Here is the original English text of an interview conducted with Sylvain Mazars, then translated into French for publication on his blog. The French version should appear at this link, opening in a new tab.
What’s your scholar background?
RR: I studied psychology at Stanford University, for an undergraduate degree. While I was there I spent a year at CCRMA, The Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, but I was already creating most of my music with home-made analog synths.
What’s your artistic background? Have you learned music all by yourself?
RR: I sang in choir as a youth, and learned viola for a few months, but mostly self-taught since around 12 years old. My father played jazz guitar, so I grew up around a lot of music.
Can you tell me about your musical tastes? Are there artists that influenced your work?
RR: Many influences, and wide tastes. In the mid-’70s I discovered the European space-music scene, especially attracted to Cluster and Popol Vuh for some reason. Even deeper influences include Terry Riley, Harry Partch, Javanese Gamelan, North Indian classical music; mixed in with improvised jazz like Sun Ra and Chicago Art Ensemble, early industrial like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Wire. A crazy mix, I guess.
I’m also interested in another tradition of electronic music, the so-called “Berlin School”, with the likes of Manuel Göttsching, Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, more focusing on sequencer driven music. Have these artists played a role in your musical development?
RR: Of course they were the most visible in the ’70s, and hard to avoid. Yet I found myself more attracted to the organic sound of other artists. Klaus and TD had such a strong sonic identity that I tried not to quote it. I gravitated more towards Terry Riley’s organ improvisations, like Rainbow in Curved Air or Descending Moonshine Dervishes, a more human way to create cyclic arpeggios.
Aside from the well established anglo-american ambient musicians, you’re aware, at least through your collaboration with Alio Die, of the huge but much more confidential scene in Italy. Are there artists that you follow particularly?
RR: I was good friends with Gigi Gasparetti (Oöphoi) who has now passed away. He supported our music a great deal, creating house concerts in his beautiful home in Umbria. Stefano Musso (Alio Die) remains a close friend, and his music is among my favorite in our scene. It’s so gentle, fragile, very sensitive. Mostly, though, I don’t listen to many other ambient artists: I tend to pay more attention to music that is farther away from my own style.
A lot of musicians reject the notion of musical genres, because they don’t want to be labeled. Although your music can’t be easily labeled as well, you seem to have nothing against music genres. As a matter of fact, on your Soundscape purchase page, there are a lot of sub-genres to discover. Are these meant only for commercial purpose?
RR: That was my wife’s choice, she writes the order page. I am not so fond of the distinctions, but she feels that it helps people to understand the wide range of my output. She’s probably right, so I let it stay.
Sometimes I’d stamp you an “electronic musician”. But acoustic intruments mean obviously a great deal to you. And still, while listening to your music, it is difficult to tell electronics apart from acoustic instruments. Is there such thing as a right balance?
RR: Yes, I strive for this balance, but I don’t know how to put it into words. I like the feeling of emotional expression and air that surrounds organic instruments. I find that the music can feel a bit claustrophobic when only synthesizers are involved. Yet I try to glue the organic and electronic elements together by keeping the electronic sounds as organic as I can, and processing the electro-acoustic sources so they become slightly abstracted. It feels that they meet in the middle somehow, in a Surreal landscape.
Does inspiration come from the landscapes of Northern California or more prosaically from your improvising on instruments?
RR: Inspiration comes from many sources. It’s true that a sense of place is very important. I love to feel the mystery of a special location, and best of all when I can feel the magic in the mundane places that I see every day. I live in a part of the world that would be quite beautiful, and once was beautiful, but for a quickly growing population and pressure from a booming hi-tech economy. A sense of disappearing landscape affects me strongly, and my love for nature and wild places deeply influences my music; also, the inner realms of the unconscious, dreams, myths, the extent to which we can journey inside our world-building minds; the ancient role of music as a shamanic messenger. The actual mechanical part of making music is a necessary tool for translation, and without those physical limitations of expression, the sound would only exist in the abstract. But first, the music needs to spring up out of a deep well, which helps guide the sounds I discover when I play an instrument. Still, I am not a virtuoso on any instrument.
