Breathing Analog Fire
from the book Electronic Music Pioneers by Ben Kettlewell (reprinted by permission)
I first met Steve Roach in 1986 when he was a guest on my radio program, Imaginary Voyage. He had just completed an east coast tour promoting his album Empetus. Since that time, it has been a real joy watching his career expand and flourish.
Born in 1955, Roach is constantly searching for new sounds that connect with a timeless source of truth in this ever-changing world. Roach has earned his position in the international pantheon of major new music artists over the last two decades through his cease- less creative output, constant innovation, intense live concerts, open-minded collaborations with numerous artists, and the psycho- logical depth of his music.
Inspired early on by the music of Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream and the European electronic music of the '70s, Steve began his musical explorations directly on synthesizers at the age of nineteen. He made his recording debut with the album Now in 1982. Two years later he created one of the most pivotal albums of his early career, Structures from Silence, one of the landmark ambient releases of the '80s, presenting a new sound that lives on today. The album was re-released in 2001 by Project. It is comprised of three long tracks featuring reflective intimate timbres and cascading lush harmonic waves. Roach sought to alter the listener's awareness of their physical surroundings by increasing the space within each of the pieces, and by extending the length between the sections to an expansive level, capturing the slow breath of the silence between the sounds.
Roach has always been a fervent collaborator, and has been involved with many well known electronic/ambient artists, including: Robert Rich, Vidna Obmana, Michael Stearns, Jorge Reyes, Suso Saiz, Michael Shrieve, Kevin Braheny, Richard Burmer, Stephen Kent, Kenneth Newby, and Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo virtuoso David Hudson to name just a few. Over the years he has also encouraged, produced and collaborated with a number of up-and-coming artists, including Vir Unis, Thom Brennan, and Biff Johnson.
Recognized worldwide as one of the leading innovators in contemporary electronic music, he has released over 50 albums since 1981, including the award-winning live-studio masterpiece On This Planet (1997, Fathom), the critically acclaimed Magnificent Void (1998, Fathom), the time traveling Early Man (2001, Projekt), and a number of albums that are already considered classics of the genre, most notably the ground-breaking double CD Dreamtime Return (1988, Fortuna).
All of Roach's early works have stood the test of time, drawing a new generation of fans who are only beginning to discover the vast territory of sonic innovation this artist has covered over the last two decades.
Roach's music, described by critic Dwight Loop as "techno-tribal music for the global village," blends the visceral sounds he designs on synthesizers and samplers with the primordial rhythms of ethnic percussion and other exotic instruments, including the Australian didgeridoo. He studied traditional didgeridoo techniques and made his own instrument with aboriginal didgeridoo master David Hudson during two extended trips to the southern continent in the late 1980s. Roach also scored music for a PBS documentary on the rock art of the Dreamtime (the foundation of aboriginal mythology) and recorded indigenous artists for the influential release Australia: Sound of the Earth (1990, Fortuna). Roach went on to produce David Hudson's solo works, Woolunda (1993, Celestial Harmonies), the first compact disc recording of solo didgeridoo music, and Rainbow Serpent (1994, Celestial Harmonies), which features Hudson in an expanded role as percussionist as well as didgeridoo virtuoso. The 1998 Roach-Hudson collaboration, Gunyal (Celestial Harmonies), is a visceral collection of dreamtime sound worlds combining powerful didgeridoo playing and surreal textures.
In recent years, Roach collaborated with Tibetan monk Thupten Pema Lama, blending solo prayers and chants with a subtle compliment of soundscapes created in reverence to these offerings. He also produced two recordings for the African group, Takadja (whose first self-titled album produced by Roach received a Juno Award, Canada's Grammy, for best world music recording).
Roach's music has been featured in a number of films, including 1995's Heat. His talent for creating atmosphere-drenched textures and surreal sound worlds has also led to increasing recognition of his work among film composers, such as Graeme Revell and Brian Keane, who brought Roach on board as a sound designer in several film and television projects. Roach's numerous artistic collaborations include two releases with Suspended Memories, the award-winning Earth Island as well as the group's enthusiastically received debut, Forgotten Gods (1993, Hearts of Space). In 1988, Roach teamed up with former Santana drummer Michael Shrieve on The Leaving Time (BMG). Two sonic essays of the American Southwest, Western Spaces (1987, reissued on Fortuna in 1990) and Desert Solitaire (1989, Fortuna), were highly successful group projects with artists Kevin Braheny, Thom Brennan and Michael Stearns.
In 1998 Roach started his own label, Timeroom Editions, as a compliment to his online presence represented by an extensive website. The momentum of this prolific artist built to a high point in the year 2000 with no less than seven releases and concerts in both the US and Europe and a third AFIM award for Light Fantastic (Fathom) in the category of Electronic/Ambient.
