A Conversation about the Numenous in Art
In October 2002, Robert Rich gave a long telephone interview with graduate student Ryan McWhorter, who was working on a philosophy thesis about mysticism and art. Below is an edited version of that interview, transcribed by Ryan and edited by Robert.
M = McWhorter
R = Rich
M: In what way has Jungian psychology influenced your ideas on art?
R: It was peripheral. It was obviously important for laying the groundwork, but I think it was better philosophy than psychology. My first introduction to the ideas of numena and phenomena were through reading Plotinus in college. Seeing the tie-ins between that early-Christian/Greek classicism and what I came to see in Taoism, Zen and Sufism, where a similar idea runs through all of these Unitarian mystical doctrines, which basically state that mystical experience conforms to a common experience of the universe disintegrating itself (…or I should say integrating itself, or phenomenating itself) in that the more you see into reality the more you see it’s an interplay of the same thing. When I started seeing, through some experiences in meditation, glimpses of those experiences it all made sense. The idea of numena as the substance hiding behind appearances, it just made total sense. It was more of an experiential thing.
M: So it was through studying mysticism and using various techniques that you came to your own conclusions more so than say [Jung]… I see in the films of Tarkovsky, and what drew me to Brad Cole’s photography is the interplay in nature…
R: Very much so.
M: And seeing there on the surface the Maya illusion of Hinduism, but through the artwork seeing something different beyond that.
R: Well this is the real puzzle of the artist. When you are looking for this kind of content in art… you just see it. I don’t know how to describe why it’s there or not. But typically the artists that are going for that, or the philosophers for that matter… at least, in art they’ll have trouble telling you how it is they find it or what it is they’re doing to get it. Brad and I are good friends and we talk about this stuff a lot. We are mutual fans of each other. How we met… I was doing an in-store appearance down in Monterey and he came down to meet me. (We had a common friend who was a buyer for the record store.) We alI went up to his darkroom, and as soon as we walked in my jaw was on the floor. I immediately responded to his work. We’ve become extremely close friends, and spent hours on the phone talking about aesthetics and questions of balance in art and music. And I think we both have an equally difficult time actually explaining what it is we are looking for and how it is we find it. I think actually it’s easier to say what we’re looking for than how we know it’s there, but it’s the kind of thing that when you see it you know it.
M: It’s a nonverbal… innate reaction.
R: Well it’s like the kind of thing you experience in mysticism. I think the first time what you are calling the “numinous aesthetic” comes up in historical literature is basically from mystical, experiential writing. I think its only through experience it makes any sense to people. It’s the kind of thing most people are not looking for. And it’s actually kind of weird and meaningless to other people… [who ask] what’s wrong with appearances? What else is there? And why is it that this causes so many people to get obsessed?
M: I am frequently trying to turn other people on… especially to Tarkovsky films… and I have certainly met that resistance. And I find myself at a loss for words to explain why I want someone to watch this, and what I want them to get out of it. It’s either they get it or they don’t. I understand that.
R: And this is why most true mystical traditions don’t proselytize. Because it’s a complete waste of time. It’s not out of any desire for esotericism or secrets; it has nothing to do with secrets. [Sufi poet Mevlana Jalaluddin] Rumi’s poems refer to this as “The Open Secret”. And that phrase “open secret” means quite a bit actually. No one’s hiding it. It hides itself.
M: Because no one’s looking for it.
M: Except for very few.
R: There’s a phrase from one of the hadiths of Mohammed which actually was very influential to a lot of alchemical philosophers. It says: “You find our signs in the earth and in the sky.” What I think it basically means is that the unity, or the Unitarian experience, or Allah, or God, or Essence, or Tao, this thing which inclines people towards numinous observation — permeates the substrate of reality… It’s not an anti-worldly stance. In other words, its not like Maya (appearance) is separated from Truth, it’s that Truth permeates Maya. “You find our signs in the earth and in the sky” was the hadith that started chemistry and math and physics in the Persian world. They felt it was a go-ahead that we can study the world, that we can actually understand God through science. Science isn’t anti-mystical, which was the thing Christian history felt… Christian aesthetic was basically: turn yourself away from the world towards God. And this Sufi aesthetic was basically to open yourself to every experience and God is there — Including intellect, and science and medicine, and even eroticism… You know I find in Taoism…
R: Tantric, and some form of Japanese ch’an, Zen… There’s a great Persian mystical poem, which roughly translates as “You ask me why this old lady doesn’t interest me as much as this young girl. Well, if there is beauty in the person then Allah is clearly within them. I seek Allah so I seek beauty.” Even within worldly beauty and lust there could be an awareness of the Essence.
