Interview with Robert Rich and Deidre Rhein, Summer 2004
We were pleased for the opportunity to ask Robert a little bit about everything: his creative process, lucid dreaming, mushrooms, the state of humanity and more.
DR: Your last release “Open Window”, which documents your improvisational approach to acoustic piano, is absolutely amazing. The background information for this CD notes that you kept a daily schedule of piano improvisation for a period of over two months, with microphones set up to record at all times. Can you give us a little insight as to what that creative process was like? (ie: did you set aside a certain time each day to play, or did you only go to the piano when you felt a creative calling?)
RR: I tried to keep my playing spontaneous, not to stress out about it too much, but also to maintain a pattern of practice. I played whenever I felt like it, and just kept it easy to push record. When I wasn’t playing, I mostly tried to keep a clear idea in my imagination of a sound that stayed pure, unencumbered. I was looking for those notes that pulled on the music in a certain way, those dissonant consonances that lift things. Much of the process involves creating such a vivid mental image that it just happens on its own by the time I sit down to play everyday. Then, after I thought I had some decent performances on tape, I went through that material and paired it down to the final form. I threw away about 7 hours of recordings.
DR: Some artists (writers, musicians, painters) prefer to work with “the door closed”. Meaning that when in the process of creating, they shut themselves off and do not reveal or share any part of the project with anyone (friends, colleagues, lovers) until it is done. Some artists feel this is necessary to prevent distractions and the possible disturbance of comments and suggestions from others regarding the work in progress. Do you work the same way? Or do you prefer the “door to be open”?
RR: A bit of both, I guess. Most of the time, I have a clear enough sense of direction toward what I want that the external input would neither help nor hurt. It takes me a long time experimenting before I make sounds that I like enough to play for others; but sometimes I like to show people work in progress, just to keep me moving forward, or perhaps to fish for encouragement.
DR: Obviously the feel and sound of a work is in direct reflection of the artist’s mood at the time of creation. What sort of mood suits your creativity the best when working on an album?
RR: Something starts gnawing away at me, like an itch. If that’s not happening, then I actually have trouble getting much good work done. I tend to avoid the studio for periods of time, and go for walks or something merely to feel the moment. Those times can be good for gestation, to find meaning. For me, the creative process is something different from a mood, hard to explain, neither positive nor negative, almost like a cross between scientific curiosity (“hmm, I wonder what *this* would sound like”) and cell mitosis – the music just starts to split off from me and take a life of its own. On the other hand, some of my best music may have come out of states of distress, feeling a bit like a lighthouse keeper isolated in a huge storm, with waves crashing overhead while locked away in a protective prison. For example, I recorded a simple piece “Requiem” for my cousin Dave Schultz, who was killed in 1996. The event felt like poison, the whole world felt noisy and unbalanced, so I tried to make the music as an antidote.
DR: You have been very involved in Lucid Dreaming research and scientific development. What have been some of your most memorable lucid dreams?
RR: I remember one lucid dream where I was seated with a group of people in a circle, watching someone flip through various landscape paintings of the steep California coastal mountains. I understood these aerial landscapes to have been painted by Mati Klarwein, and they certainly had that type of psychedelic intensity. Suddenly I felt a firm push from behind, as some energy kicked me forward into one of these paintings. I flew into the painting, and found myself flying over the coastal mountains, vividly lucid, ecstatic, awed by the sense of crystallized beauty, filled with a nostalgic feeling from the sense that this represented my childhood home, my roots and my heritage. I heard music playing while I flew, which I later tried to recreate in my album “Numena”, the final piece “Walled Garden.” As the dream dissolved, I woke up feeling that I had travelled to a shamanic parallel world, but one that contained this waking world as if this waking life were the real dream. “The Walled Garden” represented the frames around which we place ecstatic experience, which we use to push these experiences out of the way, whereas the truth of these experiences is that they are more real, more “awake” than the sleepwalking of everyday existence. An experience like this gives new layers of color to the world, and deepens its reality.
Another very powerful lucid dream occured a few weeks after I finished a novel by Doris Lessing called “Shikasta.” This book left a strange resonating sense of sadness about the human condition, yet with seeds of hope. In the dream, I was walking across a desert of dried cracked mud, an endless wasteland. I felt a huge wave of emotion, which dropped me to my knees, crying almost uncontrollably, nearly suicidal in my sense of frustration about my inability to heal humanity. Although this next bit sounds silly, it had a huge resonance in the dream: a man rode up on a horse, covered in the white fabric of a desert nomad, which hid his face. He reached down and lifted me up to my feet. Then as I realized I was dreaming, he proceeded to explain the role of suffering and darkness in our world, in the most clear and beautiful language I could imagine. This conversation lasted for several minutes, and the intensity and clarity of the information stayed with me after I woke up. I couldn’t believe that I had dreamed such eloquence. It came from somewhere else. Among other things, this dream helped to solidify my sense of direction in my future, and offered certain guidelines for my role as an artist.
