Interview for Exposé Magazine
Interview with Mike McLatchey for Exposé Magazine, Issue #19 (May 2000)
Expose: Let’s start at the beginning. Can you describe your initial background and training?
Rich: I didn’t have much formal musical training, and I don’t know whether that’s a plus or a minus. Following a brief stint with viola lessons when I was about 11 years old, and the occasional choir, I started playing my own music on piano when I was about 13. That’s about the same time I started getting into electronic and experimental music, so I also began building synthesizers from kits. By the time I was about 15, I had built enough gear that I could actually make semi-musical electronic noise, and that’s when I started playing strange improvised music in bands. My only other academic musical training was at Stanford’s CCRMA when I was studying psychology as an undergrad, around 1984. I ended up using their facilities primarily to generate microtonal pitch references to help me tune my other instruments, and also to create some unusual stochastic drone textures and rhythms. I had already released my first few albums by the time I was at CCRMA, and I was more comfortable with my own instruments.
Expose: What were the instruments you were using at this time?
Rich: I had my homebuilt modular synth (mostly Paia with a bunch of custom clock and divider modules, Curtis filter mods, Blacet Syn Bow and other oddities), Paia string synth, Prophet 5 rev. 1, lap steel guitar and bamboo flutes. Around 1984 I picked up an additional Prophet 5, which I still have. I often recorded live to 2-track until about 1985. I was a student, so I didn’t have the money for extravagant gear.
Expose: While you were at Stanford, you did some studying on lucid dreaming?
Rich: Yes, and for several years afterwards, too. I met Stephen LaBerge in 1984, at a time when he was looking for someone to help him with some simple electronic designs for the laboratory. Stephen is the world’s expert on lucid dreaming, and was the first person to prove in a laboratory that lucid dreams occur during REM sleep (he also developed a method for dreamers to communicate to the outside world while they dream.) I was already focusing on psychophysiology and sleep research as an undergraduate, and his work on lucid dreaming was one of the reasons I got involved in those topics. I ended up doing a thesis on lucid dream induction using vibration training, then I helped design some devices to automatically monitor eye movements during sleep, signaling the users when they are dreaming with flashing lights. Later, I helped him start The Lucidity Institute, which sells these devices and trains people in lucid dreaming skills (www.lucidity.com).
Expose: How do you think lucid dreaming affected your musical path? Were your “all-night” concerts from the early 80’s preliminary to this interest?
Rich: Well, the sleep concerts and the sleep research both stemmed from a common interest in the nature of consciousness and trance states. I started doing sleep concerts before the research. It’s just an area that interested me a lot. I wanted to find a musical language that could function as a trigger to altered states of consciousness, as a shamanic ritual might do in another culture. I wanted to find a shamanic language for trance induction that was relevant to modern western civilization, which could incorporate our own scientific and creative world view. Perhaps I am still seeking that language.
Expose: Can you elaborate on these sleep concerts? Weren’t your earliest cassettes, partially, recordings of these events?
Rich: Not exactly. The early cassettes were just a reflection of some of the ideas I was playing with, the slow deep evolving sounds. Basically, I was trying to create a sound environment that would pull people’s attention into a different state of awareness, as opposed to music that referred to itself, to the notes, the technique, the style. Back then, I described my ideal music as something that would point to everything else but itself, eventually just to disappear and leave the whole world vibrating in its place. It’s an idea akin to John Cage’s 4’33” except that it uses a psychological paradigm (trance or hypnotism) as opposed to a philosophical one (Zen). Similarly, the sleep concerts were an attempt to re-frame the listening experience, to create a ritual setting that invites a new way to hear music, an elongated timeframe. The music itself was very abstract, with slowly shifting clouds of sound and environmental recordings. I tried to place the environmental sounds as a centerpiece rather than a mere backdrop. I tried to spread the soundstage beyond the speakers, hopefully removing the walls from the room, sonically speaking. To help accomplish this, I used an array of multiple small speakers around the audience, all playing at a very low volume. The music was sometimes so quiet that it was almost inaudible.
Expose: In what ways did these concerts reflect on “Sunyata,” “Trances,” and “Drones?”
Rich: Mostly just the very slow pacing and the central use of environmental sounds. Interestingly, the long duration of the pieces on those albums prevented me from releasing them on vinyl, leaving cassette as the only other option. CDs weren’t available yet. Now, the advent of DVD is actually going to give me a chance to explore this long duration approach in a release format for the first time, and I am currently working on a 7 hour DVD version of a sleep concert, with new material. I’m in the midst of this project, currently, and I hope to be done with it before 2000.
Expose: Would this be audio only?
Rich: Yes, over seven hours of continuous stereo music, no visuals. DVD seems to be the perfect medium for these long durations, and works well for the stuff I was trying to do 18 years ago!
