AN AMERICAN SAMPLER.
"the project will now go to phase three, in which I will blow this live recording into tiny bits and reassemble them into a new series of works on the computer. Then of course, the band will learn these as well. "
Phil Minton hunches in the shape of a Pompeii lava man and shrieks like Pavarotti raised by laryngitic wolves. Mark Dressler at the stand-up bass is unflappability itself while Gerry Hemingway slips from agile irritation to downright fury at his drum kit. The electronic background wash is suffering mood swings, maternal sweetness twisting into an infernal chorus fading into the Hawaiian twang of Paradise. Bob Ostertag's "Say No More" band is feeling playful tonight.
... Bob Ostertag has taken an art of quotation and transformed it into an art of resistance...a scream of protest against the iron heat of the system, against the oppression of El Salvador, against the repression of gay rights in California, and against the silencing hand of censorship.
... For the studio version of "Say No More", he sent his three musicians (and extra drummer Joey Baron off to make solo recordings, sampled the performances, and assembled their vocabularies into a microtonal patchwork. Then he called the musicians back and gave them the recording as a score for live performance. Amazingly, they hardly balked and took "Say No More in Person" out on the road. Ironically, after a close working relationship with artist David Wojnarowicz, the one of the NEA four who successfully sued Jesse Helms -- for copyright infringment, of all things -- Ostertag won an NEA grant to make new cloth out of the live performance. "Say No More 3" will join its clonal siblings on the rack later this year.
This is only one project out of a recent spate. Last year saw "All The Rage", a theatrical piece featuring cut-up aural footage from the 1991 queer riots ... This is typical of Ostertag's insistence on the music as chronicle. [One of his piece is a heartbreaker, sampling the funeral oration of a Salvadoran boy, his father killed by the National Guard.] But there were also more abstract live collaborations with John Zorn and Fred Frith. And this year, for his "fierce queer dance record" 'Fear No Love', he's threading together the diverse talents of Tribe 8's Lynn Breedlove, Faith No More's Mike Patton, a chorus of four drag queens and ... Miss Uranus Trauma Flintstone. PM
M2: Do the Burroughs/Gysin thoughts on cut-and-paste interest or influence you?
Bob Ostertag: Well, my recorded stuff, it's all about keeping stuff in context, actually. Taking the recording of a Salvadoran boy and just letting it be a recording of a Salvadoran boy by using the sampling to get inside the sound and really encase you in a moment. The same with the riot things I did, "Burns Like Fire", and "All the Rage".
I have two lines I'm working on now with sampling. One is this documentary stuff. The other is collaborating with instrumentalists which is an interesting way to think about improvising. It's a way to use technology to blur the boundaries between improvising and composing. "Say No More" was about taking a musician and sitting him down in front of a mirror of himself. A twisted mirror, one that's bent out of shape a bit. Hearing instead of playing in a new way.
M2: Improvisation as the hot line to God. The engineer does the devil's mopping up chore. You're transgressing those boundaries--what's going on here?
Bob: Those kind of distinctions don't enter into it. With "Say No More" there were three main ideas. One was to find a way to write music for an ensemble that could use idiosyncratic extended performance techniques in a way that didn't require developing a notation system. All the notation systems I've seen, they're very artificial and clumsy and really end up inhibiting the performer. If I write using their own sounds, then I don't have to deal with notation. And since they made the sounds to begin with they should be able to make them a second time. So the idea is to use compositional techniques that are more often found in Musique Concrete or computer music and use them to compose for a live ensemble.
The second idea was to rearrange a little bit the relationship of composer to musician and make it a more two directional thing. I take directly from the player and I give it back to him and he gives it back to me and so forth. And the third thing was the idea of the relationship of the musician to his own music. Those are the three dimensions I was trying to put together.
M2: So exactly how easy "is" it for Joey Baron to play the first 30 seconds? Bob: [laughs] Well, I don't know, he's never tried, he doesn't play in the live group. It's just Gerry.
M2: So Gerry plays Joey?
Bob: He plays it according to Gerry. It works out very well because Gerry's a real master of playing at low volumes but retaining his intensity. You want this almost thrash sort of energy. Gerry's a great drummer at how to do that. I mean it's really hard for all of them. When all of them heard it, their first reaction was, well, we can't do it.
M2: Are there any kind of notational systems that help you to compare notes?
Bob: Well, they wouldn't be able to do anything without the tape. The score is just a road map to get through the tape, so when they play, they know they've got eight bars of 5/4 and then a bar of this so it stays rhythmically together, but even then...When it's becoming a live version I just conduct. Because unless I'm cueing changes here and there, it's really impossible to keep it together. There's one section I couldn't think of anything to write and I just left it blank. [laughs].
M2: So how does Phil Minton notate/ "Sound like Yodeling Donald Duck"?
Bob: That's the way I wrote it. Phil's started off writing things like "duck scream" and things like that. He's got technical words for all that stuff. The duck sounds are "parabucchals." He's actually studied this. There's a whole technique for speaking that they teach to people who have no vocal chords, a way to speak using your teeth instead of your vocal chords. Those duck things are all singing without vocal chords.
M2: Sounds like a political statement. How long did you keep them in the dungeon before they acquiesced?
Bob: Well, Joey didn't do it, so I guess he wasn't in the dungeon long enough. The point is not to recreate what I did on the computer. The point is to use this a a starting point and come out of it with a piece that's really for a live band and it's not a piece that we could have made any other way. So the next step is, I take the individual tracks from the live cut and cut those up on the computer and make a new computer CD out of it.
CHRONICLES OF YOUTH. M2: You need never write another new piece again as long as you live. In fact, you didn't write music for a long time.
Bob: No, I left music for about 8 years, 1990-1988, and did various things having to do with El Salvador. I started out as some sort of organizer in the United States and I worked as a writer and journalist, and I worked on everything from "The Chronicle" to "the Theoretical Journal of the New People's Army"...
M2: We should arrange a trade subscription with them.
Bob: ...and I was one of the founders of CISPES [Coalition in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador], and I was their East Coast organizer for several years, and then they had me put out their newspaper, and then I had a big fight with them and went to El Salvador and started working there.
M2: Would it be rude to ask what the fight was about?
Bob: It would be tiresome.
M2: But we'll ask anyway.
Bob: Well, you know, I was never a disciplined leftist. Gee, I never think of the right thing to say about it. It was all tangled and twisted in the politics of the moment. It's too beside the point. [laughs] But I still work with Sarah Miles a lot. She and I wrote a lot of articles together.
M2: So what brought you back from Salvador?
Bob: A lot of different things. I'd been doing it for eight years, and I was just emotionally exhausted. People I had known had been killed, and I was into it to the point where I had to decide if this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. And I do know North Americans who went there and they'll never come back. They're culturally no longer Americans. And some of them [laughs] are actually pretty close friends of mine and I respect what they did. And when it sort of got to that point with me, I thought no, there are some other things that I want to do. And I'm not Salvadoran, and that sort of made me think about playing music again.