15 Questions (April 2013)

This interview appears on the “15 Questions” Website at this link.

Q1: When did you start writing/producing music – and what or who were your early passions and influences?

RR: When rather young, I sang in a choir and tried to learn viola for a few months, but something about written music didn’t work in my brain. Maybe around 12 years old I started improvising on my parent’s piano, and a year later started building cheap synthesizer modules from kits. That was around 1976. At the time I had discovered the European spacemusic scene and I wanted to sound like Klaus Schulze, or maybe like Keith Jarrett, who knew. I just wanted to move my hands and hear music come out. My father played jazz guitar – cool jazz like Barney Kessel or Stan Getz – and also loved Bach and Handel, so we had good music around the house. 

I think, as my tastes developed from those early days, two radio stations in my area played a big role in shaping my interests. A college station, KFJC, became one of the first in the USA to play punk, industrial and experimental rock around 1977. Also, the listener-sponsored station KPFA  had a music director Charles Amirkhanian, who was closely connected to the new movement of tonal avant-garde. On KPFA I heard Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Annea Lockwood, Maryanne Amacher. At the time, the music scene in San Francisco was alive with underground activity: The Residents, Tuxedomoon, visits from Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. I found myself more attracted to the pure energy of sound, not so much to the structures of musical harmony. The industrial/punk aesthetic inspired people to create art just because they had something to say. That was a huge inspiration, even though I became known for a more quiet sort of language.

Q2: What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?

RR: Several discoveries shaped my lifetime direction I think. First was learning about just intonation, which is a way to think about tunings on the basis of ratios, so that chords relate to the harmonic series. Hearing Harry Partch and Terry Riley shaped the sound of my music very strongly. 

Then, as I started thinking about using music in more subtle psychological ways, with awareness of slow time scale and trance, this connected many of the disparate influences and led to the idea of all-night sleep concerts. Throughout traditional societies, from Indonesian Wayang to Navaho medicine ceremonies, all-night concerts of Indian classical music, Fluxus performance art, and psychedelic happenings from the Sixties – these all shared a common element that attracted me to a certain energy in music, so the sleep concerts were an attempt to synthesize a new type of trancelike experience with music, that fit my love for environmental sounds and the honing of sensory attention. 

Q3: What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?

RR: It’s difficult to put into words, but my biggest challenge remains to communicate my awe at being alive. My attempts to express this in sound always seem to fall short. For this and other reasons, I struggle to remain interested in the music I create. I still have many ideas and unrealized projects, and I still love music in general as a medium for communication; but I feel inadequate in my own ability to eff the ineffable.

Q4: What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?

RR: Hopefully a new idea starts to bubble up from a hidden place inside, but often I find myself stumbling around trying to listen for that whisper. Occasionally, I will use improvisational methods to help ideas to start flowing, or play little surrealist games with permutations of ideas – and then the process of filtering good ideas from dumb ones helps to solidify a direction. Other times the music just starts itself and I can hardly remember what I did by the time it’s finished. 

Q5: How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

RR: They coexist all the time. Often for me, the compositional process consists mostly of meticulous editing as I try to shape improvisation into a coherent form. However, usually a piece starts with core ideas that involve tunings, rhythms, numerical relationships, or a landscape of sound that I am trying to uncover. In that sense, the improvisation takes place as I seek to express the landscape that lives in imagination, which you could say is a compositional guidepost. 

Q6: How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?

RR: Ideally, the music would involve the listener so completely that it merges the exterior world of sound and spatial localization, with the listener’s own interior world of imagination and wonder. I am strongly attracted to the idea of seamlessness in art, blurring the lines that delineate intention from pure form. So in this sense my music may seem less conceptual or intellectual, and perhaps more visceral and sensual. Ideally, as the sensual elements unfold themselves in some spontaneous experience within the listener, they help to blur the perceptual boundaries between internal and external. 

Q7: Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?

RR: Once again, I think the idea of seamlessness plays a role here. I want the intention to be clear enough that a listener can sense it if they listen for it, but I also like to retain enough mystery about the process that people can experience the music in a purely somatic realm if they desire, feeling it in the body without requiring an intellectual analysis. Here lives the value of liner notes and graphic artwork to help weave a context around the music, so we can gently direct a listener’s expectation and help them uncover some of the intention of the music. I don’t feel a need for the listener to think I’m tracing my finger over a map or counting the collisions in a particle accelerator.