Expose: Would you consider “Inner Landscapes” and “Live” to be part of this lineage?
Rich: Close, but they really represented a transitional period, where I was moving into a shorter concert presentation (only 3 hours instead of 9) but the musical structure was still rather slow. Since these were both live concert recordings, they documented a snapshot moment in my development.
Expose: What are the differences between the new “Inner Landscapes” CD and the tape that was released by Auricle and yourself?
Rich: The CD sounds much better. The CD is a bit shorter (74 instead of 86 minutes). I removed two sections from the original cassette, and added one short section that worked better. The most noticeable omission on the CD is the rhythmic sequencer improvisation which opened the concert. I felt that this didn’t really hold up over time, and the CD felt stronger and more consistent without it. In the remastering process I also rebuilt the crossfades between the edits by sustaining some of the loops from the original tape, using the same long delays that I used during the concert; and I improved the reverb, EQ and soundstage using the tools I use when I master anybody’s work. The original concert was almost three hours long, and only two hours of it got recorded, so the release is only a condensed and edited reference to the original concert.
Expose: You’ve mentioned that most of “Sunyata” and your “Live” cassettes won’t be reissued. Sound quality problems?
Rich: Of the two, “Live” is the least likely to get re-issued, mostly because I just don’t see the point. The sound quality isn’t very good, and it’s not my strongest material by any stretch. Mostly it got released only because Hans Fahlberg of Multimood in Sweden liked the material and wanted something to release at the very start of his label. I went back a few years ago and listened to the original tapes, and I didn’t hear much that needed revival. “Sunyata” might be a different story, though. Last year a friend of mine was almost begging me to make a CDR for him so he could hear it (the cassettes are long out of print), and on a lark a few months ago I remastered it. It has plenty of flaws, but there’s enough that’s interesting about it that it might bear reissuing. I sent it to Mike Griffin at Hypnos, with whom I’m working on a series of co-releases, and he said he wanted to put it out. I don’t see that there will be a big demand for it, but who knows? I prefer not to dwell too long on this old material, though, since I have a lot of ideas that I still want to explore, and it’s time consuming to keep maintaining old catalog.
Expose: How do these reissue projects influence and reflect on the music that you are currently creating?
Rich: The project I completed in May, the new Amoeba CD, has nothing to do with my early work. It’s another adventure into quiet introspective pop music, except this time it’s a bit less quiet and a bit closer to pop. (Our first CD “Watchful” was re-issued on Release Records in October, by the way.) On the other hand, the seven hour sleep concert DVD harkens way back to the early days, except I’ve updated the vocabulary to encompass new sound sources. Once I complete the DVD, I might try to tackle a project I have been planning for a long time, an all-acoustic live ensemble recording of imaginary ritual music from a Bronze Age pre-Hellenic culture (…really!) It’s a bit hard for me to explain my progress from album to album, and I don’t really know how my old work informs my new work, except that I prefer not to repeat myself too much. Mostly I just want to make music that I would want to listen to, and my thirst for certain moods or timbres shifts over the years. Of course, I work within a certain range of prefered instruments, and there will always be some consistency imposed by my own limitations. When I go back and listen to my old work, I’m happy to say that I’m rarely embarrassed or anything, but I usually don’t think about trying to revisit an earlier sound.
Expose: When did you start using just intonation?
Rich: I began experimenting with it around 1982, but only on individual instruments. I didn’t have the means yet to record a whole piece of music in JI. The first album that I composed completely in JI was Numena, which I recorded in 1985. I wanted to explore alternate tuning systems ever since hearing Harry Partch in the late ’70s. Then I heard Terry Riley’s “Shri Camel” around 1980, and it totally transformed the way I heard tunings. After that it was merely a question of research. My main tuning reference books were the appendix to Helmholtz’ “Sensation of Tone” and Partch’s “Genesis of a Music.” Neither of these are particular geared to the beginner, so it took me a while to get up to speed. For anyone starting to study it now, I would recommend The JI Network’s “Just Intonation Primer” which is available from their website, http://www.dnai.com/~jinetwk/
Expose: When did you start using JI in your recordings? Do you use other tunings?
Rich: As I mentioned, the first album that used JI throughout was Numena, from 1985. All of my solo albums after that have used JI except some of the most abstract ones, like Below Zero. Some of the tracks on Below Zero are in JI (like Liquid Air and parts of Starmaker, which are based on a harmonic series) but some aren’t really tuned at all, since the sound sources come from semi-stochastic processes like feedback networks or granular synthesis. These pieces are basically organized sound, and tuning is a bit irrelevant. When I collaborate with other people, we usually use Equal Temperament for the sake of simplicity (except for Yearning, which uses JI, and Stalker, which mixes JI and random tunings.)
