The following interview with Olivier Bernard took place in Spring of 2014, verbally via Skype. Olivier then did the tedious work of transcribing and translating the conversation into French, for the webzine MUSID. You can find the French translation at this link: http://musid.fr/2014/05/interview-robert-rich/
What were your main musical influences when you started your career and how did you start as a musician?
I owe a lot of my influences to the radio station KPFA, back in the 1970s. Their music director from that era, Charles Amirkhanian (a well-known sound poet), now runs a festival called Other Minds. In the 1970s, he was responsible for bringing a lot of the modern tonal avant-garde out onto the radio: people like Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Dan Schmidt, John Cage and also world music in the San Francisco Bay Area. There is a huge musical presence from around the world in this area; such as gamelan groups, actually American groups who played a mix between Indonesian music and modern Western compositions for gamelan instruments. Terry Riley was my biggest influence by far, but also hearing Indian classical music (Ali Akbar Khan school was here, and still is although he’s passed away). In high school in the 1970s, I was into progressive rock and European space music and later, industrial and noise music. We had a certain kind of movement here in San Francisco, groups like Tuxedomoon, The Residents, and a lot of the early English industrial groups were coming to California. They found a very welcoming audience here. Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Wire, groups like these were also a big influence on me (a much more aggressive music than I’m known for). When I started building synthesizers, I was about 13 (it was early 1977) and I really wanted just to experiment, make noise and sound installations. I was probably more interested in sculpture than I was in being a musician. I never felt myself to be a musician at the time; it was just about experimenting and trying to create a kind of modern shamanism. This is what the punk scene gave me, the sense that you could do anything, you didn’t have to be approved, you didn’t have to have schooling. If you had a good reason to do it, then go do it! To continue on that, it was the idea that anything could happen if you make it happen. I was pretty much self-taught, just starting with a lot of sound. And also my father was a jazz guitarist. I grew up with music all the time. He played a sort of very mellow melodic jazz. He was influenced a lot by Stan Getz, Barney Kessel and people of that ilk. And so, I grew up with melodic cool jazz around the house. But I found myself much more attracted to experimental 1960s afrocentric jazz, such as Sun Ra or Chicago Art Ensemble. Generally, I just wanted to explore sounds. That’s how I got started.
How did you discover ambient music?
Of course we all knew about Eno, because he was probably the most visible spokesman. However, I remember when I was probably 10 years old, I found a record in a cut-out bin of a record store, called Wind Harp, Song From The Hill, a recording of a sound sculpture made in 1971. I didn’t know at the time, but apparently some it was used in the movie The Exorcist. (Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” was from the same era, also appeared on that soundtrack, also an influential piece of music.) So, I was very interested in the idea of clouds of sound, even before Eno started talking about ambient music. I was much more interested in Pauline Oliveros’ use of the term deep listening. My interest was not so much to create a kind of intelligent background music. I didn’t like that idea. I disagreed with Eno’s approach of the idea of background. I wanted to make music that is more intrusive, but psychologically intrusive. I wanted to make music which is more like a trance-inducing shamanic journey into a kind of alternate reality, inside the mind. I was prone to that myself, not taking drugs but just actually natively prone to listening to music and having sorts of out-of-body experiences or journeying into a kind of inner world, a parallel universe. So, the idea of using sound as a key to journeying inside was much more influential to me than the idea of using sound as a background. So I didn’t apply the term ambient music to mine because it really implies background music, a kind of Muzak. I was always trying to find other words, like “psychoactive music” or “brain music” (laughs). That’s why I like Pauline Oliveros’ term of “deep listening”. It gives instructions to the listener about how to use the music and it can be applied to any kind of music; it describes not the sound, but the active process of listening.
What is your definition of ambient music?
I tend to use the term “ambient music” more strictly and more narrowly to describe music that is intended to be in the background. Some of my albums might be considered ambient music, perhaps Nest or Somnium or the one that I’m finishing up right now, which is to be called Perpetual (an 8-hour long piece of music). You could use those as ambient music but this is on the side of the listener more than on the side of the sound itself. For example, Bach could be ambient music if you use it that way. I remember Steve Reich saying in an interview that if Bach is played in a coffee shop, it could be serving as background music, it could become trivial music. You can spend a lifetime studying that music intellectually and understanding the depth of it from other layers and so, in this way, just because music can be pleasant and can be used as a background, it doesn’t take away from the complexity of the music or the interest inherit in the music. So, I think a lot of this has to do more strictly with the way the music is applied by the listener in the environment rather than in the sound itself. Others certainly could use Metallica as background music (maybe a 17-year old kid, I don’t know! laughs).
What makes, according to you, a good ambient track?
