The sky of sound
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2015 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
For composer Robert Rich, writing and recording music are acts of communion. Since the dawn of his career, an era captured in a recent vinyl box set titled Premonitions 1980-1985, Rich has focused on infusing his expansive electronic works with deep personal meaning, drawing from realms such as philosophy, biology, astrophysics, and spirituality.
Rich’s output is frequently classified as space music, ambient, electronica or soundscapes. Depending on the project, one or more of these descriptions may have a potential resonance. But the San Francisco Bay Area native prefers listeners put preconceptions aside and explore the larger narrative being communicated and the emotions they inspire.
His latest album Filaments exemplifies that perspective. The recording reflects Rich’s foundational electronic influences from the late ‘70s, as well as perspectives gleaned from minimalist pioneer Terry Riley, all filtered through a modern compositional and processing approach. It coalesces as a unified aural examination of Rich’s fascination with the possibilities and challenges of humanity exploring habitable planets beyond Earth. Filaments also encompasses the impact on consciousness and existentialist perspectives that might result if the species successfully made the transition.
Another recent recording, Perpetual, is an eight-hour long immersive piece, released in the Blu-Ray audio format, created as part of his celebrated sleep concert oeuvre. During these events, which are exactly what the name implies—long-form performances that occur while the audience is asleep—Rich presents music designed to influence the light and deep sleep states we occupy during slumber. Creating these epic works poses complex and unique challenges for Rich, ranging from the technical to the conceptual, that are the exclusive domain of working within such an extended format.
What was it like for you to go back and listen to your earliest music when you put together Premonitions?
It was a trip. Between May and June of 2013, I was digging through cassettes of things I rejected when I was getting started. I was still growing up, playing with really crude equipment, recording improvisations onto cassette. I wanted my first album to be a big statement and serve as a conceptual unit that had artifact potential. I felt I was just forming my voice during those first years. I was only 18 when I recorded my first album, but I put more of a compositional energy and focus into those pieces. These other things were about exploring my tools and how to get a good sound out of my home-built junk and just reaching. So, I hadn’t found my voice yet. Those pieces landed in a drawer in a cassette box. When the Vinyl-On-Demand label asked me to be a part of its box set series, they were specifically looking for things from the ‘80s. They asked if I’d do Trances/Drones and Sunyata or Inner Landscapes. I said “Sure, let’s do something,” but I said I’d rather not do Trances/Drones, because we recently reissued it and I felt the digital master was the one I wanted it to sound like. I didn’t want to remaster it because it sounded the way it was in my head. So, I dove into that drawer and found things I completely forgot I did.
Some of it didn’t suck, so I went through it and did some careful 24-bit/96khz transfers from the cassettes. Remember, these things were recorded onto TDK D-90s, so they’re pretty crude. I sent the label a bunch of stuff, which were pure experiments from when I was a junior in high school, as well as total soundscape pieces. I had this pompous idea based on some John Cage “automatic composition” ideas that I called “self-determinate” pieces. I didn’t use any of those on Premonitions, but some of them have leaked into other pieces. There’s a bit on Stalker for example.
As for what it was like to listen to the work, it was really odd, because I barely recognized the person I was. It’s 35 years later and we change. Yet it scared me how similar some of those pieces are to what I’m doing now and how much my concept hasn’t changed. I thought maybe I should have evolved a bit further. [laughs]
What was the home-built equipment you recorded Premonitions on?
A lot of it was done on very customized PAiA modular things. They were this company based out of Oklahoma, started by the late John Simonton. For $35, you could buy a kit that would be a VCO (voltage-controlled oscillator) and for another $30 you could buy a filter. By the end of a summer, with money from paper routes, gardening, babysitting, and chopping wood, I built myself a monophonic synth. So, I did that with their kits when I was 13. I really owe Simonton a huge thanks. The equipment wasn’t good. You couldn’t play anything tuned with it. It was bad electronics. But it was so cheap a 13-year old could afford it. I could solder stuff together and have instruments I could try and start bands with. I could probably make $500 over a summer and that was enough over two years to build a modular synth, get some tape recorders, a tape delay, and a tape echo that used 8-track cartridges—a really cheap version of an Echoplex.
