From the first all-electronic record label to the first ARS Electronica concert, Hubert Bognermayr has been one of electronic music's pioneers. David Bradwell makes the Austrian connection.
Hubert Bognermayr is one of the unsung heroes of electronic music - his record label claim to have released the first all-computer album, he organised the first Ars Electronica and now he's working with ultrasonic instruments.
BEING BORN IN the right country can have as much to do with musical success as any amount of natural talent. In Britain we are fortunate to have the best innovators in rock, pop and dance music in all of its various forms. In the sphere of electronic instrumental music, not having a British passport can help you to secure a record contract. You can be French (Jean Michel Jarre), Greek (Vangelis), American (Wendy Carlos) or even Japanese (Kitaro), but in preference to any of these you should be German. Stockhausen, Kraftwerk, Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream and their like have ensured that it is Germany which has had the largest historical influence in the field. You could be forgiven for thinking that the next step in German domination is that of Hubert Bognermayr and Harald Zuschrader, aka the Blue Chip Orchestra. I thought so too until I met Bognermayr in a London hotel room recently. Then I realised he was Austrian...
In 1982, the BCO created the world's first computer music album. Called Erdenklang Symphony after their German record company Erdenklang (Earth-sound), it prompted Wendy Carlos to comment "the medium of electronic music has crossed another threshold. It is clearly the most eclectic work I have ever experienced". In Germany the duo are highly respected for their work alongside Herbert Von Karajan, having created computerised sounds for the presentation of Wagner's Parsifal at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1981/2.
After the success of Erdenklang, 1983 saw BCO attempt a computer interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount entitled Bergpredigt, bringing to the fore samples of human voices and other natural sounds. Their latest album, the self-titled Blue Chip Orchestra, was released at the end of last year. It was created entirely on a Fairlight Series III, mixing everything from Gregorian chants to opera and choral music to disco and classical to avant-garde. It is on the strength of this album that Hubert Bognermayr is currently in London, preparing to answer questions about his music and the technology through which it is realised.
Bognermayr was born in Linz, Austria in 1948 and trained as a pianist at the Bruckner Conservatory. He became fascinated by electronic music in 1968, forming the group Eela Craig to make the album Symphonic Rock Electronics. In 1978, he organised the first Ars Electronica show, which was held in Linz. One of the main attractions was a competition for the best designed musical instrument for the future. One of the most interesting entries came from Peter Vogel, an Australian who had designed the prototype of a computer system that was to become commercially available as the Fairlight CMI the following year. He so impressed the judges that he won first prize, and Bognermayr became the first person in Europe to own a Fairlight.
"I had always wanted to use natural sounds in music", he recalls. "The French idea of Musique Concrete was very interesting to me, but there were obvious limitations with using tape recorders. The Fairlight was exactly the sort of thing I had been looking for, and it's logical for me to use the Fairlight now, because it's the system I've studied and grown up with."
Looking back to those early days, working with the first Fairlight often turned out to be a hard-fought battle.
"Composing the first album on it was very difficult", Bognermayr explains, "because it was done with a difficult music language. We used to have problems with interfacing and the old standard of quantisation, but now those problems have been overcome. We are coming to a point where we will never have to adapt an idea because it is technically impossible. Interfaces like MIDI are very important for me so I can communicate my ideas directly to the computer.
"There have been a lot of very welcome technical advances over the last ten years. Ten years ago computer equipment cost a lot of money and only a few people were able to afford it. Now you can work with an Atari computer and complete very complex compositions for only a few hundred pounds. I think that's good because it's very democratic. You have a lot of options with computer equipment and, if you know what direction you want to go in, you can do everything. Even now you can spend your whole life with sound synthesis or resynthesis if you want to be an expert in that."
ONE OF THE claims made by Bognermayr is that every sound on Blue Chip Orchestra is sampled. He and Zuschrader have spent the last four years sampling traditional instruments, notably a clarinet and Stradivarius violin. The result is an album where the samples sound real and are played with realistic expression. It could be argued that it would have been cheaper simply to hire in session musicians than spend £60,000 on a Fairlight and get the same result. Bognermayr disagrees: "I think if you want to play a traditional instrument you should. A really good soloist on a Stradivarius is better than any computer musician, but that's never really been in question. There is no point in just using a sampler as expensive as a Fairlight to play the violin. It can be useful for film soundtracks because it works out cheaper than hiring an orchestra, but for artistic pieces you should use the computer to find a new expression of that sound within the music. In that way computers can exist alongside traditional instruments, and not oppose them."
