Black Quantum Futurism - Live at Artists Space (2016)
Rasheedah Phillips - Opening for Fhloston Paradigm Show at Johnny Brenda's (2014)
Bob Ostertag - Wish You Were Here (2016)
I played this music during my a-year-a-month-and-a-day world tour from March 2015 through April 2016. When preparing for my year on the road, I set a goal of traveling with four concert-length sets of music played with instruments that could fit in carry-on luggage along with my clothes and toothbrush, and that would be improvisational and “live” enough to keep me interested in playing them for year. The music herein is from various performances of one of the four sets I traveled with. My instrument was the Aalto virtual modular synthesizer, which I played with a standard gamepad. making a very portable instrument requiring only a laptop and a gamepad for hardware. I used the Max programming environment to scale and route the gestures from the gamepad to the synthesizer in precise and complex ways, creating a series of what might be called topographies of the synthesizer. With this combination of gamepad and gestural topographies, I have finally found a way to play a modular synthesizer in a manner both musical and constantly surprising, something I have been dreaming of since I first began playing modular synths in the mid-1970s. The recording includes parts of concerts in Malang and Surabaya (Indonesia), Lima (Peru), Montevideo (Uruguay), Beirut (Lebanon) and New York City. Thirteen months on the road took me to the US, western and eastern Europe, the Middle East, China and Taiwan, Southeast Asia, South America, Central America, and Mexico. My travels relied on the support of many wonderful people, far too many to thank here by name. Here, for all of you, is an entirely insufficient THANK YOU.
Bob Ostertag - A Book of Hours (2013)
Completing A Book of Hours has me thinking about Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge. Both works were commissioned by WDR Radio Köln, both are primarily vocal, both are "sacred" in their own ways, and both address the meeting of the human body and human technology via the electronic manipulation of voice. Yet in other ways the two works are opposites. /////////////Stockhausen's work was completed in 1956 and is very much a product of its time. Like many of his contemporaries, Stockhausen believed that the timbral resources of acoustic music - voice and the instruments of the Western orchestral tradition - had been thoroughly explored and exhausted. Further explorations in timbre would henceforth occur in the electronic domain, which promised to make sound far more malleable, and give composers far more precise control, than acoustic music ever did. For Gesang der Jünglinge, Stockhausen wanted to create a seamless continuum with human voice at one end and purely synthetic sound on the other. By breaking down the human voice into its sonic components and then recreating them electronically, the composer hoped to transform the resulting hybrid voice in ways previously unimaginable. Electronic music was still in its infancy, and the tools available for the electronic manipulation of sound were extremely crude compared to the tools we have today. But Stockhausen devised an ingenious (and extremely laborious) method for creating synthetic equivalents of recorded human voice, as well as a system for extrapolating those sounds in ways not possible with a human voice. //////////////Then, just a decade later, a new generation of improvising musicians uncovered vast worlds of previously unknown sound (at least to Western ears) in exactly those instruments and voices that the high art composers of the 1950s had dismissed. Prominent among this new generation were Roscoe Mitchell, a young saxophonist in Chicago working in the newly formed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and Phil Minton, a vocalist in London's new "free improvised music" scene. This new generation was joined a decade later by younger musicians including vocalists Shelley Hirsch and Theo Bleckmann, myself, and many others. The musical resources developed by these musicians was staggering: Derek Bailey's guitar harmonics, Anthony Braxton's extended techniques on a diverse assortment of reed instruments, Evan Parker's combination of circular breathing and reed overtones, Lester Bowie's trumpet vocalizations, and much much more. /////////How could it be that the high art composers of the twentieth century, as obsessed as they were with being the "pioneers" of new sound, failed to notice this motherlode of sonic possibility that was right under their noses all the time? The answer lies in the very notion of "composer," which reached its zenith of ossification in the twentieth century. By Stockhausen's time, the composer was understood to be an exalted creative genius who retired to his (yes, it was almost always his) tower from where he contemplated the world, deciphered the correct set of instructions for creating the best possible music, and passed these instructions down from on high in the form of symbols on paper to the lowly instrumentalists who were then to execute the instructions. In fact, some twentieth century composers thought that the most profound promise of electronic music was the liberation of the composer from reliance on necessarily imperfect human interpreters for the realization of their musical visions. Stockhausen himself was perhaps the paradigmatic example of the twentieth century genius composer, and the many claims that Gesang der Jünglinge was "the first masterpiece of electronic music" were specifically intended to both burnish his credentials as such, and to usher the figure of the genius composer into the electronic age.