Premonitions has a very experimental piece called “Collage for Low Tones,” that’s unlike anything I’ve heard from you before. What do you recall about creating it?
That’s the oldest piece on the album and it was done before I had a polyphonic synth. It was all done on hand-built modular. I had just built a Radio Shack analog delay kit with a Reticon SAD1024 chip. I modified it so it could go into full oscillation. So, the piece is about experimental oscillating with the modular stuff. It was one of those moments in which I was improvising. I created a total thing that was itself. It has the sense that I was in the moment creating pure sound and that sound was becoming plastic in my hands. It was made at a time when I was influenced by early Throbbing Gristle. They were coming around the San Francisco Bay Area doing interviews for their second album 20 Jazz Funk Greats. The idea Throbbing Gristle brought forward was that you didn’t have to have any training or money. You just had to have an idea and pursue it. This idea of DIY with a purpose and intent was a powerful start for me.
Is it strange for you to issue a project exclusively on vinyl in 2015 given that you worked in the high-resolution Blu-Ray format for Perpetual?
It’s kind of funny. I find it ironic because when I was deciding on formats to release my first music, I decided against vinyl. I wanted to do really long-form pieces and vinyl falls apart after 20 minutes. I used to love Klaus Schulze albums that were 28-minutes long each side, but he had to master them at super-low volumes because the grooves were so small. I also wasn’t a fan of surface noise, pops and clicks. Cassettes were a better medium for me during the first five years, but I regret not putting out vinyl until later. It would have given me a bit more gravitas and put me on the map more, instead of being perceived as being part of a cassette underground thing. There were people in my generation who were putting out vinyl like Forrest Fang, K. Leimer and Jeff Greinke. We all became acquaintances and knew each other’s work. I was also resistant to putting out vinyl earlier because it was too expensive for me. I was a little younger than they were and I still had high school money. So, that, combined with the fact that I felt cassette was a better medium meant I stayed in the cassette underground until the mid-‘80s.
Is there a certain validation of that era that comes with having it represented in a lavish box set?
A little bit. I have mixed feelings about it. It’s an honor and fun. There’s a huge coolness factor, but I find it so backwards looking that it’s really ironic. The irony is my music was never full of irony. [laughs] It was always a fairly straightforward, almost romantic or intellectual endeavor. The ironic post-modern thing was never part of my vocabulary. So, that irony is kind of funny. There’s a part of me that enjoys the idea of saying “Look where I was back then” and putting a line in the sand.
Contrast the creative process that informed your work on Premonitions with Perpetual.
They both start with “p.” [laughs] Surprisingly, there are pieces on Premonitions that relate to the sleep concerts. In fact, I did my first sleep concert in 1982 when I was doing all that music, so that theme continues to skip across my entire career. It’s not everything I do, but it’s an idea that keeps coming back to me and I can never seem to escape it. The methodologies keep changing over the years. When I did Somnium in the late ‘90s, I was using more digital looping techniques and a lot of real-time processing, using outboard reverbs, and the Eventide to create blurring pitches. I’m always trying to figure out ways of creating a certain sound that’s in my head.
The sleep concert approach is an always-changing, multi-layered cloud of consonant dissonance. I want it to sort of skitter off into the corners of the room and sound like consonance, but if you turn it up really loud, it’s actually big clusters of pitches. I like what that does psychoacoustically to blur the lines between music and sounds. There’s still a musicality to it and a harmonic undercurrent which is constantly shifting, layering and moving. I try to avoid any repetition, so there’s no specific loops. There are always some layers that are shifting, but the methodologies to get that sound change over the decades.
Back in the very beginning, it was analog synthesizers, drones, tape loops, an Electro-Harmonix looping delay, and cassettes of nature sounds. I’d go out and record creeks and birds on cassette and then relocate the sounds through echoes. By the ‘90s, it was digital processing and reverbs. I was doing stuff with extremely long reverb tails. I was putting sounds through them so you’d hear an extended tonality. I was also using a lot of feedback techniques. I was creating chains of processing, delays and loops that would be going through the mixer into each other. So, there was this actual electrical feedback going on in creating these long strings of sound that evolve, but they were hard to steer. A little bit of EQ would cause ringing to occur two minutes later. So, it was like steering an ocean liner through icebergs, in which you have to predict about a day or two ahead when you have to turn.
