Cosmic Debris 1996

Glurp Sounds & Infinite Boundaries: An Interview With Robert Rich

Interview conducted in June 1996


Somewhere between the realm of hypnotic trance and wakeful dreams, somewhere within the bowels of the Earth itself, somewhere among the stars and the galaxies, there is music made by no man, no instrument, and with no need or desire for a “Top 40 Hit”. Somewhere in southern California, there is a man who hears this music better than most. He has recreated this music with a multitude of both earthly instruments (many that he personally hand- crafted) as well as high technology. He is at the forefront of the reintroduction of the Just Intonation tuning method into western culture. For years, his translations of the universe and the human subconscious have tingled the ears, soothed the souls, and raised the standard by which we judge music.

His biography reads like that of a prodigy, building his first synthesizers from kits at age 13. He has studied psychology and lucid dream research at Stanford University. He has also written columns and software on the method of microtonality known as “just intonation”. Throw all that in a big pot of primordial stew, stir well, let it simmer into a slow boil, and you have one hell of an accomplished (and diverse) musician.

From the vast expanse of his Trances/Drones era through the liquid- percussive sounds of the forest into the realm of otherworldly sound manipulation, he has been progressing “progressive” sound ever forward, sturdy as a mountain and with the acceptance and curiosity of an unjaded child. Yet the sound is as wise and mature as the Earth and the stars from where the music originated………

COSMIK: What were your earlier projects like, such as working with Rick Davies, Andrew McGowan, and Urdu?

RICH: I guess I went through several phases of development. My earliest group was called Quote-Unquote, with Rick Davies (guitar) and Jon Spencer (bass and loops). I played modular synth. We sounded like a mixture of Throbbing Gristle and Fripp&Eno, only not as interesting. (I was only 16 at the time, so maybe I can be forgiven…). One other project that never went very far was called Bambara Mask, sort-of a tribal punk experimental thing with Ron Macleod, Monte Vallier and Sean Kirkpatrick. Monte and Sean are now in the band Swell. Ron and his brother Brian went on to do lots of interesting rhythm work. They played together on Patrick O’Hearn’s first album, and Brian is now a big-time studio drummer (Wire Train, Madonna, Sheryl Crow, etc.). Ron started the “Poke in the Ear with a Sharp Stick” sound libraries. Rick Davies was in Europe at that time, and when he returned we got back together as Urdu with Andrew McGowan on bass. Urdu was pretty interesting, very loud and noisy. I “sung” and played synth and processed drum tapes, Rick played guitar and bass. A bit like Laswell/Frith’s Massacre or a Ralph Records project. When we performed live I think people were concerned for our sanity, especially mine, as I was prone to reciting rather psychotic sounding poetry with lots of processing on my voice. I was in college when Urdu was happening – about the same time I started doing sleep concerts and releasing my first cassettes of really slow drone music. The noisy stuff was always a nice way to counterbalance the slow experiments, which I had always been doing concurrently.

COSMIK: How did you get hooked up with Stephen Hill and Hearts of Space?

RICH: He started his radio show in Berkeley in 1972, and I used to listen to it on Sunday nights. I began sending him some of my slow cassette pieces around 1980. He liked them and played them occasionally on his show. He didn’t start the label until the mid ’80s. By that time I had a few releases in Europe, and we kept in touch. I always recorded my albums independently, then shopped them to labels when they were done. He passed on Geometry, but liked Rainforest… which is still my best selling album.

COSMIK: Geometry is much more…..calculated, I guess? Not at all unlistenable, but the tones are more recognizable as electric. It is your most mathematical release, which, if one reads the liner notes makes so much more sense. It does, however, move into a more organic feel as it progresses through the album, though.

RICH: The concept of Geometry was really that very continuum – from the abstract organizing principle through to its realization in the world of organic reality. I tend towards Unity in my experiential/ belief systems, so I’m often in awe of those little perceptions of structure within chaos. Some say “God is in the details,” I say, God is in the squishy stuff.

COSMIK: Back to Hearts of Space, it would seem to the outsider that the Fathom offshoot of Hearts of Space was specifically designed for yourself and a few other select artists (Steve Roach, Suspended Memories, Michael Stearns?), what was your level of involvement in the creation of Fathom?