Q8: In how much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?

RR: Certainly, culture plays a role in the way we listen and the decisions we make in the creative process. To a certain extent, culture consists of sets of habits and expectations, and every artist must decide upon which habits to reinforce in order to create a comprehensible experience, and which habits to undermine in order to evoke novelty. Yet we mustn’t forget the common language of being alive on a planet, an organism, a mammal, homo sapiens. This common language of existence helps us to bridge culture and communicate ideas that may have more lasting impact than a pure cultural relativism might propose. For example, on my album “Bestiary“ I tried to create a musical language that could have come from another species, another planet perhaps, yet still might express the universal qualities of being alive. Likewise on “Temple of the Invisible“ I wanted to invent the musical language of a fictional human culture in the past, something that could have formed from a common Indo-European ancestry, yet still expressing a universal human condition. Ironically, rather than resulting in a fictional-sounding experience, I came to feel that “Temple…“  expressed some of my most personal hermetic inner places: sometimes in the act of writing fiction we manage to uncover truths about ourselves that a factual biography could never expose.

Q9: The relationship between music and other forms of art – painting, video art and cinema most importantly – has become increasingly important. How do you see this relationship yourself and in how far, do you feel, does music relate to other senses than hearing alone?

RR: This may need a two-part answer. 

First: I find myself doing work for film increasingly often, and I enjoy this work. The merging of different media opens up all sorts of new possibility for expression. However, I feel that music with image must serve different needs. It tends to take a supporting role, and cannot be too engaging or it will intrude upon the seamlessness of the experience. Also, I have always enjoyed making light sculptures to go along with my live performances, and I think the audience enjoys the blend of image with sound.

Second: I believe that we as a society are becoming numb to more subtle forms of expression, as we come to expect everything to be fully engulfing and immersive, feeding an increasingly reflexive form of experience. (I wanted to say passive experience, but with gaming becoming so prevalent, the problem isn’t so much passivity as it is mechanical, mindless repetitive engagement in a fully artificial sensorium.) As our man-made world gets louder, we become increasingly deaf to quiet textures of existence that might feed our consciousness a little better. Many forms of art can excel on their own, to clear away some of the chaos and help us find footing again, our center of gravity. Take for example the sculptures of Richard Serra or Andy Goldsworthy, which can heighten our relationship with landscape. I am interested in this possible expression of music also, and I don’t see that happening as well in a multi-media vortex of sensory input.

Q10: There seem to be two fundamental tendencies in music today: On the one hand, a move towards complete virtualisation, where tracks and albums are merely released as digital files. And, on the other, an even closer union between music, artwork, packaging and physical presentation. Where do you stand between these poles?  

RR: Although I have a foot firmly on each raft, I expect to fall into the water between them soon, as they each float away. I still cling to the object a little bit. I like creating art. I like a beautiful package. I like to hold something in my hand. I do feel that the virtualization of music has removed it one step further from the human experience. Yet that seems consistent with the increasing abstraction of modern culture. I have tried making a few collectible art-box things, and they certainly were not a good financial investment. It’s swimming upstream, for sure.

I completely sympathise with the environmental arguments that we don’t need to create more landfill and plastic garbage. I suppose one could argue that most music collectors cherish their LPs and CDs longer than the portable media players which people constantly need to upgrade. I understand both viewpoints.

Perhaps the question of music distribution formats misses an interesting change in the music listening experience. Recorded music has already moved very far away from the founding essence of music: as humans participating in communal ritual, as medicine, storytelling, tribal bonding or rites of passage. As we virtualize music to the next step of unreality – to the solipsistic experience of a person in headphones isolating themselves in a bubble from the rest of the world – then we have taken a tool for bonding communities and transformed it into a tool for isolating individuals from the community. I am not so worried about the format for distribution that recorded music takes in the future – whether as an object or as pure data. I am more interested in learning how to retain or reinforce the aspects of music that connect listeners to their world and communities, rather than isolate them. 

