My weblog ELECTRON BLUE, which concentrated on science and mathematics, ran from 2004-2008. It is no longer being updated. My current blog, which is more art-related, is here.

Tue, 24 Feb, 2004

Ambient Composers 2: Robert Rich, Vir Unis, and Vidna Obmana

In this chapter we move from the sun-bleached desert of Arizona to the moist underground of fungi and the hypnotic-fragrant Near East. Then we will visit the techno-industrial urban soundscape of Chicago, and finally the foggy netherworld of surrealistic Belgium, as we meet some of the other major composers in the ambient field.

Robert Rich, based in the San Francisco area, started out as a psychology student at Stanford University, but by the early '80s had switched over to experimental electronic and acoustic music. Robert Rich's Web site provides a comprehensive guide to his sonic universe. Rich continued his interest in psychological states by holding "sleep concerts," all-night events where the audience was invited to bring their sleeping bags to the concert hall and slumber through the night while Rich spun dream-music on his array of instruments. Some of this was recorded and was released in the late '90s on Rich's album INNER LANDSCAPES (1999). In 2001, Rich produced the audio DVD, SOMNIUM, which lasts 7 hours if played in its entirety, in an attempt to provide a "sleep concert" for any listener who wished to try it at home. All the albums I mention, as long as they are in print, are available from Rich's website.

Musically, Robert Rich has developed a highly individual sound, both as a multi-instrumentalist and a composer. An important component of this is his use of "just intonation," a pre-modern form of tuning in which all the notes and chords seem (to our ears, used to Western tuning) to be out of tune in a most eerie way. This mood of strangeness is enhanced by Rich's choice of instrumentation. One of his signature instruments is the steel guitar, familiar to country music, which he uses in an infinite-sustain, reverbed way to stretch and bend notes out into endless lengths. You will hear this weird wailing guitar winding its way through most of Rich's work; he also uses electric guitar (often played by guest instrumentalists, as much of his work is ensemble work) in a similar way. Rich makes great use of percussion, which he plays himself, as well as flutes, exotic stringed instruments, and violins. And of course there are Rich's electronic synthesizers, tuned to "just intonation" and providing backgrounds and harmonies ranging from the ethereal to the eldritch. He refers to his more watery synthesizer sounds as "glurp," an amphibian word he adopted when no other description quite defined the froggy plop he wanted to convey.

From his earliest musical days, Rich has been fascinated by Middle Eastern culture, not only its music with its quarter-tones and syncopated rhythms, but by Islamic philosophy and pattern-geometry. Many of his albums, such as his 1988/1991 GEOMETRY and his 1998 SEVEN VEILS, are directly inspired by this aural mysticism. Another main interest and theme of Rich's imagination is that of hidden or underground biology, especially that of bacteria, moss, and fungi. Like the avant-garde composer John Cage, Rich is a mycologist, or mushroom expert. Rich's musical interests also extend to the music of Southeast Asia and Indonesia, and you can hear the sound of the Indonesian gamelan in albums such as his fabulous 1989 album, RAINFOREST. In his 1991 GAUDI, which in my opinion is his best album so far, he unites the themes of sacred geometry, Islamic/Iberian mysticism, and microtonal harmonies in a gorgeous and yet understated synthesis.

Rich has collaborated with some of the very best in ambient music, both instrumentalists (such as the Chinese-American violinist Forrest Fang, to be profiled in a later chapter) and other electronic composers. In 1990 he worked with Steve Roach to produce STRATA, and in 1992, they returned with SOMA, which I regard as one of the greatest ambient albums of all time. Rich played his ghostly guitar on Roach's long piece "To the Threshold of Silence," the second CD of his 1992 WORLD'S EDGE album (described in the previous chapter). After that, however, they went in quite different directions. Rich has also produced albums of art-rock, under the artist title "Amoeba." He has continued to follow his path into musical images of water, darkness, microbiology, and dreams, with some very dark and terrifying passages like his three-CD live concert set, HUMIDITY (2000). His current work continues his explorations into non-Western tuning, Eastern instruments, and bizarre biology.

"Vir Unis"'s real name is John Strate-Hootman, and he's currently based in Chicago. As with all ambient musicians, he makes his music available through his Website.You have heard his name before in collaboration with Steve Roach, but "Unis" has never really been a part of the "school of Steve Roach." His style is heavily dependent on synthesizers and the use of fractals and other mathematical patterning to produce a gleaming and somewhat impersonal sound. If Roach is the voice of the vast open desert, and Rich the glurp of algae ponds and echoes of Islamic archways, then Vir Unis is the electric buzz of Midwestern powerplants, or the photon song of high-energy particles streaming from distant galaxies.

Vir Unis (which is fractured Latin for "one man") is a newer artist than Roach or Rich. During the '80s he was a drummer for experimental rock bands, but by the '90s he had moved into almost exclusively electronic music. He worked with Steve Roach in 1999 on the spectacular BODY ELECTRIC and later on BLOOD MACHINE. Unis' first major solo album was THE DRIFT INSIDE (1999), which as its title conveys, is a trancey passage of floating ambient with some percussion accents. In 2000, Unis released AEONIAN GLOW, which I regard not only as his best album, but up there with the other greats I've mentioned as an ambient masterpiece. AEONIAN GLOW, composed all electronically (with many altered sample sounds) takes its inspiration from the ancient religious philosophy of Gnosticism as well as from science fiction and modern physics. With my own spectrum of interests, I couldn't ask for anything more! It's made of all sustained notes, with no rhythm. It features dissonant and chilling microtonal harmonies, accented by "Gothic" tone-clusters, icy water sounds, electronic special effects, and near-subliminal samples of half-heard, altered radio broadcasts, with occasional somber bell sounds. One track is called "Particle Path," perhaps evoking the power of the particle beams at the Tevatron at Fermilab near Chicago. The most powerful track on AEONIAN, though, is the central piece titled "A Night of Passage," thirteen minutes of some of the most dramatic, mind-altering ambient ever composed. This is not for the faint-hearted!