First of all, I like the music to have a quality of inviting the listener in, a more introverted rather than extroverted quality. I like to hear a music that attracts my attention, that is inviting me to actively participate in the music as a listener rather than telling me everything. I like certain information to be occluded from me, to be more secret. There is something to unfold, something to unwrap. In the dance music world, when you hear music called ambient, often it’s a slightly urban kind of “loungy evening cocktails-vibe.” I don’t find that very interesting. I like mystery and I like something that unwraps. Perhaps that’s my love for Indian music, there is a spiritual depth to it, an emotional complexity, and it’s quite far from trivial or comfortable. In fact, it’s slightly edgy, it gets under your skin. This attracts me! I like music that is mysterious. I like the edgy way that it makes you want to investigate further. It’s like food, when there is a complex flavour, it’s a little bit spicy, it’s not simple when there is a very carefully chosen ingredient, a balance and a flavour that makes you inquire with your mouth and your nose. I like the equivalent metaphor in music. In my music, the listeners might have trouble figuring out if they are getting bored or if they are getting more interested, it’s right in between; a place of going a little too slow but a little too interesting. It’s not quite background and it’s not quite foreground, and I like that ambiguity. I like it when there is a mystery even about how to approach the music. There is a certain sense of the unknown. I especially love it when music shivers down the spine, when there is a sense of mystery and an invitation to engage in mystery. I think the questions are always more interesting than the answers. And if music can pose questions, it fascinates me.
What sort of feelings do you want to express through your music?
For me, there are a few very strong motivating elements in my life project. The reason I make art and the reason I continue to have inspiration is the feeling of being alive, the sense of mystery of just existence. It’s amazing how existence… exists! (laughs) Art can do that in a way, to remind us how magical it is just to exist and the beauty of that. That’s one element that for me is very powerful. Another element that runs underneath all of my music and its sense of purpose is the “anti-virtual”. I feel that in Western intellectually-driven technology and mindset, the way we think in our culture tends towards pushing us to a less physical mode of existence. So, as our technology improves in mobile communications for example, while it is simultaneously virtualizing our experience; it can also bridge our experience, it can link us together around the world and create a wider community. (We can use that to our advantage, or it can be an illusion.)
So, I am very concerned about our culture losing our sense of place and losing our sense of physical reality, our feet being on dirt, on the ground and community: the people next door to us, knowing their names, smiling, walking in our town. Much of my fascination with nature and with community and with language and information has to do with reminding myself and reminding listeners: we are embodied, we are in a self which is physical on a planet, which is very fragile. One thing I’ve joked about is I am often lumped as making space-music and in fact my music is more “earth-music”, because it’s actually very physical, very embodied. Many of my inspirations come from the sense of wonder about existence, about physical existence, about non-virtuality. Whatever extends from that, if I can create an experience that puts us here and now, in this place that we’re in, and become more aware of its fragile beauty, then I’m succeeding, I think.
As a personal example, when I become more acutely aware of environmental problems, which are massive right now, I become very depressed and I freeze. I actually shut down. I cannot act. I get a kind of fatigue and exhaustion for caring. And so, my own defence mechanism is to go inside, to retreat to a private shell, a kind of cocoon. And so in that safe place inside, which is partially there because of fear and because of a sense of helplessness, the only thing I know how to do, is to create a small bubble of beauty; it’s a defence mechanism. But it’s also a way to remind myself and to remind people who listen to the music that there is existence beyond this level of fear. The only way we can counteract the negativity of the destruction that we are causing is to create a small piece of beauty to remind us of what is really important and could motivate us. It’s a very complex thing to explain, in whatever language, the words fall apart. I don’t know how to find those words. This is why I make music, because words don’t succeed for me. I can say things in music but there aren’t words for it. An example for me was Rainforest. There is a word in English: “wistfulness”, it’s a strange word because it implies a kind of melancholy and the sense of longing for the past, or a sense of a dissonance of what is and what could be. That sense of sadness for me is very piquant, very strong and sharp. Sometimes, if I can create a sense of beauty which unfolds within it, which encompasses that deep sadness of existence, showing in one sound-poem both the beauty of life and the knowledge of death… When poetry succeeds, it manages to encompass life and death in one phrase.
Could you explain to us the importance of just intonation in your work?
It’s no surprise that just intonation was very important for Terry Riley and Pauline Oliveros, Harry Partch and many composers who influenced me. It’s really a way of finding a new musical vocabulary within tonal music. If we look at the history of 20th century avant-garde music, we see that there was an increasing discarding or throwing-away of tonality. It started with Schönberg and then moving on with people like Milton Babbitt and others. Schönberg understood that the equal-tempered tuning system was intrinsically dissonant. Therefore, there was no difference between any note on the keyboard, they were all equally out of tune. He defined their equality with the “tone row”, algorithmically juxtaposing different tonalities on an equal footage.