In 1990, the California native moved to the Sonoran desert just outside Tucson, Arizona, to be closer to this long-standing source of inspiration. Like the stark, red-rock landscapes of Australia, the American Southwest has long provided Roach with the experiential and psychological richness that imbues his work with the power and serenity of nature.
As one of the few electronic-based artists performing live consistently for over 20 years, Roach's engagements have taken him from concert halls in the United States, Canada, and Europe, to lava caves in the Canary Islands and volcanic craters in Mexico. These exotic settings have helped him further shape his style, a sonic vision that thrives in a sphere of ritualistic intensity beyond categories, national boundaries, cultural barriers, and quite often, time itself.
Ben Kettlewell: Since the early days of your career, you've enjoyed performing in front of a live audience. Back in the days of Structures and Empetus, when most of your gear was analog, it must have been difficult to represent what you achieved in the studio in a live environment. Given the complexities, and the temperament of analog synths, how did you achieve this?
Steve Roach: A typical concert for the '80s involved taking the entire studio out onto the stage every time. It was a monumental event, one that became a strange and involved ritual-obsession over time. It was like taking apart a large interconnected, living being and then rebuilding it at a location far from the safety of the my studio. I was driven to create these hyper-intense, sequencer-driven, mandala- like pieces in the moment, with the same approach as I would in the studio. There was no question as to this being the only way to present my music live.
As the concert approached, I would be creating new pieces in the studio right up to the last moment, building the energy to a high place right up to pulling the plug and breaking down all the gear. With the help of a few devoted friends, everything was packed up, transported and then rebuilt at the site. I was always required to be in the venue by mid morning for an 8PM concert. By early afternoon, I would be back up and tuning, tweaking, replacing dead cables, getting dialed into the room and sound system. I would start to work with the analog sequencers and proceed to find the qualities of the hall and start merging with the environment.
Really, the concert would start in the late afternoon. Before the audience arrived I would move through the pieces, which were built like a continuous journey. Once in the hall, I would continue to pick up from where I left off back in the studio, getting back to that place that I was carving from just the day before, but now with the expanded sense of sound and space and with the anticipation of the audience about to arrive. The raw power of these sequencer-based pieces presented a mega volume that was something to behold when it finally came together. That's what is so addicting about presenting this music live. So, by 7:30 that evening, I would essentially whip myself into an ultra high state of focus, becoming one with sound and equipment, staying with the synths and sound up until it was time to let the audience into the space. By this point I was pretty much merged with the gear, breathing analog fire. I would usually retune everything just before the doors opened. With the concert about to start, I was pretty much like a cat pacing in a cage, waiting to jump back in the sound current that had been cooking all afternoon.
The pieces recorded on my Stormwarning CD are a perfect document of this period. The on-stage gear for these concerts was an ARP 2600, three ARP Sequencers, Micro Moog, Roland SH101, Roland SH 1000, ARP-Solina String Ensemble, Ensoniq ESQ1, OBXA, Oberhiem system, DMX, DSX, OB8, Xpander, Emulator 1, Roland Space Echo, Teac board and more stuff I can't recall.
In thinking about this time, it was all a completely obsessive and compulsive state of being. I was really quite possessed with the need to create an altered state by way of analog-based, sequencer-based music. It became an important part of the development of my music at that time: in the way I would push myself and the equipment to find new places that you simply cannot access when all is warm and cozy in the studio. All of this helped to shape me as an electronic artist, right up to the present moment. I feel the same motivation now, but the methods have evolved.
BK: It sounds like preparing for a live concert was a monumental effort in those days. How has this setup changed in recent years?
SR: I have put so much time into it and experimented on many different levels. I paid a lot of dues by flying around with this massive collection of equipment for years. With my music and live presentation changing, the evolution of technology is giving more options in smaller packages. It finally made more sense to reduce the size of the setup and have maximum potential to present the music I do now.
Also, the analog stuff was getting more fragile and more valuable if it was lost or broken. Now with the smaller versions of the Oberheim gear, such as the Nord Rack and smaller more powerful samplers, I have developed a new approach to present the music live in a dynamic way. It was important for me to continue to tour without going broke and breaking my back in the process. As my music changed, and the live attitudes with it, I had to design this new system, one small enough to enable me to fly to about anywhere and hardly pay any excess baggage, to collect a couple of cases at the airport. The idea of creating my "sound worlds" live has taken on a new life for me.
