Freedom and Absurdity: A Portrait of Christof Ressi

Photo of Christof Ressi (c) Silvio Rether
Christof Ressi (c) Silvio Rether

Christof Ressi’s compositions combine internet culture and computer games with contemporary and electronic music and jazz. He was awarded the prestigious Erste Bank Composition Prize, and Jeunesse is devoting an entire concert to his works on November 4th – featuring, appropriately, the Black Page Orchestra. Reason enough to devote an article to his life and work, as Hanna Bertel did in this article, originally written for a course at Vienna University’s Institute for Musicology and published in cooperation with mica – music austria.

The musical spectrum of composer and software developer Christof Ressi is diverse, ranging from experimental computer music to improvised media art. His artistic work is characterized by a unique tonal language and the creation of new worlds of sound and image; his pieces unite theory, form, sound, and image, seasoned with humor. His works – as a producer, sound designer, and arranger – have been performed by numerous ensembles, renowned instrumentalists, and theater and dance companies.

Born in 1989 and raised in Hermagor (Carinthia), Christof Ressi showed an early interest in music; he began playing cello at the age of six, but soon switched to piano: “When I played cello, it always sounded out of tune to me. Changing to piano was a huge relief.” As a teenage, Ressi discovered the electric guitar and played in the school band. “We played everything from Toto and Deep Purple to Mariah Carey and James Brown.” He was keenly interested in jazz as well, but – for the time being – was only able to pursue it in piano lessons: Ressi was the only jazz lover in Hermagor.

“A childhood dream come true”

But music wasn’t the only thing he was discovering: it was also during this period that his affinity for computers and programming began to make itself known. Computer music and combining instrumental sounds, patterns, and beats was a favorite pastime in Ressi’s youth, and continues to be so: “Even as a child, I always wanted to program computer games; it was a big dream of mine. And now I’m doing exactly that in an artistic context – it’s kind of like a childhood dream come true.”

Ressi’s diverse education influenced his artistic work: after attaining a bachelor’s degree in composition in Graz in Wien, during which he studied with Gerd Kühr and Alexander Stankovski, he began a master’s degree in jazz composition under Ed Partyka in Graz. During the program, Ressi spent time as an exchange student at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. It was there that his involvement with the audio programming language Pure Data (of which he is now a co-developer) intensified, and at the end of his time in Lucerne, he knew where he wanted to go next: he returned to Graz, enrolling at the Institute for Electronic Music under Marko Ciciliani.

“Game Over”: Programmed Absurdity

Christof Ressi and Szilárd Benes met by coincidence, but hit it off and founded the duo Ressi/Benes in 2016. With “Game Over“, the duo succeeded in garnering widespread attention: the piece, developed as part of the artistic research project “Gamified Audiovisual Performance and Performance Practice”, was originally conceived for solo clarinet and later expanded to a duo version. Out of an initial linear form, the addition of a movement sensor for the clarinet expanded the concept. As Ressi explains it: “There are scenarios and objects that react to his pitches oder dynamics. It’s an interaction between the sound of Benes’ instrument and the computer game. Ressi programmed the visual elements of the game as well, which are strongly reminiscent of classic Nintendo games: “I basically take elements from different games and make a collage out of them.” It’s impossible to miss the humor that is a central component of his work: art must be taken seriously, he states, but at the same time: “I like doing absurd things, things are are unimaginable and unexpected.”

Video: Christof Ressi – “Game Over”

“GIF Frenzy”: A Mixture of the Comedic and the Disturbing

A further Ressi work, performed by a variety of ensembles, is “GIF Frenzy”. Here, the interaction between sound an image is very much in the foreground. “The idea is that the graphics themselves are the score.” Ressi explains the piece as a triangular feedback loop, with the instructions in the score, the musical improvisation to projected images, and the dialogue between the instruments forming a collective. As with his other works, his affinity for found material is evident. “I like using material that people are familiar with, and perverting it in an absurd manner.”

Video: Christof Ressi – “GIF Frenzy”, performed by Studio Dan

“Avatara”: A Monster Project

In addition to his other interests, Ressi has a passion for composing for theater and dance. Here, the music is primarily in service of the piece, but his artistic language comes through clearly clearly evident. His most recent major project was the chamber opera “Avatara”, composed for the Johann Joseph Fux Opera Composition Competition. An increasing interest in virtual reality and three-dimensionality spurred him to integrate VR technology in the work, which centers on two people living in different virtual worlds, but share a special connection. “The university was crazy enough to take on the project,” chuckles Ressi. The opera premiered on October 9th, 2022 in Graz.

On the whole, the wheels of opera and other large-scale works turn too slowly for Ressi’s purposes. He aspires to shortening the time spans involved and, for the time being, plans to concentrate on smaller works. Still, he says, “I do think very theatrically.”

“You can break up these inflexible techniques”

Experimentation, especially using electronics, is at the center of Christof Ressi’s composition process. “You can try things out and you have immediate acoustic feedback.” The uniqueness of his compositions owes much to the combination of genres: contemporary classical music, jazz, and electronic. “I think pluralistically,” he says of his approach to music. He has no interest in keeping genres separate from one another – but, he continues, “I feel most at home with computer music.”

Photo of Christof Ressi (c) Zoltan Fuezesi
Christof Ressi (c) Zoltan Fuezesi

As inspirations, Ressi names Charles Mingus, Bernd Alois Zimmermann, and René Magritte; his influences come not just from music but from visual art, particularly Surrealism and its theories. “The Surrealists’ dream logic can combine different levels of reality, which gives rise to the new, the unexpected.” He also has an intense interest in film, though it’s not without a measure of ambivalence: the music of mainstream Hollywood films, he finds, is “emotional wallpaper that people daub over the film.” Instead, he says, the music should create a new aspect of the film. The longer he talks about the subject, the more unequivocal he becomes: “I have zero interest in making music for some standard TV drama or cop shows. If I need money, I’d rather write software.”

Christof Ressi knows where he’s headed. While studying for a doctorate at the Bruckner University in Linz, he’ll continue his experimentation with computer game environments as a compositional tool. At the same time, he’s pursuing a number of smaller projects; a solo album of electronic music is also in the works. As he puts it, “I can make a whole lot of noise on my own, too.”

Hanna Bertel, translated and adapted from the German original by Philip Yaeger.