DR: Are you able to control your dreams?
RR: I don’t have very many lucid dreams anymore, but when I do I tend not to try to control them much. It’s more interesting to participate in a new world as it happens. If I become lucid, I try to use that extra knowlege to amplify the value of the dream, to interact more consciously with the dream characters. Dreams tend to have their own logic and direction.
DR: What kind of information, or enlightenment, are you able to achieve with lucid dreaming?
RR: Perhaps most usefully, lucid dreaming can help us to better understand the metaphor of world-building in our everyday existence. We actively construct our model of the world around us, in an ongoing process that integrates our senses with our sense of self. In a lucid dream, we can see that process occuring within a different framework devoid of external sensory input, which makes the process more obvious. Many of the mental procedures that can help us become good lucid dreamers can also get us into the habit of self-awareness during everyday consciousness. We learn to look at ourselves from behind, in a sense, to observe ourselves as we observe and build our world model.
DR: Your love for mushrooms is well-known. So is your interest in mental exploration, especially in regards to “experiences that potentiate ecstacy and epiphany.” Combining the two interests, have you ever experimented with psilocybe mushrooms?
RR: I’ve experimented with a lot of things, including psilocybe, but my interest in mushrooms has more to do with a love for the natural world, and the way that the knowlege necessary to collect safe wild food connects me with a primordial knowlege of our hunter-gatherer roots.
DR: What was your experience like and did it bring you any significant enlightenment concerning your own mental psyche?
RR: Like lucid dreaming, those experiences showed me that “reality” is something we build within ourselves from moment to moment. Our senses are constructive, not merely recording the world and playing it back to us. Of course I do not mean to imply the solopsistic argument that “reality” doesn’t exist, merely that our understanding of reality gets shaped by the patterns and models within our brain. By shifting those patterns temporarily, this constructive process becomes more obvious. However, once I learned these lessons I felt less inclined to repeat the more invasive methods of shifting perceptions. The perceptive skills exist within us already. These days, I don’t feel a desire for externally induced altered states. I feel that I have a better connection to a quieter sort of state, listening, without the heavy noise of psychedelics.
DR: Have you ever considered writing a book? For example, a study of the psychological reactions of participants at your Sleep Concerts, or a book about your Lucid Dreaming research, or even an all-encompassing biography of your life experiences?
RR: I enjoy writing, and I write a lot about simple things (food and such.) I do ponder writing a book, but I haven’t figured out the best way to frame it. I have plans for a book that discusses the role of rarified perception and “slow art”, discussing it from a combined perspective of psychology and art. Basically, it would be my anti-postmodern exigesis.
DR: If you had the opportunity to go any place in the world, and completely submerge yourself in an entirely different culture for 1 year – learning the language, the customs and traditions, living the daily life – where and in what culture would you choose?
RR: As I ponder the cultures that I might be able to learn the most from, I think perhaps a year at Dharamsala living with Tibetan Buddhist monks might be very worthwhile. I try to be careful not to think of other cultures in over-idealized ways. While I treasure the differences that give us diversity and teach us about ourselves, I think every human culture has similar proclivities, strengths and weaknesses, similar access to fundamental truths, similar tendencies toward politics and violence, love and community.
DR: Your music indicates a certain spiritual aspect. Do you believe in God?
Not an old man in the sky, not a savior. I don’t really “believe” anything, but I do experience something that permeates everything. For me it’s a verb, not a noun. My relationship with that active principle has nothing to do with belief. Sometimes I experience things, moments of clarity, and I hear a whisper that hovers in the gaps between one thought and the next. I don’t try to define it or name it, because it’s bigger than me and I only understand it in the simple ways that a human can – through a sense of rightness, a potential for love, the awesome expanse of silence that frames our lives.
DR: You lead such a productive and accomplished life, but I am sure there is more that you would like to do.
RR: Actually I consider myself rather lazy. I tend to get absorbed into activities that involve making things, because it satisfies me. So, it looks like I do a lot just because I tend to finish the few things that I actually start! But I get distracted easily, pulled away from the “big” projects (like recording my next album) and into little projects that seem like more fun (like winemaking or cooking.) As a result I work rather slowly.
DR: What have you not yet achieved that you would like?
RR: You asked about writing a book earlier, and that does count among my goals. I’m not sure that I have the discipline for that, though. Most of the “achievements” that interest me are more like parallel carreers that I wish I had the time or money to pursue. For example, I would like to get back into ceramics, which was a passionate hobby of mine for several years. I would like to start a restaurant or a teahouse. I would like to own a vineyard and a winery. I would like to have a house on the north coast with enough woodland that I could hunt mushrooms nearby. As it is, I barely have enough time to learn how to use the new gear in my studio, let alone figure out how to make good music with it!
