Interview for Deep Listening Magazine (Italy)
Robert Rich w/ Gino dal Soler, May 1994
1) Can you give us an outline of your musician’s experience?
Do you want to know my history, my current experience, or general observations about a musician’s life? In general, I would say that any artist lives within his culture while also being somehow outside of it, observing. I don’t have a regular schedule like others around me, I spend a lot of time alone, thinking and listening. For me, a useful idea is, “Be in the world, but not of it.”
Regarding my musical biography, I started making music when I was about 12, improvising on my parent’s piano. (My father played jazz guitar, so improvisation felt very natural to me. I never took formal lessons.) I started building synthesizers from kits when I was about 14, and I started to experiment with pure sound textures. I created slowly shifting, static slow-motion sound environments that I let run all night long. At the same time I was playing in various improvising industrial noise groups, which never went anywhere (that was the late ’70’s, and there wasn’t much interest in that kind of music) Around 1981, I got the idea to play concerts for sleeping audiences, as a way to introduce my static music to a more receptive audience. These Sleep Concerts lasted all night long, from 11 PM to 8 AM. The audiences brought pillows and sleeping bags and slept while I stayed up performing my long drones. My first several tapes came out during this period, and they reflected condensed versions of this slow-motion music. Since then, my music has become more active, but I think these elements of “Trance and Drone” are still central to my music.
2) Your newer albums are more active. How would you presently define your music?
Perhaps a phrase like “multi-ethnic ambient trance music”? I wish there was a single word that could explain my sound, instead of these strange hyphenated descriptions. When we use words to describe sound, we rely on a set of conventions that keep shifting. These days, “ambient trance music” has come to mean an offshoot of techno dance music, like at a rave, but my music is more organic sounding, and it’s not very good for dancing! I use a hybrid of acoustic and electronic instruments to create a rather esoteric blend of world musical traditions and abstract atmospheres. It is often quite melodic, but also textural and somewhat dark. I seek intense beauty, which for me is very different from “prettiness”. Beauty contains both light and dark within it.
3) What inspires you, and which musicians have influenced you?
Many different things inspire me, but only recently have I come to understand the common thread through all of my work. I think my chief inspiration comes from my ongoing amazement at being alive, being part of this complex web of existence, the squishing primordial soup we call Earth. For many years I have used a word- “glurp” – to describe those sounds which remind me of my internal world of squishing wet stuff. I see “glurp” in the context of the magical process of organic life, and all its associations.
I have been influenced by a wide range of music, from Western pop and avant-garde to various non-western traditions. I am attracted to anyone who seems touched with that “spark” of psychedelic intensity, anyone who knows intuitively that music can open a window of perception, that it is a form of magic. Mostly I listen to non-western music, especially Indian classical (favorites include Ali Akbar Khan and Hariprasad Churasia), Arabic and Persian music (favorite: Hamza el Din), Indonesian Gamelan and others. Western favorites include Terry Riley, Arvo PSrt, Bach, and Bartok. My early direction into trance music was largely inspired by the sound explorations of Marianne Amocher, Annea Lockwood, and Pauline Oliveros (interestingly, all women.). My later music may have some influences from the multi-ethnic fusions of Jon Hassell and Jade Warrior, along with the various traditions I just mentioned.
4) When did you last perform your Sleep Concerts?
The last time I played a Sleep Concert was around 1986. I stopped performing all-night concerts primarily for logistical and personal reasons – I couldn’t find many really good places to do them, and they were too exhausting to perform. Perhaps someday I will do it again, who knows?
5) Do Trance, Meditation, Shamanism, Psychedelia arouse your interest?
Yes, of course! This is the core of an intense musical of experience. All of these states are related by the capacity of the human mind to experience ecstasy, transcendence, a heightened state of perception. Some states are more useful than others: I believe that naturally (internally) generated states will bring a more lasting, positive influence than states triggered by psychedelic drugs. Music is one of many ways to trigger and shape an ecstatic experience.
It might interest you to know that when I went to college, I studied psychology, not music. My research focused on the physiology of consciousness, especially relating to R.E.M. sleep and dreaming. We studied the brain to understand changes in awareness, especially during Lucid Dreams. This work still interests me, and relates to some of my musical directions.
6) Gaudi, Dali, Tarkovsky – what is the connection between music, architecture, painting, cinema?
