Ambientrance 1998

Interview with Robert Rich for the AmbiEntrance website, August 1998.
Questioning by David Opdyke


Robert Rich – Behind the Veils

I couldn’t be happier to have spoken with Robert Rich, on the premiere of his newest release, the multi-ethnic excursion, Seven Veils.

Robert also graciously talks with us about some of his famous past releases, his co-musicians, side-projects, and more.

– You’re certainly no stranger to exotic instrumentation, but have any of your previous releases been so specifically focused on Middle Eastern atmospheres as Seven Veils? What steered you toward this particular project?

Because I wanted to make a completely ecstatic album, and the music from some of the Islamic cultures is among the most ecstatic in the world. In all of my music, you’ll hear influences from a number of different cultures, including our own at times: from Tibetan Buddhist ritual music to Indonesian gamelan, North Indian classical music, rhythms from North and West Africa, the melodic styles of Persian and Arabic music, Baroque counterpoint, minimalism, and psychedelia. The same is true with Seven Veils, although the North African/Arabic/Persian influence is definitely more obvious here. The motion towards the Middle Eastern influence comes from a deep respect for this music, and an awareness of its refinement of melody into an expression of ecstatic states of consciousness. Within these cultures, music has evolved into a very powerful tool to evoke ecstatic trance, and that’s the main reason I’m making music in the first place. Why not learn from the best?

– Do you travel the globe to study the sounds, instruments and rhythms; or is it more of an inner journey?

Totally an inner journey. I’ve grown up listening to music from around the world, so it just gets into my blood. In the end, however, the fusion of styles must become a personal expression if it is to work organically as a listening experience. I really don’t think in terms of emulating any specific styles, quite the contrary, I try hard to avoid the pastiche effect that seems so easy when working with global hybrids. I do this just by trying to stay honest to my own expression, making sure that everything comes from inside of me, and that I’ve thoroughly digested my influences before trying to mix them together.

– What’s different about the production in Seven Veils? (The liner notes call it “audiophile quality sound)

It just comes from an increasing level of perfectionism in my production style. My albums have been getting good reviews from audiophiles for quite a few years now (especially since Gaudi in 1992, which won some awards.) Because of this attention from the audiophile community, and because of my own growing obsessions with sonic clarity and frequency bandwidth, my albums are taking longer to make as I spend more time massaging all the tracks to make them sound as good as I can. My ideal is to create a huge sound stage, one that extends both in front of and behind the speakers, and to extend the frequency response to the full range of our hearing… basically just to tickle the ears and create a vast, sensual experience. It doesn’t take much fancy equipment, just lots of time and care. (Some good microphones and a digital editing system help a bit, too!)

– Did you “hand-pick” your contributing musicians (Torn, Christian, Fang, etc.)? How did the recruitment process work?

The contributors are all friends of mine, whose playing I respect immensely. David Torn is one of my favorite guiatarists in the world, and we’ve been acquaintances for several years. He even knew the band I was in back in the early ’80s, Urdu, which he once described to a common friend as “Some of the strangest music I’ve ever heard.” (From Torn I think that’s a compliment…) When Propagation came out, David called me to compliment me on it, and mentioned that he’d be happy to contribute to a future project if I was interested. Needless to say, I took him up on his offer! Hans Christian and Forrest Fang have both worked with me on past projects: Forrest on Propagation, and Hans on Amoeba’s Watchful, and we’ve all been friends for quite some time. Forrest’s album Folklore is one of my favorite releases ever. Mark Forry is a close friend of Rick Davies (from Amoeba) who introduced us. Mark is a stunningly good musician who plays Balkan folk music in the Bay Area. Andrew McGowan is an old buddy and musical cohort, who was in the group Urdu with me back in college, played on Rainforest and the first Amoeba CD, and is also contributing to the upcoming Amoeba project. As you can see, I prefer to work with friends!

– All tracks but one on Seven Veils are in “just intonation”. Isn’t just intonation simply another way of interpreting a musical scale (like metric vs. “standard”, farenheit vs. centigrade)? How does this affect the overall sound? And why is “Talisman of Touch ” the odd one out?

Just Intonation (JI) is far more than just a measuring scheme, it’s a different way to tune your music. The music sounds very different in these alternate tunings, harmonies more solid, overtones more aligned, chords more expressive. JI involves tuning the intervals in a scale to small, whole numbered ratios between frequencies, which means that the potential musical harmonies relate numerically to the harmonic series, which is what the word harmony should mean. The standard modern western tuning system, Equal Temperament, only approximates these pure intervals for the sake of more simple key modulation, by equally spacing all of the intervals along an exponential continuum (the twelfth root of two) which leads to irrational and inharmonic interval relationships.

