Bob Ostertag

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Bob Ostertag
Bob Ostertag in 2003
Bob Ostertag in 2003
Background information
Birth nameRobert Ostertag
BornApril 19, 1957
OriginAlbuquerque, New Mexico
GenresAvant-Garde, Experimental
Occupation(s)Musician, Performance artist, Professor
Years active1976–present

Robert "Bob" Ostertag (born April 19, 1957 in Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States) is an experimental sound artist, political activist and writer based in San Francisco.[1][2] He has written three books, collaborated with a number of musicians, and has released twelve solo albums.

Fred Frith called Ostertag his "guru", and Robert Fripp once described him as "the only guy on synthesizer who interests me".[3]

Early career[edit]

Raised in Colorado, Ostertag studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. In 1976, he formed the improvisation ensemble Fall Mountain with Ned Rothenberg on reeds and Jim Katzin on violin, himself on electronic keyboard. The ensemble released Early Fall in 1979.

Later that same year, Ostertag relocated to New York City, where he befriended John Zorn, Fred Frith, Zeena Parkins, and several other musicians interested in collaborative improvisation. In 1980, Ostertag released Getting a Head with guitarist Fred Frith and drummer Charles Noyes. Ostertag's use of sampling, tape manipulation, and electronic custom-made instruments created a unique sound and approach to improvised music. Following the release of Getting a Head, Ostertag became the first of his generation of musicians to have his work presented at The Kitchen, at the time New York City's premiere venue for new music.

Musical inactivity[edit]

With his sudden success came a greater involvement in politics, specifically in the turbulent revolutions and counter-revolutions of South America in the 1980s. In response to the political climate, Ostertag released Voice of America. As Ostertag became increasingly involved in such political issues, and increasingly dissatisfied with the music industry, he moved to El Salvador in 1982 and, for nearly seven years, abandoned music altogether. His experiences in El Salvador were later synthesized into his piece Sooner or Later.

Ostertag became an expert on the political crisis in Central America and published widely for a diverse range of publications, including Pensamiento Propio (Nicaragua) Pensamiento Critico (Puerto Rico), The Guardian (London), the Weekly Mail (South Africa), Mother Jones and the NACLA Report on the Americas (US), AMPO (Japan), and even the clandestine theoretical journal of the New People's Army in the Philippines. He alternated his time in Central America with organizing and public speaking in the US, giving lectures at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, and many other schools and institutions.

Some of his writings from Central America are included in his 2009 book of collected essays, "Creative Life: Music, Politics, People, and Machines"[4]

Return to music[edit]

Ostertag returned to music in 1989 and toured with Fred Frith's Keep the Dog. He also appeared in Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel's 1990 documentary film on Frith, Step Across the Border. Ostertag released Attention Span in 1990, featuring Frith on guitars and John Zorn on saxophone. Ostertag followed Attention Span with the release of Sooner or Later, his musical response to his years in El Salvador and the first part of a trilogy to treat the themes of grief, anger, and joy. In 1992, The Kronos Quartet commissioned a new work from Ostertag. This commission produced the landmark work Bob Ostertag: All the Rage. Ostertag composed the piece using a recording of the AB101 Veto Riot in San Francisco. Ostertag originally conceived Bob Ostertag: All the Rage as a collaboration with writer/painter/photographer/film maker David Wojnarowicz, but David was ill with AIDS. When David died before the collaboration could take place, Ostertag made a second, solo piece from the riot recordings, Burns Like Fire, and dedicated it to Wojnarowicz. In 1993, Ostertag formed Say No More, a virtual quartet, with vocalist Phil Minton, drummer Joey Baron, bassist Mark Dresser, percussionist Gerry Hemingway. The group's music was actually composed by a computer and sampler from separate individual performances and then released as Say No More in 1993, the live – In Person in 1994, Verbatim in 1996 and Verbatim Flesh & Blood in 2000.

In 1999, after 10 years working with the same Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler, Ostertag switched to a laptop computer and began writing his own audio performance software through Max/MSP. This allows him use various controllers, including joysticks, game pads, and drawing tablets in his performances. This same year, Ostertag released Like a Melody, No Bitterness his first CD of solo improvisation. This CD is a tribute to his sampler that he spent the last decade mastering as an instrument. Ostertag has also scored multimedia pieces such as Spiral in 1996. In 2000, Ostertag began work with Pierre Hébert and Baltazar López on a full-scale multi-media and theater work, Between Science and Garbage, commissioned by Meet the Composer and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

On March 25, 2006, Ostertag made all of his recordings to which he owns the rights available as digital downloads under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 license.