RICH: In some ways you’re right. Stephen Hill had been talking about starting Fathom for several years, and Steve Roach and I were increasingly expressing our frustration with being lumped together with the more frothy stuff. It was becoming clear that there was a stylistic split happening, as some of the label titles were getting more “adult contemporary” in style whereas Steve’s and my work was getting increasingly deeper and more experimental. The credit for the creation of Fathom really goes to Stephen Hill, though, who continues to support our musical searching.

COSMIK: In my opinion it was a move well made. Let’s get you guys OUT of the New Age section already!!!

RICH: Tell that to the stores! Of course then the new problem arises – where do we go then? Usually the most interesting stuff falls outside of categories.

COSMIK: Speaking of Steve Roach, that has been one of the most remarkable pairings that you have been a part of. The two of you have styles that blend together seamlessly. How did that collaboration come to pass?

RICH: Like most of my collaborations, it started out as a friendship. I met Steve around ’85 when I was down in LA for the first time, working on a sound installation and doing a concert. Steve and I had lunch together and discovered we had a few quirky things in common (we both had pet iguanas, and we were Hawkwind fans, among other things.) We kept in touch, and when I started to develop my rhythmic vocabulary (working on Numena and Geometry) he expressed interest in having me contribute some rhythms to his new project, which was Dreamtime Return. I recorded the rhythm tracks in my studio and sent them down to him, and that was our first collaboration. In exchange he let me use his studio to mix a few tracks for Geometry. As time went on we did a few more little things together (a rhythm for Desert Solitaire, I think) and decided it would be fun to do a full collaboration – which became Strata. We then performed together a couple times in Spain, did Soma together, the Dali compilation, etc. Although we haven’t worked together in a few years, we’re still really good friends, and I wouldn’t write off the possibility of another collaboration. He is a totally great guy, very creative and a joy to work with!

COSMIK: Most people know you as a synthesist, which indeed you are. What is often overlooked is your proficiency with a staggeringly wide array of other instruments. Your flute playing in itself is worthy of its own album, your percussive talents shine, plus there is your gliss guitar/ steel guitar, zither, kalimba…..the list is huge….. So where did all of those other elements come into play?

RICH: Thanks for the compliment about my flute playing. I’m really a very limited player, though. I would never pretend to be very proficient at all the instruments I play. I respect the traditions these instruments come from, but since I’m not really interested in playing traditional music, I haven’t stopped to master those traditions – something which I occasionally regret. I’m attracted to these non- Western instruments primarily because I find their timbres more satisfying and expressive than electronics or traditional Western instruments. Electronics play an essential role for me in sound design, but I find they fall short when called on to do something really warm and human. Western acoustic instruments have mostly been designed to maximize the volume and minimize inharmonic partials. The result is a loud but simplified sound that cuts through in an orchestra. I prefer the fuzzy, buzzy, rattly quality of something homemade. Another reason for the assortment of odd instruments is that I tend to pick up anything that can work well in a microtonal context. This all probably stems from my Harry Partch influences.

COSMIK: How would you describe your music now as it relates to or differs from the entity it was during your sleep concert days?

RICH: I still have many of the same interests and concerns I had then, but my vocabulary has widened considerably. Albums like Yearning or Stalker definitely form a continuum from the Trances/Drones period, but I’m a restless experimenter. I want to learn more all the time, and each project reflects new topics of curiosity: tuning theory, rhythmic counterpoint, world music, etc. I’m not interested in repeating myself. Of course there are common elements – an interest in trance and a certain intensity, among other things.

COSMIK: Trances/Drones and Yearning are both entirely meditative albums for me. The sounds in them seem to wash over you without being so intrusive as to override your own inner thoughts. They complement attempts at focusing inward extremely well.

RICH: I think music like that is most successful if it transforms the room into a deeper place. I don’t think of this slow stuff as background music though – I want it to affect the listener, to evoke strong memories or sensations, trance or ecstasy. Hopefully the slowness makes it no less penetrating, perhaps even more potent.

