Interviews for Beyond the Rift, with Prox Centauri (2016-2018)
I read that an interest in shamanism in your youth contributed to the earthy textures (during a time when ambient music was almost entirely electronic) found in your productions. Do you think that shamanism (a practice with an inherent emphasis on nature, spirits, dreams, and dream interpretation) played a role in your sound?
RR: Well, yes, I was trying to find a way to achieve the positive effects of journeying inside oneself, without appropriating a specific set of world views that we sometimes associate with traditional shamanic cultures. I wanted to find a language of journeying that we could treat as native to our own culture, something compatible with what we learn from scientific questioning, from critical thinking. When I was a teenager I discovered that I had a natural tendency towards trance and strong internal experiences. As I searched for language to describe these experiences, I came across books – for example by Carlos Castaneda – that seemed to reach into the “other” towards an esoteric language that seemed heavily laden with baggage, the sort of Western fascination with magical thinking that goes back to Madame Blavatsky and earlier, baggage that seems more interested in selling snake oil rather than creating a sustainable healthy engagement with the unconscious. I wanted to find an artistic language that avoided that sort of mystification but still gave acknowledgement to the non-linear capacities of our mind. I want to stay expressive of our physicality, our animal nature, and to reflect my love of the planet that gives us life, while I try to avoid directly quoting those cultural vocabularies that we associate with the exotic.
What is it about sleep that is so intriguing to you? Where do you think (in a metaphysical context) our consciousness is going once we head off to bed?
RR: Sleep is interesting for many reasons, one of which is that dreams represent an altered state of consciousness that everyone experiences on a daily basis. I don’t need to think in metaphysical terms about dream consciousness. It’s quite beautiful even in terms of cognitive psychology. In our daily waking consciousness, we are actively building the world that we perceive. The world is inside of us as a model built through the vague and limited interpretation of our senses, a metaphor that reflects only a fragment of the Universe. We are so good at world-building that we forget we do it. That’s one reason the arts can be so convincing, because we merely need to point to people’s internal associations with a few limited gestures, and each individual picks up the thread and runs with it, telling their own story from the glances, pointers and metaphors the artist offers. In dreams, we are cut off from our external senses, yet we are still building worlds. Our brains can’t stop doing it. When we begin to observe our dreams (and at times perhaps even become lucid in the dream, becoming aware we are dreaming) then we can gain great insights into our world-building process.
Could you detail some of your experiences with psychedelics? How much would you say that the waking psychedelic state compares to a lucid dreaming state? Why do think that these kinds of experiences are so transformative for artists?
RR: One of the common elements that bonds the various transformative states of consciousness is ecstasy. Lucid dreams are often accompanied by an explosion of ecstatic feeling, of joy and enhanced meaning. We don’t need external chemical stimuli to feel this deep sense of meaning. Ecstatic capabilities are built directly into our being. We are wired for it. For people who have become separated from their child-like sense of wonder and awe, sometimes psychedelics can remind them of the states of consciousness that they are capable of. I don’t think they inject anything new. However, I think there are some fundamental differences between endogenous states of ecstasy and exogenous (chemically induced) ones. Relying too much on chemistry to experience ecstasy can send people down the wrong path. I’m not referring to the typical anti-drug cautionary warnings, I am speaking in terms of spiritual energy. In my own experience (which echoes many spiritual traditions) the naturally occurring (endogenous) ecstatic revelations have a centering calmness at their core, and they tend to enhance our balance, lowering our “center of gravity” as it were; whereas the psychedelically-induced ecstatic experiences tend to result in an unbalancing, or a raising of center of gravity. Another way to put it is that endogenous ecstasy is quiet, whereas psychedelic ecstasy is loud, and eventually those who only rely on psychedelics start to go deaf to the whispers that enhance meaning and creativity in our life.
Do you think that your background in Psychology helped to ground your spiritual and metaphysical beliefs in regards to cognitive abilities and potential; Or did it pique your curiosity and push you more into the realm of the parapsychological?