In the years after AEONIAN GLOW, Unis has moved into a much more rhythm-oriented type of music, collaborating with fellow synthesist James Johnson in the PERIMETER series, whose track titles are taken from mathematics: "Cartesian Plane," "Singular Integral," "Geometry of Recursion," "Intersecting Planes." There are also references to Kabbalah and Western esotericism, in titles like "Mapping the Four Worlds," and "Spherical Archetypes." The music on these albums, as well as on Unis' own MERCURY AND PLASTIC (2002), tends towards the mechanical, chugging along in industrial rhythms with electric hums, sparks, crackles, buzzes, and roars reminiscent of Chicago's elevated transit system. Melodic elements are sustained by a droning, somewhat distorted electric guitar sound, that gives these pieces a hard edge more related to rock than ambient.

Just recently, Vir Unis has returned to the non-rhythmic, sustained ambient style he worked with in his earlier albums, with his short album, EVERYTHING SEEKS BALANCE (2004). In the last few years, he has also been busy with his own production company, AtmoWorks. AtmoWorks represents not only Unis' music but that of many other composers in different styles of ambient and electronic music. This creator of very esoteric music is not only helping his own cause, but putting himself directly into the effort to keep this music available and encourage the creativity and freedom of those who make it.

Vidna Obmana is the pseudonym of the Belgian ambient master, Dirk Serries."Vidna Obmana," as is stated on his website, means "optical illusion" in Serbo-Croatian, and like "Vir Unis'" pseudonym, allows him to make polymorphous music without his own personal identity getting in the way. Vidna Obmana has been working in the electronic and experimental music field for more than twenty years.

Of the ambient composers I've profiled so far, Vidna Obmana, in my opinion, is the darkest and most obscure. His harmonies are almost all dissonant, his characteristic intervals being minor seconds, minor ninths, and other edgy tonal choices. His "signature sound" is, like true ambient, slow, drifting, slowly cycling in long loops, contemplative, quiet, and often deeply melancholy. I tend to think that Vidna Obmana is so grim because he is not an American, and does not partake of the innocence, or the naivete, of any American composer. Hearing his music is like gazing at the grey, misty skyscape of Belgium, a land of near-perpetual rain and fog. When he finds a major chord, it is like a rare ray of sunlight over the Low Country landscape. This style is best heard in albums like THE SURREAL SANCTUARY (2000) and its companion album THE CONTEMPORARY NOCTURNE (also 2000). But these are only recent examples of a musical personality which has been in development for over 20 years.

Obmana is, like Robert Rich, a multi-instrumentalist. He plays not only synthesizers, but electric guitars, percussion, and varieties of a strange Eastern European flute called the fujara which provides not just one note, but a note and its overtones at the same time. It sounds more Southeast Asian than European. Obmana does mostly ambient drift, but he is capable of some compelling and complex electronic rhythms, as in his album CROSSING THE TRAIL (1998). Yet he depends more on harmony and chords to get his meaning across, rather than the special effects and trancing rhythms of other ambient composers.

Ambient music, the offspring of globalized technology, is an international field, and Vidna Obmana, like Steve Roach, has collaborated with other ambient composers from all over the world. It was Steve Roach who really put Vidna Obmana on the ambient map in America, with their ongoing series of collaborative albums. The Roach/Obmana duo released their first set, the 2-CD WELL OF SOULS, in 1995. This big long album contains some very scary, "out there" music, as well as lots of wall-shaking rhythms. They tightened up their structure in the single-CD album CAVERN OF SIRENS (1997), in my opinion the best of their collaborations. Full of unusual percussion and rhythms, this sonically fascinating album uses samples of many different voices, including a Tibetan monk chanting prayers, sirenlike female voices, gravel-voiced growls, and weird singing. Steve Roach himself provides the ecstatic vocals in the glorious, headlong motion of track 4, "The Current Below." Roach would re-work some of the ideas from this particular piece into his LIGHT FANTASTIC two years later. In 1998 they produced a sprawling 3-CD set called ASCENSION OF SHADOWS: Meditations for the Millennium. Their fourth album, INNERZONE (2002), returns to the land of creepiness, with underworld flute playing by Obmana. They have just released their fifth major collaboration, a record of a live concert called SPIRIT DOME (2004).

Obmana continues to be very active in Europe, not only in ambient music but in film, live concerts with other instrumentalists: jazz, rock, pipe organ, and even classical chamber groups. He has also done music for theater, opera, films, art installations, and even an aquarium (SOUNDTRACK FOR THE AQUARIUM, 2001). His voice is not as easy to appreciate as some of the other composers I've mentioned; his European gloom and Belgian surrealism go against our American fondness for clarity, energy, speed, and light. But Vidna Obmana's music is a rewarding experience for those who can appreciate a subtle world of grey tones and slowly shifting clouds.

Next: More ambient composers with fewer albums to their credit

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