Interview with Robert Rich by Thierry Moreau for the French magazine Dreaming in1992.
I was a rather shy kid, and spent a lot of time by myself. My father played jazz guitar, but I started practicing piano because I liked the sound. I wanted to play space music. I grew up in a very hi-tech part of the country (now called Silicon Valley) and felt very comfortable with electronics. I discovered Tangerine Dream when I was around 11 years old, and started looking for just about any record with synthesizers listed on the cover. I got into music by doing laser light shows for local rock bands with projectors that I built. When I was about 14, I started to build synthesizers from kits so that I could make wierd noises. Electronic music became an obsession and an addiction. I dreamt not of being a rock star, but a sort of shaman. I wanted my music to take people on journeys through the soul. I think I must have had a very grandiose imagination of what music could do for people.
My first concerts were with a band called Quote-Unquote (“…”), playing improvised industrial electronic noise. We performed rarely – we were not very good. I was experimenting with extended sound environments at the same time, influenced by people like Cage, Marion Amocher, Pauline Oliveros, etc. I wanted to create automatic music, but without the tools I ended up making extended performances of trance music. I tried to figure out how to get people to listen to this stuff, so I started performing it to sleeping audiences. My first Sleep Concert was in early 1982 in a dormatory at Stanford University. People arrived with sleeping bags. The concert started around midnight and went until 8:00 AM. I gave Sleep Concerts untill around 1986, I think.
2) Tell me about your collaboration with Steve Roach. How do you work together? Do you have anything planned for the future?
We are working on a follow-up to Strata, to be called Soma. It is almost done, and should be realeased on Hearts of Space in early October. If Strata is about memory, Soma is about the body, but it’s more than that. It’s very physical music, very rhythmic, but also intense and beautiful. I think Soma is going to be one of our best albums.
I enjoy working with Steve. He is a very intuitive musician. I think our interests complement each other well. We think and work very differently, but we move in similar directions. He takes the large brush and paints with big strokes, I take the small brush and paint the detail. He paints the mountainous landscape, I paint the moss under a tree. He thinks in textures and harmonies, I think in sound-events and melodies. Of course when we work alone we each can work large and small, but when we work together we tend to focus on our specialties.
3) Why Gaudí, and what’s next?
I am interested in both geometrical symmetries and organic flow. I wanted to do an album working with the theme of architecture, as a follow-up to Geometry actually, but as it grew I realized that there was more to architecture than mathematics. I began to focus on Gaudi as I felt great sympathy towards his fusion of liquid organic forms with beautiful mathematical symmetries. The sophistication of his buildings is hidden beneath their wonderful fantastic forms. I feel that my music reflects similar dichotomies.
My future projects will probably stress the organic more than the mathematical, but the two will always coexist. I am very excited about I band I am starting, called Amoeba, which will provide an outlet for my noisier, darker side. Actually, Amoeba will hopefully provide a way out of the “New Age” category that I feel somewhat trapped in these days. There will be more solo space-music projects, but Amoeba will be full-time for a while at least.
4) How do you work?
Here’s a detailed, long answer. Please edit as you desire:
My methods of generating music tend to break down into three categories, all of which rely on some form of meditative concentration for their seed. The first method is pure improvisation. I start by setting up the electronic parameters that I want to perform with – tunings, patches, delay settings, microphone placements and such. Then I spend some time clearing my mind completely of all musical determinations. When I am ready, I will start the tape machine and begin playing. This method has lead to some of my most intense recordings, and the performances tend to be unique.
The second method involves imagining a piece of music in my head, sometimes in a dream, then attempting to distill the essence of the imaginary music into an audible form. Often the sound in my head will manifest itself more as a mood than as tangible notes. The actual music takes place through a slow forming process via multitrack tape, patch and sequencing arrangement, and structured improvisation. The end result often bears little resemblance to the imagined one, but the mood is usually consistent. My interest here is not so much to recreate the music or mood that was in my head, but rather to create music which will be conducive to first-hand experience of the sorts of states which allowed for the conception of such music in the first place. . . i.e. I don’t care if others share my personal experience; I want them to go beyond my personal limitations and experience heights of their own.
