Wavepaths is a research-oriented venture based in the U.K., developing technologies that combine music with trance experiences. The original interview was posted here: https://wavepaths.com/learn/wavepaths-conversations-robert-rich-part-1/?fbclid=IwAR0mqWtmTAUzXrkgG9lk0fVRrXhD5jcjNO2pd_h-oBBc7m258WlX3mqUcIk
Wavepaths founder Mendel talked in depth with musician and now collaborator Robert Rich about topics ranging from memories of music, the relationship between music and the absence of sound, relocating consciousness, the beauty of existence, and more.
What is your very first personal memory of music?
Well, there are two early memories. One is that my grandfather was very fond of big band jazz, back in the 60s. My father was a jazz guitarist and an electronics engineer and he helped my grandfather build a hi-fi amplifier back in the mid-60s, out of tubes. My grandfather in Illinois had a reel- to-reel recorder and he would take old 78s (records) from the 1920s and 30s and record them onto the reel-to-reel so that he wouldn’t wear out the records. I remember visiting my grandparents in the summertime and hearing Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman and all this big band jazz. I didn’t care for it that much, but it has an emotional resonance for me. I remember my sister and my grandfather trying to get me to respond to this music by dancing or something like that, and I was probably two or three and I just didn’t want to – I remember telling them “I don’t like music!”. But I do remember hearing things like “Mississippi Mud” and “St. James Infirmary” and all of these classic songs from the 1920s, and they’re sort of stuck in my brain as a specific childhood memory.
And the other one was hearing my father with his best friend getting together and jamming. They were very fond of a certain kind of 50s West Coast cool jazz, like Stan Getz and Barney Kessel. That was a very fun memory; they’d be up all night drinking beer, singing, and just having fun. For some reason, though, I never found myself pursuing music in that way; it was never something that was a social engagement for me. I think I was always a little oversensitive to my environment. In my grade school years, in third or fourth grade, I started getting into growing plants. I would keep the radio on a classical station and just playing really quietly in the background for the plants while I was at school. So oddly enough, my first application of music was background, as an ambience for growing succulents in my bedroom.
When you reflect on your upbringing, how would you describe the role of music in your life and your personal growth?
It was so important to me later, when I was a teenager. It was such a question of identity for me. The bands or the groups or the connection with the musicians – the style of music that I responded to, was such a self-definition. It was an identification of a badge of personality, in my teen years.
But as I became a serious musician, I would say ironically, the way I identify now with music is less personal, and it becomes more of a question of analytics, of a more neutral emotional response. I still can get very affected by intense music and by the music I love, but the whole way that I respond to music has somewhat been infiltrated with a more analytical mindset. And I regret that, to a certain extent, but I think it’s a natural phase that happens when people develop a professional relationship to their art form.
And at the same time, you described this tendency of music being really meaningful for your identity and your sense of self-worth.
It’s more of a forming of one’s own art instead of an experiencing of somebody else’s art. Rather than coming from out to in, it goes from in to out, which is a natural process of getting more skilled at doing something.
One thing that was very formative for me was discovering that I had a certain knack for self-hypnosis or for trance. This happened early, probably when I was about 10 or 11 years old. I found a record in the cutout bin of a drugstore called“The Wind Harp: Song From The Hill”, and it had an obnoxious, hippy cover of flower children in knit clothing, in front of this sculpture, and it looked so strange. It turned out to be absolutely esoteric avant garde drone music of an Aeolian harp recordist. His name was Harry Bee, and the harp was located on a hill up in Vermont, in the Northeast. It was just these clouds of sound absolutely atonal, shifting drone, with the sound of nature behind it – of birds and thunderstorms and rain and things. I had no idea what planet this had come from. It was completely out of context. Years later, I discovered that parts of it had been used in the soundtrack to “The Exorcist”, so it was actually something that had come into mainstream culture as part of a horror movie soundtrack. So I would put this on and just lay on my bed, close my eyes and become bodiless. My body image would start distorting and I would discover that I could take my centre of consciousness, or my sense of self, and relocate it, move it around through my body into my fingertips or into my toes, and start inhabiting my body consciously in different ways. This is something that can be done with hypnosis, so it was a sort of self-hypnosis.
I became very interested in the role of shamanic trance and music, and how music related to states of consciousness. At a point in the late 70s, we moved to my grandparents house, a beautiful old house that they had built in the 1920s, with a creek running through the property. My bedroom had windows that would open up with oak trees hovering right around the edges. I remember spring evenings when I would stay up late at night, just listening to the frogs out in the creek, and letting my mind move sideways out of my body and into the open tree canopy. I came to realize that sound was not located between the ears. One of the things that defines our sense of location, of our idea of self, is our position of the eyes and ears. So we put ourselves in our brain. And it’s very convenient that our brain happens to be one of the main things that processes ideas, but there’s nothing given about the idea that our sense of self is located between our ears and behind our eyes. I discovered that with consciousness and using sound, we can hear around corners, we can hear through the dark; we can’t see through the dark, we can’t see around corners. Hearing allowed me to relocate consciousness, out into space and away from this cabin between the ears. I found that idea to be very powerful. I became extremely interested in trying to create sound that could affect consciousness in some of the ways that I had discovered using sound.
I started looking for other composers who were prior art to what was interesting to me. I found people like Pauline Oliveros, who was talking about these things in the 60s, a sound recordist named Bill Fontana, who was doing relocation of sound environments. Annea Lockwood, who did a piece in 1979-1981 called “Delta Run” with a recording of a sculptor friend of hers who was about to die. That had me in tears. It was so powerful, and it was using these same ideas of trance, using sound recordings of the forest near the cabin where this friend lived. And the way it incorporated this sort of story as he talks to the listener about death.
All of those things came together to show me that we could create experiences that were much more than just a melody that gets stuck in your head, or entertainment, or a mating ritual. And that’s where the core of my music started to form, this idea of trance, a shamanic journey of relocation of consciousness and of using the environment as a cue to create a sense of place, or to relocate our sense of place.
Would you say that is also one of the things you would hope your art will have as an impact on the experience of the listener? A change in perception, a change in consciousness?
Absolutely, yes. I’ve been using Pauline Oliveros’ phrase “deep listening” instead of ambient music to describe what I’m trying to do. “Ambient music” was a convenient term because it’s a much more digestible term than New Age. I didn’t have in my personal composition many of belief systems that New Age culture embraced. So, avoiding that phrase New Age, which was prominent when I was getting started in the early 80s, I was happy to embrace ambient as a name for what I do; although I was uncomfortable with the implication that it’s meant to be background music, because my music was always intended to be psychoactive and more powerful when you engage.