A great amount of your tracks lie on unrythmed/unpitched drone pieces, or on glissando effects. How do you manage such sounds? Can you tell me more about your lap steel guitar techniques?
RR: I tend to move between rhythmic and non-rhythmic music. Even when some music does not have a “beat” it still has a sort of inner pulse, a natural pace like breathing. In this sense, everything has a rhythm. I try to shift the sense of time in a listener so that the natural rhythm of the music feels correct, and the perception of time itself can stretch or shrink. Regarding lap steel guitar and other glissando instruments, I enjoy lead sounds that resemble the human voice, and I like the way certain instruments express gestures of sound, not simple note events. Lap steel is a great instrument for vocal-quality solos, and it can also get very expressive and distorted, with feedback and overtones adding a sense of tension. I like to play it with techniques that allow infinite sustain, with magnetic feedback devices or bowing with a piece of steel. It sounds less like a guitar, more mysterious.
What’s the secret of your slowly evolving textures?
RR: No secret, just a certain sensibility. I do not use synthesizer presets, I design all my own sounds. I don’t think in terms of note “events” but in terms of textures and gestures. I use a lot of delay processing to hide the edges of the sounds. I use loopers to freeze sounds in layers, which I can then sample and play as if with an orchestra of loops. None of this is new or unique.
Where comes your ability to design and build your own gear from? What kind of instruments have you built yet?
RR: I have built things for as long as I can remember. I just enjoy making things with my hands. Maybe it started as financial pragmatism, because I could not afford expensive synthesizers as a teenager, I began with cheap electronic kits and built them with the little money I saved from working small jobs. My father taught me electronics, my grandfather taught me how to make simple practical objects with basic materials. When I realized that PVC pipe could make good sounding flutes, I started making a new flute for each tuning. Percussion instruments are natural, with bamboo, plastic, door-keys, rocks. Since the earliest human cultures we have made instruments from the objects around us. It gives my music a personal language, something natural, comfortable, almost hermetic. I still have hopes to build more sculptural instruments, things that could stay for years in an installation, making sound automatically. I have not yet found good ways to finish those ideas.
Are you always discovering new instruments?
RR: Sometimes, not always. I do also get stuck in habits like anyone. I enjoy breaking my habits, though. Usually I need to hear a sound in my head first, before I go out trying to build something to make that sound. It depends on my mood, I suppose. In the end, the music matters most, and an instrument might only serve the purpose of one composition, or to make just a few samples; then it sits in parts for years in a corner gathering dust.
You were involved in a lot of collaborations. What’s the difference between, say, your collaborations with Ian Boddy, Steve Roach, Alio Die and Lustmord? Do you meet and jam, do you work remotely?
RR: I always prefer to work with collaborators in person. These are all friends of mine, and the human interaction feeds the music. Those of us making electronic/ambient music tend to spend too much time in isolation. Collaborations like these offer an important antidote to that isolation. One exception to this rule is the album “Zerkalo” with Faryus (Andrey Sadovnikov.) He is in St. Petersburg, Russia, so travel would have been more difficult. Even then I wish that we could have worked together in person, although I enjoyed the music that resulted from this distant collaboration. Clearly, the difference between each collaboration comes down to the individual collaborators, our mutual personalities, the time in the world and in our lives when we work together. With Steve Roach, together we felt like we discovered a new language, and new way to merge the ancient with the future. Our work together set ourselves and many other people on new trajectories. Likewise, with Lustmord on Stalker I think Brian Williams and I found ourselves mapping out a new visual language with sound. Fissures with Alio Die was a time of healing and reconciliation for me, internally, and Stefano’s warmth and gentle spirituality helped bring us together for an album that sounds pure and truthful to me even now, 18 years later. My three albums with Ian Boddy each map an important meeting of our vocabularies. “Outpost” came together just after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, and the high tension of the time fed an intensity that keeps that album on edge; then in 2005 we created “Lithosphere” in the months immediately after I had a very bad wrist injury, also adding another vivid quality (I had several surgeries in those months, and played all my parts left handed on that album.) Such stories add to the layers underneath the music. “Eleven Questions” with Markus Reuter has yet more stories to tell, as I loved responding to Markus’ intellectual curiosity with a series of Surrealist puzzles for us both to unravel. Each collaboration is unique.