(1) ////////////////////The vast world of sound unearthed by the following generation of improvisors was simply not available to "composers," for the only route to these new musical worlds was through the direct, bodily encounter with the instrument itself, hour upon hour, week by week, year after year. And this had to be accomplished without symbolic instruction getting in between the musician and the instrument. The encounter of human body and instrument had to be as intimate as possible. ///////////////Among all the discoveries that resulted, none was more compelling than the discovery of the range of the human voice, the original instrument. As evidence for this claim, I submit the work of Phil Minton, Shelley Hirsch, and Theo Bleckmann in A Book of Hours, each one utterly unique and beautiful. ////////////////When Stockhausen wrote Gesang der Jünglinge, his choice of vocalist was largely inconsequential. Any voice would do, even a child's, because the real development of the composition would be done electronically. The voice was just fodder, "source material" in contemporary parlance. My approach in A Book of Hours has been just the opposite: the choice of musicians determined everything. If any one of the four musicians had been different, a completely different work would have resulted. And they most certainly could not have been children. This is music that could only be made through the accumulated musical wisdom of decades of individual musical exploration. It is no coincidence that two of the musicians, Roscoe Mitchell and Phil Minton, are in their seventies (born just three months apart in 1940). Thus the subtitle, Gesang der Alten. ///////////////Another big discovery of the fifty years since Gesang der Jünglinge has been that the electronic manipulation of sound is not the panacea that Sockhausen's generation imagined. Yes, the tools available are far more sophisticated than what Stockhausen had access to at WDR in 1956. And yes, these tools have given rise to entire genres of electronic music, as well as sub genres, micro genres, and so on. And yet electronically synthesized sound always carries with it the instantly identifiable thumbprint of the synthetic. Which is why, in A Book of Hours, I have chosen not to electronically modify the sounds created by the musicians, which I find to be incredibly rich and compelling. Any electronic "processing" I might have performed on them would have had the inevitable effect of somehow reducing them, of flattening them into something less multidimensional and organic. So the only electronic processing I have done is to use a synthetic reverb to place the musicians, who recorded their material separately in different locations, into the same synthetic "space." /////////////////And yet, though the sounds in A Book of Hours could never have resulted from the instructions of a composer but could have only been created through improvisation, the composition I have created could never have been improvised. The music is far too deliberate, from the meta structure down to the details of each specific phrase. There is almost nothing here that is presented as it was originally played or sung (with the exception of some saxophone parts, which were indeed incorporated "as is"). What I have done is splice: hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands of splices.(2) I have also done some slight time stretching or compressing, and equally minor pitch transposition, of the original material. None of this was done to change the "sound" of the musicians, or to make them appear to sing higher or lower or faster or louder than they can. Rather, these slight changes were done to make the parts fit together better. And this was a difficult challenge, because the project began with each of the four musicians recording a set of solo improvisations, separately and without any knowledge of what the others were doing. /////////////// A Book of Hours is thus precariously balanced between improvisation and composition. The actual singing and sax playing is far too intimate to the body of each musician to have possibly resulted from the musicians attempting to execute the instructions of a composer, while the economy of detail and deliberateness of structure is far too tight to have possibly resulted from improvisation. Is A Book of Hours composed or improvised? It is both and neither. Like Stockhausen in Gesang der Jünglinge, I have tried to fashion a work that resides in what roboticist Masahiro Mori termed the "uncanny valley" between human and machine. Mori suggests that humans respond positively to robotic replicas of themselves if the replicas are not very exact, but when the replicas' likeness to humans crosses a certain threshold they fall into an "uncanny valley" where our delight turns to revulsion. But unlike Stockhausen's