I avoid making large claims about the similarities or differences between art forms. Each mode of expression has strengths and weaknesses, and each exists in order to communicate certain things: you cannot live in a movie or listen to a painting, and the rules differ. However, these specific artists each speak to me with deep resonance: they view their worlds, in some ways, as I view mine. Dali speaks to my subconscious – for me, he has mastered the visual vocabulary of glurp. Gaudi has done the same with architecture, although he connects with me also in his fusion of mathematics with organic form. Tarkovsky’s films deeply probe the human condition in a sort of dream-language which corresponds to my own internal musical voice: I sense that he is seeking Truth in his films, with a sense of doubt and humility, as we must in these confusing times.
7) What is Just Intonation, and which instruments do you like to play now?
Just intonation is a way to think about harmony. It is the origin of harmony, as ancient as Pythagoras or possibly the Babylonians. It is a tuning system, based on divisions of the harmonic series. This is the way we hear harmony, and sounds better to me than Equal Temperament, which is the approximation to true harmony that has become standard in Western cultures in the last 200 years or so. Modern synthesizers have allowed us to re-explore harmonic tuning systems and take them further than ever before. It takes a lot more work to use Just Intonation, but I feel that the results are worth it – I can’t imagine my music without it.
Even though synthesizers have given me more access to this microtonal universe, I have always felt a preference for acoustic timbres, especially instruments that are a bit more “raw” than those developed within the Western classical tradition. Although I began as a keyboardist, I play more percussion, flute, steel guitar and numerous home-made instruments. I have been making many of my own flutes from bamboo, clay, or plastic pipe, which gives me a lot of control over the tuning. I often make a new flute for each new tuning or piece of music.
With hard-disk recording, I can create a hybrid which contains the subtleties of the acoustic performance, with the abstraction and control of digital electronics. Also, when I perform live, I cannot play all the acoustic instruments at once, so the sampler helps me to assemble and control the sounds.
8) Will you continue working with Steve Roach?
Steve and I are very close friends, and we will probably collaborate again, but we have no plans at the moment. We often share our ideas with each other, and we respect each other’s work very much. Since SOMA, we have been exploring our separate worlds. . . but when we feel that we have more to say as a pair, we will definitely work together!
9) Are there any musicians you would like to play with?
I enjoy collaborating, but I don’t know if I could just call one of my musical heroes and offer my services! Collaborators should be friends, equals, with good chemistry. There are many musicians whose work I love, but I feel they are complete in their world. I feel more like collaborating with someone when I get to know them, and when I hear space in their music for my own vocabulary. I have talked about working together with Jeff Greinke, David Torn and Henry Kaiser, among others (Henry even contributed a bit for Propagation, but I didn’t use it). I’ll probably start a project with Brian Williams of Lustmord this summer. Right now, I am finishing an album with the sarod player, Lisa Moskow.
10) Lisa and Forrest on Propagation add an “Oriental” touch. Are you attracted to Indian music?
I love Indian music, and it has been a growing influence. The bansuri player, Hariprasad Churasia, has influenced my flute playing a lot lately, and I have always approached my music with an approach to modal melodies that is similar to the Indian raga. My next album, called “Yearning,” will be a full collaboration with Lisa Moskow, consisting entirely of alaps with sarod (the alap is the slow part that introduces a typical Indian raga performance.)
11) What are your next projects?
I have already mentioned the next two projects I have planned. First will be “Yearning,” which I hope to finish this summer. It will be released on Hearts of Space in early 1995. The next project is with Lustmord, and will probably be fairly dark, as you might expect if you are familiar with Brian’s previous albums. The album may have something to do with Tarkovsky. After that, I hope to do another album with Amoeba, my noisy, psychotic pop group. These projects should keep me busy for the next year or so!
12) What are your Desert Island Disks?
Wow, that’s tough. Maybe I would be happiest if I just took some flutes? Well, maybe:
Hariprasad Churasia/Shivkumar Sharma – Yugal Bundi
Talk Talk – Laughing Stock
Hariprasad Churasia – Rag Ahir Bhairav
Jon Hassell – Dream Theory in Malaya
Robyn Hitchcock – I Often Dream of Trains
J. S. Bach – St. Matthew Passion
Hamza el Din – Eclipse
Ali Akbar Khan – Connsr.Soc. records
Jeff Greinke – Changing Skies
Brian Eno – On Land
13) What is Glurp?
“Glurp” is a collection of associations: the sound of bubbling squishing life; the surreal liquid of dreams. I am forever seeking to describe the sound of glurp in my music, and my music seems to get wetter and squishier every year. I’m afraid that if I succeed in completely perfecting the sound of glurp, the music will vanish completely into a big gurgling protoplasm. To balance the effects of glurp, therefore, I always include its compliment, which might be called “shimmer” – the symmetrical, mathematical, upward-looking. I am always looking for a balance between these two concepts, glurp and shimmer: the physical with the metaphysical, the surreal with the sacred.