Perpetual uses a lot of time-dilating algorithms. You’ll find these things on the Internet in which people take a pop song and stretch it to a day long. I’m using the same technique, but with sounds I’ve recorded. I’ll take some nature sounds or piano cycles and put them through some of these algorithms that do time stretching and spectral filtering, so it’s extracting harmonic content out of inharmonic material to create drones. I’m using new digital sound processing software to make this happen. I’m always trying to find new ways to create long, evolving sounds.
Elaborate on how you go about composing an eight-hour piece like Perpetual. It must be full of challenges.
It takes at least a year to get my head around them. I often don’t remember exactly what’s on them and I have to keep going back and re-listen in chunks. I’m not going to sit there every day and listen through eight hours of music and work linearly, so I break it down into manageable pieces. I also have to find software that allows me to work on a really long timeline. Then I have to get around the technical difficulties of making files that are that long. A lot of the software won’t allow me to create a high-resolution mix that’s eight-hours long. There’s no way I can do surround mixes that long. Everybody wants me to, but even the Blu-Ray format, which holds 25 gigabytes a disc, can't hold eight hours of surround audio. So, I’ve had to make compromises with both Perpetual and Somnium to make them fit existing mediums.
Having to break up the audio into one or two-hour long chunks and then having to tolerate a little click or have it fade out to silence and come back in is an example of a challenge. Those scenarios completely defeat the purpose. Each piece is one song—one continuous composition. There is no one place where there is a break. It’s always transforming into the next thing. I don’t want to have any ID points or pauses. I have to find ways to cross-fade in the software without a click between the file chunks. Even downloads of eight-hour compositions are a challenge. File sizes bigger than four gigabytes are difficult to deal with. I end up having to compress things into MP3 to make them downloadable.
On the composition side, the challenge is trying to create an arc that’s meaningful. Over the years of performing these all-night concerts, I’ve developed a sense of what that arc is. It started purely conceptually back in the beginning. I like interlocking cycles, both conceptually and in terms of harmony and rhythm. I decided on using two basic cycles. One is the cycle of moods in Indian music, in which you go through a 24-hour day and it’s broken into sections. At the time, I thought the time divisions were in two hours, but I have since learned they are three hours. There are ragas designed to be played in the late afternoon, early morning or late evening, for instance. So, the idea of performing music from midnight until 8am means I’m passing through several different moods in the Indian raga cycle.
My other interest is in sleep science and the fact that we have a 90-minute REM cycle. In a natural sleep duration, we shift through light and deep sleep. Everyone is starting that cycle at their own time based upon their own indigenous rhythms, so I can’t predict when it’s going to become active and when it’s going to be passive. There are going to be different times when each person is going to be listening. So, it’s like skipping a stone across the water and having it land on the water every 90 minutes or so. Between those things, I have this nice phase relationship. It’s a three-to-four polyrhythm. Ninety minutes is the three and four. Two hours is the four. I break it up into 30-minute chunks. So, now we have 30-minute chunks and a three-against-four polyrhythm, which just happens to take eight hours.
There are other hardships. It’s exhausting to perform an eight-hour piece. It’s also impossible to know what the audience is experiencing because I’m performing and they’re sleeping. I can test the recordings on myself, but it’s very hard to listen to it as somebody else other than the composer. When I’m listening to it, I’m always in analytical mode.
What are the rewards of working at such a large scale?
The rewards are related to my ongoing interest in states of consciousness and how music can act as a trance inducer or have a shamanic element. It’s quite possible from an anthropological point of view that the history of music came from the history of trance, altered states of consciousness, and shamanism in prehistoric times. One of the oldest instruments ever found is an ostrich bone with holes in it in a Cro-Magnon cave from 40,000 years ago. In addition to this bone flute, there are signs of stones and pieces of wood being used as percussion instruments. There’s also a very ancient instrument the Basque still use called a txalaparta, which is a tree trunk that you play with mallets made of branches. You can hear it all the way across mountain valleys 20-30 miles away. That instrument could easily be 20,000 years old. So, if you look at the role of these instruments and the role that music has played, there are probably two divisions to consider. One is music for social unification and storytelling. Those are probably the roles pop music plays today. The other role involves shamanism, altered states of consciousness, and traveling into the spirit realm. It’s the role that religious music started to take.