I found myself motivated more by a different approach: the idea that there is intrinsic tonality in the harmonic series. The timbre or the sound of a musical instrument or of any sound in the world can relate to other sounds by ratios of whole numbered frequencies. As soon as we do this, as soon as we have these whole numbered ratios, we can relate frequencies in a harmonic spectrum that makes sense again; so we have made our musical system a little more complicated, more difficult to work with, because some of the habits of transposing chords or changing keys become less convenient. But we’ve reintroduced true tonality to composition and we are giving ourselves a much bigger vocabulary of chords, a more emotional palette of colours, whereas equal temperament is like different shades of grey. In just intonation, we suddenly have these chords: a 7/4, which has this piquant beauty, a yearning kind of chord. It makes me want to pull out of my skin and go somewhere. It’s more emotional. It’s got a layer of intensity, which I find very powerful. That is part (for example) of blues playing! That pull of yearning that the blues has.
For me it’s just another tool in the toolbox, being able to tune my synthesizers or my instruments to a range of pitches that allows me a wider expressive palette. It’s not a prison that I put myself in; I break rules if needed. Often, I work with clusters of sounds that are unpitched. I like to juxtapose harmonic relationships with pure sound and sometimes even pitched noise or clusters of unpitched randomly tuned things that are very interesting, like a gong. There are some people who get very obsessed about tuning, and everything has to be in just intonation for them. But that’s a kind of anal retentive prison. For me, it’s a voice, a vocabulary to open up. What is interesting is when you start working with just intonation, and then you’re forced to work again in equal temperament (ET), ET feels so flat and lifeless and bland, like white bread. It becomes very hard to get that expressive edge in ET, that piquancy in the chord again; it’s an interesting struggle. But it’s very difficult to tune a piano in just intonation as La Monte Young, Terry Riley or Michael Harrison did. Piano sometimes feels like it was built to be in ET. It’s funny because the same thing that seems out of tune to people, the difficult and weird sounding, when you start getting used to it and then you go back to equal temperament, it just sounds like nothing, just flat! (laughs)
Could you explain to us your fascination for dreams and trance state?
As I was growing up, I had a very involved internal life, I felt that I could journey inside my head, just by closing my eyes in a quiet room. I discovered that certain kinds of music could help that process. I would put on a Klaus Schulze album and I could have a half hour out-of-body experience as a teenager. Never having taken drugs, it was something completely intrinsic to my personality, the richness of the imagination into the pure creative realm. I imagine sometimes that we walk across the surface of this earth; but underneath there is a subterranean ocean that’s deep underground. And each of us can dig a well into ourselves; we can tap that underground ocean and pull up this fresh water of creativity. To do so, for me, means going into a very private place. I sometimes use the word “spelunking”, the German word for cave exploration, my metaphor to go underground into a secret place, a dark place. And we come back with richness; we come back with discovery of deep deep inside. I find in these alternate realms of consciousness that are different from our awaking normal functional consciousness — hypnosis, focused concentration, meditation or (for some) the use of chemical means — our brains are capable of so much discovery at the periphery.
For those who feel that the only useful mode of existence is in this critical survival-consciousness that we spend when we are at work or when we are driving a car, they are missing out on all of the potential for discovering creative possibility and also the beauty and truth at edges of what we know. Our brains are such miraculous complex things, and they are so good at building realities that we forget that we are building this reality right now. The reality of me is sitting in front of my computer talking to you on Skype in this room where I think that there are objects. This is actually a created thing; it’s a model I’ve made. I assume that it’s out there; because having grown up with that assumption, I was able to eat, to survive and not get killed. To feed ourselves, we created a model that suits our mode of existence. Yet, as humans we have this creative potential to change, to grow that world-building tool of our brains, into multiple possible worlds and to create things that have never been created before. In the role of training ourselves to build new possible worlds we can create things that have never existed and this is why the human is so beautiful; because we have this creative possibility: the world of invention, the world of knowledge and poetry and creating things that have never existed before on the planet. It’s miraculous! It comes from this ability that we have to bend our world-building skills into the fringes of new ways of experiencing possible imagined worlds, and we do that by exploring these other states of consciousness (the cave) and coming back from the cave with diamonds. We go there, we’re mining spiritual diamonds and coming back up to light and say “Look what I found!”.
