Social top



6 Questions to Composer David Ogborn

David Ogborn combines the traditional performing arts with electronic media. Recent highlights have included Metropolis (2007, live electronics with silent film), Opera on the Rocks (2008, opera with live electronics), Emergence (2009, live electronics + physical computing) and Waterfall (2010, collaborative video sculpture at the Summer Olympics). Ogborn is the president of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC) and a faculty member in McMaster University's Department of Communication Studies and Multimedia — where he teaches audio and multimedia programming, and directs the Cybernetic Orchestra.

[1] Briefly describe your musical / sound art background and education, formal and informal.

I started playing piano and brass instruments when I was seven years old, living in Nova Scotia. Then, as a teenager living in Winnipeg, I picked up the guitar and bass. My father had a steel-string acoustic guitar lying around and I started to fiddle with it obsessively. I remember that a major discovery was plugging this guitar (via a pickup you inserted in the sound hole) into this old Radio Shack hi-fi amplifier the family had and getting all kinds of interesting distortion from high gain settings on its preamplifier.

I had a series of music teachers while in high school in Winnipeg who were very positive influences in various ways: Orvin Anderson (director of concert and jazz bands at Fort Richmond Collegiate), Bernie Rose (jazz improvisation at the University of Manitoba’s preparatory school), Chet Breau (private guitar lessons) and Marian Nelson (private classical piano lessons). I was playing in garage bands too — working out original songs alongside covers of Metallica, Queensryche and Joe Satriani.

After high school I went away to university, initially to a small school in rural North Dakota (the University of Mary), studying classical and jazz guitar (among other instruments) and music education. The director of the music department there was an enormous influence: Scott Prebys, who also was the director of the University’s jazz big band. I think I was far from alone among the students there who considered playing in that jazz big band to be the most important thing we were doing at university, even if the credit hours we received for it were relatively small. The group played some really interesting music to a pretty high standard (Duke Ellington, Tower of Power, Stan Kenton, etc.) and was featured quite prominently in university and public events, sometimes to very large audiences. My guitar teacher in North Dakota, Bob Peske, was also a big influence. I recall one of the first things he would say to his students was something like, “the first thing you have to do in the rhythm section is check your prejudices at the door.” And actually, that’s a pretty good description of the culture in that music department more generally, open to lots of different things. I sang Brahms in the choir, played in the steel drum band, listened at great length to second Viennese school LPs from the university library, performed solo and chamber music on horn and piano, etc.

The whole time all of these more “formal” activities were taking place, I was messing around with synthesizers, and programming different generations of home computer (that started when I was seven also, with a TRS-80 Color Computer 2). In 1998 I chanced upon a CEC poster on the wall at the School of Music at the University of Manitoba (I was there studying composition with Michael Matthews), and I think it was around that same time that I started to realize the possibility of combining the music I was studying formally with the things I was doing informally, with synthesizers, multi-track tape recorders and programming. That time (the end of the 1990s) was also when a lot of interesting free and open source software was becoming quite readily available thanks to widened internet access in general, as well as to the specific efforts of the free and open source software movement. I started to use Csound to make “tape music” — sometimes as freestanding acousmatic compositions but more often as a “tape part” in conjunction with notated, live instrumental parts.

I moved to Toronto in 2000 and for the next seven years was a graduate student (in composition) and then a post-doctoral fellow at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto. I was able to pursue a lot of different interests while at U of T (where I benefitted from the mentorship of many, and Christos Hatzis above all), including an increasing emphasis on live electronics, culminating in my dissertation for U of T: a flexible score for a small ensemble with live electronics to accompany Fritz Lang’s iconic silent film, Metropolis. The original version of the Metropolis piece used software I had written (Analogy) that allowed one to use Csound for live electronics — Analogy lets you activate, deactivate, mix and generally manage many tiny little Csound patches at the same time. If technologically speaking the piece was an experiment in “how much you can do” live with Csound, æsthetically the piece (and others made around the same time) reflected the interest I had acquired in the specific tradition of live electronic music developed by Luigi Nono and his collaborators. While a doctoral student, I had even spent a year living in Venice and studying at the Archivio Luigi Nono, where all of Nono’s compositional sketches — as well as lots of other fascinating material — are preserved. In the legacy of Nono there are numerous and provocative challenges to orthodoxies concerning the purpose, determination and accumulation of musical works, challenges that (somewhat uniquely) are not rooted in improvisation or indeterminacy. I think studying Nono helped cement something for me: that the point was not to pile up works in established genres but rather to create new forms of work, new genres, new spaces that people can wander in together.

