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Interview with Tobias Reber

img  Tobias Fischer

What motivated your switch from working with the guitar to software?
One of the reasons why I’m so attracted to working on music with the computer is that I have to specify many things which are either already a given with the guitar or which I have internalized as part of practising an instrument and music theory. This provides me with a closer look at the mechanisms behind certain fixed ideas, and can then modify, develop or refuse and replace them if desired. There's a feeling of nakedness here, especially when playing in ensembles with instrumentalists. They have usually played their instruments for many years and are very intimate with them. With electronics on the other hand, I tend to rebuild and modulate my “instrument” specifically for every project. But this insecurity is something that I’m more and more coming to terms with, and I’ve learned that it is part of what makes me try and go deep with the things I do.

One could probably claim that exploring the relationship between process and composition is fundamental to your work.

My personal way of working on electronic or electroacoustic music is very much process-oriented. That doesn’t mean I can’t begin with a wicked formal idea or clearly defined principle, but I allow myself to change direction when I consider it necessary. But generally speaking I don’t think that when all initial rules have played themselves out, this has to be the end of a composition, as it would have been in the traditional post-serial sense. Rigid rules may trigger new ideas or further, more or less independent ways to work with the material they generated.

So what does tell you when a piece is “finished”?

Good question - to which I have no real answer yet. Again, I think the metaphor of improvisation is useful here. Of course I have much more time to think than in an actual improvisation, but the decisions can be made just as quickly and intuitively. It’s like the act of listening to generative output becomes an improvisation in itself. I can also change the patch as it is playing or revise the recorded outcome afterwards. What’s important to me is the experience, so you could maybe say it’s like “modelling an experience” until it feels right. Calling it “modelling” is a bit problematic, though, because the resulting music is the actual work, unlike, say, an algorithmically generated architectural model.

I was under the impression that you were using algorithms to express your own intuition.
Yes, at least that is what I’m trying to do. I think that exactly because “unusual” music is hard to grasp does it have the power to really get to you. I suspect that people are often used to really quickly “understanding” the music they normally listen to. They then think that the unfamiliar music is “cerebral” or “intellectual” and they know too little about it. While in fact it is really all about direct physical and emotional and experience. We’re painting black and white here quite a bit of course, but I think there is something to this.
As a composer it just feels like I have finally found a way of making music that is satisfying to me, and which allows me to reflect and apply musical knowledge in an indirect and intuitive way. I use generative approaches to creation as a means of constantly trying to surprise myself by producing things that I couldn’t have come up with out of thin air. It’s about production and selection, repetition and refinement. Michael Harenberg only recently made me aware that this way of working is very similar to “surfing” on the web or any kind of information stream, except that you generate that stream yourself.

Is this what the liner notes to Backup Aura are referring to, when they speak of a “continuum of composition and process”?

I didn’t write that text myself, but I’d agree with the description. Let’s maybe define both ends of the spectrum first: I think “intuitive composition” would be a kind of impulsive approach of “coming up with a riff” or “hearing” a melody or a chord progression or any such thing, and writing it down. I have always had difficulties with “writing” music because I felt I was forever imitating what already existed and what I’d learned - working within the confines of what some kind of “style” or “theory” had already described. Algorithmic composition on the other hand was originally very much grounded in the serial tradition of composing and was pursued as a means to generate compositions that were logically coherent on all structural levels. In discovering and personalizing computer-aided composition, it became possible for me to set up rule-based systems that guide aspects of a sound, a structural parameter or a whole composition. And since audible feedback basically comes in real time nowadays, it’s possible to work with algorithmic strategies in an intuitive way where programming and composition can be approached in a kind of improvisational manner, where the program can constantly be altered to head into a more desirable direction. Theories can constantly be produced and put to work, and on that basis new theories emerge.

Was it in any way important to you that listeners would be able to follow these processes, similarly to the ideas of mid-phase Steve Reich compositions?

No. As much as I love process music and art, with the music on Backup Aura, I hope that the music can be enjoyed without too much prior knowledge, and without hearing how it was produced. In fact I would very explicitly call for an electronic music that is to a certain degree mysterious with regard to how it was made - not in any clichéd aesthetic sense. As much as these kinds of comparisons are problematic: At the moment I tend to regard musical software as related to the score - a manifestation of musical thought, or at least some sort of pre-meditation on aesthetic questions. Of course there are many people who make fantastic music with very ordinary software where it is clear to any musician how it was made. But I would love to hear more software-based music that on an intuitive level positively alienates the listener and on an intellectual level kind of takes him into its own space of references.

Maybe we could nonetheless lift the veil just a little bit. In which way did you set up these algorithms, control them during the recording stages and edit the result afterwards?
Again, this is wildly different with every piece. In general, you could probably say I am very interested in polyrhythms and layering temporal structures which might also influence or cancel each other out or whatever. However, usually the cycles and rules all influence each other, so that changes in one parameter have an effect on other parameters as well. As far as their temporal structure is concerned, the compositions that are completely generative were recorded more or less as you hear them on the album. I may have added or subtracted some details after that, but I mostly just worked on sound design and levels and the like. These pieces usually form over a longer period of time where I listen to the software patch just playing endlessly, also as background music. Sometimes you discover logics within these rule-based things that you just don’t spot unless you have a couple of hours experience of listening to the system playing itself out.

Does this already qualify as a finished composition?

No, I don’t just leave it to itself: When I have a new idea or an aspect that I want to try out I just do it and listen to the consequences. That way, I develop my vision for the piece which, usually in the later stages of the process, also includes form. I might then play around with rules that generate “sections” or “parts”, and eventually the right shape of the piece will present itself. I’m very interested in form in electronic music, and I try to play with that by tickling the systems in directions where they develop over time, or by introducing new sonic elements and formal logics. I guess “We wonder” would be a good example for a piece where I take some liberties. “Geisterer” on the other hand I think is more of a static affair at a first listen. But because of its longer duration, there is room for discovering details, variations and some of the logics at work.

With regards to these “logics”, you once mentioned that composing can be important for “finding answers”. What kind of questions to, for example?

As I said above, the experience of music is what I’m attracted to the most - the direct effect of the sonic events and their underlying structures on my mind and body. To me it really feels like some music – and I find this quality in the most diverse styles or genres - has the capability of providing a truly Utopian experience. In a certain sense it is so far our most fully realized virtual reality. Unfortunately, or luckily maybe, I feel like I still lack the vocabulary, let alone sufficient experience and knowledge to try and properly talk about this. But anyway, the quest for that experience is what constitutes my “questions” I think. On the other hand of course there’s also the sense of play, the pure “I want to see what happens” kind of curiosity that attracts me to generative approaches, be it as a musician or as a consumer of other art forms and cultural practices.

By Tobias Fischer

Tobias Reber Discography:

Tobias Reber Solo:
Backup Aura (Hyperfunction) 2010

With Centrozoon:
Lovefield (Unsung) 2007

Tobias Reber

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