COSMIK: Although still “slow”, your music has definitely progressed/ changed since the days of your sleep concerts. Do you see these changes as progressing in a linear direction away from that era?

RICH: Not necessarily, except that I get older and more mature, more careful with my recording techniques and such. I’m just exploring a vast and amazing universe … the more I learn the more I realize I don’t know! I feel a bit like a snail, poking my little eye extensions under leaves and into crevices, unaware how vast the world is beyond this little garden. Each album is like a report of my recent discoveries, but hardly a complete picture.

COSMIK: With your solo work, are the electronic elements the foundation or the topping of the piece?

RICH: It’s hard for me to distinguish the electronics from the acoustics anymore. Everything becomes a hybrid in the studio. Sometimes I don’t even know how I start. Things just take shape out of experimenting. The most interesting sounds seem to originate from acoustic performances, then I mangle them with the computer or outboard gear, then cut them up to form a frame for a piece. I just want the sound to be seamless. I don’t want to hear the techniques or the intsruments, just the music. The methods change over time, as the tools develop. Recently I spend way too much time editing things on the computer – it’s a bit obsessive really. Other times I work very spontaneously, especially when collaborating. That’s probably why my solo albums take so much longer to make!

COSMIK: I know what you mean about the difficulty in distinguishing the one from the other. That elastic-groaning sound that fades in at the opening of ‘Animus’ off of Propagation consistently befuddles me in the best possible way, to cite one example.

RICH: And it’ll probably stay more interesting if I don’t explain what it is. Let’s just say it’s acoustic, but processed, and it’s not a didgeridoo! Some of the coolest mutations are probably on Stalker and A Troubled Resting Place – Both of those albums are probably 70-80% acoustic, but heavily mutated. There is another cool territory, neither acoustic nor synthesizer – that’s the domain of feedback and chaotic systems. Many of the pieces on ATRP use sound created from feedback loops between digital effects. They’re basically processing their own self-noise. The piece “Sunspot Cycle” on Endless 2 is entirely created this way.

COSMIK: Are you writing to capture a feeling/emotion, or to create a new one?

RICH: When I hear music that I like, I feel a very concrete sensation in my body, a visceral response to some inexplicable energy communicated by the music. It’s not exactly an emotion, just a sensation of connectedness to something true. I write my own music with this sensation in mind, trying to create a sort of feedback loop with this visceral sense. If it works, I feel it, and I sense that somehow it might convey to others what I feel. It goes beyond emotions or words, just pure experience.

COSMIK: What about the visuals? The cover artwork has been (far more than most album covers) an accurate visual reference as to what I might expect from the album musically. What involvement do you have in the selection of your album’s artwork?

RICH: I feel very lucky that Stephen Hill lets me work so closely with him on the cover art. Occasionally I bring an idea and we elaborate together. Other times he sends me an image for my approval. We spend time together at the label office in San Francisco, selecting images that we both like and playing with layout, then he and his assistant design the cover with these ideas in mind. I’m especially happy with the cover for ATRP. Stephen found that image and sent it to me for input – it was very different from what I had been envisioning, but far better really. I loved it immediately. The cover for Rainforest, on the other hand, I still don’t like, but I must admit it helped sell the album to a more mainstream audience.

COSMIK: It is different, that’s for sure. It doesn’t quite capture the fluid feeling of the album as much as the other covers do. Well, as they say, don’t judge a book by its cover, because that is one of your finest works………………….You have, in the past, paid homage to some of those who inspired you and your work (such as Gaudi and Dali), who are some of the other people that you feel have influenced you either musically or otherwise?

RICH: Among non-musicians, we mustn’t forget Tarkovsky, my favorite filmmaker. Among literature: Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marques, J.G. Ballard and Olaf Stapledon (I paid tribute to him in a new piece – Starmaker – on the Manifold compilation “Works of Fiction”). The Fluxus movement is a big influence, as were the Surrealists. Of course the list of musicians and composers is long and more obvious. I’ll just say I listen to a lot of different styles of music, and all of it seeps in somehow.

COSMIK: You’ve said in the past that you have not done sleep concerts in a while (since 1986 I believe), is your main focus for live shows now leaning towards the more patterned polyrhythmic, earth-bound…if you will, pieces than your more expansive space-bound pieces?