Expose: What, for you, would be the connection between your earliest Hearts of Space albums, that, starting with “Rainforest,” were a definitive change in direction from your earliest work? I speak particularly of “Gaudi,” “Propagation,” and now “Seven Veils.”
Rich: I don’t see these Hearts of Space releases as a change in direction. It’s all part of a continuum, wherever I wanted to explore at any point in my life. If you listen to some of my earlier pieces, you can hear seeds for ideas that appear on “Rainforest” and later. ‘Geomancy’ or ‘Logos’ on “Geometry,” or ‘Moss Dance’ on “Numena” contained some elements that I developed further on Rainforest and Gaudi, for example. Some people thought I created “Rainforest” specifically for Hearts of Space, and that it was more commercial for that reason. In fact, I recorded “Rainforest” with no idea of a label, I just needed to express certain feelings, many of them quite pessimistic, actually. Ironically, the end result was an album that was unintentionally accessible, and it attracted the interest of Hearts of Space. “Rainforest” turned out to be quite successful, so Hearts of Space had an incentive to release future projects. I’ve always just followed my interests, though, whether or not the label was interested. Hearts of Space has generally followed my wishes, but when I go too far they simply pass on the title and I release it elsewhere. The albums you mention all share a common thread of a melodic, rhythmic, and maybe more acoustic and ‘world-music’ focus. However, these albums were all separated by several years, and interspersed with projects that differed widely, ranging from “Strata” to Amoeba’s “Eye Catching” to “Yearning” to “Stalker”. Those other CDs are all over the map. The melodic albums also contain some darker sounding pieces, like ‘Sanctuary’ on “Rainforest” which even found its way onto the “Dry Lungs” compilation! Perhaps it’s a simple matter that I occasionally return to a more melodic sound, and these more accessible albums hit a wider market than my most experimental work, which is natural.
Expose: When a listener hears each album (like “Seven Veils” and “Below Zero”) coming out one after the other, a stylistic contrast between the two seems, perhaps, greater than it is. But the artist’s perspective differs greatly…
Rich: Well, yes, I suppose it always looks different from the outside. Perhaps I get a bit of pleasure out of surprising people, too. It’s important to remember that an album can come out over a year after I finish it, and maybe two to three years after I start planning the music. I recorded “Below Zero” the year before I started “Seven Veils”. I went on a four month tour between the two projects, where I was improvising around some of the ideas for Seven Veils, recorded “Fissures” with Alio Die immediately after that tour, then spent another 8 months completing Seven Veils. Yet “Below Zero” actually came out two months after “Seven Veils” (and “Seven Veils” came out almost a year from the time I did the final mixes!) So you see, releases don’t really correspond to the present tense. They are more like a string of documents that I leave behind as I grow and explore.
Expose: Where did the inspiration for “Below Zero” come from?
Rich: There’s a range of inspirations behind the various pieces, but they all fit together in a way that I can best describe with the word entropy, as the liner notes explain. It’s also inspired by certain mystical ecstacies, which I can only express metaphorically. It begins on a rather cosmic scale. “Starmaker” was inspired by the book of the same name, by Olaf Stapledon. The book takes us on a mental journey into infinity, deep time and deep space. The following pieces progress from the exploration of time/space to energy, physics, and deconstructive processes. The album finally ends at a very personal scale – death. The final piece, “Requiem” is dedicated to my cousin Dave Schultz, who was shot to death by the millionaire wrestling fan John DuPont. My cousin was coaching the Olympic freestyle wrestling team on DuPont’s property when DuPont manifested his latent paranoia and killed Dave out of jealousy. It was quite a famous incident in 1996. I felt so numbed and brutalized by this murder that I had to find a medicine somewhere for my anger. “Requiem” came from my search for a core sense of beauty that might still provide hope in such a random world. The sounds link the days following Dave’s death (I recorded the rain out my studio window that weekend) to the sounds from my grandparent’s home where Dave’s family and mine both grew up (I recorded the frogs and wind chimes in 1979 from my bedroom window, in my grandparent’s house.) Symbolically, these sounds, old and new, link together to create a sort of sonic talisman, an object that represents the complete circle of life and death. So, the album contains some pretty serious music. It’s a bit more difficult to listen to than many of my albums, I admit. It’s coming from a very spiritual, energized place inside me. It comes closer than any of my other albums to the sounds that fill my imagination during certain epiphanies that are hard to describe.
Expose: You’ve collaborated with a number of musicians – Steve Roach, Alio Die, Lustmord. What is your take on collaboration, and how does it influence your solo music?
