California’s Robert Rich has become inextricably linked to the rise of the ambient movement of the late 70s and 80s due to his marvelous ear for grounded, yet complex compositions. When juxtaposed against the “Berlin School”, a group of producers releasing synthesizer heavy sci-fi ambient, his work has a much more nomadic and terra driven flavor.
Robert’s music has traditionally manifested itself as edgier, busier ambient pieces (a direction that is decidedly different from that of the “Berlin School”) via earthy, more organic textures. His shamanic influences are plentiful and mesh exceptionally well with this particular brand of ambient music. Much of his catalogue could be perceived as a love letter to the animistic spirituality of ancient cultures.
His work (while impressive as standalone pieces) has garnered much attention as a result of his innovative and unconventional venue selection. He has performed in caves, cathedrals (to name a few) but his most famous performances are called Sleep Concerts. These lengthy concert sets actually encourage sleeping while in the presence of the low, swirling dronescapes Robert has become synonymous with and aim to penetrate the listener’s dreams to provide a kind of hypnagogic film score.
For this interview, I decided to focus on the spiritual underpinnings of his catalogue and delve deeper into his background in Psychology and his interest in sleep.
Prox: I read that you took an interest in shamanism during your youth. Do you think that shamanism (a practice with an inherent emphasis on nature, spirits, dreams, and dream interpretation) played a role in your sound?
RR: Well, yes, I was trying to find a way to achieve the positive effects of journeying inside oneself, without appropriating a specific set of world views that we sometimes associate with traditional shamanic cultures. I wanted to find a language of journeying that we could treat as native to our own culture, something compatible with what we learn from scientific questioning, from critical thinking. When I was a teenager, I discovered that I had a natural tendency towards trance and strong internal experiences. As I searched for language to describe these experiences, I came across books - for example by Carlos Castaneda - that seemed to reach into the “other” towards an esoteric language that seemed heavily laden with baggage, the sort of Western fascination with magical thinking that goes back to Madame Blavatsky and earlier, baggage that seems more interested in selling snake oil rather than creating a sustainable healthy engagement with the unconscious. I wanted to find an artistic language that avoided that sort of mystification but still gave acknowledgement to the non-linear capacities of our mind. I want to stay expressive of our physicality, our animal nature, and to reflect my love of the planet that gives us life, while I try to avoid directly quoting those cultural vocabularies that we associate with the exotic.
Prox: What is it about sleep that is so intriguing to you? Where do you think (in a metaphysical context) our consciousness is going once we head off to bed?
RR: Sleep is interesting for many reasons, one of which is that dreams represent an altered state of consciousness that everyone experiences on a daily basis. I don’t need to think in metaphysical terms about dream consciousness. It’s quite beautiful even in terms of cognitive psychology. In our daily waking consciousness, we are actively building the world that we perceive. The world is inside of us as a model built through the vague and limited interpretation of our senses, a metaphor that reflects only a fragment of the Universe. We are so good at world-building that we forget we do it. That’s one reason the arts can be so convincing, because we merely need to point to people’s internal associations with a few limited gestures, and each individual picks up the thread and runs with it, telling their own story from the glances, pointers and metaphors the artist offers. In dreams, we are cut off from our external senses, yet we are still building worlds. Our brains can’t stop doing it. When we begin to observe our dreams (and at times perhaps even become lucid in the dream, becoming aware we are dreaming) then we can gain great insights into our world-building process.
Prox: Could you detail some of your experiences with psychedelics? How much would you say that the waking psychedelic state compares to a lucid dreaming state? Why do think that these kinds of experiences are so transformative for artists?