The priority for my live presentation these days is to keep it moving, allowing me to focus on various levels at once within the flow of the music without getting lost tweaking out in front of an audience. This is what started to occur in the strictly analog days, more and more tweaking of smaller portions of sound, something that should be going on in the studio, not the stage. Now I am doing a lot of multi-tasking, mixing and re-mixing, live playing of acoustic instruments including didgeridoo, and the processing and looping of these, drawing from the synths and samplers, atmospheric and groove sources. Between playing instruments, I'm constantly hovering over the Mackie 24 SR Mixer like a painter would at his palette, mixing and processing the colors, so to speak, and pouring them back out through the speakers. With this approach, I'm able to focus on the overall shape. It feels like being the pilot of some kind of traveling sound-craft. The range of sonic terrain I can cover now is vast. For the future, I hope to include a laptop and the Doepfer MIDI-to-analog sequencer to the program when appropriate.
BK: The Oberheim Performance System played a crucial role in your studio and your live setup for many years. Can you tell me about the system, and what attracted you to the "Oberheim sound"?
SR: I was attracted by the potential to create these incredibly warm textures, the quality of the sound that just felt right in my ears. My first contact was an Oberheim 4 voice, which had a sound all its own. I followed the progression of the instruments and jumped in with the OBXA, then graduated to the pre-MIDI unified "Oberheim System." This was perfect for how my live approach was unfolding. Eventually this system was retrofitted with MIDI and then the CV-gate world as we knew it was changing fast. I had several friends workingat the company so I was privy to what was going on in R&D and that was part of the allure as well.
It was one fine day when the Xpander was finally born. I had played with the prototype versions, starting with no graphics on the faceplate. It was an exciting time to see and hear the development of these instruments being made just a few miles from my home. It seems that the timing with the Xpander and MIDI emerging and hitting at the crossroads around the same time created a visionary instrument that still holds its own in so many ways today. It was truly a big step in the evolution of electronic instruments. Also, with Oberheim being a product of Southern California, I like the idea of using an instrument indigenous to my area as well. The Xpander and Matrix 12 are still the main stays in my system today. I have said before that I can see spending a lifetime working with the Matrix 12, and while fifteen years is not quite a lifetime, it just keeps sounding better to me over time.
BK: You were also using an ARP 2600 and ARP sequencers back in the early days of the "Timeroom" in San Diego and Culver City, during the late '70s and early '80s. How did you sync all this gear together during a performance?
SR: It was CV and Gate, S trigger for the Moog. I had a clock divider built that subdivided the various clocks for triggering the sequencers and arpeggiator. Early on the ARP sequencers and clock divider were used as the master clock, then later the Oberheim DMX Drum Machine drove the entire network.
BK: Electronic instruments have changed a lot since you first started using them in the 1970s. As electronic instruments have evolved, how have digital synthesis, sampling, computers used for music production and new forms of signal processing affected your musical ideas?
SR: I think it's clear my music has become more complex and multidimensional. Early on, in the '80s for example, I was working more directly with melody and analog sequential patterns as a strong central element in the music. It seems over time I keep changing the magnification of the lens, coming closer and closer in on the aspects of sound that are so compelling to me. Including the ethnic-acoustic elements and using the computer as a non-liner compositional tool as well as for sound design has certainly blown the lid off for me over the past four years since I incorporated it into the studio. The previous approach of carving it out in the moment is still alive in the way I capture "experiences" occurring in the studio, but now I can take those and approach the performance like a surgeon going deep into the body of the sound and finding a more complex, involved world of textures and forms that keep revealing themselves as I change the perspective.
BK: Did learning on modular instruments like the ARP 2600 have a lasting impact on your work?
SR: Indeed. In fact, I started reading the manual before I could afford the 2600. So, it first started as visualization from reading, then interacting and exploring the basics with hands on, letting my imagination configure these various complex puzzles that would sometimes offer rewarding sound worlds. The pathways this approach created are still being accessed today with my current digital-analog units and, of course, the Xpander and the Matrix 12, which offer the modular approach as well. I am sure it would have been a different story if I were to start out on the freeze-dried sample playback units that were popular for a while. I am happy to see the resurgence of modular and knob-intensive instruments again.
It's interesting having grown up with analog equipment -- synths and recording equipment. For me the organic influence has created a foundation that absorbs whatever new approach comes along, while still keeping the human element alive in the machine. This was the only way to create in the "old days." With the analog gear nothing could be stored in memory, only in your own memory. I feel this created a different relationship to sound: at any moment, it could change or be rewired, never to be heard the same again -- much different from calling back your favorite patch #54. You always had to approach it in the moment with these "living" sounds. I still maintain this approach along with the evolution of new methods. I also love the process of creating living analog worlds of sounds that are cycling, ebbing and flowing, constantly changing at a minute level. I often have these sound worlds running live for days, and it seems that the longer it runs, the warmer and more melted together it feels.
BK: When a new instrument comes out, how do you go about investigating it? What do you look for in deciding whether or not to use it?
