An Interview With Bob Ostertag
Bob Ostertag is a music school dropout who has since performed all over the world and has collaborated with the likes of John Zorn, Fred Frith, drag diva Justin Bond, and the Kronos Quartet. In this interview he describes his creative process and what inspires him to design his technological instruments.
Tell us what you’re doing now.
Well, let’s see… I’m touring my Yugoslavia Suite, which is a multimedia thing for video and audio and live performers that uses a combination of Max and MSP on one computer and Imagine on another computer. I’m preparing my second CD of solo improvisations which will all be done with Max and MSP and game controllers. I have two new quartets… one with Fred Frith, William Winant and Joan Jeanrenaud, and one with Joan Jeanrenaud, Theo Blechmann and Denman Maroney. I’m touring my trio Pantychrist with Otomo Yoshihide and Justin Bond. Let’s see, I know there are some other things in there… oh! I’m doing a project with Joan Jeanrenaud and Jim McGee, an artist in El Paso. Actually, that’s the next thing on my plate, that Joan and I will go to El Paso to do this recording with Jim. Then I’m going to teach in Slovenia for a few weeks in September.
Where are you touring the Yugoslavian suite?
Well, I just came back from… we did it in Austria, at Steim in Amsterdam, the Nancy Festival in France, in Lyon, Victoriaville in Quebec, at the Futuresonic Festival in Manchester, at CNMAT, and in Winnipeg… so generally around.
You attempted to take it to Serbia first. You ended the comments in your diary with a discussion about the intentions you had, beginning with work whose content was so explicitly political and bringing it to the people where it was. You talked about the difficulty of finding the space in which the kind of interaction that you wanted could take place. How do you think that doing the work, or performing it, has changed as a result of your going there? Did that change the way that you organized what you did, or did it change your attitude about how you presented things?
Well, I was going to make a third movement to it that was going to be based on videotaped interviews with audience members after the piece was performed in different parts of the world, and I dropped that idea. So that’s probably the biggest change. There were actually two challenges that really grabbed me about performing that piece in different places. One was that there was so little political space available in the former Yugoslavia. It’s like people didn’t even have the space to think about it. They would just have a sort of visceral reaction to it. But the other problem is the problem of working with images, as opposed to sound. This is the first piece I’ve ever done that uses images as a central element. Actually, that’s not true… I don’t typically use images.
But you often collaborate with people who emphasize stage performance or visual imagery.
Sure. But there’s something about using documentary imagery. The way I think about it is this: we all hear sound differently. If I sing a note, or play a note on a trombone or whatever, you’ll hear it slightly differently than I’ll hear it. We’re all different people, and we bring our own histories to how we perceive things. But we see images really differently, much more differently than we hear sound. If you took images like the images that I used in that piece, and you show them to people in former Yugoslavia, where they’ve been bombarded with those images for the last ten years, and they know them inside out, they probably are familiar with every image I use, and can identify the people in it. Not only can identify the people in it but the place it happened, and they probably know why that was an important moment, and why somebody would want to take a picture of that, and they’ve probably thought about that moment inside out for the last ten years… and then you show it to somebody from the United States, and they don’t even know what country it’s from. It’s pretty hard to imagine that you’re going to make a piece that will work in both places, and all the other places I’ve taken the piece. So, that’s a hard one. Sure, I’ve done things that are sort of the sonic equivalent, where I’ve used documentary audio that was quite politically charged, but it’s still different.
Found material, material whose content is explicitly identifiable with a given circumstance, seems to be at the center of much of your work. You’re doing something with both visual and audio material now, and you’re saying that the two are really different. I think many of us would see visual images as more public, in the sense that we can get them from someplace. Your point of view is that even though that’s ostensibly the case, they’re more immediate. They’re public all right, because I can get them from forty places, but it’s a given image at a given time at a given place, and when I go to Yugoslavia and show that image, something different happens.
It’s true. I just think that people are primarily visual people.
That’s a great thing to hear a composer say, isn’t it?
