ROBERT RICH Interview with Raffaele Pezzella (Unexplained Sounds Group network). For the upcoming book “In Darkness Is Light. History Of Dark Ambient Music”. Posted 24 May 2021
Q1: You started your music career in 1982. How has ambient music changed over almost 40 years?
RR: Two answers. My first answer is a bit of an un-answer: I try not to bother with words that categorize music. Your question has more to do with the term “ambient” than with what music really is: the individual personalized sonic expressions of many different artists. Remember, of course that the term “ambient music” was coined by Brian Eno to describe music that he thought could function equally well in the background or foreground of our attention. Many of us don’t think of our music as background music at all, but rather in more psychoactive terms: music that can change your consciousness, and although it might move slowly it might be difficult to ignore. I realize that we need to find words to talk about music, but sometimes it feels like naming clouds. We might watch a cumulus cloud in the sky and say “that looks like a horse,” then we start calling clouds “horses”; but in ten minutes it changes to a cat, then a lizard, and then it disappears entirely. We are just projecting our patterns and symbols onto a collection of water droplets. If artists themselves are too obsessed with the categories that other people use to draw lines around their creations, then those artists will have a harder time finding their personal voice. They are more likely to paint inside the lines, and fail to innovate. When we go deep inside our private cave of mind, we can discover a wellspring that nourishes our creativity. We aren’t likely to find that hidden place when we are only looking on the surface, at categories or social groupings, worrying about the words that other people use.
Answer number two: When I was starting out in the late ‘70s, there was no place to perform the music I wanted to make, there was no scene for it anywhere. I arrived ten years too late for the psychedelic scene in San Francisco, far away in place and time from the German spacemusic pioneers. The punk and industrial scenes were exciting but I didn’t share their degree of anger and angst. I was still a teenager in the late ‘70s, and everything felt far away or yesterday. Ten or twelve years later, slightly younger people started putting on raves and using drum machines with repetitive synths and lots of drugs; but that seemed like something closer to disco in my introverted mindset. I wasn’t making party music, quite the opposite actually. The techno crowd started using “ambient” to describe the music in the chill rooms at their parties, and later I learned that they included my music (like “Other Side of Twilight” from Numena) because somehow I escaped the perception of being “new age.” When I heard other music they were using in the chill rooms, I liked some of it, like Orb or Jonah Sharp for example. By that time in the early ‘90s, I was starting to feel old, although I was barely 30. Perhaps my tastes were old. I wanted to hear music that sounded less repetitive, more organic. I went different ways from the popular dance-oriented electronic music, and stayed on the fringes. A little cohort group started to form – Steve Roach, Jeff Greinke, Alio Die, Oophoi, Paul Schutze, Jorge Reyes, Vidna Obmana, Kenneth Newby and many others. Slowly over the years, we discover people who share an independent spirit, even if we never meet them. I never met Geer Jensen (Biosphere) for example, but I feel a certain kinship because he has a solitary streak. I never met the guys from Matmos, but I empathize with their music; likewise, with so many other artists making beautiful and fascinating new sounds. But I don’t try to sound like them, and I suspect most people don’t want to sound like me. I can’t imagine these artists sounding like anything but themselves. I respect artists who seem like they are cutting their own road through the forest. I don’t know what to call their music, only whether it interests me. My own music shifts from project to project, within the boundaries of what I have to say and what I can teach myself. I don’t know what to call my own music either.
Q2: It seems that in the latest decade much of the ambient music became darker than before. Do you think that depends on a general state of mind induced by the contemporary world situation, or on an independent aesthetic matter?