I think some of the more interesting music of the psychedelic era and beyond was consciousness-based music, be it German space music or minimalism such as the work of La Monte Young or Terry Riley. Those two are perhaps taking a religious musical vocabulary and moving it into a modern post-religious context in which they’re trying to find the original core of consciousness within the spiritual experience. So, that aspect of music as a shamanic device has been a main focus on how to use consciousness for me. It’s also a way to focus on what we miss in our modern, very hectic, very information-laden society. Our ability and willingness to stay in one place and do one thing for a very long period of time is diminishing. I’m a bad meditator. I was very interested in Buddhism back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, but I was wondering why I couldn’t sit still. I didn’t know why I couldn’t do Zazen meditation for more than 10 minutes without my mind flying out the window. I thought “If I can’t do it, that means art fails at this too, so what can we do to trick people into being in one place, doing one thing for a really long time?” I thought maybe the only way to do it is to tell people they can sleep.
Suddenly, we’ve created a social experience that brings people together in a very strange context. That strangeness creates expectations which aren’t your everyday expectations. And that’s what Shamanism does. Shamanism says “We are going to split this experience apart form everyday experience. In this room, we are different.” With the sleep concerts, I’m saying “Bring a sleeping bag. You’re going to do something different tonight. You’re not going to sleep in a comfortable way. You’re going to be in a weird place, doing something you’ve never done before, sleeping with 30 strangers, listening to this weird music.” The question is how can we use that shifting otherness to take that music and turn it into a form of energy? The idea of using a musical concept for a very different purpose than we normally use it for fascinates me. It’s not for entertainment. It’s for induction into a new state of mind.
What’s it like for you to perform these extended pieces?
I go through lots of different transformations through the night. There are periods in which I’m feeling the ecstasy of performing and it’s something really beautiful. There are other points in which I get bored. There are other points where I’m searching for something or I’m lost. Then there are points when I’m just exhausted and I really want to sleep and will be looking for caffeine. There are also points between 4am and 5am when I hit a plateau and I’m exactly where I want to be. I remember that happening in Tokyo in 2014. There was a point about an hour-and-a-half before the concert was to finish and I just hit this point where all the sounds were landing in a fabric that made me feel like I wanted to be there forever. It was a weightless plateau somewhere in the sky of sound. I was just in a state of transfixation for 20 minutes. Sometimes I arrive at moments where the music doesn’t need to shift or change. It just needs to be at this magical place and that’s what it’s all about.
Describe the expansive concept that informed the creation of Filaments.
I’m mostly stimulated by my own sense of wonder and awe. It never goes away. One of the things that’s a constant source of information is cosmology and physics. The problem is how do I write music about that? I could do it in an ultra-conceptual way, which people who I respect would probably be better at in terms of actually trying to encompass the mathematics of these ideas in their writing. I’m not interested in that. I have to respond to my own emotional sense of awe and beauty which means the music ends up becoming poetry about the questions, rather than a map of fields in space or particles interacting. I’ll leave that for other people.
I want to find ways of making the sound reflect that sense of wonder. To me, one of the things that’s most salient in modern civilization is how incredibly powerful science has become as a tool to answer the big questions that religion used to be able to ask. Science is doing it better now. It allows us to question our assumptions and change our minds. It gives us tools for showing we’re wrong. I find that powerful. I believe this fits within my own spiritual ideas of constantly doubting, which are very much in keeping with a Buddhist approach, or even St. Thomas Aquinas, who came to his religion through doubt. So, I don’t think there’s a huge disconnect between true spirituality and scientific discipline. They can coexist beautifully, because they all involve the discipline of asking questions and doubting the answers.