In the department of redundancy department… I just did another piece called “Between Garbage and Science” that was a theatre piece, and that’s the first time I’ve ever worked with an actor on stage. That was really a difficult experience. There was a filmmaker, Pierre Hebert, and an actor, Baltazar Lopez, and myself, and we were all onstage, and we really wanted to make a piece where the three elements of actor, film and sound were sort of equal. It was really hard. People perceive with their eyes first, I think, and if you give them something to look at, it’s very hard for them not to perceive the sound as an accompaniment of what happens in front of their eyes.
Do you feel that that’s a difficult thing to manage when you perform live? For a very long time you’ve been involved in the creation of the equivalent of your own instruments. When an audience goes to a concert hall and sees a grand piano, unless it’s played in a very unusual way the audience brings a certain set of expectations… ways in which a piano player transduces small motor coordination into noise. Seeing a performance with a game controller means that the audience doesn’t have those things. Does it ever concern you, for example, that they’re distracted from the sound you’re producing by trying to figure out how Bob does the trick?
That’s one of the big problems of performing electronic music, of course. I’m sure everybody who would read this interview on the Max web site has thought about this stuff. Actually, the game controllers are very new for me. I’m actually new to writing my own software and so forth. For ten years I used an Ensoniq keyboard… I did all my stuff on a keyboard I bought at the rock and roll store. But I don’t have any keyboard facility at all… for me it was just a bunch of buttons. I thought about that a lot. When I first started using it, it felt very disconcerting to be sitting on stage in front of a keyboard, and then an audience would come in and expect you to play this keyboard, and then you’d be using it as a bunch of switches, and display none of the facility that people would expect you to display when you sit down at a keyboard. For a while that really bugged me. Then I got so used to it that it stopped bothering me.
I played that thing for ten years, which was another deliberate choice of mine, because I think in electronic music people are in such a rush to get the latest thing, and to upgrade their system, and to get something faster and with more voices, that they never actually learn to play anything. I think particularly if you’re going to perform, then you have to develop some kind of… not virtuosity, but you have to learn to play something. That takes a long time – you can’t learn to play something in a few weeks or a few months. So I stuck with the same instrument for ten years even though there were much newer things that had more buttons and more whistles. I got to the point where I think people responded. They were sort of surprised that I wasn’t playing a keyboard, but even though I was just hitting these buttons and scrolling through menus and stuff, I was comfortable enough that… I sort of had it in my bones.
You developed a virtuosity not in the keyboard end of it, but in the Bob Ostertag bank of switches.
Yeah. I think it’s something very physical, and something that has very much to do with your body. I think you have to be comfortable putting your body into the performance. I got to the point where I could do that, and I think people responded to that. After a long time I finally relaxed about it. Now I’ve switched to a powerbook and a joystick…
Has the problem returned?
Oh yes, absolutely. I’m going to have to work with this for quite a while…
Well, basically you’ve said that’s why people have trouble with electronic music. You’ve actually done the upgrade, and you’re now faced with the same problem that everybody who upgrades constantly faces all the time. The only difference is that you go a decade between re-inventions instead of six months.
Right. An interesting thing about game controllers is that almost everybody has used them at some point. Not everybody, but certainly many of the people who come to my concerts have used them.
It’s a much more common thing.
Which is the same as a keyboard – most people at some point in their life have sat down at a keyboard or piano and doodled around, or have even taken a few piano lessons as a kid or something. So when you sit down in front of a keyboard, there’s a resonance with the experience that you’re having. It’s similar with joysticks, actually… people know, well, you can move it this way and that way and twist it, and hit those buttons…
It seems like their familiarity might allow them to connect more immediately with what you’re doing in terms of content, because there’s less mystery about it. Probably a little more mystery than a piano, but in the same sense they sort of know that at some point it’s not going to burst into flames, and you’ll have to actually touch it for something to happen.
You know, it took me a while to get the bugs worked out of using the joystick, so while I was doing that I did some shows just sitting on stage with the laptop. I actually did two shows in proscenium stage theaters with full theatrical lights where I was just sitting on stage…
…and how did that feel?
