On This PlanetArtist Spotlight: Steve Roach
CMJ New Music Report, December 8, 1997

Premiere ambient sculptor Steve Roach has a new CD out on Fathom Records called On This Planet. With over 30 releases to his name, Roach's impact on the worlds of electronic trance and ambient music cannot be easily measured. CMJ fired a few questions off to the veteran composer to get his thoughts on his place in history.

CMJ: You have been creating ambient soundscapes for nearly 20 years now. What do you think of the recent upswing in the popularity of ambient music?

Roach: Of course, I see it as positive. It's been a pretty incredible journey to see this music reach its current popularity, but I still think there's a fairly wide border between the pop ambient trends and the music that I do along with my colleagues. Hopefully there will start to be more of a disregard for those borders by mainstream listeners and the popular media.

Do you consider yourself a musician?

I've always seen myself more as a sculptor or painter whose medium is sound.

How do you write your pieces?

I don't write the pieces in any traditional sense. It's more of a visceral process of carving out the feeling that I'm going for from the various sound worlds and techniques available to me. Once it's alive in the studio, I live with it for quite a while, shaping it, listening to it from different angles, adding a brush stroke here and there. But then again, it's always different. Sometimes a spontaneous outburst is recorded, and that's the end of it.

What do you listen for when you create?

I strive to create an opening. I've learned to trust a certain feeling that arises when the sound worlds I'm creating start to gel, so I listen with more than my ears. When I feel the room start to disappear, there's an opening through the sound that takes me to other places, other states. This is what I've always wanted to experience through my music.

You describe your pieces as "sonic topography." Can you elaborate on this term?

Metaphorically speaking, it's a dynamic landscape that takes on the same sensations as if you're taking a trip through a dramatic region. The experience you have is constantly evolving as you travel through geographical features that merge in and out of each other. Like driving or hiking through the Southwest, for example. You're in a stark open valley, and you see the mountains in the distance, then you're in the foothills, then in the mountains looking back on the open valley you came from, perhaps ending up at the ocean. It's not just a scenic vision. Your emotions and most certainly your body are being affected because, all the while, the temperature and humidity are changing. Storms are coming and going. These things flow in and out of each other on many different levels. These sorts of experiences shaped me from a young age and have organically infiltrated my music.

How, if at all, does a live setting affect your work?

The honesty of putting yourself out on the edge brings out an energy in the music that you can never reach in the safety of the studio.

-- Tad Hendrickson



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