The Rhythm and Rapture of Steve Roach
John Diliberto, CD Review, August 1989
"These are clicking sticks," Steve Roach says as he reaches across his recording console and taps out rhythms. "They're hardwood sticks used for keeping time with the didjeridu." Roach brought back the didjeridu, an aboriginal wind instrument made from hollowed-out tree branches, from Australia last year, where he was working on Dreamtime Return . "It's exciting to play two pieces of wood," he adds, "in the middle of Techno-land." Techno-land is Los Angeles, home of Roach's womblike studio, the "Timeroom." When he composes and plays in this setting, he's surrounded by towering racks of synthesizers, glowing computer screens, and tape machines. But don't let these symbols of technology create the wrong impression. Roach is a folk musician a self-taught performer who picked up his skills through the late-20th-century tradition of records, tapes, CDs, and computers, rather than from around the campfire.
Within the folk tradition, Roach writes personal compositions influenced by his life and his surroundings. "He's an intuitive musician," says jazz guitarist David Torn who appears on the Roach/Michael Shrieve disc The Leaving Time. Indeed, Roach relies on insight and emotion, working in painstaking detail, and refining and remolding his music on a technological potter's wheel. It works especially well on his best-known recording, Structures from Silence (1984), an album of long textural pieces that moves like slow motion surf. Structures connects into the new age drift of soothing, meditational music; so does his three-cassette Quiet Music series from 1986 (only Quiet Music 2 has been issued on CD).
Even though Roach can sling jargon with the best of them about mysticism, altered states, and the "spiral that keeps moving in ways unknown," he's no new age dilettante chrning out ministrations with market-researched precision. The 34-year-old synthesist was already lost in space when the genre came along. He was nearing the end of his career as a motorbike racer in San Diego when he was inspired largely by Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, and Vangelis to teach himself to play synthesizer. In fact, Schulze's Timewind still sits in Roach's studio like a religious idol. "The first time I heard Timewind, I had the classic mystical experience like a drug experience or near-death experience," Roach recalls. "Klaus, for me, was certainly the icon, the synth hero. The whole aura about him was attractive to someone who was looking for a new direction."
Roach was only 20 when he began plugging into the Southern California electronic music network that centered around the now-defunct Synapse magazine. He recorded with the group Moebius, then went out on his own and recorded his first album, Now (for Fortuna) in 1982. He since has made nearly a dozen albums. His 1988 effort, Dreamtime Return, ranks as his most ambitious. The disc is partly a soundtrack to a documentary (on aboriginal rock art) called The Art of the Dreamtime, directed by David Stahl. Coincidentally, Roach had already been working on his own Dreamtime project when he received a call from Stahl, who had heard Structures from Silence on the radio while driving across Mexico. Stahl invited Roach to Australia for the filming of The Art of the Dreamtime in 1987. Following the trip, the composer returned to the US with inspiration that would enhance his own project. In fact, photos of aboriginal men and sites, as well as a few artifacts, sit like altar pieces on a windowsill in front of Roach's mixing console, reminding him of the impressions he brought back from Australia. He was aware of the dangers of making new age kitsch, of producing an ethnological forgery of sampled sounds or putting didjeridus in space reverb. "It would be easy to have a didjeridu playing for 20 minutes that could have been part of the Dreamtime album," he says. Instead, Roach interpolated environmental field recordings and aboriginal chants as subtle sonic cues. "I recorded incredible-sounding birds from the canyon and outback on 'Looking for Safety,' and I used tapes that [aboriginal rock art expert] Percy Trezise recorded. The Songmen [aboriginal chanters] are on 'Red Twilight with the Old Ones.' I intertwined them with samples done on the synthesizer. " Lest these unusual exercises give you the wrong impression of Roach, consider his current release, The Leaving Time, recorded with ex-Santana drummer Shrieve. A completely different side of Roach shows up on this effort. The two artists were drawn together through their affinity for Schulze. (Shrieve has actually recorded with Schulze, first on Stomu Yamashta's Go! project, then on Schulze's albums Trancefer and Audentity, and later on his own Transfer Station Blue.) With this common link, Roach and Shrieve went to work on The Leaving Time, which places the former in a far more aggressive environment than usual, thanks to Shrieve's electronic and acoustic drums, which propel pieces like "Edge Runner." "I've not really worked with an acoustic drummer, and the drum machine became more an extension of the sequencer in the way I write drum patterns," Roach says. "The patterns I did on The Leaving Time that were more sequential worked well with the way Michael moves in with the acoustic thing."
In two of his earlier releases, Roach had established a more dynamic style. Traveler (1983; not available on CD) and Empetus (1986) feature space probes of interlaced sequencer patterns, relentless drum machines, and searing electronic melodies instead of new age dreamscapes. This more kinetic approach will be reprised on a forthcoming, self-produced live CD, Stormwarning, slated for release later this year. In the studio, computers and sequencers turn Roach into a one-man orchestra. But in concert, their preprogrammed patterns can sap the spontaneity of a performance. Roach does preprogram many of his parts, yet denies the freeze-dried effect they can have. "I'd say that Stormwarning is 50/50, improvisation and composition," Roach explains. "At certain points I might have other parts in the sequencer for passages that allow me to then go back and focus on other aspects of the sound, creating real high-frequency, sparkling sounds or really deep atmospheric sounds. The whole idea is that the sequencer allows me the freedom to come in and out of the actual playing. There's no differentiation between whether I'm playing or not; it just gives me that level of stepping back and conducting and mixing and sculpting."
Roach has become a focal point for the southern California synthesizer space music scene. In 1987 he produced Western Spaces, an album of synthesized solos, duos, and trios with Kevin Braheny and Richard Burmer. He's just completed a similar collaboration, Desert Solitaire (due this Fall from Fortuna), with Braheny and Michael Stearns. "The album's totally textural and copmletely in the right brain," Roach says. "It's highly impressionistic and drawing on the mystical side of being in the desert. It's not a walk in the woods. There are some fairly dark pieces and confrontation." If that's not warning enough, listen to Kevin Braheny's Knowledge and Dust. "He had a snake handler friend bring in a live rattlesnake," Roach says. "Kevin actually played the snake like a theremin. As he'd bring his hand closer to the snake, it would start rattling, getting angry and ready to strike."
Whether painting these types of images, evoking spirits of ancient aborigines, or assembling high-tech audio architecture, Roach's music creates a sense of movement through interior spaces. Of Dreamtime Return, he says, "It's about creating a sonic ritual, a sonic journey, as much as I could. I want to go into the essence of the nervous system and pull out the sounds that for me are externalizing these feelings." Those comments could apply to all of Steve Roach's discs.