Ostertag’s first book was the anonymously published "The Yes Men: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organization (2004)".[5] In 2006 he published a history of radical journalism in the US, "People's Movements, People's Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements".

Three years later he published a collection of essays on music, politics, and technology, "Creative Life: Music, Politics, People, and Machines".[6] In 2012 he co-authored "Raising Expectations (And Raising Hell), My Decade Fighting for the Labor Movement"[7] with Jane McAlevey. The book was named "the most valuable book of 2012"[8] by The Nation magazine.

For many years he wrote a blog on The Huffington Post.[9]

Later activities[edit]

In 2007 Ostertag released his first download only recording w00t, a CD-length work composed of fragments of computer game music.

He returned to synthesizer music in a series of releases, including Motormouth: Bob Ostertag Plays the Buchla 200e (2011), Bob Ostertag Plays the Aalto (2013), and Bob Ostertag Plays the Serge!, which was released in 2014 but featured early synthesizer music recorded between 1978 and 1983.

In 2011, Ostertag released a collaborative EP released on underground techno label Sandwell District with artist Rrose. Her interpretation of Ostertag's work was well received by critics, which led to another collaborative EP, released during the summer of 2012, entitled "The Surgeon General." [10]

With A Book of Hours (2012), Ostertag introduced a new ensemble featuring saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and vocalists Phil Minton, Shelley Hirsch, and Theo Bleckmann.

His collaboration with Quebecois animator Pierre Hébert produced numerous multi-media works, including Between Science and Garbage, Special Forces, A Portrait of Buddha, Endangered Species, and Shadow Boxing, which was premiered on an extensive tour of China and Southeast Asia in 2013.

In 2019, Bob Ostertag premiered his documentary, Thanks to Hank[11] about the life of artist and activist Hank Wilson. It features music by the Kronos Quartet, Carla Kihlstedt, and The Tin Hat Trio, and animation by Jeremy Rourke.

As of August 2020, he was Professor in the faculty of Technocultural Studies at UC Davis.[12]


Solo improvisations[edit]




DVD / Video[edit]

  • Living Cinema presents Between Science and Garbage (with Pierre Hébert) (2002)

Appearances on compilations[edit]

Performing the works of other composers[edit]

With Anthony Braxton

With Eugene Chadbourne

  • The English Channel (Parachute, 1978)

With Fred Frith

With Christian Wolff

  • Burdocks (Tzadik, 2001)

With John Zorn


  • Creative Life: Music, Politics, People, and Machines, by Bob Ostertag, University of Illinois Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-252-03451-0.
  • People's Movements, People's Press: The Journalism of Social Justice Movements, by Bob Ostertag, Beacon Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-8070-6166-4.
  • Sex Science Self: A Social History of Estrogen, Testosterone, and Identity, by Bob Ostertag, University of Massachusetts Press, 2016, ISBN 978-1-62534-213-3


  1. ^ Gehman, Chris (Spring 2010). "From El Salvador to PantyChrist: Bog Ostertag's Creative Life: Music, Politics, People and Machines". Fuse. Vol. 33 no. 2. ProQuest 219930339.
  2. ^ Grella, George J. (January 20, 2016). "Ostertag, Bob [Robert]". Oxford University Press. Retrieved May 9, 2019 – via Grove Music Online.
  3. ^ Dery, Mark (August 1988). "Notes from the Underground". Keyboard. Vol. 14 no. 8. p. 28. ISSN 0730-0158.
  4. ^ "Creative Life".
  5. ^ Yes Men, The: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organization. DISINFORMATION COMPANY. February 10, 2004. ISBN 9780972952996.
  6. ^ "Creative Life".
  7. ^ "Verso".
  8. ^ Nichols, John (December 19, 2012). "The Progressive Honor Roll of 2012". The Nation.
  9. ^ "Bob Ostertag | HuffPost".
  10. ^ "Rrose x Bob Ostertag – The Surgeon General".
  11. ^ "Thanks to Hank – A film by Bob Ostertag". Retrieved June 4, 2020.
  12. ^ "Faculty Profile". UC Davis. Retrieved August 7, 2020.

External links[edit]