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Bob Ostertag, ‘Creative Life’ [Part 2: Music & Machines]

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(Before reading this entry, you might want to read the Part 1.)

Chapter 4 is about “Music and machines”. It begins with a quote from Varèse, the composer who ‘first articulated a grand vision of how machines would change the way humans made music’ and would liberate music.

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”.

The thing is (and it could be the topic of a whole book), the defiance/deference towards interpretation understood as a dirty human intrusion can be noticed before Varèse, i.e. before the apparition of music machines. Years earlier, Ravel is famous for having said ‘No need to interpret, it’s enough to play what is written’, and Stravinsky, who called Ravel “the Swiss watchmaker”, had a similar attitude. He didn’t want an interpreter to interfere with the score, to alter his vision. The ego of the Romantic interpreter had to disappear and make room for the “modern” interpreter. It could get pretty complex to explain in details the transition between these two models of interpretation—it has probably something to do with the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, but Varèse’s quote sounds like an answer: the modern (and perfect) interpreter is the machine. Is it?

According to Ostertag, the behavior of music machines is actually nothing but ‘unpredictable and unruly’, but you have to deal with it. Therefore,

how machines and bodies will coexist is thus not a problem to be “solved”, but the central tension of our time in human history, and a compelling terrain in which to locate art.

Ostertag experimented in many occasions with instruments, softwares and hardware, set up variable-size groups and different composing methods, in order to “enlighten” the necessary confrontation Man/Machine. The human body, he says, is ‘the fundamental bond between the performer and the audience, and the basis for “performance” ‘. These last years, his main performance project has been Living Cinema (with filmmaker Pierre Hébert), which indeed involves the human body onstage in a unique way.

Ostertag gives his insights regarding the recent evolution of electronic music. Previously, an attentive audience was sitting and watching performers using their bodies to make music. Now, performers sit attentively before machines that make music, while the audience dances, drinks, chats. Electronic music would have left concert halls for clubs or… advertising. Ostertag is honest and admits that: 1/ the situation is actually more complex, 2/ people could dance to music before, and 3/ electronic devices today are also used in rock, jazz, etc. in the frame of seated concerts. So, what’s wrong then? In my opinion, nothing. Getting rid of the obligation to sit religiously is as good a thing as any music contaminated with electronics. In both cases, electronics brings new habits and new music, without making “old-school” music disappear.

With electronic music machines, he claims, you lose the virtuosity aspects onstage, the visible relation body/instrument. This is probably true for all laptop artists but I can’t help thinking that it’s only a matter of time, that computer is basically not a proper music instrument, but only a stopgap solution, waiting for advanced electronic instruments made for the human body, with more intuitive controllers than knobs and buttons (in that direction for instance, or that one).

Moreover, Ostertag speaks of those “awkward” concerts in which the performer, managing music machines, and the audience are all sitting attentively. This is also not new and does not apply only to electronic music. In a piano recital with a seated audience, the performer’s virtuosity (his hands) is witnessed by a few people, the rest of the audience sees a motionless piano and a slightly wobbling head.

Almost at the end of the book comes the article ‘Why computer music is so awful?’. When he wrote it, Ostertag was a disappointed member of the computer music jury at the Austrian festival Ars Electronica. He states that electronic music was way richer in the early days of electronic music, back when adventurous spirit was intact and computers capacities were weak. I see what he means and it’s probably true. But nothing to be upset about: this is the “normal” way. When Schoenberg created twelve tone composing method, it was meant to escape from “sick” tonality, that is to “emancipate” the dissonance and free the melody from the demands of tonal harmony. There was an incredible adventurous spirit too. With the help of Berg and Webern, it became a radical movement and later a dull, rigid and unsurprising mainstream chapel within the world of serious Western music. One century later, composers don’t even use the twelve-tone method anymore, they rather seek various ways to make music. Some are new and disruptive, most aren’t. Even if the “old days” were better, this says nothing about the future. The increased number of people practising such computer music probably makes things more difficult to analyze. I consider today’s lively experimental and electronic music scene as a positive sign, but I wouldn’t bet on the future of more “serious” music because the dichotomy serious/leisure music is less and less valid anyway.

‘Creative Life’ ends with an important and brilliant conclusion called ‘The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician’ (read it here). This is the topic of another entry.

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