SR: I look for sound quality first, how it moves me. Then, how is the interface for programming? Is it intuitive or cumbersome? Then the basics like modulation routing and filter choices, if that applies. I will always get a hold of something for a few months and live with it over time to see how it settles into the sound relationship with the other instruments. I am very careful how I introduce a new instrument to the mix since I evolved the current system to a place that creates nice balance between the direct analog experience and the digital. After having fallen prey to techno lust a few times too many, I find nowadays that a nice quiet session with the Xpander will tell me I really don't need to be buying any new toys that are trying to do what this already does much better. It still inspires in ways that most synths never will, for me anyway.
BK: Tell me about your new Timeroom studio setup, and its advantages/disadvantages over the earlier one.
SR: Well, it's a hybrid evolution of the earliest system. It's still centered around an analog-digital synth-sequencer configuration. I see no disadvantages to the system these days. It would hold more than a lifetime's worth of exploring, even if nothing was added from this point forward. The rundown for my set up as it has evolved is: For the MIDI sequencing I use the Akai MPC60 as the main brain that clocks the Doepfer Shaltwerk, Doepfer MAQ16, and two Korg Electribes. The sequencers can be routed to the Xpander, Proteus World, Procussion, Roland MKS-30 and all the main synths in the system. The Korg Z1 is my current master keyboard, above that is an Emu E6400, next to that, a Nord Rack 2 and just above that, the trusty Oberheim Xpander. On the other rack is an Oberheim Matrix 12 and below that, a Korg Wavestation Ex.
I also have a handful of Alesis MMT 8 sequencers, which are great for stand alone MIDI recordings of on-the-fly loops. For recording, I have two ADAT 20 bit recorders, which are not seeing much use now with the arrival of the PC 800 P3 running Vegas Pro, Acid and a variety of plug ins. For an audio interface, I am using the Layla 24-96 unit combined with the ADAT for 16 out. Then a few racks for the effects gear, PCM 70-80-500, three Jammans, Eventide, and so on.
Since I have built my sound and approach around the constant interaction of playing with the various sequencers, knobs, etc., both in a rhythmic and slow motion context, I need to have a my hands directly on knobs and sliders, and effects sends, all a part of the studio as one large instrument. For this reason I still use a Soundcraft Delta 8 analog console. Against two walls is a collection of didgeridoos, and a large collection of all sorts of percussion, drums, clay pots, pre-Hispanic flutes, shakers, rattles and strange sound making objects that all find there way in the mix at the right time.
BK: After this rundown of the contents of the studio, it seems that the Timeroom represents a lot more than just a studio full of gear. Can you tell us about it?
SR: The neutral, safe environment of the Timeroom is something that I longed to have before building it from the ground up. It was a name adopted back in San Diego. Wherever I would set up my creative space, the name would follow. Starting in 1978, I can think of six locations of the Timeroom before I built its present location here in Tucson. I wanted to create a space that was more than a room full of gear. It had to offer a sense of sanctuary during the creative process. For me, this was achieved by the shape; the big window looking out at the desert and the mountains, the color scheme, the arrangement of gear, no phones or clocks. This is a place I love to be in every day. So, in an Eastern sense it relates to having this quiet place inside yourself no matter where you are, which is a much harder task to maintain out in the world today. The Timeroom supports and encourages my desire to create these sounds that often feel just out of reach, just below the surface but always present, a place you know exists, but were unaware of until sound worlds are created that feel familiar in that strange, elusive, clearly non-verbal way. Again, the ways of a visual artist, painter or sculptor in terms of the relationship with the process of creating one's work over long periods of solitary time is at play here.
BK: It seems that more and more, the future for getting a composer's music out there is through emerging music formats such as MP3 and working with the World Wide Web, which you seemed to have mastered through your own site, www.steveroach.com, and your MP3 site. What are your observations on these events?
SR: As an independent artist, it's the best thing to happen since affordable-portable synthesizers, and all the tools for self-production. The Web's nervous system is a natural answer to the question that all the home-based recording gear offered as new artists started creating music on their own terms. When I released my first albums on cassette and LP in the early '80s the baby steps were taken toward this sort of do-it-yourself method. Of course, what would take weeks or months by way of snail mail and delayed print timelines happens in minutes now.
I see it as a great way to get the music to people who might not have the chance to find it due to the strangle hold that pop culture has on traditional radio, press and TV. I see a mutation that involves taking the college radio paradigm, mixing it with syndicated radio shows like Hearts of Space and Echoes, splicing this into specialized online magazines and then including the artists' sites, MP3.com, all the links and so on. Put all this in the hands of the people directly, and you have a great system to empower the individual. The best way to get the word out about the music is to hear it directly. I feel it's a great addition to the written review. There's nothing like hearing for yourself and making a direct connection. Since this music isn't advertised much, it's a great way to help get it heard beyond the ambient, electronic, music-between-the-cracks zones.
