Steve Roach and the Didgeridoo
by Linda Kohanov
When Steve Roach made his first trip to Australia in 1987, few people outside the continent knew what a didgeridoo was, let alone considered using this ancient instrument in a modern musical setting. Over the years, Roach has relentlessly worked, usually behind the scenes, to bring Australian aboriginal music and the didgeridoo to wider audiences while mainaining a sincere and respectful connection to the instrument's aboriginal roots.
In the late 70's and early 80's, Roach had already made a name for himself as an innovative electronic composer, but it was the uncanny organic quality of his texures that made his style stand out from other synthesized efforts of the day. Roach had always looked to nature as his supreme source of inspiration. The feelings and states of mind he experienced during numerous treks through the desert near his Southern California home would have been difficult to translate through conventional modes of musical expression. As Roach observed in a European interview: "The ideas of slowing and layering time, bringing into focus an awareness of my inner life, and expressing some kind of ancient memory could all merge and emerge together in the sounds I was able to bring through. If I had been born at any other time, this might have been impossible for me to express this musically -- the strange sounds available to me through synthesizers and other sound-altering electronic devices allowed me to sculpt sonic worlds and feelings that could take me outside the realm of everyday human experience."
Though Roach's sonic evocations were originally inspired by the American southwest, his music began to speak to listeners living in a different desert. Shortly after the relase of his classic 1984 album STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE, Roach received leters from Australians who were impressed with the way the music seemed to reflect the quality of the land there. "Around that time I also heard the didgeridoo for the first time," he says, "and it was as if I was hearing some kind of ancient electronic sound creating a bridge to the present. The power of that sound and the way it calls up deep primordial feelings has much in common with what I had been striving for in my music all along."
The Australian continent was calling in some remarkable ways. By 1987, Roach was well into investigating aboriginal mythology and composing music for an album he was already calling DREAMTIME RETURN when he got a telephone call from photographer David Stahl. "Here's this guy I had never met telling me he was working on a documentary about the ancient aboriginal art of the Dreamtime, that he had been out driving and heard STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE on the radio and felt that it keyed him into the feeling of being in Australia," Roach marvels. "He wanted to know if I was interested in submitting some music for his production. You can imagine the strange feeling coming from the other end of the line when I told him that right at that moment I was working on an album called DREAMTIME RETURN." A few weeks later, Roach was part of the film crew traveling through remote Australian aboriginal rock art sites that had rarely been seen by people outside the tribes who lived there. Roach found himself not only drawing inspiration from the land itself, but meeting up with a master aboriginal didg player named David Hudson. During that time they spent together, Hudson shared the basic techniques for playing the didg and even helped Roach make his first didgeridoo in the traditional manner. Hudson's own playing was also woven into the vast sonic tapestries of DREAMTIME RETURN, a double CD that subsequently was considered a classic worldwide, receiving a 10/10 in CD Review. Critics and artists alike continue to cite DREAMTIME RETURN as a precursor to tribal-ambient styles as well as the current trends toward Autralian-influenced recordings.
In 1989, Roach envisioned an album featuring the didgeridoo in a much more prominent role. He wanted to feature indigenous didg players and innovative Australian artists who were themselves inspired by the land. Roach, however, had to search for independent funding for the project because no American record company at that time thought the project was worth supporting -- the sound of the didgeridoo was too raw, too threatening, they said, for wider audiences. Ulli Hansen, an Australian artist and business woman, believed in Roach's vision and put up the money for what would become AUSTRALIA: SOUND OF THE EARTH, an album featuring some impressive solo didg work by Hudson and Roach as well as the Darwin Didg Mob and cellist Sarah Hopkins (an Australian artist who artfully mimics the sounds of the didgeridoos and a plethora of natural sounds on her cello). Roach traveled the entire continent by bus in the fall of 1989 to gather the performances and natural sounds which he artfully wove into this widely-acclaimed sonic journey through the outback.