My third method of composition involves a continual shaping directly at the sound level. New structures tend to suggest themselves when I am experimenting with a new keyboard tuning or improvising on an acoustic instrument. I will then experiment with new sound juxtapositions, harmonic or resonant effects, until an interesting psychological result is achieved. This is usually a lengthy process, which will result in a sort of condensed, shorthand notation–basically a bunch of messages to myself in the form of track-charts referring to particular tunings, sounds, harmonies, and melodies which I have already worked out in my head. The recording process which follows is usually a sort of marathon session which continues at full concentration until the basic effects are achieved, slowly tapering in intensity as refinements are made.
5) What do you listen to?
I have ecclectic and strange tastes! Often the music that influenced my own music isn’t my favorite, but rather suggests something good that I think needs to be done better. If someone else has already done something perfectly, I would rather not try to do the same thing myself. That said, I’ll list a small portion of the music I like:
“World music”: especially Balinese and Javanese gamelan, Indian classical (Hariprasad Churasia, Ali Akhbar Khan, Zakir Hussein among others), East African Kora music, African pop music, Persian vocal music, among others. Pop, etc.: ’60’s psychedelic – early Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, Incredible String Band, 13th Floor Elevators, Soft Machine, Can, Gong, Hawkwind, etc…; Robyn Hitchcock, XTC, Wire, Residents, Bel Canto, Japan; Industrial noise like Throbbing Gristle, Hafler Trio, Zoviet France; Contemporary Instrumental/Ambient including Jon Hassel, Terry Riley, Eno, Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Popul Vuh, Jeff Greinke, Steve Reich; Jazz including John MacLaughlin, Miles Davis, Coltraine, Chicago Art Ensemble, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman; Classical especially J.S Bach, Debussy, Bartok; Rennaissance and Gregorian Chant….
As you can see, the list goes on and on.
6) How would you describe your musical evolution? What are your plans for future?
I just need to follow where my curiosity leads me. I want to further explore sound sculpture, rock and pop music, writing for string quartet, dance and performance art, piano solo music, acoustic/electronic hybrids. In the immediate future, after finishing Soma, I plan to work mostly on Amoeba. The next solo album will probably be very atmospheric and “wet” (I use the word “glurp”). I might do something with Jeff Greinke sometime soon.
7) Which French musicians are you familiar with?
I am familiar with many excellent french musicians. I know a few personally, not many. I know Christian from Lightwave, and some of Vox Populi. I met Jacques Dudon, a sound experimenter, a few others. Of course I am familiar with Heldon, and I love Albert Marcoer.
8) What do you think of Micky Hart, Jon Hassel and Micheal Brook?
Mickey Hart, Jon Hassel and Michael Brook are all doing excellent work! Mickey Hart, especially, has been very good about giving credit to the musicians he works with, helping others to get known. One problem with western musicians working with others from around the world is that the westerners tend to take all the credit – it’s not always treated as an equal relationship.
A lot of credit shold go to Henry Kaiser, a guitarist who has worked extensively with musicians from around the world, helps publicize them, learns THEIR music and understands and respects their cultures. This is very rare, and very important.
9) Do you plan to perform in France?
I have only performed in France once, on Paris radio (Icí et Maintenant). Steve and I have performed in Spain twice. I would love to go back to France soon!
10) How do you connect your interest in the Rainforest with mathematics?
Nature and mathematics have always interested me. I am not a great mathematician, but I love the beauty of geometry, the aesthetics of Pythagorean mysticism. This coexists with my love of life, nature, biological wetness…. “glurp”. The two contrasting elements – symmetry and glurp – will always create tension in my work.
The Rainforest issue became strong for me after my parents moved up to the Pacific Northwest, a very wild and wet place. I went to visit them and saw huge areas of forest cut for lumber. It made me sad and worried. We are consuming our world faster than it can repair itself. We have been hearing much about the destruction of tropical rainforests, but we forget that we are all guilty, we are the consumers, not only the Brazilians or the Indonesians. They are destroying their paradise in order to match the consumption that WE have set as a standard. We are destroying our own forests at the same pace, but always look to them to solve this disastaster. The entire world is in very deep trouble right now because of human greed and stupidity. This sadness inspired Rainforest, but I don’t expect the album to help anything really, it’s just a reflection of my state of mind.