BK: Already many existing radio stations have Web radio, and this has become a big area of contention now with the passing of the Digital Millennium Act in Congress in 1999. All of the performance right organizations and the recording organizations, like ASCAP, BMI, RIAA are saying that music is, in many cases, being distributed without royalties being paid. There's a big scramble to figure out what to do about piracy. Many stations have taken a wait-and-see attitude. What are your opinions on this subject?
SR: As an artist that makes his living directly from his work, naturally I am not in favor of uncontrolled "stealing" of my work. Again, using radio, television and Film Sync use as a format, the need to find a fair way to compensate the artist who is providing the "software" to broadcast in the first place is vital for us to continue to have the freedom to create. I feel the entire controversy with Napster, and so on, is more telling of how our society has devalued music and art in a lot of ways, expecting it for free without considering what it takes to create it in the first place.
In my case, it's not a privilege. It's been hard earned at many personal costs. It's a complex situation, but for the time being, I am happy to use the MP3.com site as a way to share the music with new and established listeners. It's also a way to give the listeners some special tracks, previews of what's coming, live concert tracks and so on. In this case it is useful and feels fair. MP3.com has a pay-for-play program, which in reality has been more supportive financially than some CD's I have released on previous labels after the "Creative Accounting" occurs. At any given day on an MP3 server, I could have hundreds of listings. I know this brought some serious listens to my music after hearing their feedback at the web store. It still needs to be monitored, not just for the protection of the fat cats at the big labels, but for the fringe dwellers who have always had a harder time getting the music into distribution channels in the first place.
So, for now I see the MP3, net radio and so on as a great promotional tool, an alternative to print ads and other conventional modes. I am still a believer in manufactured CD's as the preferred medium for now and feel the convenience, reliability and quality control, along with the complete vision that goes into the real deal when holding it in your hand, is hard to beat. When the next obvious medium of delivering music is to the point where someone like my mom can easily download an entire CD with full artwork, quickly without any drama, then I'll feel its time has arrived. Till then, the modes we have now are just fine, along with the exploding Internet culture.
BK: Tell me about your Timeroom Editions label and how it came to be.
SR: As I just mentioned, the web site and the online mail order service has changed things dramatically. Timeroom Editions was created primarily as an Internet mail-order series of releases. At first it was to solve the problems of too many releases competing in the mainstream. Even more, this keeps me in the flow without all the drama of timing releases. Each release simply comes out when it's ready, with just a few announcements letting the subscribers know about a new Timeroom Edition.
These discs are there at the site for those who want to go deeper into my work. The number I might sell annually is small in the eyes of a normal record company, but it's clear it's a direct-from-the-artist affair. My hard-core audience loves this and so do I. The direct feedback feeds the fire, pure and simple, no drama: Create the music and have the direct pipeline to the folks who want it. It's not a newthing for me since I have been doing my own mail order since the beginning, but the level of efficiency that the Internet provides makes it enjoyable without consuming other aspects of my life, keeping the path clear for the mainstream label releases with Projekt, while satisfying my creative drive and the fans on the inside who can never have enough. The mail order service is also filling a big hole in terms of my back catalog and the fact that a lot of stores don't carry many back titles, so this is a good feeling as well, to help people find a release they have been searching for.
BK: Let's get back to your music. Many reviewers and listeners describe your music as a transformational tool, which helps bring the listener into a deeper level of consciousness. Why do you think so many people share that vision in regard to your music?
SR: The willful intention in all my music is to create an opening, which allows me to step out of everyday time and space, into a place I feel we are born to experience directly. Many of our current social structures and material concerns shut down the opening or build a complex array of 'plumbing' to divert a direct experience we all crave in one way or another. In any case, these sound worlds can offer a place where the bondage of western time is removed and the feeling of an expanded state is encouraged. I often refer to the words "visceral," being in the "sound current," or "sound worlds," when describing my work. This is a prime area where I feel the measure of all my work--in the body. So, for me to create these sounds and rhythms, and utilize my own body as the reflecting chamber is my direct way of living in the sound current that occurs naturally when the juices are flowing. From the feedback I receive, this is something I know receptive listeners are feeling as well. Tapping into the creative process at this direct level simply feels like a birthright.
I truly feel the complexity of what makes me a human being and drives me to create this music is something that can never be measured and explained in terms conveniently reduced to a string of words. Starting with the impulses and urges of early man, deep in the collective memory up to now, I feel compelled to make sense of the chaos and beauty around me -- to give it meaning, and feel more whole and alive for our time on this planet. As far back as I can remember, the realm of ineffable feelings emerging in everyday life haunted me.
When I discovered the way to express this world through sound, things just fell into place in many ways. It feels like it's enough to just say I have to create my music in the same way I have to breathe. It's not a question of whether it's pleasing or disturbing to other people, or record companies and so on. I do it for myself before anyone else. The fact that I have devoted all of my adult life to creating this music at whatever cost outside the interference of commercial concerns has allowed me to follow some tracks to places that are essential and universal at the core. I get the sense the listeners to the music feel this and respond naturally.