RR: One of the common elements that bonds the various transformative states of consciousness is ecstasy. Lucid dreams are often accompanied by an explosion of ecstatic feeling, of joy and enhanced meaning. We don’t need external chemical stimuli to feel this deep sense of meaning. Ecstatic capabilities are built directly into our being. We are wired for it. For people who have become separated from their child-like sense of wonder and awe, sometimes psychedelics can remind them of the states of consciousness that they are capable of. I don’t think they inject anything new. However, I think there are some fundamental differences between endogenous states of ecstasy and exogenous (chemically induced) ones. Relying too much on chemistry to experience ecstasy can send people down the wrong path. I’m not referring to the typical anti-drug cautionary warnings, I am speaking in terms of spiritual energy. In my own experience (which echoes many spiritual traditions) the naturally occurring (endogenous) ecstatic revelations have a centering calmness at their core, and they tend to enhance our balance, lowering our “center of gravity” as it were; whereas the psychedelically-induced ecstatic experiences tend to result in an unbalancing, or a raising of center of gravity. Another way to put it is that endogenous ecstasy is quiet, whereas psychedelic ecstasy is loud, and eventually those who only rely on psychedelics start to go deaf to the whispers that enhance meaning and creativity in our life.
Prox: Do you think that your background in Psychology helped to ground your spiritual and metaphysical beliefs in regards to cognitive abilities and potential; Or did it pique your curiosity and push you more into the realm of the parapsychological?
RR: It might surprise you that I have very little interest in parapsychology. I think there are myriad aspects to the universe that we don’t understand, and I remain very open minded; but I think there is so much to marvel at in the universe and in our mind, that I am still in wonder and awe at even the simplest things. I don’t want to get distracted by silly esoteric exotica, when the everyday phenomena already hide unimaginable wonder. I decided on studying psychology at university because it was the closest thing to what really interested me, which was trying to combine science with improving the way humanity thinks and acts. I have always had a desire to be part of a solution rather than part of the problem. The question then, was how to do that? Most areas of psychology deal with human abnormality and illness, unfortunately. There is a very small contingent in western psychology that wants to look at peak experience, to find ways that we do things better. In this wing of psychology there is a tenuous connection with traditions like Yoga and Zen meditation, “flow”, ecstatic experiences and altered states. There are some long-known techniques to improve the way we interact with the world, but unfortunately they are usually wrapped up in religious belief systems that chase away the good scientists, as academics are afraid of getting associated with unscientific belief systems. It’s an ongoing dialog and challenge to move things forward. We need it now more than ever, as I fear humans are racing to the edge of a cliff, destroying our habitat through hyper-consumption and overpopulation to the point that we may destroy our ability to thrive, quite soon.
Prox: Does your understanding of gestalt psychology play a role in your mostly abstract and minimalist pieces? Why do you like for the listeners to find their own meaning in your work?
RR: I need to be honest and confess that I do not have a deep understanding of Gestalt psychology. I never read Fritz Perls, for example. However, I agree with the idea that self-identity and consciousness are built from a holistic integration of all the senses, and the self is inextricably connected to the body. I am worried about the increasing fascination in our culture with virtual experiences and dis-embodiment. However, in direct response to your question, my music comes from a place that is not entirely sonic, and my creative source is not connected just to the audio senses. I agree with the ideas in Gestalt psychology that we have an integrative faculty that fuses all of our sense memories with our creative self, and that we can have intuitions that go deeper than any one of the five senses, and that those intuitions can bubble up creatively into any of those senses. I think that Synesthesia is closely connected to this idea. Although I am not trying to make a Scriabin-style symphony to show color in sound, I do think that all of the senses can come into action while experiencing music - or any art form for that matter. I think everyone can be a synesthete at some level. Many of my more abstract pieces actually have what I feel to be a seductive texture. They are often more tactile than than sonic. If you listen to my most difficult “dark ambient” pieces, like on Below Zero, you can find yourself floating in a velvet texture; although it might be purely atonal, it is not confrontational. I think, what I want listeners to find in music like this, is a new kind of beauty, a discovery of mystery and awe in the hidden places where we forget to look.
Prox: You’ve held concerts in some pretty unconventional locations like Cathedrals and Caves. With these places being inherently mystical, do you think that these venues help the listener settle into your performances?