I should note add that my interest in live electronics was supported by Toronto institutions outside of the university as well: I developed the Metropolis piece in the studio space of the InterAccess Media Arts Centre, the first partial performance was presented by New Adventures in Sound Art, and the first full performance was presented by the Esprit Orchestra during their annual New Wave Festival. And quite a few Toronto musicians generously gave their time and expertise to playing in front of a microphone during my experiments…

Towards the end of my graduate studies I attended one of the special summer workshops at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) at Stanford University (with a small but absolutely crucial travel grant from the Canada Council), taught by Perry Cook and Xavier Serra. The workshop was ostensibly about Advanced Digital Signal Processing but we spent some time talking about the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk) and — well — it definitely planted some seeds!

[2] Could you briefly describe your current musical / sound art activities, private, within the community, and public? Please indicate whether you view these as “professional”, “artistic” or other kinds of activities.

I’m doing a lot of live coding in group contexts these days. I direct the Cybernetic Orchestra, a laptop orchestra at McMaster University that makes live coding a big part of what it does. I’m also in a newly formed small live coding group, extramuros. I guess one could say that part of the idea with extramuros is to take some of the techniques and structures that have evolved in the larger, very participatory orchestra and then “professionalize” them (both groups use the ChucK language, and EspGrid, the sharing / collaboration software for laptop orchestras that I developed). But I have to say that I increasingly find the word “professional” problematic in this context. The word seems to emphasize an exclusivity in access to equipment and skills that is out of step with contemporary possibilities for wider and deeper participation in the arts.

So I’m doing some kind of group live coding multiple times every week, all year round. Beyond that, when I can afford to I like to work on acousmatic compositions. I also am engaged often to do sound and interaction work for other artists, from a technical point of view, which is something I enjoy quite a bit.

[3] Please briefly describe your uses of technologies in your creative life. You may want to include a short description of the equipment and software / services you use (number of computers, phones, scanners, Facebook, Skype, etc.), and comment on your use of mobile technologies compared to a few years ago.

It’s fairly common for me to use an iPad, a MacBook Pro, and an iMac all at the same time when creating / performing. The iPad is a gestural control surface or information display, the laptop is for live coding or running “pre-made” Max instruments, and the iMac is a routing and recording station.

David Ogborn
David Ogborn at the late-night event held at the Brain (James Street North) in Hamilton on 2 December 2011, live coding with the Cybernetic Orchestra on the second last stop on the CEC’s 25th Anniversary Tour. [Click image to enlarge]

A hardware point perhaps of interest to some is that in the Cybernetic Orchestra and extramuros we’ve made a shift over the past year “back” to using wired Ethernet all the time, even in performances in very temporary locations. We have a Gigabit Ethernet switch, mounted in a rack, that we take to every performance. Every one connects to the switch with a long Ethernet cable and then sends and receives audio over the network cable using JackTrip (all in the same room together). The main advantage is having synchronized, “noiseless” (no noise added by transmission from performer to recorder) recordings of the group’s performance. But it also lets us do things like share access to a “fixed” array of loudspeakers, with no hard limit on how many channels of input we have. Our switch has 24 connections, and if we ever needed another 24 inputs it would be just a couple of hundred dollars — compare that to the cost of 24 reasonable quality ADC inputs! The downside is that the software configuration is finicky, for now, but we can expect that this will change with time. The orchestra is starting to record our second album right now and we’re going to do it that way (networked audio), while for our first album we just ran audio cables from each performer to a multi-channel audio interface.

The laptop orchestra itself is a testament to the increased availability of mobile technologies (laptops). At the same time, I think the form contains an implicit critique or correction of what generally happens with these technologies, which allow people to disperse geographically while retaining some connection to each other. I do think that our mobile technologies encourage people to replace rich and substantial connections with other people with wide and ubiquitous but actually very poor and superficial connections with other people. But in the laptop orchestra we are using all or most of these technologies to make music together, in the same room, with the same people, over some more or less substantial period of time.

