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Interview with Tobias Reber

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or ripp-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, Swiss sound artist Tobias Reber defines being original as being the origin of something - and as the result of a mindful life.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

I consciously realized that I loved music around the age of nine or ten but only really started to work on making music as teenaged guitar player in the late ‘90ies. Studying and trying to emulate my guitar heroes was a big part of my self-education. After a while I gradually became interested in a much wider range of expression and I started to really try to study anything that either moved me or interested me. The emulation part became more abstract as I would often try to take something I’d learned in one context and apply it in another. That way I felt like the results started to look less like a copy of music I liked.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
This question presupposes that I value originality as an important quality, and of course I do - when art touches me I usually find it original in one way or another. But not always – I have learned that sometimes I am also intrigued or moved by something that is just really well done, without being very original at first sight. I think some call that a guilty pleasure. I have never felt guilty in that regard – when something intrigues me, I do my best to accept it. It can be very exciting and insightful to try to understand why I am attracted to or repulsed by a certain music.

With that out of the way, I think the concept of originality is a lens through which we can study what inspires us. Originality is what separates you from me – I might find your work original because I don’t know where you are coming from.

As for when I began to think about that, this would also have been during my guitar years. For a time I was very much into blues players like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jonny Lang, and admired how they would always find new ways to work within a pretty fixed form. I guess that’s more the pre-modern understanding of artistry. But I was also into people like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, who at the time really pushed my musical understanding as well as what finding a personal style could mean. They didn’t sound like anybody else. John Abercrombie and John Scofield were also very influential in that regard. As an example for my above statement about originality also being in the eye of the beholder: I later realized that much of what I thought was unique in Vai’s writing could also be found in the music of Frank Zappa – phrasing, tonalities, arrangements, and so on. When I was nineteen I discovered minimal music, and from there got into other 20th century avant-gardes and their origins.

What's your own definition of originality?
The answer would have varied greatly at different points in my life and most likely will do so in the future. Right now, and speaking in general terms, these are coming to mind, and some might even contradict each other: Being original is being the origin of something. This includes being the origin of integrating influences into something unique. When you grow up your originality is the sum of your unique circumstances. Originality is having a child-like attitude towards the world. It is there from the beginning, but it has to be protected against conformity, developed, brought out. You develop your originality by studying and actively engaging with your origins in a way that is uniquely yours, and by searching for what you feel you need but can’t find where you are. Originality coming to shine in your work is a product of a mindful life.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
I tend to look out both for art that offers me fundamentally new experiences, and art that lets me experience old things in new ways. I like that kind of estrangement from what I thought were givens. Art that awakens me to my potential - emotional, sensory, intellectual and so on. Superficial originality and quirkiness for their own sake are usually not interesting for me.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
We now have readily and commercially available means to create and recreate all sorts of sounds, so I find it challenging to still make sounds that lie outside of easy „plugin-ification“; sounds that cannot easily be reduced to being the product of a chain of processing tools. But even more than that, I and many of the artists I talk to or work with are interested in finding new forms and structures for music. I’m generalizing here of course, but I think that in electronic and electronically produced music we have prioritized sound for a very long time - and with great results! But there’s a huge potential for entirely new concepts regarding the organisation of sound.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
Working with algorithmic approaches to composing provides me with the means to create music I might not necessarily have thought of in the traditional sense. I tend do see evolving software patches as externalizations of my evolving thoughts on music, and I’m building a library of ideas and approaches that is reflected in code and music. This, in return, will expand my feeling and thinking about music, which will again inform my compositions. It’s a productive feedback circle. Training myself this way has also allowed me to finally begin writing in more traditional ways without being too much influenced by external influences, and more by my own computational experiments.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
For me, ideas pop up everywhere, all the time. Trying to be mindful and reflecting upon my experiences allows me to become aware of ideas as they arise. I have learned to separate having an idea from evaluating it, so I write them down to think about later. There are days when I’m constantly taking notes on all kinds of things. Later I will select them and put them into relationships with each other to produce yet more new ideas from them, to build on them. In practical terms, I might observe something that I find interesting, which leads me to make an analogy of some sort and think of a new way to think about something, to do something. Sometimes it’s a general thought I will rediscover when working on a new piece, and sometimes ideas go straight into notes for existing or emerging projects.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
I am compelled to create art that grows from my own life, my experiences, thoughts, and so on. This includes studying other artists and learning from them, of course. I also Iove to teach and give my ideas to others so they can consider them and make them their own, and also so that my thoughts can be challenged. But you have to be centered, know where you’re coming from – „be original“ that way - in order to absorb a strong influence. Otherwise it will outweigh your own voice or just stick on the surface. I think learning to compose means learning to understand yourself better, your feelings, and to develop your own systems of thoughts, invent your own metaphors, analogies, relationships between ideas. A thought structure like this is dynamic (“anti-fragile” seems to be the current buzzword in economical terms) and can integrate many external influences without succumbing to them.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
In art, reflection of our tools is crucial. Tools are means to an end, and even misusing tools, as much as I agree it is a productive strategy, is still being defined by their limits. In electronic music, a lot of compositional decisions are pre-built into hardware and software (which parameters can be controlled, how can they be controlled and within what ranges, for example), and there’s a danger of just thinking within the field of those parameters. A lot of software for creativity can be thought of in terms of the “open artwork”. Only by our own thoughtful approach to these tools can we assure that the tool imposes its aesthetics on our work only to the degree that we want it to, and in the way we want to. For me, additionally creating my own tools is a very fruitful way to deal with and reflect on this, especially when musical structure is concerned.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
I’m very interested in the intersection of physical and digital media and their practices. The ways systems in both realms interact and redefine each other. In music, the blurring of these boundaries allows for hybrid modes of playing-composing-programming-interfacing-modeling-improvising to create hybrid sound-structures.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
It’s easy to become „gearheaded“ with all the great and relatively cheap tools that are constantly being released. I too am fascinated by the possibilities and limitations they offer, but I would welcome a musical discourse that puts us humans at the center, both as musicians and listeners, with our imaginations, feelings and general human-ness. I find that there is still little visionary talk about the new possibilities our new media offer for composition. Music works within us, and we are ignoring entire new ways of being stimulated and moved, of growing and becoming.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
I can’t think of a specific one right now, but of course I could easily come up with projects at much larger scales than are available to me at the moment. I’m fortunate to not need a big technical infrastructure for what I currently want to do – mostly I just need to make time and space to focus. Being a full time musician, trying to make a living is always taking up some of my attention, so everything I do is in a way affected by that. I also am fortunate to have a great group of friends and collaborators where we help each other out as much as we can and reduce such real world friction to a minimum.

Tobias Reber Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Tobias Reber