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New Music Release: Wish You Were Here: World Tour 2015-2016

Pleased to announce the release of music from my a-year-a-month-and-a-day world tour from March 2015 through April 2016.

https://bobostertag.bandcamp.com/album/wish-you-were-here

Like most of my recent releases, this is download only, pay what you like, no minimum.

The music is played an the Aalto virtual modular synthesizer by Randy Jones and Madrona Labs. But unlike my previous release, Bob Ostertag Plays the Aalto, in which I left the synthesizer in various states and simply let it run, in this new music I play the synthesizer quite actively using a standard gamepad.  I use the Max programming environment to create what might be called virtual topographies of the synthesizer through which I can explore and wander with the buttons and joysticks.

With the development of this instrument, I feel like  I have finally found a way to play a modular synthesizer in a manner both musical and constantly surprising, something I have been dreaming of since I first began playing modular synths in the mid-1970s.

The recording includes parts of concerts in Malang and Surabaya (Indonesia), Lima (Peru), Montevideo (Uruguay), Beirut (Lebanon) and New York City.

Thirteen months on the road took me to the US, western and eastern Europe, the Middle East, China and Taiwan, Southeast Asia, South America, Central America, and Mexico. My travels relied on the support of many wonderful people, far too many to thank here by name. Here, for all of you, is an entirely insufficient THANK YOU.

The beautiful cover art is by Rutger Zuydervelt.

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Don Buchla, my friend

How strange. My previous blog post was about a private concert I performed for Don Buchla. My post today is about his death. But then, no one I have ever met was more comfortable with life’s strangeness than Don.

I first encountered a Buchla synthesizer at the Oberlin Conservatory in the 1970s. In a way, I could say that encounter reset the course of my entire musical life. The Oberlin studio also had a Putney synth and a very large modular Moog. None of us students cared about the Moog. It sat untouched. The Buchla was where it was at.

Over the years, the pop-quiz version of the difference between a Moog and a Buchla got reduced to the idea of a keyboard: the Moog had one, the Buchla did not. But there was so much more to it than that. Moog essentially built an electronic pipe organ, with knobs instead of stops. Don built a cybernetic instrument, in which the human musician was invited to intervene in automated processes in a very open-ended and creative way.

It sounds like hyperbole to say that Don’s instrument marked something fundamentally new in the history of music, but it is close to true. (To tell the whole story, we would have to include Bebe and Luis Barron, and Raymond Scott.)

Karlheinz Stockhausen, in his characteristically pompous way, used to talk of his dream of a music of “total serialism,” in which the same serial processes would be applied to pitch, time, dynamics, and timbre. Don Buchla built a device which made the realization of exactly this idea fun and intuitive.

Don’s instruments were not cheap, far out of reach for an undergrad. So I built a Serge synthesizer, a build-it-yourself synth designed by Serge Tcherepnin to be the “poor person’s Buchla.” I dropped out of Oberlin and took my new Serge on tour with Anthony Braxton, and then settled in NYC playing my Serge in the downtown music scene of 1970s New York.

Fast forward a decade and a half and I arrived at my new home in San Francisco around the time that Don released his Lightening wands, a sort of Wii controller for music, years before Nintendo came up with it. I went over to buy one and meet my hero and inspiration.

The man I found was like no one I had ever met. He hardly spoke. You could ask him the most convoluted questions and get one word answers. Gruff, I think, is the correct word. I came away from the encounter thinking this was a guy who could make you feel intellectually inferior simply by stating the time of day. Thus began a close friendship of many years with one of the most unusual people I have ever known.

Once you got to know him, you learned that what initially came across as Don’s gruff exterior  was simply the exterior reflection of the way his mind worked. I am convinced that a big part of Don’s genius was his unique economy of thought. Don’s manner of thinking always cut to the chase. It didn’t matter if you were talking about circuit design, history, music, personal relationships, or anything else. His thought process was free of clutter. It wasn’t that he was talking down to you or demeaning you, it was just that he had no interest in all the clutter: yours, his, or anyone else’s. He was just trying to move things along.

Once you “got” that, Don became the most delightful friend anyone could have. He was interested in everything, and always with a unique spin. You could have the most wide-ranging conversations with him. I remember wonderful dinners with Don, his wife Anne-Marie Bonnel, and friends. Don would say one word to everyone else’s two hundred, yet be a full participant in the conversation.

I think of Don as being exceptionally funny. I am not sure many others share that assessment. How can you be funny when you speak so little? Well, when you really thought about his one-word answers, and worked your way backwards through Don’s thought process, it would dawn on you how acutely aware he was of the humor in the situation – any situation. Don’s humor  wasn’t all laid out for you, or served up like desert. He never told a joke. He didn’t really care if you even got it. But it was there for you if you wanted it. And when your reply indicated that you had found the same humor he had found, his eyes would twinkle and he would crack a wry smile.