You resumed once again your Sleep Concert experiences last year in Krakow, Poland. What are sleep concerts, where does the idea come from?
RR: That’s a really big topic that I have covered several times recently, so perhaps I’ll send people to this link so they can read more about it: https://robertrich.com/discography/album/?album_id=24. In short, I was trying to find a way to change people’s expectations about how to listen to music, and encouraging them to bring a sleeping bag and listen all night seemed to be the best way to invite longer durations and shift consciousness to something different. Influences came from many places, including practices in other cultures (Wayang puppet plays in Java, Navaho healing rituals, Indian overnight ragas) and also ideas from the avant guard such as Fluxus happenings, and some of John Cage’s work. It seemed like a natural evolution.
In terms of techniques and purposes, what’s the difference between such pieces of music and your much shorter tracks? How do you produce such music? Is there a lot or preproduction and/or improvisation?
RR: I spend months in advance – years in fact – collecting sound sources from nature, and creating elongated evolving sound clouds. These elements then come together in a combination of careful planning and improvisation. I map the night out in terms of energy flow, 90 minute REM cycles, tonal centers, light and dark; then I weave slow-motion performances in between the evolving layers.
To me, some of your albums make great sense at a very low volume. Is this what you’d call ambient? What is ambient music?
RR: Personally I prefer to define the term “Ambient” in the way that Eno explicitly intended it: as background music. Therefor I don’t consider most of my music to be “ambient” because I aim for it to be more psychoactive. Some of my music might work better in the background than others, but most of it is a bit intense or invasive. I prefer Pauline Oliveros’ term “Deep Listening” because it offers some suggestion to listener about the best way to experience the energy of the sound. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.
While playing live, do you pay attention to the audience? How do they react?
RR: In fact I am hyper-aware of the audience and I am trying the best I can to create a bridge between us with sound. As an artist, I want to find a way to break down the perceptions and illusions that separate us from each other and from the flow that surrounds us. Performance gives a rare opportunity to explore that shamanic role that music can have, to become a vehicle to journey someplace together. Alas, it is still difficult to bridge the distances, and I can only interpret how people feel about the music from their external expressions. Deep down, this is a very personal music, and each person reacts in their own way to it. If only I could read the audience as easily as a dance DJ, who knows they are succeeding when everyone jumps up and down, screams and waves their hands in the air.
I red once your sleep music should of course go with a sleepy audience. But did you notice it also can help increase focus while thinking or working? Which means exactly the opposite of an inattentive behaviour.
RR: Exactly. People often mistake the intention of this music to be soporific, but that is not my intent. I want the music to invite the listener into a multidimensional inner world, to allow an activated imagination. It is truly about Attention, not Inattention. That’s why I like the term “Deep Listening.”
You’re a professional musician, aren’t you? How long have you been such? Are albums and concerts a sufficient way to make a living? What are your other activities in this same universe?
RR: Well, I released my first album when I was 18 years old, in early 1982, and I started making a full time income from music by about 1991; but I never had illusions that this was commercial music, and I always expected I would have to augment my income with other sources. Luckily I developed skills as a mastering engineer, and also creating new sounds for synthesizer manufacturers, for film and television, and for sampling libraries. Now, I teach a college course in audio mastering every year. I work in many different areas of sound technology, and I don’t have one simple source of income. It trickles in from many of the things I do, and I can survive somewhat well from the catalog of 3-dozen or more albums released over the years.
As a mixing engineer: isn’t mixing engineering a trade on its own? Have you learned this as well? How do you train your ears?
RR: To be honest I am probably better as a mastering engineer than mixing. I am good at mixing my own music, and I do mix jobs for other people perhaps about once a year. I would not be the best choice to mix a pop album, I’m sure. For mastering, though, that’s just something that I had a natural inclination towards. I have been mastering other people’s music in many styles for almost 20 years now. I invested in a very good pair of speakers (Duntech Sovereigns) about 1999, and these have been my most powerful tool, along with careful training of my ears and becoming intimate with the sound of the room where I work. This just involves a lot of attention to detail, a sensory memory, and an ability to combine aesthetic sensibilities with a technical frame of reference.
