Electronic Music, Writing, and Reviews

"Altocumulus" is my artist name for electronic music, ambient, and my writing about experimental music and related subjects.

Thu, 28 May, 2009

Ambient Composers, part 1: Steve Roach

The brightest star in the ambient galaxy, in my opinion and many others' as well, is Steve Roach. Born and raised in Southern California, Roach moved to Tucson, Arizona in the late 80s and has been profoundly influenced by the desert environment. Roach has been working with electronic ambient music since the late 60s, and has moved through a number of phases in his career. His earliest published work was heavily influenced by the electronic rock of bands like the famous German group Tangerine Dream, and what is known as the "Berlin school" of electronic rock music, which depended heavily on synthesized rhythms and mechanically repeating sequences of notes programmed into that perennial synthesizer favorite, the "sequencer." (This is now referred to generally as a "looper." But during the 80s Roach evolved his own unmistakable, and much-imitated, personal style.

He really came into his own with his landmark 1988 double album, DREAMTIME RETURN which is inspired by his stay in Australia and his contact with Aborigines and their music. The classic "Roach style" features elegant chords, often from jazz or rock origins, played on synthesizers and stretched out into sonic infinity by reverberation and other processing. Over these "floating chords" are many layers of percussion, special effects, samples, and acoustic instrument tones. This sounds like the recipe for "classic ambient" as I described it in the last post, and it is — because Roach is one of the people who invented classic ambient.

During the 90s, Roach moved into what might be called his "shamanic" period, where he was deeply influenced by the spirituality, rhythms, and music of Native and Aboriginal peoples, as well as his vision of what the music of prehistoric humans might have been. His monumental albums ORIGINS (1993) and ARTIFACTS (1994) are percussion-heavy journeys into a primal vision. They also feature the Australian aboriginal wind instrument known as the didgeridoo. He manages to avoid being either cute or colonialist, mainly by sheer musical devotion. During those years, he collaborated with other musicians such as Mexican percussionist Jorge Reyes and Spanish guitarist Suso Saiz on music influenced by ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Some of these albums are FORGOTTEN GODS (1993) and EARTH ISLAND (1994).

At the same time, Roach was creating music which I like to call "desert space music." The finest example of this style, and definitely one of Roach's best works ever, is the 1992 2-CD set WORLD'S EDGE. While this uses plenty of rhythm, it is more expansive and futuristic, evoking images of vast skies and turbulent weather, desert landscapes and blazing sunlight, and the brilliant stars and space of an Arizona night. There's a kind of heroic quality to Roach's music, which is most evident here. It's also "American" in the best way, not explicitly patriotic or chauvinistic but built from the "American" ideals of optimism, invention, resourcefulness, perseverance, and courage in the wilderness. In a way, Roach is the Aaron Copland of ambient music. As a Southwestern desert visionary, he might also be considered the "Georgia O'Keefe" of ambient music.

But there's another side to Roach (actually, many sides). The second CD of the WORLD'S EDGE set, "To the Threshold of Silence," is an hour-long foray into "dark ambient," influenced by Tibetan Buddhist ritual music as well as shamanic drumming, all fading into the infinite dark spaces (made possible, as always, by that blessed digital reverb!). Roach goes even further into that dark energy in the 1996 album THE MAGNIFICENT VOID, which dispenses with percussion and consists almost entirely of long, sustained synthesizer notes in big, built-up layers, oscillating in a slow, pendulum-like rhythm. It's very spooky and cosmological.

I'm leaving out dozens of solo and collaborative works here, which can be found, along with sound samples, on Roach's discography page. Roach's creativity won't let him rest. He hates standing still stylistically just because he has once achieved a good combination of sounds. He has made explorations into things as diverse as cowboy music (DUST TO DUST, 1997), progressive rock (THE LEAVING TIME, 1988, with Michael Shrieve and David Torn, among others), and long-form "environmental" ambient, for instance THE DREAM CIRCLE (1994) and SLOW HEAT (1998). He's also collaborated with some of the other luminaries of ambient music such as Robert Rich, "Vidna Obmana," and "Vir Unis," who I'll be talking about in the next installment.

