Sound Out; June 2017 Robert Rich
Q: Your new album “Live at The Gatherings 2015” features a recording of your live concert of 11 April 2015. This release includes no edits to the program whatsoever, and reveals a competent, inspired performance. Have you any recollections of this event? Was there any circumstance which helped make it so on-the-mark? or were all of your sets on that tour of equal substance and proficiency?
A: That was a good tour. By the time I had worked my way to Philadelphia I had polished my set and felt well-rehearsed. But even more important is the special vibe I get from the Gatherings crowd. It’s the best audience I see anywhere. I always want to express the deepest part of my music when I play for the Gatherings. That entire tour felt good from a musical perspective. The material I was performing from Filaments had grown naturally from earlier live performance, and flows well in concert.
Q: Please list five women you’d like to have coffee with (individually).
– Pauline Oliveros, who coined the phrase “Deep Listening.” She passed away last year in her 80s.
– Annea Lockwood, a composer with great sensitivity to environment. A piece of hers called Delta Run moved me to tears, a sonic ritual performed in honor of her friend Walter Wincha who died of cancer.
– Meret Oppenheim, one of the great Surrealist conceptual artists, who created mysterious talismanic objects.
– Georgia O’Keefe, the painter
– Hedy Lamar, the actress who was also a mathematician and inventor of spread-spectrum radio.
Q: How do you feel whenever you imagine that no intelligent life exists beyond Earth?
A: I honestly can’t imagine that earth holds the only consciousness. I have a friend who works on the Kepler II project at NASA nearby here in Mountain View, and that project has found so many exoplanets that we can now say planets are the norm, not the exception. The more fascinating question to me hovers around what we consider to be consciousness or self-awareness, or even a self. Would we recognize intelligence if we saw it? Do we recognize it all around us? If intelligence rests in systems, and not individuals, how will we know it? Are forests self-aware? Ant hives? In his book Solaris, Stanislaw Lem posits a sentient ocean which thinks in ways so different from humans that we can’t understand it, while it is probing us with thoughts that take physical form. A few years ago I met Chris McKay, a famous exobiologist at SETI, who is trying to come up with mathematical or chemical descriptions of life that describe localized control of entropy – basically, any system using energy to create self-organized replicable structures would be considered a form of life. Perhaps we will need to come up with similar abstractions for the idea of consciousness.
Q: You’ve driven throughout much of the USA while touring, and therefore may have a unique perspective on our country…Please take a stab at defining America.
A: It’s a concept based on ideals of self-governance, but like every human endeavor it struggles with the flaws of its species. At its best, it is an idea that respects the rule of law over personality, and respects the creative potential of every human being over the power of money and might. I am not a nationalist. I am not even a humanist. I place all life and all species in high regard, and I worry more about the generally destructive aspects of rampant capitalism and the hegemony of international corporations, not so much about the distinctions of imaginary borders dividing a planet that could care less who owns what.
Q: What does it mean to be an American?
A: Among other things, it means I can say what I just said without getting killed or imprisoned. I love the cultural diversity of our nation, its roots in immigrant culture, its optimism. I love the potential it holds for individual expression. Unfortunately we need to protect those strengths against constant attempts at authoritarianism and corporatism. We need to separate our ideas of democracy from the hypercapitalism that has evolved like a cancer to own government. We must also remember to respect the history of the first peoples here, and to understand that we derived much of our success and wealth from a history that is not always morally defensible. If we remain humble in our success then we might survive another century or two as an ideal, or at least as a nation. I fear, however, that as we wallow in the laziness of our wealth and power, we begin to define America as the paradise of materialism, consumerism, ignorance and arrogance.
Q: What is your greatest guilty pleasure? (I Love Lucy re-runs, buying junk at the dollar store, Ben & Jerry’s, old Pat Boone records, Jello, old Bill Cosby albums, romance novels, cheetos…)
A: Growing vegetables. Enjoying good wine and food. Walking several miles each day, feeding crows.
Q: What would you do with yourself on the last night of the world?
A: I would go outside and look at the sky, to remember why we are here in the first place. Of course, we each have a last day, individually. As we get older, the world reminds us the brevity of life. If we don’t stop to express the wonder of existence, then we merely consume life and our hunger is never filled.