How far is it more convenient to you to manage your own Soundscape label?
RR: It suits me well, to put my own music out. I started this way over 30 years ago, and I noticed back then how difficult it was to get people to notice my albums. Then, with some interest from small labels in Europe, and better yet with Hearts of Space here in California, I saw that I could get a bit more attention. By the early 2000 decade, the business of alternative, independent music started to crumble. I was ready for this with experience from my beginnings. I don’t mind communicating to a small group of listeners. This is how many of the artists that influenced me also survived. Music like this does not come from a desire to get famous, it is a personal statement. So, a personal release makes sense.
What’s the process? Do you release CDs on an on-demand basis?
RR: No, I do it the old way. I work on something until it is ready, then I develop a physical package with my favorite artists (often with John Bergin), then I make 1000 CDs and release it digitally at the same time. I decide what I want to release, simple as that. I am not fond of this new “Kickstarter” approach, begging for money before the music is done.
From time to time, you release material on other labels, like recently “Morphology”, on Anodize. Why is that, and what is Anodize?
RR: Anodize is simply the small label of Darren Bergstein, who published i/e magazine and hosted the series of house concerts “One Thousand Pulses.” We recorded my concert at his house and I edited it, mastered it and allowed him to release it. He made 300 copies and I already sold 90 on my website. When his copies are gone I will simply sell additional downloads through my label. It’s a friendly relationship.
In which ways do you make use of the internet nowadays as a musician?
RR: Well, I think the internet is ubiquitous now. I try to make use of every tool that comes around. I reserved web domains and began building my websites back in 1996 before most people heard of the internet. For me, it is just another tool. I look at new technologies and try to find the ones that make sense to me. Many of the directions of social networks and mobile devices are not interesting to me, but I will use the parts that help me. They are just products, tools, sometimes only distractions or ways to sell advertisements. I remain neutral but ready to use what helps me communicate.
What’s your opinion on downloads vs CDs?
RR: I am happy to sell downloads to people who prefer them, but I still enjoy creating a package with physical artwork and full credits in the liner notes. The music matters more than the carrier, though. Mostly I worry that people have so much information in front of them all the time, that they don’t pay attention to anything longer than a few minutes. My music works best over long periods of time with closer attention, so I don’t think the high saturation of information helps what I am trying to do. This is a natural challenge in the current atmosphere, though. In fact my music exists, in part, to counteract this force of noise.
Piracy has been a big issue in music business over the past decade. Is it still one nowadays? Are your albums suffering piracy?
RR: Yes, of course. I assume that at least 10:1 people listen to bootlegs. I cannot feel too angry, though. I was a broke music-loving teenager, and I made cassette copies of my friends’ records back in the ’70s. I understand the mentality. It’s just that the internet makes this into a global situation, not just among friends. Everything is free for those who look hard enough. The problem now, is that artists have to play a game of “love me, please” with their listeners, trying to beg for the rare purchase to survive. Pundits tell us we need to go on tour constantly to perform, or post blog comments all the time, like a popularity contest to seduce the people who copy our music, trying to sell the myth of personality; but how does that work with something as introverted as this slow electronic music? It doesn’t work, and it is difficult to get young people to go hear live music instead of staying at home playing their fully immersive computer games. Perhaps we are merely obsolete, and this is a project for old people. That’s OK, there is a time for everything.
Are beautiful digipacks (like the latest “Morphology”) and the giving of free music once in a while (like “Frozen Day”) an answer to the “all free” mysticism going around on the internet?
RR: No, just moving forward, with few viable alternatives.
Speaking of cover sleeves, it seems you pay great attention to match your music with beautiful and attractive artwork, especially while rereleasing some older material. Why is that important? Can you introduce some of the artists?
