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Interview: Our Stefan Oertl on Frank Zappa's "Jazz isn't dead. It just smells funny."

Tutorials Mao, a popular French website on music production and music gear, featured an interview with our Stefan Oertl. Apart from taking a look at his musical journey and the products created by Re-Compose, the talk also focused on Frank Zappa's famous words on jazz.

This interview was published by Didier Navarette of Tutorials Mao, a French website on music production that has created early traction for Liquid Notes in France. Find this interview on their website, originally published in French!

Hi Stefan! Thanks for accepting this interview. We do not know each other personally, however we have been in a dialogue for many months now via the Internet.

The goal of this interview is to get to know Re-Compose and its products better, as well as your musical journey. And as Mr Franck Zappa said: "Jazz isn't dead. It just smells funny."

Didier: Hi Stefan! Can you present yourself to our readers?

Stefan Oertl: Hello! I am the founder and CEO of Re-Compose. My academic background is a mix of various degrees in engineering, music (piano, harpsichord, film composition), and psychology. Both in the company as well as in my academic work, I keep combining these fields, which has allowed me to tackle the subject of musical effect and an "optimal music experience" from rather unusual and interdisciplinary angles. I like to refer to my research practice as "highly applied".

Didier: Could you tell us more about your musical journey?

Stefan Oertl: I started to study classical piano (and later also jazz piano) from the age of 6 all the way to the final exams at an Austrian conservatory. Later I added harpsichord practice and theory. After I had completed my Master in computer science, I was accepted into the prestigious film scoring program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where I had the honor to be taught by the best in the business. Among our teachers were quite a few Oscar winners, such as Elmar Bernstein or Leonard Rosenman. With a PhD in psychology I started my journey into cognitive models of music perception.

Didier: Which are the elements that pushed you to launch your journey in music?

Stefan Oertl: From the time when I was a little boy, I was always highly interested in those very special moments in music that would lift your spirits immediately and "launches you into space". I was sitting in front of my (then) cassette or video tape player and would listen to the same few special seconds of musical segments over and over again to understand their structure. I asked questions which no one seemed to be able to answer, no music experts nor anyone else. It became my obsession to untangle the mechanisms behind such motivating musical moments. The journey has already lasted nearly four decades and taken me from playing instruments to engineering to composition to psychology, as you know. In the latter field I even ventured from contemporary traditional theories of music cognition into rather unusual fields such as trances and altered states of consciousness. All of this has begun to make full circle, finding practical applications in our technologies at Re-Compose.

Didier: Are you playing an instrument?

Stefan Oertl: Yes, the piano and the harpsichord. I tried myself in playing the saxophone for a while, but I have to admit that sort of instrument, in comparison to keyboards, has remained rather foreign to me.

Didier: What material do you use to work with?

Stefan Oertl: Believe it or not, but what I like most is writing notes on paper and pressing down keys on traditional, non-digital instruments. However, I listen to every possible kind of music extensively and am a big fan of EDM--especially techno and trance--and like to go dancing to raves regularly. I do use electronic equipment to produce sounds and quantizations I could not achieve with traditional instruments, though.

Didier: Which artists do you appreciate? What influenced you musically?

Stefan Oertl: What I crave very much is old polyphonic music from the renaissance and baroque eras. I keep digging quite deeply into the matter there, even comparing various styles and performances of the same pieces. My favorite conductor is Eliot Gardiner, I have to admit. He takes old music into the present time with no traces of false sentiment. I love everything cutting-edge electronic like techno and trance, even the mainstream. I happened to listen to Deadmau5's latest album lately and was completely taken aback by it. And I like virtually everything in between these two extremes, provided it is of excellent musical quality. I listen to pretty much every style and genre, though. After all, one can only begin to understand a subject matter if looking at the entire spectrum of it.

Didier: In two words, when and how has Re-Compose been created?

Stefan Oertl: Re-Compose is an Austria-based company that I founded in 2007. It was born out of my vision to make music fully interactive (e.g. for computer gaming or sports) and by so doing also optimizing the effect is has on the listener. Initially, Liquid Notes was a side project, just a rather simple sequence of code to manage harmonic analyses. In the course of the company's progression, it was decided to turn this module into a full-blown product.

Didier: How long did it take to complete a project such as the Liquid Notes software?

