Interview for ElectroAmbient Space
with Robert Rich and Phil Derby,
Read information about related music at
Let’s just jump right in feet first: Why a solo piano album? And why now, at this stage in your career?
RR: I’ve been playing piano for a long time, and I often open my concerts with piano improvisations; but back when I was getting started, I didn’t want to be known primarily as a pianist. I felt that listeners had become somewhat saturated with solo piano albums, so I wanted to wait until I felt that I could bring something fresh to the vocabulary.
You mentioned that for Open Window you recorded for days on end, and released the parts that flowed the easiest. Is this different than your usual method of composing?
RR: It’s different in several ways. Usually I work over each element in my mind before recording the sound, and I’ll complete only those parts that work together in a conceptual whole, building up the layers slowly like a sculpture. There isn’t much waste in that process, because many ideas get thrown away before they progress very far. I wanted the piano album to be different, more spontaneous, and with no overdubs and minimal editing. So, the method fit the improvisational nature of the music. I found that I could relax more and get the music into a unique place simply by pushing “Record” every time I sat down at the piano. I erased the tape on days I didn’t like my playing, and I kept anything I thought might potentially survive later evaluation. Finally I selected an album’s worth of material from about 8 hours of “good-enough” moments.
You’ve gone so many different directions with your music. Are you working on your next project yet, and can you tell us what form that will take?
RR: I’m working on two new albums right now. The first is quiet environmental music, in collaboration with a photographer named David Agasi. We plan to put together a limited box called “Echo of Small Things,” with perhaps eight of his hand made black and white prints along with a CD. The mood is very intimate, calm and slightly detached. The other project will be called “Electric Ladder,” and I’m taking this in a more melodic cyclic electronic direction, with a lot of microtonal work included. My work on that album started mostly with tool-learning and sound development, testing some new prototypes that should help me with the tunings, basic background work. I’m about half done with each album. Next spring, Ian Boddy and I hope to start working on a new collaboration. So, it’s a busy year at home, trying to take advantage of a year without touring.
So did you make a deliberate decision to not tour this year, or did it just happen to work out that way? Did you enjoy the break, or do you miss being out on the road?
RR: A very deliberate decision. For the last three years, I have toured several months a year, and I felt that I was drying up a bit. I needed time to learn new technologies, new software, update my computers, and work through some new musical approaches. I wanted to focus on the studio, on new composition, and on new ways to perform. Also, I just wanted to spend more time at home, enjoy the California summertime, grow vegetables, make wine, go hiking. I haven’t set myself a tight agenda to release new albums. They’ll come out when they’re ready.
One thing I’ve often wondered about artists in this genre who go on tour – how do you afford it? Obviously, electronic music doesn’t draw in the crowds, and it’s commonplace for musicians to go abroad, such as Radio Massacre International coming here to the U.S, and you going to Europe. Do you save the money and pay out of your own pocket? Do you find people in cities to stay with rather than pay for hotels and that sort of thing? And what about the expense of hauling all that gear around?
RR: I make money when I tour, because I pare down my luxuries to the absolute minimum. I carry my own gear. I drive myself. If I can’t stay at friends’ houses I stay at Motel 6. Usually a few of the gigs are larger and pay well, often with funding of some sort, so the other gigs fill in the gaps as I drive across the country. It works surprisingly well, although it gets quite exhausting.
What was the best experience you ever had during a concert? How about the worst?
RR: I think some of my best concert experiences have been in Philadelphia, where a very strong audience has sustained itself around several good radio shows, in particular Star’s End on WXPN with a DJ named Chuck Van Xyl, and Echoes with John Diliberto and Jeff Towne. For years now, Jeff and Chuck have organized a concert series called The Gatherings that continues to bring some of the best crowds that I have ever played for.
Sometimes the best concert moments occur off stage, spending time with the people who organize the show, or old friends that I see only when I tour. For example, when Steve Roach and I played in San Sebastian Spain in 1992, the organizers treated us to some wonderful Basque experiences, including an invitation to their eating club, a hike in the mountains, and an evening in a local cider house that reminded me of a scene out of a Bruegel painting.
The worst experiences? I’ve had a few frustrating gigs, but I try to put those behind me. If I didn’t have a selective memory, I probably would have quit touring long ago!
Speaking of concerts a long time ago, I know you’ve been asked about this a lot, but take us back to your sleep concert era. How did you come up with the idea? Do you remember the first time you did it, and how you felt about it?
RR: The idea came from a synthesis of many influences. As I learned about Indonesian music in my teens, I discovered that the Wayang puppet plays lasted all night long in Javanese villages. I pondered what state of mind the listeners would be in after hours of this music. Later – around 1981, on the radio, I heard an all-night performance by John Cage and Marianne Amacher called Empty Words. They took long breaks every two hours or so, and the audience was awake, but the same ideas re-occurred to me about long durations and trance. Likewise, I read about the long concerts by Terry Riley in the Sixties, and I read about some Fluxus performances (by Richard Hayman I think) where the composer fell asleep with oscillators hooked up to his brain waves. It struck me that it would make more sense for the audience to sleep, with music that suited the particularly nonlinear ways of thinking that occur during sleep.
