Electronic Music, Writing, and Reviews

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

Sat, 20 Jun, 2009

Ambient Composers 2: Robert Rich

In this chapter we move from the sun-bleached desert of Arizona to the moist underground of fungi, the hypnotic-fragrant Near East, esoteric underground labyrinths, and turbulent weather.

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.

2009 update: In the years since this article was written, Robert Rich has continued in the paths he created in the last decade. He has released more recordings of live concerts, such as the brilliant CALLING DOWN THE SKY (recorded in Colorado in 2006) and has collaborated with British ambient maker Ian Boddy in three albums. Rich also collaborated with filmmaker Daniel Colvin (using computer animation) in a seriously esoteric exploration called ATLAS DEI, released in 2007.

But my favorite newer (last five years) work of Robert Rich are two albums that aren't quite in his "main line" of work: 2004's OPEN WINDOW, a solo piano album, and 2005's ECHO OF SMALL THINGS, which is a mix of "found sounds" and very quiet electronics. OPEN WINDOW is a recording of the kind of piano improvisation Rich would do before he got into the main sequence of a concert. A mixture of Scriabin, Debussy, and ECM-style ultracool jazz, this wonderful album is one of my favorite piano albums of all time. It is also made poignant by the fact that Robert Rich seriously injured his right hand after the release of the album, an event which mostly ended his piano-playing career, though he is still fine on flutes, guitars, percussion, and synthesizers.

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