The fundamental aspect of creativity, of creating something is miraculous. That’s the role of the shaman in cultures’ past. We need to find ways of using our skills of shamanic dreaming in a modern technological context, which appreciates the role of science and the role of technology and uses it to the advantage of making us more human. I can explain the idea behind the “sleep concerts” with this metaphor of being in a cave. You can imagine going to a dark cave but unrolling a string behind you. As you go deeper and deeper into the dark secret place, you have a connection still to the outside world and you can tug on that string and you know that you are still connected. I think music can act like that string as we skip along the edge of sleep, we can use the external sound as a reminder to pay attention to our consciousness, and it bends the air a little bit sideways. When we slip into a state of semi-consciousness, what we call hypnagogic or hypnopompic images, stage one sleep, a very shallow stage of sleep, we can use this continuity of sound in the music like that string, it means that we can leave part of our consciousness in safety. To use another metaphor: when you throw a stone across water, and the stone skips across the water and doesn’t go down. The sleep concerts aren’t designed to create deep sleep or to create better sleep, people often misunderstand that. In fact, they create a rather disturbed sleep, a poor quality of sleep, but it can be a journey into your own unconscious, just like skipping that stone across the water; you never quite go all the way down, but you can come up and observe what your mind is doing.
Your label’s name is Soundscape Productions. Could you explain to us your conception of soundscape?
Well, I borrowed this word from the composer R. Murray Schafer who wrote a book called The Soundscape (1977). I come up with the label name when I released my first cassette in 1982. I was very much in the DIY cassette underground, I was 18 years old and I… stole his word!; (laughs) but out of respect because his book is a polemic against noise pollution. He’s begging people to pay attention to the world around them, the world of sound, and complaining throughout his book about the human-made noise being imperialistic, a kind of impinging upon the environment, asking for us to pay attention to the way that the world has created a sonic signature and that our technology has rolled over and crushed its sonic signature in an imperialistic way. So, I felt this idea that if we could make a kind of music, a sort of electronic technological music that also respected the sound of the world and in fact integrated it as a companion rather than as a kind of emperor. If you consider the most imperialistic form of music being a loud rock band with a huge PA system, I wanted to make this extremely introverted music that was the opposite of that, something very quiet that would make you pay more and more attention to the world around you.
I wrote a very pretentious little purpose-statement of intention back in 1981. It said something like, “I’d like to make music that points to everything but itself, and in the end, it can completely vanish and you only hear the world singing.” That was my pure intention with the very minimal music that I was making in the beginning, in albums like Sunyata, Trances and Drones. I wanted to make a music that was so devoid of itself that it could vanish entirely and go away; a very Zen kind of concept, an impossibility, a koan of sorts, (laughs) a puzzle that doesn’t have an answer. That’s why I started using so much nature sound. In the 1980s, you started hearing these awful New Age albums, with piano and flute and the sound of a creek or the ocean, things like that, meditation records. They were horrible! I felt myself treading at the edge of a dangerous cliché. The challenge for me has always been to show respect in the sounds of the world and the sounds of birds and animals and insects that I use. To have them be part of the orchestra of the music itself, not a sound effect, not something relaxing or with the purpose of sounding pleasant while getting a massage, but rather for the purpose of awakening the ears to the music of the world. That’s why I chose the word Soundscape Productions for the record label. I still find it a challenge to avoid the cliché, to use these nature sounds as a part of my sound design, a part of my vocabulary.
How did your interest for ethnic/world music start?
The funny thing is that I heard it as early as hearing Western classical music in some ways. In the Bay Area we have a lot of ethnic diversity. There is a lot of music from around the world here. I was a young child growing up in the 1960s, this was the heart of the hippie scene. As a kid, I remember hearing the Grateful Dead practising just a block from my house. It’s true, I didn’t know about it until later! (laughs) I was in the heart of this hippie revolution in the Bay Area. I was a young child, too young to know what was going on. A part of that was an increased interest in the 1960s with Indian music. I found myself gravitating more to that sound before I gravitated to Western classical music. Of course, I remember hearing Bach, Handel, and other Western classical music, especially in church, and I didn’t like it at the time. I did not like the sound of triadic harmony. Mozart to me still feels a little bit claustrophobic. When I first heard music that had a drone and modal melody, it made sense to me. That goes to modal jazz as well. When Coltrane and Miles Davis began playing modal jazz, it sounded better to me than the triadic chord-based jazz that my father liked so much. I almost feel that I was born this way. When I first heard Indonesian gamelan music, it felt that it was the music I always knew; it was so natural to me; and Indian classical music also. For me, it was more of a natural voice.
Then the challenge is to approach this with respect and to not be a cultural imperialist, not just to appropriate sound and do it without awareness, or, even worse; sometimes I think as the psychedelic music in the 1960s perhaps did, to borrow parts of a vocabulary simply because it sounds “cool” or it sounds mysterious. You know, the sound of the sitar… the acid generation was looking for something that sounded trippy, they were tripping. To approach these voices with respect involves a couple of methods. One method, which I have not chosen, was to study with a master. I know many people who studied with Ali Akbar Khan in the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael and learned how to play Indian classical music on a sarod, a bansuri or on a sitar. And, I respect that very much. That is probably the best way to go.
