Passers-by may have thought that a riot was taking place or sirens were ringing in Winifred Smith Hall on Thursday, Nov. 3 — but it was only the sounds of Bob Ostertag, a prolific electronic music composer, journalist, professor and political activist.
Bob Ostertag may be an unfamiliar name to some, but when looking at all that he has accomplished, it’s a wonder how he has been able to slip under the radar throughout the years.
Ostertag’s musical journey began in 1976 while studying at Oberlin College and Conservatory of Music. It was here where he built a Serge modular synthesizer, which became his main musical instrument for the next six years.
After college, Ostertag eventually settled in New York City and befriended John Zorn and Fred Frith, two notable experimental musicians who later became great contributors to Ostertag’s music.
After performing with various avant-garde music groups in the NYC Lower East Side scene, Ostertag took a break from producing experimental and electronic music and turned to activism instead. He began to campaign in anti-nuclear power movements and became an expert on Central American politics. While participating in protests around the world, Ostertag started to record the sounds of riots and used them for future musical pieces.
Ostertag continued working as an activist and journalist until he took up producing electronic music full-time in the early 1990s. Although Ostertag is not a full-time journalist anymore, he does update his blog on the Huffington Post every so often. Currently, Ostertag focuses primarily on performing electronic music and is also a professor of Technocultural Studies at UC Davis.
The political and journalistic background of Ostertag was apparent when listening to his musical recordings at his Thursday night concert, as he often incorporated sounds of actual riots and screaming.
Ostertag’s performances are unique and difficult to explain, but they can best be described as musical improvisation of sound developed by his own software, drawing tablets, game controllers and various power tools. He uses the tablets and other devices to create the sounds of everything, from a woman screaming to the squeaking of a rubber duck.
The concert consisted of about an hour of Ostertag producing sounds from his tablet. Since the performance was just a continuous stream of different sounds, it was difficult to pick out a key moment. However, even though most of the sounds blended together, there were some that were pleasing to the ear, while others were not that enjoyable to listen to.
The raw, eerie riot recordings that were incorporated in Ostertag’s music evoked feelings of anxiousness and fright as I listened, but at the same time, I appreciated the political statements that these compositions were meant to make.
During the day of the concert, Ostertag hosted a lecture in Winifred Smith Hall, where he explained the political aspects of his music and gave a brief background about himself.
In the presentation, Ostertag played a recording of a San Francisco riot for gay rights. People participated in this protest because they were upset that a local leader during the early 1990s had promised to pass an anti-discrimination law for people of the LGBT community, but the leader vetoed this bill once he was elected. Many San Francisco residents and others were upset at this act, spurring on the protest that Ostertag ended up recording.
Ostertag combined the riot recordings with guitar and other electronic sounds, creating a composition that he hoped would promote the tolerance of homosexuality. After listening to this eclectic mix of sounds, I could hear Ostertag’s intended message ring through and enjoyed listening to it.
Ostertag explained how recording these riots help him with the overall mission of his work and music production.
“All of my work has been about the intense relationship between our bodies and our machines,” Ostertag said.
Several of Ostertag’s compositions contain political messages similar to the one described above. Although it would be hard to know that the song was about gay rights just by listening to it, once I was informed of the meaning, I developed a new appreciation for the song because I liked the message of tolerance he was trying to spread.
The remaining aspects of Ostertag’s evening concert featured a variety of sounds that resembled clicking noises, loud screeches and random placements of spoken word.
Although these sounds were not always pleasant to the ear, Ostertag’s performance was interesting, innovative and reflective of current social and political issues.
I enjoyed the message of his songs, and the creativity and originality of his endeavors, but if people are looking for soothing sounds and happy melodies, I would recommend looking elsewhere in the musical world.