RR: We have plenty to worry about these days: climate change, bigotry and fascism, overpopulation, corporate control of governments, global pandemic, extinction and deforestation. I’m sure these concerns permeate the visions of anyone sensitive enough to notice. But then, we always have plenty to worry about in any era. Artists have explored the dark recesses of imagination for centuries, even millennia. In the late ‘70s as a teenager I felt a strong attraction to groups like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, This Heat, Tangerine Dream’s early albums like “Zeit”. In the mid ‘70s I found a strange album in the cut-out bins “Wind Harp, Song From The Hill.” I thought that album was beautiful, like the sound inside my head; but others considered it “dark” and it even got used in the score for The Exorcist. The fact that I thought it sounded beautiful tells me that I heard sounds differently from most people. It didn’t sound dark to me, even at age 12 or so, when I found it. Artists need to internalize both shadows and light, and some artists find their best voice in cautionary work, or more somber and brooding tonality. It’s part of a balanced diet. If “dark ambient” music is getting more common, perhaps it’s because more people are recording and releasing independent music than ever before, usually in home studios, and so we start to see a more natural cross-section of independent expression that isn’t driven by commerce. Record labels are more likely to release music that they think will sell (happy), and home recordists perhaps are more likely to make music from deep in their experience, whether or not it sells.
Q3: You’re the musician behind the legendary “sleep concerts”. Currently many people listen to dark ambient music as a mean for sleeping and meditating. Do you find a connection, in terms of concept, between those concerts and some of the dark ambient music productions nowadays?
RR: I never thought of my sleep music as “dark” but mostly deep, quiet, mysterious, a place to explore inside your head. An artist’s intention for their art does not always translate into the way an audience interprets it. I never imagined sleep concerts as a means to sleep better, but as a social ritual to explore states of consciousness and our concepts of environment, community, privacy. The long-form albums like Somnium and Perpetual, which grew out of the sleep concerts, represent my attempts to bring that thread of internal exploration home to people who could not experience the social ritual aspects of the sleep concerts. The context of sleeping grew out of a search for methods to get people to stay in one place for hours at a time, listening deeply without expectation of being “entertained”, and I try to suggest to listeners within that context, that they could use this music as a thread to navigate the caverns of imagination and naturally altered states of consciousness (in dreams.)
Q4: Many musicians involved in dark electronic music, consider your work a point of reference. What’s your thought about that?
RR: I feel honored to have made anything that others might consider as a point of reference. I still don’t consider much of my music to be particularly “dark” but perhaps it allows a wide enough interpretation that people can project themselves into it. It’s true, sometimes the music enters a realm of complex interpretation. An album like “Stalker” is dealing with a journey through mysterious landscapes, as did the film by Tarkovsky; yet like in the film, those landscapes reflect back into the imagination of the explorer and can act like a mirror or a Rorschach ink blot. It exposes the hearts of those who enter. Likewise, my more abstract solo albums like “Troubled Resting Place” or “Below Zero” explore areas of my own sense of awe at our smallness in a vast Universe. For me these are spiritual expressions, not at all “dark.” My more recent album “Vestiges” tackles questions of mortality and frailty, as I was helping my parents in the last years of their lives, after my mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The closing piece “Anchorless on Quiet Tide” directly references the feelings of an aging mind gently unraveling. If I want to address the full range of the experience of being alive, then I must recognize the poignant beauty of mortality.
Q5: Probably one of your darker music productions was “Humidity”, a collection of three live concerts from late 90’s. What was your state of mind to get a so trance-inducing effect in those live performances?
RR: I think of live performance as a place to explore the pure energetic components of music and sound, to explore music as a form of magic. I usually have elements of improvisation in all of my concerts, but sometimes I return to an approach of pure improvisation, in order to reconnect to the core of ritual that can inform this music and give it power. In fortuitous settings, all the elements click together and the music becomes a living breathing entity, larger than the person making it happen. For me, those moments occur when I enter a state of flow, perhaps a bit like a surfer on a wave, beginning with intention and a push into the current but then letting the momentum pull me into a fluid motion. With sufficient preparation, we just allow the sound to take over and we lose ourselves into a shared moment, this exchange of energy among people in the room. Sometimes a recording results from this exchange, which conveys some elements of that energy.
Q6: The album “Stalker” you made in collaboration with B. Lustmord, is considered one of the most famous and influential in the realm of dark ambient music. How was it to collaborate with Brian and what’s the main difference, in your specific case, about composing music alone or in collaboration with other musicians?
