The Heat Is On
by Jonathan Miller, Audio Media
TIME OF THE EARTH sees contemporary electronic music composer Steve Roach and independent filmmaker Steve Lazur joining forces in a simmering audio-visual paean to the desert. Jonathan Miller turns up the heat...
"Steve Roach -- the master of mind-altering soundworlds -- has long been influenced by the expansive soundscapes of the desert southwest. On TIME OF THE EARTH he has found the visual poetry to match his evocative music: a 77-minute photographic feast for the eyes created by Steve Lazur."
So, in part, reads the liner notes to the equally evocatively titled TIME OF THE EARTH, an all-region (except Japan) DVD in which independent filmmaker Lazur's "finely wrought symphony of images induces a powerful desert dreamtime experience" while "Roach's music gives form to the primordial landscape and draws forth its darkest mysteries." Actions always speak louder than words, however, and a singular viewing of TIME OF THE EARTH's "turbulent cloud formations hovering over sun-scorched canyons" and "epic rock sculptures granting reluctant entrance to vistas still echoing from the dawn of creation" soon lends credence to the age-old adage, 'a picture paints a thousand words'.
The DVD is subtitled 'A Desert Dreamtime Journey', and while such phraseology is more commonly associated with the mythology of certain Australian Aboriginals, referring to an age when their first ancestors were created, dreamtime is, nevertheless, a concept with which Tucson, AZ-based Roach is well versed -- after all, his DREAMTIME RETURN double CD of 1988 (recorded following an extended trip to the Australian outback during which he mastered the hypnotic Aboriginal digeridoo) is revered as a red-hot classic within discerning contemporary electronic music circles.
Back in support of Roach and Lazur's more recent leftfield audio-visual collaborative venture, further online press blurb boldly announces, "this captivating film experience invites repeat viewings." And it's true -- something that unfortunately can't always be said for most of its big-budget, big screen opposites. Yet clearly the two Steves aren't looking to take Hollywood by storm here, and, as such, TIME OF THE EARTH is being released on Projekt, the Web-savvy independent operating out of Long Island City, NY, also responsible for overseeing a fair portion of Roach's 50-odd regular CD recordings to date. Prolificacy immediately springs to mind when introducing this visionary self-taught musician, as does self-determination.
Indeed, Roach is on record as championing technological developments allowing artists like himself -- who resolutely refuse to bow to what he's colourfully called "the bondage of creativity within the conventional matrix of the music and film business" -- to express their own unique visions with true independence -- independent visions like TIME OF THE EARTH, presumably.
And marketing those visions is perhaps an appropriate springboard from which to dive into a dialogue with the man himself, for pushing the envelope of contemporary music making is no easy task in itself -- let alone bringing complementary visuals into the equation, right? Right. "It's challenging to release the kind of experience that TIME OF THE EARTH offers into a world of media that is increasingly pushing the envelope and screaming out for attention in a Hollywood set in extreme film and visual effects attack mode," Roach concedes. "As of now, it's starting to reach the audience that already understands the nature of my music; they can appreciate the symbiotic, subtle, organic, visual interplay of TIME OF THE EARTH."
Symbiotic, subtle, organic, visual... metaphors that could equally apply to Roach's vast recordings back-catalogue -- be they atmospheric space, pure electronic, tribal-ambient or even desert-ambient. It would appear deserts feature prominently in Roach's chosen path. "The desert environment is a place that has always felt like home in the deepest sense," he muses. "It just feels right at my core state of being, a consistent place from which I draw my creative juices. At this point I feel my music is not so much about the desert itself, but more about the result of creative openings I feel from living here. I've lived in the heart of the desert for 12 years now, and as time passes my connection to the spirit of this place, and the ways in which it feeds me, just grows stronger."
Unsurprisingly, Roach wasted little time in re-establishing his Timeroom project recording studio -- previously sited in urban locations like Culver City and Venice, CA -- as a focal point of his newfound spiritual home within the Sonoran desert. Though recording is undeniably its function, as implied by name, the Timeroom is a construct, not just a collection of recording gear. "The desire to have a safe and nurturing creative 'space' has always been a priority for me -- before the gear," its keeper maintains. "The Timeroom represents this kind of sanctuary for me."
So gear may well play second fiddle to sanctuary, but make no mistake: the Timeroom is well stocked in the tools of Roach's trade -- an amalgamation of instrumentation, electronic and acoustic, old and new. Its 'composer-in-residence' gives a guided tour: "I still use a Soundcraft analogue mixing console -- great British EQ! The synths are a collection of analogue and digital -- Oberheim Matrix 12 and Xpander; Clavia Nordlead 2; Korg Triton, Z1 and Wavestation; plus an E-mu E6400 sampler. For recording and arrangements it's a custom PC system running Sound Foundry programs like Vegas, ACID and SoundForge. Over the years I've also collected a variety of acoustic and percussion instruments from around the world, together with a dozen or so digeridoos."
In striving to push this gear to its limit, parallels can ironically be drawn between Roach's unconventional musical modus operandi and those of more conventional filmmaking. "In the creation of my music, real-time experience is vital, capturing moments in time as a whole," he states. "Now with non-linear, computer-based systems I can look at these performances as smaller parts in a bigger picture, constantly trying new experiments and edits. In this way, I feel more like a filmmaker, using lots of similar techniques to tell a story or create a place with music and sound."