work and indeed so much of the terrain of the uncanny valley, I have tried to make something that results not in revulsion but retains a sort of organic beauty. (I find Gesang der Jünglinge nearly impossible to listen to today, much more of a Frankenstein nightmare than a flowering of the future). Finally, Stockhausen claimed to be a devout Catholic, and Gesang der Jünglinge was all about praising God. Eventually, Stockhausen's claims about his special relationship with God fused with his stature as genius composer into a sort of amalgam of God and Stockhausen that was absurd. Books of hours were medieval prayer books that provided prayers for each hour of the day, and date to a time when clocks were new enough to be thought to have religious significance. (Then again, the laptop on which I created this work is run by a clock, which divides time not into hours but into 2,660,000,000 parts of a second, and there are indeed some devotees of technology that approach this fact with a religious reverence.) I think of A Book of Hours as devotional music for non-believers, or, in the words of my friend Our Lady J, gospel for the godless. The devotion it expresses is not to any god but rather the beauty of the world in which we live, as made manifest in the breath, the voice, and the reed. The subtitles are taken from psalms, chosen by the criteria that they should make no mention of God. ////////////////In all of this I am further developing the compositional techniques I created in the 1990s with my Say No More quartet and its four recordings. There also, I began with solo improvisations recorded separately, which I then fashioned into compositions via thousands of splices. The only methodological difference between Say No More and A Book of Hours is that there are digital tools for altering the pitch and duration of recorded sound that were not available in the 1990s. The Say No More project progressed in cycles, with the composition I created on the computer from the fragments of the solo improvisations in turn becoming the "score" that the live ensemble used in its performances; the live performance recordings then becoming the source material for another composition spliced together on the computer; and so on. Given the present world financial crisis, I am unsure if the resources to pursue A Book of Hours through a similarly ambitious set of cycles will be available, and at any rate I am traveling much less in an effort to reduce my carbon footprint in the face of global warming. But I will be happy even if the present recording is the final stop for A Book of Hours, as I find the recording quite beautiful in and of itself. My most heartfelt thanks to Roscoe Mitchell, Phil Minton, Shelley Hirsch, and Theo Bleckmann for allowing me the honor of working with their incredible music without restriction. ////(1) Stockhausen did engage in musical improvisation, but always in ensembles under his direction, and he adamantly claimed authorship of these "compositions," even when the score was almost non-existent (as did John Cage and many other avant-garde composers). He also continued to write for both acoustic instruments and electronics throughout his life. More to the point here, neither his improvisations nor his writing led to the sort of deep encounters with extended instrumental technique that are my subject here. ///////(2) Interestingly, it was not a composer but the pianist Glen Gould who first pointed out the profound implications of the splice, implications which we see all around us, from iTunes playlists to club DJs. See Glenn Gould's seminal but under appreciated essay, "The Prospects of Recording."
Bob Ostertag - Plays the Aalto (2013)
All this music was made with Aalto, a software synthesizer created by Randy Jones and his Madrona Labs, which was in turn inspired by the modular analog synthesizers of the 1970s. Those early synthesizers were my first electronic instruments, beginning with the ARP 2600, then Don Buchla's Buchla 200, and then Serge Tcherepnin's Serge, which I played for several years. I used these on my first recordings: The Surgeon General (recorded 1977, released 2012); Anthony Braxton's Creative Orchestra Koln (recorded 1978, released 1995); Eugene Chadbourne's The English Channel (1978); John Zorn's Pool (1979); Fall Mountain's Early Fall (1979); and Voice of America with Fred Frith and Phil Minton (1982). ///////////These synthesizers consisted of collections of discrete electronic modules which could be interconnected with cables, like a telephone switchboard. Each module either generated a pattern or modified the patterns generated by other modules. Moog, ARP and a few others put keyboards on their instruments and encouraged you to see them as a sort of next-generation pipe organ. But others suggested a different way of making music. Instead of conceiving of music as a series of events distributed across a timeline (a musical staff on paper back then, and the ubiquitous timelines that run left to right across computer screens today), you could configure the machine into a state overlapping patterns that generated interesting music, into a particular state and let it run. ////////////////This involved coming to terms with a very different notion of "playing" an instrument, as