Originally posted on SSGmusic, September 22, 2011

Bob Ostertag has self-released Motormouth, an album made entirely with a Buchla 200e synthesizer. You can download it for free at his site, along with much of his 30+ years of back catalog. Ostertag, a sound artist, composer, journalist, and professor currently based in San Francisco, dropped out of college at Oberlin to tour with avant-jazz legend Anthony Braxton (who also happens to be the father of ex-Battles member Tyondai Braxton.) A core figure in the NY “downtown” scene, playing with legendary figures like John Zorn and Fred Frith, he is possibly the first artist to take experimental studio practices and apply them to live improvisation, a feat even more impressive when you keep in mind that the Serge synthesizer he was using does not have a keyboard. In the time since he’s created some of the most innovative, challenging, politically engaged and moving music of the experimental music scene, including Sooner or Later, a piece based on a recording of a young boy eulogizing his father in El Salvador after being murdered by a US-supported paramilitary group, and All the Rage, a piece performed by the Kronos Quartet, developed from a recording of “a riot in San Francisco in October 1991, which followed California Governor Pete Wilson’s veto of a bill designed to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.” His artistic achievements are in fact too many to name, though in recent years he’s been touring with his live improvised film and music project Living Cinema, released an autobiographical book called Creative Life, and released an album made entirely of old video game samples.  Around that time, Ostertag made his entire catalog (that he owns the rights to) available as free downloads on his site under a Creative Commons license.

Though his more recent live work often reflect an interest in programming, and exploring the capabilities of the iPad as a musical controller, Motormouth instead goes back to one of the earliest synthesizers. Certainly the iPad, with its touchscreen and  accelerometers and so on, will open up new possibilities, and we have no reason to think that Ostertag has given up his search for more expressive controllers.   So why the return to a modular synth?  Ostertag is a wonderful and thoughtful writer, as his books (and blog posts at the Huffington Post) demonstrate, so I will let him do the talking in his own words below.  His stated artistic rationale given below makes good sense, and it is great to hear a fresh take on the Buchla, a device that lacks a keyboard and is generally a studio instrument used by experimental electronic musicians.  Buchla has recently released the Buchla 200e, a modern reincarnation of the classic Buchla 200 from the ’70s. In an era of freely distributed (and/or pirated) music and software, hardware is still big business.  I wonder if companies like Buchla don’t provide incentives to musicians in situations like this, to encourage them to create and to make a broader audience aware of their product. (I certainly have a strong desire to play around with a real modular synth, but in the meantime their are numerous apps like this and that.) Ostertag is certainly the right ambassador for Buchla, and this work demonstrates both the capabilities of modular synths, and Ostertag’s unique vision.   As his works are issued with Creative Commons licenses, he encourages listeners to use his tracks as basis for future works, so cut, mix, process and play away.

Here’s Bob’s thoughts on the project taken from his site:

All the music herein was played by myself on a Buchla 200e modular synthesizer. The 200e is Don Buchla’s recent reincarnation of the Buchla 200, which he created in 1970, which was in turn the heir to the Buchla 100 he created in 1963.

I first started playing a Buchla 200 at the Oberlin Conservatory in 1976 at the age of 19. Two years later I built a Serge synthesizer and dropped out of school to tour with Anthony Braxton. I then settled in New York City where I was part of the “downtown music improvisation scene,” playing often with John Zorn, Eugene Chadbourne, Fred Frith, Toshinori Kondo, and others. Designed by Russian music prodigy Serge Tcherepnin, the Serge synthesizer was similar to a Buchla, but less expensive because it came as a kit which the buyer had to the assemble.

At the time, modular synthesizers were considered studio devices, so the fact that I was taking one on stage and attempting to improvise with it at the frenetic pace and turn-on-a-dime style that was just then emerging from the NYC underground meant that I was off on a tangent all my own. My work with the Serge in the 1970s and early 1980 can be heard on these recordings:

In the 1980s, modular analog synthesizers were displaced by MIDI devices, which were themselves in turn displaced by laptops another decade after that. But recently a fairly random set of circumstances converged in a surprising way, with the result that a Buchla 200e appeared in my studio for a couple of months, and the present recording is the result.

After hardly thinking about the old modular, patch cord based synthesizers for 30 years, my renewed encounter with the Buchla has been provocative. Playing a modular synthesizer like the 200e requires that one think about music in a very particular way. Essentially, one has to think geometrically: each module generates certain shapes, and then you make the music by overlaying shapes in different ways. It is a very different experience from working with notation on paper, timelines on screens, icons on laptops, or keyboards.

These tracks can “stand alone” as completed musical works, but I can also easily imagine that they might be useful as base tracks for others to build upon. I strongly encourage anyone interested in experimenting in that direction to do so. One artist who goes by the name Rrose has already released a record on the Sandwell District label that he created using my Buchla tracks as starter material. Hopefully, there will be more.

Like all my work, this music is available for free under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. You are free to download, copy, send to your friends, and mix and mangle, or throw in the trash. If you do use these tracks in your own work, please note where they came from.

Finally, many many thanks to Don Buchla and Buchla & Associates, as well as the Music Department of the University of California at Davis.

Thanks to Thomas DiMuzio for mastering “Motormouth,” and to Rrose his feedback and encouragement.

Listen to the Rrose x Bob Ostertag Motormouth Variations LP here.  And head over to Bob’s soundcloud page to listen and/or download Motormouth.

2021 Postscript

In the time since I wrote this short piece, the profile of Buchla synthesizers has grown tremendously. Keeping with Ostertag’s general trajectory, while the young underground became full of techno-fetishists collecting expensive CV synth modules, he shifted gears again making an album  with Aalto’s virtual synth software. His output since then has continued to be an inspiration, including his recent books (Sex Science Self, and Facebooking the Anthropocene) and a documentary film, Thanks To Hankan homage to the little-known but highly-influential activist Hank Wilson.

I should add my own much more modest Thanks To Bob. I met Bob in January 2009 on a trip to San Francisco. I had gotten in touch with him the previous autumn when I applied to UC Davis. He very generously shared an advanced copy of his wonderful memoir Creative Life, which made a strong impression on me both ethically and aesthetically as a young person who was interested in both activism and experimental music. Bob graciously agreed to meet me for a beer to talk about his meandering academic trajectory while I was in San Francisco that winter. That afternoon in the mission he told me to make sure postgraduate studies worked for me, and not the other day around. Simple but powerful advice that I have returned to many times over the years. 

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