There’s an interview I remember hearing with Steve Reich, where he was asked about some of the critics of minimalist music who were coming from the point of view of academic music, that music should be difficult or intellectually engaging. He replied that just because something is easy to enjoy doesn’t mean that it lacks intellectual content. He used an example: you could be in a coffee shop, and overhead on the Muzak is Bach’s “Art of the Fugue”, and it would be wonderful background music. Yet, as a student of classical music, you could spend your entire life studying the “Art of the Fugue” and never quite understand all of the subtleties and depth of that music. A great piece of music can function both in the background, or as pleasant entertainment, and also contain a lot of rigor or substance. And I liked the way he phrased that, because I’ve always tried to create a multi-level experience, where the albums can be pleasant, but they aren’t confrontational. I like my music to be invitational, to be something that asks a listener to enter into a safe space and to explore the world with me. Now, that safe space isn’t always pretty, it’s not always light or cheerful. And it usually has layers of shadow. But like a great film director, if you learn to trust them, that they’re not going to hit you over the head with violence, or some kind of cheap shock tactic, you can enter into their film work with trust, and go into a place much darker and more meaningful. I would much rather trust Ingmar Bergman to take me into a dark place than I would Quentin Tarantino.
So, just to clarify a little bit, why do you say that?
I think it’s because by nature, I tend to be very hypersensitive to stimulus. I feel sometimes like I’m a person who goes through life with no skin, like I’m just a bunch of raw nerves exposed to the world. Things are too loud. For example, I don’t like going to see Hollywood movies, because I find that I can’t trust most filmmakers. There’s a handful that I can trust. Andre Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fellini, I could trust. And because of my intrinsic tendency to be hypersensitive to stimulus, my own music often takes a very long time to evolve, and is unlikely to have big hit-your-face moments, or be aggressively confrontational. But if I invite people into my world, I can show them these places, these corners that they might not have noticed before. But for them to notice, it involves toning down the level of stimulus so that the expected dynamic range is reduced. So now, what might seem loud is actually much quieter than what might have been loud two hours ago.
You emphasize the contrast between Andre Tarkovsky’s work and Hollywood films because the latter have a tendency to bombard people with stimuli rather than helping them to wake up to something more subtle.
Absolutely. Once you enter into the timeframe of a Tarkovsky film, where you’re ready for a 3.5 hour experience, you start paying attention to the chiaroscuro of every visual frame of his work. You notice the shadows, the texture, the subtle noises, very detailed things. You would never notice those things in a Michael Bay film, where everything’s exploding and flying, and it’s all synthesized computer graphics. I definitely land on the Tarkovsky side of the equation, where I’m trying to rarify the stimulus, trying to thin it out so that it becomes much more low-density: encouraging people, therefore, to increase their threshold of sensitivity, so that they start noticing things that are much more fine grained detail.
I read Tarkovsky’s “Sculpting in Time” ages ago and I underlined this beautiful quote by him that says: “We should long ago have become angels, had we been capable of paying attention to the experience of art, and allowing ourselves to be changed in accordance with the ideals it expresses”. It’s this idea that art has a transformative potential, but that it very much depends on the engagement, and the openness for the work of art on behalf of the listener. But asking people to open themselves up fully to work of art also really demands and requires a lot of trust.
That’s why I was mentioning that word “trust” earlier regarding Hollywood films, for example. You have a pact, you have a concord with your audience. You develop an audience that has come to trust you, and you don’t want to break that trust. You say, okay, if you’re willing to go along with me here, I will try not to disappoint you, but bear with me because it might not be easy going, you might get bored. And there is a subtext, a thesis underneath this. I think the one to express that most clearly was Pauline Oliveros in her works, in her writing and her talking.
She invented the term deep listening, right? I think it was her who came up with it.
Yes, around 1988 when she and her friends found this cistern to record in, in Washington State Olympic Peninsula. They called themselves the“Deep Listening Band”. She was doing these sonic meditations back in the 1960s, and she was part of the San Francisco Tape Music Centre back in the early 60s, along with Terry Riley and Morton Subotnick. When you hear her talk about why she wants people to engage in careful active listening, it’s very clear that her intent is that once you’ve taught yourself the tools to engage in active listening, you can take those tools everywhere. Out into life. And the whole world becomes music, the whole world becomes more beautiful. And that’s absolutely part of my intent. I think when I was doing psychology research, that was the intent that we had with our lucid dreaming work – once you develop certain skills in understanding your dreaming consciousness, you could learn the difference between assuming that you’re self-aware versus actually being self-aware, and that you could take those habits of awareness into the daily world and be more self-aware, more awake in your waking time – instead of being a sleepwalker, while awake. The assumption being that many of us actually sleepwalk through most of our lives.
And how would you define this term, of being more awake, being more aware?
I think when we feel truly awake in a moment of heightened sensitivity, which I’m prone to – let’s call it like a psychedelic state without the external stimulus; purely endogenous psychedelic state of awareness – you find that there is so much content in the natural world, so much texture to existence, that it’s almost unbearably beautiful. It explodes. And there are techniques of meditating, techniques of enlarging one’s awareness that can make you so sensitive that it’s almost unbearable to exist. Because the world is so absolutely fine-grained in its detail. Everything is a fractal. Everything is echoing something larger than it, and things that build it echoing smaller, that from the scale going down and the scale going up, everything is infinitely detailed and infinitely fine-grained. And as you start noticing those things, you realize that the beauty of existence is almost unbearable. To pass through life as functional animals, we need to round it off, we need to sand off our awareness and smooth it, to relieve ourselves of the texture of the fine grain of existence. And so we go through life muted.
But then we become aware of how much detail there is to experience. You can appreciate every particle, every insect, every blade of grass, from a myriad of different angles: from scientifically, to see how it’s growing, to see the chlorophyll, to see the cell structure, to see how light is impinging and turning ATP into sugar molecules; or you can look at how that blade of grass is feeding other animals, how it’s feeding the snails and the slugs and the cows and the rabbits; you can look at how it’s creating color in the world, you can look at the spectrum of color or texture. Every aspect of the universe can rotate around that one blade of grass. It echoes everything above and below it, just as we do in our existence. Our brief life here, 50 to 100 years, is something that has an infinite amount of detail. And we can choose to focus on certain aspects or certain other aspects at our will. If we’re feeling ill, we suddenly notice every ache and pain we have in our body. We suddenly notice how nice it was to be able to breathe freely yesterday because now my sinuses are clogged up. And then once you get through that illness, you feel healthy again, and you can’t believe that you went through your entire life not appreciating what it was like to be able to breathe. But what we do as animals is, we forget the emotion that we had yesterday; when we’re happy, we forget the emotion of being sad, and vice versa. Because we live in the moment. Especially things like emotion, things like states of arousal. They are in the present, they’re in the now, and so it’s a very difficult thing when you’re feeling depressed to ever remember that you’ve been happy in your life, ever. Because it’s so engulfing, those emotions.
