SAY NO MORE
Say No More was a seven-year four-CD project, in which music was composed for ensemble in a new way. In the process, the relationships of composer to musician, composition to improvisation, and live performance to recording were either either called into question, reconfigured, or erased.
Say No More (1993) (assembled)
Tongue-Tied (1994) (performance)
Subsequent work: A Book of Hours
In 2012, Ostertag returned to the techniques he invented for the Say No More project and developed them further with the creation of a new ensemble and recording, A Book of Hours.
Christopher Williams’ website
Christopher A. Williams did a PhD dissertation on the Say No More project, which included an extensive web site featuring recordings, scores, and Williams’ own commentary and analysis.
With Say No More, Bob Ostertag elevated the sampler to the rank of musical instrument and gained recognition as a true visionary. The border between free improvisation and musique concrete will never be the same. Any serious fan of avant-garde music needs to hear this, one of the rare avant-garde albums where the relevance of the artistic argument equals the relevance of the result. A classic.
– François Couture, AllMusic.com
Astonishingly, the music never seems artificial. The border between live improvisation and computerized manipulation blurs and is finally made irrelevant by the music which results.
– Jazzthetik (Germany)
Bob Ostertag: a complex human being, an expert of the sampler, and a brilliant composer, His Say No More project is an intricate affair about which pages of ink could be spilled. If I had to cast a vote for the most energetic, the most quirky, and the most unrepentantly original ensemble of recent history, this would be it.
— Exclaim Magazine (Toronto)
Excerpt from the book Creative Life
When I returned to music in the 1990s, I launched my first ensemble project, with a group of stellar musicians I was extremely fortunate to work with. The initial members of the group included Phil Minton (voice), Mark Dresser (contrabass), and Joey Baron (percussion). Joey was subsequently replaced by Gerry Hemingway.
I began the project by asking the players to go into recording studios, separately, with no communication with each other nor instruction from me, and record solo improvisations. I next took the resulting tapes and, using a digital editing system, exploded these solos into fragments and then assembled an “ensemble” piece by piece from the splinters. The result became the 1992 Say No More CD. At that point, the group had a CD but by conventional reckoning had yet to play a note.
I then created an unorthodox score of the compositions I had created on the computer using the solo improvisations as sources. I gave the musicians both their parts from the score and the computer-assembled recordings on the CD and asked them to learn their parts. After extremely limited rehearsal, we then recorded a live CD at ORF Radio in Vienna, Say No More in Person, released by the ORF in 1994. So this second CD was a live ensemble performing compositions made on a computer out of fragments of the members’ solo improvisations.
(I should note that the limited rehearsal we had is a story in itself. After our access to rehearsal space at the radio was literally sabotaged by the more conservative forces at the ORF, we were sent to another town to rehearse in a garage which promptly caught fire. Far from unusual, such circumstances are the norm for anyone working on novel musical projects such as this.)
I then put these live ensemble recordings back into the computer, exploded them into fragments, and created a new computer-based work, Verbatim, released on CD in 1996.
Finally, I created a score of Verbatim and gave it back the ensemble along with the recording itself and asked the members to learn these new parts. The group toured the new material and then recorded a fourth CD, Verbatim, Flesh and Blood, in concert at the Kunstencentrum Vooruit in Gent, Belgium, in 1998. The CD was released in 2000.
Thus the project involves a human/virtual cycle:
- live solos disappear into the computer and are transformed into musique concrète compositions;
- these emerge from the computer to become ensemble compositions and performances;
- the live ensemble performances disappear back into the computer and are transformed into new musique concrète compositions;
- which finally emerge back into human performance.
Here again, my focus was not on computers and technology as tools that offer me greater precision or control, nor as tools that could liberate me from the necessity of human interaction. To the contrary, I wanted to highlight the tense and problematic relation of human and machine. In effect, the players were put in front of a machine-made mirror of themselves. It was not a perfect mirror, but more like the digital equivalent of a funhouse mirror that was curved, with wacky lenses that distorted the image into something superhuman. In the performances the musicians tried to keep up with their digital reflection, a task at which they could only fail.
It was for this reason that the original percussionist, Joey Baron, withdrew from the project. After I finished the first piece, I mailed tapes of it to the musicians. Joey called me a few days later. He had listened to the tape several times, and though he was quite excited about it, he could see no point in attempting to perform it live. “You have already created the perfect realization of this work,” he told me. “There would be no point in trying to perform it live. All we could do is screw it up.”
I explained to him that I had no interest in making a “perfect” anything, that the whole point of the project was to set up an opposition of humans and machines—an opposition that was necessarily imperfect and difficult. I was not interested in re-creating the music I had made on the computer, but in developing a repertoire of ensemble music out of this encounter of humans and machines.
Joey is a perfectionist, which is why he is the remarkable musician he is, and he was resolute in his view that all we could possibly accomplish by performing these works would be to mess them up. He withdrew from the project and was replaced by Gerry Hemingway, another extraordinary percussionist, who understood immediately what I was trying to do.