Rich: I don’t choose collaborators strategically, I decide to work with someone when we both get a sense of mutual friendship and creative potential. A collaboration must have both of these elements (and more) for it to work. The friendship is essential, since our names will be linked for years to come with that one project, not to mention that we have to spend so much time cooped up in a studio together! “Creative potential” means we have to have a sense that the music we create together will take us somewhere new, somewhere we would not have gone if we had worked solo. That’s one reason I don’t like to collaborate by mail or the internet. I want us to be in the room together, sharing ideas and trying things out. Also, the time spent together outside of the studio can shape the music. “Fissures” took on some of its special warmth and character from the experiences that Stefano and I shared during our breaks: mushroom hunting, fishing in the ocean, hiking, cooking, visiting friends. You can’t create those special feelings over the phone or ISDN. As far as influencing my solo music…. hmm, that’s a tough one. Sometimes there is a sense of call-and-response. Occasionally I will feel that a door has been opened through collaboration, new questions come up, and I want to explore that new ground a bit more. With Steve Roach, I think that’s why we worked together so many times. We were discovering something together that started to become a whole new language. Sometimes, however, I will follow a collaboration with something totally different. I don’t like to repeat myself, and once I feel that I have successfully explored some territory, I get curious about new places and I want to move on.
Expose: Are there any future collaborations in the works?
Rich: I poured a lot of my collaborative energy into the latest Amoeba album, “Pivot”, which we finished in April (’99). It should come out in 2000 (maybe on Pangea.) I plan to work on solo projects in the immediate future. One of these solo projects will have a strong collaborative quality, although I’ll definitely be in charge. I am refering to “Rites of the Bronze Age”, which will be an acoustic ensemble playing hypothetical ancient music. I’ll need a lot of help with that one, so I’ll be delegating some tasks to friends. There are a few other possibilities for collaborations, but it would be premature to discuss them now.
Expose: I’d like to touch on what you said earlier, that you wanted to find “a shamanic language for trance induction that was relevant to modern western civilization.” Can you elaborate on this?
Rich: We have a need, as conscious beings, to journey inwards. Our minds have a built-in skill, to experience perceptual realms that are different from everyday consciousness. Modern Western Civilisation has become so successful at manipulating the material world – the external, physical, world of appearances – that we have come to accept the assumption that the material world is all that matters, all that exists. Our minds and souls become starved for meaningful inner experience, and this hunger manifests itself in unhealthy culturally stereotyped ways, such as addictions to television, electronic games, recreational drugs, cults, newage frivolities or fundamentalist religious dogma. What I seek for myself is a more balanced way of living, where the inner world coexists peacefully with the material world, without denying or ignoring the obvious benefits of the scientistic Western world view. I do not feel that we will find an answer in blindly adopting ritual practices or magical world-models (whether they be ancient, tribal, shamanistic, or whatever), although we can certainly learn (or relearn) numerous cognitive skills that we have lost. Some of these skills involve methods of silencing the inner dialog, and opening channels of perception that allow us to perceive certain whispers, like fragrances, that always exist in parallel to our everyday material perceptions. Music has been one of the tools that I use to help myself explore these whispers, to teach myself to sense an inner world more closely. Music has also been the mode that I have chosen to try to communicate these experiences, inadequate though it might be.
Expose: Your music seems to have both the elements of research, so to speak, as well as the intangible qualities that words do not describe. Do you see there being a natural place for the “mystical” experience in the framework of an empirical world?
Rich: Mysticism and empiricism can operate in tandem, in parallel. They are not opposites, they are just means of understanding the world through different organs of perception. They complement each other. For example, would you say that there is no need for using our ears in a world where we can use our eyes? Clearly our hearing complements our vision, as does our smell, touch, taste, etc. We should use all the faculties at our disposal to help us understand the universe. This is not to imply that mystical experience should necessarily be employed in scientific discipline – they are different ways of seeking, yet they can both contribute to our understanding of existence. I am not interesting in perfecting any one philosophical model of the universe, I am interested in combining within myself a holistic understanding of meaning, a gnosis that might manifest itself unconsciously, at the level of doing and being. Likewise, art can function at more than one level, stimulating our simultaneous states of awareness. We can perceive these multiple levels inside of ourselves either consciously or unconsciously. For example, art can communicate both joy and sadness, showing us at once the beauty of living and the poignancy of emptiness. Rather than create confusion or ambiguity, these layers combine to form a greater beauty, greater depth. With a bit of extra effort, we can add an empirical layer to this emotional complexity. For example, the paintings of Seurat are filled with complex mathematical relationships, dynamic symmetries, theoretical relationships between objects and colors. That layer of structure doesn’t interfere with the experience of the painting – it enhances the experience. Most of my favorite artwork contains multiple levels, multiple interpretations. Likewise, I want my music to unfold over time, to invite questions, or hint at hidden meanings. You know, “It’s delicious, nutritious, less fattening, and now for a limited time only, you get 20% more in every box!”