Talisman of Touch uses neither Equal Temperament nor Just Intonation. The tuning for this piece is derived from the different tunings of the individual instruments in the piece (rubber band marimba, two flutes and violin) and they’re all slipping and sliding a bit. Although this piece has the most unusual tuning system on the album, it would be misleading to say it’s in JI since the frequencies aren’t related by small whole numbered ratios.

– For Seven Veils, did you play together in real-time, separately or even together at all?

I worked individually with each of the contributors. Hans, Forrest, Mark and Andrew each came to my studio to record their tracks with guide tracks that I had started for each piece. For David’s parts, I dropped by his studio in upstate New York for two days while I was on tour in 1996. I had only the rhythm tracks for the two pieces he played on, and the tunings and modes for each piece. I worked with him to guide his ideas into forms that I could use. We synced his solos up to the rhythms on a digital multitrack, bounced them over to ProTools on the Mac and burnt a CDR with his tracks, in the form of audio files, for me to edit later. When it came time to fly the parts into the pieces, I edited his solos to fit the music.

– Will you be touring with your Seven Veils material? (If so, will your cohorts be accompanying you?)

I actually toured with early versions of Seven Veils material on my 1996 concert tour. However, my recent concerts have been mostly new pieces, heavy on improvisation. It gets harder for me to perform a piece as soon as I release the studio version of it, as it changes a lot and sometimes becomes impossible to perform. I would love to tour with some of the contributors on the album, but I don’t think that would be feasable. I am hoping to do more concerts next year sometime, and perhaps I’ll perform some of the Seven Veils material, but currently I am in studio mode, and haven’t made any touring plans.

– Is Soundscape *your* studio? Is it a fairly “normal” recording environment or a strange and wonderful place like one might imagine?

Soundscape is my home studio. It’s a step above your typical home studio, with very clean full range monitoring (good enough to master on), digital editing, a small grand piano, good microphones and a fairly big collection of unusual instruments form around the world. Other than that, there’s nothing particularly strange about it except the music that emanates from the open door on a hot summer day. It’s not like I designed the control room to look like the set from Babylon 5 or something. It’s quite utilitarian.

– How does life in Stanford, CA contribute to your musical creativity? Is there anyplace you’d rather be?

Actually I live a few miles south of Stanford in the heart of Silicon Valley. I grew up around here, and I must say it’s getting a bit urban for my tastes, but I’m settled and the logistics of moving don’t appeal to me right now. I’m not sure how my locale affects my creativity, since my ideas seem to bubble up from a place inside me rather than from my environment.

If anything, my music tends to run contrary to my environment, perhaps because I am trying to replace something that’s missing, or fill in a gap of some sort. There are plenty of other places that I might enjoy living, but this area feels like home to me, and I appreciate the level of comfort that provides.

– You also recently released Below Zero on Side Effects; isn’t this another collection of comp pieces (a’la A Troubled Resting Place)?

Yes, but it’s important to realize that the pieces on both albums were intended to fit together as well as work on their own. The experience of listening to the album straight through is rather different from hearing the pieces individually. Building an album this way allows me to try new things, to work differently than I might work otherwise. It’s mostly a psychological trick to break me out of habits. Some novelists use a similar method, writing short stories that get published separately, but when combined create a fluid story.

– Speaking of A Troubled Resting Place… The Simorgh Sleeps on Velvet Tongues also opened (perfectly, I might add) the Throne of Drones comp. What’s the story on this piece’s sound and title??

Like most of my work, there are several parallel stories, hopefully operating at once. If I give everything away, then it’s less fun for people to make up their own explanations. The title is purposefully ambiguous, like the title of a surrealist painting, intended to stimulate images and different interpretations for different people.

Clearly the piece owes a lot to Tibetan Buddhist ritual music in structure, among other sources. The opening instrument is a Chinese Sorna – a double reed instrument with a narrow wooden flute-like body and brass bell. The Simorgh is a mythical beast that appears in the epic Sufi mystical poem “The Conference of the Birds” by Farid Ud-Din Attar. An excellent translation of the book is published by Penguin Classics. It’s the story about all the birds of the world joining together and going on a quest for a perfect king, the Simorgh. Only 30 birds survive to discover this mythical beast. The word “Simorgh” means “30 birds” in Persian – they discover themselves.

– Can you briefly describe Amoeba? How are things shaping up on the new project?

The main purpose of Amoeba is to write the kind of songs that we like to listen to. The core of the group is Rick Davies and myself. Rick and I have a close friendship that goes back almost 20 years now, a friendship that was always stimulated by our overlapping and diverse musical obsessions.

