Robert with Bruno Heuze for Octopus Magazine (France), May 2000
Q) What was your exact intention when doing the famous “sleep concerts” in the middle of the eighties ?
The Sleep Concerts grew out of several converging interests. At a sonic level, I was expermenting with constrained randomness on my modular synth. I would leave the synth playing itself for days at a time, listening to the slowly evolving structures. I tried to think of ways to introduce others to this slow-motion music, trying to circumvent the normal audience expectations at a concert. Inviting them to sleep seemed the most obvious way to change their approach to listening. This idea coincided nicely with my fascination with altered states of consciousness, trance and dreaming. It occured to me that I could structure the slow music so that it could stimulate an awareness of internal states during the night, especially dreams and hypnogic imagery. So at a sensory level, Sleep Concerts were a pure exploration in sound immersion, while at a psychological level, they provided an environment for exploring conscious states and internal imagery.
I wanted the listeners to discover the region between sleep and waking, the hypnogogic state, where thinking is visual and non-linear, where the slow sound textures could merge with dreams and create an altered state of consciousness. I tried to undermine people’s listening expectations, so they could be open to very slow changes, so they could become more sensitive to the power of their sonic environment. I tried to transform the typical concert experience into a trance ritual.
Q) It seems that you have always been interested in turning the machinery of electronics into an organic process. Can you develop this idea ?
At some level, every tool we use is a machine. Every musical instrument represents the technology of its time. A violin is a machine. A pipe organ is a machine, a flute, a drum, a piano… all machines. The question comes down to one of composition. I want my music to serve a human expression, I am not interest in music that refers to itself. Music that focuses on the process of making music does not interest me, nor does music that refers only to the tools. I want the tools to be invisible, and I want the music to be transparent – seemless – so that the listener feels a connection to something real. It’s possible to do this with any instrument, electronic or acoustic, you just have to find what works for your own personal vacabulary.
Q) Could you tell us more about the “glurp” ?
“Glurp” is the realm of liquid noise that reminds me of the bubbling squishy wet stuff which signifies the existence of life. Whether it be the sound of volcanic mud or the blood in our veins, it all points to the physical manifestations of being. Having evolved from the sea, we carry the ocean within us, after all. Perhaps its just a surrealist observation of the fundamentally mercurial nature to our assumption of solid form.
Q) At the difference of many electronic music composers, you have never been describing stellar spaces, but jungle landscapes and microscopic worlds. Where does this interest come from ?
The world I am trying to express isn’t an external, physical world at all, but rather a mental landscape. My own mind is populated with the experiences of being an animal, an organism, living on this planet. It’s natural for me to reflect a more organic soundscape.
Q) Why did you choose to work with just intonation ? Have you been for that influenced by someone like Terry Riley ? Are you still working with the same scales, or did you change the temperament of your instruments in your recent music ?
The first time I heard just intonation was the music of Harry Partch, in the late ’70’s. Then I heard Riley’s Shri Camel and I knew that I wanted to explore microtonal music. It took me several years to develop the tools and the understanding to compose music in just intonation. I am always experimenting with new scales, and some of my recent work isn’t even within a tuning system. For example, many sounds on “Below Zero” are basically unpitched. The tuning is always subservient to the overall impact of the music, and I choose the tuning system to compliment the musical expression. In general, though, I prefer the expressive range that just intonation provides. I find that these pure chords can convey more complex and intense feelings. (It is important to realize that just intonation is not just one scale, but a whole way of thinking about tuning, based on whole-number frequency ratios, and it allows virtually an infinite number of scales within its framework.)
Q) Geometry seems also to have importance in your music (it was the title of one of your records), and you also speak about non-Euclidian geometry in the sleeve notes of “Stalker”. What is your comment about it ?
The word refers to subtly different things in the two cases of the Cds, “Stalker” and “Geometry”. In the case of “Geometry”, the title refers to my interest in the underlying structure that pervades our Universe. This is like a perceptual overlay that one can apply to one’s experience, like a clear film which you can place over a photograph, with ink lines that mark the relationships between objects. One can map the relationships in the world through meny different conceptual frameworks, and in my own personal vocabulary, I call all of these frameworks Geometry (although if we are to speak more precisely, Geometry itself is only one of myriad frameworks we can apply.) I found that the mathematical relationship between frequencies in a tuning system provided a beautiful metaphor to help understand some of the hidden structures in the world. I am not claiming that these frameworks are any more real than our naive experience of reality, but they can all help us to understand facets of reality, once we put them together with the pure experience. It’s important not to get too caught up inside an analytical web, yet the analysis can open up new ways to appreciate beauty.
The reference to non-Euclidian geometry on the Stalker liner notes implies that the things which seem normal in our everyday frame of reference might in fact be more mysterious than predicted. In a non-Euclidian space, two parallel lines can either meet or diverge, because space itself is curved. It turns out that in our actual Universe, this is probably the case if we consider gravitational curvature. It is also the case if we map space and time together and view the past and future of space in terms of curvature. Some things are not what they seem when you explore deeply enough. A mental journey can unlock similar realizations.
