As we evolve as individuals we often shift the way we view our artistic, existential, and quotidian endeavors. I am usually quite curious about how these transitional periods impact the creative output and vision of those who experience them.
Does this process become more or less cathartic? More or less introspective? How can artistry be used to guide us through our lives in the most beneficial ways possible?
As I found myself entertaining these ideas a number of individuals came to mind but I knew there was one person who could shed some light on this, Robert Rich.
For those of you unfamiliar with Robert Rich, he was a fan and student of the synthesizer based drone and ambient music coming out of Europe during the 70s popularized by an outfit called the Berlin School. Their works quickly began to turn heads and laid the foundation for much of the electronica we consume today.
Robert began to receive acclaim during the 80s with his earthy, almost shamanic take on the traditionally spacey textures being produced by his contemporaries during this time.
Before long, he revolutionized the concert experience when he began giving performances to sleeping audiences across the globe. These displays (commonly referred to as Sleep Concerts) ultimately led to the creation of Somnium, a seminal release with almost 7 hours of content. Although it's been over fifteen years since it's release and Robert has had no shortage of albums, this one still makes the rounds in conversations about some of the genre's most ambitious projects. There is always an outpouring of dedicated individuals who look forward to participating in his brand of Sonic Surrealism.
Here we take a journey through some of his evolution and get his opinion on these ideological shifts I mentioned earlier.
Prox: With each passing year, I think Somnium’s legacy grows a bit more. Are you ever intrigued by the project or tempted to revisit the concept? What satisfies you the most about it?
RR: You probably realize that Somnium was already revisiting the sleep concert idea that started in 1981. I have performed all night concerts off and on since then, and in the mid 1990s I did a tour of two dozen cities where I played all night on the radio. After that I wanted to document the idea so I might not have to stay up all night so much. When the medium of DVD became available it seemed like a good way to do that, so Somnium took several years to create, from at least 1997- 2000, and DVD seemed like the best storage and distribution medium. The internet grew since then, and the idea of delivering 8 hours of music online seemed possible, but I wanted to find a way to do it at highest resolution rather than the compressed audio of MP3 how people were hearing this. That’s when Perpetual came about. I was still getting invitations to perform sleep concerts, and after the ones in Krakow and Tokyo I decided to put out a sequel. (So, yes, Perpetual is the sequel to Somnium and also the Blu-ray contains the full 7 hours of Somnium.)
Second part of the question, what satisfies me most about it? I like the fact that people are finding many ways to experience this slow moving environment. Although it’s intended for sleep, I hoped that it could create a soundscape for thinking, dreaming, journeying. It is oriented toward the cycle of sleep, but I realized that these recordings would be available any time for people, so I shifted the dynamics a bit so the deepest parts were not as quiet as they might be when I perform live all night, so they would be interesting during other times of day perhaps. It’s an odd sort of sound, not normal music, so it’s hard to know how people use it or react to it. I also really like how the music flows with intention, it isn’t algorithmic or aleatoric, it has a flow and seems like a whole experience, not just wallpaper.
Prox: I’m always curious about how an artist’s relationship with their work changes as they mature or shift their ideologies. What has been some of the most notable changes you’ve noticed with your relationship to the ambient genre?
RR: It’s a tough question to answer, because I don’t think in terms of musical genre at all. “Ambient” doesn’t mean much to me. I just think about what seems important for our evolution, or for the planet in general, or for my community and the people I love. My music has always been an outgrowth of these passions, and it tends to be rather quiet perhaps because I might be a bit over-sensitive to stimulus; so I make something a bit more sparse to counteract the loudness of our world. As I get older, I become increasingly concerned about the footprint our species is leaving on the planet, and I have many interests regarding the possibilities for us to evolve in our consciousness or behavior, so that hopefully we might steer away from the cliff we are racing towards. My music speaks to the earth and to the experience of being animal, embodied, non-virtual. It’s a music of place, of planet, but also of spirit and the flight of mind, imagination. I keep hoping that we as a species can integrate these better parts of ourselves before we become a victim of our own great extinction event.
Prox: Music in a vein similar to yours has become pretty synonymous with spirituality and different forms of healing/relaxation. What do you think music provides you with (if at anything) medicinally that you find difficulty finding in other practices?
RR: I tend to shy away from any idea of music as a specific medicine, because perhaps I am poisoned by the charlatans claiming that they will cure people with this or that tone. I think intention is medicine, and if people approach anything they do with intention, they can help become their own medicine. If they approach the music they love with intention, it becomes medicine. Anything could be medicine when applied at the right moment with the right intention. Maybe it’s a slightly toxic plant or fungus in the right tiny dose for the right condition at the right time, or maybe it’s a punk concert for a teenager ready to break out of expectations at the right place and time. Being too sanctimonious about everything can make it stultifying and toxic in its own bland way, like how fresh food becomes boring when people curse it with words like “healthy.” Wouldn’t you rather eat “decadent savory crunchy frissée greens with vibrant flavors”, instead of “heart-healthy vegan raw kale with low fat dressing?”
Prox: Something that has been interesting me a bit lately is cymatics and psychoacoustics. Do you think music can change our cellular and psychological structure?