RR: It might surprise you that I have very little interest in parapsychology. I think there are myriad aspects to the universe that we don’t understand, and I remain very open minded; but I think there is so much to marvel at in the universe and in our mind, that I am still in wonder and awe at even the simplest things. I don’t want to get distracted by silly esoteric exotica, when the everyday phenomena already hide unimaginable wonder. I decided on studying psychology at university because it was the closest thing to what really interested me, which was trying to combine science with improving the way humanity thinks and acts. I have always had a desire to be part of a solution rather than part of the problem. The question then, was how to do that? Most areas of psychology deal with human abnormality and illness, unfortunately. There is a very small contingent in western psychology that wants to look at peak experience, to find ways that we do things better. In this wing of psychology there is a tenuous connection with traditions like Yoga and Zen meditation, “flow”, ecstatic experiences and altered states. There are some long-known techniques to improve the way we interact with the world, but unfortunately they are usually wrapped up in religious belief systems that chase away the good scientists, as academics are afraid of getting associated with unscientific belief systems. It’s an ongoing dialog and challenge to move things forward. We need it now more than ever, as I fear humans are racing to the edge of a cliff, destroying our habitat through hyper-consumption and overpopulation to the point that we may destroy our ability to thrive, quite soon.
Does your understanding of gestalt psychology play a role in your mostly abstract and minimalist pieces? Why do you like for the listeners to find meaning in your work?
RR: I need to be honest and confess I do not have a deep understanding of Gestalt psychology. I never read Fritz Perls, for example. However, I agree with the idea that self-identity and consciousness are built from a holistic integration of all the senses, and the self is inextricably connected to the body. I am worried about the increasing fascination in our culture with virtual experiences and dis-embodiment. However, in direct response to your question, my music comes from a place that is not entirely sonic, and my creative source is not connected just to the audio senses. I agree with the ideas in Gestalt psychology that we have an integrative faculty that fuses all of our sense memories with our creative self, and that we can have intuitions that go deeper than any one of the five senses, and that those intuitions can bubble up creatively into any of those senses. I think that Synesthesia is closely connected to this idea. Although I am not trying to make a Scriabin-style symphony to show color in sound, I do think that all of the senses can come into action while experiencing music – or any art form for that matter. I think everyone can be a synesthete at some level. Many of my more abstract pieces actually have what I feel to be a seductive texture. They are often more tactile than than sonic. If you listen to my most difficult “dark ambient” pieces, like on Below Zero, you can find yourself floating in a velvet texture; although it might be purely atonal, it is not confrontational. I think, what I want listeners to find in music like this, is a new kind of beauty, a discovery of mystery and awe in the hidden places where we forget to look.
You’ve held concerts in some pretty unconventional locations like Cathedrals and Caves. With these places being inherently mystical, do you think that these venues help the listener settle into your performances?
RR: I think alternate venues are very helpful to create a different set of expectations. My music does not survive well in a night-club environment. It doesn’t pair well with alcohol and conversation, at least in performance. I try to create an environment where people have different expectations, so they listen in a more active way. I think this is because people bring most of their own experience with them. If I can heighten the natural capacity we all have to sense energy in the world, meaning, wonder… then I am doing what I set out to do. A special environment helps immensely, especially if it’s intimate and full of expectation. Planetariums are really good, art galleries pretty good, churches are good (partially because of lighting and acoustics, also because of culturally trained expectation.) These sorts of places tend to encourage active listening.
With such a storied and successful career, how do you continue to stay fresh? Are you consciously seeking out new elements to incorporate into your tracks? Do you ever fear retreading old ideas or stagnating?
RR: Well, first of all I don’t believe I have done anything I can rest my laurels on. A few people might think I have a big career, but most of the world has never heard of me. I never set out to become famous and I still don’t think it will ever happen. It’s not important. I am successful in a very workmanlike way. I try hard and I don’t think I have ever done anything perfectly, so I am always inspired to make something new, different and better next time. More important than any idea of a “career” I am always curious, always bothered by something that tickles, I need to scratch an itch of curiosity. I am not thinking so much in terms of incorporating new elements, styles, instruments or technology; I am thinking in terms of honestly exploring new ideas and new questions with all of my skills and energy. I will happily learn new techniques if they assist in exploring new questions. Honesty comes first. For example, I know that I am not good at programming techno beats – but it doesn’t interest me. I respect good drum programming, but it isn’t an honest part of my personality. For years now I have played my drum parts by hand because I prefer the sound of organic drums; or I’ll use modular synths so that each instance of a pulse is slightly different from the last one. Perhaps these are “old ideas” but I will re-work those old ideas because I prefer them to the current status quo. Every new album I work on becomes a new set of questions and new explorations. I tend to go in different directions with each new release, but I try not to get too obsessed about re-inventing my entire set of skills. I need to rely on the few things I know how to do in order to explore each new idea. Yet it seems that many of my albums still surprise listeners enough that it takes a while for them to get accustomed to the vocabulary. I think I am just starting to get used to that dynamic after 35 years of releasing albums.
