Interview with Robert Rich for the Ujamaa’s Ambient Experience website, July 29 1998.
Questioning by Eric Prindle
1. You’ve recently come out with a new album, Below Zero. Could you tell us a little bit about the ideas and processes that went into the making of this album?
Below Zero functions in a similar way to A Troubled Resting Place, in that it contains tracks that I first placed on compilations, yet also created with the intention to fit together into a flow. The experience of listening to the album straight through is rather different from hearing the pieces individually. Building an album this way allows me to try new things, to work differently than I might work otherwise. It’s mostly a psychological trick to break me out of habits, since I don’t feel the weight of responsibility when writing stand-alone pieces that I sometimes feel when working on entire albums. I compare this approach to what some authors do, like J.G. Ballard in his book, The Atrocity Exhibition, which consists of strange abstract vignettes, all of which function as stand alone stories, yet combine to create a unified novel.
Many of the pieces on Below Zero started from pure sound experiments. I was trying to find new ways of creating sounds, especially those that had the complexity of acoustic textures but the otherworldliness of electronics. I used a number of techniques that allowed me to transform sounds, create hybrids, or degrade a sound until it became unrecognizable. I used a lot of DSP software on the Macintosh, with processes that included phase vocoding, granular synthesis, and convolution. I also made heavy use of closed and open feedback loops with outboard digital processors (a method that I’ve been using for several years now.) Once I found a pallet of sounds that felt right, I would assemble the sounds into a composition, adding or editing the necessary touches to direct a piece wherever I felt it should go.
2. In the liner notes, you include some information and reflection on the concept of entropy. How do these ideas relate to each other and to the music on this album?
They relate in several ways. On a physical level, many of the methods used to make the music involve a degradation of the sound. Metaphorically, this degradation mirrors the dissipation of particles described in the second law of thermodynamics. On an informational level, the music is so dense at times that it starts to resemble noise, which echoes the observations in information theory about the relationship between complexity and randomness. (One of the interesting characteristics of some of the feedback methods that I use is that the resulting sound consists of thick clouds of inharmonic overtones, almost like the cloud of pitches created by a large gong. It’s not exactly noise, but there’s so much going on that it resembles noise. This is the sort of denseness I’m refering to.)
3. How do you feel this album relates to your other work? What influences made their way into it?
Below Zero is probably my most extreme and uncompromising album so far. I wanted to create a total immersion into sound. I’m not sure if it would be easy to talk about musical influences, since I conceive the album more in psychological and metaphorical terms. However, it still comes from the same place that all my work comes from (wherever that is) and as such shares all the influences that I’ve ever had. If I were to cite another musical style that this relates to, perhaps it would be the ritual music of Tibet.
4. I understand that “Requiem” is a particularly personal piece for you. Could you tell us a little about this piece?
I recorded “Requiem” during the week after my cousin, Dave Schultz, was shot and killed by the millionaire John DuPont. Dave was coaching the Olympic wrestling team on DuPont’s estate in Pennsylvania when DuPont became delusional and went on a rampage. Because Dave’s murder was such a media event, my family felt doubly violated, once by the killing and twice by the vultures and blood suckers called the News that feed on events such as these. My own reaction was to receed into nostalgia, and seek that place inside myself that resonated with enough truth to offset the toxicity of the world. For me, the piece is like a talisman, an object imbued with a healing significance imparted to it by symbolic association. It makes a sonic connection between idyllic memories and a moment of loss and pain. The natural sounds mixed together on the piece were recorded 20 years apart, the frogs from my grandparents’ garden, where our families grew up together – a recording I made outside my bedroom window when I was 14 years old; and the rain from outside my studio window on the weekend after Dave’s murder. The remaining sounds are just my voice, bells and steel guitar – no electronics. I wanted to return to a pure sonic essence, with nothing that distracts from the energy of the piece.
5. “Star Maker” was released on the Narratives: Works for Fiction compilation. What work of fiction is this piece based on, and how did you come to choose that work?