My very first sleep concert took place in my freshman dorm at Stanford, in February 1982. I advertised with flyers around campus, and on a few local college radio stations. Admission was free. About 25 people showed up, maybe 6 of them from the dorm. The others were mostly strangers – a pleasant surprise. I began the concert around 11:00 p.m. with a 30-minute piano improvisation, and dipped down until only some very quite sounds filled the room. I tried to create a different mood every 90 minutes or so, to correlate with the REM cycle.
How I felt about it? Tired! It’s a bit hard for me to know how other people felt. It was new, strange, hard to describe. As time went on, and I performed more of these, I came to realize that I was playing more to hypnogic states (when people are slipping in and out of sleep) rather than to REM sleep and dreaming. However, I did hear some amazing reports of intense and beautiful dreams, which the music seemed to have inspired.
What is the most unusual sound you’ve ever coaxed out of an instrument, either accidentally or on purpose? How did it happen, and what did you do with the result?
RR: Well, I must say that “Bestiary” was an attempt to make musical structure out of some of the most unusual sounds I’ve ever managed to make. That would include the “talking chaos” patch that I discovered on the MOTM modular, with two oscillators FM-modulating each other with feedback in soft sync mode, through a formant filter. It sounded like a babbling idiot yelling from a third floor New York apartment. Perhaps the sickest sound I ever created used the bad electrical ground on my first modular synth, when I discovered I could put a patch cord into my mouth connected to the voltage control input of an oscillator. It made the oscillator squeal like a pig. It felt like a victory over electronics. I’m lucky I wasn’t electrocuted!
Do you still keep in touch with Steve Roach? Any chance of coming back together again for a reunion of sorts, musically speaking?
RR: Steve and I talk frequently, and we remain good friends and very respectful of each other’s work. I’m sure if we feel that we have some new territory to explore together, we will happily go there. In the meantime, we appreciate the new ground each other uncovers. Our lives seem parallel but different, with distinct goals and mutual admiration. Steve has such a focused and self-sufficient creative engine, I’m not sure what I could bring to his sound world right now other than friendship and encouragement.
You mentioned a new collaboration with Ian Boddy. On the face of it, one might think Ian’s very synthesized approach and your very organic approach might not mix, although the excellent results of Outpost speak otherwise. How did you two come together? Do you and Ian compose together in person, or do you collaborate long distance using the wonders of modern technology?
RR: Ian and I enjoy working together in person, in part because we really like each other’s company, in part because we appreciate each other’s different approaches and prefer to bounce ideas around in real time. If we had the same skills, why bother collaborating? To work on Outpost, Ian came out to California for a week, then I went over to northern England for about 10 days to finish up with him, a few months later. I mixed the finished work back here, since we started here and I knew the sound. We plan to work in a similar way next time. We’re starting to collect ideas to show each other. Hopefully Ian can visit in springtime for a brainstorming and tracking session, and then we can finish up later for an autumn release if all goes smoothly. Nothing beats spending real time with real people — much better than isolated islands connected by the abstracted thread of technology.
What is your favorite electronic instrument, what is your favorite acoustic instrument, and why?
RR: That’s easy. The MOTM modular synth is definitely my favorite electronic instrument. It pushes me into new territory. It makes me hit the “record” button. It can sound deep, crisp, tight, warm, clean, dirty, or as nasty as I want to push it. My favorite acoustic instrument would have to be the piano, because it’s the one instrument that I relax into, which allows me to improvise all my thoughts as they happen. The piano becomes my own voice for me, like returning home after a long day’s travel.
What is more important to you in the composition process – the sounds or the mood?
RR: The sounds and the notes are completely subservient to the mood, the energy. For me, the mood gives birth to the music, and I know I’m finished when I hear the flow of energy that I felt in the beginning. It’s all about communication. Every aspect of the structure of the music serves the purpose, it serves the desired effect.
Is there a track or an album that stands out to you as your favorite, one that really accomplished exactly what you set out to do?
RR: If I were to name a single track off the top of my head, it might be “Night Sky Replies” from A Troubled Resting Place (it also came out in Italy as a 3″ CD on Amplexus.) I created that piece rather quickly. It flowed easily and virtually wrote itself. Somehow it became transparent. I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t striving to make a statement or create a breakthrough. Yet, when I finished the piece, it captured the essence of most of the things I have been trying to communicate in my life’s work. Somehow, it carried the core of my voice. Other pieces occasionally feel that way for me, but “Night Sky Replies” might still have the most juice.
Do you go back to your own music, just for listening enjoyment, after you’ve created it?
RR: Complex answer: Occasionally I do hanker to listen back to an older release, but mostly out of curiosity, just to remind myself, or to learn if it holds up over time. The problem is that I hear my own work constantly when I am working, and by the time I finish an album, I have listened to it hundreds of times, far more even than I would listen to my favorite albums by other artists. This level of effort tends to “use up” the music. I have extracted as much out of it as possible. I have also invested everything I have into each piece, and I remain critical of all of it. I don’t think it’s healthy to keep returning back to old work. Anyway, I doubt that I can hear it like anyone else. I still hear the process, not the result. Having said that, I don’t release anything that I wouldn’t enjoy listening to personally, so when I do hear my old music I often feel somewhat gratified that I don’t hate it. Usually, I feel it holds up quite well.
What sort of music do you think you’ll be making 10 years from now?
RR: I have no idea. Each album represents a new effort to push my personal envelope, to find new vocabularies. Yet, I know that my past work somehow fits together with a single voice, regardless of how diverse it felt at the time. If I’m still making music, I can only hope it still feels vibrant.