Vol. 36 Issue 2 Reviews

Bob Ostertag: Creative Life–Music, Politics, People and Machines

Hardcover, 2009, ISBN 978-0-252-03451-0, 208 pages, US $65.00, paperback, ISBN 978-0-252-07646-6, US $20.00; available from the University of Illinois Press, 1325 South Oak Street, Champaign, Illinois 61820, USA; telephone (+1) 217-333-0950; http://www.press.uillinois.edu/.

Reviewed by Jeff Kowalkowski
Chicago, Illinois, USA

Osterag book coverBob Ostertag is a well-known, experimental, politically active sound artist based in San Francisco. His book, Creative Life: Music, Politics, People, and Machines is chock-full of honest, candid statements and sharp-witted, artistic attitudes. It is part manifesto, part memoir. With respect to the latter, Ostertag is truly a sensitive chronicler; his emotions motivate his actions. He practices an interweaving of art and life, blending his work as a musician with his political activism. On the book’s back cover the composer and trombonist George Lewis describes this interweaving as the “two theaters of operation.” For Ostertag, the theaters have been: (1) the New York experimental music scene, interrupted by (2) journalism and performance tours to violent places in Central America and the Balkans. When his journeys concluded, Ostertag returned to music, multimedia, and improvisation. His output included bizarre recording projects like PantyChrist, a collaboration with the drag queen performer Justin Bond and electronic musician Otomo Yoshihide, and intermedia collaborations with filmmaker Pierre Hébert. Some of these projects were the fruit of his residencies at STEIM (Studio for Electro Instrumental Music) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Many passages in Creative Life are very inspiring for me personally as a composer.  Specifically, I appreciate the alternation between discussions of professional pragmatics, such as how recording companies routinely use artists for nefarious activities, and philosophical interludes such as: “If composing music for dancing is art, it is because humans universally find beauty in moving their bodies in rhythm with sound. If composing a fugue or exploring a raga is art, it is because humans universally find beauty in sounds arriving at their nervous systems at frequencies that are arranged in mathematically coherent ways. Music and dance are universal because they are written into our bodies, and virtuosity in anything has a universal appeal. Thus the notion of virtuosity, the ability to be transcendently creative with one’s body, will receive a fair amount of attention in these pages” (pp. 8-9).

Another commendable aspect of Creative Life is its humor (of a Charles Ives sort). This is evident in passages like the following, which praise dissonance. “Others can make peaceful, sonorous music about beauty and symmetry and celebrate the world as it is. For me, struggle is the root, the source” (p. 12). Also amusing is Ostertag’s disenchantment while serving as a judge for the lauded Ars Electronica competition in Austria. He claims that the bulk of the submitted compositions (from Stanford, IRCAM, and other institutional “bastions” (p. 159) of electroacoustic music) were “over-funded bunk” with ridiculously high production costs. According to Ostertag, “the more technology is thrown at the problem, the more boring the results. Composers may begin with a musical idea but get lost along the way in the writing of the code, the troubleshooting of the systems, and the funding to make the whole thing possible, then fail to notice that the results do not justify the effort” (p. 160). Yet, as he points out, these monetary figures pale in comparison to feature film budgets, like Toy Story. Here, Ostertag poses some important questions: What if the budget spent on a Hollywood movie was allocated to a 90-minute piece of computer music? Would we like it more? Would it sound better than the junk cassette machines routed through some old effects pedals?  Or, tape-loops gently suspended by helium balloons? Ironically, although he clearly favors a low-fidelity or low-tech aesthetic, the distribution of his own work would not have been possible without certain profound advances in technology.

There are also bluntly shocking, serious accounts from the troubled spots of the world within which Ostertag worked. For example, an El Salvadorean told him: “My father told me…he was a fighter, a fighter for our people. He told me not to be a good-for-nothing, that I should be creative and brave until the final victory of those who survive. Ay, compañeros, sooner or later I will avenge his blood” (p. 40).

Elsewhere in the book, Ostertag expresses his admiration for Conlon Nancarrow and Cecil Taylor, and he includes a short report on the Texas artists Jim Magee and Annabel Livermore (who are one person). While reading his account I felt convinced that Ostertag is also cut from the same, heroic iconoclast cloth. Take as proof a statement like the following, which underscores his attitudes about art being the polar opposite of politics: “When organizing clandestine resistance to a brutal regime, the consequences of mistakes are life-and-death matters. In music, the consequences of making mistakes are nonexistent” (p. 63).

Creative Life covers a wide terrain, perhaps too much for one book. It is chaotic and diffuse like a diary, but very easy to traverse. Reading what practicing, experimental musicians like Ostertag have to say about technology, aesthetics, and politics can be a very rewarding experience. I deem Creative Life required reading for anyone serious about music and technology, and yes, politics.