I think therefore one of the things that art can do – just like what dreams can do – is to take us through exercises, to journey us through the realm of emotions, to practice how fluid we are, and how quickly things change. There’s an old Sufi story which ends up with the Sufi master teaching the emperor “this too shall pass”. The idea being that emotions are constantly in flux. So as we practice shifting our state of consciousness, we can dive down into a finer grain of consciousness, or a coarser grain of consciousness. This, just like our level of attention with the art, can become a higher threshold or lower threshold. If you jump into the realm of a Tarkovsky movie, you’ve suddenly increased your threshold of sensitivity so that now, even the most subtle crunching of a leaf becomes a very loud noise. The breathing of a person, something with emotion, becomes something that tells a story. Likewise, with my music, when I’m taking people down a very quiet, long pause, hopefully, that moment when the next thing happens, it might be something that creates a sense of beautiful, ecstatic joy. Even though it might actually be a very rarefied and a very subtle thing. But if we can take people down a journey, we are curating their experience through art. We’re curating a journey through time. Especially with music – or with theatre, with art that has a time-based mode – we can actually curate the experience and we can tell a story through these experiences. And I think that we can teach people, we can teach ourselves, how rich and how exquisite existence is.
There’s a good argument to make that the ways we experience the world and the ways we experience ourselves is the totality of all the experiences we had in the past. And because the past is so filled, to some degree, with pain and trauma, it becomes harder to be present to those details and to those textures. And this is where clearly works like yours are able to make the mind a little bit more malleable, a little bit more flexible, a little bit more aware about what’s here too, as well as what you’re used to. And I like this simulation metaphor very much for that reason, this idea of moving through something, moving away from something to something from one state to the other, though art.
Yes, you want people to go through a range of experiences during art, and you want to come out of it different from when you came in. One of the things that creates depth or layering of experience in an artwork, is that willingness to go into shadows. I think that the fundamental difference between something that’s merely pretty and something beautiful or deeply moving, is that for something to be beautiful, it needs to contain the thanatotic. It needs to contain the shadows, the death within it, as well as the urge to life. Reminding us of how short time is, is essential to get us to appreciate the moment we’re in now. Otherwise, there’s going to be an infinite number of these moments, why bother? Right? As soon as we realize, as soon as we remember, that time is short, then we value this moment more because this moment will pass, this moment right now is always gone.
One of the things that creates depth or layering of experience in an artwork is that willingness to go into shadows.
And when we deal with our life experiences, with the traumas of growing up, the traumas of surviving, which for some people have been much harsher than for other people, we also have to look at the role that the brain plays in pruning memories. An interesting fact is that in order to be conscious, in order to have new memories, we need to forget, and part of the skill of a healthy brain is to prioritize experience and to prune. If we remembered every leaf that we’ve ever seen in our life, every piece of gravel, every shadow, every thought, every conversation, we would be absolutely frozen. We would be stuck with an inability to think a new thought, an inability to move forward. And this is a little bit like what happens with some people with PTSD probably, is that you have a memory that’s so ingrained that you cannot change the emotional intensity of it.
And it’s because the memory is so personally significant. The more significant the memory is, the harder it is to get rid of it.
Yes, and the way memory works, of course, is that we remember things by bringing them back up, rehearsing them and putting them away. So memories don’t just live back there without ever being pulled up again. To remember something, we pull it up frequently, and we rehearse it, and often we’ll add new emotional baggage to it, and then put it back away with that new baggage attached. And this is how our brains work. That’s what REM sleep is, as well, that’s what dreaming is.
I think art is to a certain extent, part of that process of rehearsing things that are perhaps more beneficial to us. Perhaps, we don’t need to be moralistic about art, I’m sure that there’s a lot of people who would prefer to watch a slasher movie or a horror film or something, which maybe you’d say are not beneficial to us. Perhaps though, there are benefits in catharsis, in the sense of blowing it out, having such a loud stimulus that it reduces the pain of the other stimuli. Perhaps the benefits of death metal or slasher movies, or even war, what’s happening is that we are decreasing our sensitivity to the rest of the world in order to medicate. The world is very loud. And so by placing an extremely loud stimulus in our world, we are doing a kind of opium. We’re reducing our sensitivity levels.
In this way, we have an inverse relationship with intensity of stimulus and intended emotional engagement. And I’ll explain what I mean by that. It’s a complicated idea that I’ve been working with for a good 20 years now and it’s difficult to find easy metaphors to explain it. Perhaps the best metaphor is this idea of opium: a very loud, very engaging stimulus will boost up our threshold levels just like walking next to a freeway. Our sensitivity to the world is then knocked down, our thresholds have been raised up, and so we leave these experiences feeling like we’ve had an opium experience of reduced sensitivity. It’s a little bit like a cocoon: we go into the world cocooned from the loudness of the outside world, because we’ve engaged in an extremely aggressive stimulus that we enjoy. So, now, what I’m dealing with is the idea that it might be beneficial for us to do the opposite: to increase our sensitivity, to lower our thresholds. In doing so, what we find is that if we engage ourselves in a very rarefied art form, in an art form that is slow and quiet, we become more activated, not more relaxed.
And so when we talk about the way we engage with art, we can look at it in terms of intrinsic activation levels, that as we decrease sensory stimulus and we rarify it, we invite the person experiencing this art to activate their mind and to become more sensitive to the noise around them, more sensitive to the world around them. And their thresholds have gone way down, and now the world becomes a little bit more painful for a while. So it’s the opposite of an opium, it’s now something that’s perhaps a little bit more like a psychedelic in that it sensitizes us to a very fine-grained experience, and the emotions, everything becomes louder.
What I’m dealing with is the idea that it might be beneficial for us to do the opposite: to increase our sensitivity, to lower our thresholds. In doing so, what we find is that if we engage ourselves in a very rarefied art form, in an art form that is slow and quiet, we become more activated, not more relaxed.
This is a beautiful bridge, Robert. I think personally, although I’m such a huge admirer of arts and music in various forms, some of my most profound and personally meaningful experiences have happened in silence, or almost in silence. Sometimes there might be softer music, or some sounds in the distance, but silence has this creative richness in itself.
The same is absolutely true for me. Yes.
How do you view the relationship between the absence of sound and music? The void, so to speak, the sense of nothingness?
I often don’t listen to music in the background, which is funny for a person who’s notorious for doing ambient music as “background music”, but I don’t think of my music as background, and I don’t use music in the background. I like to engage with music, I listen to music consciously. In fact, my day-to-day life is usually in the studio working on music, or if I’m not, I am in silence. If I want to listen to somebody else’s music, I’ll put it on and I’ll listen, or I’ll read a book or something, but it’s not in the background. I’m engaging with it. Most of my best experiences with sound are in nature. I find that, especially as our civilization moves more and more towards an urban existence, this is something that we are depriving ourselves of, and that experience within a natural space in a non-human landscape is essential for our mental well-being. For me where I live, if we didn’t have open space preserves, and if there weren’t a creek trail a block from our house, I would be going crazy here in the middle of Silicon Valley.