RICH: Well, first of all I think most of my work has been fairly earth- bound, even the longform music. But for the last ten years or so my concerts have been a lot more active. It’s funny you should ask this now, because I have just started doing sleep concerts again, mostly on radio stations. The first was on KUCI in Irvine, CA, in May. In July I plan to do one on KFJC in the Bay Area. Then, in Autumn I’ll head out nationwide to play a bunch of sleep concerts (some live, some radio) along with the shorter active concerts. I think the radio is a good medium for the very static music, since it works well in private, and it’s more convenient for the listeners to spend the night at home. I think in many ways I feel most comfortable with the slow drone music. The rhythms don’t come as easily for me, but I do really like playing the rhythmic stuff live.

COSMIK: Lately, your work has been deemed “dark”. How do you feel about that association?

RICH: Dark relative to what? Ministry or Yanni? I just think of it as shading, contrast, chiaroscuro. Beauty for me always contains a shadow – it’s part of being mortal. I think some people are afraid to confront the shadows inside themselves. Like Sartre said, and Gautama before him, the foundation of human suffering comes from our fear of death. This isn’t to say we should wallow in it, like teen- age Goth kids. Lightness also has its place. It’s just that I have trouble digesting saccharine.

COSMIK: Regarding “A Troubled Resting Place”, although the songs here were all written from 1993-1995, the sound (being that more “shadowy” side of your music) reminds me of the feel of your previous album, “Stalker”. Is there a connection between what you are doing now and the release of this collection of works?

RICH: I’ve been exploring these spaces a lot in the last few years. The work with Brian Williams (Lustmord) fits very nicely into this period in my development. I guess it just fits my mood lately (it’s been a tough few years for me personally), but there is another reason. A lot of people have been asking for compilation tracks, and I use these as an excuse to explore the looser, more experimental side of the music. I love to hover in this world of pure timbre, floating free from rhythm or melody. There is a real beauty in these deep sonic spaces. I have envisioned all these compilation tracks fitting together on a CD, and I compose them accordingly. Actually I’ve already finished a sequel to ATRP, called Below Zero, comprised of tracks which will mostly be released this year. These are even more abstract than the pieces on ATRP, many of them quite atonal. It may be a bit much for Fathom even – I don’t know. It may get released in late ’97 or early ’98, after my next solo album. Actually, the next solo album will be quite different from this – it’s shaping up to be very rhythmic and trancey. I jokingly refer to it as my dub album. The working title is “Flux.” (postscript: it became Seven Veils.)

COSMIK: What else can you tell us about Flux? Are there any guest appearances? Any new things that you are trying out?

RICH: Well, I don’t know if I should jinx it by mentioning names of people who said they’d like to contribute, since I might be embarrassed if they don’t follow through. There should be a few cool guests though. Stylistically, I’m getting far more complex rhythmically than I ever have before, lots of polyrhythms, but I’m trying to keep it all fairly groovin’. I’m hoping for a good balance between texture and melody, subverting the tunings a bit with atonal details and strange sound design. Of course I can never exactly know until it’s done…

COSMIK: I’m looking forward to that one for sure!……….Your music (to me) has always had an underlying seriousness or intensity to it. That “intensity” itself is broad, showing intense beauty, joy, or even a kind of sadness. Have you done much music that delves into other areas of the human emotions, such as outright silliness or the like?

RICH: I guess you never heard the first Amoeba CD then? It’s pretty silly, but I don’t know how many people got the humor, as it was rather dark and twisted. “Intensity” is exactly the word I use when I try to explain what I’m trying to accomplish, but I can’t easily reduce it to simple emotions like sadness or joy. Music is capable of tapping a range of experience that has no easy name – just pure feeling – simultaneous beauty, sadness, light, dark, loneliness, joy and nostalgia all rolled up together. I just want to reflect the human condition. Perhaps what I want most to express is just pure wonder.

COSMIK: I read in another interview of yours that although your music has become more active, you still utilize the same themes found in your earlier, slower works. Are you still in some way focusing on creating music that shapes the unconscious mind?

