Now Magazine, Toronto (2003)

Spring 2003

ROBERT RICH SEEKS ALTERNATE ECSTASY

BY BENJAMIN BOLES

Hearing Robert Rich’s music for the first time can be a disorienting experience, even for someone familiar with the outer edges of electronica. A pioneer of ambient sounds, Rich has been making experimental music for more then 20 years and has released at least that many albums. He recently made history with his seven- hour-long DVD album, Somnium, an extension of the groundbreaking all-night Sleep Concerts that he started in 1982.

At first listen, the sheer organic abstraction of his compositions seems to share a lot with the avant-garde of modern classical music. Soon, however, murky rhythms peek out from under the beds of synthesizer drones, gurgles and clicks, hinting at a familiarity with the Orb’s slow-motion techno dub. Acoustic instruments also appear, albeit played in unconventional ways.

“My audience consists of everyone from 18-year-old ravers to industrial noise junkies to math professors,” Rich explains from a friend’s country home in California. As he reaches to express “pre-sensory” feelings, he has developed a unique musical vocabulary. Rich uses words like “gruzz,” “shimmer” and “glurp” to describe various aspects of his work.

Despite the music’s abstraction, Rich is not primarily driven by academic theory. He’s inspired by the trance states that extreme sound experiments can provoke. “Instrumental music is often used to express the intangible ecstatic experience. Music has long been used as a ritual in religious rites or for trance induction for shamanic purposes. There’s always a yearning, or a seeking, within humanity for completeness.

“I’ve always been very attracted to the role of the mystic in society, but I’m searching for a language that makes sense to a contemporary world — not to turn back the clock ideologically or impose some kind of artificial tribalism. What we need to do is find answers that respond to the needs of modern civilization.”

While the audience in 1982 for repetitive, alien-sounding electronic music and all-night, trance-inducing concerts may have been fairly small, the post-rave musical world has opened up a larger market to the consciousness-altering effects of sound.

Rich is thankful for this but has his doubts about this generation’s hedonistic appetite for drugs.

“I think it’s a shame that so many people have come to feel that that’s the only way to experience ecstasy. I’m trying to make music that has its own energy and creates a sense of ecstasy and balance and truth and beauty all at once.

“These experiences happen in the mind as a natural occurrence. We have the capability built in — we have these muscles, and we can exercise these muscles in many different ways.

“The fact that chemicals can exercise those muscles simply shows that they’re there and that other things can exercise them, too.”