RR: Absolutely. I love the marriage of visual and audio art. I think the visual package is important for instrumental music, as there are no lyrics to tell the story, and because images can suggest a context for approaching the music, a path to interpret the experience. Appropriate artwork can suggest the my intentions non-verbally, and can enrich the listener’s expectations. For my own label releases, I often use John Bergin for the design and art. He always surprises me with interpretations that I would not have thought about. His covers for Bestiary and Nest are two of my favorites, along with the recent cover for Meridiem’s A Scattering Time. The photography by my friend Brad Cole has added magic to many of my covers: Stalker, Humidity, Somnium, Temple of the Invisible, Electric Ladder, Eleven Questions for example. He is one of my favorite living photographers, and I feel very lucky to have our work connected in this way. The recently reissued “Trances & Drones” and “Sunytata & Inner Landscapes” were designed by Mike Griffin of Hypnos, and these packages include the various graphic elements that past versions have used: some of my own art along with the original marbling by Turkish artist Hikmet Barut, and calligraphy (a verse from the Koran) which has accompanied Trances & Drones since the original CD release in 1992.
I read on your website that it’s still killing you to have been compelled to partially compress the music on your “Somnium” DVD. Can you explain why it is so important?
RR: I am an audiophile and I love the rich complex texture of sound, the sensuality of sound touching my skin, engulfing me. When my careful work gets harmed by a flaw in the medium, or in translation, it feels like an irritant, a splinter under my fingernail. I plan to remedy this problem in the next year or so. I am working on a new sequel to Somnium (I think it will be called Continuum) and I want to put it out on Blu-ray and include a full resolution version of Somnium along with it. The Somnium DVD will be sold out this year, so this would be the right plan of action, I think.
Any plans of another (sleep) concert in Europe this year?
RR: Alas, not at this time. Someone needs to invite me, with sufficient funding to make it worthwhile.
Your released “Morphology” in 2013. What is this CD made of, what can the listener expect?
RR: This is from a live concert in 2010. It was a house concert with about 30 people in the audience. It is typical of my more active concerts, with live versions of some of my recorded pieces, mixed in with improvisations. This is a good example of my performances, better than usual I think, and it has a rare version of “Other Side of Twilight” from Numena, which I played entirely with live electronics, which is a bit challenging.
Though, your latest studio albums must be “Nest”, from 2012. When should we expect the next one?
RR: I am working on a new studio album, tentatively titled “Cosmology.” Hopefully it will come out later this year. I keep getting delayed because of film work and sound design jobs. I am also working on that sequel to “Somnium” which might take a bit longer.
You were involved in a Meridiem album called “A Scattering Time”, which has just been released. What was your part in it?… and can you tell me more about Percy Howard?
RR: I play on about half the album, co-produced, engineered, mixed, and mastered the album. Still, it’s Percy’s project. My job was to help make his vision become real. Percy is a long-time friend and an incredible singer, with a big big voice. His taste for music runs to the experimental improvisational fringe, and he has attracted some brilliant musicians who want to play with him, including Fred Frith, Bill Laswell, Charles Hayward (from This Heat), Trey Gunn (King Crimson), Vernon Reid (Living Color), Jarboe (Swans) – some heavy players. This project was planned to come out on a progressive label in 2002, but that label went under. Another label came forward to release it, but slowly started running out of money, delaying their release schedule until the whole thing fell apart. The album became a victim of the death of independent record labels. I really like this album, I respect it, and I finally got tired of waiting for other people and just released it myself. I am expecting to lose money. I think of it as art patronage. I hope people discover the release – it is seriously cool and has a way of getting under your skin.
Aside from your mammoth DVD “Somnium”, you released your “Live Archive” in 2009, a set consisting of 7 concerts from 1989-2008 all in once. Why such a choice? Do you still have unreleased archives?
RR: I still have many recordings of various live concerts, but I thought the ones in “Live Archive” were the best, and most original. They each contain music that doesn’t appear anywhere else, and I wanted to find a way to make them available to people. My favorites among those are the concerts that were completely improvised and very textural, like “Lumin” and “Mycosphere.” I think those stand out as fully self-contained pieces of music.
Are you planning other collaborations in the future? Whom with would it be?
RR: Well, we’ll see. There is one collaboration in particular, with a dear friend. We have worked together before. I don’t want to jinx the idea by saying too much, but we have talked about doing something again, after more than 20 years. If it happens, I am sure you will hear about it. I can’t say anything more, though.
All the best – Robert
Thanks a lot!