a given machine state was only interesting if allowed to run long enough for the listener to discern the shapes of the patterns. If you moved too many knobs too far too often, you wrecked it. You might move a knob a tiny bit every now and then, or plug in a cable here and there. But the most interesting music happened when you didn't do too much. //////////But you did have to turn some knobs sometimes, because even the most well- conceived synthesizers could not be configured into a state that was so interesting you would want to listen to it indefinitely. So you had to touch the machines, but at the right time and not too much. And generally when you touched them it was to make a single slight change to one parameter. If you experimented with a given state long enough, you would usually find that there was one or two parameters that, when changed just once in a very small increment, would trigger cascades of changes in the patterns being generated that were deeply interesting. /////Hearing the patterns would challenge your ear in a most pleasing way. The practice of "playing an instrument" shifted in a way that made simple listening a much larger component and while physical activity played a smaller role. Playing became a sort of meditational practice of keeping the mind focused on the smallest details of complex patterns of sound. ////////////This was such a different notion of what constituted "playing an instrument" that many people never got comfortable with it. They wanted to do stuff. There were decades of experimenting with "alternate controllers," non-keyboard input devices that would be more idiomatically appropriate to this new music. But the real issue was not the elegance of the input device. The issue was that if you tried to control too much, the music lost its substance. //////////////It took a long time working with a given synthesizer to discover how to create machine states which were interesting at the level I am describing. Of those which I played extensively, the Arp 2600 just couldn't do it. The designers of that instrument were not thinking on that level. Neither could the Moog (though the Moog's oscillators and filters sounded so good that the Moog quickly became the favorite of musicians who wanted to use a synthesizer to play conventional music in a conventional way). The best instruments for the kind of music I am describing were the Buchla and Serge. And I always considered the music I made with those instruments to be collaborations with Don Buchla and Serge Tcherepnin. ////////////(Note, however, that when playing improvised music with John Zorn and Eugene Chadbourne in the 1970s, I tried to play the Serge in a very different way. John and Eugene's music centered on sudden, extreme discontinuities, and to keep up I tried a completely different approach in which my hands moved from knob to knob and patch cord to patch cord as fast as I possibly could. You can hear that on those early records.) /////////////The old synthesizers had serious limitations. They were expensive. It was impossible to recall a particular configuration of the machine. And the knobs used to set the parameters were not sufficiently exact to set precise ratios between different parameters. These instruments were soon overwhelmed by digital synthesizers with keyboards controllable by MIDI sequencers, which were less expensive, allowed creating and recalling presets, and had parameters which could be precisely set. But these instruments also brought back the conventional world of the keyboard (and later the drum pad) and the timeline with a vengeance. /////////When personal computers achieved the computing speeds required for audio synthesis, many assumed that the experience of working with an old modular analog synthesizer would be recreated in a more flexible and pleasing way on computers. But this never happened. The reasons for this are too long to elaborate here. ///////////In recent years there has been a renaissance of modular analog synthesizers, and there is now a vibrant subculture of young analog synth aficionados who design, build, and trade hardware modules. These instruments still have all the limitations they had back in the day, but these young musicians prefer those obstacles to the set of problems presented by computer and software. They perceive the sound of the analog synthesizers to be superior, and prefer working with knobs and hardware over trackpads and mice. But the latest software synthesizers sound every bit as good as the old analog stuff, or even better to my ear. And I can remember when those of us who played those old instruments couldn't wait to work with something other than knobs. What is interesting about knobs? /////Yet when I work with computers, I miss two things about old synthesizers. First, when you made music on an old synthesizer, you were using your ears from the moment you sat down until the moment you got up. Always listening. Intently. That was the fundamental thing you did: listened. Go into any computer music studio today and it sounds like a library. Silence! Everyone is busy writing code, which will eventually make sound. But for the most part you don't want anything to distract yourself from the important job of writing code. And second, an old