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Milan Guštar (Interview)

From Unearthing The Music

Milan Guštar with his band Flao YG in the 80's

Milan Guštar (11 August 1963 in Kolín, Czechoslovakia, now Czech Republic) is an organologist, composer, computer programmer, and designer of electronic, electroacoustic, multimedia, and interactive systems. Guštar's interest in music is both practical and theoretical. He focuses on interdisciplinary research bordering between science, technology and the arts: primarily mathematical principles in music, electronics, electroacoustics, information technologies, algorithmic composition and generative arts. Since the late 1970s, his work has focused on the design, development, and manufacture of custom-made electronic and electroacoustic equipment and musical instruments, multimedia and interactive systems, software design, audio recording and editing. Guštar’s articles, books and audio CDs have been released by various publishing houses, including his own one, Uvnitř (“Inside”). His visual art pieces and sound and audiovisual installations have been exhibited in both domestic and foreign galleries. He has also been involved in film, theatre and other artistic endeavours.

Interview by Lucia Udvardyová.

Could you talk about your path to music?

Similarly to others, my first encounter with music happened at primary school. I was more interested in music theory than practice at that time: how the music is made, rather than in making it myself; how music instruments work rather than playing them myself. Later at secondary school, I discovered Pythagoreans whose fascination with numbers I felt drawn to. I increasingly began to realize the interconnection between music and mathematics. I gradually discovered the mathematical principles of scales, chords, harmonic progressions and rhythmical structures of our and non-European music. The formalization and exploration of mathematical principles in art naturally led me to algorithmic composition and an interest in generative arts in general.

Towards the end of 1970s or the beginning of 1980s, I heard minimalist music for the first time. I heard it by accident on Radio Free Europe and it was probably a composition by Steve Reich or Philip Glass. This encounter encouraged me to think about what is fundamental in music, how do the individual musical components work, what is important for the perception of music. I began to focus on various elements, methods and principles, some of which have disappeared from our music or were considered marginal or unusable. Such as microtonality – the use of pitches different from those offered by our twelve-tone equal temperament, the relation between perception of harmony and timbres, polyrythms or the gradual changes of musical parameters such as pitches, tempoes or timbres.

All of this led me to a practical application of theoretical knowledge, composition and subsequently also to the need to have the composed material played out, the need for musical instruments, recording equipment, cooperation with musicians and establishing a band.

Flao YG in 1988

You are a musician (composer, organist), as well as a constructor of electronic and electroacoustic instruments, and a programmer. How did these directions (the artistic vs technical) develop?

I consider connecting science, art and technology - theory and practice - thoroughly natural. To explore everything from different perspectives can give us a deeper understanding – something can be better grasped rationally, something intuitively. Certain things can be simply shown, others can be described, or expressed via music and other arts. The understanding of the workings of music instruments and equipment helps me as a musician, while the knowledge of the requirements of musical practice helps me as a creator of electroacoustic instruments. Home-made products and gadgets were an inseparable part of informal structures during the previous regime. This was often out of necessity – it was difficult to get hold of electronic instruments.

How do you recollect this period?

It was a futile effort to overcome the lack of material, tools, and information, in particular. Plenty of wasted time, which could have been devoted to something much more useful.

The electronic scene experienced a boom in the 1980s in the West. How was the situation in Czechoslovakia in this respect?

What is electronic scene? Electronic dance music? Electronics and electroacoustics in classical music? Synth-pop? New age? Chiptune? Noise? Ambient? In Czechoslovakia, the development of these genres was mostly hindered due to the lack of technical equipment. When, for instance, we recorded a track for the Zavadilka Theatre in disco style, and didn't have a drum machine, I had to play the monotonous drum part on keyboards myself. It was very tiring.

You composed music for the Zavadilka Theatre in the 1980s. In contrast to singer/songwriters and bands, whose primary method of expression were words – and thus they were easier to censor – electronic music as an abstraction could have been purely theoretically, an advantage. Were you able to create freely?

To create – compose (and undertake thought experiments) was possible without limitations. Due to lack of information, we had to make up and discover a lot of it alone. Due to technical and political limitations, the performance, presentation and distribution of the results was complicated.

How did your work evolve in relation to the rapid technological development? In the 80s, a personal computer was more of a dream than reality for many. Today, working with music softwares is ubiquitous.

I studied computer technology at university in the early 1980s. Though I wasn't able to use mainframe computers, which I was able to occasionally access at that time, for making music. I used the ancient computer Zuse Z23 in 1981 at least for generating the name of our band, which meant programming the machine code, puncturing the data on a paper tape, and entering the bootloader on the computer panel by hand – a programme which was able to read paper tape, store data in memory and run code. The computer eventually created the text and wrote it on the adjoined teleprinter.

In the second half of the 1980s, I managed to obtain the 8-bit ZX Spectrum computer. Its performance was rather poor, nevertheless, I began to use it for creating generative graphics and music. I didn't have a printer, thus, I was only able to present graphics and animations on a screen to a few of my friends sometimes. The computer didn't even have any sound output but the cassette interface allowed me to generate sounds using a rudimental pulsewidth modulation. I started to program my first algorithmic compositions. We were perhaps the only band in the world, which used ZX Spectrum as a musician. This approach was demonstrated on the composition Dvandva, an algorhitmic-stochastic duet for a sitar and ZX Spectrum made in 1987. In the „verses“, computer generated melodic sequences and the sitar player improvised freely. In the „choruses“, both instruments played the pre-generated melody. I was playing the accompanying drones on synthetizers. The rest of the band made various percussive sounds and noises. Everything was recorded at once, in real time.

Bulšitfilm - Vychovatel ke strachu

From the end of the 80s, I could sometimes use the Amiga computer which was able to process sampled sounds; or the Atari computer with a MIDI interface. The Amiga was utilised for making the jingle and soundtrack for our film festival Zlatý voči. The Atari served as a sequencer while making the soundtrack for Bulšitfilm (Bullshitfilm). Aside from my home-made instruments, I already had my first sound module then – the Yamaha FB-01 with distinguished FM synthesis sounds.

In the early 1990s, I got my first personal computer, MIDI interface, software sequencer and more sound modules. This finally allowed me to make certain experiments with sound, microtonality, advanced rhythmic structures, etc. A better computer, a 16-bit sound card and sound modules with realistic sampled sounds paved the way for a greater freedom in the mid-1990s. Linux, open software, plenty of computing memory, storage and processing capacity after the dawn of the new millenium brought about total freedom in this respect. Ever since that time, I haven't felt any significant technological limitations. I was finally able to finish compositions written several years earlier, which were impossible to be played or recorded at the time of their inception.

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