His humor was like the ideas in his instruments: there for you if you took the time and effort to find it. He was not about to “sell” you on his humor, his instruments, his ideas, or anything else.

Take, for example, the “manual” for his last modular synthesis system, the Buchla 200e. This is an extremely sophisticated and complex system. The complete manual, including complete descriptions of every possible module you could order, plus caveats about “not taking it into your hot tub,” totals 65 pages. For comparison, the manual for Apple’s music composition software, Logic Pro, weighs in at 1342 pages. The entire description of one of the 200e’s most complex modules, the Arbitrary Function Generator, comes to a grand total of two and a half pages.  He does, however, tell you how to turn the synthesizer on, adding that, “A bunch of LED’s should light up, indicating success in this portion of the endeavor.” Ha! Beyond that, there is absolutely no instruction as to how you might use the instrument. That was for you to figure out. Don’s point wasn’t to make it hard, but rather not to preclude any possibilities.

Some of my students struggle with that. “In order to figure this out you would need a degree in electrical engineering,” one complained to me. Not true, I replied. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. All you need to need to learn to use a Buchla is curiosity and a lot of time with no distractions. Not really the norm in the age of applications with built-in mouse-over help bots.

I could go on and on. Who else in the world had a high-level security clearance from NASA while giving away 10,000 hits of LSD at the Trips Festival (the first rave) of which he as a co-organizer? He was a close friend yet I am sure there are layers and layers, stories and stories of which I am unaware. I just learned today of his work as a teenage smoke-jumper. There are many obituaries out there now to google, but I am absolutely certain none really has a complete picture.

There is no way to end this blog. But at some point I must stop. Here is as good a place as any.

So I will stop.

Goodbye Don. I hate saying goodbye to you, but it was your time. See you in some other dimension.

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(My CD played entirely on the 200e is here.)

(Rrose’s remix of that CD is here.)

(A CD with a track played on the old Buchla synth at the Oberlin Conservatory in the 1970s is here.)

(Rrose’s remix of that track is here.)

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With Don Buchla and his partner Nannick

 

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Are you serious? Julian Assange used Wikileaks to support Donald Trump, with the additional support of some unidentified secret team of very sophisticated hackers? For real?

Yes, this does seem to be real. There is an additional allegation that the hackers were based in Russia and spoke Russian, but this is not confirmed.

Bernie Supporters: YOU ARE GETTING PLAYED.

Yes, the DNC functioned as an arm of the Clinton campaign. That is how it goes: candidates work to get their people into key positions, and then work every angle. It is not fair according to the party rules, but it is the norm. It is American electoral politics as usual. Hillary is good at it, and has been putting her people into place for years. Duh.

Anyway you already knew that because Bernie had been telling you that over and over. It is great to have so many new and passionate activists. The campaign was amazing, surely one of the high point of the left in the history of the US. That means you are playing in a big league now at a time of real danger in the world. This is no time to cling to your naivety.

Looking at the Assange interview, and reading other interviews he has recently given, is actually quite scary. His position is that anyone who is not for the kind of freedom of information he espouses is his enemy. This makes Clinton an enemy. Assange says he doesn’t know what Trump’s position on Wikileaks will be, so he prefers the unknown Trump to Clinton, whom he unequivocally considers a personal enemy.

This is nowhere near any sort of notion of an institution which is about transparency and protecting whistleblowers. There is no whistleblower to protect here. No one from the DNC freaked out with guilt over the misdeeds of their superiors and gave Assange documentation of it. Nor was there anything to blow a whistle on, other than the ugly everyday face of electoral politics.

The polls now show Trump ahead, and the bump that put him ahead was timed with Assange’s carefully orchestrated roll-out of the stolen emails.

The amount of power Assange wields is breathtaking. And the amount of power he thinks he should wield is even bigger. He is the nightmare combination of the extreme ego and extremist libertarianism of the digital elite, intervening in world events as a major player accountable to no one … in support of Donald Trump.

If it is true that the hackers were Russian, or even more explosively tied to Putin, that would make a trio of Trump-Putin-Assange vs. Clinton. But the Russian connection is an allegation at this point. The allegation that somehow “the Russians” did this adds to other recent allegations about Trump’s connections to Putin which as far as I can tell have been verified.

We are wading into very murky waters here. Global brinksmanship. Sabers are rattling. Blocks are shifting and forming. Is England in Europe or out? Will the US defend Europe from Russia or not?

Putin in Russia. Xi in China. And Trump up in the polls in the US.

Wow.

With Don Buchla and his partner Yannick

Synth Pioneers and Inventors

Two beautiful intimate concerts in recent days.