Amoeba got off to a bit of a rough start with the 5-song CD Eye Catching. Oddly enough, that first single doesn’t include Rick, since he was swamped by other commitments. I was the only common member between that first effort and Watchful, and I don’t really consider Eye Catching to represent the band in any way. Watchful comes much closer to our intent.

Once Rick started working with me on Amoeba, the sound of the group really started to take shape. We write from a shared love for a certain sound and feel that we find in some of our favorite music. It’s hard to describe that sound, except it’s certainly not an easy recipe for mainstream success.

From Nick Drake, Nico, John Martyn, or Robert Wyatt; to Durutti Column, David Sylvian, Mark Hollis and even Radiohead, there is a common thread of slow pacing, thoughtful introspective lyrics and an intense rarified atmosphere. We’re basically just trying to push the envelope of intelligent songwriting, stretch our abilities, and stay honest to ourselves.

I’ve been devoting a big chunk of 1998 to our new album, which has been progressing slowly for several reasons, not the least of which has been my need to maintain some continuity in my solo carreer. We’re also putting a lot of thought into the personality of our new songs. The new album will be a bit more energetic and upbeat than Watchful,with more traditional song structure and more vocals. I don’t have much experience writing with traditional song structures, so this project is proving a great challenge for me; for this and other reasons, I think Rick’s influence will be more apparent on the new album. Our relationship is very synergetic, and I think we’re challenging each other into some very creative territory. Once we finish the songwriting, we’ll bring in Don Swanson, Andrew McGowan, Hans Christian and others to help us build a nice organic texture for the new album.

– Besides creating your own works, you’re also mastering other folks’ as well, Love Spirals Downward’s Flux, for instance. What can you tell us about some of these other sessions?

I do mixing, production and mastering work for a lot of people on the side. It keeps me connected to other musicians and helps pay the bills. I try not to put any signature of my own on these projects, but rather help each artist realize their own vision. I think a good engineer or producer should be transparent to the project – a facilitator. As a mastering engineer I simply try to make everything sound as good as I can, and I generally take a lot longer on a project than most commercial facilities. Besides Love Spirals Downwards, some recent projects have included Forrest Fang, A Produce, Jeff Greinke, some pop vocal compilations, and a great up-and-coming band called Claire Voyant.

– I hear you were editing a CD of chamber and choral compositions for two weeks in Mexico. How was that outing?

Great! An amazing collection of pieces by Mexican composer Arturo Salinas. It’s hard to describe his music, as it’s quite original. The choral pieces remind me of a cross between Ligeti and Arvo Part, with a fine balance between dissonance and consonance and a deep sacred feeling. The chamber pieces are lithe and complex, imagine a hybrid of Terry Riley and Frank Zappa. I enjoy working on music that’s different from my own, especially when it’s so good! After about 10 days of hard work, my companion Dixie flew down to join me and we managed to squeeze in a few days of vacation in Tepoztlan.

– When you were 13 and constructing your own synthesizers, what did you envision your musical future to be?

I guess I wanted to figure out how to be a 20th Century shaman, and music seemed like the closest thing. I found myself attracted to space music and psychedelia, and I would trance out to my favorite albums, without realizing that most people used chemicals to acheive similar states. Those experiences showed me the potential for music to induce a state of consciousness. I just wanted to create music that would help people experience some of this imaginal realm. I don’t think I was planning to be a full-time musician, as such.

– Were your Sleep Concerts also part of your Psychology education, like an experiment? Can you describe one for us?

I performed my first sleep concert before I decided to study psychology in college. I was just a freshman at the time. I studied psychology for the same reason I did the sleep concerts, but one didn’t cause the other: I simply wanted to explore the potentials of the human mind, stretch it to its limits. I found a few people in the psychology department who shared my interests, primarily Lucid Dreaming expert Stephen LaBerge. (I also began to realize that my interests in expanded consciousness were not particularly shared by the majority of research psychologists, who seem more interested in baseline personality issues and mental disorders.)

Anyway, the first Sleep Concert was free, and it took place in the lounge of my dormitory at Stanford. I put posters up around campus, advertising an all-night concert of “Sleep Music” and suggesting that people bring pillows and sleeping bags. About 30 people showed up, including a few curious housemates (who had probably written me off as crazy.) I felt good about the results, so I began performing more of them around the Bay Area. It was such an unusual activity that it got a lot of attention, but the audiences were usually fairly small, no more than 50 I think. I’ve enclosed a photo that my friend Rick Davies took at this first Sleep Concert. It’s a bit tattered, but it’s a fun bit of history.

– How have the more recent Sleep Concerts differed from your earliest efforts? Will there be more?