Composer’s notes from Say No More in Person (1993)
This is the second recording in the Say No More project. I began this project by asking the players to record solo improvisations, separately, with no communication with each other nor instruction from me. I then took the resulting tapes and, using a digital editing system, broke the solos into fragments and assembled a “band” from the splinters. The resulting recording became the first Say No More release, issued on the Zurich-based RecRec label.
For this, the second phase of the project, I created a highly unorthodox score of the compositions I had created on the computer using the solo improvisations as sources. I gave both the parts and the tape I made on the computer back to the musicians, instructing them to learn their parts. After very brief rehearsal, we then recorded “Say No More In Person” as a live ensemble.
My interests in this project were several. First, it would allow me to apply the compositional techniques common to musique concrete (sculpting and shaping a composition directly in the audio medium) to the work of composing for live ensemble.
Second, I was interested in creating a new sort of bi-directional flow between composer and instrumentalist, in which the result of one’s work immediately becomes the raw material of the other.
Finally, I wanted to use technology to alter the relationship between the instrumentalists and their own music. Each musician was asked to learn parts derived directly from his own improvisations. In effect I was sitting each player down in front of a mirror image of his own music. But the mirror was curved into prisms and lenses which were the results of the transformations I had made in the process of creating the “band” from the original solos.
On all counts I am quite happy with the results. When I consider the compositions, I cannot imagine any way I could have created them other than through this process. And, at least to my ear, the work does indeed convey the precision of musique concrete as well as the spontaneity and energy of live improvisation.
The live performance of the works turned out to be quite a challenge for the players. I had created the compositions by extracting very small sections from the middle of extended improvisations, altering them to fit into an ensemble scheme and then developing them in various ways over time. Often I was using source material that involved the use of extended instrumental techniques the players had never used in the a composed contextL in some cases which they had never fully articulated even to themselves. I was asking the players to repeat these maneuvers, on cue.
The recorded was made after very limited rehearsal. It was very much sink or swim. When I hear the recording, I think everyone not only swam but flew. The tape is not the polished product it would have been had the group had extended rehearsal time and numerous performances prior to recording. However, it effectively conveys a rather frenetic energy as each player chases his virtual mirror image.
I took a slightly different approach to the recording of each piece. For “Say No More,” the ensemble is limited to voice, bass, and percussion, just as in the computer-based original. For “Tongue-Tied,” I joined the ensemble, performing live electronic manipulations on the samples of the original solo improvisations.
The project will now go into 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. And then of course the band will learn those…
Special thanks goes first to the musicians for their truly remarkable efforts and patience. To Heidi Grundmann for making it possible. To William Winant, Mark Pritchard, and Chris Guitierrez for assistance with the score. And, as always, to Sara Miles.
– Bob Ostertag, San Francisco, 1993
Composer’s notes from Verbatim (1996)
This is the third recording in the “Say No More” project. I started by asking the players to record solo improvisations, separately, with no communication with each other nor instruction from me. I then used a computer to explode these solos into fragments, and assembled a “band” piece by piece from the splinters. The result became the “Say No More” CD, issued on the Zurich-based RecRec label.
I then created a score of the compositions I had created on the computer using the solo improvisations as sources. I gave to the the score and the computer-generated tape back to the musicians, instructing them to learn their parts. Then, as a live, flesh-and-blood ensemble, we rehearsed the works, toured with them, and recorded a live CD at the ORF in Vienna, “Say No More in Person,” released on the Transit label.
Next, I put the live ensemble recordings back into the computer, exploded them into fragments, and created the present work, “Verbatim.” Finally, we again created a live version of the work, and the ensemble performed the premiere at the Taktlos Festival in Switzerland in March 1996. Sometime soon the live ensemble will record the live version of “Verbatim,” and that will end the project.
Recent decades have seen the emergence of virtuoso musicians whose facility is concentrated in highly personalized vocabularies of unorthodox performance techniques developed through extensive improvisation. For the compose, this poses the conundrum of how to write for such players.
One approach, most often found in academia, has been to develop notation that describes these techniques in the same standardized way that orthodox notation describes conventional playing These efforts have for the most part been dry and, well, academic. In part this is because the complexity of many extended techniques defies simple notation, and thus the scores become clumsy and inhibiting. Furthermore, the whole endeavor of developing a standardized vocabulary of extended techniques runs directly counter to the idiosyncrasies which propel the developments composers are trying to capture.
Another approach has been to mix conventionally-notated music with improvisation involving extended technique in the same composition. This approach has come primarily from the jazz tradition, and is an extension of the “chart” in which a notated “head” is extrapolated upon by an improvisor. The problem here is that the improvised sections tend to lose any organize connection with the written section, and necessarily so. Since the written sections are composed with conventional notation, they cannot contain the extended techniques that are at the heart of the improvisation.
Finally, there is the “indeterminate” realm of chance music, game pieces, and so forth. Here, composers avoid unduly inhibiting the players, leave room for the players to be their unique and cantankerous selves, and even avoid obvious seams between composition and improvisation. Yet they achieve this by sacrificing their ability to “compose” in the sense of specifying what happens when, what should follow from what, and the overall line of development and tension.