First was a private concert for synth pioneer Don Buchla at his home in Berkeley California. I first encountered his instruments in 1975 when I played a Buchla 200 at the Oberlin conservatory. Then over the years I played with his Lightening, his Thunder, and his 200e. Close fried, engineering genius, and unrepentant 1960s freak. Love him.

Then on to Seattle for a private concert for Randy Jones of Madrona Labs, the creator of the Buchla-inspired Aalto virtual synthesizer, which is my synthesizer of choice these days.

That is a lot of brain power and creativity between those two.

It was an honor.

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With Don Buchla and his partner Yannick

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In Seattle with Mats Meyerberg (maker of the world’s first digital audio editor about 30 years ago) and Randy Jones, inventor of the Aalto

 

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Buchla 200

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Aalto Virtual Synthesizer

 

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Playing for Randy Jones and friends in Seattle

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Lonely and Scary Times for Sexual Diversity in Indonesia

A recent New York Times editorial decried new laws against nongovernmental organizations that promote human rights and democracy in China, India, Egypt and elsewhere. In China, the new law comes as part of a broader package of restrictions which have essentially shut down the vibrant experimental music scene which I visited and performed in last October. The venues at the center of the scene just a short while ago are now closed. The organizer of my tour has decided that the current political climate makes it impossible for him to book shows. There is no question in the minds of young Chinese musicians that even though this law deals specifically with NGOs, it targets social freedoms of all kinds, like the freedom to make music.

After China I went to Indonesia, where the state soon launched an orchestrated and vicious campaign of homophobia.The Vice President instructed the United Nations Development Program to cut funding to LGBT-rights education programs. TV and radio programs that portray queer lives as “normal” were banned. There were calls for LGBT people to be barred from employment, from university, and even killed. The Minister of Defense called the LGBT community “a form of proxy war” more dangerous than nuclear warfare. And so on.

This campaign is the Indonesian manifestation of the same drive to control civil society that led to the laws in China and elsewhere decried by the New York Times. Indonesia has used not laws but state-incited violence to maintain their desired level of social control. The current campaign against the queer community falls squarely within this tradition.

Queers in Indonesia have a rational basis for fearing for their lives. In the recent past, similar state-run efforts to incite violence erupted into mass violence against religious and ethnic minorities in which thousands were killed. And it was only fifty years ago that a military government directed a wave of mass murder that killed somewhere between five hundred thousand and two million people. So things like making hiding places and evacuation plans are on the to-do list of queer Indonesian activists.

Sadly, none of the musicians and artists I met in Indonesia felt any sense of connection to the plight of their queer compatriots. To the contrary, musicians would repeat the talking points of the homophobia campaign almost verbatim: this was all the fault of the queer community itself: asking for too much too fast; being too militant; pushing for gay marriage; and not respecting traditional Indonesian values. Certainly the musicians and artists saw little connection between sexual diversity rights and, for example, the relatively new social space they themselves were claiming as young people making art and music far outside the bounds of what is commonly understood to be traditional in Indonesian, and living defiantly non-mainstream lifestyles in a country vexed by an increasingly aggressive religious conservatism.

In fact, sexual diversity activists have not pushed for gay marriage in Indonesia. What they have tried to do more than anything is exist. Most of their activism goes into supporting each other in some way or other, in this poor and marginal country within which they are even poorer and more marginal than most.

As for traditional Indonesian values, Indonesia has one of the longest and best documented traditions of sexual diversity in the world. In just the island of Sulawesi, pre-Islamic culture recognized five genders, not two. The novelty of what the state and conservative Islamic groups claim to be traditional Indonesian values was thrown into sharp relief in a recent incident involving Facebook. A government minister demanded that social media platforms remove any emojis “that smack of LGBT.” Facebook then censored the account of a young Indonesian woman who posted old photographs of topless Indonesian women. Facebook claimed to have acted to protect traditional Indonesian values, but the account holder found the photos by searching on Google for historical photos of Indonesian women. The campaign to protect “Indonesian values” has succeeding in protecting Indonesians from their own history.

The fact that young Indonesian artists and musicians sitting in coffee houses late into the night talking art and politics feel angry and threatened about the attempt to eradicate memory of the fact that many Indonesian women recently went topless, yet dismiss as unimportant the attempt to eradicate all memory of sex, love, and gender in Indonesia that strayed from what is acceptable to today’s conservative Islam – this fact is a reflection of how thoroughly the state controls the sexuality narrative in Indonesia. Indonesia’s queers are left on their own. Their rights and their plight is not part of the discussion of the defense of civil society in Asia – not among the power elite like the New York Times, and not among their natural local allies in Indonesia.

It is a lonely place to be.

There is a CAMPAIGN TO RAISE FUNDS FOR THE INDONESIAN QUEER COMMUNITY HERE. If you live in a place where ¡queers can live comfortable and easy lives, you might think about sending some money.

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With Vinolia Wakijo, Sexual Diversity hero of Yogyakarta