It felt really… clerical, like I should have been doing my taxes or something.
Bob Ostertag, CPA, on stage.
I had no problem with the music, I thought the music was just great, but it felt really strange.
Was it your sense that the audience responded that way too?
Well, I made a point to ask people, and people said that it was jarring at first, but then they just got into the music and stopped watching me.
I think there’s a whole techno/post-techno scene where that’s pretty much the rule. Four guys sitting at tables in front of a laptop while you’re supposed to dance. It’s pretty dislocating.
I thought about, well, what I should do is just walk out on stage and then when I start to play, turn the lights out, and then turn them back on when I’m done, because there really wasn’t anything to look at all. I’m not satisfied with that either, because people want some kind of connection with you if it’s actually a live performance. I’ve also been querying people after the concerts where I’ve used the joystick, and even though I don’t feel like I’m really playing it in the way we talked about – I don’t feel physically relaxed, I don’t feel it as an extension of my body or anything – people responded very differently than when I was just sitting at a laptop.
I would imagine that, particularly with the Yugoslavia suite, there is a sense in which the identification of that particular tool with the kind of computer mediated game version of the tremendous violence of the visual images must pack some structural wallop. If you were interviewing people about death squads it would be different. The use of that particular tool would have a very different meaning.
Well, in that piece we actually put a video camera on my hand with the joystick, and we mix that image in with the other images. So, we actually try to use the full weight of that image. In the first half of the piece I’m essentially playing a computer game that we made… it’s like I’m bombing Yugoslavia. That’s actually how I initially got interested in using the joystick, because I wanted to have one to fly this plane in Yugoslavia Suite, and then once I had one and got it working, I thought I could use it for other things.
You’ve described your feelings about being physically present when you perform. I’m curious about how you came to using electronic means in the first place. At the time you started doing it, it was certainly much harder to do than it is now. What was it that led you to perform instead of writing pieces for Joan Jeanrenaud, say?
I didn’t start out with this perspective. Actually, there was a time when I was so much younger where I actually wanted to remove my body from the performance, that was one of the appeals of electronic music.
Is that because you were shy or uneasy about being physically present?
No, I think it was more… I was really obsessed with sound, and I was really obsessed with listening. I mean, we could psycho-analyze me on many levels about the decisions I made at this particular point in my life…
Then I’d have to charge you, Bob.
[laughs] At one level anyway, I was really obsessed with sound.
Was that obsession with sound explicitly connected to the collection of its meanings in the world as your work is now?
So it was pre-political, sort of.
Yeah. So, first I got obsessed with Jimi Hendrix, and then I got obsessed with electric Miles Davis, and then, you know, I went from there. Since I started out playing guitar in garage bands, I really wanted to move away from that into this… sort of what I imagined as a terrain of sound. I had this very naive and youthful idealistic view of what electronic music could be.
Do you think that the percentage of improvisation and open-endedness you do now is greater than when you were in your garage?
No. Pretty consistent.
I’ve heard you say before that you feel that’s a strong way to characterize your work – the improvisatory nature about it.
Well, some of it is and some of it isn’t, you know? Yugoslavia Suite is about half and half. This thing I’m going to write for Joan is going to be completely notated. It’s rare that I actually completely notate something. But then again, I think of my CDs as compositions, and those are entirely fixed. You know, it’s recorded onto a CD and there it is, burned right into the [knocks on table]… whatever the stuff is that you burn it into on a CD.
The exciting high register philosophical term for that is a concrete particular. Isn’t that a great phrase? So your CDs are concrete particulars.
[laughs] When I was in high school in the garage it was pretty much half improvised and half written. I had a nice band. I played guitar, and we had a drummer, percussionist, bass player, oboe, English horn, two trumpets, and a piano.
That’s a pretty big band! You wrote all your own material?
Yeah, the oboe player and I wrote all the material.
I would have guessed that you grew up with piano lessons and then basically discovered that going to electronic stuff gave you some kind of control and input into things that traditional compositional practice didn’t.