BK: Where do you find the inspiration and time to create such a great body of output, especially in the past four years? What inspires you? What keeps you working at this pace?
SR: It's just the natural pace for me to operate at. It's not forced. I don't feel I'm working at it rigorously. It just feels like I am in the flow. I love being in this sound current and capturing the music as I do. It's a constant feedback circuit. Over the years the momentum builds and the process becomes more rich and fulfilling for me. It's a way of life for me, not a job or a profession. It's my chosen path, being in the flow of sound and music. Looking at the flow of a visual artist or sculptor, for example, these people usually have reams of work in various stages. A constant regeneration occurs where the work helps build the momentum and energy that inspires the actual process. It's no different for me. I've always felt more connected to this process of creativity.
Somewhere along the way, the record industry set a standard to protect their own investments with an artist or group squeezing out a release every fifteen months. That system has never really made sense for the way I work. Now, with the Timeroom Editions, and the outstanding collaborative relationship with Sam Rosenthal, owner of Project Records with whom I release my above-ground work, I have found a nice flow and balance.
BK: You, Robert Rich, and Michael Stearns were among the first Americans to delve into this type of music. What was it like back in the 1970s trying to introduce your music to a new audience?
SR: It's been a long, wonderful and strange trip indeed. When I set out to live the creative life as a sound sculptor, it was a different time to say the least. In the mid-'70s, this music was still being born,especially in the States. There were almost no labels, no real radio support, a few underground magazines, like Eurock and Synapse, the latter of which I also wrote for. Compared to today, with the Internet as the hub of all things, it was the dark ages. Imagine trying to hook up with like-minded people or get your music to people beyond your immediate reach. It was also an incredibly exciting time with impending changes in the air. The frontier of consciousness expanding music was clearly growing, and this impetus was spawning many new instruments and small companies that often came and went as fast as they appeared. I set out to do electronic music against many odds, but my passion to live in the sound current was all that mattered, and this is what drove me through all the highs and lows and beyond the naysayers. At that time, only a handful of people around me knew what I was talking about when I would start on these born-again tirades about the "music of the future." There really was a feeling of being a part of something significant, in a historic sense. To witness all these changes and to meet and work with many of the people helping to bring all this together, in such a short time, was nothing short of fantastic. Just a few years ago, getting your music onto an LP or a cassette run was a major accomplishment. Then there were the tasks of gathering names from underground sources and mailing packages and letters to each and every one. It was a grassroots effort where I felt like every cassette or LP sent out was like a personal connection. I still feel this way but on a larger scale. My first release was Now, in 1982, followed by Structures from Silence on cassette. It was this release that brought me to the attention of Fortuna Records, based in California. This is about the time I met Robert Rich, who was also self-publishing his early work, like Trances and Drones.
It's important for me to say I have never approached my music as a career, a profession, or a way to make a living. My obsession to live in these sound worlds has eventually provided the support to keep me creating. I survived a lot of strange jobs at that time. One of the better ones was eight hours a day in a clean room at a Microbiology lab for a few years, then straight home to the Timeroom all night, living like a techno monk in a tiny one-bedroom house in Culver City, Ca. I even had a visit from Chris Franke of Tangerine Dream at one point, which for me at the time was pretty much like the Dalai Lama stopping in, at this stucco Gingerbread looking bungalow built in the '30s for the workers in the film studios nearby. Every spare penny went toward supporting the equipment habit I needed to create this music. The fact that I eventually reached the point where the music in turn supported me enough to quit my day job and live in the sound current exclusively is something I don't take for granted.
As a side bar, this is a very brief overview from my perspective of events not long ago -- in the pre-Internet era. The "commercial" groundswell started to build in the late '80s. The catchall term New Age was adopted for the purpose of retail and marketing.
This travesty of a definition started to build momentum and swooped up many forms of unsuspecting genre-less music at the same time. Companies like Windham Hill and Private Music, backed by major label clout and greed, continued to build the fire and find a peak in the early '90s, inspiring dozens of overnight labels to spew out reams of forgettable "product". In my opinion, this glut of "product" helped to poison the well to a certain extent and turned a lot of people off to this music in the end. Still, the momentum from this time had a positive side, and thankfully, like a raging California wildfire, it burned itself out, leaving behind a smoldering, ashen heap, which fueled the natural process of survival of the fittest. The Phoenix rose up. On the 8th day, what's his name created the Internet, the Mecca for all fringe dwellers old and new, including the ones that survived the great "wildfires" of the early 1990s. These events seem like bumps in the long road when even looking back a few years later.
BK: I want to talk about your method of composition. Is there a chain of events, or a memory that conjures up a particular sonic image, or do you go into your studio, and just start exploring ideas?