RR: I think alternate venues are very helpful to create a different set of expectations. My music does not survive well in a night-club environment. It doesn’t pair well with alcohol and conversation, at least in performance. I try to create an environment where people have different expectations, so they listen in a more active way. I think this is because people bring most of their own experience with them. If I can heighten the natural capacity we all have to sense energy in the world, meaning, wonder… then I am doing what I set out to do. A special environment helps immensely, especially if it’s intimate and full of expectation. Planetariums are really good, art galleries are pretty good, churches are good (partially because of lighting and acoustics, also because of culturally trained expectation.) These sorts of places tend to encourage active listening.
Prox: With such a storied and successful career, how do you continue to stay fresh? Are you consciously seeking out new elements to incorporate into your tracks? Do you ever fear retreading old ideas or stagnating?
RR: Well, first of all I don’t believe I have done anything I can rest my laurels on. A few people might think I have a big career, but most of the world has never heard of me. I never set out to become famous and I still don’t think it will ever happen. It’s not important. I am successful in a very workmanlike way. I try hard and I don’t think I have ever done anything perfectly, so I am always inspired to make something new, different and better next time.
More important than any idea of a “career” I am always curious, always bothered by something that tickles, I need to scratch an itch of curiosity. I am not thinking so much in terms of incorporating new elements, styles, instruments or technology; I am thinking in terms of honestly exploring new ideas and new questions with all of my skills and energy. I will happily learn new techniques if they assist in exploring new questions. Honesty comes first. For example, I know that I am not good at programming techno beats - but it doesn’t interest me. I respect good drum programming, but it isn’t an honest part of my personality. For years now I have played my drum parts by hand because I prefer the sound of organic drums; or I’ll use modular synths so that each instance of a pulse is slightly different from the last one. Perhaps these are “old ideas” but I will re-work those old ideas because I prefer them to the current status quo. Every new album I work on becomes a new set of questions and new explorations. I tend to go in different directions with each new release, but I try not to get too obsessed about re-inventing my entire set of skills. I need to rely on the few things I know how to do in order to explore each new idea. Yet it seems that many of my albums still surprise listeners enough that it takes a while for them to get accustomed to the vocabulary. I think I am just starting to get used to that dynamic after 35 years of releasing albums.
Prox: You’ve just completed your first sleep concert in the United States since 2003 at this past Moogfest. Has the energy, atmosphere, and reception changed since your last performance here?
RR: The two events were completely different. The performance in 2003 was part of a radio art festival in Albuquerque NM, where I played live on the radio all-night with a few visual artist acquaintances forming a tiny audience in the studio, relaxing. Since then, I played three other much larger sleep concerts, in 2013-2015, at the Unsound Festival in Krakow, Red Bull Music Academy in Tokyo, and Copenhagen Film Festival. Those each had large venues with audiences ranging from 120-220 people. The one at Moogfest was a bit smaller than the other recent events, but had the advantage of many new mattresses donated by the manufacturer for promotional consideration. Otherwise, the ballroom of this art deco building had a hard stone floor, not the most comfortable sleeping surface. I have been quite happy with these recent events. The mood is very quiet, deep and contemplative. Even the slightest sound is audible, and people seem to enter into the spirit of deep listening for extended times. Afterwards, though, it takes me at least a week to recover. I feel completely exhausted, empty. That’s one reason they don’t happen very often.
Prox: Did you have the opportunity to speak with some of the participants before and after the concert? What were some of the expectations they had going in and takeaways they had?
RR: I typically give a short introduction before the sleep concert, where I explain the ideas behind it, and offer suggestions for getting the most out of it. This includes a brief explanation of the difference between hypnogogic imagery in light sleep, vs. dreams in REM sleep, and how to use the music as if your consciousness is a stone skipping across a lake, dipping in and out of dream. Also I explain the reality of snoring and give people permission to nudge their neighbor if necessary, things like that. I do often chat briefly with individuals after the concerts, although in truth I am so exhausted I just want to get the gear folded up and get back to the hotel to sleep. Usually the mood is so quiet in the morning that people are still contemplating the experience. It’s quite an unusual mood, and it takes some time to digest I think. If people want to see the basic ideas that I cover in the introduction, they can find them in the liner notes of Somnium on my website here: http://robertrich.com/discography/liner-notes-from-somnium/
Prox: Who are some of your favorite contemporary artists?