M: It’s a belief that [God] is available in any experience, not just in what we’ve delineated as being sacred or profane.
R: Exactly, because the mystic takes the sacred into every experience they have.
M: I read in one interview that you said you weren’t particularly religious in one denomination or thought, and now I understand [that your spirituality] is more a general searching… I am assuming this…
R: That’s generally correct. My background is that I was raised Presbyterian, and found it was insipid. By the time I was twelve I was bored with it, because there were these questions I had about deep religious experience, as opposed to rules and dogma and the idea that “a good Christian smiles all the time, works hard and makes lots of money…”
M: Have you read Thomas Merton? [A Catholic Trappist writer on mysticism]
R: Thomas Merton is wonderful! Actually several of the sources that exposed me to these ideas early on were Thomas Merton and Alan Watts. They bumped me off course into these weeds… where essentially you start realizing that the same stuff permeates every religion, that the religion is basically a codification into rules and rigid structures that help these experiences become digestable.
M: How have these ideas, and specifically mysticism, affected your creative process? Was there a certain point [it affected your thinking] or was it always a factor in how you approached music?
R: That’s an interesting question because it asks: Are people born with this thing? What makes certain people go off searching? And I feel as I look back to my childhood that it was always there. There’s just this kind of perfume… And the first time you smell it you think: I like that perfume. And you start noticing that it hovers in the background all the time…
M: And you can see retrospectively that you’ve been making choices and searching for something, whereas you didn’t know it on a conscious level.
R: It’s almost like there’s a genetic predisposition. Some weird bug that makes you think: “Nothing quite means anything anymore; I’m looking for meaning now.” It’s the bug that makes all of the things that keep most people entertained boring. You think: This is good but I want more. And you realize you can’t do anything but this search. All of your decisions are based around this scent you are following.
M: So it’s always played a major role in your creativity.
R: Yes, I think so. This is where Brad Cole and I have always connected so much. You can just tell in someone else’s art when its there. It’s almost like the people following that scent are marked with an ultraviolet paint and it rubs off; you can see it glowing [in their work].
M: It’s always hit me like a ton of bricks when I encountered it. I use the term “homecoming” to describe it. It’s always very obvious.
R: Brad’s term for it is “mythic”. His distinction, in photographic terms, is that there are a lot of great photographers who take excellent documentary pictures. He calls it an “I was there” picture. And it can be beautiful. Ansel Adams is an example of an exceptionally brilliant photographer who captured a place, and even an energy and a time, and sky and light…[But he is not as mythic to my eyes]. Brad has told me that one of the things that makes him choose or reject a photograph he has taken, that after you’ve seen the nice surface and seen the reflections and light and textures, something else is still there. There’s more to see and feel. It’s about the experience inside the viewer; it’s not about the artwork itself.
M: So do you think it is a relative psychological process more so than anything objective?
R: What you are asking is: is it out there or in here?
M: Yes. What’s your opinion on that dichotomy? That’s a pretty weighty dualism.
R: I think that’s a tough one. I think you have to un-ask the question — it’s meaningless. It assumes that there’s a difference between the inside and outside. You can analyze the question from the point of view of the way we build reality. Now this would seem to be a very relativistic stance, which is that perception is a completely constructive phenomenon. We build the world through the senses. You can show this through optical illusions, through cognitive science… The only reason we see things for what we think they are is because we have models in the mind.
M: “Constructs” is a term that a friend and I use to describe any perception, ideal or belief we have in a shared reality.
R: And this is very much along the lines of Wittgenstein’s theory of language. That language is a bunch of signs that point to things that people already know. And this is one reason why Wittgenstein came to find philosophy a waste of time, and eventually rejected it.
