Interview with Robert Rich for Zillo magazine (Germany)
with Ruediger Freund, 9/98
1. How do you begin the recording of a new track? Do you start with creating different sounds and combine them or do you already have in mind how it should sound like and work according to these ideas?
I might use either of these approaches, or even a combination of the two. Usually an album project starts with general ideas of mood and texture – an image in my head, a mental landscape, with ideas about the balance between heavy and light, fast and slow, organic and electronic. Each new piece then will fit somehow into this general feeling. Sometimes a piece is born fully formed from my imagination, then I struggle to approximate the mental image with sound. Other times, I will experiment with new sound-making methods, and new ideas will spring from these experiments. I then slowly shape those ideas into a piece that fits into the context of the other music. Sometimes, the basic form of a piece starts as a full idea, but the details come from experiments.
The two recent albums, Below Zero and Seven Veils, provide examples of both of these approaches. The pieces on Seven Veils generally started with pure experimentaion. I might record several minutes of strange noises with an acoustic source, like waterphone or a loose guitar string. Then I experiment with processing this sound with some computer software, maybe with granular synthesis or time-smearing, filtering or other techniques to make the sound unrecognizable. The I work to layer the sound with other performance to create a mood that is consistent with the composition.
On the other hand, some of the pieces on Seven Veils are carefully planned out, with complex microtonal pitch relationships and rhythmic cycles. A piece like “Lapis” has a 15 beat rhythm and a tuning system that required me to build two new flutes to perform. (Actually, I built custom flutes to play many of the pieces on the album.) The cello parts that Hans Christian plays on Lapis were originally written for synthesizer, and I was very impressed that he did such a good job with the tuning system. As you can see, in comparison to an album like Below Zero, the songs on Seven Veils involve much more compositional planning, in a more traditional sense.
2. Do you prefer using natural/sampled sounds or does it make no difference for you whether the sources are synthetic or natural?
It makes no difference, as long as the sounds fit the mood. Often I find that a performance on an acoustic instrument might carry more emotion (and I include electro-acoustic instruments like electric guitar when I say ‘acoustic’), so I often gravitate to the acoustic sources when I want an expressive focal-point. I find electronics work well for texture and surreal details, but often the boundary between electronic and acoustic is very blurry. I really don’t make any sharp distinctions between the two, and I don’t make any value judgements about what is better. They are all just tools, colors in a paint-box. I see no need to limit myself to any one shade of color. In reality, in a studio environment, everything becomes an electronic sound as soon as it gets recorded. Even folk music or classical music becomes electronic music by the time it plays from somebody’s stereo system.
3. You are in the music business for a long time but I heard that you also work as a sound designer for synthesizer-companies and that you do a lot of production work. Please tell us something about these jobs. Would it be possible today to earn your living only with ambient music?
Beyond recording my own music, my activities basically fall into three categories. Increasingly I have been mastering CDs for other artists and labels. I seem to have developed a set of skills that allows me to do a good mastering job on certain types of projects. Secondly, I have been creating samples and synth presets for CD libraries and manufacturers. This grew out of the fact that I always develop my own sounds on my own projects (I have a pretty big collection of unusual instruments, and I have devoloped some unique methods for mangling acoustic sounds.) Thirdly, I have been doing an occasional song remix or recording / mixing session, mostly just for friends or people whose music I relate to. I have my own studio, so I can decide which projects I feel like working on.
As I see it, all of these activities simply flow from my love of music. I enjoy working on other people’s projects for the same reason that I like working on my own music, because I enjoy the process of creating music and I like to make things sound as good as possible. These side-projects bring me new challenges and variety of experience with other people’s music. That’s a good thing! Certainly, the extra money helps me live more comfortably. If I lived only from my recordings, I could probably survive, but at a very minimal level. Nobody creates this sort of music with hopes of getting rich. I consider myself lucky just to have an audience at all. Since I simply make the kind of albums that I want to listen to, it pleases me that there are a few people out there with tastes as eclectic and odd as my own. I doubt that I could survive by my album royalties and live appearances alone, but I consider all these other activities to be an outgrowth of my recording carreer. Money is just one of those necessities that help us live, and I have to charge for my skills if people want me to stay active.
4. You are well known for your sleep concerts. What was the initial idea behind these performances? How did such a performance look/sound like? Have they had the kind of effect on the audience that you originally intended? What kind of feedback did you get after these concerts from the people who attended?