I think that having some infolding of nature into the urban environment is a prerequisite for people’s sanity, that there needs to be a constant interface between nature and the human-built landscape; the constructed, urban,”humanscape” needs a constant interface with nature, and with the unknown, or with mystery, something that is not of our making. Because without that, we really lose our sense of what it’s like to be an animal. We lose our sense of what it’s like to live off of the earth, to eat, and to feed ourselves – it all comes from nature, from plants, from animals. It comes from things that we kill, in order to live. If we don’t understand that, we become completely disjointed from our existence, and the nature of our embodiment.
Before we started recording this interview, you discussed how you were interested in setting up spaces for listening around London that would help people to be in their bodies. I’ve been using the term “embodiment” now for a while to try to find a way to describe the opposite of “virtual”. I think that as we develop an increasingly virtual experience, it’s more isolated. It’s more solitary. But we have been developing the technologies to do this for the last 20 years or more – what we’re doing right now, video phoning, 6000 miles away, or more. This increased virtualization is something that I feel a personal need to counteract with an increased embodiment.
I’m bringing these topics up for a very specific reason, and that is that we are developing technologies which can prevent people from ever having to experience silence in their lives. People can go to bed with their phone, they can do their global internet-based computer games all the way until they fall asleep. Then they could wake up with their phones still next to them and they can pick up their gaming right where they left off. They can be completely connected to a virtual community, never having met any of these people, never having smelled them, never having eaten with them, never having experienced embodiment with them. We can live in a space which is entirely free of silence. We can engage in a constant stream of music 24 hours a day, with total novelty. We can have our streaming application like Spotify on random feed, so that we hear only novel music constantly, and we never have to face ourselves alone. Yet we are more alone than ever, because we’re living in a completely solitary, solipsistic world of man-made stimuli. Feeding us a fictitious information feed of constant noise which prevents us from ever having to experience silence, from ever having to experience our own empty space – the dark night of the soul as it were. Our own death, our own fears. Also our own beauty, our own experience of the things around us growing and living and dying.
So this aspect of embodiment to me is essentially wound up in aspects of silence. Now, what’s funny is: okay, so I make music. Why do I talk about silence so much? Why do I have to make sound to fill in that silence? Well, it’s a very good question. It’s kind of ironic, and sometimes it becomes a real problem: sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I really go for periods of time not making music because I have that problem. My album “Nest” for example, I think this one is very special for some people because it is very meditative, it’s very calm. It’s also very melancholic, almost, I think it’s quite an interesting mood. I needed to make that album after spending a month in Australia doing concerts at psytrance music festivals. When I was at very loud festivals, my ears were ringing, I came home with a bit of new tinnitus. Having been a musician for years now, I have a little bit of tinnitus that has grown with age, and in 2012, having come back from a month of concerts in Australia, and two of these psytrance raves, the high amplitude had left me with new tinnitus and all I wanted was silence. While I was in Australia, I made some nature recordings of night sounds and frogs, birds, some very loud insects that were high frequency. I then laid them into a timeline that was an hour long, and I started making this album that was my attempt to create a sound that would be more silent than silence, because the tinnitus was filling my head during silence. When you hear the album in a compressed audio like mp3, it just sounds like white noise. But there is this detail in that white noise, and it’s actually really high frequency insect sounds. I needed to make this album to fill my sonic space with silence. So there’s a strange counterbalancing act here of making sound which creates silence around it, there’s some built-in contradiction.
What role have psychedelics had in shaping your perception of the world, yourself, your art and your creation of your art?
I was a rather straight-arrow kid growing up. I had never taken any drugs up until I was in college. I grew up in a household where drinking was a problem. My father had troubles with alcoholism, and so we were a dry household. So of course, when I got to college, I was very curious about all of these things. I had a very good friend who had come from England and had had both wonderful and horrible experiences with LSD and mushrooms. In fact, I was four or five years younger than him, and my role in our friendship was like his younger brother, showing him that the world wasn’t as scary as he experienced it on LSD. He had some very bad experiences with LSD, had seen the void and was afraid of it.
My experiences with altered states of consciousness at that age were entirely meditational. I had seen the void and it was my friend. My first album was called “Sunyata“ because that was the void. For me, finding that space of absolute emptiness within the underlying aspect of consciousness was my universe, my safe place. That was the cocoon I could go to. So I ended up being like a younger brother to my very best friend, helping him come down from a year of LSD, essentially, being a voice of mysticism, I suppose, showing him that the void wasn’t scary at all. I don’t think he could ever quite get to that place.
The first hallucinogen I ever tried was mushrooms. And when I first had psilocybin my sense was a complete one of recognition. I didn’t recognize that sense of queasiness, or the tickling teeth or all of the different sensory aspects which were new to me; but I did know that sense of merging with nature. My way of exploring hallucinogens was always by going up into the hills and sitting and meditating. And if it were with a friend, we would do it together or we would listen to music, just very calm settings, never out partying or things like that. What I found is that psilocybin brought me right back to the place that I discovered as a child when I would go walking in the hills. There was a very transformative experience that I had when I was about 15 years old. I asked my parents if I could take a sleeping bag, and go into the foothills next to Stanford University and go on a fast for two days and be alone and sleep.
A real fast, without any food.
I had a loaf of bread and a jar of water. And that was going to get me for 36 hours or so, two nights and a full day of hiking.
There’s a term for this for this, right? That a lot of traditions use as well – the retreat in nature while fasting.
A vision quest, as you call it. So, I wanted to do this, and I’m amazed my parents let me do this. They must have been terrified that I would get kidnapped or something. I was just a teenager. But the Stanford foothills were a very tame, sedate little pocket of foothills of about 10-20 square kilometers, perhaps, of open space that Stanford University owns, and it was walking-distance from our house, so I mean, it wasn’t a dangerous place. I had intense experiences meditating on vision quests like this. This particular time I woke up from a dream where I basically had an experience of the negation of God. I was climbing a ladder through emptiness, with a kind of a wordless question in my mind, of “Is there..? Are you there, God?”. I woke up from this lucid dream with a resounding negation, that in my dream the universe rang this massive bell that basically negated my question. It basically said “NO”. I woke up with this intense feeling of the non-existence of all of our projections into the universe, that what the universe is, was exactly what it is, not what we project.
Yes so not always a “you”. In fact, the majority of things out there are not “you”.
That’s right. The majority is exactly what it is, not what we project it to be. And that it was the sense that my perception was simply myself naming things, myself putting walls around things, putting categories on things, and that everything was a verb.