AUSTRALIA: SOUND OF THE EARTH was embraced by the Sydney Morning Herald. As the paper's music critic Bruce Elder wrote: "It is a comment on Australia's parochialism (or our ignorance) that we have made so few attempts to cross-fertilize our Western musical traditions with Aboriginal music. It is therefore somewhat ironic that one of the best Western-Aboriginal fusions has been the result of the work of the highly regarded American ambient musician Steve Roach. The result, AUSTRALIA: SOUND OF THE EARTH, is one of the most incisive and insightful Australian musical landscapes... (evoking) deserts, heat, loneliness and mingling them with dark rainforests, primitive swamps and atmospheres of almost mystical intensity. Apart from this highly original vision, Roach has used the remarkable talents of didgeridoo player David Hudson... almost unquestionably the best didgeridoo player ever recorded in Australia."
Still, Roach found it difficult to convince Hudson to take the next step -- recording an entire album of solo didgeridoo performances. That opportunity came during a friendly trip Hudson made to Roach's Tucson, Arizona-based home in 1991. Hudson and his then fiance Cindy decided to get married in Roach's backyard. During that visit, Roach also lured Hudson into the studio to record WOOLUNDA, which became the first album of solo didgeridoo improvisations ever released on CD.
"At that time, David was really skeptical," Roach remembers. "He didn't think anyone would want to hear the didg by itself." As an aboriginal artist, Hudson's generation was still suffering from the Australian government's early efforts to stamp out indigenous languages and belief systems. Aboriginals had been cajoled into thinking that their traditions were superstitious and outdated, if not downright blasphemous. Though Hudson's own Tjapukai Dance Theater had traveled the world in order to dispel this notion by introducing Westerns to aboriginal culture in an entertaining way, he didn't think the didg itself would hold up for an hour-long recording. He figured the only way the public would even listen to the didg was when it was used as a kind of good-natured rhythmic accompaniment to snappy guitar lines, like the group Outback was doing at the time. Roach persisted, and to add fuel to the fire, he took Hudson down to a local record store specializing in world and contempoary instrumental styles of music. When Brit Dornquast, the owner of Hear's Music told David that people were coming in all the time asking for an album of unadorned didg music, Hudson was ready to give it a try.
Once again, however, Roach had to pull off the project on speculation and then convince his record company to take a chance. Since that time, Eckart Rahn of Celestial Harmonies has replaced his own skepticism with enthusiasn based on the critical success of WOOLUNDA and AUSTRALIA: SOUND OF THE EARTH. The record company owner even lives part time in Australia now and has initiated several other projects involving indigenous aboriginal music. He has also become a strong supporter of Hudson's work; Rahn wholeheartedly supported the release of Hudson's second album RAINBOW SERPENT, produced once again by Roach at his Tucson-based studio, the Timeroom. This time, Hudson wove the instrument into his own expanding musical vision which included percussion, nature sounds and subtle studio enhancements. The aboriginal artist has subsequently credited Roach with introducing him to new ways of perceiving and expressing his ancestral roots. After all, the organic combination of primal and futuristic sounds Roach developed through his own solo explorations proved it was possible to express an ancient voice with a modern hand. As an aboriginal artist living in the late 20th century, Hudson was yearning to express his heritage through the perspective of one who has grown up in both worlds. Over the years, Roach also introduced Hudson to didg players and supporters like Alan Shockley and Stephen Kent, helping to get word of Hudson's talent to audiences ready to appreciate it.
Along the way, Roach has artfully incorporated his own didg playing into over a dozen of his solo and group albums, bringing the instrument to audiences around the world. ORIGINS (1993, Fortuna) and ARTIFACTS (1994, Fortuna) were hailed as masterpieces by the international press, with ARTIFACTS nominaed in the NAIRD (National Association of Independent Record Distributors) Top 5 albums for the year in its category. Another Roach production EARTH ISLAND, featuring his trio Suspended Memories, was in the Top 5 as well and took the prize. This disc features the didgeridoo as an important element in the group's sensuous yet darkly uncompromising global sound.
Though Roach has remained a strong, behind-the-scenes force in the current didgeridoo movement, music critics have cited him time and time again for the power of his innovative vision, for Roach has managed to create music that enhances the instrument's traditional role as the voice of creation, the sound of the earth. As i/e's Darren Bergstein wrote of ORIGINS, "the circulating didgeridoo patterns that fully imbibe this recording are not only its tonal center, but the electro-acoustic nature that is the heart of its sound, and Roach passionately utilizes its earthy frequencies to its fullest. Never before has Roach's electronic surface felt so earthen and weathered; all of the assertive ambience and environmental dissonance he's pressurized up to now has reached its critical mass in ORIGINS' molten core."