I don’t have that discipline, I was always driven by a personal voice and so I followed a different path, which was to find my way of expressing my own voice with an awareness of the influences. Just as music from all around the world is all human music, it’s all influenced by people of the whole world. When you listen to West African pop music (people like Fela Kuti or Sunny Adé), it’s influenced by Motown and American R&B. So, the influences go both ways. You have Japanese pop music being influenced by Elvis and Bubblegum, then Western Pop music influenced again by Japanese cute and African rhythm. There is no completely isolated culture anywhere. No matter where you go, if you go to some remote native community, they will have a language that they developed by interacting with other remote people next door to them in the rainforest. Lou Harrison said “All music is world music.” Eventually, everybody is still human. What happens is we communicate a language of sound, a language of art and we pick and choose those elements that are meaningful to us. For me it’s a strange mix of West African rhythms, North East African modal language, North Indian and Persian melodic language, gypsy and Eastern European blending of some of those North Indian and Persian elements, some of the cyclic and percussive aspects of Indonesian music. All of these things become a very personal voice and I just end up sounding like Robert Rich (laughs), but with respect!
Do you follow the wide dark ambient scene? Who are your favourite artists from that scene?
(Laughs) I hardly ever listen to ambient music in general; but especially anything that purports to be “dark” is probably not so interesting to me. It’s a funny category because many of the people who are involved in making what people call “dark ambient” are not very dark people. With Lustmord, we’re friends. There is seriousness and a depth to his music but also a great deal of humour. I think what a lot of people miss in Lustmord albums is his sort of B-movie, horror soundtrack element of humour. Some of his liner notes are complete fiction. He made them up just to freak people out. On Heresy, he says that he recorded in abattoirs and in the crypt of Chartres cathedral, it’s a joke! (laughs) For the people who go the Chartres cathedral to look for the crypt, there’s only a basement, that’s all! (laughs) He’s a very mischievous and funny person. When he and his wife were here when we were working on Stalker (they were here for about 10 days) my wife said that it was like being in a Monty Python movie! (laughs) I find probably some of the people who claim to make meditation and light happy music to be darker (or less trustworthy) than the people who make supposedly “dark” music. I have enjoyed more remote contact for years with Mark Spybey (Dead Voices on Air, Zoviet France) with great respect for his work. I stayed friends with Chris and Cosey of Throbbing Gristle back in the day – I used to write letters to them in the 1970s when I was in high school; Cosey always wrote back. They are quite nice people. None of these “dark music” artists are performing satanic rituals with bloody candles and anarchy symbols. (laughs)
I was on a label, Release/Relapse Records, with a bunch of death-metal and experimental noise groups. I was mastering engineer on over a dozen of their releases. I don’t find much of that music very interesting to be honest. I much would rather listen to Indian classical music or to Ornette Coleman. However, I think it’s important to realize that there is beauty in all sorts of experiences, and if you can create something mysterious and deep and create a sense of possibility within the shadows; for certain people it can be a very beautiful experience. I have no patience for the kind of stuff where it’s, you know (devilish scream), this sort of silly satanic images and all this kind of stuff. It’s just dumb and childish. I think that there is a certain amount of obsessive behaviour among people who basically have anger issues, (laughs) mostly teenage men or young men who need that sort of aggression. But I think there is also a fascination with intensity, and you find that there is a common language of ambient music, deep ambient music, and metal (like death metal.) When I am asking the people who listen to really hard heavy music, “what is a bridge for you?” they answer: “intensity”. Certain people are drawn to a kind of intensity in the sound. Once there was one person who had a T-shirt on for a band that was on the Relapse label (a death metal band) at one of my concerts and I asked him: “You are here at my show and my stuff is pretty mellow, I make rather pretty music. What is it for you, the connection that makes you fond of death metal and my music?” He answered: “Well, you can’t bang your head against the wall all day long, sometimes to have to take a rest. When I want to take a rest, I want to do with something that has depth and intensity.” So, he’s attracted to this energy in the music of a certain kind of power and it can be a quiet power but still a kind of shadow, I think.