At the time when I started to perform Sleep Concerts, I felt deeply influenced by the work of composers such as Annea Lockwood, Marianne Amocher, or Bill Fontana. These and others were developing an approach to avante garde composition that used the sound of our surroundings. They wanted to create experiences that deepened people’s awareness of the environment. R. Murray Schaeffer had written a book called Soundscapes, which stated many of these goals quite eloquently. Pauline Oliveros coined the phrase “Deep Listening” which accurately reflects the fact that this compositional approach requests a more active participation from the audience, and seeks to enhance the listener’s perceptions.
I had begun my own musical experimentations with a homebuilt modular synthesizer, which I attempted to patch in such a way that it would create slow textural random sounds, evolving over hours without my intervention. I used to let these sounds play for days, turning my bedroom with otherworldly electronic environment. I liked the way these sound environments insinuated themselves into my sleep, and I like the feeling of waking up partially in the middle of the night and slowly becoming aware of these quiet noises shifting softly right at the edge of my awareness (I kept the volumes very low.)
It occurred to me that I could invite other people to listen to music in this new slow way, to somehow change their expetations of the role of sound by inviting them to sleep while I play live throughout the night, controlling these slow shifting textures as they sleep. I wanted to invent a new form of ritual, a communal trance environment shaped by this particular sort of nonlinear perceptual awareness.
I invited people to come with pillow and sleeping bags. The concerts typically started around 10:00 or 11:00 PM and continued without a break until 8:00 AM the next morning. I set speakers up around the audience in a circle, with the volume set very low, almost inaudible. I began with slow cyclic melodic improvisations, which played for about an hour before slowly falling away into cloudy atonal drones and natural sounds. I hoped that as people woke up during the night they might feel relocated to new environments, so that the walls of the room acoustically vanish, replaced by the shifting sound worlds coming from the speakers.
The effects of these concerts differed for each person in the audience. The people who put the most effort into the experinece probably got more out of them. I encouraged people to explore their consciousness, to pay attention to their dreams and hypnogogic imagery. Those who treated the experience as an oportunity to highten their inward attention got more out of the experience than those who expected the music itself to provide a focal point. While some listeners may have been dissapointed with the slow static nature of the music, many more seemed to enjoy the oportunity to experience something completely new, and some felt deeply affected by calm intensity of the experience.
I remember one concert in Berkeley. A woman left to go home in the morning, after the concert ended. She returned a few minutes later, after stepping outside, and said that the street noises had become too loud for her. She had to wait a while before she could go outside again. By listening so closely in the quiet environment of the concert, she had become so sensitized to sound that she suddenly realized how harsh the cars outside sounded, how noisy our world had become. I felt that was a successful result.
5. Often concerts of industrial/ambient acts seem to be quite boring with one or two people standing motionless behind their machines. I understand that you rather like to improvise on your normal, live shows than to play finished arrangements from your albums. What else do you offer the audience to enjoy the performance?
Many electronic musicians rely on light shows or multimedia to keep their concerts interesting. I enjoy a good light show, but I never felt like that approach fits very well with my music. I treat my concerts more like a concert of jazz or chamber music, something to focus on and listen closely to. I try to keep things spontaneous enough to make it interesting for both me and the audience. Hopefully the music stands up on its own. I realize that this is not a very populist approach, and it doesn’t work well for people with short attention spans, but I would rather focus on the music than on the spectacle. I don’t know if I’m any more interesting to watch than those other acts you mention. It’s probably just about as boring to watch me improvise as it is to watch one of those other bands play their DATs and sequencers. Since I can make mistakes because I’m really playing, my concerts might be less perfect sounding. I would rather take this risk, however, and keep alive the possibility that something really magical can happen through the interaction between me and the audience. That interaction vanishes when performers rely too much on automation, or when the spactacle distances the audience from the musician. I like concerts that are intimate and spontaneous. They feel more special.
6. Ambient music is often used by its creators to express their spirituality and their bond to nature and/or the universe. Do you share this aim?
I feel that any artistic expression must be honest, and if the artist feels a bond to nature or has a spiritual connection, then it’s only natural to expect that to show in the music. Sometimes it can be difficult to express these feelings without exposing yourself to some ridicule in our culture, whereas it can seem easier to reflect a more cynical stance and hide behind a curtain of irony. I dislike this tendency towards irony that pervades our culture, and I feel a personal need to connect to a more pure part of myself, without the barriers. On the other hand, I have no interest in preaching, and I have no interest in listening to people who think they have the answer for everyone. I am far more interested in asking questions than in pretending that I have the universal answer. I can only reflect what I experience personally, and perhaps what I experience will connect to other people in some way. If it’s true that ambient musicians seem more inclined to a spiritual approach, it seems only natural that such people would be attracted to a quieter sort of music that leaves room the imagination. Maybe this is also a remnant of psychedelic culture, where such things as sprituality, mental exploration and pop culture often co-exist.
