Sonic Space 2000

Interview with Matt Howarth, which originally appeared on the website.

In the genre of atmospheric music, Robert Rich has a substantial reputation. He studied computer music at Stanford’s prestigious CCRMA while earning a degree in Psychology. In 1982, he first performed his now-legendary Sleep Concerts (extremely mellow performances intended to generate hypnogogic states in a sleeping audience, often lasting many hours).

His sonic output has evolved over the years, from the dense ambience of “Trances” and “Drones”, to the environmental electronics of “Rainforest”, to the dark moods of “Stalker” (his collaboration with B. Lustmord), to the exotic whimsy of “Seven Veils”.

Remaining a constant through these evolutionary stages is Rich’s compositional sense, the ability to imbue the passive tonalities of his music with a drama and subliminal tension. His music elevates minimalism to a lusher strata, where ambience can become overpowering and breathtaking.

I was fortunate enough to catch Robert on the eve of Easter 2000. As he was busy preparing to leave in a day to embark on his latest tour, we were forced to keep the interview brief … and odd. (For information on Robert Rich’s tour dates, consult his website)

Q: Your music has such an earthiness to it, evoking a geological quality. How much of an influence does a “cosmic sense of wonder” have upon your own impressions of the music you make?

RR: That sense of wonder is probably the biggest influence of all. It’s not attached to a place, though. It’s a sort of awe that permeates everything. It’s true that much of my music is fairly grounded in the sounds of the planet, because that’s our womb, our nest, and I feel a craving for home (a home which we are quickly destroying…). Some of my albums are definitely permeated with a more outer-space cosmic sensibility, especially “Below Zero” and “Humidity”.

In particular, “Below Zero” investigates ideas of entropy, cosmology and deep time. Believe it or not, some of that music was inspired by the recent findings that Einstein’s cosmological constant might be greater than one, creating an increase in the rate of expansion in the universe, guaranteeing its eventual dissipation and heat death as it expands and asymptotically approaches a vacuum. Music like that is a journey of the imagination, not a metaphorical journey into physical outer space. I regard the mind as the largest and least understood cosmos of all.

Q: Considering how electronic music continues to gain public acceptance, can you see your music being used as “background muzak” for space journeys?

RR: Well, I never really conceive of my music as working very well in the background, although I suppose that it might for some people. I try to make music that will be interesting on several levels, such that it might still have an effect on your mood or perceptions even if it is in the background. Hopefully it proves to be timeless enough that people will still find it interesting in the future, just as we still find Bach interesting in the current era. Perhaps it will make space travelers more nostalgic for the lushness of Earth, which might be a bit too painful out in those cold expanses.

Q: In a reality where music is broadcast to microprocessors inside people’s brains, what music would you like to have playing in your head?

RR: The music of silence, when my own thoughts stop swirling, and the whispering of the universe comes in to take its place.

Q: Have you any thoughts on the subject of the psychological therapeutic value of music such as your own?

RR: I think most people who claim that their music has calculated therapeutic value are selling snake oil. Having said that, I feel that any truly honest, deep aesthetic experience can be therapeutic, including a walk in the woods, good poetry or an imaginative mental journey. Simply experiencing our own existence to the fullest is the best therapy I can think of.

ROBERT RICH: Humidity (triple CD on Hypnos Records)Containing material from Rich’s Stanford, Venice, and Pasadena, California concerts in 1998, this triple CD features over three hours of languid, electronically-generated ambience.

Rich’s ethereal style of blending breathy tonalities and sighing flutes produces a particularly haunting mood. There is a recurrent sense of primordial dampness to the music, pooling into a liquid flow that carries you through ancient crevasses into caverns that glow with eerie luminescence and echo with distant and lazy tribal percussives. Whispering electronics crackle in a softly crashing surf of stratospheric cloud masses. Rich’s ghostly flute drifts through these mists, lending the ambience a faint longing.

There is a passage towards the end of the Pasadena performance that sparkles with glorious space guitar brilliantly smoldering in the seething soundscape.

Allowing that these three concerts were live electronic improvisations, the tone and content of each disc is distinctly different, determined by Rich’s own fanciful creativity of the moment. The music is a calm swirl of ambience that often rises, filling the cavern of your mind with its surging grandeur.

From the damp underworld of the Stanford concert, to the infinite auralscape of the Venice gig, to the agitated drama of the Pasadena performance … Rich’s masterful ambience commands the attention of your subconscious with refreshing impact.

ROBERT RICH: Below Zero (CD on Side Effects Records)This CD is an ambient tribute to the second law of thermodynamics (a/k/a entropy), celebrating the measures lifeforms unconsciously utilize to forestall the inevitable heat death of the universe.

“Ambient” can be such a misnomer when discussing Rich’s music. His electronic compositions may seem minimal, but the unintrusive melodies he produces are dense, possessing numerous levels of activity designed to stimulate portions of your cortex that lurk beneath conscious determinism. Rich’s intensity is not aggressive; it smolders, like a sonic volcano just over the hill — and the radiant heat is melting the paint on your living room walls.

The breathy sweeps of electronic tonalities are tempered by the aerial sighing of flutes. Each aural breeze evokes a calming effect, which is then challenged by vaguely ominous cybernetic pulsations. Sounds of utmost artificiality are infused with emotional content, resounding through the deceptive calm with chilling effect.

This is Rich’s style, to lull you with slowburn ambience while tickling your curiosity with hints of intensity. These hints invariably surface to display their full dominance as each track’s climax. But the real victor is always the ambience, resurging to subdue the music, returning the audience to their point of departure. The journey is cyclic, but the audience is empowered by each loop.

Titles like “A Flock of Metal Creatures Fleeing the Onslaught of Rust” and “Dissolving the Seeds of a Moment” and “Liquid Air” provide conceptual cues for the audience. Or, gee … is it the music which suggests such imagery?

There are a lot of ambient samplers and collection releases out there, and Robert Rich has contributed countless original tracks to many of them. This CD gathers five such Rich tracks (recorded in 1993 and 1996, including the 20-minute epic “Star Maker”), adding a new track to achieve a total of 64 minutes. Despite the diversity of their origins, these pieces exhibit a remarkable cohesion, each furthering the aural examination of quantum existence.

This type of music calls to the questioning spirit in each of us, urging us to deeper contemplation and greater understanding.

ROBERT RICH: A Troubled Resting Place (CD on Fathom Records, a division of Hearts of Space Records)This 66-minute CD is another collection of melodic ambient tracks previously released on various compilations from 1993-1995. These pieces reflect a darker side of Rich’s soft ambience, demonstrating a sonorous tension that seethes beneath an auralscape of breathy electronics, grinding distant hulls, sheet metal, tortured flutes and barely brushed ethnic percussives.

This music gives forth the feeling of eager secrets hidden under murky layers of haunting tonalities. An excellent soundtrack to eerie up an idle evening.

Originally appeared on

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