What it comes down to is simply that if something is merely pretty, it’s boring; but if something is beautiful it can contain a lot of things in it which are not always pretty. Hopefully, in the end, we’re coming back out of that with something nutritious, I mean, if it’s just going into a dark place for the sake of being dark, I think it’s just kind of silly. But I think Stalker is actually a mysterious and beautiful album and I’m very proud of that. I found myself coming out of that with a sense of beauty. I made an album called Zerkalo with Andrey Sadovnikov in St. Petersburg, Russia. We took the title from Andrey Tarkovsky’s movie The Mirror. Many of my listeners haven’t heard about that album because it was released on a pretty obscure Russian label, Andrey’s label. Likewise, that was a dark ambient album but very gentle. Also, a person I really love is Stefano Musso (Alio Die.) In our family of artists, Stefano’s music is some of my very favourite. It is so gentle and so soft, and he is himself a very sweet gentle person. He is like a tracker in the wilderness, such a fascinating person! Some people find his music “dark”. It’s not at all dark to me, it’s very beautiful and mysterious. There is a lot of nutritious music that people think of as dark, but that’s only because they bring something dark to it. With Lustmord I think there are definitely some shadows that he’s dealing with, some very serious vibe going on; but still, it’s like a Rorschach test.
Who are, according to you, the most interesting ambient artists?
Gosh, I don’t know! (laughs) Except when I’m mastering albums (I do a lot of mastering for people) I hear a lot of their work, but I’m not really following most of the scene of the new artists these days. I regret that it sounds so typical of musicians when they stop listening to music, but I still love music, I just don’t listen to a lot of ambient music. I’m more into Indian classical music or jazz. I’ve been finding a world of beauty in Bill Evans over the last 5 years, the jazz pianist who died in 1980. Miles Davis… but not ambient music so much. The surprising thing that I really appreciate, is the British group Elbow, I’m extremely fond of their work. (laughs) It’s not ambient music, it’s just fantastic. I am still a fan of music but not music that fits into simple categories. There’s the American group called The Books that I am really fond of. It’s an interesting duet of two guys that do a lot of sound design, mixing it with a kind of almost-folk music but it’s really hard to describe. It’s humorous, intelligent and very strange, and I love it. I listen to all sorts of music but not so much the kind of music I’m considered as part of.
Like John Cage, you are an amateur of mushrooms. How did this passion start? Does John Cage have an influence on you and your work?
Musically, I am fond of only a few of his pieces, like “In A Landscape”, a beautiful piano piece from the 1930s, it’s almost like Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies, it’s very melodic but very sparse (only 6 notes in the whole piece but beautiful). His book Silence was a big influence on me. A lot of minimalist ambient composers found that approach to John Cage much more interesting than the sort of later Musicircus projects. John Cage did a Musicircus in Stanford, in 1987 I think. I saw him there, the only time I have ever seen him in person. That kind of thing I found to be a bit empty, it was just kind of a process of celebrating sound, which is all fine. I think that the role that he played for freeing up sounds to be part of music, the fact of saying that music is just organized sounds was an extremely important observation to make for avant-garde music. He was not the first person to say that, Russolo was probably the first one. John Cage wasn’t the first person to free music and noise, to allow noise into music. Berlioz was perhaps the first composer to introduce dominant percussion elements into Western classical music. This was all a part of opening up Western music to unpitched sound, which is really a part of secularizing Western music, moving away from the church. In medieval music, the church didn’t allow the tritone, it said it was the intervallus diabolus, Satan’s interval. The Gregorian chant didn’t allow anything beyond a three-limit harmony. From that idea of church-imposed melodic rules to a more secular idea that anything is possible, I think perhaps there is also a tradition of the democratization of the music, perhaps the idea of the romantic 19th century first. Philosophically and historically, it’s all continuum, and I see Cage as a very important part along that continuum.
As far as mycology, I’ve always loved the living world and I have a fondness for identifying birds, wild plants and growing my own food (we have an edible landscape in the backyard). So to me, I was always interested in understanding the wild and natural world. I moved to a remote place for a couple of years on the California coast, near Big Sur, in a town called Cambria. It was a very rainy winter and I noticed some big beautiful mushrooms growing right outside the house that I was renting. I went out to buy a book on wild mushrooms. I got the bug! (laughs) I got the addiction. One thing that I think is the most beautiful awareness is when you begin to collect and identify wild food. Because it can kill you! If you make a mistake, you will die. (laughs) And not only mushrooms, but even herbs. We have in the hills in the Santa Cruz mountains a very common weed, the one that the Greeks used to kill Socrates: hemlock. Hemlock is growing along trails and it looks like carrots or a little bit like dill. If you don’t know what you are doing, you can collect hemlock and die. It’s not even a mushroom. So people forget that mushrooms are not the only wild things that can kill you. But what happens when you go out and start collecting and understanding and identifying natural growing things, it awakens a part of your brain that has been sleeping in a technological world. We use this ability to identify and to categorize every day, all the time. If you look out the window and you see a car passing, you’ll know immediately and intuitively “oh, that’s a Toyota” for example. Because your environment is tuned to that awareness, you see a car and you immediately know what it is. You see a piece of furniture and you know what it’s for. If you are a person growing up in the wilderness and you know the wild food, then it’s the same way. You immediately know that this tree is good medicine, this plant is good to take if you want to have babies, etc. There is medicine in everything around us.