Q11: The role of an artist is always subject to change. What’s your view on the (e.g. political/social/creative) tasks of artists today and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?

RR: I think my personality tends to make me better at asking long term questions, rather than focusing on political or social transformation. I am more inclined to lift up my voice for environmental concerns such as deforestation or climate change, for example. Whatever glimmer of idealism I may still try to keep alive usually gets crushed when I look at the human condition. Perhaps my faith in humanity is too fragile to fuel me in the fight for social justice. Instead I have long believed that one can also help the world by asking meaningful existential questions, to encourage the possibilities of self-reflection; and perhaps I’m such an idealist and a romantic that I still sometimes believe there is a role for beauty in art. 

Q12: Music-sharing sites and -blogs as well as a flood of releases in general are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What’s your view on the value of music today? In what way does the abundance of music change our perception of it?

RR: Perhaps we should differentiate the value of making music from the value of selling music. I try not to become one of those old grumps that dismiss the flood of new ideas as too much noise. Before we had recordings, people would learn how to play an instrument and entertain themselves and their friends. Some became professionals, and they played for kings or the church. Recordings gave us the chance to document and distribute sound. Some became professionals, and their music became a commodity. Now the Web turns everyone into a center of distribution, resulting in a flood of information. Is it all good? No, but the fact that people are being creative seems good to me. To be honest, I do sometimes feel that it devalues my own activity, as I try to create something that might float instead of drown in the flood.  Sometimes, in order to stay creative, I have to delude myself temporarily to imagine that it matters. Later I may feel that it doesn’t matter, and that it’s pointless to work so hard on music that becomes mere fluid in a pipeline of disposable noise. Perhaps the process of staying creative justifies the end result; so if I have to delude myself, at least it keeps me busy. 

Q13: How, would you say, could non-mainstream forms of music reach wider audiences?

RR: Once music reaches a wider audience, then we start to call it mainstream, so perhaps there is a subtle contradiction in the question. For example, is Tom Waits mainstream? Is Björk mainstream? I don’t know the answer, but I think these two examples show that some very unique and uncompromising musicians can reach a wide audience. Perhaps a magical combination of right place and right time, persistence and conceptual focus, combined with a level of professionalism that made it possible for them to reach out to more people. 

Q14: Usually, it is considered that it is the job of the artist to win over an audience. But listening is also an active, rather than just a passive process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?

RR: I think this depends upon the individual message of each artist. Some art needs to be confrontational or uncompromising, other art succeeds with seduction or satisfying an urge. I would not assume that only the confrontational art has substance, or that listeners need always to be serious in order to derive meaning from music. Often, a great communicator can sneak immense depth and meaning into a form that appeals immediately from the start. Likewise I can think of some very austere and uncompromising music that also feels devoid of content or purpose. Clearly, the more effort listeners put into listening, the more meaning they can derive. I prefer to make music that quietly invites a listener to step inside the sound and pay more attention. For that to work, I try to seduce rather than demand attention. I want to develop a rapport and trust with the listener, giving permission to actively listen and creating a suggestion that, perhaps, there are layers of intention and structure awaiting discovery.

Q15: Reaching audiences usually involves reaching out to the press and possibly working with a PR company. What’s your perspective on the promo system? In which way do music journalism and PR companies  change the way music is perceived by the public?

RR: Certainly this has changed a lot with the internet in the last decade. Personally I never had a PR company or publicist work for me, although I did benefit from the efforts of small record labels with whom I worked during the 90s, especially Hearts of Space. I think when I was starting out, press and radio had far more influence than they do today. YouTube, social networks and Google rankings matter more these days. Now it is both more immediate and more confusing. I guess I am lucky that I never expected huge fame or fortune from this odd music I make. As I started out by releasing my own albums over 30 years ago, I am comfortable with the DIY aesthetic of the Web generation.   

Q16: Please recommend two artists to our readers which you feel deserve their attention.

RR: Nature and yourself. The natural world is the most creative and prolific artist I can think of, and when we pay attention to the dynamic interplay of all the components of life, we ourselves become nourished and more creative. This creative force inspires us to make art. Therefore the second most important artist is each one of us, when we pay close attention. 

 – Robert Rich, April 9, 2013

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