You triggered a memory of myself when I lived in the Amazon jungle 15 years ago, and I was drinking Ayahuasca with a shaman, and at some point at night, when the ceremony was over, I was outside and I was deep in a jungle with all the rich sounds of the Amazon rainforest. There was this really powerful tree, I had a really powerful sense about it. I said “tree”, in Dutch, “boom, boom, boom”, and I kept repeating it, and then I realised what a stupid thing it is to try to capture that in like one word. And suddenly I perceived the tree for what it was, and it was really beautiful and profound.
So this dream was probably a good five years before I had ever tried psychedelics. When I woke up from that dream, a two-pronged stag deer slowly was walking down this little gap in the hills where I was camping and stood about 10 meters away from me. It paused right in the same little ravine where my sleeping bag was, and it just stared at me for what seemed like a very long time, but probably around 30 seconds, and then quietly continued walking. And I realized, it wasn’t naming me. It was just looking. It had no names. Only we put names on everything. We have this language-based system of pointers, everything points to something else that points to a symbol. So, that experience with the stag right after that exploding dream, left me with this idea that the world doesn’t really care if we’re here or not, the universe just sprouts consciousness constantly as a thing that it does. It’s just bubbling up from every particle, from every interaction we have. We just happen to be in a position to name things, and to create symbolic structures, which gives us a certain way of looking at things – not the only way and not even the best way, but just a way.
So, when I first had hallucinogens, I simply remembered that experience and went “Oh, okay, I know what this is like”. This is simply experiencing things fully, with a very low threshold of sensitivity, very high sensitivity. Everything is louder. And so all of the things that I’ve experienced in my life become more in high relief, the texture of existence takes on a finer grain. That sense of sensitivity stayed with me after those experiences. I had mushrooms probably 5 or 10 times in my life and LSD perhaps 5 times. LSD had a different experience for me. It wore me down, I found it to be very exhausting. The following day, I think my brain was so depleted of serotonin, that it quickly taught me that I didn’t need to do that over and over again.
That period informed my music very much because it helped me to communicate what I experience on a frequent basis without hallucinogens, to people who might not understand what those things are. In fact, oddly enough, this sounds counterintuitive, but having experienced hallucinogens gave me a higher sensitivity to what people experience who have never had hallucinogens. Maybe it made me more sensitive to how strange and intense I might seem to people; because as a teenager, I was very intense, very strange.
What do you mean with “I was very intense”?
I just engaged things on a full-on, full frontal way. But it made me more sensitive to my social persona, to how I appear to people. For a counterintuitive reason, perhaps, to a small extent, having tried hallucinogens made me more sensitive to the idea that some of the things I was drawn to, might seem to people trippy or hallucinogenic. I wanted to show that in fact, no, these things were universal experiences and had nothing to do with hallucinogens at all. And they *were* universal experiences. So I became more sensitive to changing the language of experience away from psychedelics towards everyday language, and toning down some of my intensity, so that it might not appear the intensity of a person who had taken drugs before. Because, in fact, my engagement with life was pretty intense without any of those experiences. Those experiences merely taught me that they are universal, that the way of engaging with life at that level of sensitivity can be taught through hallucinogens. But also, it was something that I experienced long before them. The difference for me was that hallucinogens were loud, and my endogenous experiences were quiet. And I mean spiritually loud, like screaming instead of whispering.
In what ways do you take care of your own mental health and well-being?
I go walking almost every day, and during those times of solitary moving through space, I can remember the vibrating beauty of nature and the world around me. I mean that I have a sensory relationship with my experience of the world; it’s very much electrical, down my spine. It’s embodied, it’s a somatic experience for me. When I remember my existence, I remember it with a kind of electrical pulse.
This is something that I first started having when I tried Zazen back in the late 70s, and then later when I was practicing with a Sufi master in the 1990s. I was doing Zikr with a small group of students. We had asked this Afghan gentleman, Mr. Zare, to teach us Zikr and he agreed to teach us if we read the Qur’an with him. His practice energized me in a way that has not left me, and it was a little bit destabilizing. It was actually something that made the world so loud to me that I had to disengage for a while.
I moved away to a small town on the coast, broke up with my companion for two years and lived a bit of a “hermit” life trying to find my sense of direction. When I came back, I came back with the intention of being engaged with the world on a very day-to-day mundane basis, everyday existence – what the Buddhists call “Tathātā”, or “thusness”. And you understand why most spiritual traditions have a language of normality, a language of boringness – what the Sufi would jokingly say has to pass “the aunt Martha test”: i.e. would your aunt be freaked out or nervous by you? A person who is following a practice which is centering and which can provide a pathway into engagement with the future is a person who can actually talk normally with a person who has no idea what that practice is and you won’t make them uncomfortable.
And so, you quickly learn to distance yourself from trippiness, from overly engaged language, and find a practice which is mundane. I think that’s a practice which is sustainable. For me, the practice is remembering the vibrating particles that make up the universe. When I’m alone, and heightened, allowing myself to just feel that incredible vibration of photons that permeates everything, that there is this incredible energy that the universe creates and destroys. Even on a quantum mechanical basis: a vacuum creates particles and they annihilate themselves on a constant basis. And this everyday practice allows me to be very normal, yet underneath that boring nerdy exterior is a person who might be absolutely melting with ecstasy.
I’m usually alone when those things happen so that nobody sees my inability to come up with the right words, or my inability to think or do anything, but what’’s worth noting is that I was able to experience those things before I had ever known what psychedelics were. Psychedelics actually taught me to be careful about expressing it. To be careful about talking about it too much with people, because it makes people uncomfortable. Now, it’s been 30 years or so, or more, since I’ve had those psychedelic experiences, and they’re so far in the past that I can speak to them safely without feeling like I’m making anybody uncomfortable. The important lesson is just how mundane those experiences are, and how accessible they are without the chemical loudness, that the exogenous influence of the neurochemistry makes these things that are endogenously very natural, become very loud.
I have a strange spiritual metaphor that involves centre of gravity. I think I agree the word “spiritual” is a problem because I’m more or less an atheist. I don’t have any idea of ghosts, I have no “wooiness” about the world. I don’t feel that there are any invisible spirits permeating our world, yet I think the world, the universe, is full of mind and consciousness. So if I have a magical thinking it’s involving the idea of the universe being conscious. However, I don’t need a God for that. This idea of centre of gravity is that when you have experiences through endogenous means, you have this centre of gravity that’s lower in your body – it’s more towards your belly or groin – and it keeps you from tipping over, gives you a sort of solidarity or gravity.