We are part of this environment, so to me, when I began studying wild mushrooms and going out into the forest, the first time I would see a species I had no idea and no confidence to say if it could kill me or if it was edible. I would spend a whole day and I would collect a few specimens that I would look them up and try to find every other species that could be mistaken and could kill me. Then, I would eat one after knowing positively that my identification is correct; I would cook one of them, I would eat it and I would wait 8 hours to see if I would get sick before cooking any more. This is a practise thing. As soon as my body took in this mushroom, and realized that it was good food, that it did not make me sick, I can go out into the forest a year later and immediately identify that mushroom by the corner of my eye underneath a branch or a leaf; somehow, my body knew that mushroom now, because it had become a part of me. I learned to recognize very quickly that we are wired for this. It’s a beautiful recognition of our animal nature and why our brains are so magnificently organized to identify things around us. It woke up a part of me that I think was stagnant in an urban modern world. That, to me, is a magical awareness and a very deep awakening. Back in the 1990s, I wrote a wild mushroom cookbook. It’s still on my website, http://www.flavornotes. It was a passion. I truly love finding the different flavours in these wild things.
Besides musicians, which artists inspire you?
Art is a big inspiration. In film, Andrey Tarkovsky is my biggest inspiration, also Bergman, another great European film-maker. I love films that are slow and spiritual, going to some place powerful. Two of my biggest influences in literature are probably Jorge Luis Borges and also Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude is fantastic — doing in literature what we can do in music, I mean to create a trance and a sense of being lost in a dream, is very difficult. Marquez managed to do that. To me, Borges’ short stories were like a seed, they would grow in my mind and start writing new stories. For each of his short stories (he would explain he was too lazy to write a whole book, so he was basically trying to condense the book into an idea) — each of his short stories becomes a world unto itself. Another very influential book for me was written by a very early British science-fiction writer, Olaf Stapledon. The book’s title is Star Maker (1936). This was a very powerful book for me. It is basically one long out-of-body experience. He explodes out into space and becomes a disembodied consciousness and learns to communicate with other consciousness in space and in time and eventually manages to enlarge his consciousness into a space-time of a galaxy, and asks the big questions: “Why are we here?”, “What is God?”, “What is the meaning of existence/life/death?”. It contains within it the seeds for almost every science-fiction ever written. Each paragraph could be an entire career for some artists, for some writers. I tried to reference Star Maker with the opening piece of Below Zero.
About surrealism, Yves Tanguy is my most influential Surrealist painter. My album Bestiary was an attempt to answer what I consider to be a challenge from André Breton. Breton basically hated music. He often wrote about how music was too logical and it was intrusive upon the creative mind. He once said something like: “Music is the opposite of Surrealism, because it is an abstract art that follows rules, whereas surrealism is a concrete art that breaks rules”. I thought: “What an arrogant bastard, we can show him wrong!” What I tried to do with the album Bestiary, is kind-of creating an Yves Tanguy painting in sound. Each sound was an abstract living organism and almost filled the room with living shapes that had no counterpart in the world that we live in; almost like a music for another species, on another planet. It makes sense with its own rules. Just to show that Breton was wrong, that there could be a Surrealist music. I found that with electronics and with sound design, we can bring Surrealism to sound. I especially like Yves Tanguy because he created a very pure inner landscape. Most of his forms are without meaning; yet, they are beautiful, they have concrete edges and they cast shadows, they are solid and yet they are completely mysterious. This is to me the antithesis of abstract expressionism. If you look at somebody like Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko (one of my favourite), they were doing the opposite of Tanguy: they tried to create something without concrete form that impinged upon the soul in a certain energizing way. Tanguy created a dream landscape of concrete shapes, and they were mysterious. I think that’s a strong analogue to what I try to do with music.
Another big influence in the world of art is modern landscape art and minimalism. James Turrell is a huge influence. I didn’t actually know the existence of James Turrell until the late 1980s. When I saw his work, it struck me as being a kind of music with light. His work is very beautiful. He creates experiences for the viewer: you walk into a room and he projects lights into the room in a way that makes your eyes do very strange things; and he creates a sense of being moved onto another planet almost, taken up into a spaceship, a very strange feeling. It impinges upon you with energy and I found that to be fascinating. Also, some of the Fluxus happenings I found very interesting, and that was a strong influence on the sleep concerts, the ideas that art can be a puzzle without an answer, and art can create community. Also, of course, the conceptual art of Marcel Duchamp, which later was explored well by Yoko Ono; before she became a pop star, she was a Fluxus artist. I think Fluxus definitely grew out of the questions that Marcel Duchamp posed with his art.