Q) How have you been working for the two records you did with Steve Roach ? Did both of you have a specific role in the building of the music ? Same for your collaboration with Alio Die ?
A collaboration is like the creation of a third living human, made up of complimentary parts of the two collaborators. We each find skills that help make the project stronger, to strengthen the natural talents of each person. Steve is a very easy person to collaborate with, and we each have a lot of respect for each other, so there was not such sharp line separating our contributions. To a certain extent, with both Steve and with Stefano Musso (Alio Die), I chose to focus a bit more on acoustic instruments and rhythmic/melodic structures. This was because both Steve and Stefano have such great skills creating textures, so I felt more free to focus on linear developement. With Stefano, as with Lustmord and Lisa Moskow, I also acted as engineer, since the work took place in my studio and I was more familiar with my equipment. Every collaboration has its own rules, its own life. That’s why it can be so productive and more fun.
Q) At the difference of many keyboards players, you have always been mixing electronic with acoustic instruments, specially the flute. Was it to have more life in your music ?
As I mentioned before, I don’t think the technology is all that important. The music should come first. However, I do think the acoustic instruments do give more life to the music, they give me a better way to express emotion. Also, they don’t become dated (old-sounding) as quickly as the electronic timbres. When I listen to purely electronic music, I always think about the technology that allowed the music to be made, the specific synthesizers and the samples that I can identify from other sources. It distracts me from experiencing the music in a pure way. I want to hide the technology, or customize it to the point that it’s hidden, so it seems more timeless, so that only the music matters to the listener.
Q) In that direction, your recent albums give more and more place to acoustic sounds for solo intervention, relagating electronic to landscape. What is your personnal analysis of this fact ?
I think this has always been the case in my music. Consider “Sunyata (Emtiness)” from my first album in 1982. It’s almost entirely acoustic, just layers of bamboo flute with a touch of synth. Or consider the second half of Numena, also mostly acoustic. What I do is try to blend the acoustic instruments with the electronic timbres so that they merge seemlessly. On my recent albums, my instrumental skills have improved, so the performances are more complex and more noticeable; however, the composition is more important than the instruments used, the technology serves the art, and the experience of the music by the listener is the most important thing of all.
Q) Your latest production seem darker than the previous ones. How do you explain this ?
I don’t hear them as being particularly dark. They are more intense, and more abstract, but the word “dark” implies a certain menacing flavor, and I don’t have any interest in scaring people. For me, this recent work reflects a more mystical – perhaps hermetic – energetic quality. It is less grounded, dealing at a level of pure sonic energy. If you could compare my melodic music to the paintings of Henri Rousseau, perhaps my recent abstract work would more closely resemble the paintings of Yves Tanguy. But I’m not a dark person, and I think my music is always life-affirming, even if it’s not overtly pretty.
Q) What are your next projects ?
I hope to release a DVD called “Somnium” soon, which is a seven hour continuous composition for all-night listening, like the sleep concerts. Basically I am finished with this, but I am currently doing some small changes to improve the flow. Amoeba has finished its next CD, called “Pivot”, which should come out in Autumn. My next recording project might be a challenge for me. It’s an all-acoustic ensemble playing the imaginary music of a lost ancient Mesopotamian civilisation. This will be called “Rites of the Bronze Age” and will include a libreto in Akkadian/Sumerian language. I will have lots of help from friends, since the project is a big stretch for me. Beyond that, I plan to work on a new Amoeba CD, then… who knows?
Q) I used to listen very often to your music when I was travelling in Asia and it fit so well. (I particulary have some fantastic souvenir listening to “Propagation” when sleeping in the south Nepal jungle during an elephant back four days trip) So I always wondered if you have been travelling in these countries, if they inspired you or if gamelan music was a big influence for you?
Alas, I have never been to Asia nor Africa. My concerts give me most of my oportunities to travel, but mostly just in Europe and North America. Luckily we have a wealth of global cultures living here in the San Francisco area (as you do in Paris, I think), and there are many chances to hear authentic music. I am deeply influenced by Indonesian music, especially from Java, as well as Indian and North African music. Occasionally I create a piece that pays homage to one of these cultures, and there are many such pieces on Propagation. I’m glad it complimented your travels!
Q) Have you been working a lot with FM synthesis? Have you been using a lot the DX7?
My first introduction to FM synthesis was at Stanford’s CCRMA, where it was invented, around the same year that the DX7 came out. I used a TX81Z on Geometry, and finally bought a DX7II around 1988. I still have it, and I still program it, since I prefer to use my own sounds. FM got a bad reputation among musicians because it takes time to program and most people just used the same old presets. I still like FM for many types of sounds, and Yamaha is one of the few companies to support microtonal tuning tables, so I keep the old DX7.
Q) What was your studies course?
When I was at university, I started with idea that I would study physics or engineering, but after a few of the advanced clasess, I discovered that my strengths were more philosophical than mathematical. I began studying psychology, with an emphasis on physiology and perception. I got involved with Stephen LaBerge’s research on Lucid Dreaming, and I wrote my thesis on training techniques to improve Lucid Dreaming skills. I continued with this work for several years after graduation.