With the present project I have tried for something different. Scince I have composed directly in the audio medium using the players’ own improvisations as my source, I a free to be quite precise in determining exactly what should happen when. At the same time, I can remain confident that what I am creating is idiomatically organize to each player’s extended vocabulary. The score as it exists on paper is only a supplement to to the audio tape I create, thus I can indicate highly specific events and actions with simple notation Finally, the seam between improvisation and composition vanishes – it is all improvised and it is all composed.
NOTE ON AUTHORSHIP
“Verbatim” is a profoundly collaborative work. I have created a context in which the musicians can bring all their accumulated musicianship to bear, and they have been ore than generous with their contributions. For the purposes of copyright, for which we must take this new thing and fit it into old categories, “Verbatim” is a “derivative work” which I as a composer have derived from three generations of human/virtual collaboration with these musicians. For my own purposes, all I can say is that my interest lies not in the boundaries of ownership but in the creations of new terrains of collaboration. And, or course, deepest thanks to the players.
– Bob Ostertag, San Francisco, May 1996
Composer’s notes on Verbatim, Flesh and Blood (1999)
This is the final step in a seven year project.
I began the project by asking three musicians to record solo improvisations, separately, with no communication with each other nor instruction from me. I then used a computer to explode these solos intro fragments, and assembled an “ensemble” piece by piece from the splinters. The result became the “Say No more” CD, issued on the Zurich-based RecRec label than then reissued on Seeland.
I then created a score of these compositions created on the computer, and gave both the score and the musique concrete tape back to the musicians, instructing them to learn their parts The group rehearsed the works toured with them, and recorded a live CD at ORF Radio in Vienna, “Say No More in Person,” released on the Transit label, and also reissued by Seeland.
I then put these live ensemble recordings back into the computer, exploded them into fragments, and created a second musique concrete work, “Verbatim”m released on Rastascan.
I then created a score of the work, and the ensemble toured it and recorded the present work, “Verbatim: Flesh and Blood” in concert at the Kunstencentrum Vooruit in Gent, Belgium, in January 1998.
Thus the project involves a human/virtual cycle:
- Live solos disappear into the computer and are transformed into musique concrete composition;
- These emerge from the computer to become ensemble composition and performance;
- These disappear back into the computer and are transformed into new musique concrete composition;
- And finally emerge back into human performance.
The tension from the transitions between the virtual and the human realms drive the project forward.
After years of work and four CDs, I think I can say this is a viable way of composing music, which is innovative in several ways.
Composition/Score. By using digital audio as the medium in which to compose for live musicians, I have been able to compose for sounds and playing styles too complex and too idiosyncratic to be described by conventional notation. But since the score is essentially a road map to the tape, which is n integral part of the score, the notation I developed is simple enough to serve as a tool for the musicians instead of a hindrance.
Composer/Performer. There is a new sort of bidirectional flow between composer and performer, in which the result of one’s work immediately becomes the raw material of the other.
Performer/Score. Finally, technology is employed to alter the relationship between the performers and their own music º to push them to hear their own music in a new way. In effect each player is placed before a mirror image of his own music. But the mirror is curved in ways which are the result of the transformations I have made.
These are not merely theoretical considerations but are readily evident in the music. The three musicians were chosen precisely because each has a large vocabulary of highly personalized extended performance techniques developed through decades of improvisation. This project is the first time they have been able to bring this entire experience to bear on composed music. Yet as any listener who is familiar with their work will easily hear, while they are speaking with their own voices, they are also being pushed by the composed context to a different sort of performance that is demanded.
Another innovative aspect of this project is that the boundaries of where one “composition” begins and ends is blurred. This is in keeping with much of my recent work, which is less about creating a “composition” and more about starting a stream of music and shaping it as it flows from one medium to another. Different “compositions” become snapshots of the stream moving at different points in its path.
Thus one could delineate the “compositions” resulting from the project as follows:
- The musique concrete compositions on the “Say No More” CD.
- The concert performance versions of the same on the “Say No More in Person” CD.
- The musique concrete compositions on the “Verbatim” CD.
- The live performance versions of the same on the this “Verbatim: Flesh and Blood” CD.
- The compositions on the “Say No More” and “Say No More in Person” CDs, in both their musique concrete and concert renditions.
- The “Verbatim” composition, in both its musique concrete and concert renditions.
How one views this is of absolutely no concern to me.
Many thanks to those who have supported this project over the years: first of course to Mark, Gerry, and Phil, then to Sara and Katie, to Heidi Grundman and Kunstradio at ORF Vienna, to all the friends at the Taktlos Festival where “Verbatim: Flesh and Blood” was premiered, to our friends at the Angelica Festival in Bologna who presented our European premiere, and to Wim Wabbes and the Kunstencentrum Vooruit where we recorded this CD, to Christian Clement for his consistent support, and to David Wessel, John Killacky, Chuck Helm and many many more who have supported us in so many ways along the way.
– Bob Ostertag, San Francisco, January 1999.