7. You released quite a lot of joint recordings with other artists (S. Roach, Lustmord, Alio Die etc.). How does the work on these recordings proceed (via mail or joint recording sessions etc.?)
All my collaborations have been from working together in the same room. It’s very difficult to collaborate by mail. The joy of collaborating comes from bouncing ideas around, the dynamic of two different personal visions about music. Sometimes this dynamic includes arguments, but it’s worth every moment. I learn more about myself and my music when I collaborate, and many deep friendships have grown from the process.
The dynamic of every collaboration has been different. When Steve Roach and I recorded Strata and Soma, we prepared some material in advance before working together for an intense week or two. Then we returned to our respective studios and worked separately for about six months to develop some of the raw ideas. We then completed the albums in intense two week sessions of recording and mixing. The work with Brian Williams on Stalker had a similar structure. When I recorded Yearning with Lisa Moskow, she came to my studio for three 2 hour sessions, where I recorded her improvising. Then I spent two months editing her playing into the structures that you hear on the album. When I worked with Stefano Musso (Alio Die) on Fissures, he flew to California from Italy and lived with me for a month while we worked on the album, with breaks to go fishing and mushroom hunting in the forest. I mixed the album after he went home. As you can see, each collaboration is different.
8. You are also in a band (Amoeba) that is more into traditional music contrary to your more abstact ambient recordings. Is your feeling about it very different from your solo tracks?
Well, as far as pop music goes, Amoeba is still pretty abstract. But we do include a slightly more traditional vocabulary – vocals, guitar, drums, etc. We’re basically trying to make the sort of unusual song-oriented albums that we love to listen to – some references might include Robert Wyatt, Mark Hollis (Talk Talk), John Martin, David Sylvian or Nick Drake, for example. Amoeba allows me to explore my love of unusual songwriting. It allows me to express certain ideas and personal experiences that I tend to avoid in my solo music. It’s important to realize that Amoeba is also a collaboration, and its sound evolves from the dynamics between the members, primarily Rick Davies and me. Amoeba would sound completely different without Rick’s thoughtful guitar playing, and he constantly challenges me with a more pop-oriented vocabulary. Our current work comes even closer to traditional songwriting forms. I’m constantly pulling it into a more textural direction, while Rick tries to pull it more towards a tight structure. I find that the result is unique in the way it meets in the middle. We argue sometimes, but the results seem to be worth it, and we are still best friends.
9. Nowadays it becomes more and more cheap to buy some equipment so nearly everybody is able to do their own electronic music and release it. What do you think about this development?
I think it’s wonderful that people can participate more in making their own music. Electronic music embodies the ideals of folk music, something that can be easy to create and share with others, with the potential to be very personal and expressive. The fallacy comes when everyone wants to become famous, to become a recording star. This runs counter to the best qualities of a home-grown, participatory art. I welcomed the energy of the early ’90’s techno scene, where large-scale anonimity and small-scale social ties helped create a very democratic and energetic scene. But market powers quickly fostered a stylistic homogeneity, and I think the scene stagnated artistically. A few people started making a lot of money, and everyone who wanted to get rich started sounding like the big names, all centered on a generic dance music style. Now “electronica” has come to mean the same thing as disco. That’s ludicrous. I don’t mean to say that people should not try to make money with music, and I am very happy for those who have become successful. I feel very lucky to be making my own living at this. My only point is that the creative joy of music making should take precedence, and people shouldn’t always jump into the belief that they should be full time musicians just because this new technology has given them the tools to make their own CD, and they should try to find their own voice rather than ape the standard cliches.
10. Please tell something about future projects and your next activities.
This year I am working on the next Amoeba album with Rick. Most of the album is written now, and we are starting to do the studio work. I expect this will take the remainder of the year. I have plans for another solo album after that. I also plan to re-release an old live album from 1985 called Inner Landscapes. This will probably come out in 1999 as a co-op release between my own label and another small label. I might also release a 3-CD set of recent improvised live concerts, later next year.