At the end of the 1990s, Roach moved away from his "shamanic" period, and entered into yet another new world of musical inspiration. As it often happens, some of this was due to technical innovations. The application of computers and fractals to sound and rhythm generation brought forth a new way to add depth to electronic music. The main rhythmic beat can have endlessly changing layers of sub-beats inside each measure, and tone-colors can be made of shimmering textures rather than just individual notes. In 1999 Roach released his brilliant album LIGHT FANTASTIC which adds a cyber-dimension to his signature "desert spacemusic." His collaborations with "Vir Unis," such as BODY ELECTRIC (1999) and BLOOD MACHINE (2001) also feature this new computer-aided complexity.

His big solo album for 2001 was CORE, which I regard as a "retrospective" of 20 years of Roachmusic. Each track alludes to a style or theme he has explored over those years. CORE is also one of his most emotionally intense creations; this is definitely not "ambient" in the old sense of background mood music. Its frantic rhythms and dissonant harmonies no longer look back to a world of shamans and mystics but to the present and future world of uncertainty and terror.

Yet at the same time he was already working on his major release for 2003, a vast 4-CD set named MYSTIC CHORDS AND SACRED SPACES. There are nearly 5 hours of music on this set; it's as long as Wagner's PARSIFAL if you play it all at once (do not listen while driving or operating heavy machinery). Like his earlier MAGNIFICENT VOID, MYSTIC CHORDS is composed exclusively of long sustained notes in multiple, slowly shifting layers. There's no wild drumming, no fractal rhythms and no hot special effects. In this set, Roach is influenced not by Aboriginal music or rock or jazz, but by the Late Romantic composers of the 19th and 20th century such as Alexander Scriabin, whose grand mystical chord made of a "spiral of fourths" inspired some of the harmonies in MYSTIC CHORDS. Though this is one of Roach's finest efforts so far, MYSTIC CHORDS is also one of his less "accessible" works. It isn't something that automatically lights up your audiosphere. You have to approach it by learning its "language" of slow chord changes and long spaces. MYSTIC CHORDS is esoteric; I would even call it "initiatory," as it is explicitly music for an inner journey.

All these albums can be found by going to the Roach website, though some of them are out of print. The site has sound-samples available. Roach has his own private label, "Timeroom Editions," and sells his albums, from all labels, from the website.

The reason, in my opinion, why Roach can carry so many styles, and be so prolific without losing quality, is that he is the most "musical" of ambient/electronic composers. That is, he chooses chords, harmonies, rhythms, textures, and tone-colors which are innovative and make musical sense no matter what the genre is, and he knows how to pace an album so that there is never too much of the same thing. (This doesn't apply to his minimalist "environment" works, which are meant to be the same thing all the way through.) Because his style is so characteristic, Roach is easily imitated, but you can immediately hear the difference between Roach and his imitators. He has inspired what I call the "school of Steve Roach" among a whole generation of ambient musicians in the US and Europe. He has worked with some of them directly as producer and mentor; others just hear his work and imitate him. Some of them, such as Biff Johnson and the Spanish Max Corbacho are quite good in their own right. Others, not to be named here, range from "generic Roach" to slavish imitation. But while these guys are still making music like Roach in the 90s, Roach has raced on ahead into the 21st century.

A note from 2009. It has been five years since I wrote this article. Since 2004, Steve Roach has continued to produce albums in his various styles, some by himself and some with collaborators. He has done percussion albums with shamanic drummer Byron Metcalf (NADA TERMA, 2008) and a guitar and electronic album with Norwegian guitarist Erik Wollo (STREAM OF THOUGHT, also 2008). In 2005, Roach made an interesting excursion into non-tonal noise with his POSSIBLE PLANET. Also during these years, Roach has been releasing albums derived from his live performances such as 2007's ARC OF PASSION. In the other direction, toward minimalism and "environmental" sound albums, he has produced the "Immersion" series in which repeating looped patterns of tones at low levels produce an almost subliminal effect.

Roach has not neglected his "classic" style, the desert space music he is so well-known for. In 2008 he released LANDMASS, a musical evocation of geological spaces, and just this year, in April, Roach came forth with what I think is his best album since MYSTIC CHORDS. This is DYNAMIC STILLNESS, a 2-CD set of journeys into vastness. It is more serene and less scary than MYSTIC CHORDS, but I would not speculate that Roach is getting "mellow" in his middle years. There's a long way to go yet on Roach's road.

Next: other first-magnitude stars of the ambient firmament.

Posted at 2:43 am | link