In the October 2009 issue of The Wire, I read some lines about a recent book ‘Creative Life. Music, Politics, People and Machines‘, written by American electronic improviser Bob Ostertag, who happens to be also a reporter and an activist. The review praised the book and compared the author to Steve Reich and Walter Benjamin, with a dissident touch that would place him right next to Emerson and Thoreau.
I used to listen to some of Ostertag’s music, especially his solo albums (some powerful torrents of narrative collaged sounds) and Pantychrist, a mighty weird (and hilarious) trio album with Justin Bond and Otomo Yoshihide. In my head, these mixed references to Benjamin and Thoreau were confusing. They suggested puritan, almost luddite sympathies, which went colliding with the image of the computer freak I had in mind. I also thought of “last puritan” Glenn Gould, who was also very involved in all technological issues related to sound experiments in recording engineering. Obviously it aroused my curiosity and I bought the book.
In the introduction, Ostertag speaks about things that changed after 9/11 in Manhattan: the sax player in the subway who does not play ‘Take the ‘A’ Train’ anymore but ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ instead; the American flags that flutters everywhere; once-light-hearted art that became “heavy with import and intent”. When he reports Stockhausen’s provocative and confusing words about 9/11 (“the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos”), he gives a luminous explanation.
‘What Stockhausen expressed with the grandiosity and lack of grace that have been his trademarks was articulated ten years earlier by Don DeLillo, in a passage from his novel Mao II  that was stunning in its prescience:
‘For some time now I’ve had the feeling that novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game… What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger the represent equals our own failure to be dangerous. And the more clearly we see terror, the less impact we feel from art… The major work [now] involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.’
I may not follow Ostertag when he explains his conception of art and uses words such as ‘transcendence’ or ‘universality’, which I, by nature, cannot trust. But this is no big deal, you don’t need to agree. His own aesthetic is, he assumes, more like insurgent politics, experimental and disruptive. Therefore he hardly discerns the frontier between art and politics, it’s all about struggle, although there’s a difference: whereas politics have to focus on some issue, he tells us, art should manage to distance itself from it, to transcend it. This is why political art is bullshit, according to him. It’s ‘predictable, preachy, pedantic, overbearing—in a word, boring’. Sometimes Ostertag’s music certainly uses political elements, but it doesn’t preach; moreover these elements (the recording of a queer riot, of a Salvadoran boy burying his father…) are just part of his life as an activist.
Chapters 1 (“Central America”) and 2 (“The Balkans”), which represent half of the book, include mostly insider’s views and knowledge of political conflicts in Latin America and the Balkans. Ostertag brings some lucid sharp insights about what goes on behind the scenes and what it means to be a journalist in such situations. In “Central America”, you sometimes get the impression that you are leafing through Watchmen or Vineland.
‘I met Roberto Staben, an army colonel who ran the base near which the death squads dumped the bodies of their victims. (…) I even met Roberto D’Aubuisson, the notorious leader of the whole ‘death squad’ apparatus, a man whose hands were so bloody even the Reagan administration wouldn’t touch him. These were very scary guys. If a person like this walks into a room, you know it right away. The vibe they put out is very powerful, very weird, and undeniable.’
But don’t expect any easy ideological manicheism:
‘The people at the top of the revolutionary organizations in Central America were not the smartest, most creative, or most self-sacrificing. They were the most ambitious. They wanted power in an uncritical way and did not doubt their own judgement. (…) Their political thinking lacked all nuance.’
In “The Balkans”, where Ostertag meets the cofounder of controversial music group Laibach, the events are much more hilarious because alcohol seems to be inevitable, which illuminates the journey. ‘In the Balkans, when they say, “Let’s go have a drink,” they don’t mean a drink. They mean drink until the sun comes up.’
Through Chapter 3 (“Queers”), Ostertag justifies his interest in drag queen culture (‘drag can be a great antidote to the smug emptiness which pervades so much “postmodern” art. It is difficult not to be personal if you are using your own gender as your raw material’) and queer culture (‘not in the limited sense of a gay subculture but in the broader sense of something so out of the ordinary that it startles the attention and piques the curiosity’). On the way, you are told hundreds of anecdotes, like this one about the recording of Pantychrist :
‘Everything would be improvised. After Otomo [Yoshihide] and Justin [Bond] had left, I would take the tapes and see what sense I could make from the carnage. The concert was fine, but the following morning I became extremely sick and spent the entire day in the hospital. I got home from the emergency room at about the same time Otomo (…). I was quite curious about what had happened, particularly since Otomo spoke very limited English and Justin’s improvisations consisted largely of hilarious drag queen rants full of black humor and double entendres.
Bob: So, how did it go today?
Otomo: It was fine.
Bob: Could you understand what Justin was saying and singing?
Otomo: No, I understand nothin.
Bob: So, um, how did you decide what to play?
Otomo: I watch recording engineer through glass. When I see he laugh, I play something funny.’
Now you might have even more doubts and reservations about Pantychrist but trust me and leave your doubts behind. Oh, and by the way, Pantychrist is available for free download on Bob Ostertag’s website, along with all his recordings to which he has rights. How come? Well, you should read his article (‘The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician’), it was published in April 2007, it is also the conclusion of the present book and I can’t say enough that it still stands up. Next entry will be about Chapter 4 (‘Music and Machines’).