No, no, not at all, not at all. I wasn’t really given any musical encouragement at all. My family wasn’t interested in it. I started out playing guitar in bad rock and roll bands and then started writing my own stuff, and put together this band… the orchestra in my high school was good, so I went through the orchestra and asked the first year of every instrument if they wanted to play in a band. That’s how I ended up with a band. Then we got these Heathkit fuzztone kits, so we had all these little electric gizmos for the trumpets and the oboe. I started adding more and more pedals to my guitar, and pretty soon I was more interested in the pedals than the guitar.
The devices for the horn… that sounds like a Miles Davis thing.
Yeah, that was the idea. I was really into Miles Davis. I still think Bitches Brew is one of the absolute seminal musical experiences.
So why and how did you come to embrace electronic technology? And how did you come to combine this interest with pretty passionate political engagements and questions of identity?
Why use electronics? Well, electronics are rare, and they’re everywhere, and they’re one of the most provocative things out there. If you’re fourteen years old, and you’re starting to play rock music, one of the first things that you encounter is electronics. If you’re somebody like me who doesn’t have much natural ability or skill in the lot of the conventional parameters of music, like pitch and melody, and rhythm but have an affinity with sound, and you feel that your ears are good at grasping sound and manipulating it, then electronics is certainly where you go… particularly if you have an electric guitar, and you start buying fuzz pedals and wah wah pedals. You start wondering how those little gizmos work. You start thinking about how to record, and then all of a sudden you’re into mixers, and yeah… it’s a completely natural progression.
You know, I’ve never had any studies, so… [laughs] I’ve had a very, very limited amount of formal study, and fortunately the little bit I had was with people who encouraged me. I went to Oberlin for two years, though not as a conservatory student. Because I was only there for two years and because I wasn’t a conservatory student and was taking electronic music courses as a college student, I actually didn’t have any of the course requirements that the conservatory kids had. I actually completed their electronic music course the first year I was there, because that was all I took… which was a funny thing, because the guy who ran the electronic music department was criticized for that. I thought I should have been given a prize or something, but the Dean told him it made the program look bad if a student could do it in a year.
You’re probably one of their best failures, then.
That whole conservatory was just the embodiment of that… I really remember thinking that to me, if you were going to teach music, then the fundamental thing that you should be teaching people is that they have something unique to say through sound, and that they should trust that and go with that. The whole message of that conservatory was the exact opposite of that. The whole message was that you probably don’t have anything to say at all.
…and since you don’t, it’s best to learn how to reproduce the work of others who did have something to say.
Yeah, and they convince you of the Herculean task ahead of you. It’s just awful. So, yeah, I have very little training. I always sort of train myself for the project at hand. The things I know how to do are the things I’ve been required to do for the projects I wanted to do, and I don’t know how to do much else.
Do you find that your interests as a composer are directed by the tasks that you set for yourself given your ideological involvement, or are they tasks which come to you? In other words, has your understanding of the power structure of the world come from the investigation of making pieces?
You’ve brought those kind of passionate engagements to bear on the tools, or as you’d say it, the few things you do know?
Well, to explain better what I was trying to say… I just did this piece, Yugoslavia Suite, and it’s the first time I’ve used video. I didn’t study video, and I didn’t take any video classes, and I’ve never really been particularly interested in video… but then I had this project I wanted to do, and I thought, well, this needs video. So then, I got into video. When I did Spiral, which used a text by David Wojnarowicz, where he described his own dying process and used the metaphor of turning into glass, I wanted to play it on glass instruments. I’d never built instruments before, but I got into it because I wanted it for that specific project. When the Kronos commissioned me to write a string quartet for them, I actually hadn’t written notes on paper since high school. So I thought, okay, I guess I better get back into writing notes on staff paper! So I really try and take it a project at a time.
Did that project come to you because of content? In the case of the Kronos project, did you choose the background and context for All the Rage, or did they approach you about something with that content, or was that something that you chose to do?