Is it any wonder, then, that Roach found himself attracted to Lazur's self-funded, filmed (16mm) and edited TIME OF THE EARTH project? In this case, perhaps destiny itself was basking in the baking desert heat of the expansive landscapes of the American southwest; that their respective crafts would one day be joined in celebration of those "sun-scorched canyons" and "epic rock sculptures" had long since been determined. Who knows? Yet the outcome is able to be seen: now some of Roach's music -- or 'soundworlds' to coin an oft-quoted Roach-ism -- can be viewed, quite literally, in a new light on TIME OF THE EARTH, thanks to two completely different full-length Dolby Digital stereo soundtracks.
According to those aforementioned liner notes, "Audio Track One is a dynamic atmospheric/tribal-ambient score," comprising tracks and excerpts from several key Roach releases, including DREAMTIME RETURN. Whittling down the finalists for this track selection was eased considerably by virtue of the independent filmmaker's affinity with the scorer's music. "Steve Lazur has listened to my music for years," Roach reveals. "During the filming of TIME OF THE EARTH he would often get in the mood with some of my pieces. A few years back he sent me a rough cut of TIME OF THE EARTH and invited me to score the project. Naturally, I was excited to be part of his single-pointed vision. He mentioned on more than one occasion that he couldn't imagine anyone else doing the score; after seeing it, I have to admit I felt the same way."
But it would be another one-and-a-half years before Roach's understandably hectic schedule would permit the dynamic duo to start mapping out Audio Track One's music content in earnest. "The images and the energy of the locations captured on film set the pace and tone for this selection," says Roach. "With Steve knowing my music so well, and drawing upon many pre-existing pieces as inspiration during the process, the selection was a natural one. Once we got together in my studio, we selected music from my CDs as a way of getting started -- not unlike in many feature film projects where pre-existing music is often chosen as a guide score, or temp track. In our case, we quickly found these pieces linked up in a magical way, so it made sense to follow the intuitive impulses and keep this original selection."
Not that this was simply a case of recycling old Roach recordings, mind you -- far from it, in fact. "The soundtrack was created as a whole," asserts its creator. "This called for edits and redesigned portions of the pieces. In some cases I returned to earlier versions of the pieces to allow for a more open sound. It was a nice feeling to return to these pieces that had so much energy focused into them when they were created, and feel the culmination of all this as the soundtrack formed."
As Roach is quick to point out, being able to draw from such a rich resource of recordings had additional advantages: "Rather than creating all-new pieces just for the sake of having new pieces for the film, some pieces we used might have taken weeks or months to complete. Also, since they were created over a longer period of time, I feel that the sonic and emotional import into the music is more complex than if I was to sit and score the film in one long session. In this way, there are many layers and subtexts that come into play along with the images."
Certainly the synergy between Roach's music and Lazur's visuals is, more often than not, uncanny. Roach remains convinced this is down to what he terms 'Timeroom sync'. "I often used this approach in creating the music," he explains, "taking elements from what seem to be different worlds that I've created over longer periods of time and letting them intermingle at will, forgetting about hard sync, timecode and so on. Steve and myself were continuously building the tracks against the film; they would sync in this fantastic way, and we'd just look at each other in amazement at how they merged! I actually think this is a better way to build a soundtrack for this kind of project anyway, since approaching it in a normal scoring situation would only lead to more predictable responses to the images."
But that's only one soundtrack. What about the so-called 'long-form soundscape' that constitutes the second? Recently re-issued as part of Roach's ongoing Timeroom Editions series, created primarily for the Internet community, THE DREAM CIRCLE was originally released as a signed and numbered 2,500-copy limited edition album in 1994. "Over the years, I've experimented with the influences -- psychological and beyond -- of continuous music," Roach discloses. "With MIDI sequencers and computer systems, I can build these multi-faceted soundworlds and let them run free for days at a time. I look upon such pieces as living entities. Over the course of a few days, I'll live with a piece, listening to it at different times of the day with a constantly changing perception that occurs naturally. This might involve going to sleep with it, waking up at three in the morning to make subtle changes in the zone it's creating. When this kind of approach is taken, along with the personal intentions that are at the core of my work, then the piece starts to become organic in the true sense of the word.
"Again, Timeroom sync was at play here; the piece just so happened to be almost the same running length as the film. When I first played it along with the images, it worked in an entirely different way -- a dreamlike quality was shifted into the space where the narrative, more dramatic quality of the original soundtrack once was. It's a good example of how our perception can alter in a natural way with music, sound and images. More recently, I've been experimenting with playing the DVD back throughout the day, moving between soundtracks and using the visuals and music as a true ambient element in the house."
Steve Roach is, without a doubt, a true ambient musician, a thinker who has inadvertently knocked Britain's Brian Eno off his pioneering pedestal. In an age of fast food and fast entertainment, Roach's closing commentary certainly makes for refreshing reading: "The pace and flow presented in TIME OF THE EARTH won't compete with the over saturated dose of current fare, but once the body clock is slowed down and the piece is witnessed on its own ground, then the quality it holds speaks clearly. Ultimately, it holds 77 minutes of repose, reflection and a forum for appreciating these powerful remote places that have been holding constant vigil through the eons up to this moment. With the acceleration of the modern world, this in itself is the appeal and message of TIME OF THE EARTH, and I'm optimistic it will continue to find the audience it deserves."