Q: Your second collaboration album with Markus Reuter “Lift a Feather to the Flood” seems to explore lower energy levels, as well as unique tonalities. Were these tracks realized in improvisation? How spontaneous was your session? Any ground rules? or directions? set down ahead of time? What was it like as these pieces came into being?
A: The initial recording took place all in one day, during a vividly focused eight hours of concentration and improvisation. During that day we created two hours of music, then chopped it to one hour on the following day. Then for the next month or two I mixed, mastered, edited, and worked on artwork with John Bergin. The total process took a couple months. We discussed the themes for the weeks leading up to Markus’ visit. We decided on a very limited set of parameters. We would each play only one instrument: piano for me and guitar looping-network for Markus. I had the piano tuned before he arrived. Over dinner upon his arrival, we discussed what art can do to address the human condition. How can we make something powerful, timeless, as “universal” as possible, yet also respond to the missteps of our culture, the stupidity of war, the degradation of our ecosystem, the looming shadows of xenophobia and nationalism? We can view art as a pointless gesture, a useless activity, just as we can view the internal journeys of a shaman as hermetic, a meaningless passive response to real external problems. Yet if we view art and the shamanic journey as a ritual activity that transforms the participants, empowers them with metaphor, brings wisdom from the unconscious into concrete form, then we can view this activity as medicine. Without these empowering metaphors, our world becomes meaningless, a place overtaken with fear and violence. I was pondering this idea of the artistic act and the shamanic journey in terms of symbolic gestures. The title “Lift a Feather to the Flood” comes from this idea of a symbolic act that has no intrinsic meaning nor extrinsic value, yet carries metaphorical power to strengthen us against entropy and chaos. The image also makes a distant reference to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, who embodies belief systems that are considered extinct by those around him. His clinging to the noble ideals of chivalry make him clownish and irrelevant to his modern world; yet by showing a strange form of purity and essential humanity in his delusions he slowly transforms the people around him. The idea of “Lift a Feather” is this Quixotic act of hope in a world gone mad.
Q: Do you listen to the radio? if so, then what? This American Life? Radiolab? Fresh Air? local Morning Zoo? traffic and weather?
A: I mostly just listen to radio in the car when doing errands, and I like to tune into our local underground college radio station KFJC, because they continue to surprise me with music I have never heard. My wife Dixie also enjoys listening to Giants baseball games on AM radio, which has a comforting rhythm and verbal musicality.
Q: On visits to The Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Barnes Foundation you’ve shown a serious connection to the paintings of Henri Rousseau. Please explain your attraction to his work…
A: I sense a primal connection in his paintings. Although we could critique the 19th century romanticization of “wilderness” or “the primal forest” as being naive and culturally ignorant, if we can view these as paintings as internal landscapes rather than idealized material depictions, then we see the same search for Eden that I feel in my music. For me, the metaphor of Eden is more Jungian than Biblical: it is a story of each one of us locking ourselves away from internal unification. We each carry paradise inside of ourselves but we stand outside of it, having closed the gate behind us. We each hold the key to that gate in a secret place, and one purpose of art is to shine a light on that place and remind us of the key.
Q: Can you please define Surrealism? in just one or two sentences…
A: A collection of methods to help manifest the unconscious into concrete form, the entification of dreams, a magnification of the periphery, a celebration of the value of the irrational.
Q: Were you to go through “The Zone” portrayed in Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker”, and you made it all the way to “The Room”, would you enter?
A: Yes, but only if I could obliterate the selfish urges, and seek the purpose beyond ego. That’s the only way the Stalker survives all of his trips into the zone, and the reason why the Zone gives him gifts in return.
Q: I believe your Sleep Concerts have provided unique, positive experiences for a great number of people, but does the act of playing such an event ever do anything for you? I know it’s tiring, but do the performances, or has any one particular performance, ever provided you with a revelation? or greater insight into life, people, the world, or your work?
A: There is something intangible about the slowness of that music and the extended concentration it requires, that takes me back to the core of my creative instincts, and it reminds me of why I started making music in the first place. I can never really know exactly what the audience is experiencing, but I sometimes discover extended moments like a plateau of frozen time, when the music lets me hover in a special energetic place. Sometimes, only through the extreme exhaustion and patience will I discover these reminders of the power of pure sound. My problem is that I have very strong circadian rhythms, and the all-night concentration just wrecks me. I don’t know how you have managed to do Star’s End once a week for so many years. I need at least a week or two to recover from one of these all-nighters.