I read a lot of articles about cosmology and science. I think right now, we have a big set of questions we haven’t been able to break through since Einstein. I’m talking about unifying fields and trying to resolve the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics. As people start to approach the ideas of unifying fields, they’re starting to revisit some older ideas that may have been discarded 120 years ago. There are experiments that disprove things like propagating medium through space like the ether. People like Einstein rejected the idea of the ether, but now, perhaps we’re finding new ways to use the laws of thermodynamics or field propagation to bring it back. I don’t understand how to do the math, but I’m fascinated by the physics. If I was better at math, I would probably be a cosmologist or physicist, but I went into psychology because I got pummeled by advanced mathematics in college. [laughs] I can get up to a certain level, but there were always people who could find the answers and I couldn’t. But I still love the questions, which inspire me.
As for the musical style of the album, I sought to come up with an album could have been done in 1978, but reflecting new approaches. I asked myself “If I was a mature 50-year-old musician in 1978, what would my album sound like?” Filaments is a tribute to music I grew up with. It opens with a complete rip-off of Michael Stearns. [laughs] I respect him so much. He’s a friend. I did it as a thank you. It’s also a tribute to Terry Riley, who I go back to all the time. Terry is a hero of mine. One way I’ve found to avoid the worst clichés of German sequencer music is to skip that era entirely and go straight back to Terry. He was a huge inspiration for the German guys, so I went right back to the core. The difference is Terry would play all of those parts, whereas the German guys would put them on 16-note Moog sequencers. The characteristic sound of the German arpeggio is this 16-note cycle. So, what if I played it all by hand? That’s what I did throughout this album. Everything is played by hand, then quantized and played out through MIDI to the modular synth, so there’s a different sound. It’s a hybrid between Terry’s approach of playing all the parts and thinking them through and then going back and performing them on the modular synth so they have a more viscous, rubbery sound.
How do theories like gravity’s effect on the space-time continuum influence the album’s compositional direction?
They serve as inspiration. The mathematics of space-time are not mapped into pitches. There are a few places where there is a metaphor, though. For example, in the piece “Filaments,” you’ll hear high-frequency sizzles that hover in the background. I’m imagining those to be the radiation lines through space. I’m also imagining the little squiggly bits as representing the very beginning of when filaments were formed according to Alan Guth’s theory of inflation. It’s when little elements of matter are coagulating out of energy. I’m thinking of the sounds as living sprites of energy. Sound definitely has a material, physical form to me. Electronics allow us to create an abstraction out of timbre that can have a map to some sort of physical form.
I’m really interested in some of the new research on cosmic background. In 1996, I wrote the liner notes for my Below Zero album. In them, I say something about the expansion of the universe going out to asymptotic zero. Just before the album came out in 1998, somebody from Harvard revealed the very first measurements of the Cosmic Background Explorer and that in fact, Einstein’s gravitational constant was greater than one. That meant the expansion of the universe was increasing.
What I found in poetry was an emotional statement of my sense of the expansion of the universe and its physical concomitant in modern cosmology. Now, we have to figure out why dark energy is causing the universe to expand ever faster. Why don’t we have enough matter to pull it back? It’s an uncomfortable thing to imagine that our particular reality is one that has a specific beginning and a big expansion that tears itself apart in 100 billion years. We like symmetry. We like things that expand and contract and go on forever. So, this stuff is mind-enlarging to me.
I love the sense of feeling very small in comparison to what we’re able to conceive in our minds. But in fact, our minds are much bigger than we give them credit for. The fact that we can actually encompass within our mathematics a model for something that makes us completely immaterial actually puts us in a very interesting place of consciousness. That’s why I mention The Anthropic Principle in Filaments’ liner notes. It’s an interesting bridge between the existence of consciousness and the existence of the universe. There are some parameters in the universe that allow consciousness to form. That’s pretty amazing. The fact that we’re here tells us that the universe allows us to be here. We’re not saying it was meant to be, but we’re saying we’re not on a special platform of existence. The fact we’re finding that almost every star has some form of satellite is incredible. Just a few hundred years ago, people still imagined we were the center of the universe. Then they got pissed off when somebody said we’re related to monkeys. Now it’s looking like there may be life just a few light years away. Who knows? It’s possible somebody in our lifetime will find a sign of organic, functioning life. It will be such a paradigm shift. It will place our self-awareness in a very different place. We’ll need to find new metaphors. Religion will have to find new ways of explaining itself or give up.