RR: I keep a soft spot for unusual introspective songwriting, which these days includes people like Daughter (If You Leave), Emiliana Torrini (Fisherman’s Woman), Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Elbow, The Books, Sufjan Stevens - just intelligent thoughtful and unusual music. Most often, you’ll probably find me listening to classical Indian music (Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shivkumar Sharma, Debashis Bhattacharya), Senegalese singer Oumou Sangare, Indonesian gamelan music… or classic jazz like Coltrane, Miles, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, but then I suppose those aren’t quite “contemporary.”
Prox: Favorite hobbies?
RR: I’m always pursuing multiple obsessions. I am fascinated by small machines, mechanical wristwatches and clocks, and I enjoy refurbishing vintage watches. I am enchanted by wild animals and the urban wildlife that share our world. I have been making friends with our local crows and writing about them. I enjoy mycology and identifying wild mushrooms, often collecting edible ones for our meals in the rainy season. We have an edible landscape at our house, with drip irrigation, so I am often out pulling weeds when I’m not in the studio. The food from the garden goes to our table, and I love to cook. Having friends over for dinner is our main form of social interaction. I sometimes experiment with inks and brush painting, and for years I have played around with invented calligraphic and symbolic alphabets. I was making wine for ten years, but stopped in 2011 because it was starting to take over the house. Before the winemaking, I was making ceramics with a wheel and kiln in the basement, doing raku and blending my own glazes. Like many of my hobbies, it dominated for about 10 years then fell by the wayside. I guess that defines me as a dilettante. I am always reading about various topics, especially cosmology and art history. I try to keep asking questions - it keeps life interesting!
Prox: Tips for aspiring artists and label owners?
RR: Always do what is most honest deeply inside of you, and keep multiple streams of income and parallel activities so you don’t need to rely only on the music. Independent record labels are almost anachronistic these days, there is so little money to be made from selling recordings. I think the artists need to take their own career in their hands; and if they can’t do it themselves, hire the help they need to promote their work, rather than trying to indenture themselves to something as moribund as a record label. Having said that, I believe there is a role for assistance in such things as licensing and music placement, and it certainly isn’t an area I have much expertise. I hope we start seeing more equal collaborations between creation and distribution, arrangements that resemble cooperatives to strengthen the voice of independent artists without them sacrificing control over their art. Companies like Spotify have disrupted artist’s ability to survive financially even from their most successful creations, and I don’t see that situation improving any time soon, possibly just getting worse.
In this climate, musicians should not be ashamed of having a day job, and they will need to find creative methods to connect closely to the listeners that enjoy their art, so that listeners will want to support future projects. We need to create our work from a deep creative urge, but without any external positive feedback it gets very hard to maintain that urge and keep going. Even some humble external rewards give artists the sense that they aren’t working in a vacuum. If listeners want music at the most creative high quality, they will have to start doubting the illusion of free distribution being proffered by internet hucksters who are building their own fortunes unsustainably on top of the increased poverty of the creators.
Prox: Information on upcoming releases and projects?
RR: While I was recording my latest release “What We Left Behind” I had to push aside a range of ideas that seemed like a different album, a much darker sequel. That’s what I’m working on now. I have a title and plans for the cover art, and the music is mostly in scraps and pieces. I’ll say a bit more about it when it comes together more fully. Also I have been invited to perform a concert in Krakow Poland on November 11. It will be a sort of ritual around the memory of ancestors - a bit like a ghost story. Some other very interesting artists will be involved.
Prox: Final Thoughts?
RR: I feel that my role as an artist is to disrupt the status quo with small bubbles of beauty. It is also my duty to journey into the shadows and return with something nutritious. Art can still express beauty without shying away from darkness, death, or even anger towards injustice; it embraces the opposites and points to new directions. It’s about things much bigger than ourselves.
You can learn more about Robert, here.
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