “ghost notes” represents the sounds that exist between beats. “If you listen to a drummer play a drum kit, you’ll hear things that are intentionally not played,” photographer Brian “B+” Cross explains. “Those are called ghost notes.”
The term “ghost notes” is the perfect metaphor for the photography in Cross' new book, Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed. “That to me describes very well the kind of photography that this is,” Cross says. “Attempting to somehow talk about music, what we hear and don't hear, while still having beats and still having intention.”
Out Dec. 5 through University of Texas Press, Cross’ Ghostnotes is a photographic mixtape representing the last 25 years of Cross’ life — 25 years spent meeting and interacting with musicians from all kinds of backgrounds. It reveals connections between different worlds, including L.A. hip-hop and Black Arts poetry, Jamaican dub and Brazilian samba, Ethiopian jazz, Cuban timba and Colombian cumbia. Along the way, it features the faces of such iconic artists as J Dilla, Brian Wilson, Leon Ware, George Clinton and Biggie Smalls.
“This book is an attempt to do a kind of history writing from below, about the way music impacts us and the kind of journey that music takes us on and the kinds of connections that music makes outside of national boundaries,” Cross explains.
As you look through the images in the book, it’s easy to hear the artists’ music playing in your head. In fact, author and hip-hop journalist Greg Tate, who wrote one of the essays in the book, suggested to Cross that it would be amazing to do a show based on the music and artists featured in Ghostnotes. El-P of Run the Jewels also had a similar thought, telling Cross, “Wow, it would be amazing to make a soundtrack to this.”
“I’d love to hear: What would Kamasi [Washington] do with these photos? What would Quantic do with these photos?” Cross contemplates. “We are gonna make a mix inspired by the book. J.Rocc’s working on it right now. Hopefully that will be somewhat like a soundtrack.”
Brian Cross was born in Limerick, Ireland and moved to L.A. in 1990 to attend CalArts. “I started studying photography at arts school in Ireland primarily because I was interested in the immediacy of it. And the notion that you could actually speak visually about ideas through photography,” he explains. “It’s not like I saw Ansel Adams when I was 14. It was nothing like that.”
Growing up in Limerick, Cross’ exposure to pop music was limited. “The only pop radio that I really had access to when I was little was Radio Luxembourg. You could only get it at night,” he remembers.
He also listened to plenty of traditional Irish music, but wasn’t particularly moved by it. “I would say the first big thing that impacted me as far as music and music culture was punk rock,” he says. “Late 1976, we started to see the first signs of it. It had a huge influence on me politically, musically, culturally. It opened me up to the possibility of a different kind of world outside of what I was used to.”
Specifically, Cross spent a lot of time listening to groups like The Clash and Stiff Little Fingers. “The first time I ever knew what socialism was, it was from a punk rock record.”
It wasn’t until moving to Los Angeles, however, that Cross’ love of music became intertwined with his love of photography. “I had a love of music long before I even knew about photography. Since I’ve been very young I’ve had a very strong relationship to music,” he says. “And the relationship between the two things really only came together at CalArts.”
Cross’ friend, City of Quartz author and urban theorist Mike Davis, suggested that he should make photographs about the hip-hop scene in Los Angeles. “I wasn’t that convinced at first,” Cross admits. “City of Quartz had just come out and Mike was editing a French magazine and wanted a photo essay to go with the essays that he had commissioned for the magazine, and asked me to do an essay about hip-hop in Los Angeles.” But once he began learning about the culture, he was hooked.
As Cross looks back on some of his favorite and most treasured moments, he fondly remembers meeting artists like Eazy-E, J Dilla, Colombian producer Curro Fuentes and others who have since passed on, and expresses gratitude for his many opportunities to visit great places at particularly good times. “I’m interested in how music moves through the diaspora and that’s why I go to these places,” he says. Among the many places Cross has visited, he cites Barranquilla, Colombia, one of the birthplaces of cumbia, as one of his favorites.
Making Ghostnotes, Cross felt that it was important that the photos tell a collective story and not simply serve as a sort of “greatest hits” project. “This is something that makes sense in and of it of itself,” he explains. “It stands alone as a series of photographs regardless of who the photographs are of.” To give the book a sense of narrative entailed making some hard choices. “It’s very difficult to look at this book and to know that the great photographs I’ve made of Ol’ Dirty Bastard aren’t in the fucking book,” he says. “There’s no photograph of Questlove or there’s no photograph of Quantic … [or] people that I’ve spent a lot of time working with that I admire greatly.”
Cross is hopeful that the book leaves readers with the notion that it is possible to create photos in and around music that actually teach us about the way music functions in our world.
“I think what I would like people to get out of the project is the notion that it is possible to make photographs in and around music that don’t just function as portraits of musicians,” he says. “That it is possible to actually gain an understanding of music from looking at photographs of people making music.”
Brian “B+” Cross' Ghostnotes: Music of the Unplayed is out Dec. 5 and available for pre-order now via Stones Throw.