Psychedelics, in their loudness, bring that centre of gravity up and out, creating an instability. People who rely too much on psychedelics for their ecstatic experiences tend to become emotionally destabilized, and they stop becoming a normal player in our civilization. They step outside of the game (which can be good, we all want to be outside of the game,) but they become unable to participate in the game in a beneficial way, because they’ve rendered themselves too unbalanced (in a centre-of-gravity way) and people can intuit this, just like we intuit our body language. There’s a destabilized psychic energy that happens with too much psychedelic use, I think. And you can see it when you see the difference between a person who has come to a sense of self-awareness through quiet means, through endogenous means, versus a person who has become aware of the fine grain of existence through the psychedelic means: the person who has done it endogenously is going to have a somewhat more solid, lower centre of gravity on a psychic level.
And do you think the same may be said for music?
I think you could use the same metaphor. I think when you’re dealing with a man-made structure like music, all sorts of other things come into play, which are social contexts, expectations. I think of music as participating in one of two, or both of two different forks of human endeavor. This is an oversimplification, but it works for me. I think if we look at the foundations of language throughout our evolution as a species, when our brains were starting to bifurcate into left and right hemispheres, and we were developing symbolic systems, what we see is that our musical centers are in a symmetrical place in our brain across from Wernicke’s area. So if we are right-handed, the centre for language is in our left hemisphere, on the inside of the temporal lobe. On our right hemisphere then, on the same symmetrical spot, is the part that we respond first to music until we get musically trained. So that musical training then causes that response to spread out over the cortex. What this tells me is that intrinsically, music is a holistic language that is engaging our brain in a complementary way that human language does. I suspect that this evolution grew with language, as our need for ritual and trance didn’t go away, as our symbolic systems grew.
It’s a reasonable speculation that in evolutionary times, the role of music was to engage us in the shamanic practice, in altered states of consciousness, to reconnect us to the pre-symbolic world that we existed before we had symbols. The holistic world of sensing this now without naming the “sunyata”, the emptiness. If you think of humans as a social animal, we need communication and symbolic systems to enhance our social structures. So, we develop a new form of music, which is also a storytelling system, a way to remember cultural memories. We have a new way of attaching language to music, music being the primordial connector to our unconscious mind and to that shamanic space – to the other world – the shamans would say “I’m journeying into the other world”, the parallel universe. What we’ve done is we’ve evolved a dual role for music. At the original level, music is a trance-inducing way of taking people into the shamanic space, but now we’ve grafted upon it the role of societal storytelling and creating community.
If we imagine this other role of music as communal memory and storytelling, like the way that the Iliad and the Odyssey would have been told in 1800 BC – Homer was really probably not one person, but was a collection of roaming storytellers, who sang these myths, who sang these stories with everything was memorized, word for word. These songs travelled as a cultural memory by poets, bards, who were also the singers and musicians. The same is true in Islamic tradition of the Qur’an: the Qur’an is memorized word for word exactly. And there are few errors being made in those memories. So song with words is a way of engaging the holistic side of music (the shamanic side) with the cultural memory side, and that evolves into what is now popular song, pop music.
You could argue that language is so intrinsically associated with the cultural context, that music with voice for that reason, will always have this embedded.
Storytelling, cultural memory. It’s a way of engaging unity. So if we want to poke fun at the role of modern pop music, we could step back and actually respect it for what it’s doing for modern teenagers, to create a sense of identity, a sense of meaning, to convince people that they’re not alone in their sexual longing. Because as we become sexually mature, we feel like we’re the only ones who ever had those feelings. And so we hear all these sexual songs, and we realize, “Oh, okay, I’m not alone,” right? I’m not the only horny person in the world. These are the stories that we need to tell, in order to tell us that we’re not alone. So, there’s still this undercurrent, this other side that music has; and I would like to argue that over the history of human evolution, there has been also a parallel role of sacred music, or shamanic music, or trance music that serves the role of connecting us to the parallel space, to the hidden world, to the world without symbols, to the world of “thusness”. Whatever the culture, there’s going to be some place where music is being used in that way, as a magical ritual, not as storytelling or as a cultural bond.
Because the point of it is to go beyond language.
That’s right. So even in medieval Europe, when you had the church dominating so much of human experience, so much so that you could be burnt if you had experiences that were not part of the church’s story, the church still provided means of experiencing ecstatic space with, for example, the cathedrals and Gregorian chant, in this massively reverberant space, hearing tones that are very pure, which can transport you into an ecstatic state of religious ecstasy. Even in something so imprisoning as the medieval Christian church, there was an outlet for the sacred space, for pure endogenous experience. You have drumming in Africa, you have shamanic chanting, you have the Native American Navajo blessing way, and all these things. They have words, but the words are about healing. The words are about entering into a space of trance into a shamanic space.
They’re very simple and repetitive as well. So at some point, you will detach yourself from the meaning of those words.
Yes. I’d like to think that in our cultural memory in the last 75 years in Western culture, what psychedelic culture has done is to reinvigorate the role of ecstatic music in popular culture. That part of the psychedelic tradition of the 60s was to bring, for example, tonalism back to academic music. People like La Monte Young and Terry Riley. Terry Riley would take acid and play tape loop concerts with organ all night – and they were psychedelic experiences. He was basically taking what he had seen from Indian classical music and raga, and translating it into a Western psychedelic context, with a very clear awareness of its role as a trance-inducing experience. I think the repetition of minimalism is very clearly acknowledging the role of trance music. You see both Philip Glass and Steve Reich having mentioned the role of West African drumming, Ghanaian drumming, in their influences. Philip Glass more so I think with Indian music, Steve Reich more with drumming, but they both were very aware of West African music. You’ll see also in the free jazz movement in the 60s and early 70s, the movement of African Americans repossessing their culture that had been stolen from them through slavery, and bringing back ritual. Groups like Chicago Art Ensemble, or Sun Ra, brought ritual to jazz music and an overtly Afro-centric language of trance and shamanism. The idea of pure improvisation became more important than composition. I’m right at the tail end of the baby boom, I was too young to experience the 60s, so I feel like I missed a lot of that. The Grateful Dead used to practice in a house just behind our block. I have a memory of being three or four years old and hearing loud music coming from a house back there, and I found out later when I met the person who owned that house that it was the Grateful Dead practicing (called the Warlocks at the time.) I was too young to experience it except as a childhood memory. I look at this now as a cultural legacy, something that has left an imprint on me. I’ve dedicated my life to music that is acting in that role of the shamanic or of the non-language based non-storytelling, internal – dealing with the pre-symbolic, dealing with ideas that involve journeying through the inside.
One of the things that is very, very clear in listening to you is how you not only grew up being sensitive to the world, but also have found a way to give an experience like that to others.