SR: There are so many levels at work here. Long-term ideas that build up energy often start as spontaneous moments in the studio. Sometimes a title or a word will key me into the deeper storehouse of memories. The ongoing meditation of working on the various sound worlds will often take me to places I could arrive at no other way. I have this biological need to create certain types of zones that have become established in my music. It's something that wells up time after time, and it's a world I'm compelled to keep exploring in various ways.
The biggest influence is living here in the desert. It's a constant generator that feeds my inner life in many ways. I have no formula since every project takes on a different shape and set of harmonic sonic-mythic-rhythmic puzzles to solve and explore. In somesettings, the feeling of creating a film is the best way to compare the process. Shooting the film can be compared to capturing improvisa- tions and explorations in the moment, then telling the story by way of editing. Like the texture and grain of the film, the processing can drive it, slow it down, and sweep one away, whatever. Besides the powerful places right here in the southwest, I get tremendous inspiration from films, along with the visual arts. Since I never really do songs, the long form pieces are created from many different elements that, once woven into the fabric, serve multiple purposes in the big picture.
It is always important to remember the instruments are tools to help me express multi-leveled emotional nuances and states of consciousness. I'm careful not to let the technology take over and turn me into a more rigid, machine-like being.
BK: When you're working on a composition, molding sound, building things up, how do you sense when the piece is complete?
SR: Gut feeling. Instinct. Creating a flow and balance that just feels right. Sometimes with a piece that occurs spontaneously, it feels finished right on the spot. Other times I can work on a piece over a long period of time before it feels complete. Each piece or final CD had its own story for me on many levels. Sometimes, I put all of myself into the one I am currently engaged in, only moving forward when it feels complete. Sometimes I have several different fires going at once, and they all influence each other, maybe balancing each other as they express opposite feelings or sides of my personality. With that said, I can listen to older releases and hear them from a new perspective. This might trigger a new idea or technique and sometimes remind me of a path I traveled down for a while and want to jump back on that track and keep exploring it further and deeper.
BK: Can you tell me about the tabula rasa and how that affects your preparation for creating music?
SR: Tabula rasa means "clean slate" in Latin. It is for me a state of creative nothingness, a mindset that lets go of all preconceived ideas, habits, social mores, philosophical ideas, obligations, methods and techniques. While some of my work is influenced by the past, by feelings I've already explored and want to go deeper into, a piece created from the tabula rasa state has no connection to the past, no connection to time at all really. It seems to rise up from a place of pure, unformed potential that leads you into a new way of working and perceiving. I just create an opening in my mind and my heart and let it happen. Some of my best work has come from this perspective. These pieces have led me down an unexpected path, expanding my style and my scope as an artist.
BK: Your albums, Dreamtime Return and Sound of the Earth, marked quite a pivotal period in your career. Can you tell me about your meeting with David Hudson, and how your trips to Australia brought all this together?
SR: Dreamtime Return was certainly a culmination of my deepest desires and aspirations up to that point. I came into my own as an artist during that project. It was really an initiation for me on many levels, including the connection to my own sound that I was constantly searching out. Most of all, it was a time of intensive personal growth and understanding. I felt that I'd left a lot of the overt European influences behind at that point, integrating them in a more personal way, and my relationship to land where I grew up deepened. The expansive, breathing, warm harmonic waves of sound reflected the desert landscapes that shaped me when I was young. These sounds, and the sensations that gave rise to them, were already alive within me; I just had to wipe the slate clean of European influences to allow this deeper, personal music to come through. Around this time, the mid-80s, the feeling of a sonic and spiritual bridge between the Southwest and the Australian outback was also awakening.
I spent a lot of time in Joshua Tree, outside L.A. in the desert region. I grew up in the Southern California Deserts, Anza Borrego and others. From the bedrock of this amazing land of extremes, I began to feel a sense of spiritual expansion, which grew out from beyond the desert I grew up in and was inspired by -- a much larger, less familiar landscape. This was when the Dreamtime concept started to unfold.
Around this time I also saw the film by Peter Weir, The Last Wave, in which I heard the didgeridoo for the first time. It was a white filmmaker's version of certain mystical aspects of the Dreamtime and Aboriginal culture in its own obviously diluted way. But still, it was a significant point in my growing fascination with Australia. I had a friend who moved to Australia in the '60s and came back withcaptivating stories of this faraway place. The mystery of this ancient landscape spiraled through my subconscious for years. In the mid '80s I was starting to work on preliminary pieces for Dreamtime Return, just gathering different impressions with no idea that I would be going to Australia. I really hadn't thought about it much more than just fascination about the different deserts out there that you could travel to in your imagination.
