The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Creative Life: Music, Politics, People and Machines

by Bob Ostertag
(University of Illinois Press; Champaign, Illinois)

"Between Science and Garbage"

In 1939, Edgar Varése, the composer who first articulated a grand vision of how machines would change the way humans made music, announced that “sound-producing machines” promised nothing less than the “liberation of music:” (1)

If you are curious to know what such a machine could do that the orchestra with its man-powered instruments cannot do, I shall try briefly to tell you: whatever I write, whatever my message, it will reach the listener unadulterated by “interpretation.”

From late modernists like Karlheinz Stockhausen down through rock experimentalists like Frank Zappa and now to the thousands of DJs who pump electronic sound through dance clubs, the idea that electronic music would give composers more control while freeing them from relying on human relationships to realize their musical ideas has been the dominant thrust in electronic music. The notion of the machine as a perfect interpreter of musical ideas, in contrast to the necessarily flawed interpreter that is human, has gone unchallenged.

My work has gone in a substantially different direction. My experience of using electronic technology to make music was never one of machines as ideal musicians over whom I exercised perfect and exquisite control. I didn’t really see that as a problem, however, as the unpredictable and unruly behavior of the machines I worked with quickly became my muse. However, as the years have gone by the meaning I attach to this unstable and tense relationship between human and machine has evolved substantially.

I began making music as a kid with a guitar. When the first affordable synthesizers became available in the 1970s, I sold my guitar and bought a synthesizer. It quickly became clear that my aptitude for making music with synthesizers exceeded my aptitude for making music with guitars, and off I went — first to the new electronic music program at the Oberlin Conservatory and then to New York City where I became the only member of the first generation of “free improvisors” in New York City to use a synthesizer as my main axe, with the tape recorder as a close second.

The countercultural milieu of the 1960s and early 1970s fundamentally shaped my early interest in synthesizers and electronic music. Jimi Hendrix had transformed the electric guitar into a radically new instrument that was much more than just an amplified version of an acoustic instrument. Miles Davis was incorporating electric sound into music that traced its lineage to the jazz tradition. John Cage, David Tudor, and many others were putting electronic sound at the center of the avant-garde.

The prevailing view of technology and society was captured in the Whole Earth Catalog, a sort of operating manual for the counterculture which sold millions of copies and always seemed to be lying around wherever people with a countercultural bent congregated. Via the jumbled pages of the Catalog, one could buy books by Buckminster Fuller, learn how to tell the age of a cow, identify edible plants, and order composting toilets or Moog synthesizers. The common thread through this eclectic collage was that every item was seen by the editors as a tool for personal empowerment. The motivating idea was that “access to tools” (the Catalog’s subtitle) would lead to a more peaceful and enlightened culture through the diffusion of knowledge and know-how. The Catalog described its mission like this:

So far remotely done power and glory — as via government, big business, formal education, church — has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing — power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG. (2)

It was no coincidence that the Catalog was published out of the area south of San Francisco that would later become known as Silicon Valley, for the social circle from which the Catalog emerged also produced the personal computer. Parts for the very earliest personal computers were available through the Catalog, and the publishers hoped that the widespread adoption of personal computers would lead to a radical democratization of society.

Today these ideas seem anachronistic and hopelessly naive. Our current “access to tools” is without precedent. Our lives are inundated with digital tools which promise to improve communication but seem to only make us more alienated. Electronic music has exploded out of the avant-garde to become the deafening monochrome background roar of wired yet disconnected culture. Discarded consumer electronics are piling up in landfills in Africa, leaching their toxic metals into the already impoverished soil. Every technological advance seems to bring a further erosion of privacy, a new kind of violence, and another environmental disaster. It is harder and harder to see anything empowering in all of this.