[4] How do you feel that the use of these technologies has contributed to those areas of your creative life where you employ them? You may also wish to comment on those that you don’t use (and the reasons). Do social media help or hinder in this?

It’s difficult to describe the “contribution” of the technologies because they’ve defined, to such a large extent, the field in which I have been operating — the field of trying to determine what expressive and communicative results are possible with all of these new (and sometimes not so new) machines. They’re not in the field — they produce the field.

I participate in a reasonably large number of social media sites, mostly in order to stay connected to the international electroacoustic community in various ways. Occasionally, I learn something through these media that I wouldn’t learn from an older forum (like an email list) but mostly I find that social media provides a sense of connection to the personality of the community. That connection is relatively superficial, but I’m still glad to have it. I just wouldn’t mistake it for all that is possible in terms of exchanging ideas as a community, and I also wouldn’t want us to complacently leave decisions about how we are going to be connected as a community to the technocrats that make and implement the policy and affordances of the world’s big social media sites.

[5] Facebook, Myspace, YouTube, Skype, Twitter, blogs … are part of the lingua franca of the students I meet every year. Are there ways for the older generation to use these technologies to communicate our values to those who were born after (about) 1988?

A major concern I have in relation to social media and the “newer generation” is that the apparatus of social media sometimes encourages people to privilege mere promotion over distribution, and to privilege distribution over the qualitative development and refinement of their creative practices. I think for established artists social media is going to be a natural place to reach new audiences, but I worry about what I see as a tendency to reach for that audience before developing an individual voice. Put more simply: I think many newer artists would be better served if they spent less time on Facebook (etc.) and more time practicing / creating!

A corollary of that is that I think one thing the “older generation” definitely should do — and is uniquely positioned to do — is continue to create and maintain spaces outside of and independent from the cloud where the arts and culture can exist, develop, be produced, consumed, enjoyed. I’m not advocating opting out of social media, by any means. I think all of the major social media need to be used as a gateway to these other spaces that we create as a community.

Structurally, economically, the social media sites are a part of the advertising industry. It’s all being paid for as a more efficient way of getting advertising in front of people’s eyes (and ears). The existence of social media also helps drive the sale of hardware, especially mobile devices like smartphones that can keep people permanently connected to social media. Social media helps sell phones and tablets. Whether it also preserves and develops artistic traditions, or not, is something that will be determined by the quantity and quality of our own activity.

[6] Distribution of work used to be difficult to secure. Today with YouTube and Clouds, it is ubiquitous. Where it used to be difficult to find a copy of something, today, sometimes it is almost as difficult, not because it is not available, but because there are 1200 other (similar) competing items. Could you comment on how you see your work in this context now and in the future?

I’m sometimes conceiving of what I do now in terms of a fundamental orientation towards “ad hoc collectives” — in other words, to elective communities that are neither small and closed like a cult or conspiracy, nor massive and anonymous like the userbase of any given large social media platform. In the vast ocean of YouTube videos, any given video will be submerged, especially if it doesn’t contain kittens, celebrities or the latest meme. But an ad hoc collective will still be able to use these means of distribution to facilitate the enlightenment and enjoyment of its members, and to produce a collective consciousness of its past, present and future.

Distribution (i.e. limited distribution) once served a quality control function, however imperfectly. That’s clearly no longer the case, and so the question arises how the most useful contributions will be sorted out from the least useful contributions. I think for individuals facing this dilemma, the solution will be to be involved, to participate in some or other ad hoc collective.

[7] Open area commentary.

An area where I see the potential for all kinds of breakthroughs right now is in finding previously hidden or unacknowledged connections between the traditions, practices and activity of electroacoustic music and other fields. Live coding (to take one example) is not just a way of performing electroacoustically — it is also connected to the digital humanities, to code literacy, to the free and open source software movement, to DIY culture, hacker spaces, etc. I think there is enormous potential to build new ad hoc collectives around “this” music, conceived in the broadest historical and contemporary sense. Someone might come into EA through a live coding event at a hacker space, try their hand at diffusion and then through these experiences acquire an interest in the acousmatic tradition. And there are all sorts of other trajectories through these possibilities.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Social bottom