Tried. I’ve been very lucky in that I felt a willingness to take risks with my life, and there’s a reason for that. I’ve always been prone to depression and to feeling social anxiety – to being unable to feel natural within a social setting. I’ve always been extremely introverted, so I’ve had to teach myself how to engage socially with people. Every time I would go on stage to perform, I would be wracked with nerves, my intestines would tie up in knots. I’m not a natural performer.
When I was about 14-15 years old, I had a cathartic experience. I remember it was summertime, and I was in my bedroom at my grandparents house. I did a thought experiment where I killed myself. I was never suicidal, but I basically killed myself, sitting in meditation. I did everything in my mind violent towards my body: jumped in front of a truck, in front of a train, off of a bridge, off a building, sliced myself with a knife, stabbed myself, took poison. All of it as a mental exercise, as a thought experiment, without moving, without doing any of this obviously, without even having the urge. And I thought, “What am I afraid of? Why do I fear the world around me? Why do I feel so awkward around people? I’m dead. There’s nothing to fear, I am now dead.”
I was always an extreme perfectionist, and I didn’t want to do anything that I was bad at. I would attack myself if I wasn’t good at something, so my story of my childhood was often steering towards things where I had an innate skill, and away from things that were difficult. So, I have a history of being lazy, and being an extreme perfectionist, who didn’t want to do anything badly. But that’s a really bad way to learn, right? You can’t learn anything without making mistakes and without getting bad first. You have to do something really horrible first, and then you get good at it. So this idea was, I killed myself. Now what am I worried about? I’m dead. If I fail at something, let’s say my entire life is a failure. I choose the wrong career. I don’t make enough money at it. I’m homeless. I’m sleeping on a steam grate in a New York slum, or something like that. I’m in a hovel, somewhere in a cardboard hut. Doesn’t matter, I’m already dead. Whatever happens is okay, because I’m already dead. And that mental experiment created a weird thing inside of me. A kind of homunculus, a sort of extra person that grew inside of me to be – I wouldn’t say fearless, because I’ve never been fearless – but a fake person willing to make mistakes, because it’s not my natural person. A Golem, as it were, that pretends to be me and pretends to just try stuff without worrying. And it’s okay because I’m already dead. Every time I worry about a risk of failure or the thought that I really shouldn’t be doing this for a living – it’s not really something that my parents approved of. My mum always wanted me to be a doctor, or something important. I went to a good college, I came from a comfortable middle class family, I was supposed to have a nice career. And here I am a disreputable musician, making weird experimental music. It’s not what I was supposed to do.
The psychotherapist Rollo May wrote a book called “The Courage to Create”, where he says that courage is not the absence of fear, it’s doing something despite the fear.
Absolutely. I always feel like I’m not good enough, I constantly feel unable to do what I’ve already done many times. Every time I start an album, I forget how to make an album. I don’t remember that I’ve done it before. I feel like I’m never really a musician, that I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever learned all the time. I just feel inept most of the time. And this sometimes eats at me, but what I try to do is remember the epiphany that I had when I was a teenager that helped me get over that fear with a kind of fake, synthetic courage. Because I still feel incapable of doing what I’ve been doing my whole life. And I stop and I wonder, what the heck am I? I’m a musician? What is that? I look around and I see that I’m in a recording studio. I see that I’ve had albums out and then I’ve made a decent living doing this, which is especially bizarre because there are a lot of musicians much better than me, who are struggling. I shouldn’t be making a good living at this. These things are very strange to me. So when you asked what it’s like to have a living doing this kind of music, to me it feels very unreal. It actually feels like something I didn’t deserve and something I shouldn’t be doing – if that makes any sense. I should have done something much better with my life, I should have been a doctor, you know?
You may be considered a doctor in a different way.
I would have been a pretty bad doctor!
But your music is medicinal for a lot of people. And this is, of course, why we work together.
Thank you. You know, I’m resistant to the idea of therapy music; and that’s why I’ve been dragging my heels with you. To me, it reminds me of all the new age things I’ve avoided my entire career. My music has always had to have a certain difficulty in it, a certain asymmetry, a certain something that irritated a little bit. Without that slight irritation, I find myself getting very itchy and nervous from boredom. If music is too static or too calm, I’d have to turn it off. I’d rather have silence.
But you also create work that is sometimes created for a purpose; you mentioned “Nest” for example.
If you listen to “Nest“, it’s not static, and it’s actually strangely melancholic. There is a pulling within it, a constant yearning within that calmness. It’s not a comfortable place where it sits. It’s trying to reach into a place. There’s a metaphor that I use a lot in my own life and in my art, and that’s the metaphor of the story of Eden. Some titles on the album “Nest” are inspired by that, like “Seeking Eden” and “The Gate is Open”. This metaphor for me is basically a Jungian archetype – this idea that we are expelled from Paradise at some point. You see this idea in many traditions throughout the world, that humanity was at some point in a higher place than they are now. We have fallen to this place. This idea that there is a paradise; a paradise myth…for me, the Jungian archetype comes down to this idea that Paradise is inside of each of us. The metaphor of being expelled from the Garden of Eden is probably most accurately delineated by the Gnostics writing that when God said “I am”, the universe was divided into matter and energy – they didn’t quite say it that way, but that the intoning of the language that differentiates between this and that, between me and you, is exactly when we expelled ourselves from Eden. And that this expulsion is a constant thing that we do from moment to moment.
I listen to you, Robert, and this psychodynamic framework comes to mind, that we were in paradise in the womb of our mother, at least if we lived in a happy womb. It was a world to us, safe and free of tension.
Absolutely, and that is part of the Jungian metaphor: that we each were born, we couldn’t have avoided being born because we exist, right? So we each have this experience of a violent transformation from a warm, dark and squishy place into a rather harsh and cold world, where things hurt. And we’re hungry and thirsty and we have needs. So each of us has this very strong metaphor as a kernel inside of us that makes us do things that make us reach outward, yearning for something that we’re missing, a paradise that we feel is lost. The idea of “the gate is open” is that we expel ourselves from that paradise on a moment-to-moment basis. It’s a choice we make. All we do is walk back in, it’s there. So we carry it inside of us. Nobody’s locked the gate. There’s no key, it’s wide open. We just walk back in. Paradise exists everywhere. It permeates existence, it permeates the universe. It’s right here amidst us. It’s a fractal. Permeating every one of our cells and every one of our atoms is that essence of pure existence that vibrates. There’s no gate, there’s no wall, there’s no garden. It’s just there. And we make the language that separates us from it.