The piece is based on a novel by British writer Olaf Stapledon, written in the 1920’s in the aftermath of WWI. It’s not exactly science fiction, as it doesn’t involve science or technology in any way. Rather, it follows the expansion of one man’s consciousness into the outer reaches of time and space. It’s all in the realm of thought, purely philosophical, yet deeply poetic and hauntingly beautiful. It’s one of those books that leaves traces of itself in your thinking for years after you read it. It has long been one of my favorite books, and when Vince at Manifold described his concept for this compilation, I decided almost immediately to use Starmaker as my starting point. It’s one of the few novels I can think of that affects me in the same way that music can – in a gestalt, somehow beyond language, in the realm of direct understanding. It also has the audacity to play with ideas that dwarf us in scale, with a sense of earnestness and awe that I find refreshing in this post-modern age of ironic detatchment.
6. You have yet another album coming out next month. Could you tell us a little about Seven Veils?
Seven Veils contains a huge chunk of my life. In many ways, it sumarizes and incorporates all the different developements my work has taken in the last ten years. It’s the most rhythmic album I’ve ever done, and I think it has some of the best instrumental performances of any of my past work. It has a very complex melodic approach, with long evolving solos that often evoke the human voice in their phrasing. I think it’s the unusual melodic structures that generally evoke a Middle-eastern sensibility, although there’s a lot going on that is quite western in flavor. I suppose if I were to compare it to any of my past albums, it might be Propagation, although Seven Veils is a bit more intense, and perhaps for lack of a better word, more ‘psychedelic.’
Seven Veils also includes some notable contributions from David Torn (guitar), Hans Christian (cello), Forrest Fang (violin), Mark Forry (Balkan kaval) and Andrew McGowan (bass). Andrew and Hans have both been involved in Amoeba, and Hans has two solo albums as well. Forrest has an amazing discography that includes one of my favorite albums of all times, Folklore. Mark Forry is a virtuoso kaval player, and performs in a Bulgarian folk band in the Bay Area (the kaval is an endblown flute that closely resembles the turkish ney.) David Torn, of course, has an unmistakable guitar tone, and hopefully doesn’t need an introduction. He’s played with Jan Garbarek, David Sylvian, and countless others.
7. Stalker is already considered an ambient classic by many only a few years after its release. Do you foresee yourself working with B. Lustmord again in the future?
Brian and I maintain a close friendship, and the door is always open for another collaboration if we thought we could take it into a new direction. Neither of us would want to make a Stalker Part 2, so we’ll leave it open for now.
8. I understand that you are considering compiling some live recordings for possible release in limited editions. Have you made any recent decisions on this project? Will you be playing live again in the near future?
I do have plans to release some live concerts on CD next year, perhaps starting with a re-release of the 1985 live album Inner Landscapes. I might also release a 3-CD set of the concerts that I did this May. These would be very small releases, either on my own label or as a co-op deal with another small label, mostly just for collectors. I might also release a 5-CD set of an entire sleep concert from the 1996 tour.
I don’t have immediate plans for more live concerts, but I am sure I’ll be on the road again next year sometime, if not sooner. I want to get a good chunk of studio work done first, though.
9. How is the new Amoeba album going? What direction is it heading in? Are there any ideas yet as to a title, label, or release date?
I can answer the first two questions, but I don’t know the remainder yet. The album is growing slowly, but I think it’s going to be worth it. Since Rick Davies lives a thousand miles away now, the collaborative songwriting process takes a lot longer. We have just started tracking now, however, and the album is feeling much more up-tempo and song-structured than Watchful was. Musically the album is rather complex and I feel quite challenged, especially when it comes to vocals. As on the last album, the lyrics are quite personal but still somewhat abstract, hopefully seeking some private truths and hinting a bit at the universal.
10. Do you have any other projects on this horizon?
I have plans and maps for several new solo albums, but it’s a bit premature to discuss them, since I won’t be starting to work on them until next year.