DR: Is there anything missing from your life that you wished you had?
RR: Not physically, in the sense of posessions. I don’t need very much, and I live quite comfortably compared to the rest of the world. Most of my desires are immaterial – like above, things I want to do, not things I want to have. Like most people I often wish for a simple sense of completeness. I’m sure if we had children I would be thinking a bit differently about this, because then I would be concerned mostly with securing their future. Instead, I look for the small actions that offer meaning.
DR: What makes you laugh?
Monty Python, Rabelais, Juan Miró, e.e. cummings, Robyn Hitchcock, “Far Side” cartoons, my friend Rick Davies when he tells a good story, finding an edible mushroom in a surprising new place (like when I found a morel growing in the landscaping of our new city library.) Most often, I probably laugh at myself for being somewhat inept in certain social settings.
DR: You wouldn’t care to share with us a real-life example of that would you?
RR: I don’t know if there’s any one time I can point to that stands out. Just about any introvert in the world remembers the feeling of not quite knowing how to play at being human in a crowd. For me, it’s easier to perform in front of a thousand people than it is to be a guest at a cocktail party full of strangers.
DR: I read on your website about your “attempts to establish a breeding population of native California tree frogs” in your backyard. How concerned are you about the diminishing wildlife in your community?
RR: I’m concerned about the diminishing wildlife everywhere on our planet. I see a spreading human-induced monoculture. As the diversity of ecosystems and species diminishes, we find ourselves in an ugly world that can’t support our bloated overconsuming population. Locally, I grew up in the fading rural remnants of what people now call Silicon Valley. A natural creek passed through my grandparents’ garden, and in the springtime I listened to the chorus of frogs late into the soft rainy nights. The frogs taught me polyrhythms, as I counted the call and response patterns, cycling up and down the creek. That landscape has since been destroyed. My grandparents’ garden vanished 15 years ago under new houses, as have many of the fruit orchards and fields that separated the towns here, which 30 years ago began growing together into one sprawling suburb. We need to find more ways to integrate our lives with the planet, rather than sealing ourselves off into hermetically sealed lifeless concrete bubbles. I rarely hear frogs anymore, even though we have a large creek running through our neighborhood. If this were a healthy environment, we would hear a cacophony every spring. Perhaps it would drown out the sound of the nearby freeway. These little frogs are now rare, and for me thay stand as a metaphor for the health of our local environment. I want to hear them again.
DR: You also state on your website that the word KINDNESS “resonates” in you as you work on new music, and that if you become “guilty of making “pretty” music this year, perhaps it comes from a corrective sensibility, or a deep sadness (perhaps hopefulness?) for the condition of our planet.” Would you please go into more detail and give us more thoughts about your feelings on this subject?
RR: Tough one. I usually try to avoid these conversations. I am not a political person by nature, so it’s hard to express. Like most people, war makes me angry and sad. As an American I feel embarrased about a government that claims to represent us, while in fact it represents the interest of multinational corporations, whose power has overstepped political borders. I also have trouble understanding the murderous forms of communal hypnosis that keep cropping up, whether within civil wars like Uganda, Somalia or Yugoslavia, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, the Holocaust and the Pograms; or the violent false-religious intolerance of Wahabism, the Inquisition or the Ku Klux Klan. Years ago I realized that I do not have the personality nor skills to change such situations at a level of power structures or large social forces. I don’t have that sort of publicly galvanizing personality. I realized that I might better spend my skills comunicating a small antidote, creating a tiny bubble of humanity which could perhaps attract other like-hearted bubbles. In solitude we each act as a lighthouse. That’s my role as an artist. I can do very little to change the world, but at least I can express some of the possibilities. For me it sometimes means that I have to plumb the depths into a shamanic space, to pull back something truthful that is bigger than myself; and I never quite know what I come back with. Sometimes it’s rather intense, so I have a reputation among some people as a person who makes “dark” music. But I often feel a need for a burning kind of beauty, the kind that can cauterize wounds. I’m always struggling to find it. I thought the piano album did have some of this energy, but I don’t think it attracted much attention from my listeners. I think they were afraid it would sound boring or too pretty. I keep trying.
DR: But you do have many loyal listeners who look forward to and appreciate every new album. What can we expect next from you?
RR: I’m working on two new albums right now. The first is quiet environmental music, in collaboration with a photographer named David Agasi (he took the photo that you used on the 20/20 interview.) 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 detatched. The other project might be called “Electric Ladder,” and I’m planning to take this in a slightly more melodic cyclic electronic direction, with a lot of microtonal work included. These last few months, my work on that album has mostly been learning and development, testing some new prototype tools that should help me with the tunings, basic background work.
DR: In closing, thank you for your time and candor. It was a pleasure.