In the 1970s when I was a student at Oberlin, my teacher, Dary John Mizelle, suggested that instead of using technology to make new sounds, I should try to use technology to create new relationships between musicians. Our ears, he argued, are fast learners. The first time we hear a sound we have never heard before, we perceive the sound as “new” (and in the 1970s the sound of electronically synthesized music was indeed new in this sense for many people). But this “newness” is very short-lived, and sounds we have only recently been introduced to quickly become as familiar as those we have heard our entire lives. Dary John felt that by using technology to create new human relationships instead of new sounds, a more fruitful artistic practice could be forged.

Dary John was an inspiring teacher, and I attempted to follow his advice. But as I proceeded in this direction, when I stood back and looked at the body of work I was building, what stood out was not the technologically-mediated relationships between musicians but the confrontational relation of musicians and machines. In fact, one could easily place my work in a narrative of increasingly explicit awareness of this shift, using the projects I have discussed as signposts along the way.

My first record, Getting A Head (1980) involved a highly unstable “instrument” made by running the same spool of recording tape through three tape decks lined up one after another. Performances were duets of myself and an instrumentalist whose playing was recorded on the tape running through the three decks during the performance. I had rebuilt the middle tape deck so that I could continuously change its speed, from twice as fast as normal down to a stop. By using the record and playback heads from the three decks in different combinations while changing the speed of the middle deck, I could manipulate the instrumentalist’s sound in various ways. The catch was that the tension on the tape had to be held constant in order to keep the motors of the decks engaged even while the speed of the middle deck changed. I accomplished this by running the tape through grommets attached to helium balloons. The balloons would rise and fall as the sound did, making the whole “instrument” a sort of wacky sculpture. The contraption was constantly on the verge of calamity: the slightest breeze would send the balloons pulling the tape off of its track, and the speed of the middle deck had to be continually monitored to prevent the tape from snapping or getting chewed up in the transport mechanism. “Playing” the instrument was an exercise in disaster control, while the instrumentalist performing with me was placed in the awkward situation of never quite knowing how the contraption would mangle the sound next.

When I made Getting A Head, I was thinking in terms of the relationship between myself and the instrumentalist created by the tape-and-balloon instrument, though my struggles to make it through a performance without the rickety contraption breaking down was what made the biggest impression on audiences.

Fifteen years later I formed the Say No More ensemble with a group of stellar musicians I was extremely fortunate to work with. The initial members of the group included Phil Minton (voice), Mark Dresser (contrabass), and Joey Baron (percussion). Joey was subsequently replaced by Gerry Hemingway. I began the project by asking the players to go into recording studios, separately, with no communication with each other nor instruction from me, and record solo improvisations. I next took the resulting tapes and, using a digital editing system, exploded these solos into fragments, and then assembled an "ensemble" piece by piece from the splinters. The result became the 1992 Say No More CD. At that point, the group had a CD but by conventional reckoning had yet to play a note.

I then created an unorthodox score of the compositions I had created on the computer using the solo improvisations as sources. I gave the musicians both their parts from the score and the computer-assembled recordings on the CD, and asked them to learn their parts. After extremely limited rehearsal, we then recorded a live CD at ORF Radio in Vienna, Say No More in Person, released by the ORF in 1994. So this second CD was a live ensemble performing compositions made on a computer out of fragments of the members’ solo improvisations.

I then put these live ensemble recordings back into the computer, exploded them into fragments, and created a new computer-based work, Verbatim, released on CD in 1996.

Finally, I created a score of Verbatim and gave it back the ensemble along with the recording itself, and asked the members to learn these new parts. The group toured the new material and then recorded a fourth CD, Verbatim Flesh and Blood, in concert at the Kunstencentrum Vooruit in Gent, Belgium, in 1998. The CD was released in 2000.

Thus the project involves a human/virtual cycle:

  • live solos disappear into the computer and are transformed into musique concrete XE "musique concrete" compositions;

  • these emerge from the computer to become ensemble compositions and performances;

  • the live ensemble performances disappear back into the computer and are transformed into new musique concrete XE compositions;

  • which finally emerge back into human performance.