synthesizer is a fixed world of possibility. It has, say, two oscillators. So you are going to have to figure out how to make the music you want with two oscillators. With a computer, you have as many oscillators as your computer can run, which at todays computer speeds is lots and lots. So, how many do you want? Why that number? Is your computer fast enough to do that? Maybe you should upgrade. Upgrading will take a long time. During all that time, the room will be silent, because you have to concentrate in order to avoid mistakes that will make the process of upgrading even longer. Maybe if you write some particularly clever code you can get the system you have now, without upgrading, to run that many oscillators. But writing that code will take longer than anticipated. Another long silence. The silences add up. In terms of making music, it turns out the question of how to make music with two oscillators was more interesting than how to program a computer to do whatever your great idea was. /////////Thus encountering Randy Jones' Aalto software synthesizer was a joy. No, it doesn't have knobs, but: (1) it gives me a fixed world of tools, that are (2) sufficiently complex to facilitate the approach to music I am talking about; (3) it makes interesting noise from the moment I sit down until the moment I get up, and (4) cannot be upgraded or expanded. Everything I liked about the old synthesizers is here. And I can specify precise ratios in an extremely intuitive way, and easily recall machine states. Working with Aalto I realize the inability of the old instruments to recall machine states was an even bigger obstacle than I had thought, because you simply cannot begin to master the complexities of a given state in one sitting, or even two or three. I can now at long last work in the way the old synthesizers promised but never quite delivered. I consider this release as a collaboration with Randy Jones.
Bob Ostertag - Motormouth (2011)
All the music herein was played by myself on a Buchla 200e modular synthesizer. The 200e is Don Buchla's recent reincarnation of the Buchla 200, which he created in 1970, which was in turn the heir to the Buchla 100 he created in 1963. I first started playing a Buchla 200 at the Oberlin Conservatory in 1976 at the age of 19. Two years later I built a Serge synthesizer and dropped out of school to tour with Anthony Braxton. I then settled in New York City where I was part of the "downtown music improvisation scene," playing often with John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne, Fred Frith, Toshinori Kondo, and others. Designed by Russian music prodigy Serge Tcherepnin, the Serge synthesizer was similar to a Buchla, but less expensive because it came as a kit which the buyer had to the assemble. At the time, modular synthesizers were considered studio devices, so the fact that I was taking one on stage and attempting to improvise with it at the frenetic pace and turn-on-a-dime style that was just then emerging from the NYC underground meant that I was off on a tangent all my own. My work with the Serge in the 1970s and early 1980 can be heard on these recordings: Anthony Braxton: Creative Orchestra (Koln) (1978) , Eugene Chadbourne: The English Channel (1978) , John Zorn: The Parachute Years (1977-1981), Fall Mountain: Early Fall. (1979) , Bob Ostertag/Fred Frith/Phil Minton: Voice of America (1982). //////////In the 1980s, modular analog synthesizers were displaced by MIDI devices, which were themselves in turn displaced by laptops another decade after that. But recently a fairly random set of circumstances converged in a surprising way, with the result that a Buchla 200e appeared in my studio for a couple of months, and the present recording is the result. After hardly thinking about the old modular, patch cord based synthesizers for 30 years, my renewed encounter with the Buchla has been provocative. Playing a modular synthesizer like the 200e requires that one think about music in a very particular way. Essentially, one has to think geometrically: each module generates certain shapes, and then you make the music by overlaying shapes in different ways. It is a very different experience from working with notation on paper, timelines on screens, icons on laptops, or keyboards. /////These tracks can "stand alone" as completed musical works, but I can also easily imagine that they might be useful as base tracks for others to build upon. I strongly encourage anyone interested in experimenting in that direction to do so. One artist who goes by the name Rrose has already released a record on the Sandwell District label that he created using my Buchla tracks as starter material. Hopefully, there will be more. Like all my work, this music is available for free under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. You are free to download, copy, send to your friends, and mix and mangle, or throw in the trash. If you do use these tracks in your own work, please note where they came from.
Bob Ostertag - Woot (2006)
A collage of computer game sound and image.
by composer Bob Ostertag and artist John Cooney.
Bob Ostertag - DJ of the Month (2002)
Make each day an Ostertag, please !
Absolutely Marvellous stuff !
Text posted above were written by Bob Ostertag, bandcamp.