You’ve just completed first sleep concert in the United States since 2003 at this past Moogfest. Has the energy, atmosphere, and reception changed since your last performance here?
RR: The two events were completely different. The performance in 2003 was part of a radio art festival in Albuquerque NM, where I played live on the radio all-night with a few visual artist acquaintances forming a tiny audience in the studio, relaxing. Since then, I played three other much larger sleep concerts, in 2013-2015, at the Unsound Festival in Krakow, Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo, and Copenhagen Film Festival. Those each had large venues with audiences ranging from 120-220 people. The one at Moogfest was a bit smaller than the other recent events, but had the advantage of many new mattresses donated by the manufacturer for promotional consideration. Otherwise, the ballroom of this art deco building had a hard stone floor, not the most comfortable sleeping surface. I have been quite happy with these recent events. The mood is very quiet, deep and contemplative. Even the slightest sound is audible, and people seem to enter into the spirit of deep listening for extended times. Afterwards, though, it takes me at least a week to recover. I feel completely exhausted, empty. That’s one reason they don’t happen very often.
Did you have the opportunity to speak with some of the participants before and after the concert? What were some of the expectations they had going in and takeaways they had?
RR: I typically give a short introduction before the sleep concert, where I explain the ideas behind it, and offer suggestions for getting the most out of it. This includes a brief explanation of the difference between hypnogogic imagery in light sleep, vs. dreams in REM sleep, and how to use the music as if your consciousness is a stone skipping across a lake, dipping in and out of dream. Also I explain the reality of snoring and give people permission to nudge their neighbor if necessary, things like that. I do often chat briefly with individuals after the concerts, although in truth I am so exhausted I just want to get the gear folded up and get back to the hotel to sleep. Usually the mood is so quiet in the morning that people are still contemplating the experience. It’s quite an unusual mood, and it takes some time to digest I think. If people want to see the basic ideas that I cover in the introduction, they can find them in the liner notes of Somnium on my website here: https://robertrich.com/discography/liner-notes-from-somnium/
Who are some of your favorite contemporary artists?
RR: I keep a soft spot for unusual introspective songwriting, which these days includes people like Daughter (If You Leave), Emiliana Torrini (Fisherman’s Woman), Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Elbow, The Books, Sufjan Stevens – just intelligent thoughtful and unusual music. Most often, you’ll probably find me listening to classical Indian music (Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, Debashis Bhattacharya), Senegalese singer Oumou Sangare, Indonesian gamelan music… or classic jazz like Coltrane, Miles, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, but then I suppose those aren’t quite “contemporary.”
RR: I’m always pursuing multiple obsessions. I am fascinated by small machines, mechanical wristwatches and clocks, and I enjoy refurbishing vintage watches. I am enchanted by wild animals and the urban wildlife that share our world. I have been making friends with our local crows and writing about them. I enjoy mycology and identifying wild mushrooms, often collecting edible ones for our meals in the rainy season. We have an edible landscape at our house, with drip irrigation, so I am often out pulling weeds when I’m not in the studio. The food from the garden goes to our table, and I love to cook. Having friends over for dinner is our main form of social interaction. I sometimes experiment with inks and brush painting, and for years I have played around with invented calligraphic and symbolic alphabets. I was making wine for ten years, but stopped in 2011 because it was starting to take over the house. Before the winemaking, I was making ceramics with a wheel and kiln in the basement, doing raku and blending my own glazes. Like many of my hobbies, it dominated for about 10 years then fell by the wayside. I guess that defines me as a dilettante. I am always reading about various topics, especially cosmology and art history. I try to keep asking questions – it keeps life interesting!