I began the project with my focus on the relationships I would create between myself as composer and the ensemble members as improvisers. But as soon as the group got together and began to play the compositions I had made, it became obvious that the tension between the musicians as flesh-and-blood humans and their digitized mirror image on the computer was where the real action was. This realization caused me to reconsider all my previous work in that light. Since that project, the focal point of much of my work has been on the confrontation of human and machine.

My most recent performance project is Living Cinema, a collaboration with Quebecois film maker Pierre Hébert. In our Between Science and Garbage performances, we use laptops, video cameras, and a whole bunch of garbage to create improvised animations we project as we go. Though Between Science and Garbage uses computers intensively, the project is not a celebration of technology. What the audience sees is two people on stage struggling to keep up with a technology-driven process that seems to be engulfing them in a steadily accumulating pile of science and garbage. All kinds of garbage: from junk food, broken consumer electronics, and other flotsam of consumer society that make their way into the piece, to the media images that we incorporate, to the very laptops (tomorrow’s garbage) we use to synthesize the image and sound. Performances generally have the same frenetic feeling as the performances of my Say No More ensemble, and in each case the tension comes from the nexus of human and machine. But while in Say No More that confrontation is located in the compositional process and thus not immediately apparent to the audience, in Between Science and Garbage that confrontation is made transparent and moved to center stage.

This reassessment of the meaning of technology in my own work paralleled a similar long-term shift in my understanding of the role of technology in the broader culture. The idea that new musical relationships between musicians can be created through technology is analogous to the idea that new social and political relationships between people can be forged with technology, which is the central claim of the “Information Technology” industry. But the more familiar I become with “information technology,” the more deeply I doubt that it creates any new relationships at all. Once all the hoopla dies down, it seems that what we are left with is the same old relationships in new packaging. What changes is not so much our relationships with each other but our relationship with technology, and by extension, our relationship with the natural world.

Joel Chadabe wrote a book called Electronic Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music, that is a standard introductory text to the subject of electronic music used in undergraduate classes around the United States. Chadabe starts off his book by setting up the conservative American composer John Philip Sousa as his straw man. Chadabe has Sousa complaining about the intrusion of machines into the world of music, and quotes Sousa asking: "When a mother can turn on a phonograph with the same ease that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to sleep with sweet lullabies, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?" To Chadabe, Sousa’s concerns are so ridiculous on their face that they hardly need refuting. Echoing the words of Edgar Varése from a half century before which I quoted at the outset of this chapter, Chadabe argues that “the electronic musical instrument, in its myriad forms, may turn out to be the most beneficial to humans and the most enjoyable, rewarding, and expressive instrument that has ever existed.” (3)

I would like to plant myself firmly on the side of John Philip Sousa in this debate. The idea that electronic music technology is more “beneficial to humans” than all other music is absurd, whereas Sousa’s question about whether children will be put to sleep by machines points right to the heart of the issue of how human beings and their increasingly complex technology are going to coexist.

This, in the end, is the issue with which all of my work described in this chapter is engaged. I believe it is the fundamental issue of our time. We see it everywhere, from the smallest scale where we struggle to not be overwhelmed by our cell phones, iPods, and laptops, to a larger scale where we struggle to contain the unprecedented power of transnational corporations whose vast holdings and operations are made possible only by equally vast arrays of networked computers, and where we confront the enormously destructive power of weapons that are more and more readily available to smaller and smaller groups of people, to the truly global scale of world climate change. If art that makes intensive use of the latest technology is to be relevant in such a time, it must begin from here: how the tense and difficult confrontation of humans and their machines is reshaping and threatening our world.


i: Edgar Varese, 'The Liberation of Sound', in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, eds. C. Cox and D. Warner, New York 2004.

ii: The Last Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools, Menlo Park: Portola Institute, 1971.

iii: Joel Chadabe, Electronic Sound: The Past and Present of Electronic Music, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1997.

©2009 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois Press

Creative Life by Bob Ostertag

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