Name: Tobias Reber
Occupation: Composer, sound artist, producer, educator
Current release: Tobias Reber's Mother of Millions is available now via his own bandcamp account.
Recommendations: Marcus Marr's "The Music" is meta-music: music about the love of music. And it works on every level: I've danced to it with my kids, discussed it with my friends and dissected it with my students.
“The Wormwood Trilogy” by Tade Thompson - a fantastic work of science fiction. It is weird and cool, highly ambitious and inventive while acknowledging sci-fi tropes across the board, and it is deeply moving.
If you enjoyed this interview with Tobias Reber, his personal website is the ideal place to start your journey into his world. Between 2016 and 2021, he also released a series of 555 composition exercises under the name of A Hundred Quirky Legs. For his online class on algorithmic composition with Max, click here.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I became aware early on of having goosebumps occasionally, that some music seemed to move me. Later I noticed that certain chord progressions, harmonizations, or combinations of sounds could do this, or a melodic phrase. But no one ever talked about that, or what and why that was, from my early music lessons to professional studies later on.
Music also stirred vivid imaginations, and sometimes I would dream about songs I was listening to a lot. I started to play guitar in my early teens and got OK at it, but the gap between what I was able to do and what I wanted to experience through music seemed insurmountable, and the path there unclear.
For most artists, originality is 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?
It took a long time for me from becoming aware of what music did for me, to finding a way to achieving the same thing with my own music. After acquiring basic skills on the guitar I had a phase of trying to imitate my heroes, which is how you internalize and then ideally transcend your influences. Yet all my attempts at composition felt like a mashup of whatever music I was into at the time.
So searching became my default mode. When I discovered algorithmic, dynamic ways of composing I was able to move towards something that felt like my own: a way of expressing my intuitions into crude systems that would in turn surprise me - informed by my own preferences.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I don't know if I can really answer that, but I can testify that it does, and not necessarily in a good way.
Originally I identified as a rock musician, but by the time I was twenty I had come to appreciate all kinds of music, and dabbled in many styles. A few years later, through my music, my teaching and writing I had, in the eyes of others, become "the algorithmic composition guy". This is good branding, because you become the go-to guy when people who know you need something in that vein. But it also became the premise for how I approached composition and improvisation.
Outside of my solo music I had always done other things as well, be it through improvisation or conceptual frameworks. But especially working on Mother of Millions I was reminded that rule-based techniques are just tools in the service of a larger expression. They helped me develop my own voice as an artist, and now I'm much more able and confident to compose free from rules and constraints when I want.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
As I mentioned above, when I went from imitation to invention mode, I was always dissatisfied with my results. I could easily recognize my influences in what I wrote, and couldn't find enough of myself in it. Through delegating compositional decisions to algorithmic processes of my own making, I was able to generate variety - structures that kind of followed the guidelines I wanted to observe, but were still somewhat unpredictable even to myself.
This turned composition into a process of exploration: "What if I let these rules and constraints interact, and see how that plays out?" This speculative stance is something I had adopted from reading science fiction and studying how writers thought about their process.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I started out with classical guitar and moved towards electric guitar and effects pedals, and then switched digital electronics for synthesis and programming. Then I became interested in the "digital organic" - processes like physical modeling synthesis, which allowed for unpredictability in sound, just like what I had found in structural processes. This eventually led me back to analog synthesis and effects pedals again - looking for that element of instability in sound. Now they're all just part of my workbench, and I apply them as needed.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Starting to work with the Korg MS20 mini synth after so many years of only working with laptops was a revelation. The fact that it would be great to have so many knobs to shape a sound should have been obvious, but felt amazing, and "playing the sound" became essential for Mother of Millions.