They heard my piece Sooner or Later, which is a pretty politically loaded piece, and they wanted me to do something like that. They wanted me to do something about rainforests, and I didn’t want to do that. First of all, it’s important for me to say that most of my work doesn’t have an explicitly political theme… it’s just a little subset of it that does. But when I do it, I try to choose themes that I have some sort of direct and personal connection and engagement with, and not just look out at the world and decide to make a comment about the hole in the ozone layer or something. So I didn’t want to do a rainforest piece. I actually had this idea to make a trilogy of pieces about grief, anger and joy, and Sooner or Later was the grief piece, so I wanted to do one about anger. Then there was this riot in San Francisco that I was a participant in, and took my tape recorder to and recorded… so then I proposed to them that I make a piece for them out of the riot. They liked that idea.
Did you ever do one on joy?
I haven’t gotten around to the joy piece yet. Joy is harder. I’m doing this series with documentary source audio, and I haven’t really found one that I would use for a joy piece that wouldn’t be cliché. The first two pieces, I think, use pretty exceptional audio source material. It’s not so easy to come by that stuff. I’ve got my eyes out for something to do the third piece, but I haven’t found it yet. I had a recording that I wanted to use… I went to a prayer meeting of a Christian sect in Silicon Valley… it’s quite remarkable what they do. They have these prayer meetings that are similar to prayer meetings where people would talk in tongues, except instead of talking in tongues, they laugh. They call it Holy Laughter, and they go up to the front, and the priest puts his hand on their forehead and they fall down giggling. I wanted to get a recording of that. I thought, you know, given the history of what Christians have done in the world, falling on the floor and laughing was really one of the better… [laughs] So I went and made a tape of it, but I ended up not using it. The tape wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, because I felt too intrusive making the recording at the meeting.
When I was in my early 20s I got really into politics. But in much the same way that I do these pieces, it was just a project at a time, and I certainly never studied anything, but I started volunteering for this and that, and of course, there’s a circle you get into when you’re in those kind of political groups. If you’re freelance, and everyone else is working for a 9-5 job, and they say “who can take the film to the developers tomorrow?” , you’re the one who can do it, and you get sucked right in. Pretty soon all I was doing was organizing, and the music had just disappeared. It disappeared for ten years.
But your entry into politics, was there any connection with your artistic work?
Yeah, actually I went to Nicaragua after the fall of Samosa with the intention of making a record of Nicaraguan music for this record label that Fred Frith and I were running at the time. I decided that music was not the most interesting thing that was happening there, and I stopped playing music for about ten years. Eventually I did study some stuff about politics, but that happened a little later. So I always just try to take things a project at a time, and trust your instinct and your intuition. I don’t know how else to do it, really. I never made a decision to stop playing music, for example. It was more that I made a decision to go back to it. At that point I was pretty far into politics, and I hadn’t played music for a long time.
What do you think brought you back to it?
The short answer is that after several years I discovered that there was not as much political space for somebody like me in the Central American left as I had imagined when I first got into it. I also discovered that my connection with American culture and with music was maybe deeper than I imagined when I got out of it.
In some respects, even though it took you a lot of time, that’s a fairly valuable insight. Most people spend much of their lives never being able to get more than the vaguest sense of what’s important to them.
Fred Frith was actually the only friend from my musical life that I’d stayed close to all through those years. I’d been telling him that I was thinking about playing music again. He called me up one day and said “are you serious about it?” I said yeah, and he said “can you be in New York for rehearsals in a couple of weeks?” I said “I guess!” Then all of a sudden, there I was in Fred’s band, and we were off on tour. I hadn’t thought about electronic music for almost ten years. I had never heard of midi. I had never heard of a sampler. I had to go to the rock and roll store and find an instrument to play, and buy it, and read the manual… [laughs]
Was it dislocating to go back?
It was really dislocating! It was an extreme Rip Van Winkle experience. The technology had completely changed, my friends had completely changed… when I left music, John Zorn was this totally unknown guy I did gigs with in his girlfriend’s apartment for audiences of four people. It was utterly a shock to discover that he was a star. All kinds of things.