I expect that there will be more, if there’s an interest and a suitable venue. The recent Sleep Concerts are much denser than the old ones, with more layers and more sections. We’re still talking 30 to 40 minute sections and 6-9 hours of continuous sound, but there’s more going on at any one time. It’s not exactly uptempo…

– There have been a lot of fans’ Top 10 lists appearing lately on Hyperreal’s Ambient Mailing list; almost every one contains at least one of your discs, especially Trances/Drones, A Troubled Resting Place, and by far the most-mentioned, Stalker. What do you think it is about this collab with Brian (Lustmord) Williams that appeals to so many people?

I don’t know, except that both Brian Williams and I knew that we had created something very special. For me, at least, the album carries a good balance between heavy and light, dissonant and consonant, abstract and concrete. I think we pushed ourselves into some of the most unique sound-design territory that either of us has acheived. The best collaborations become larger than the sum of their contributors. I think that happened with Brian, as it did perhaps with Steve Roach when we did Soma, an album that I still think is one of either of our best.

– Any future collaborations pending to whet our appetities with?

None that I can speak about yet!

– I’ve been enjoying your website; does the Petri Dish concept reflect your outlook on life?

There’s nothing deeply signicant about the name – it’s just a pun. There’s a lot of content on the site, though, a lot to discover. I try to present myself honestly, as I really am. I’m not into manipulating my image for public consumption. The website simply reflects my interests and my personal approach to music and the arts. I maintain it myself because that’s the only way I’ll ever be sure that it accurately informs people about my activities.

I also enjoy the creative outlet that it provides in a realm away from music-making, and I try to give it the sort of simplicity and stylishness that I like to see in a visual medium. Maybe it’s a bit low-tech as far as web technology goes these days, but I dislike web-glitziness and unnecessary multimedia gadgets, stuff that just wastes bandwidth.

– I really liked the insightful intro to your Mushroom Recipe section; are there parallels between your approaches to cooking and music? “Glurp” is good in your music, but does it translate well into food?

Yes, in that glurp reflects the nature of the sensual world, and what could me more sensual than good food? (Well, OK, sex maybe, but they’re all related…)

What could be more fundamental to our roots in the living world than to learn about and collect _wild_ food? Learning to identify, respect and use something occuring in nature can connect us to the elements, connecting our cluttered modern minds to the elemental reality of a hunter/gatherer existence. It’s not just food we’re talking about here, it’s a connection to the primordial. It’s a body of knowledge and experience, where one mistake can kill you, but where respect and caution can lead to an enriched and fulfilling experience of being alive. Delectible dinners are just the incentive.

– Will the effects of the Internet save the world, destroy it, or something in between?

Like any new technology, the Internet will take on the forms that we give it, and we will subsequently shape ourselves to fit within its metaphor, until that metaphor no longer besomes valid. We have only ourselves to blame for any evils that we may unleash with any of our tools. Likewise, we only have ourselves to blame if we allow ourselves to become victims of our own tools.

My personal policy is to become acquainted with new tools to the point that they can empower me, but to remain aware of the fundamental truths that keep me grounded and happy. I would much rather go hiking in the mountains than sit at my computer. I would rather have a conversation in my friendly neighborhood cafe than participate in a virtual chat room. I would rather live on a beautiful planet with a clean and healthy environment than become a disembodied intelligence floating around in the circuits of cyberworld. For the same reasons, I would rather read a book or play the piano than watch TV.

I want to keep my mind fluid and creative, and I want to expand the worlds in my imagination so that I can experience the awe that comes directly from the imaginitive process itself. The more we prop up our lagging imaginations with multimedia crutches, the more we deprive ourselves of the joy of creating internal worlds.

– How about some advice for those who may be interested in making their own ambient/electronic sounds?

Do it! Play live, make tapes for friends; but perfect your own voice before you go out and expect to get a record contract. If you feel confident about your music, but no record company seems interested, try releasing it yourself. That’s the best way to learn how the music business works, but don’t expect to make any money on it. You’ll be lucky if you can get it distributed, even luckier if you manage to get paid by all the distributors.

I love the egalitarian nature of electronic music, but I fear there’s a glut on the market. Much of the glut comes from too much unoriginal generic electronica, and a lot of good small releases get lost in the shuffle. The new tools have made it very easy to make good sounding recordings, but that makes it an even tougher challenge to do something that stands out from the crowd. I’m always thrilled to hear people search for new vocabularies, trying to find a personal voice rather than imitate the dominant sound. I think these people are the ones who will be remembered in a few years, and they’ll be the ones whose work stays vital after the trend-of-the-week sounds really corny.

– Thanks for speaking with us! Do you have any parting words to share?

No big lectures on the meaning of life or anything – just follow your own truth! Thanks for the thoughtful questions.

This interview posted August 19, 1998