Tips for aspiring artists and label owners?
RR: Always do what is most honest deeply inside of you, and keep multiple streams of income and parallel activities so you don’t need to rely only on the music. Independent record labels are almost anachronistic these days, there is so little money to be made from selling recordings. I think the artists need to take their own career in their hands; and if they can’t do it themselves, hire the help they need to promote their work, rather than trying to indenture themselves to something as moribund as a record label. Having said that, I believe there is a role for assistance in such things as licensing and music placement, and it certainly isn’t an area I have much expertise. I hope we start seeing more equal collaborations between creation and distribution, arrangements that resemble cooperatives to strengthen the voice of independent artists without them sacrificing control over their art. Companies like Spotify have disrupted artist’s ability to survive financially even from their most successful creations, and I don’t see that situation improving any time soon, possibly just getting worse. In this climate, musicians should not be ashamed of having a day job, and they will need to find creative methods to connect closely to the listeners that enjoy their art, so that listeners will want to support future projects. We need to create our work from a deep creative urge, but without any external positive feedback it gets very hard to maintain that urge and keep going. Even some humble external rewards give artists the sense that they aren’t working in a vacuum. If listeners want music at the most creative high quality, they will have to start doubting the illusion of free distribution being proffered by internet hucksters who are building their own fortunes unsustainably on top of the increased poverty of the creators.
Information on upcoming releases and projects?
RR: While I was recording my latest release “What We Left Behind” I had to push aside a range of ideas that seemed like a different album, a much darker sequel. That’s what I’m working on now. I have a title and plans for the cover art, and the music is mostly in scraps and pieces. I’ll say a bit more about it when it comes together more fully. Also I have been invited to perform a concert in Krakow Poland on November 11. It will be a sort of ritual around the memory of ancestors – a bit like a ghost story. Some other very interesting artists will be involved.
RR: I feel that my role as an artist is to disrupt the status quo with small bubbles of beauty. It is also my duty to journey into the shadows and return with something nutritious. Art can still express beauty without shying away from darkness, death, or even anger towards injustice; it embraces the opposites and points to new directions. It’s about things much bigger than ourselves.
Q: With each passing year, I think Somnium’s legacy grows a bit more. Are you ever intrigued by the project or tempted to revisit the concept? What satisfies you the most about it?
RR: You probably realize that Somnium was already revisiting the sleep concert idea that started in 1981. I have performed all night concerts off and on since then, and in the mid 1990s I did a tour of two dozen cities where I played all night on the radio. After that I wanted to document the idea so I might not have to stay up all night so much. When the medium of DVD became available it seemed like a good way to do that, so Somnium took several years to create, from at least 1997- 2000, and DVD seemed like the best storage and distribution medium. The internet grew since then, and the idea of delivering 8 hours of music online seemed possible, but I wanted to find a way to do it at highest resolution rather than the compressed audio of MP3 how people were hearing this. That’s when “Perpetual” came about. I was still getting invitations to perform sleep concerts, and after the ones in Krakow and Tokyo I decided to put out a sequel. (So, yes, “Perpetual” is the sequel to “Somnium” and also the Blu-ray contains the full 7 hours of Somnium.)
Second part of the question, what satisfies me most about it? I like the fact that people are finding many ways to experience this slow moving environment. Although it’s intended for sleep, I hoped that it could create a soundscape for thinking, dreaming, journeying. It is oriented toward the cycle of sleep, but I realized that these recordings would be available any time for people, so I shifted the dynamics a bit so the deepest parts were not as quiet as they might be when I perform live all night, so they would be interesting during other times of day perhaps. It’s an odd sort of sound, not normal music, so it’s hard to know how people use it or react to it. I also really like how the music flows with intention, it isn’t algorithmic or aleatoric, it has a flow and seems like a whole experience, not just wallpaper.
Q: I’m always curious about how an artist’s relationship with their work changes as they mature or shift their ideologies. What has been some of the most notable changes you’ve noticed with your relationship to the ambient genre?
