Bob Ostertag's Music Reality

Interviewer : Douglas KAHN

Bob OSTERTAG is a San Francisco-based composer and musician whose work has been gaining widespread attention and acclaim through the 1990s. His music breaks down into several fairly distinct areas, one of them he calls reality music, in which recordings of events are configured in a special way across a sampler and performed live by himself. The events have included a burial scene in El Salvador in "Sooner of Later," a riot in San Francisco in response to the veto of gay rights legislation by the Governor of California in "Burns Like Fire," and Rodney KING's appeal for calm in the wake of the Los Angeles riots in "We Are All Stuck Here." The material from "Burns Like Fire" was also used in a composition entitled "All the Rage" commissioned and issued on compact disc by the Kronos Quartet.

His life is just as interesting as his music. Plucked straight out of university with his Serge Modular Synthesizer in hand by composer and saxophonist Anthony BRAXTON for a European tour, he returned around 1974 to New York, where he fell in with Fred FRITH, John ZORN, Wayne HORVITZ, Eugene CHADBOURNE and other formidable improvisers in the pupal stage of their careers. As the 1980s began, however, he left this scene behind to become centrally placed within Central American activism and didn't return to music until 1988. Since then he has been politically active within gay politics in the Bay Area when he is not on tour with his music.

Bob Ostertag

Douglas KAHN: Could you tell me how you got involved in Central American politics?

Bob OSTERTAG: While in New York through the late 70s, I was getting more and more politically involved in various things and then after Somoza fell, I went to Nicaragua in 1980 to see if I could arrange to put out some Nicaraguan music in the United States on the label Fred Frith and I were running called Rift. It completely turned my head around, and the record never came out and I never played another note of music for almost 10 years. The last concert I did was 1981, but even by then I hadn't performed for a long time, I was just doing El Salvador work. I had one gig left in London and at that last gig my Serge blew up so that really settled the question.

  Douglas: You should have had a Serge protector! Weren't you involved in CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador)?

Bob: Yeah, I was one of the original members, on the national executive committee and for a while I was the East Coast roving organizer. I traveled all around the East Coast and then they put me in charge of all of their printed material. I published their newspaper, did research and public speaking, but after a while I had a big falling out and I decided around 1984 I would work directly in El Salvador. I began freelancing as a journalist and writing mostly for left-orientated newspapers, but also for the San Francisco Chronicle. I was also associate editor for Pacific News Service, which is a small alternative wire.

Douglas: What steered you back to music?

Bob: A combination of things, mostly just realizing there really wasn't very much political space for me, but also asking myself is this what I am going to do with the rest of my life? I wasn't prepared to burn all my bridges.

Douglas: You came back with almost a decade of political activism behind you. Was that the source of reality music?

Bob: Pretty much, but my political activism went back before that to the end of the 1970s, when I was doing pieces which used news clips in a semi-journalistic way. There's also material from the TV incorporated into them as in "Voice of America" with Fred Frith, and by the time we did the gig in London I was using tapes I had recorded myself in Nicaragua. It's common now for people to appropriate material from the mass media, back then it was a bit more novel.

Douglas: Could you talk about "Sooner Or Later"?

Bob: The sound source is a recording of a young boy in El Salvador burying his father who was killed by the National Guard because he was a guerrilla sympathizer. It's an actual recording of him at the grave. He is talking about what his dad meant to him, things he and his dad used to talk about and the last thing he says is "Sooner or later I'll get the bastards who did this," and that's where the title comes from. There are three sounds that you hear on the tape: the sound of the boy's voice, the sound of the shovel digging the dirt for the grave, and the sound of a fly buzzing in the air. Everything is made out of those sounds. I wanted to blow it up big and envelop people in it.

Douglas: How do you make it bigger?

all the rage



say no more



 Bob: It is all done with sampling. I went through the recording 6-10 seconds at a time, through the whole recording, which is about a minute, and I would say, okay, what is the interesting thing about this section? For instance, the interesting thing about this section is when the boy cries his voice breaks and it sounds very pretty like a yodel, or there is another section with little glitches where his voice is breaking. Then--I don't know if I can explain this clearly--I make ten different copies of the same sample, in each copy erase everything except one element. It's not truncated, though, the rest of the sample is filled with silence so that it is the same length. So you have ten samples, and each one has a different thing in it so that when you play them all it sounds like one sample but you actually have ten different ones, and then if you can futz around and hocket them, you can give the impression of dissecting it and editing it in real time.Douglas: They're staggered sequentially, so when you put all fingers down at the same time, you hear the sample of an entire section played back normally.

Bob: Actually, if you have all ten fingers down and your keyboard has a key pressure feature to control the playback speed, then if you lean really quickly on one key you will knock it out of phase with the others. First, it will be a phase shift; so you will hear it as a pan in the stereo field. Then hit it a little harder and it becomes a slight echo, and hit it a little harder still and it becomes a hocket. Each section has some little trick or other to it. When the piece is played live there is a series of loads put into the sampler.

Douglas: What was the source material for "Burns Like Fire"?

Bob: It's from a riot that happened here in San Francisco that I recorded. For almost ten years people had been organizing in California to try and get an anti-discrimination bill for gays through the state legislature. Governor Pete WILSON campaigned specifically saying that he would sign that bill and then once in office he vetoed it. It was just Republican party politics. He decided he wanted to be president, he needed to secure credentials with the Christian Right. So there was a riot downtown San Francisco. "All the Rage" added a string quartet to the riot. I transcribed the riot for Kronos, so that every time a window breaks, they play the pitches and rhythms of the glass falling out of the pane or every time somebody screams.

Douglas: What I really liked about the Rodney King piece was your ability to explore this quavering voice attempting to still the largest riot in U.S. history, and in between each quaver there is a panorama with huge implications. It was reminiscent of Steve REICH's early tape pieces, specifically "Come Out," which he did using the voice of a man injured in the Watts riots in New York.

Bob: It's certainly an inspiration for reality music. Those early Reich pieces got me interested in tape music way back when I was at Oberlin University.

Douglas: There were many people inspired by those pieces, but Reich himself never followed through on the artistic possibilities. It seems you're very successful in following through with a whole new set of possibilities.

Bob: That's what I see myself as doing.

Douglas: And what are you up to now in terms of reality music?

Bob: I want to do a piece about joy. I have always wanted to do a trilogy of pieces about grief, anger and joy. "Sooner or Later" is about grief. "All the Rage" and "Burns Like Fire" are about anger. So I am due for the joy piece, but that's harder. All of these are connected to my personal life more so than to the social context in which I am existing. If you're a lefty gay male living in San Francisco with the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s, there is not a lot in the social context which jumps right out at you and says that joy is the right thing to write about, but look, I've got all of these pieces about death and destruction, I can't do that forever.



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