With Miguel Pinto, Feb 2018

MP: First of all congratulations, I know you’re going to do a sleep concert on the February 23th, in San Francisco and that it will be your first local live concert in more than 30 years! How does that feel?

RR: Thank you. I should clarify that it will be my first “sleep concert” in 30 years with a live audience. I probably perform normal-length concerts locally about once a year. I played a radio sleep concert nearby in 1996, but the last one in the bay area with an audience was in the mid-1980s. So it does feel like a long time. While these 8-hour concerts certainly aren’t all that I do, they did get me some good publicity back when I was starting out. They are really exhausting, though, and they mess up my schedule for two weeks at least, so I try not to do them very often. I think of them as a special ritual, returning back to an early place of pure sound. They take a lot of focus, and they should be rare events.

MP: You started building synths at the early age of 13, so how did the D.I.Y ethics influenced your work?

RR: I would have to say that the D.I.Y. approach still forms the foundation of everything I do. It started not just out of necessity – because I didn’t have enough money to buy the synthesizers I wanted – but because the sorts of things I wanted to say in life did not fit a mainstream direction. The artists who influenced me were also rather underground. They were often DIY themselves. These days, while I don’t solder and build things as much as I used to, I am still very involved with the development of new instruments and technology. The skills I learned to make things from scratch have helped me maintain a career at several levels of electronic music. More than the instruments, though, I have always been in charge of my own career, releasing my own albums, doing my own booking and personal outreach to listeners. I think this is the only way to have any success when making an art form that does not have mass commercial appeal, because there is not enough potential money to benefit a team of people like some artists have. That is not to say I don’t get help. Being on the HOS/Fathom label from 1989-1998 helped a lot with publicity and distribution. My wife Dixie has assisted with CD orders, maintains the order form and helps with shipping. I hire people to do things outside of my skill level, such as help design my website, CD artwork, legal advice, things like that.

MP: The sleep music that you’ve created is a obviously a very drony and overall minimalistic kind of music. What do you see in minimalism and slowness that fascinates you?

RR: I have always been interested in the ways our mind engages with the environment through the senses, and the way attention changes the world that we perceive. Our senses are a “feed-forward” system in that we need to focus on something in order to fully perceive it. I love art that engages the participant (viewer or listener,) that which offers an invitation to perceive the world in new ways. When we engage with something that awakens us to our own perceptions, we learn something new about ourselves and our universe. Minimal art does this in a way that suits me, by rarifying our sense of time, and inviting us to look and listen more closely. I like to engage with a whisper rather than a scream, in part because I think this world has become far too loud, and the constant frenetic flow of information tends to make us numb, causes us to shut down and dulls our perceptions.

MP: I thought it’s interesting that you’ve said that your sleep music is not for people to fall into deep sleep, like happens with Max Richter’s Sleep for example, but to reach the state of hypnagogia. Can you explain us what you want to bring to people by reaching that state?

RR: I can’t speak to Richter’s intensions, but it seems like a very different experience to have a string ensemble sawing away all night. I tend to avoid repetition and melody in my sleep concerts, and focus on the sonic texture of the room. The idea (figuratively speaking) is to sonically remove the walls of the room, to create a blurry shifting void that sets the listeners in a personal environmental cloud. The sound is very quiet, just loud enough that you notice it when you are awake while it invites you to journey into the spaces it creates. I liken it to cave explorers unwinding a thread in the path behind them, to maintain a connection to the waking world. The sound is like that thread, a reminder to pay attention to the unusual space that lives inside of us all the time. In the many stages of sleep and even waking altered states of consciousness, the hypnogogic experiences of stage 1 sleep most often relate best to this idea. These are dreamlike, nonlinear thoughts and images that we usually forget, as we pass into deeper sleep. They are usually less organized than dreams, but can offer insights into our perceptions. With the activated environment of the sleep concert, and with the disturbance of people around in the audience, it becomes easier to slip in and out of these states, like a pebble skipping on top of a deep lake.

MP: Personally, I’m a huge fan of Béla Tarr and by him I started enjoying the slow paced and minimalist kind of art. He’s obviously very inspired by Andrei Tarkosvky that I knew is also one of your greatest inspirations, so I was wandering, do you know his work and does he influence you?

RR: I am not familiar with Béla Tarr. I’ll check out his work.

MP: In the first sleep concerts you gave what was the general opinion of the audience in the end? Were there people going away during the night or everyone thought it was great?

RR: It depended a lot on the environment. In general, people stay for the duration. It is a bit of a commitment to stay all night, and certainly inconvenient to roll up a sleeping bag and slip out of a quiet crowd in the dark morning hours. Perhaps I have merely created a captive audience? I think the experiences of the concerts are very personal, and everyone brings their own expectations ad baggage to an event like this. Some people express profound sensations or experiences, others might sleep deeply but fail to feel anything special. We experience what we carry with us.

