Interview with Roger Batty. The article appears here on the Musique Machine website
Early Reflections [2014-06-12]
Along with Steve Roach, Robert Rich is one of the pioneers of the America ambient music- his discography stretchers over 30 years, and he’s credited as influencing & helping create the dark ambient form, as well been one of the first ambient artists to create a more minimal & slower ambient sound. Over the last year or so there’s been a series of reissues of his early works, and one of the most recent of these reissues is the four vinyl Lp box set Premonitions 1980-1985, which collects together rare and unreleased material from his formative years as a ambient artist. Robert kindly agreed to give M[m] a email interview discussing his early work & releases, his infamous 1980’s sleep concerts, and the new Premonitions boxset.
m[m]:Tell us a little bit about some of your earliest music or sound memories, and do you think any of them triggered your interest in creating ambient music?
RR: My earliest musical memories involve listening to my grandfather’s favourite big band jazz recordings; also, my father playing jazz guitar with his friend Sheldon Fay, in a West-Coast cool melodic style, like Stan Getz or Barney Kessel. I remember going through a phase when I said that I didn’t like music. At about age 6 or 7, I started a hobby of growing succulents and cactus, and for some reason I thought the plants would be happy with the radio playing while I was gone. It was a popular myth back then. But I didn’t think of it as music, just background noise. Perhaps that’s the start of my “ambient music” interest? I also sang in church choir and tried playing classical viola for about six months until I got shy because I realized I was memorizing the music rather than sight-reading as I was supposed to. Musical notation remains a foreign language to me.
I went through some mental restructuring around age 10 or 11, and music started becoming very important. I found a record in the cut-out bin called “Wind Harp, Song From the Hill” and it sounded like the world inside my head, a perfect abstract cloud of pure sound. Progressive rock and German electronic music started to make a strong impact. I bought any import record I could find that had synthesizers listed in the liner notes.
But the deepest transformation took place when I started listening closely to the world around me. My family moved to my grandparent’s home after they passed away, and there was a creek flowing through the garden. I would stay up all night listening to the frogs calling, the rain dripping through tree branches near my window. Something magical happened in that soundscape. The frogs taught me about polyrhythms, the canopy of sound pulled my consciousness out into a dimensional, spatial awareness. I wanted to make music that could do that for other people, a music of pure sound.
m[m]: You mention the sound of nature been a big influence of going down the ambient route- have you ever considered releasing a purely field recording base album?
RR: I don’t think that would speak to my strengths, really. I prefer the idea of collaborating with nature rather than taking all the credit for a mere bootleg recording.
m[m]: How did you first decide to start making your own music & what did your first sonic set-up conists of?
RR: It wasn’t really a decision: it’s more like music started making me. I began to play my parents’ piano, just improvising, teaching myself what modes sounded like, wanting to play like Keith Jarrett, perhaps. I saw ads for a company that sold synthesizer kits, called Paia. Their module kits were very cheap, in both senses – they barely worked, but you could make noise with them. I started building Paia kits around 1977, and by around 1979 I had something that could actually play music of a sort. I found an odd tape echo that used 8-track cartridges, and an analogue delay kit from Radio Shack that I modified to go into oscillation, a cheap lap steel guitar that I found at a pawn shop. I learned how to play bamboo flute from an itinerant flute maker named Darrell DeVore, whose musical inventions influenced many people. I just made noise with anything I could find. I would improvise live to a cassette recorder. Then I got a second tape deck so I could overdub by mixing one tape while playing live onto another tape. It was very primitive.
m[m]: Where & how did the idea of sleep concerts develop, and how many did you end up holding during your time at Stanford University?
RR: Around 1979 I began trying to patch my modular synth so it could make infinite evolving random sound environments, like a forest full of electronic animals, or whales calling in the ocean depths. I would allow these sounds to play for days, and I liked the feeling of sleeping at night with this audio texture, not music for active listening, but just a hypnotic sound. I started thinking about ways to invite other people into this audio environment. I was really more interested in sound installation than musical performance, but I liked the idea of a public ritual, something filled with expectation. I had read about Navaho healing ceremonies and Javanese Wayang performances that would last for days, Indian raga concerts playing all night, so I wanted to find a way to create a similar experience in our culture. In late 1980 I heard an all-night radio broadcast by John Cage and Marianne Amacher called “Close Up – Empty Words” and realized that I could try an experiment like that in my college dorm, and encourage people to bring a sleeping bag and pillow, to fall asleep. The first sleep concert was late January 1981at Stanford, but then I played several others in Berkeley at a place called Shared Visions, and one for the Association of Sleep and Dreaming, at Asilomar in Monterrey. So, maybe a half-dozen total while I was at Stanford. I stopped because I came down with mononucleosis (called “glandular fever” in UK, I think) and I just couldn’t stay up all night any more.
m[m]: Could you tell us a little bit about the sonic & visual set-up of the early Sleep Concerts?