The pieces that you’ve decided to do are connected to the tasks that you’ve set for yourself. The things that you know are the things that you need to do to do the thing that you want to do. Why on earth would you use Max?
Because I had been using the Ensoniq keyboard for ten years, and I felt like I had mined it. I felt like it was time for something new. It was funny, you know… I hadn’t kept up on new keyboards or anything, so I went shopping. I didn’t find anything interesting to buy. It’s funny… when I first started in, quote, electronic music, close quote, it was really a pretty obscure thing to get into. It was pretty much assumed that if you were into synthesizers, you were into experimental stuff. All the synthesizers that were made were made with that in mind. You could buy a Buchla, or you could buy a Serge, or you could buy an Arp, or you could buy a Moog, but they all lent themselves to doing pretty experimental things. Now it’s exploded to the point where if you ask someone who’s twenty years old what electronic music is, they think you’re talking about dance music. Nobody’s first idea, when confronted with the term electronic music, is experimental music, at least not with younger people. Now instead of four companies that make synthesizers, there are dozens.
Do you have the sense that the equipment that’s available to you is less open?
That’s exactly it. A corollary of this explosion is that the companies that make these things are under all this market pressure to manufacture for this market, which is a market of people that are interested in doing a pretty narrow range of activities with these boxes. Of course, you could make interesting boxes, but since the potential profit if you make something popular is much bigger than it was before, everybody wants to go for that.
We can blame the DX7 for ruining the world, in that sense.
No, I wouldn’t do that… It’s an ironic development that now we have machines that are much more powerful, and much faster, and much more sophisticated, but the things that people build them to do are much simpler than what people were building them to do in the late 1970s.
So I couldn’t find anything. I had been resisting getting into computer programming for all these years – I had no interest. People from the computer music world… I think for a long time they didn’t take my work seriously because I was playing instruments that I’d bought at the rock and roll store. Their idea was that, you know, if you were a serious computer musician, then you’d be writing your own code. My response to that was always to listen to the work that they made. If there’s something magical about writing your own code, then I don’t hear it. I was really convinced that engineering and music-making were pretty unrelated activities, and certainly that software programming and music making were really completely unrelated activities. In fact, the fact that many people tended to confuse them was one of the sources of a lot of the really bad music that was coming out of that part of the music world.
The kind of formalism that says here’s an algorithm, and here’s what it sounds like for forty-five minutes.
Yeah! They get interested in the code, and then they think because the code is interesting, the music is interesting… but those two things almost never go together.
You’re not a big systems art guy, then, are you?
[laughs] No. So my idea was always to position myself next to the engineer. So in the late 70s, when I was playing a Serge synthesizer, I got to know Serge Tcherepnin, and we’d talk about his modules. Then when I started using the Ensoniq I got to know the engineers of Ensoniq. We had a lot of interchange back and forth. So that was always my idea: that the right place for me as a composer was next to the engineer, in a real give and take with the engineer, but not being the engineer. But, when I couldn’t find a new instrument to buy that interested me… I had become friendly with David Wessel over at CNMAT, and he was really encouraging me to jump into Max… so I did it.
I think David probably recognized what you really wanted.
Well, David’s a real champion of technology.
But a champion as it sort of as an engine of idiosyncrasy. I don’t see that technophilia in him at all.
No. It’s funny, I was just thinking that normally if I were calling someone a champion of technology I would be insulting him… but with David, not at all. So he was very helpful… and off I went. I’m still not 100% convinced it was a great idea. For one thing, I’m not sure I enjoy computer programming.
Do you think it’s changed the pieces that you make?
Yeah. I definitely have a more flexible instrument than I could have purchased off the market. It definitely reflects the idiosyncrasies of my music and how I want to work it. All that’s true.
But you’re building harpsichords.