And the funny thing is that Wittgenstein’s theory of language is very close to the Zen model of pure experience. Basically, Zen Buddhism and all of these other traditions as well bypass the problems that Wittgenstein pointed out, by saying that there is a trick you can do with your mind to shut language off, so that you see things only as they are [without naming them]. Now, you can have a long linguistic battle as to whether they are actually seeing things as they are or if they are actually just simplifying their world by shutting a part of their cognitive process off. The fact is that their experience of that process shows insights into the world that work [when they return to normal perception]. And if you want to use an Ockham’s razor approach, then you can say: if this model of the world works then it should provide some fodder that’s useful. Is it a practical idea? Does it help you? And what you see among the practitioners who manage to “see things as they really are” [without the influence of language], you see that these people are actually really effective in the world, to the point that people virtually think they are doing magic. They’ve removed the friction, they’ve removed the filters. So the reason I say this psychological model of the constructed nature of reality is a useful way to break apart the false dichotomy of “outside” and “inside” is that through the cessation of ego, through the cessation of “naming” and “analysis” by model and predilection, you discover by experience that the internal model is illusion. The thing that you thought was outside is not actually there at all. And that you are “outside” just as much as those things are “inside”. And this unity, this dis-individuation of things shows all things to be interpenetrating, causes you to permeate your environment and your environment to permeate you. So the distinction between outside and inside is pure illusion.
M: That’s monism. Essentially.
R: I say Unitarian, same idea. It’s not that things become simple. They become gloriously complex. I’ve been lucky to have had a few tiny glimpses that change my direction [in life]… One thing I’ve seen is that the universe is a myriad of vibrating particles. We know this to be true from physics, the particles interpenetrate each other. My experience of this is that there is no noun. Everything is a verb.
M: It’s all action.
R: Everything is action. That’s the Tao basically. The verb that is God. The fact of this realization is that nouns are a linguistic construct that help our brain organize information. It’s an artifact of cognition. Nouns don’t exist, only the big verb. The constant interpenetrating of all energies and particles exist as a process… You can’t call a cloud an object; it’s a constantly evolving process.
M: So thinking about constant organic motion. Is that something that helped you come up with the term “glurp” to describe your sound continuum?
R: Glurp is shorthand, kind of joke that I throw out and some people get it. But I want to take a detour regarding creativity. I tell this to beginning artists who mention getting a record label. I don’t know how to put it to them that they are thinking in a style and I am not hearing “them”. What I am looking for is someone expressing something that is completely themselves. Sometimes you get in a conversation about what makes one person original and another one not. And why be original? Some ethnic traditions discourage originality, as it’s about tradition. My take on that is related to all of the stuff we’ve talked about.
I don’t know if you know of a metaphor that’s in Huayen Buddhism called Indra’s net. It appears in the Avatamsaka Sutra. The metaphor is about consciousness and the universe. The god Indra casts out a fishing net, and the knot of each net holds a diamond jewel. In the center of the net is the light from Indra’s palace. Each diamond reflects the light from the center and also the light from every other diamond. That’s consciousness. It reflects the unity in the universe, Indra’s light, but it appears as diversity because each diamond reflects every other diamond as well. It appears to be coming from everywhere, because all consciousness reflects the same light.
So its not Maya or illusion versus truth; its truth permeating all angles of all experience. And I see creativity in the same way. If we as artists go completely into the place where we are as pure as we can be and make the thing we want to see or hear or do a reality… you find that true thing that you personally have to do to satisfy yourself creatively. The irony is that the more you purify yourself, removing any noise that tries to push you in any one direction or any style that tries to frame you in a box — the more individualistic your expression becomes — then the more universal it becomes, because it is then speaking the most true language. By being the most eccentric, the most quirky, the most individualistic, your work can be more universal, as it’s reflecting more of the source, the candle, and less off the other knots in the net. The more direct light you reflect the more intense you will be.
M: How do you balance your influences with your inner guide? Kandinsky spoke of “resonances,” and this transcends “style”. Even within a style there are certain artists that are more than what becomes associated with them, even if they create it. But say you identify with a resonance in music, how do you balance it? Obviously you listen to other music.
R: Less and less these days… but when I do, it’s through an intense appreciation of other musicians who move me deeply. There’s a time when your obsessive nature and your curiosity and your ability to be in the flow, is better than other times. We’re all a bit like spiritual batteries; we have to recharge. Sometimes the best ideas come when we’re discharging like crazy.