RR: Both visually and sonically primitive, because that’s all I could do. I never put much effort into visual stimulus for the sleep concerts, because I want people to close their eyes and create their own visuals. In the old events, I would sometimes bring my slow-motion laser projectors that would create a quiet shifting cloud against the wall. My equipment consisted of two cassette players, a Prophet 5 Rev. 1, and my home-built modular synth. I often brought a small set of acoustic chimes I had collected from metal scrap.
m[m]: Where the Sleep concerts based around composed or improvised elements? Or a mix of both?
RR: They were a mix of nature recordings I made on cassette, with some studio-created drones or sound clouds also playing from cassette, improvised live electronics and any other source I could pull together. I would make a chart of the night, broken up into two overlayed rhythms, the 90 minute rhythm of REM sleep cycle and the two hour divisions that fit to moods in Indian music theory. I would try to align the themes to these cycles.
m[m]: Were any of the Sleep concerts recorded or filmed?
RR: Many of them were recorded in audio, but it wouldn’t make much sense to film them, as the room is dark and it’s very quite. I played a number of radio sleep concerts on tour in 1996, and several of those found their way onto listener tapes. Someone even sent me a VHS-HiFi tape that held all six hours at slow record speed. I recorded “Somnium” with the intention of offering a much better audio-quality experience in comparison to those bootlegs. Also, my Krakow concert from last year was streamed live on the web, so I assume some people recorded that.
m[m]: Of all your sleep concerts, do you have a favourite & could you explain why it is?
RR: One favourite included my first return to the format in 1996 on the radio station KUCI in southern California (Irvine), and they invited students to come to the station and camp in the lobby. The room was full of excitement, and I realized there was much more interest in the idea 15 years after I first tried it, thinking maybe I could do some more. Another favourite is certainly the one I played last year in Krakow Poland for the Unsound Festival. Again, it was a reunion, 10 years since the previous one I played, the event was well promoted and by far the largest I had done – around 200 people in the audience. I also benefited from the 9 hour time shift between Poland and California, so jet lag allowed me to stay up all night without such exhaustion.
m[m]: Have you got any plans to do another sleep concert?
RR: I am open to it, if I get an offer that’s any bit as nice as the Unsound Festival organization in Poland! Having 9-hours jet lag certainly helped on that one, as I’m not so good at staying up all night anymore.
m[m]: Your first release came in the form of Sunyata, which appeared in the form of a 86 minute cassette tape in 1982. This release featured three lengthy tracks( 20 to 43 minute), which focused in on a slower & more minimal takes on ambience- this type of sound was quite different from most ambient released around this time. Tell us a little bit about how the album came about & what was your reasoning for selecting this type of sound for your first release?
RR: I felt that a debut release should make a conceptual statement, and this very slow abstract sound was the purest thing to represent the intention of my music. At the time, I was more interested in the role of music as a transformational (trance-forming) experience. I wanted to find the thickest, most intense hypnotic mood possible. The long piece “Oak Spirits” was a pure improvisation in my college dorm-room, performed straight to cassette in a moment of inspiration. I had made a recording of the creek at my grandparent’s house, and I played it through filters and tape echo while holding down a cluster of notes on the Prophet 5, modifying the parameters of those five notes into a shifting cloud of voices. It happened as if automatically, in a sort of natural sonic trance. Sometimes magic happens like that. The other two pieces, I recorded at the 8-track attic-studio of my friend Ron MacLeod, who let me use his room for free, to practice his engineering skills. Those two pieces involved overdubbing flute, voice and guitar drones repeatedly until they created dense clouds of sound.
m[m]: I believe Sunyata is the Buddhist concept that all things in the material world are empty of meaning and independence. What attached you to this title, and were you then or now interested in the Buddhist faith & it’s concepts?