I would often generate patterns and small melodies on the computer and send them to the synth while shaping the sound with my hands. That simple arrangement really showed me the potential of integrating all these techniques and technologies.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I enjoy all of it. Online has become the default mode since the pandemic started, and it made me discover new modes of collaboration. I started teaching Composing with Max, a weekly online class on my algorithmic composition techniques, and a wonderful group of people gathered around that offering. We didn't directly collaborate on music, but it quickly began to feel like we all collaborated on developing each others' ideas and visions, providing encouragement and feedback.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
It varies from day to day. This week for example, I've worked for Musikfestival Bern for two days, did some freelance work, spent a day at home with my daughter, and will travel to a different city on another two days to teach parts of a longer class.
Music and the arts are always present: being at home where we listen to a lot of music, in the classes I teach and the festival I'm working for, or the music ideas I'm working on.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
There have been several over the years, but Mother of Millions, my newest solo album, is top of my mind. For one thing because it's so new, but also because it marks the first time where I feel I've successfully integrated a big vision with a functioning head and heart.
The rough structure of the album came about over two months, in what felt like one long period of flow. But it took me several years to finish it while becoming a father and doing all kinds of other work and projects. Mother of Millions exemplifies the idea of going where the process leads you, shedding your previous identity so you can become something new. The project was motivated by ecological concerns and systems thinking, but only when I let go of all the intellectualizing, and instead let those ideas gestate subconsciously, was I able to intuitively produce the basis for the pieces. Now the music stands on its own, free from those conceptual origins.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Tight feedback loops create flow. Composing with algorithms allows you to set up small systems that are able to produce considerable complexity, and to tweak the system as it's running, to shape the output in real time.
I don't want to "imagine" music (I love the double-sidedness of the German word "ausdenken" here). I want to follow a hunch and, through exploring an certain idea of music, bring it into existence.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I've come to see the arts as a playground, and a dojo, for creating and having experiences of all flavors. Personally I seem to crave art that acknowledges and integrates the full complexity and messiness of life: music that can hold the joy and the pain, the exuberance and the grief, the intensity as much as the stillness. I love music that makes me feel at home at the same time that it is challenging me to go beyond myself. I call that "full spectrum music".
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Appropriate if appropriate (Composition Exercise #464). I don't really use sampling or citation of other people's work, let alone make explicit statements through that. I am much more drawn to alchemy, or synthesis, than appropriation: letting something new emerge from the encounter between me and the unfamiliar. And to include the listener in this process: they are going to make their own meaning from encountering my work. That's where music happens, when it happens.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I am a very average cook, but the first thing that comes to mind is a fascination by haute cuisine and the processes and attitudes involved. I sometimes use culinary imagery when introducing laypeople to abstract music. So many people fear the music they don't understand, yet I know of nobody who every cried over an exquisite dinner because they have no idea how it was made. We simply taste things and see how they feel, and over time learn to discern. We develop taste.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
The idea of art as a training ground that I invoked above, is central to my life, and the art and teaching that I do. The aesthetic space allows for experiences way outside everyday life, it is a larger vessel that includes the imagined, the intuited and the impossible. It is a space in which to make sense of our experiences. It is a sanctuary and a dojo.
At the same time, the tools and processes and ideas of the art world, are culturally mediated, and require critical examination, just as the everyday world does. Media literacy and critical thinking can be taught by dismantling and repurposing media in an art project. Musical understanding can be fostered by dissecting a beat and finding out why a song moves us in a certain way.
By dabbling in the arts we can experience agency - and dignity - in a way that our everyday lives rarely afford us. This is as true for school kids making their own decisions on how to proceed with a piece, as much as it is true for the master artist realizing her unique vision.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music, even highly experimental music, can create a full body experience that the intellect alone cannot process. We can unlearn the impulse to use our cleverness to rationalize what is happening, and to surrender to the emotional experience. Just like we first dip into cold water, then gradually learn to sink into it.
When music makes us laugh and weep and dance, we move closer to wholeness. The analysis and sense-making may happen as we experience it, but usually it comes later. In that sense, music allows us to experience ourselves at higher levels of alertness, living more fully.