Knowing I was working on this project, the owner of Fortuna Records at the time, Ethan Edgecomb, sent me a book, Archaeology of the Dreamtime, about the time I was starting to get deeper into the project, around 1986. Probably within a month of receiving that book and reading it -- which was written from an anthropological point of view of the Australian Aboriginals in the Cape York area of Australia -- I received a phone call from a filmmaker who was working on a film called the Art of the Dreamtime. Using that very same book as a reference, he was producing a documentary for PBS and planning an expedition to that very same remote area in Cape York with a film crew from a university. One thing led to another, and I became the musician/composer on that expedition. They took care of everything for me, so I was one of the crew members. It was just an unbelievable turn of events. The filmmaker said he first heard my music when he was traveling to Mexico through Texas and Structures from Silence was playing on the radio late at night across the desert. I remember him saying that he felt like he was in a Stanley Kubrick film.
The feeling of synchronicity was overwhelming at times. Along with being in those remote Aboriginal sites for weeks, the entire project brought up so much in me that went way beyond music. Being at these sites, sleeping on the same dirt as the ancient people of the land and listening to pieces on headphones that I'd already created back in the Timeroom before I ever imagined I would go to Australia was unforgettable.
This was also when I met Aboriginal Didgeridoo player David Hudson, who I went on to produce three didgeridoo records for. He taught me to play the didg. The entire Australian-Dreamtime Return period was a tremendous opening for me as an artist, and as a person. It taught me to really listen with my ear very closely to the ground, a direct experience of how magical things can happen when you listen with your heart and an open mind. The influences of those events continue to spiral out, unfolding with a natural order. I feel the uninterrupted connection still reverberating from that point -- the understanding that I came to during the two years of making Dreamtime Return.
By 1989 I was back in Australia for a second adventure that led to the project Australia: Sound of the Earth. It was directly after this second trip to Australia that I moved to Tucson and started a new life with my wife Linda Kohanov.
A curious side note is that David Hudson came for a visit here in Tucson in the early '90s with his fiance Cindy and ended up getting married in the desert behind my house. He was taken with how much Tucson felt like Alice Springs, in central Australia, the place where they met originally. They were inspired by the parallels between the two deserts and how Tucson was able to bring up similar feelings for them. Since they were on an extended holiday, they rose to the moment.
BK: You've combined the use of ancient indigenous instruments with high technology in many of your works. Can you explain the synergy you find by combining ancient and modern musical tools?
SR: I see the didgeridoo and my favorite analog synthesizer, the Oberheim Matrix 12, as both being high points in their own time, created out of a need to hear and create a sound that the conscious- ness was needing. The didgeridoo was a much earlier form of technology, one that created a rich, continuous drone in the same way as the most current synthesizer and computer setups. In the right hands, the Oberheim Matrix 12 Analog Synth can tap into the same timeless realm as the didg, and elaborate on this feeling with a much more intricate series of multi-layered voices, creating a harmonic atmosphere that blossoms into waves of sound, seemingly spilling forth from some other world. The rich, uninterrupted harmonic drones of the didgeridoo have an almost electronic sound that captivated me the moment I heard it. The sounds embraced each other so well, creating this electro-organic quality. I went on to explore this by extensively fusing all sorts of elemental sounds into the electric stew. The simple act of having an open microphone recording an acoustic track in the midst of a full blown electronic piece adds a since of space, injecting "air" directly into what was once a hermetically sealed world. My recordings Origins and the recent Early Man are prime examples of this synergy.
BK: Do you plan to further explore the DVD format in your future creations?
SR: This medium is a natural extension for the music, which is often quite visual on its own. I have had quite a few visual music pieces in the past on video and Laser Disk. The merging of music and images has been a part of my creative process. It appears that DVD is the mode to parallel if not replace the audio CD in future. Also the possibilities of the extended program time and surround mixes will become more available in future music. I am watching closely with sober anticipation.
BK: What are your plans for the future? Where do you see this kind of music going in the next ten years?
SR: I usually have several projects on the burner at once, usually in vast contrast to each other, so I am sharing time between these now. I find they usually feed each other in curious ways during the parallel creative process. As for a ten year projection, it's up to those making the music to meet the challenge of having all the tools anyone could ever ask for while expressing something connected to the bigger picture, something that comes from a genuine place. I have always seen this indefinable sound-art as an outlet for the innately talented -- for people, who, not too long ago might never have found a way to express these worlds. This means more and more people, like myself, who didn't fit into the conformity of the academic world, or didn't give in to the bondage of creativity within the conventional matrix of the music or film business, can express their own unique visions with true independence. I feel the best qualities of this music are evolving in exciting ways, in all the sub-genres. It's a moot point to say the boundaries are dissolving; it's a big boiling pot by now. I say, just keep stirring it, adding new ingredients and trying new recipes while staying connected to the soulful qualities that move one to create in the first place. The good stuff will rise and the rest will fall away like it always has. One thing for sure is there will be more of both extremes.