“Technology is destroying us,” says experimental composer and sound artist Bob Ostertag. “It’s all problematic, and there’s nothing we can do about it. In a way, I guess that’s my muse."
Ostertag is currently doing a residency at Trinosophes in Detroit, and he sat down with us to discuss his relationship to technology as an electronic musician, among other things.
The residency is part of a world tour that began last March and will last “at least a year, maybe longer.” He’s had a long and winding career, not only collaborating with everyone from John Zorn to Mike Patton to Roscoe Mitchell but also writing books about contemporary politics. Having been based for many years in San Francisco, he has a year off of teaching at University of California Davis and is taking advantage of the opportunity to travel. Before coming here he spent a month in Italy, which included a solo kayak trip around Sardinia. In addition to being a world renowned composer, activist and author, he is also an avid kayaker.
“I love it,” says Ostertag of his tour. “I deliberately made myself very mobile. I spent a lot of time preparing the music for the trip, and I have four completely different concerts on different instruments that I can do out of my carry on. I also spent a lot of time getting my tech together, so my sound check takes 60 seconds - I can just plug in and go. My clothes, my instruments, my merch and my kayak gear is all in a carry-on bag. So I’m really light and I’m really liking this.”
Ostertag grew up playing guitar in bands throughout grade school and junior high in Colorado near the Wyoming border. In high school, he describes playing in a band with “two trumpets, oboe and English horn, piano, bass, two drummers and guitar.” “We were improvising; the trumpets were all electronically modified. We had ring modulators,” he says.
After high school he enrolled in the electronic music program at Oberlin College. “Loved it the first year, hated it the second year,” he recalls. “Anthony Braxton came to teach a workshop, and hired me into his band at the end of the workshop. That was the end of college.”
“It was just for one tour. I was playing a Serge modular synthesizer. It was a little awkward because when I got to New York for rehearsals, Braxton gave me these keyboard charts and I didn’t even have a keyboard on my synthesizer. ‘Uh, Anthony, I just have these knobs and wires. I can’t even play a specific rhythm.’ I had a total panic attack. Most of the people in the band lived in New York, so I moved to New York. Half my record collection was in that band. It totally blew my mind. I couldn’t believe it.”
“In the 70s, I played modular synthesizers back when that was the only kind of synthesizer there was to play,” he explains. “I certainly wasn’t the first person to take one of those onstage, but I think I was the first person to hang out in an improvised music scene with a modular synthesizer as his main axe and take it around to gig after gig. Then my synthesizer blew up and I didn’t have money to replace it. And I got totally sidetracked by the Salvadorian revolution and stopped playing music for ten years. And tried to overthrow the government of El Salvador instead. Which I failed at, along with everybody else.”
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When we sat down with Ostertag he had spent a week in Detroit and was about to head to Beaver Island to hike and kayak. Then after he returned to Detroit, he performed one concert at Trinosophes on September 25 and will also perform tomorrow, September 30.
“The first event will be new synthesizer music, which I hate to say because it sounds so boring,” says Ostertag. “The new stuff is with a software synthesizer, which I know is sacrilege to young people these days. This is a generational difference - I run into younger folks who are so excited about analog synthesizers and knobs. I’m like, ‘A knob? What is so interesting about a knob?’
“When I started playing those things I felt very naked going onstage with them, because turning knobs didn’t feel like we were doing anything,” explains Ostertag. “We all thought these knobs are horrendous and we’re gonna invent a new kind of controller that would let you use your body in an amazing way. Back in those days there was a big debate about whether to put keyboards on synthesizers: Don Buchla on the West coast didn’t, Robert Moog on the East coast did. We just couldn’t wait to get rid of those knobs. Here it is 2015, and it’s fascinating that that amazing controller never arrived. None of them are that compelling. There hasn’t been an electronic instrument since the theremin that someone can be a virtuoso at.”
Why is this important? “We all live in these bodies. We all know the frustrations of the limits of our bodies,” he says. “And when we see someone do something amazing with their body it’s compelling. Since I came on the scene when machine music was very new, I was very aware, ‘Wow I’m not using my body, this is odd.’ That was always something that was uncomfortable for me and that I thought about a lot.
“It turns out we were quite naïve in our understanding of the relationships between machines and bodies. How our technology and bodies are going to live on this planet is sort of the question of our time. From global warming all the way down to the fact that we can’t put away our phones. It is the problem. I don’t think it’s a problem that’s going to be solved, but you can interrogate it and you can poke it with a stick, and you can yell at it. You can do all kinds of things with it.
“So then, along comes this younger generation of people that are so accustomed to machines being onstage that they get excited about knobs. To me that’s a measure of the failure that after half a century kids are excited by knobs.”
“Now I have a virtual synthesizer. It sounds great. Aalto. It functions just like an analog synthesizer but you can save presets. When you work with an analog synthesizer, you can’t recreate, which means that you only work with a certain patch for so long. But if you can come back to it, you can really make a deeper kind of music with it. For the controller I use a game pad. So I just stand there with my eyes closed, it’s very improvised.”
“I’ve always liked to be next to the engineer, but not be the engineer,” says Ostertag. “I’m quite agnostic about whether anyone who wants to play music should learn to program.”
“The second event I’ll play this piece called ‘Sooner or Later,’ which was my goodbye to El Salvador when I left all that,” says Ostertag. “It’s all made from a recording of a young boy burying his father. It’s very sad, very intense. You hear the young boy talking about his father, you hear the shovel digging the grave. I wrote that in the late '80s when I left El Salvador and I stopped playing it in ‘91 or ‘92 cause it was too sad. But I just went to El Salvador for the first time since the war, and I recreated the piece. I played it here last year, and [Trinosophes owners] Joel and Rebecca really want me to [play it again].”
The performance on the 30th is part of Trinosophes’ Detroit Commissioning Project. Beginning at 6:30 pm, Trinosophes will serve dinner, accompanied by music performed by previous Detroit Commissioning Project artists. They will also announce the winners of the Trinosphere, a cash prize awarded to under-recognized artists who have made great impact in the area. Then Ostertag will give a short talk about his work and possibly read from some of his books, which include "People's Movements, People's Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements," “"Creative Life: Music, Politics, People, and Machines," and his latest, “Social History of Estrogen and Testosterone,” to be published next spring.
After Detroit, Ostertag will head to China for three months, and then Malayasia, Indonesia and the Philippines. But he says he’s been having a great time in our city. Will he move here? “It’s on my list,” he says.