In our short lifetimes, it’s hard to grasp the meaning of eternity. It’s like imagining a fruit fly with a life cycle of three days trying to comprehend what it’s like to be 100-years old or that the muck it’s eating in the rotting fruit is actually going to become a tree in 50 years. We’re standing at the edge of gravity looking out into infinity and trying to find rockets to propel ourselves out of it. It’s pretty awesome stuff to contemplate.
You’ve said when you’re not working on music, you rarely listen to music. How do you absorb new influences?
I rely on friends to tell me what’s going on. I love music so deeply. There’s a tendency you hear from people that have made music for years to say “I don’t listen to other music.” There’s a physical reason for that. Our ears get tired. I try to avoid tinnitus. I also do mastering for people when I’m not working on my own music. So, I’m in the studio working six-to-10 hours a day. If I don’t have work to do on my own music or other people’s music, I go out for a walk without an iPod in my ears. I go listen to the birds, people talking or the traffic. I want to tune my ears to the world around me. Music can become tiring to a certain extent, so I need a break. Music is on my skin all the time. I think everyone has a little bit of synesthesia. It’s native in the brain, because we have a core consciousness through which we process all our sensory input. Those sensory inputs merge into the self. So, to me, music is a tangible thing. It’s a shape in the room. It can be steely cold, velvety like silk, like a deep, warm pillow, or like being in a swimming pool. Sound has physical effects on me. After awhile, it becomes too much.
An idea that’s relevant to this discussion about listening or not listening all the time to music is a new theory called the “Intense World Theory.” It’s been fairly well explored in the last five years or so in autism spectrum disorder research. A neurologist, Henry Markram, who has an autistic child, has been looking at the idea that autism is a hyper-sensitivity to the world around you. When an autistic child starts getting overstimulated and begins hitting himself on the head constantly, the theory says it’s done to shut out the outside world. It’s like biting on a bullet when you’re getting surgery without anesthetic. The children are creating a pain center so they stop feeling the pain from everywhere else. So, autism could be a neurological version of sensitivity and hyper-awareness.
Perhaps I might be a little over-sensitive to certain kinds of environmental stimuli, so I have to turn it off sometimes—although I love music and it moves me deeply. There are certain albums that have created these places in the ground which are like permanent mountains for me. For the last five years, I’ve been talking about Bill Evans a lot, because I can’t get enough of his music. Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock is one of the best albums ever made. Same with Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom. In a way, I feel like I could have done just fine, creatively speaking, if I had only heard 20 key albums in my entire life, because they’ve already triggered so many ideas.
Today, virtually anyone with a laptop and plugins can make soundscape music. What’s the key to creating music in this realm that isn’t ephemeral and disposable?
Just because music is made on hardware instead of software doesn’t make it any better. I could be making boring, repetitive music with keyboards and modular synths as others are making with plugins. And people could be doing astonishingly cool things on laptops. It’s the intention or the “why of something” that imbues something that’s more interesting. There’s a lot of good music and a lot of cookie cutter music out there.
There are all these jazz virtuosos out there who can play saxophone solos technically better than Coltrane could, but yet they have to grow into themselves in order to become something other than a virtuoso copycat. In Bill Bruford’s autobiography, towards the end, he’s getting a little grumpy about all these kid virtuosos constantly playing multi-rhythmic paradiddles. He asks questions like “Are they playing music? What are they going to play with their ideas? What is that scale going to do within a song?”
Part of the solution is forcing yourself to do things the hard way, even when you have the easy way out. Part of it is restraining your tools so you force yourself to work within a limited set of possibilities. Part of it is to avoid anything anyone has done before, including avoiding preset sounds or loops. Start from scratch with your sounds.
There’s a lot of pap out there, but there are cool movements happening, too. There’s an underground circuit bending movement in which kids get together at coffee shops and hack Speak & Spells and make blips with each other. That kind of stuff is invigorating. It’s socially conscious because it’s a community. It’s about making cool, weird, new noises and it’s so punk. So, we can focus on the dead end of making yet another pop song out of Apple loops or ambient schmaltz or we can look at the few people doing something new and exciting that doesn’t fit in a category. What about music nobody has a name for? That’s what I’m really interested in.
