Interview with Robert Rich, 12 November 1997
by David Cottner, KCSB radio
1. In what way are you your parents’ child?
Well, the older I get the more similarities I see, especially with my father. He’s a jazz guitarist who could have gone professional, but opted for engineering instead. I share his hybrid of scientific and creative curiosity, along with a fierce perfectionist streak, social awkwardness, and an uptight workaholic tendency. This might be the recipe for a nerd, but it coexists with a deep love of nature, an inclination towards mystical experience, and an odd pragmatic sort of optimism.
2. What aspects of structure does your music share with your upbringing?
That’s a bit harder to connect, although I suppose it reflects my personality in numerous ways. The introspective qualities mirror my own. The sonic detail reflects my perfectionist nature. The psychoactive qualities reflect the side of me that keeps searching for expanded experience. The mathematical underpinnings result from my fascination with the underlying structure of things, the meaning behind the appearances.
3. Are structure and control mutually inclusive?
Not necessarily. A large portion of structure (both in my music and in nature) unfolds naturally from organic processes. Accidental occurrences are still governed by the laws of physics, and if we can gain a better understanding of these naturally occuring structures, we can use them consciously in making art. We don’t need to impose conscious control upon every action to see an intended structure evolve into the final form. Sometimes a composition can “grow” like a plant, and the resulting structure comes from the interaction of intent and certain carefully selected autonomous processes. For example, I have been working a lot recently with feedback systems, where signals pass between numerous signal processors and degrade into chaotic clouds of sound. I can guide this process, but I can’t determine the outcome exactly. It’s a bit like steering an oil tanker – there is a long time lag between action and result, and the mapping between action and outcome can be quite nonlinear.
4. Does structure become an aspect of the aesthetic itself when composing?
Compositional decisions always leave their mark on a piece, whether you think about it or not. Hopefully the final result shows a balance of all of the various structural, emotional, and intuitive elements. I prefer to keep the structure somewhat veiled, to serve as an extra layer of meaning for those who wish to explore the music more deeply. I generally consider the initial impact of the music to be most important. I choose structures that complement the desired gestalt. At times I might focus on structure as a compositional seed, but usually I mask it in the end under more intuitive aesthetic considerations.
5. Is it possible to create a work of art existing independent of the aesthetic?
I’m not sure what you mean by that. I think aesthetic is often unconsciously linked to the creative process. As often as not, though, aesthetic is grafted upon the work by others, after the fact. It may be best not to worry so much about these matters, and just appreciate the work for what it is, and how it acts upon you, personally.
6. What does the term “power electronics” mean to you?
Just a buzzword. When you distort a signal, does it really matter if the original sound was a guitar or an oscillator? Noise has been a part of our musical vocabulary since Cage and Russolo, so I don’t think we have to obsess over it as if it were a new revolution.
7. Does that term refer to the power of electronics, the empowerer, or a third mind?
I think it derives from a specific postmodern mindset, seeking desparately for something new in a jaded, novelty seeking culture.
8. Insofar as your music goes, why do you do what you do?
To seek meaning, like an elusive flavor, or a smell that triggers a flood of memories.
9. Is chance as important as knowledge, in experimental music?
It depends entirely on the composer and his/her intentions. Perhaps a better word than “knowledge” is “discovery,” and chance is a major part of discovery. However, there are those for whom chance plays a smaller role, and their process of creation may be quite methodical. I probably fall somewhere in between the two.
10. Is it important, at times, not to know what you’re doing, in experimental music?
Again, it depends upon the composer. It’s hard to lump all experimental music together. Some people depend on a steady state of confusion, others want complete control. If it’s really experimental, then at some point you’ll be in unknown territory, which can be disorienting or energizing, often both.
11. What is your ancestry?
Eastern Pacific Rim Euromutt. (That is to say, Caucasian, 4th generation California native…)
12. Was your heritage crucial in bringing you to where you are now with your music?
Only insofar as everything we do derives from everything we are.
13. Does your way of thinking about your music affect your life in general?
It all grows out of common selfhood I think. I just try to stay honest in all that I do. I don’t separate art and life, work and life, art and self. They form an organic whole, and they all affect each other.
14. Should art be consumptive?
Yes, if that’s the best way to experience that art. No, if the art is best experienced in communal or interactive ways.
15. Are people who answer questions with “yes” or “no” stupid, or just plain lazy?
16. Does experimental music imply a separation of art and artist?
Again, I can’t lump all experimental music together. I can only speak to my music, which actually results from my attempts to fuse myself with my art in as honest a way as possible.
17. How has your music separated you from living life?
The two are completely integrated, to the best of my abilities.
18. Does your music have an ending point?
The compositions themselves do have a temporal structure, a beginning, middle and end. However, the music itself seeks to express the eternal by way of mental association. The idea is to create a seed, which occupies a limited volume yet contains an unlimited potential for activity.
19. Do you see your work continued after you have assumed room temperature?
Well, I’m sure the world will keep moving long after my body becomes worm food, and I don’t have dreams of artistic immortality. If my music is still valid then, that’ll be great, but I’m afraid that’s a bit off my radar screen, captain…
20. Who do you see today carrying the tradition of experimental music into tomorrow?
I have no idea who is likely to become newly important in the near future. What seems experimental today might be banal tomorow. I tend not to judge things by their projected cultural impact, but rather by my personal response to the music itself. Perhaps as the novelty of the postmodern/plunderphonics/sampling/plagiarism/cut-up technique wears thin, people will start again to appreciate music with more personal and organic vocabularies. At the same time, I realize that I have certain contrarian tendencies that will probably cause my own work to veer away from both mainstream expectations and the vogue of the experimental elite, and the people whose work I like best often fall in a similar gap between trends.
21. Do you get a lot of mail addressed to Steve Roach or Steve Reich?
Occasionally, people confuse me with Roach, because we have collaborated a lot and we are on the same record label now. For example, when I was on tour last year, performing my sleep concerts on radio stations around the country, someone actually mentioned to me at one of my live concerts that he had heard about some all night concerts that Steve Roach was doing! I had to say, “um, well, I think that’s me you heard about…” It can be a bit embarrassing sometimes. But Steve and I are good friends, and we often find ourselves in similar circles, so I guess it’s natural to get us confused sometimes.