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Interview with  David Ogborn

For the Canadian Music Centre’s Influences of Many Musics Project

Freely traversing borders and genres, David Ogborn is a composer, guitarist and performer of electronic sound and video. At the centre of his work is the combination of traditional performance arts with electronic elements — whether these be recordings of diverse outdoor environments around the world, improvisations on a laptop or altered guitar, video projections influenced by live musical gestures, or massive synthesized sounds on immersive arrays of loudspeakers. His compositional mentors have included Michael Matthews at the University of Manitoba, Yves Daoust at the Centre d'Arts Orford and Christos Hatzis at the University of Toronto, where he completed a doctorate in 2006 and a post-doctoral teaching fellowship in the humanities in 2007. An Associate of the Canadian Music Centre and a founding member of Toronto's group, he serves on board of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC) as its Treasurer.

A. Cultural Heritage

A.1 Describe the culture of your country of origin.

I was born in Australia but immigrated to Halifax when I was only seven. And my parents had immigrated to Australia in their childhood, from England and Wales (via Iraq). Even in the years spent in Australia we moved relatively often. That any country can be said to have a unitary “culture” is a proposition I would debate — even leaving that aside, I think the bare fact of our family's travel to different places had a more direct impact on me than the specifics of the places we traveled to. I remember shortly after having moved from Australia that an immigration officer threatened me with deportation because I had gone to public school in Halifax despite some paperwork problem. I was old enough to understand the human essentials of what deportation meant and have always suspected this incident contributed to what would later become a deep hatred of all borders. I don't want to give the impression that I was traumatized by Canada and by immigration as such — skiing, skating, tobogganing and the fortifications around the Halifax area (Point Pleasant, York Redoubt, the Citadel) were definite childhood pluses, to name just a few! But I always felt that I came from somewhere else without having a definite concept of that somewhere else — and as I grew older I began to understand that I was a “traveler” more than an Australian or a Canadian.

A.2 What is unique about your cultural heritage — instrumental forces, orchestration, melodies, harmony, texts as well as geography, society, economics, and politics — as it relates to your music?

My most vivid childhood memory of Australia is of driving on a long straight road outside of Derby (in the north-western part of the country, far from any of the large cities) during the dry season when the prairie grass burns. On either side of the road, as far as the eye could see, there was only fire. This image often comes mind in connection with a musical texture that I gravitate towards, both as a listener and as a composer — a texture where one is immersed in a homogeneous yet detailed field of intense sounds, sounds that somehow occupy a physical or perceptual limit.

B. Current Compositions

B.1 Do you consciously incorporate elements of your country of origin and/or cultural heritage into your music? If so, which elements? If not, why not?

Doing things consciously is very dangerous for an artist. One can feed one’s unconscious with whatever one likes, but woe betide whosoever tries to force such things to come out again before the unconscious has set to work on them!

B.2 How is your cultural heritage integrated into the piece of music you wish to feature in your “Composer Portrait”? How is it integrated into your music in general?

The piece Second Nature was conceived as an experiment in soundscape composition, a genre sometimes loosely associated with Canada because of the contributions made by the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University in the 1970s. The source material for the piece is from a very specific environment, the Leslie Street spit (otherwise known as Tommy Thompson Park) in Toronto. Each section of the piece is based on different kind of physical element of the park together with a different kind of human activity (scraping, striking, walking, running, splashing, etc). It could well be that this kind of musical structure (juxtaposition of very different timbres and rhythms, locations and activities) is a response on my part to the experience of always moving, not just as a child but also an adult. When I first moved to Toronto, the park was a place that I gravitated towards.

B.3 Do you feel compelled to maintain or to transform your cultural heritage in your music?

Both. I think I am constantly maintaining my past experiences, musical and otherwise, by transforming them, by working them over and finding new possibilities therein.

C. Musical Identity

C.1 Do you think your music identifies you as being from a particular cultural heritage?

I think my music will identify me as someone with a particular musical heritage — as a guitarist (with a love of heavy metal that was later transferred to jazz and free improvisation), as someone who took piano lessons within the Royal Conservatory framework (List A, List B, List C…) and then later music degrees at schools where the “Western” tradition was emphasized.

C.2 Describe what you believe to be your musical identity.

That’s hard to say. My tastes in listening (Indian classical music, electronic dance music, early music) are much broader than my formal musical training while, conversely, the music I create is only a narrow subset, stylistically, of what I listen to. Its difficult to say where my identity ends.

C.3 Which features of your country of origin and cultural heritage are distinctively associated with your musical identity?

Even in my electronic compositions, I retain a kind of control over pitch that comes out of the “Western” tradition. A certain space of pitches is mapped out (whether in advance or during the course of the composition) and this collection is distributed through time, with an ear towards not repeating too soon or too much. This differentiation can happen with any element, of course, but I think it is a characteristic of European classical music to do this with pitch at various levels of the work.

D. Impact and Influence

D.1 How has living in Canada shaped your composition? How has Canadian culture affected your work?

I think I picked up my interest in soundscape composition as a “genre” at least partly on account of its somewhat stronger visibility in Canada than elsewhere. Also, organizations like the Canadian Electroacoustic Community and the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology were very visible during my time as an undergraduate composition student in Winnipeg. The existence of this type of wider discussion and community probably increased somewhat the attractiveness of working in electronic music.

All that said, from that point on there is no sense in which I have devoted more attention to Canadian work and ideas than to any other aspect of world culture. The historical figures whose work is most in my ears are probably Arnold Schoenberg (an Austrian or an American?), Luigi Nono (Italian, but a member of the Communist Party rather than the Church) and Miles Davis (to which America does he belong?). More recently, I have developed a strong interest in American experimental music, including the work of Fredric Rzewski and Christian Wolff.

D.2 Do you think that your music has affected other composers in Canada, and if so, how?

I honestly don’t know — unless they confess we’ll never know. The influence that would gratify me the most would be if some risk I have taken somehow encourages someone else to take a further and better risk.

D.3 How has your music changed since you came to Canada?

Other than listening to my parents’ LP collection (Toto, Led Zeppelin and Uriah Heep were my favourites) and banging away on a cheap Casio keyboard, my musical experiences more or less began as an elementary school student in Nova Scotia.

E. Education

E.1 What impact would you like to have on students who experience your music through your “Composer Portrait”?

I think the most important thing would be to help students realize that the music we make here is tied by a thousand threads to music made in entirely different places and times. This makes the life of a sound artist very exciting and rewarding — one travels those threads, both physically and virtually.

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