RR: I know that Brian prefers a certain amount of mystery, so I won’t go into detail about our collaboration except to say that it was a real pleasure. We met after Brian read an interview with me in a magazine, in the early ‘90s, where the interviewer asked what sort of music I had been listening to lately. I mentioned that I liked some of the recent albums by Lustmord, Zoviet France and Hafler Trio. Brian got my phone number from the magazine editor, called me up and introduced himself, expressing surprise that I liked his music and admitting that he also liked mine. We thought a collaboration would be interesting and perhaps surprising. We worked together in two separate week-long sessions, about 8 months apart. Much of the album took shape in outline form during the first week, then we took some time separately to develop ideas, to put flesh on the bones. The concept of a journey through a mysterious place took shape early in the development, and then paying tribute to Tarkovsky’s film seemed like the best way to solidify that idea.
For the second part of your question, the differences between working alone and collaborating come from the particular blend of personalities. We become a third person. We each set aside a portion of ourselves and our vocabulary – certain approaches work and others don’t work. We try to emphasize and complement the parts of the other that we find most interesting, and we try to set aside ego and place the collaboration first. Collaboration is a bit like a marriage, and the album that results is a bit like a child. That child has a life of its own after the collaboration is through, but we need to stay accountable for the results. For these reasons I prefer to collaborate only with people I consider as friends, whom I trust. I am happy to say that I still consider all of my past collaborators as trusted friends. For me this trust and friendship is a prerequisite for collaborating, and it’s my main factor in deciding with whom to collaborate.
Q7: In your latest album “Neurogenesis” music is almost completely based on modular and digital synthesizers. Is that a direction you’ll continue to explore, or will the acoustic instruments return more consistently in your music?
RR: I select the instruments that I use based on the sounds and qualities I want to achieve. I am never a purist. In fact there are several acoustic instruments on Neurogenesis – flutes, acoustic Weissenborn guitar, lap steel guitar, percussion. The tools don’t matter. I like to return to that shimmering patterned sound occasionally, and I consider Neurogenesis as part of a family of my albums that includes Geometry, Electric Ladder and Filaments. It’s a vocabulary that I like to explore sometimes.
Q8: I read you worked as sound designer for some movie soundtracks, including the sci-fi / horror movie “Pitch Black”. Is the sci-fi / fantastic cinema a source of inspiration for your music?
RR: I don’t seek out a lot of film sound work, but sometimes I help friends when they can use the sort of things I do. Paul Haslinger has approached me for several of his projects, and on Pitch Black he was assisting Graeme Revell. Brian WIlliams was also assisting Graeme at that time, and they thought my flute playing could work as a reference for some of the night scenes. I really don’t like horror films, but I have made some sounds for a few others (“Dead Girl” comes to mind, a movie for which I made sounds without ever seeing.) I rarely watch movies, and most Hollywood films don’t interest me, so I would say in general I am not so inspired by cinema except by certain filmmakers I feel connected to (like Tarkovsky for example.) I have always enjoyed good science fiction literature, but only a few films, those rare cases like 2001, Stalker, Solaris, Blade Runner, more recently perhaps Interstellar or Arrival. I have rather specific tastes.
Q9: The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said about music: “Music … stands quite apart from all the other arts. In it we do not recognize the copy, the repetition, of any Idea of the inner nature of the world. The effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts”. Do you agree with that? And how is music in relation with other forms of art in your case?
RR: Every medium has its strengths and weaknesses. Poetry conveys different experiences than prose. Material arts such as painting or sculpture have the advantage of immediacy and physicality, a viewer can experience them as a sudden gestalt. Multimedia temporal arts like theater or dance tell stories differently than their cousin film, which shares its immateriality with music. The immateriality of music gives it a specific range of expressions that must unfold over time in order to express anything. When an artform unfolds through time, it affects us differently than when we can perceive it as an entirety in one glance. All of these media have valid places in our culture, and to prioritize any of them over the others ignores their various strengths.
Q10: If you should compare the dark ambient music to a kind of food, which one you would think about?
RR: It’s a cute question. Let’s say it’s like wild mushrooms. It grows naturally from the forest of our imaginations, it can be earthy and delicious, or bitter and toxic. You just have to know what you are looking for.