RICH: Maybe it’s more realistic to try to “reflect the unconscious” rather than “shape” it, similar to what the Surrealists tried to do. I once said I wanted people to experience my music like a hallucinogen. I wanted to create pure psychoactive sound. I still do, but I try to be a bit more humble about it. Basically, I’ll be happy if it just moves someone to experience a moment more deeply.

COSMIK: There is such a wide array of cultural sounds blended into your work, what was it that introduced you to those cultures or styles?

RICH: I think the biggest influence was growing up in the Bay Area with a really good radio station – KPFA – playing world music and avante garde 20th Century composers like Cage, Partch, Riley, etc. The music director at that station – Charles Amarkhanian – was a remarkable influence on many Bay Area musicians, I think. One could also hear live Indian music in restaurants, thanks to the presence of the Ali Akhbar Khan school of Indian music. Lou Harrison was responsible for setting up a number of American gamelan groups around the Bay, so one could also hear live Javanese and Balinese music, as well as the music of local gamelan composers like Dan Schmidt. As a result, I grew up more familiar with the sound of Indian and Indonesian music than I was with Western classical music. European music is still a foreign vocabulary to me.

COSMIK: Thank God for small favors. I think that is a big factor in the timelessness and depth of your work.

RICH: Thanks! Remember, though, that John Cage said most music has a shelf life of less than 50 years… Remember also that by the mid 1800’s, J.S. Bach had been completely forgotten. So we have to use words like ‘timeless’ with caution. I can only hope my stuff stands up to the test of time.

COSMIK: Have you ever considered doing any multi-media projects?

RICH: I actually did do the soundtrack to a children’s CD-ROM, of Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki Tikki Tavi. I think it should come out this year sometime. It’s quite a beautiful ‘living book’ style CD, with music reminiscent of my CD “Rainforest”, along with sound effects and incidental noises. I enjoyed the experience as a novelty, but to be honest the bandwidth in multimedia is so limited that it’s hard to get much that’s interesting sonically across in the music. I prefer to create music without an image, so the listeners can create images inside their own heads. An image can really chain the music down, make it subservient.

COSMIK: Tell us a bit about the work you have going on currently with Amoeba.

RICH: The latest incarnation of Amoeba consists primarily of my old friend Rick Davies and me, along with others helping out (Hans Christian on Cello, Don Swanson on drums). Rick plays guitars, I sing and play other instruments. We’ve completed a new album called “Watchful”, which we are currently shopping to labels. It falls outside of simple categories, so it’s not an easy sell. It’s quite slow and melancholy, perhaps in a similar territory to Robert Wyatt, Blue Nile or David Sylvian, but hopefully not too pretentious sounding. I really like this new work, and at this point I’m feeling a bit frustrated by people’s tendency to want to pigeonhole my career. Rick and I plan to record a follow-up next year, so I expect Amoeba will be around for a while. People can hear samples of the new album on our website.

COSMIK: Are there any other musical stones that you still wish to turn over?

RICH: I was playing around a bit with writing string quartets several years ago, and occasionally I ponder whether that would be a fulfilling direction to educate myself in. On the other extreme, I really hope Amoeba takes off, because I envision some really interesting possibilities for that. Within a ‘group’ context, you can do so many cool things with performance. Even though Amoeba is pretty strange sounding music, it still positions itself a bit closer to rock music, since there are vocals and such, but in concert I have visions of some very unusual presentations. Originally I almost imagined it as a hybrid between a band and a Butoh dance performance, but that’s something that probably makes sense only in my twisted imagination. Anyway, I look forward to experimenting more in that “art-rock” sort of territory, whatever that means. Amoeba is definitely the vehicle for that.

COSMIK: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Robert. Obviously, you seem to keep a consistently busy schedule, and I deeply appreciate all that you have shared. Your music has struck a chord deep within many people, and you have been an absolute inspiration to me. This has been a wonderful opportunity.

RICH: Thanks so much for the kind words! It’s been a pleasure.


Interview conducted by coLeSLAw for Cosmik Debris E-zine, July Issue, 1996. (c) 1996 Cosmik Debris