M: You have do something then, travel, whatever, to get back on track.
R: It’s funny because the artist’s perception of what their height might be is different than what the audience thinks. I think my most intense and numinous album is Below Zero. But it’s one that most people don’t get. It’s almost completely and absolutely abstract. And for me it’s music about the cosmos. It didn’t even come from me; I don’t even understand it. It’s the sound of the void. It’s the most non-human music I’ve ever made. That’s one album I’d never want to do again (laughs). But then other people like what they like… The puzzle is to make sure that you are always listening to the passion that’s inside you and if the muse starts wandering away it’s worth not worrying about it. Do something else.
M: I completely agree. The worst thing you can do is try to force something into being. When you do feel you are ready to do something creatively do you approach your work in a certain mindset, with a certain goal, or do you approach it with a blank slate, tabula rasa, i.e. whatever happens happens.
R: It’s funny after all these years I’m still not sure what my methods are. Sometimes I don’t even remember what happens.
M: If you have a good thing it’s a good idea not to overanalyze it.
R: I just keep the stuff I want and discard what isn’t working. I don’t keep the “scraps” though. I throw it all out. If you are a painter and you are starting a canvas and it’s not working you paint over it. That’s the way I am.
M: Do you see your work as being solely abstract or more an environment-narrative?
R: Interesting question. I would say they are neither extreme. They are in the middle. I have a feeling that what I try to do with most of music is with an awareness to gauge between extremes, almost going for a Chinese idea of balance. It should contain elements of all experiences. It should contain emotion, both joyful and tragic and other, it should contain calm and energy. It should contain intellect and sensuality, as I don’t see them as polarities. That’s why they are such interesting ideas, these ancient ideas of balance, where such elements don’t act as polarities so much as colors in a wheel. I’ve had several albums turned down because they were too “intellectual”. And my response is: that doesn’t mean it isn’t emotional! It’s also intellectual. If somebody wants to analyze it they’ll find something, but if somebody just wants to enjoy it… I think Terry Riley is a good case in point of somebody who has managed to make this beautiful music that’s also extremely esoteric and mystical, but also fun and vibrant and life loving. And J.S. Bach. You can listen to Bach in the background of a coffee shop and at the same time analyze it and spend a career discussing the art of the fugue.
M: Hermann Hesse equated Bach with the absolute of religious ecstasy. The Mass in B minor.
R: St. John’s Passion, also. The introduction to St. Matthew’s Passion, which Tarkovsky uses in three or four films, is one of the most absolutely cosmic pieces of music ever written. The first seven minutes of the St. Matthew’s Passion is like… You know?
M: It’s amazing to me that Bach was abandoned for centuries before being rediscovered.
R: Thanks to the Cello suites … But this is all kind of pertinent to your question earlier concerning “glurp”. Bach for me is all about “shimmer”, with very little “glurp”.
M: [When] reflecting on that word in the context of your music one can create their own personal associations, so it’s funny to me you call it a joke. Not that I’ve spent too much time thinking about it but at the same time you could focus on the dualism…
R: Well it can be a serious idea. Essentially, if you want to make a dichotomy out of it (the point being I don’t see a dichotomy, I don’t see an “either/ or”), “shimmer” would be the mathematical substrate behind all things, the more anti-Maya, the completely arcane and otherworldly, and “glurp” the realization that we are in fact puddles of salt water trying to spawn. It’s really rather silly.
M: It’s easy to draw a dichotomy though. It instantly creates psychological associations. “Glurp” being organic, curvature [eros] and “shimmer” the linear, mathematical, logical [logos].
R: They coexist. For example, my album Gaudí was an attempt to combine these two ideas, and that was the thing I loved about Gaudí’s architecture. It was very mathematical, but also extremely organic and life affirming. And that combination is for me the epitome of classicism. It’s a modern kind of classicism. Part of the idea, to play with these modern metaphors, is to come up with something actually relevant to our very cynical and very jaded culture that actually speaks to us, but at the same time maintain classical ideas such as Bach used to speak to his generation. So for me it’s about finding the place where surrealism meets modern physics, and Platonic idealism, and Pythagorean mathematics. Where you haven’t thrown away rather ancient and arcane mathematical ideals but you’re integrating this extreme questioning in modern languages. And try to find a way to integrate what’s healthy in our past and present with the dark side of our culture. If the bright side of “glurp” is a celebration of organic and procreative beauty, the dark side is the obsession with shallow sensuality and death and the transient nature of life. “Glurp” can be life-affirming or negating.
