Oh, I sure love ambient music. Robert Rich's amazing discography leaves me the feel of eternity. I mean, many beautiful noises, as a journey to unknown. And his music fills many empty spaces, leaving me out my consciousness. As the real word is far away with whispers and unintelligible sounds. It took a while to get into his albums, but after that I just became obsessive about listen his recordings, principally when I'm alone. So, I was really happy when he accepted answering some questions:
You can find his music right here: http://robertrich.com/
Q: How does Northern California influence your music, the way you write, create?
RR: In the sense that I was born here and it remains my home, I am sure that the culture and climate have affected my music more than I know; but not in simple ways that most people imagine. People think that everything from California might sound sunny and happy, like the Beach Boys or something. Obviously that does not have anything to do with reality. I can think of two threads in my music, which might relate to my environment.
First, the memories of growing up as a child in the 1960s, south of San Francisco, surrounded by the beginnings of the beatnik and psychedelic underground. Ken Kesey's bus was parked up the street from us, the Grateful Dead played their first rehearsals (still "The Warlocks") in a garage around the corner, and I could hear the sound from my back yard, every Thursday and Sunday. These are early memories, I was only five years old or so. I would ride my bike to the famous bookstore, Kepler's, and look at all the counterculture books and posters, the beginnings of the environmental movement, eastern religion and world music coming to our attention. Something about the sense of possibility perhaps set my mind in a direction, a hope that change could happen, one person at a time.
Another side of this story is one of loss, the loss of environment, the growth of population, a feeling that paradise is disappearing by our own actions (or failure to act.) The San Francisco Bay Area was a sort of paradise, 200 years ago, a very fertile land with perfect climate, some of the best fruit grown in the world, mountains, ancient forests, ocean, estuary, wildlife. In my lifetime of only 50 years, I have watched the shadows of this paradise give way to concrete, freeways, corporate headquarters for "Silicon Valley" and housing for the people who come here to work. I know that this is only a small sample of the increasing population of humans on our planet, global urbanization, and loss of natural places. In some ways my music represents a search for Eden, and it is filled with yearning and a piquant sense of loss. If we observe that many cultures have a myth of the "fall from paradise" we see that it can be a metaphor for the ongoing self-imposed exclusion from the Garden within ourselves, which we perform every day. With music I try to keep the gates open.
Q: How much have you changed as an artist and person from your first records to Meridiem - A Scattering Time?
RR: It is worth remembering that we recorded "A Scattering Time" 14 years ago, and the delay in its release causes some confusion. Also, my role in Meridiem was to help Percy Howard realize his vision. I am just a servant to this project. When certain progressive record labels went out of business, Percy got tired of constant pushing. I felt the need to fill the gap; so I released the album myself. Having said that, I think Meridiem is an example of the way I work from my own center of gravity: as I experiment with new vocabularies, I use that center as a balance-point, a core that helps me trust the decisions I make, even if I make them quickly, when improvising. In 2013, I went back to re-master some recordings I made in the earliest point of my career, around 1980, for the 4 LP set "Premonitions" and I was a bit surprised at how much that early music contained the seeds for much of my later work. As I learned new skills, new vocabularies, I think those techniques still have roots from the seeds planted very early in my life.
Q: As an artist, do you think criticism is still relevant? Do you read it?
RR: Yes, I wish there were more thoughtful, well informed discussions about art and music. We all benefit from learning about the ideas behind creative actions, when the discussion is intelligent and balanced. Good critical writing can help people understand the context around works of art. I tend to be rather self-critical, so unfortunately I often agree with negative commentary about my own work, and I can become a bit discouraged by it; likewise I tend to be skeptical of glowing praise. I think these are typical reactions for a certain type of perfectionist personality.
Q: How were the "A Scattering Time" recording sessions? Hard times, funny times, challenging times?
RR: Excellent and intense! I met Percy Howard at a friend's wedding in 1999, when he was starting his work with Bill Laswell, Fred Frith and Charles Hayward. I had never seen a vocalist with his intensity working in an improvised rock context, it was challenging and exciting. We started discussing making this new Meridiem project, with a wider network of musicians, many of them friends from the Bay Area. Percy asked if I wanted to act as producer, and we started engineering it in my studio. We came together about a dozen times over a space of 4-6 months, in early 2000, for some intense sessions of quick thinking, almost Zen synchronicity. Percy trusted my decisions, and we trusted the people we put together in musical clusters. I love to experience these fluid moments of creativity, inspiration, improvisation. Percy is a "first take" singer. I had to move very quickly. After these fluid sessions, I could then take more time to quietly edit the performances, and polish them into the song-like structures that you hear on the album. I could allow some of my perfectionism into the process, after the rush of creative adrenaline that formed the foundation. It was an exhilarating experience.
Q: "Space-music" is sure at your works. How did you "discover" it and thought "whoa, it's really good"?
RR: I think I first heard artists like Vangelis and Tangerine Dream around 1975, then I started looking for any records with synthesizers listed on the back cover. It was the music in my head, as if I had always heard it. It felt very natural to me. I began building synthesizer kits, around 1976, hoping to make music like that, and I learned it was hard to sound good with cheap homemade electronics! I am thankful to Stephen Hill, whose radio show "Music from the Hearts of Space" played a wide range of introspective music, allowing me to discover new directions, and he was the first person to play my early recordings on the radio, around 1980.
Q: Does Literature influence your music? If so, could you recommend us some authors that you like?
RR: Yes, not just literary fiction but also science, art, film, architecture. I have been very inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.G. Ballard, Stanislaw Lem. Perhaps my strongest inspiration came from the novel "Starmaker" by Olaf Stapledon. I recorded a piece about that book on "Below Zero." I am very influenced by the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and you can find many references to his films in the titles of some of my work (Stalker, Zerkalo, "The Raining Room" for example.) I love organic architecture (Gaudí); Islamic patterning (Geometry); Cosmology, planetary science, mycology and taxonomy (Bestiary)... I'm a curious person.
Q: How are your live presentations?
RR: I try to treat live performance in a different way from recording. If recording is like making a sculpture, performing is like dancing. I want my concerts to have a ritual energy, deep and focused. I am not as worried about technical perfection, but rather to create a mutual energy with the audience, a journey into a sort of shamanic space.
Q: You are very productive, so many releases. Do you sometimes have creative blocks?
RR: Yes, unfortunately I do get stuck. I try to work forward when the ideas are not flowing. There is always some work to do in the studio - sometimes for other people (I do a lot of mastering work) also, sound design, experimenting or learning my tools, or just cleaning up the clutter. Or, I just go for a long walk. On average I only release about one new album per year, which is not so prolific, I think. I just try to keep working.
Q: What musicians are your medicines?
RR: Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ali Akbar Khan, Hamza El Din, Javanese Gamelan, Joni Mitchell, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Terry Riley, Neil Finn, Oumou Sangare ... I could go on, but those are some favorites from a wide range of tastes.
Q: Do you still listen the works you were hearing when you got into music?
RR: Not so much to the '70s space music, or to music from the early industrial music scene, which was also a big influence. I lost interest after a few years. But I never get tired of Terry Riley, and he is definitely my strongest influence. Adventurous jazz like Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, Miles & Coltrane stay fresh for me. Indian classical music is always my place to go when I need to retreat into the music.
Q: Thank you! Please, if you want to, leave our readers a final message.
RR: Stay amazed at life. I think if we can retain a sense of wonder at our existence, both the light and the shadows of it, and stay humble about our role on this small planet, then perhaps we can reflect that sense in our actions and in the echoes we leave behind when we're gone.
March 17, 2014