What’s your perspective on the sheer tonnage of ambient music coming out these days, including artists who put out multiple releases a year?
Some people are like Picasso. They just sit there and record and it’s not crap. I have a lifelong friendship with Steve Roach. We’re on opposite ends of spectrum. He easily puts out six albums a year. He’s in constant flow. For people like him, this is a natural state of being. I hide a lot of what I do or leave it moldering on the computer. I had an idea for a whole range of compositions called The Hours. As an experiment, I created a 60-minute piece that compresses a 24-hour day. I mentioned it once on Facebook and gave it away on SoundCloud, where it remains. It’s called "Frozen Day" and it’s not going to be an album. It was an experiment and it’s stated as such. It’s a concept. Sometimes, I’ll work through concepts, and like the work on Premonitions, they’ll sit in a drawer for 25-35 years, because I didn’t feel like they were going to change the world. I also go through periods of dry spells in which I’m waiting for ideas to percolate.
I already have ideas for the next album. It’s to do with biology, biota and particles—the stuff I love. It’s going to be a little like a sequel to Bestiary. It’s going to take six months to a year to finish. I like to work slowly, think about it and make it something I haven’t done before. I think another distinction to keep in mind is that I don’t think in terms of ambient music, like Brian Eno’s conceptualization of it as background music. I prefer the idea of deep listening music. I want to make music that’s psychoactive, intense, and is in some way transformative for the listener. I like to have the listener put some energy into spending time with it, so it’s not just sound. It’s something Pauline Oliveros, another hero of mine, has discussed in detail—the idea that music should be imbued with intention.
You once said your music is “a reaction to hyper-capitalism and the many problems humans are creating for themselves.” Tell me more about that.
I’m worried about community, the planet, the environment, and what we’re doing to it. I feel the secret of saving our species from one of our inevitable, negative futures being created by consumption is that we must realize that the last 20 years of capitalism has put us on rocket sleds towards them. Corporations wield greater global power than nations. In fact, they own the United States. They’re responsible for energy extraction occurring throughout very sensitive parts of the world. They’re trumping human rights, poverty and social welfare. They own enough of the government that they can use it as a propaganda machine.
I’m not a very political person. I don’t know how to save the world. But what I’ve realized I can do is create a small bubble of beauty which reminds us of who we are, our humanity and community. When I’m not alone in the studio, I spend a lot of time walking, getting to know people in my community and doing what I refer to as the “non-virtual.” We are becoming a society that sits in front of screens 24-hours a day with portable devices. We’re very close to being directly wired into the Internet and becoming a Cronenberg movie. I don’t want to be in a Cronenberg movie. I want to be part of a real community in which we grow our own food, are responsible for homeless people and don’t feel we need a new $10 pair of jeans that were made in a slum in Indonesia.
It’s difficult now to exist without being a hyper-consumer. People think you’re meaningless if you don’t have a physical thing to buy for Christmas in order to save the economy somehow during the holiday season. We live in such a highly-propagandized culture. I feel we need to invent new ways of finding meaning and happiness that allows us not to crave more consumption, but allows us to live more simply, but with pride and beauty that allows meaningful dialog and art to exist. The holes people are currently filling with consumption are not making them happy. Community, kindness, art, and love are what make people happy. So, let’s look at happiness, how to make it and how to keep it. Let’s see if we can invert some of the directions the juggernaut of Western culture are leading us. It’s taking us right off the cliff.
How does that perspective mesh with the fact that recorded music has less perceived value to people than at any point since its introduction?
Certainly, I feel like an old man sometimes, shaking a cane saying “You don’t know what’s good for you!” [laughs] I don’t want to be that person. I look at people like Terry Riley and John Cage who are examples of people that accepted themselves as getting old, but remaining full of wonderful ideas. In neither case was there the expectation of becoming a rock star. I gave up on that idea years and years ago, too. I realized long ago that the idea of stardom is pretty silly and I’m not good at that stuff anyway. I get a little envious of people in the music industry who get famous. But then I look at little old me in my suburban house and middle-class existence and feel lucky that I can survive as an artist. That’s a pretty crazy thing to be able to do. I feel very blessed in that way.