RR: Everything we do changes our cellular structure, and if we do it with intention it can change us in a direction we intend. People interpret all sorts of natural phenomena as specifically powerful or transformative, and I think what really transforms people is their intention to transform in a certain way. The fact is, sitting on a couch watching football on TV transforms us in physical ways, so does taking a walk through the woods. Breathing transforms us, as we take in new molecules and expunge old ones. When we do anything with intention, then we begin a feedback loop, and shape our experience towards a goal. One of the key elements of perception (as in psychoacoustics) is that our attention to a stimulus sharpens our perception of that stimulus. We are not passive receptacles, but actively shaping our sensitivity to stimuli. Art can enhance this sensitivity by adding emotional and contextual depth, it helps to tell a story around the act of paying attention. The act of experiencing beauty or meaning in an artistic experience changes our cellular structure, as it can guide the act of paying attention.
Prox: After creating so many albums which kinds of experiences do you tend to learn the most from? Are the hardest projects the most rewarding or does things getting easier convey an increase in skill or vision?
RR: Regarding music itself, I might not be the best judge.
Some of my best work seems to make itself, and I come to appreciate those gifts. Other times, I struggle and carve a detailed microcosm, and I don’t know if I will be satisfied with it or not.
The music itself seems to drive the result, and I am sometimes more prepared to help the process with what I know, and other times I seem ill prepared and struggle to help the process. If I were a midwife I might say that sometimes the babies come easily and sometimes they struggle to enter the world, but I never know how the easy ones or the difficult ones will fare in life’s journey. Maybe the ones that come hard into the world will have a pearl of wisdom to teach the rest of us?
An example of an easy baby might be Nest. It has turned out to be one of my most successful releases. It came from a period of silence. I had been performing for a month in Australia, and my ears were tired from a few loud festivals, with some lingering tinnitus. I made some really nice environmental recordings while I was there, and I wanted to use them somehow, but I needed something more quiet than silence. The music came from a need to have sound that created its own quiet space, if that makes any sense. Apparently a few other people needed the salve that I needed when that music started to take shape. On the other hand, an album like Filaments took a lot of detailed effort, and more concentrated development. It required a more dense and structured approach. I also think it spins a good tale, it unfolds in a natural and dynamic way. It came from a muse specific to the questions asked within its world. It also works quite well within its language. Each project I start has its own set of questions and challenges. Sometimes they require more time, sometime they flow quickly and easily. I prefer that each one has its own personality this way. It keeps my life interesting.
Prox: Which project do you think taught you the most about yourself and what you wanted to explain to listeners about your perspective?
RR: Hmm. Each project exposes a facet of my life, which I don’t always see until it is done. My recent release Vestiges taught me that sometimes the foreboding hiding within cannot be silenced, and I have to give it voice or else it becomes a toxin. The last three albums make a sort of trilogy: What We Left Behind, Vestiges, and Lift a Feather to the Flood (with Markus Reuter.) I think of these as my brooding trilogy, a dark foreboding about the state of humanity. I intended WWLB as a hymn to the stamina of our planet to survive even the cancer that humanity has become upon its surface. It’s a celebration of resilience and evolution. Yet while I was trying to keep that album in a realm of a (regretful) celebration I found myself always placing darker forebodings on a mental shelf, keeping them hidden until I could process them. In the background, certain events in my personal sphere were putting pressure on me, reminding me of mortality and age. (My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers, and we needed to relocate her to receive full time care after she broke her hip; and my wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, which is now an ongoing part of our life.) I needed to take those forebodings off of the shelf where I had placed them while working on WWLB, and confront them directly. Vestiges started as an elegy to the human race, and it became a meditation on mortality. When I discussed these issues with Markus Reuter before we started work on Lift a Feather to the Flood, I expressed how art can offer redeeming metaphors, even in the face of unsurmountable adversity. Like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, an artist can maintain ridiculous ideals of hope and virtue, while seeming a fool to those watching. The act of making art is pointless, meaningless, like lifting a feather to a flood (or tilting at windmills); yet it is all that we know how to do, and it is this very meaningless act that gives meaning to life in the poetical sphere. It is a shamanic act of healing the spirit in the knowledge of certain mortality.
Prox: What are some things that have been captivating you as of late? Any new artists, books, or films you’d like to recommend?
RR: I have been fascinated by the idea of systems as mind, and the possibility that we might someday understand how a forest thinks, or an anthill, or an ocean. I love the idea that our own skin is not a real boundary, just a gateway, and even our own biology is not one of individuals, but of communities of organisms, our microbiome. I am playing with new words that reflect this idea of communities as mind, and that systems might be thinking in ways much slower or at a scale larger than we can perceive. Likewise I am so in love with the crows that come to visit every day. My passion for corvids came from this same desire to communicate with minds so different from ours. Our pets are also a measure of this, but when we get to know truly wild animals, something else opens up. A language between species - or even systems - should be one great next step in the evolution of mind.
Prox: Could you give us some information about any upcoming releases or projects on the horizon?
RR: I do have a new album in progress. It's dealing with some of those ideas about the communities that makes an organism that I mentioned. It's rather electronic and rhythmic this time, a bit like Bestiary at times but it's becoming more melodic. It doesn't have a title yet.
Prox: Final thoughts?
RR: It’s not so complicated. We need to be kind. We need to step more lightly or we will go extinct. All the rest is tribal posturing, monkey politics. For me this becomes a lifelong project, which is always flawed and needs improvement, yet always represents just what it is - being alive. If I stop making music it could be that I am simply working on the next step along that challenging path. Or perhaps the music is just the detritus of my attempts down the path of paying attention.
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