RR: I was practising zazen at the time, casually but not in any structured setting, and those ideas were a big influence. I was trying to put this idea of emptiness directly into the content and purpose of the music. I wanted the music to point away from itself, to vanish and leave everything in the universe singing in its absence. There is of course an intrinsic irony to the idea of using sound in order to evoke silence, and even more ironic when the sound has a continuous sustaining quality instead of the short percussive alerts that one might hear in a Buddhist temple to delineate the gaps between silences. That sustaining quality came about from the desire to induce a sort of hypnotic trance, to thicken the atmosphere in a peculiar way.
m[m]: Your next release was1984’s album Drones- how do you think your sound had changed/ developed at this point, and what was your set-up for this album & how did it vary from your first two releases?
RR: In early ‘83 I borrowed a Tascam Portastudio 4-track cassette recorder from my friend Rick Davies, and worked on two of the pieces for Trances and Drones during my third year in University (“Cave Paintings” and “Wheel of Earth”.) I made “Hayagriva” the summer before, at home, playing live to a Revox reel-reel. It was another one of those magical improvisations, where something happened much larger than the tools being used. It was just lap steel guitar, a low oscillator through a filter, and a shimmering sequencer going through tape echo. The inspiration for that piece (and the others to an extent) came from a trilogy of films on Tibet that I saw at a local theatre that played art films. The middle film depicted a complete Tibetan ceremony with no dialog, just the intense droning music and chanting. It had a powerful affect on me, and the name of that piece comes from the name of the festival depicted in that film. “Seascape” was a different inspired improvisation, starting with a cassette recording I had made of the ocean at dawn in Baja California the previous year. I improvised a tape-looped drone with synthesizer onto cassette, then bounced those together while playing lap steel guitar directly onto reel-reel.
m[m]: The last of your early cassette based studio albums came in the form of 1984’s Trances- how do you think your sound had changed/ developed at this point? And why was there a gap of 2 years between this & your next release 1986’s Numena?
RR: Well, Trances and Drones evolved together in 1983 and I released them as a pair, so it’s not a linear evolution. In between “Live” and “Numena” I also recorded “Inner Landscapes” in 1985, which I released through an underground cassette catalogue called Cause and Effect. It came out again through Audion in UK in 1987, so many people think it was a later release. I was still busy doing research in psychophysiology and lucid dreaming, so I had not yet started following a full time music career. It did not seem like a viable option at that time, considering the experimental nature my musical tastes.
m[m]: Your next release came in the form of ‘Live’ a c90 on Sweden’s Psychout Productions label in 1984 . How did this release come about & what made you want to release a live release as your second release? And as you’ve been reissue early works of late do you plan to reissue this too?
RR: Hans Fahlberg learned about my music from OP magazine (which became Option a bit later) and ordered Sunyata, Trances & Drones. Then in 1984 he wrote me a letter asking if I had any unreleased material. I didn’t think that my earliest recordings (Now on “Premonitions”) were good enough, but I did have recordings of the two concerts in 1983-4, so I sent him those. He asked my permission to release them, in his first attempt at a label, which I accepted. Later, after he renamed the label Multimood, he released my first LP Numena, and we remain friends to this day.
m[m]: Three of your early release (Sunyata, Drones, and Trances) all appeared on your own label Soundscape Productions label- what made you decide to self release, and how did you mange to distribute & make people aware of these releases?
RR: My music was so non-commercial that I assumed no label would waste money releasing it; and I figured I could pay for a pressing if I sold a couple hundred copies, so making 500 cassettes was not so risky. I respected the independent spirit of the underground music scene, and groups like Residents and Throbbing Gristle had achieved something powerful by keeping complete control of their releases and artistic vision. I was coming from this perspective of music as an act of subterfuge, and I had no interest in the commercial aspects of the music business. I sent copies to underground magazines to get reviews. I sent copies to every radio show I could find that played space-music. I fulfilled a few orders by mail, and I got one or two small distributors to put the titles in their catalogues. I also learned some early lessons about the business when one of those distributors refused to pay me for items he had already sold. It’s good to get burnt early, when the stakes are low. Also, I played live whenever I could, which was unusual for electronic music, and although the audiences were almost nonexistent, the ability to play live created a bit more energy around the music.
m[m]: What do you think of the cassette as a format? And have you ever considered re-reissuing all of your early albums in their original tape form?