Well, the thing is… I’m a very compulsive obsessive guy. I’m an utter workaholic, and once I start a project I can’t put it down. I’m not sure computer programming is a healthy activity for me to get involved in. I’m not sure I like the person that I’ve become when I get completely immersed in Max programming.
You need somebody who really loves you to say “Bob, stop, put it down!”
Composing music, for example, is in a way better suited to my disposition, because there’s a limit to how many hours you can sit and compose. Your ear gets tired, and you notice. It’s not always obvious what the next thing is to do. It’s obvious that you need to put it down and go swimming, or go see a friend, or see a movie, and come back to it in a day or two. With programming, I feel like there’s never a logical ending point. The next thing to do is always staring you right in the face.
You always have the question of efficiency or elegance looking at you too.
Also, once you build a piece of software up to a certain degree of complexity, in order to work at it at all, you have to sit down, and it will take you a few hours to really be back up to speed to where you were, and where all the different pieces are. You know that if you stop, and then you start again, it will take you a while to get fully acclimated to where you were again.
Wouldn’t that be the case if you were building a better oboe?
No, I think it’s something very particular to programming. I’m not sure I like it.
Do you like what it does?
Yeah. I find that I’m acquiring this huge body of arcane knowledge that is useless for anything but its immediate purpose. For instance, when I was in El Salvador, the things that I would learn during the course of my day to day work, I thought were applicable to all kinds of things, and I could turn around and apply them in other fields, or in other parts of my life. But, you know, the kind of information that you have to amass in your brain in order to troubleshoot the Apple OS is not knowledge that’s going to lead to any other knowledge.
… or perhaps the community of people with whom you share it is different, or is distributed in different ways.
Uh… I don’t know. I was thinking about this the other day. I was talking with a friend, and he pointed out that that’s true with any type of engineering skill. The knowledge that you acquire to work on cars isn’t really applicable to anything but working on cars. Which is probably true… which is maybe why I’m not so happy being an engineer. On the other hand, I seem to have an aptitude for it. On that level I enjoy it, I feel like I do it well, and I love making things. I love making CDs, and I love making compositions, and I like it when I have a program that works, and there it is, and it can run…
The Biggest Prize
You described working with the Ensoniq for a long period of time and developing some facility to it. Part of the facility you develop is based on the fact that the person who made the instrument made some decisions for you. When you program you get to make those decisions yourself. Do you find that you’re sort of tweaking the instrument that you’ve made, or are you making instruments to suit a task?
What I’ve done is I’ve made a general purpose instrument. That’s basically the one and only thing I’ve done with Max and MSP and it’s taken me two years, and I’ve pretty much got it. I have, you know, a general purpose instrument that I can make compositions on, or I can do improvised concerts on, or I can do whatever on, and it’s got a video component and an audio component and… that’s what I’ve done.
But that’s fantastic. You’ve got a piano!
Well, it’s not quite a piano, but it’s something. It’s more sophisticated than the Ensoniq was. It’s more sophisticated than any of the samplers I’ve seen on the market… at least in the ways that interest me. In some ways I’m sure it’s more primitive, but in the ways that interest me it’s more sophisticated. But there’s always the thing that you can always be adding a new feature, or making something a little more elegant, instead of spending time playing the thing. With the Ensoniq that was never an option. If I was working on it, I was playing it. That’s a problem. It’s a problem because fundamentally I think composing and making music is about learning to work within limits. Basically I think all compositional techniques come down to setting yourself certain limits and then struggling against them. Whether you’re writing a fugue, and you’re going to follow the rules of a fugue, or you’ve decided you’re just going to use a twelve tone scale, or you’re going to write in D major, or you’re going to make a whole piece where you use no sounds except the sounds that you recorded at a riot, or whatever… it’s all about setting limits, and then struggling against them. I think when you’re writing your own computer code it’s very easy to forget that. Computers offer this vision that what they’re about is not limits, but about endless possibility. I think that’s a trap. I think that’s why a lot of people who write their own code never manage to finish any compositions… and when they finish them, they’re not very interesting. So, that’s a problem, a problem I have to develop my own personal discipline around. When to say the thing is done, and now I’m going to learn to play it.