I do want to stay relevant into the future. It’s true that music has little value and people don’t really want to pay for it anymore. But people listen to music more than ever. I used to copy my friends’ vinyl records and put them onto cassette as a kid. I don’t think I bought a single record of some of my favorite bands in the ‘70s and ‘80s. So, I’m guilty of that. But the scale is completely different now. However, I’m not going to sit here and whine about how nobody loves me. I saw a hunk of money from Spotify recently. Yes, it represented millions of listens and I feel I could have made more for that exposure, but that’s not the point. More people are listening to music today and if some artists can slip some messages in their music that gives listeners some nutrition along with their daily junk food diet, then that’s a positive. So, I’ll continue trying to figure out what to do with my life when I grow up. [laughs]
It’s intriguing to consider that the music industry was once part of the hyper-capitalist juggernaut. With few exceptions, music has been left behind in this progression. Rather, it has become raw material that technology companies use to sell services and devices. Given that, what do you see as the future role of the musician in a societal construct?
Perhaps that was a brief blip in history. Let’s look at other cultures. My wife’s parents, who have passed away, are Chinese. My wife was concerned about introducing me as a musician to them because being a musician is not respected in Chinese culture at all. Many Chinese kids have to learn violin, but then they have to go get a real job. I know people who play Indian classical music, including some Stanford students I recorded. They’re 20 years old and breathtakingly good. They’ve been playing since they were six, growing up in Silicon Valley. But they’re going to Stanford to get a degree and a real job, because being a musician is not a respected job.
If you look at the role of the Shaman in developing and non-Western traditional cultures, they are often considered an outsider. The shaman is a somewhat questioned person, considered a little crazy and perhaps a little dangerous. They live on the outskirts of town. You only go see one when you need one.
If music is fulfilling its role, it’s getting people to think differently. Maybe it should be a little bit on the outside of culture. The role of the artist is sufficiently upending. The expectation is now perhaps it isn’t ever going to be easy to get paid. Maybe things will become similar to the days of Western classical music in which composers sought rich patrons. They were serving the status quo. Perhaps like the court jester, they could get the ear of the King and you’d be in a position in which you could say something true without getting your head cut off. However, I’d rather be in a society where we have some freedom to speak our minds and say the truth, but perhaps that means we won’t get paid as much.
How are you coping with the pace of dramatic, ongoing change in how music is consumed by listeners?
Everyone is a pollywog in the puddle now. What’s happened is that the big media companies have dug a few holes in which the water flows and they can swim in there for a little while until it fills in with silt. To be honest, I feel very lucky that I had the Hearts of Space record label help promote me during the ‘90s. I owe Steven Hill, who ran the label, a huge debt of thanks. He supported my efforts ever since I was a kid. He was one of the first people to place me on the radio in 1980 when I was still in high school. He would give me jobs mixing. He introduced me to Steve Roach. He’s been a champion of what I stand for all these years.
I’m so grateful for having had that window of opportunity. I slipped into that little window when independent labels were really viable—something opened up by the punk scene. It was a unique era in which I could sell my albums to the New Age crowd, even though it was space music. It self-defined itself in a different way, yet somebody could market it to several different demographics. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have had an album like Rainforest in 1989 that sold 50,000 copies. Several of the early ‘90s albums sold 20,000-30,000 copies. But it quickly went back down to 5,000 copies. Now, I’m right back to where I started, selling a couple of thousand copies of each album.
Truthfully, this isn’t something I think much about. What I think about is how lucky I am to communicate what’s deep and true to me to a handful of people who care. And those people change. The Internet has enabled more people to discover all sorts of music they normally wouldn’t have thought about. The question is, are the search engines going to keep allowing them to? Are the search algorithms continuing to show them the wide range of music they might be interested in? My fear is the algorithms are being rewritten to do the opposite, which is to feed people what the advertisers want. If people become sheep and just consume what’s fed to them, we’re screwed. But perhaps in the future, people will be searching out weird search algorithms like they’d search out weird music. There’s always going to be that half or tenth of a percent that are a little kooky and determined to find undercurrents that drive art forward.