RR: It’s a tough question to answer, because I don’t think in terms of musical genre at all. “Ambient” doesn’t mean much to me. I just think about what seems important for our evolution, or for the planet in general, or for my community and the people I love. My music has always been an outgrowth of these passions, and it tends to be rather quiet perhaps because I might be a bit over-sensitive to stimulus; so I make something a bit more sparse to counteract the loudness of our world. As I get older, I become increasingly concerned about the footprint our species is leaving on the planet, and I have many interests regarding the possibilities for us to evolve in our consciousness or behavior, so that hopefully we might steer away from the cliff we are racing towards. My music speaks to the earth and to the experience of being animal, embodied, non-virtual. It’s a music of place, of planet, but also of spirit and the flight of mind, imagination. I keep hoping that we as a species can integrate these better parts of ourselves before we become a victim of our own great extinction event.
Q: Ambient music has become pretty synonymous with spirituality and different forms of healing/relaxation. What do you think music provides you with (if at anything) medicinally that you find difficulty finding in other practices?
RR: I tend to shy away from any idea of music as a specific medicine, because perhaps I am poisoned by the charlatans claiming that they will cure people with this or that tone. I think intention is medicine, and if people approach anything they do with intention, they can help become their own medicine. If they approach the music they love with intention, it becomes medicine. Anything could be medicine when applied at the right moment with the right intention. Maybe it’s a slightly toxic plant or fungus in the right tiny dose for the right condition at the right time, or maybe it’s a punk concert for a teenager ready to break out of expectations at the right place and time. Being too sanctimonious about everything can make it stultifying and toxic in its own bland way, like how fresh food becomes boring when people curse it with words like “healthy.” Wouldn’t you rather eat “decadent savory crunchy frissée greens with vibrant flavors”, instead of “heart-healthy vegan raw kale with low fat dressing?”
Q: Something that has been interesting me a bit lately is cymatics and psychoacoustics. Do you think music can change our cellular and psychological structure?
RR: Everything we do changes our cellular structure, and if we do it with intention it can change us in a direction we intend. People interpret all sorts of natural phenomena as specifically powerful or transformative, and I think what really transforms people is their intention to transform in a certain way. The fact is, sitting on a couch watching football on TV transforms us in physical ways, so does taking a walk through the woods. Breathing transforms us, as we take in new molecules and expunge old ones. When we do anything with intention, then we begin a feedback loop, and shape our experience towards a goal. One of the key elements of perception (as in psychoacoustics) is that our attention to a stimulus sharpens our perception of that stimulus. We are not passive receptacles, but actively shaping our sensitivity to stimuli. Art can enhance this sensitivity by adding emotional and contextual depth, it helps to tell a story around the act of paying attention. The act of experiencing beauty or meaning in an artistic experience changes our cellular structure, as it can guide the act of paying attention.
Q: After creating so many albums which kinds of experiences do you tend to learn the most from? Are the hardest projects the most rewarding or does things getting easier convey an increase in skill or vision?
RR: Regarding music itself, I might not be the best judge. Some of my best work seems to make itself, and I come to appreciate those gifts. Other times, I struggle and carve a detailed microcosm, and I don’t know if I will be satisfied with it or not. The music itself seems to drive the result, and I am sometimes more prepared to help the process with what I know, and other times I seem ill prepared and struggle to help the process. If I were a midwife I might say that sometimes the babies come easily and sometimes they struggle to enter the world, but I never know how the easy ones or the difficult ones will fare in life’s journey. Maybe the ones that come hard into the world will have a pearl of wisdom to teach the rest of us?
An example of an easy baby might be Nest. It has turned out to be one of my most successful releases. It came from a period of silence. I had been performing for a month in Australia, and my ears were tired from a few loud festivals, with some lingering tinnitus. I made some really nice environmental recordings while I was there, and I wanted to use them somehow, but I needed something more quiet than silence. The music came from a need to have sound that created its own quiet space, if that makes any sense. Apparently a few other people needed the salve that I needed when that music started to take shape. On the other hand, an album like Filaments took a lot of detailed effort, and more concentrated development. It required a more dense and structured approach. I also think it spins a good tale, it unfolds in a natural and dynamic way. It came from a muse specific to the questions asked within its world. It also works quite well within its language. Each project I start has its own set of questions and challenges. Sometimes they require more time, sometime they flow quickly and easily. I prefer that each one has its own personality this way. It keeps my life interesting.