Likewise “shimmer” can be nutritious, like seeing the beauty in things — ike noticing the shape of a nautilus shell. But on the other side “shimmer” can be cold and lifeless. You go too far Platonic and you end up with stick figures. There’s this extreme otherworldly direction people can take at the exclusion of the senses and of life. And my own experience of metaphysical searching is predominantly sensual. I don’t want to use the word dichotomy because I don’t see a dichotomy between mysticism and sensuality. And again that hadith: “You see our signs in the earth and in the sky”. You see it in our body, in an orgasm. In a beautiful face, in a wonderful perfume, a flower…
M: I don’t know if you could say that there is a “goal’ to mysticism but wouldn’t you say that that’s the ultimate goal? To have a state of my mind where you perceive this singularity of existence?
R: That’s exactly why it’s not nihilistic. [This realization] makes it nutritious. Because when a person becomes more and more aware of the meaning behind appearances and becomes more aware also of how they construct reality and they realize there is no reality to what they thought was reality… And that’s what “sunyata” means… The word means emptiness in sanskrit. But it’s emptiness filled with consciousness. It’s the emptiness of appearances, the emptiness of Maya… I see Maya not the stuff of life but the stuff of projection. Maya is the projection of mind and model into the outside world. And “sunyata” is the emptiness of that projection. The emptiness of things. So when you do experience firsthand the annihilation of that projection, what happens is not emptiness but extreme fullness. Everything starts pouring through you like an hourglass.
M: I look at Maya as a veil between the subjective world of relativism, our projections, constructs, that prevents us from seeing the objective universe that represents “truth”.
R: Yes, and that veil is projection, it’s the conscious mind interpreting [reality]. Which we have to do.
M: You feel all perceived differences are in fact projections?
R: That they are conventions, or illusory or misunderstandings. If you want to think of numinosity or the numen as the substance behind appearances (although it may depend on what a person is looking for as a substance), personally I feel that anything you find behind an appearance, including the appearance itself, is going to be a sign of God. Because it’s everywhere. It permeates signs of reality. There is no distinction. Yet there is ignorance. There are people that are closed or are not perceiving essence when they do something. There are people who are ignorant of it, or not searching for that, or misinterpreting it.
M: Or people who for whatever pain are dead-set against the experience.
R: Perhaps. So if you are not attuned or looking for Essence you could see numinosity as being a sign of the hidden reality under appearance, but not the reality of Essence. That’s why I feel the shaman is not necessarily the same as a unitarian mystic, but more a performer fulfilling a social function. Healing the community, or maintaining a myth for an ethnic group. These are all very useful functions; I’m not denigrating them. Actually I come closer to that role in my life as an artist. Shamanism is something that always interested me. The idea of the trance journey has totally informed what I try to do musically. That’s all about shamanism. But shamanism has worldly functions, it isn’t totally about the search for Essence; although it can be, just like everything we do.
M: Bringing it back to the creative process, let’s say that such a [shamanic] journey as you’ve described does exist. Do you approach your work [with the intent of] seeing if a journey will happen or do you realize that retrospectively?
R: If it doesn’t happen I throw it away. If there is no sense of numinous…
M: Is that how you qualify value in your work?
R: I would say it is. But it’s that thing that’s hard to pin down; I can’t describe it. When Brad Cole and I talk about the mythic dimension in what it is we try to do, we can’t say why it’s there and why it isn’t. We just have to feel it as artists. It’s kind of the artist’s filter, to say *this* is what, for me, reflects that mythic dimension, that numinosity.
M: Are there any other contemporary artists that have influenced you in this way, that you inherently felt…?
R: Yes, many — actually Kandinsky you mentioned. You can see it in his work often. A lot of painters I’m attracted to. Miro. Tanguy. Max Ernst.
M: And Rothko.
R: Rothko definitely!
M: The first time I saw a Rothko I was…!
R: There’s one at the San Francisco Modern Art Museum that’s just luminescent.