For sampling Bognermayr uses old valve microphones to avoid the cold, sterile sound normally associated with entirely digital samples, and believes that if you want the best possible sample you have to settle for nothing less than the best at the recording stage.
"If you have a good violin and you have a good soloist the samples are much better than the industrial sounds you can get. It's very important for me to have individual sounds rather than factory samples because then we can bring out an individual sound picture.
"From the clarinet we have sampled every tone, and a lot of the kinds of expression you can get from the instrument. It is very important if you play a sampler to know how to play all of the instruments you sample and understand the way they work. It's the same if you are writing a traditional score. If you are writing a saxophone part you have to know how to play a saxophone to be able to put expression into it. The clarinet we used was a bass clarinet and it sounds very natural, but if you play a real bass clarinet or if you want a real natural sound it is obviously better to play the real thing.
"At the moment I'm designing an entire room with about nine ultrasonic fields - dancing in this room produces music, which is fascinating."
"As for strings, if you have electronically synthesised strings you can play them much more like a piano. On the other hand if you have individual sampled lines you have to know exactly how to arrange them. I do a lot of multisampling of all the instruments and then use two Fairlights to connect four lines together, detuning every line a little bit which then produces a really natural sounding string section."
The inspiration for a Blue Chip Orchestra composition can either come from a sound or a musical idea. For Bergpredigt Bognermayr went to a hospital and interviewed people, sampling excerpts from the interviews and then using those to compose in real time on the computer. The Boleros on the new album were written down traditionally, before being orchestrated on the Fairlight. Bognermayr points out that experimenting on the computer offers the constant inspiration of new sounds, leading him off on creative tangents.
"Harald and I have different working methods", he explains, "but his studio has identical equipment to mine. That means I can take the information straight out of my Fairlight and into his and we decide together which directions we are going to pursue."
One of the most distinctive aspects of Blue Chip Orchestra is the use of reverberation. While more mainstream popular music is still experiencing a backlash against the excesses of Trevor Horn's production work, Bognermayr is using reverb as if it's just about to go out of fashion. But reverberation turns out to be an integral part of Bognermayr's approach to composition as well as to production.
"It is very important to use the reverberation at the start of the composition because then you can compose for a special kind of room", he comments. "If you're using a large room you can choose to add only small spots of sound because you know the room is an element of the composition. I decide what the best room size is for a particular part of the composition, decide on the brightness and reflection characteristics and have the facility to constantly change them. Reverb is more than just an effect for me, it is a vital part of the composition."
Bognermayr and Zuschrader have experimented with different rhythms, scales and time signatures, but the tapes made have been put aside for fear of alienating all but a few experts in the field. Bognermayr blames the fact that he has to earn a living from music and cannot, therefore, afford to produce mathematical music in the vein of Stockhausen.
Another compositional trick he has adopted has been the manipulation of Mozart piano concertos. In practice this involved taking bars from different concertos and linking them together. The result was a Mozart piano concerto nobody quite recognised.
"We're partly funded by the Austrian Government, and people in Austria have decided that we should play Mozart, so we're doing a computer-orchestration of Mozart's music live in Vienna in the near future. If you didn't know it was done on a computer you'd never guess, but it will never appear on a record because it's not really a direction I want to pursue."
BOGNERMAYR'S BACKGROUND contains a strong tradition of classical music: he has had a traditional musical education, and once held a post as a professor in a music high school. As such, he has a lot to say about the merits of learning good playing and compositional techniques.
"A lot of my former pupils are not composing music at the moment because they only have time to read the equipment manuals."
"Obviously you can do things with sequencers", he begins, "but personally I've always played in real time with quantisation to the sequencer program. Of course you can play something slowly and then speed it up, but I think it's very important to have a good playing technique and also good composition training because if you don't, I think you will come to a stage with your music where you can't go on. I only speak from experience in Austria, but there are no popular schools using computer equipment to show people how to colour sounds and the basic lines of composition. In Austrian conservatories you can only learn to play a piano. Why shouldn't people be able to learn how to play a synthesiser? If you want to learn to play a synthesiser you have to learn the digital techniques, the analogue techniques and how to use a computer. If you want to go on with computer music you have to first learn all these basic things.