Q: Which project do you think taught you the most about yourself and what you wanted to explain to listeners about your perspective?
RR: Hmm. Each project exposes a facet of my life, which I don’t always see until it is done. My recent release Vestiges taught me that sometimes the foreboding hiding within cannot be silenced, and I have to give it voice or else it becomes a toxin. The last three albums make a sort of trilogy: What We Left Behind, Vestiges, and Lift a Feather to the Flood (with Markus Reuter.) I think of these as my brooding trilogy, a dark foreboding about the state of humanity. I intended WWLB as a hymn to the stamina of our planet to survive even the cancer that humanity has become upon its surface. It’s a celebration of resilience and evolution. Yet while I was trying to keep that album in a realm of a (regretful) celebration I found myself always placing darker forebodings on a mental shelf, keeping them hidden until I could process them. In the background, certain events in my personal sphere were putting pressure on me, reminding me of mortality and age. (My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers, and we needed to relocate her to receive full time care after she broke her hip; and my wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which is now an ongoing part of our life.) I needed to take those forebodings off of the shelf where I had placed them while working on WWLB, and confront them directly. “Vestiges” started as an elegy to the human race, and it became a meditation on mortality. When I discussed these issues with Markus Reuter before we started work on “Lift a Feather to the Flood”, I expressed how art can offer redeeming metaphors, even in the face of unsurmountable adversity. Like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, an artist can maintain ridiculous ideals of hope and virtue, while seeming a fool to those watching. The act of making art is pointless, meaningless, like lifting a feather to a flood (or tilting at windmills); yet it is all that we know how to do, and it is this very meaningless act that gives meaning to life in the poetical sphere. It is a shamanic act of healing the spirit in the knowledge of certain mortality.
Q: What are some things that have been captivating you as of late? Any new artists, books, or films you’d like to recommend?
RR: I have been fascinated by the idea of systems as mind, and the possibility that we might someday understand how a forest thinks, or an anthill, or an ocean. I love the idea that our own skin is not a real boundary, just a gateway, and even our own biology is not one of individuals, but of communities of organisms, our microbiome. I am playing with new words that reflect this idea of communities as mind, and that systems might be thinking in ways much slower or at a scale larger than we can perceive. Likewise I am so in love with the crows that come to visit every day. My passion for corvids came from this same desire to communicate with minds so different from ours. Our pets are also a measure of this, but when we get to know truly wild animals, something else opens up. A language between species – or even systems – should be one great next step in the evolution of mind.
Q: Final thoughts?
It’s not so complicated. We need to be kind. We need to step more lightly or we will go extinct. All the rest is tribal posturing, monkey politics. For me this becomes a lifelong project, which is always flawed and needs improvement, yet always represents just what it is – being alive. If I stop making music it could be that I am simply working on the next step along that challenging path. Or perhaps the music is just the detritus of my attempts down the path of paying attention.
June 8, 2018
Why are we conscious? Or what is consciousness for?
I am inclined to think that we participate in a process that we call consciousness, and that it is not something that lives only inside of each of us. It is a convenient illusion to think that we “make” consciousness, just because our own personal self awareness comes and goes with our being alive. When we have a thought, I suspect that the neurons in our brain don’t know what we are thinking. They participate in that thought, but the thought is built up from the complex system of interactions. Likewise an ant might not specifically understand why it is crawling through the walls in our house trying to get to the kitchen faucet, yet the ant nest might “know” in a chemical form that it needs a new source of water.
Perhaps our historical attraction to hierarchical concepts like theism grows from this intuition that order expands both outward and inward in fractal self similarity. Consciousness appears to be a universal process, an organizing principle that grows out of the interactions of increasingly complex systems. Perhaps the surface of Earth is conscious, with all living things making up its neurons, the atmosphere as lungs and geology its digestion. Perhaps our galaxy is conscious, with planetary systems resembling a multi-lens eye, viewing the evolution of time through the neurons of each planet and star, with thoughts that span millions of years.
If this is the case, consciousness makes us. We don’t make consciousness. The question “Why are we conscious” becomes better formulated as “How can we recognize the conscious scaffolding that we live within.” If everything moves with intention towards mind, then maybe there is no “why” and no “what for” except for the pure intention of the universe knowing itself.
9 June 2018