MP: Here in Portugal, the experimental musicians don’t get much credit for their works, as their music is seen as inaccessible. As you live in USA, how much different are things there?

RR: It’s the same. Experimental music rarely gets much attention, especially in the mainstream media. Sometimes artists succeed with shock, violence, overt sexuality or some other loud action; but when the art is about listening and being more quiet, it is difficult to get noticed in this loud world with such an unusual notion.

MP: Do you feel some sort of pressure nowadays for artists to be socially conscious or to have a deeper meaning being their work in order to get acclaim or to be considered as relevant?

RR: Perhaps. I think that’s entirely a personal decision by the artist, and by the audience in how to interpret the artistic action. For example, I want to make art that feels timeless, so I tend not to address short term political trends in my music, even though I feel a strong responsibility as a human to react and speak out about growing inequality, corporate greed, right wing nationalism, extremism, racism and corruption. In my daily life, I act upon these responsibilities by taking part in community activity, and attempting to bring our neighborhood together to embrace our wonderful diversity. Yet I choose to address longer trends in my art, because I feel those trends are under-represented: the growing negative impact of the human race on our planet, environmental degradation, extinction, the dehumanizing forces of technology, the need to regain embodiment in the face of virtualization. In order to address these long-term trends, I feel that I can do more (personally) by trying to impart a sense of wonder and belonging, of mystery and awe, to offer a better center of gravity from which to act on a day-to-day basis. Other people are probably better suited than I am to making reactionary art. Please note that I am not trying to make art that soothes or anesthetizes our perceptions about wrongdoing in the world, simply because it is more introverted. Quite the contrary, I seek to sensitize us to the fine-grain detail of our existence. I find in contrast, that this world of increasing loudness, anger, alarm, threat and dread tends to anesthetize us and make us numb. The art that tries to match anger with anger, fear with fear, merely contributes to the numbness. We shut it off. There is too much screaming. We can’t solve these problems by becoming the problem, we need to solve them with an alternative that improves our sensitivity and helps us find some sort of solid underpinning, deep inside.

MP: You have a new album out called The Biode, that I personally loved and that in my opinion sounds very fluid, corporeal and overall rhythmic, almost a contrast with some of your work that is very ethereal. Was this feel something you’ve planned and does it represent a change of pace in your music?

RR: In particular I wanted The Biode to have a more intense, psychoactive energy that conveyed its theme of consciousness as a system that permeates all of life. The Biode began as a sort of sequel to Bestiary (from 2001) with that extreme analog biomorphic language; yet it evolved into a hybrid with syncopated electro-acoustic rhythms. If you investigate more of my releases, you will find a wide range of expression, and much of it is quite rhythmic, but in syncopated and complex ways. Albums like Propagation, Seven Veils, Ylang or Medicine Box have a rhythmic electro-acoustic feeling, more of a global musical language. Other releases like Electric Ladder or Filaments have a more shimmering symmetrical vocabulary. The Biode mixes a bit of each of those elements and seems to feel fresh somehow. Perhaps about half of my output is more cloudy and etherial, and the other half is more active like these albums.

MP: Despite this last album feels somewhat corporeal, I think that is also very conscious and, in my point of view, a sort of a statement in that everything in the world is composed by the same matter, organisms, and has their own biode, almost as if there was an universal conscience. Was that what you were trying to transmit with this work, and if it was, is that holistic conception something you believe in?

RR: Indeed, if you read the liner notes you will see those exact ideas laid out explicitly. I actually invented the word “biode” to describe this idea of a node of consciousness (a biomic node) that resides within the interactions of many species, working together as a system. Scientists are steadily approaching these system metaphors to describe reality, and we are starting to see how a forest communicates between trees with the mycorrhizal web of fungi and related organisms, how any complex organism is actually an organized matrix or thousands of different microbes. This decade, medical research is showing how our gut bacteria effect the chemistry of our brain. This is state-of-the-art science, and I think it will seem commonplace in 50 years.

MP: Just to finish, what music are you listening at the moment?

RR: Since I am practicing for the sleep concert, at the moment I am listening a lot to my own performance of course, to remind myself of that sonic place I need to go. I also just listen to the world around me, the environment, always trying to sensitize myself to small sounds. Otherwise I listen to all sorts of music, but usually not so much in the background. I like to listen with some focus. I rarely listen to music that falls within the territory of my own style, as that gets too close to enjoy. I like good intelligent songwriting. I enjoy Elbow, Daughter, Radiohead, Emiliana Torrini, Little Dragon, Massive Attack, The Books, a wide variety of unusual music. More than anything I probably listen to certain jazz masters like Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Miles Davis… or north Indian classical music such as Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, Debashis Bhattacharya, Ali Akbar Khan… and music from many other parts of the world. I have eclectic tastes.

Robert Rich
19 February 2018