RR: I don’t feel a need to get nostalgic about old technology. A cassette release in 2014 would be Quixotic and a bit silly. Cassettes were a means to get the music heard, they were cheaper than printing LPs, could hold longer durations and not plagued by surface noise. As soon as CDs became a viable independent format in the late ‘80s I was more than happy to move to digital.
m[m]: You’ve recently released Premonitions 1980-1985, which is a four LP boxset that takes a selection of your early mainly un-released work. Please talk us through what’s included on this release? And why didn’t you put out the material at the time of recording?
Why didn’t I release all this earlier? Maybe it says something about my intensity at the time. I was a perfectionist without all the skills needed to create perfection, and I strongly wanted to make an artistic statement with my music. I didn’t want to release every little noise I made, because I didn’t feel everything conveyed the focus that I wanted my earliest releases to show. Furthermore, although I was still a teenager, I wanted my recordings to sound professional. I was aware of the difference between my home-built electronics and a real recording studio, so I didn’t trust that my bedroom recordings could hold up to commercial scrutiny. So these old cassettes sat forgotten on a shelf for 30 years.
The first disc is the earliest, from 1980, opening with “Selene and Ether,” a 27 minute improvisation live to cassette. It was the first piece that I felt was good enough to send to Stephen Hill for his weekly radio show “Music from the Hearts of Space” and to my amazement he played it. (Not only the distinction of being the first person to play my music on the radio, I owe Stephen many thanks for his support and promotional skills throughout my career.) The piece starts with experimental rumblings and dark abstractions, then it arcs into a somewhat orchestral synth improvisation which sounds different from almost anything else I have done. The best section in my mind is the last third, which offers a window into the sort of plateau of deep sound that I have been seeking my whole life. Side two of that disc has two pieces that I had completely forgotten about, both quite abstract. “Collage for Low Tones” is rather dissonant, with grungy swoops of echo and an edgy cycle of higher frequency modular ripples, followed by “Ghosts” which is one of my early attempts at referencing the abstract clouds that I had heard on the “Wind Harp” release.
The second disc might be my favourite, with two long pieces from 1983 that might have come out at the same time as “Trances & Drones,” but I just didn’t feel they were sufficiently energetic, as I was aiming for something more dynamic for that next release. Now in retrospect I really like them, because something special happens in the stillness, it’s a level of tranquillity with a certain tension and thickness in the air, which is different from what I do now. Both of these pieces involve electronic drones with lap steel guitar, a bit like “Hayagriva” but much calmer.
The third disc features new edits of the 1984 “Live.” I focused on the rhythmic and more dynamic parts of each concert. It has more of the cyclic influences that I had been avoiding in my earliest recordings, my love for Terry Riley’s organ pieces, waiting for me to improve my skills a bit before I could expose that side. When asked about it later, I said I didn’t want to re-issue “Live” on CD because I didn’t feel the music nor the audio quality would hold up to digital scrutiny. Now I’m quite happy to know it’s available and sounding better.
The fourth disc has another experiment from 1983 simply titled “Guitar Drone 8-15”, one that I had completely forgotten, among many attempts to find my sound. Again, a surprising improvisation, much better sounding now than in my dim recollection of doing it. Also, one digital piece, that I made at the Stanford computer music centre CCRMA, with voice-synthesis sounding a bit like Ligetti; The last side features the only other previously released piece, the opening sequencer improvisation to the original “Inner Landscapes” cassette. This piece just didn’t fit with the other more spacious music of that concert, so when I edited the audio for a CD release in the ‘90s I decided to omit it. The set ends with an early tone poem called “Manna” from 1980, another forgotten improvisation with a wistful mood.
Why did I release this now? First of all, someone expressed interest (Frank Maier of VOD in Germany) and offered to make a special package for it, which is quite seductive. Also, I now have some very good tools to perform restoration, to clean up some of the intrinsic flaws of those early recordings. They still sound a bit crusty, but surprisingly musical, much more convincing than in their original form. Also, after 30+ years, the frustration has faded, from the sense that my efforts fell short of their target. The target is forgotten, but the efforts show something interesting despite that original sense of shortcoming. I’m rather surprised at how much of this music holds up over the years.