M: I was reading about Ouspensky and Gurdjieff at that time, reading about Gurdjieff’s theory on objective art. He basically said it was a non-verbal reaction, you can’t describe it, but when you see it you know it. And I think that is the same concept we’ve been talking about here. But I didn’t understand the concept [when I read about it]… I don’t know if you believe in synchronicity or not but you can see the universe align itself in certain ways during your life…
M: And not too long after I read about objective art I saw my first Rothko. Everything made sense.
R: It’s a funny thing, and I must say I go back and forth on it, this idea of objective art. And I’m not sure I agree with Gurdjieff on this, because I think that art is in many respects culturally bound. Although great art does cross boundaries, it requires a certain amount of understanding I think. Or maturity. You have to see what it is that’s objective about the art. And I think Rothko is a good example because I think many people who see it just don’t get it. It looks like a badly painted wall. They think: why does this guy make an entire career out of two colors on a canvas…? They just don’t get it. But for those of us that are looking for it and heard that Rothko was looking for it… We get it. And it’s an interesting question whether… There are a lot of people that just don’t get Indian vocal music… Or Gagaku … I don’t know if you’ve heard Japanese Noh-Theatre but it’s really difficult music! It sounds like yelping and screaming to Americans for the most part but it is a very sacred and mythic music and theatre… Ghost stories… But the music is shrill; it sounds harsh and rigid. But once you learn how to listen to it, it can become objective art but only after a certain amount of legwork has been done.
M: You have to go through a certain amount of translation before you can cut through to the essence.
R: John Cage is another one. I mean his music is very much about mysticism. But it’s totally unmusical to most people, a complete cacophony.
M: Or [interpreted as] pointless. Like “4:33”.
R: Or for that matter his friend Merce Cunningham, who was trying to do the same thing with dance. By creating a dance choreographed from natural gesture. Completely unbeautiful… extremely simple. It was just about movement. His whole thing was to get the dancers to move exactly like normal people move every day. And most people would ask: what’s the point? I can watch people do this every day.
M: But you haven’t watched them in that sort of context.
R: Indeed I think it’s often a framing issue. I think a lot of great art has to do with framing, with expectation. I’m trying to think of other people who have done “It” to me… The capital “It.” A Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. His later sculpture was mostly polished rock… He would take a big slab of granite and cut one line down it, polishing only one side. The other side would remain rough stone, as if it were straight out of the quarry. Some of those were exceptionally beautiful.
M: Have you looked at much other minimalist sculpture?
R: Actually James Turrell is another one that totally gets it. I would love to have some talks with him. His work is amazing. Turrell works with light. For the last ten or fifteen years he’s been converting a volcanic crater in Arizona into a viewing environment for his various optical concepts. His work is fascinating and I think deals with the numinous.
One thing I think that is common to all of these art forms we’re talking about, and something I think is the essence of minimalist art, is something that is somewhat anti-postmodern. I have a lot of issues with postmodern thinking [although I also slip into it myself sometimes.] It can be a cop out. It provides a lot of good analytical tools but it can also be used as a lazy shortcut that allows people not to experience things. It allows you to separate from a message and show that everything comes from a context, then analyze the context instead of actually experiencing what the artist is trying to do.
M: And the meaning is only found in juxtaposition
R: Right. And the essence of what I’m saying is this: Minimalist art is to me, closer to mystical art. It’s following the adage of Rumi when he says, “Don’t look at my hand, take what is in it.” Or the old Basho: “I point at the moon. Why do you look at my finger?” And what minimalism tries to do, and what I try to do with my music and Brad with his photography, it’s trying to give you an experience. It’s not about the art; it’s about your experience. Likewise the fluxus group… How they would do things that had no object (economic) value, but full of possible emotion and rich with layers of meaning. It was anti-capitalist, anti-objectifying, and was all about what you the viewer or the experiencer gets from it. It’s your nutrition that matters to the art. It’s a very old-fashioned concept. I think minimalism is based upon almost an extreme form of classicism. Its talking about the value and the meaning conveyed by the act of making art. And that’s different from what postmodern art often ends up with, which I find very empty. When you look at most postmodernism, or a lot of the high-tech art, you feel no meaning. There was an exhibit at MOMA called 010101 on high tech art. There was an Eno exhibit there, video installations… a lot of this high tech art had no numinosity. They were flat, all surface. They were about Maya, about jangle. Do you know what I mean? It was noise.