There’s a scholar of Taoism named Toshihiko Izutsu, who wrote a book on the relationship between Sufism and Taoism called “Creation and the Timeless Order of Things,” which talks a lot about this idea of pre-lingual space – the idea of the vast ocean of essence, that both of these traditions share. The idea in Tao of being a verb “I am” is very close to the ancient Hebrew word for God, “I am”: “Yahweh” is “I am, it’s all a verb. This motion towards essence is the verb to be. Oftentimes, in this self-expulsion of the desert that we’re in, outside of Paradise, this is the metaphor that works for me personally in my art, walking across a desert floor: Each of us has our own personal desert. But each of us can dig wells into the sand, and each of those wells goes down to this infinite subterranean ocean of fresh water. Each of our personal wells that we dig inside, digs deep inside of ourselves, so metaphorically, we go into our deepest ocean and we pull up this fresh water, into our desert. The desert of existence, the desert of language, the desert of self-exile. We exist in a state of exile. But we each exist with an infinite ocean that’s inside, and that fresh water that we pull up from those personal wells that we dig deep inside of each of us, is the same water that each other person pulls up too – we each share that same ocean, the ocean of unconsciousness, the ocean of existence. When I go into the most personal, solitary, solipsistic space, I dig down into my subterranean well, the very personal, the most private secret water that I have. If I can find a way to share that, the taste of that water is something that everybody else will recognize. Because they each have that fresh well inside of them too, it’s going down to the same ocean, the same infinite place of fresh being.
The irony of art is that when we can express the most personal, the most idiosyncratic, the most solipsistic statement, it becomes the most universal statement. It becomes the thing among all that we’ve tried to do that reaches people most deeply, because it contains that little perfume of the ocean, deep underground. It contains a whiff of essence. If we don’t make art from that deep well, and if we make it from the surface, if we make it from exile, then all we’re going to do is communicate to other people’s exile.
This is very interesting. I don’t like putting labels and genre tags on music and if I tried to describe your music in words, I often arrive at describing it in metaphors and images. Like “It’s like nature” or “it’s like a forest” or “like a desert”. Your music feels very much detached from culture to me. There are very few, if any, human beings in those musical worlds. It’s primordial, it’s very raw. My natural inclination is to see images with music and with your music I see trees, birds, earth and earthiness, brown colours, black and dark red colours, and blue, and it’s very natural.
You know what you just helped me to see? Something that I’ve been aware of, but it helps me to see that somebody else also notices it. I’ve been painting a lot in the last couple years, and my paintings never have human forms. They’re not what I’m looking for, when I’m painting I am trying to find the look of something that could have just grown there, or that I found. I think oftentimes it’s from a very similar place with the music: I want to remove the signs of my paintbrush. I want to remove the signs of myself from my music. I wanted to seem like it was always there somehow. That’s not always true; sometimes my music has more of a human side. I mean, some of my albums from the 90s have more of a lush human component if they have some world music aspects, like African or Indonesian. Like “Temple of the Invisible“, which is trying to create a ritual of a culture that never existed, trying to imagine a synthetic ancient culture, like an anthropological music forgery.
That’s funny, because I would argue that there is more of a sense of culture, a sense of “cultureness” in that album.
There are also human voices in that, interestingly enough, people singing.
But they never sing in a language, right?
No, well, except for Sukhawat Ali Khan, who was making sounds based around Urdu, which was perfect because this imagined civilization I placed somewhere in the Himalayan foothills. Sukhawat is Pakistani of origin and his Indian Sufi background with Urdu, his native language, was very appropriate. It’s interesting because the painting I’m doing is pure abstraction, but I’m trying to make it look like it grew. A lot of the things I’m finding the most inspiring are just with pure ink and just blending together mineral pigments, like dry powder pigments, with gum arabic and water. And then essentially dipping paper into it, making puddles of ink and dipping paper and pulling it off and pushing things onto it, using almost autonomous methods instead of painting with a paintbrush. I’m actually finding ways of creating chaos and natural fractal symmetries.
And like you said, with the music, there’s no human in there and I find that to be almost endemic of something. I don’t know if it’s a flaw; maybe my music should speak more to the human condition, but I’m not that interested. I say that with self-criticism. I am inspired not by the human condition, so much as by our place in the universe. Whether we survive this pandemic right now, for example, matters to me because I love many people. The human race to me is a marvelous experiment; but I see the planet as being an organism on its own, and we’re just part of this huge flow of energy. I don’t have a whole lot to say about the struggles of everyday humanity. Maybe that shows me to be without heart, I don’t know. I feel that I actually have a very deep sense of sympathy for the human condition but at the same time …. I think I know what it is:
I’ve written this thought down before, in that, I think the people who least fear death are the people who most know how to be kind, because they’re not afraid. I think kindness has to come from a fearlessness about one’s own well-being. Now, I’m not saying I’m like that, I’m no saint. I’m always concerned about my own well-being: but from a more distant perspective, to separate from my own personal flaws, which are many. Speaking in terms of ideals, it seems to me that those who are most full of joy are those who have experienced their own death; and that if you are afraid of death, you have trouble really experiencing joy. The Thanatotic has to be enfolded with the life urge, the urge to procreate and survive, and the awareness of destruction is absolutely essential in order for joy to happen.
But they have a relationship with each other: they are not orthogonal to each other, they are not antagonistic, they co-exist.
Absolutely, they’re enfolded, they’re intertwined. Like everything in the universe they exist as one system. Perhaps it’s connected to my inability, or maybe lack of interest, in making music with a political statement. I’m appalled by the current state of politics, but that’s not something I put into my art. I reserve it for my personal conversations with people. My music is a place for the eternal, a place to speak to the human condition within the universe and our place beyond what happens this week or this month, or between countries or classes. Not that I don’t feel that we need to speak to that, but it’s not a place where my art needs to go. My art is speaking to something different, speaking to something that won’t change. Well, OK, I imagine the existence of poverty and power won’t change, either. We always have to struggle towards justice, towards kindness, and towards peace – something which I think my country has been extremely flawed about doing. So although I think that there is a role for individuals to be political in their everyday life, it’s not something that I find a place for my music. It’s an interesting thing I noticed over the years, one which I don’t really know how to speak to. It’s just not the place where the music goes, it goes somewhere different, somewhere intertwined, interfolded.
Your work feels very much like a transcending of culture and the usual ways of thinking and experiencing this world. So for that reason, you don’t want to include any kind of ideology, whether it’s religion or politics.
I think it limits the message as well, and I feel strongly what I think most spiritual traditions would teach (at least I saw it within Buddhism): the idea that you cannot change the world outside of you, but you can change the world inside of you. If everybody works on changing themselves, then the world changes, but to try to change the outside world before you’ve changed yourself is folly. Because we always end up doing the same things. Now, having said that, I don’t imagine that I’ll ever achieve enlightenment, and I don’t think most people do. I don’t even think there is such a thing, to be bluntly honest; I think that there are ways of existing that are less weighty, or less destructive upon the world. There are ways of existing which are more gentle, which are more conscious, but I’m not even sure I’m all that good at that. All I can do is make art that tries to speak to it a little bit in some way that tries to be universal.
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