What inspires you to compose/perform music that has political overtones? Bob Ostertag



Bob Ostertag

I come at this from a different perspective. I’ve done a lot of political organizing and I took 10 years off to do political organizing in El Salvador. What motivates me to make music that has political content is the same thing that motivates me to do anything in my life—just a basic concern for good things. That’s not very articulate, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly intellectual in it. It’s just part of being a human being, I guess. My experience of being an organizer convinces me that organizing and making music are very different things, with very different outcomes and somewhat different motivations. I put political content in my music because it’s what I think about all the time. But let me say, it’s not always easy to perceive what’s political. I put pieces of the world into my music through found sound, and I have yet to find a part of the world that isn’t political.

That being said, there are found sounds that are more pregnant with political meaning than others. I’ve done work that was pregnant with political implications, but I don’t think that that’s political organizing. And I’ve never done a piece where I set out to convince the listener to agree with me. Almost uniformly, music made with this intention is music I don’t like. It almost always becomes condescending to the listener. I think music is not a medium that people listen to and change their mind about political matters. What I do do is, I choose subject matters that have political content, but they also have personal content and social content. Instead of trying to make a piece that changes anyone’s mind about anything, I try to make a piece that’s absolutely true to my experience of things. I like to believe that humans have enough in common that if it’s true to my experience in a profound enough way, it will resonate with other people’s lives. But what they do with that information is not my department.

Sooner or Later is a piece I made after I came back from El Salvador. It’s based on a recording of a boy speaking at his father’s funeral. The only sounds are a boy speaking, a woman crying, the shovel digging the grave, and a fly—then I composed to that. That’s probably the most dramatic example of the way I use sampling. All the Rage is similar. I worked in El Salvador for many years. The riot in All the Rage took place in the town where I lived. I try not just to pick up the paper and decide what subject matter to address. I try to have a more personal connection. I don’t treat the things I sample as just sound.

Ultimately, making art and making politics are opposite endeavors. On one level, politics is about finding a common denominator. You take an issue, try to frame it in a way that divides a population into a majority and a minority, with the majority on your side, and you try to mobilize that community to make a demand about that issue. Making art is a contrary endeavor—to be true to your own personal experience, regardless of whether you make it relevant to anyone else.

On another level, though, they’re not so different. If you’re successful, your work does resonate with people who have experiences different from your own. The way I have presented political organizing is also a very static picture—as if society is at one stage, and you have to accommodate your views to that state. That’s not exactly true, but there is a valid point there. Politics is always about coalition and compromise, and artistic endeavor never is.