Would I be correct in assuming that I’ll know if you’ve done it successfully if your performing output goes way up?
Yeah. I think this is a problem with all of this technology in general. I particularly see it with younger folks in their 20s who are getting into electronic music. They’re deluged with this market stuff. Particularly now that I’ve gotten into multimedia stuff, and I’ve played at a few of these multimedia festivals… boy, when you get into that it’s really easy to forget that making art is about working within limits. You see these kids who get obsessed with the idea that making multimedia art is about more. It’s always about more: more technology, more capability, more voices, more video processing, more this and that. They’re surrounded by all these boxes! I think it’s hard for them to see…
If the only way that you think about the tools you’re given is a collection of decisions that have been made for you by someone else, then the way that you expand your vision is not to take or create a new tool, but rather to acquire a new piece of gear. The traditional marketing hype that surrounds that is about crafting this message that says if you buy X, this is the collection of decisions I’ve made for you, but it will allow you to express your personal vision. At the heart of that is something really pernicious. I guess I can see why it must be so attractive… compared to finding yourself as you did in a way, in the wilderness, creating an instrument with a blank slate. What would your perfect instrument look like? That’s a frightening question.
Yeah. I’m really happy that I didn’t sit down at a Macintosh screen with Max booted on it until I’d played the same sampler for ten years. I’d spent ten years thinking about the features I really wanted that I didn’t have.
If you’d been faced with those tools when you were in high school, would you have ever finished a piece?
I really wonder about that. I really wonder if you haven’t spent a lot of time working within constraints that somebody else defines for you, how do you decide what you want? I don’t know.
Yeah, especially when you’re surrounded by a culture that’s trying to convince you that what you want and what you need are the same thing.
So I even impose arbitrary limits. I think a lot of composing is about imposing arbitrary limits… or even limits that aren’t so arbitrary. A lot of people use so much gear on stage. I just took that Ensoniq keyboard, that was it. I just thought… how many things can I play? If I really want to be able to play it, if I really want to have a facility over it… so what I did was the keyboard got checked in checked luggage. I called the airline and asked what the biggest box you’re allowed to carry on was. I had a box made that was that size, and then my rule was if it didn’t fit in the box, I didn’t use it. I won’t say who this was, but I can remember a music festival in Italy where I shared a bill with someone who was a pretty big name in academic computer music. It was the two of us. I showed up with my keyboard, we set a level, and the sound check was done. He brought all this stuff! The sound check took two days, and at the end of the two days he couldn’t get it to work, so he did something acoustic.
That’s the recurring nightmare of every Max owner. It’s doesn’t work, it’s taken you twelve hours to do it, and you’re standing out on stage with a banjo.
Since I’ve started using Max I’ve been in several situations where my system has crashed during the concert, or the concert has started late, because the system is much more complex. That drives me completely berserk. George Lewis, for example… it doesn’t bother him! His attitude is that this is computer music, it’s experimental… this stuff crashes! That’s part of the idiom. You reboot, and you go on.
If George Lewis is doing a Voyager gig with his trombone and the system crashes, he’s still got the trombone.
I can’t do that. So that’s been really stressful for me. I cannot explain how stressful that’s been.
Do you see a way out of it?
Well, to make an instrument that works and not mess around with it. That’s one. I’m pretty much there, actually. I just did a tour of France with Otomo Yoshihide. That was the first tour where I had my joystick, and I had my laptop, and I felt like I was back to where I was with the Ensoniq. I walk in, my sound check takes five minutes, I boot it up, I set a level, it works… I was really happy, because actually it works better than the Ensoniq worked, and it weighs about one tenth…
…and it’s idosyncratic.
One of the things that makes me most happy about it is I can go on tour and not even check any bags. I can’t tell you how happy I am when I get off the plane and walk past the baggage carousel. There’s this inner peace. It’s the best thing about the whole experience. The biggest prize for going to Max is that I don’t have to carry around that keyboard any more.