I love things that ask questions and don’t have answers. I think that the act of questioning is a muscle that we can exercise with art. A strong idea I feel motivates my art, is that I don’t think of art as filling up a basket full of something and giving it to you: “here is wisdom, here is truth, here is beauty”, it doesn’t work that way. What I think Marcel Duchamp was saying is: art can ask a question, it gets us to work, it gets us to exercise and then we become better at perceiving the wonder and the mystery around us because we are getting better at asking good questions. Don’t worry about the answers, because answers are boring, questions are much more interesting. The metaphor for me is almost like the idea of exercise, like playing a sport. My wife and I lately have been trying to play tennis, we are really bad, we can barely hit the ball! But it gets us to run around and do more things that connect the body to the mind. The point isn’t to get good at tennis, the tennis is causing us to exercise a certain kind of way of thinking or doing, that’s like art for me. It’s not about the container and the stuff I’m putting in it, it’s about you listening to it, going through a certain process of experience which strengthens your sense of beauty in life. That’s why I like the idea of deep listening because it gives instructions. Just because I’m walking downtown to get the post every day doesn’t mean that it matters that I’m going to get my mail, the point is that I’m walking, it gets me out into the world; that’s what art does, it’s not about what’s in it, it’s about you, what gets you to experience the question, the beauty of the mystery. The ideas of performance art and landscape/minimal art point away from the object and point to you, the person looking at the object experiencing your sense of place and time and your existence. That’s miraculous! This is the main point: move away from the object towards the experience and the person experiencing it.
What is your best memory from a concert?
(Laughs) You remember early on when I said I wrote that message of purpose, that I wish the music could point to everything but itself, and so you become aware of the world around you, I think I succeeded with that really well with the sleep concerts early in my career (it was around 1985). I was playing in a place in Berkeley called Shared Visions, which was a sort of seminar room where people could talk about all sorts of strange ideas. I played several sleep concerts there. In the morning, after I was finished, I was exhausted and I was taking my equipment apart and packing up and things. There was a woman who was at the concert. She was about to go home, and a few minutes later she came back in (there were not many people left), and she said: “Is it OK if I just sit here for a while? I went outside but it was too loud, I need to just rest a little bit before I can handle the loudness.” The idea is that the sound I was trying to create during the sleep concerts was so quiet that it would make you listen more and more intensely until you were hearing everything around you, and the contrast between that and the outside world. What she did for the first time in ages, she heard the outside world for what it really was, she saw the imperialism of the human sound, the imperialism of the city: the noises that we create with cars, with all of this machinery… She went outside and she heard it for the first time, and it was too much! (laughs) I felt that when that happened I created something that was a true experience. The sleep concerts were probably my most pure expression of music. Most of my albums, out of necessity, are less pure, they were more of a compromise, they were trying to be music, and my intention at the start was not to make music, but rather to create pure experiences. I end up making a career as a musician, but it wasn’t my original intention. I was much more interested in doing performance art, but it’s hard to make a living doing that! (laughs) Sound installation was my biggest wish. I really appreciate sound installation, making sculpture with sound, a kind of pure abstraction.
What are your artistic projects for the future?
I have several ideas to explore. Actually, when I was talking about trying to do some sound sculpture and sound installations, I keep getting distracted though with music! (laughs) The distractions are a problem, but short term, I’ve just finished the music for a sequel to Somnium, it will be called Perpetual. The album will be on Blu-ray and it will include Somnium as well, because I’ve just almost sold out the DVDs of Somnium. This will be a very high resolution, 24-bit, 8-hour long recording. And right now, we are working on manufacturing it. The first step is to get the artwork and the packaging, it’s coming, maybe in a couple months. Currently, there is a 4-record set (Vinyl LPs) of my earliest music out from Germany. It’s called Premonitions 1980-1985. Most of that music was never released, it is my earliest experiments on cassette recorders, pieces that I did when I was 17 years old, before I released my first album. Some of it is interesting, some of it is primitive. (laughs) After Perpetual, I have one album which is still in the works I started about 2 years ago, called Cosmology, and I started it with some pieces I wrote for concerts. It’s an attempt to express my love for physics and cosmology. It’s a little bit like Electric Ladder, it’s more sequencer-based, more melodic, with analogue synthesizers, a little cosmic. I am also working on another album, a little more like Bestiary, a very surrealist album. I actually have the cover art for that one, it is a painting by Spanish painter Romanie Sanchez, who is a friend of mine. I bought a painting from her recently, to help her to go study in Italy. She is a very good naïve-surrealist modern painter. So, with her permission, this painting is going to be the cover of a sequel to Bestiary, which I think might be called Biota. I’m not sure about that title, that’s a working title. I already have the intention, I just have to come up with the actual music. (laughs) That’s the next two years in advance.
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