That’s why I say that a lot of the kind of things we’re looking for, the stuff we’re talking about, is different from postmodernism because it’s about content [rather than context] — not a sort of preachy didacticism; it’s the content of what the viewer gets from it. Postmodernism says: “You can’t say what the viewer gets from it. There’s too much variation in the viewer. All you can do is speak about different frames, different contexts.” The container is empty, so we put all our focus on the container itself. And what we’re saying is: No, there’s something universal. Call it God, truth, call it cultural identity even… It doesn’t matter. We’re just saying art can communicate something universal, it’s just people have to know how to pay attention to it. I think that’s the connection between minimalism and classicism to a mystically inclined artist. What they are looking for is to move the viewer’s attention away from the object and into themselves.
M: It’s art that by whatever process has the ability to mirror or reflect the viewer… Or at least be a springboard for a deeper relationship…
R: Convey within the viewer. I’m a bit surprised I haven’t mentioned Borges yet. Jorge Luis Borges is a writer that conveys these things to me. He wrote only short stories, essays and poems, died about 1970… He was Argentinian. “Ficciones” or “Dream Tigers…”
M: I was getting around to literature, and a final question about whether such things should even be examined or analyzed through language. Can they even be approached through language? Tarkovsky called it poetic reasoning… imagery…
R: Well I think poetry and stories with poetic qualities can convey it. Like Italo Calvino. Calvino has created wonder, and wonder is a key to an opening of beauty and truth. Awe.
M: Probably where it is efficient is where the prose or poetry becomes completely transparent and it’s just the image flow…
R: Like Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” It’s a beautiful book. It reminds me of a thought I’ve been operating on for many years… a metaphor. We can look at the aesthetic experience in a different way than what culture has led us to think, that art is a thing we can consume. The cultural way of looking at art is that the artist puts some meaning inside this egg, and puts it in a basket (the artform). He hands you the basket and you take the egg and consume it. That’s the conveyance of “meaning.” But what minimalist art and fluxus and mystical art does to people is a very different model. I think it’s actually what all art does to people but we use the wrong metaphor. I think of the aesthetic experience as a muscle. What happens if we think of beauty or truth or aesthetic experience, if we think of them as something inside of us that we train, like a muscle, which becomes activated by artist questions? Just like I was saying: perceive everything as a verb. We be beauty, we be truth. We truth, we beauty, as verbs. What great art does to us is ask questions, not feed us answers. It guides us through a way of thinking that results in a well-exercised aesthetic muscle… We don’t make beauty… we exercise it. What makes Brad’s pictures so good, or makes music move me, like Terry Riley’s music, is not that it somehow encodes the language of beauty, but it gets me to go through a certain number of steps in my consciousness. And by repeating these steps a few times I’ve increased my “beauty muscle” [or aptitude for aesthetic experience]. Does that make sense?
M: I think so. That the experience is a process that the more often you commit to the process you will exponentially grow with it, and hone the filter of your experience…
R: You tune your ability to perceive these things [beauty, truth, et al]. And they are always around us. It’s not that the art encodes these things. What the art is doing is heightening our perceptions. Like when you leave an art exhibit, you become more sensitive to all the shapes and colors around you. It’s a wonderful thing! That’s what I used to try to do with my Sleep Concerts, to create music that was so texturely subtle and very, very quiet, that afterward people would be hearing every single sound as an event, as something that could trigger a feeling.
M: And it would become more meaningful in that context.
R: I was trying to make music that would point away from itself toward everything else. I wrote a mission statement when I was 18 and said something really pompous like…
M: You wrote your manifesto.
R: Exactly, we all have to write one. It was something along the lines of I’d like to eventually make music that points so much to things around it that it could vanish, leaving only everything else.
M: So definitely John Cage and chance music and minimalism influenced you. Do you see your ambient music as a logical progression from that school?
R: (laughs) Well its kind of a turning away from it isn’t it? Because it is so filled with things…
M: But it still creates a state of mind where you perceive your environment differently…
R: It keeps in mind the fact that if we create a puzzle that gets people to work out through their own creative questioning then they will see something new and beautiful by that very question. The puzzle itself triggers beauty.