Stefan Oertl: Liquid Notes is a three-year project. The basic algorithms weren't that hard to assemble. But the devil lies in the details. And as complicated as music theory can get the deeper you look into it, the more intricate and detailed the methods and user interaction interface for the software had to become to turn it into a serious product.

Didier: Did you think about partnerships? Like, including Liquid Notes directly into a sequencer.

Stefan Oertl: A sequencer integration of Liquid Notes would solve a few obstacles we had to circumvent with the current versions, of course. Working from inside a sequencer is always the most elegant method as there are no disturbing communication difficulties with the outside world. However, we are approaching a state of development in which Liquid Notes moves closer to becoming a quasi-integrated tool. In a not too distant step of development, we will introduce our first plug-in version for a DAW.

Didier: What do you think about the new technologies that allow music applications on smart phones or tablets? And, why is there no application made by Re-Compose on these devices?

Stefan Oertl: Since the best way to use Liquid Notes is by connecting it to a DAW playing through its virtual instruments, it still belongs to the group of "traditional" digital producer tools for the desktop. Translating it into iPad apps and the alike would not make much sense in its current form because you would not be able to hook it up to your sequencer. Using it as a rather educational tool on a portable device in standalone mode would make sense, though.
New technologies in this regard make a lot of sense, as well. Mobile devices are progressively becoming more sophisticated.It is very likely that in five years' time nearly everything that runs on a desktop or notebook computer today will be found on pads, and in an improved version with more possibilities.

Didier: There was Bandstand from Native Instruments (project stopped some years ago) which proposed MIDI reader with virtual instruments, and there is Band in a Box from PG Music which allows rapid composition of chords. How is Liquid Notes different?

Stefan Oertl: Liquid Notes does not interfere with your compositional handwriting, it leaves your personal style untouched. It is not a tool to build something new from scratch, but rather it steps in after your first ideas have taken ground, and even after the composition has been completed. It then analyses the segment or piece harmonically. And you can apply all sorts of harmonic changes to it, for all instruments of the arrangement at once. It is like conducting an orchestra and applying a few changes. The entire orchestra must follow such changes not to fall apart musically.
Band in a Box, as one example, lets you create pieces from scratch, select styles, etc. That kind of software is a composition tool, whereas Liquid Notes can be seen like a "mastering tool" with the goal of excellent harmonic progression.

Didier: For which type of users is Liquid Notes made? Beginners, musicians, pro?

Stefan Oertl: It is for everyone, but every group will use it differently as we now know from customer responses. Beginners are interested in learning more about harmony and chord progressions. Pros like how speedy harmonic changes can be accomplished. And Liquid Notes might help them break through the barrier of habit, presenting them completely new harmonic ideas.

Didier: Do you think that among current EDM music, a lack of knowledge in chords and harmony is responsible for limited imagination?

Stefan Oertl: Contemporary EDM is very inventive. The top-of-the-notch producers keep turning out ever new amazing ideas and effects. But the broad mass of inexperienced producers quickly come to a standstill in their attempt to live up to top quality, despite the vast array of digital tools for music making--or even because of that. You can only put tools to good effect when you know how to handle them, when you know your theory, that is. Liquid Notes provides you with that kind of theory. But it does not take away your creativity. You stay in full control of the result. And it will perpetually provide you with entirely new ideas, giving you the full spectrum of possibilities without boundaries.

We are looking into a major paradigm shift of music. Contemporary loop-based music is produced and consumed by a new generation in a state of flow, a condition of mental liberty and bliss. Knowledge about theory as a basis for the creative process is not of so much importance any more. What counts is how the music actually feels, its impact on body and mind in the new consumer collective. Music is progressing to the next level right now. Artificial intelligence for music making, as incorporated in Liquid Notes, will help to support this inevitable evolution.

Didier: Can you tell us about your future plans for Liquid Notes, and other software applications or projects you work on?

Stefan Oertl: Liquid Notes will become more "magical", meaning that a few stunning automatisms will be added over the course of time. We are working on an improved and widened communication with the DAWs. This can reach from improved syncing mechanisms to genuine plug-in technology. Overall, Liquid Notes will become easier to handle while giving you even more possibilities.

Didier: Do you have a recommendation on how to best use Liquid Notes? Tips & tricks?

Stefan Oertl: Liquid Notes has turned into a rather extensive piece of software. We would like to direct your attention to our blog and FAQ section on our website. There, we keep adding articles about tips & tricks continually. We also announce new additions in our newsletter which can be subscribed to on our website, as well.

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