"The Austrian government believes that the only kind of music worth listening to is traditional classical music, and this reflects upon the cultural music scene in Austria. English people and Americans write much better rock music than Austrians because it's in their blood. Musicians in Austria and Germany can only copy pop music.
"If you are a musician you have to be a technician as well as a composer, and you have to know about computer equipment. A lot of new things are coming on to the market, and a lot of my former pupils are not composing music at the moment because they only have time to read the equipment manuals. It's important to decide to pursue one direction and to study the equipment necessary for that. I have decided to found a school in Austria next year for the training of students and teachers, because I think that within the next 20 years the music computer will be a very important thing."
Bognermayr is fully conscious of the problems of playing computerised music on stage. The audience expect more for their money than simply to watch somebody press the start button on a sequencer. With his colleague Joe Drobar, Bognermayr has designed some pieces of equipment known collectively as the mirror instruments. The centrepiece is an ultrasonic harp, similar in concept to Jean Michel Jarre's laser harp, but much more complex. Bognermayr explains how the equipment works in practice: "The mirror harp looks similar to an acoustic harp, but it doesn't have any strings. Instead you have an ultrasonic field, and when you move within it you can transmit all sorts of different kinds of MIDI information. You can change sounds and alter their pitch. I think it is very important to be a musician to understand what is to be done with the design, it could be very interesting for live performances to transmit MIDI data to visual programs, so that's what I'm looking for now - a new kind of performance where music is expressed in special colours and a new kind of visualisation. Currently all we are using visually are the mirror instruments and a few basic lights, because I haven't found a really new way to bring all these colours and visualisations to the stage. I hope I can find a system which can do it for our future concerts, and I will always be looking for new things.
"At the moment I'm designing an entire room with about nine ultrasonic fields. Dancing in this room produces music, which is a fascinating sensation. It's very important for the future of music to be able to give your inspiration easily to the computers. In the early days the machine dictated to the user what was possible and what wasn't, but now the user-friendliness has improved so much that the machines can handle a lot more in the way of human feelings."
Looking into the future, Bognermayr may be tempted to stray from the Fairlight system by new instruments such as the Waveframe Audioframe.
"I'm seeing a demonstration of it next month", he says, "and it has a new resynthesis feature which I think could be very interesting for me in the future. I think it has many more possibilities for real-time manipulation. Resynthesis systems will be able to make the sound appear natural with only one sample, as it will calculate other pitches without shifting problems. A lot of memory costs a lot of money, so I think any attempt to reduce the amount you need is a step in the right direction for the future.
"I also think the old 'knobs and buttons' approach to programming will come back with machines like the Waveframe, so that you can manipulate the sounds with your fingertips on the monitor. I think that is very important because you can hear in real time what you are doing.
"A technician of ours has built a special wind controller system which looks like, and has the technique of a clarinet, and it works perfectly. I think it's very important to develop instruments to enable people who play wind or string instruments to control the computer, because it is important to bring the inspiration of the moment to the improvisation you can do in real time, and express it on an instrument which is different to a keyboard."
As far as music in the future is concerned, Bognermayr sees a return to the direction pursued on the Erdenklang Symphony album, using natural sounds that don't come from traditional instruments and experimenting with them. The next Blue Chip Orchestra album has already been recorded, and is scheduled to be released in the autumn. Meanwhile, he still believes in taking the music to the people, both through education, and public involvement in recording.
"We did a project back in Austria where we asked people to send sounds on cassette to the local radio station", he begins. "I then made up a composition just using samples from the tapes, so people could hear their own sounds the next day on the radio. It was a simple way to tell people how you can make music just by using natural sounds. There is so much people don't know about the capabilities of musical technology, but I believe that in the next 20 years there will be a music computer in every living room. Austria has a very good name in traditional music but not in new technical music."
If Bognermayr gets his way, that may all be about to change. His final words of advice further reveal his optimistic approach and informed outlook: "You have to find out for yourself exactly what equipment is going to be best for your own needs, and then you should try to discover every detail about it. It's very important to work with a system that suits your ideas, because if you always feel the need for new equipment you will never get deeply into the music. Ten years ago it was a question of money, but now cheap samplers are widely available. It has ceased to be a question of how much you can afford, instead it's of knowing your direction, and of musical education."
I, for one, couldn't agree more.