The landscape architect of dream-time vistas
Tower Records' Pulse!, June 1996
While most of us were opening gifts, carving turkey and dozing out by the post-holiday fire last Christmas, Steve Roach, Kenneth Newby and Stephen Kent were walking through the desert surrounding Roach's home in Tucson, Ariz. After wandering through saguaro forests and petroglyph-covered canyons, they had the inspiration for a piece, "Slow Walk at Stone Wash." It's not a Christmas carol.
"We had a pagan Christmas," laughs Roach. Roach's idea of a pagan celebration was to sit in a room filled with didgeridoos, clay pots and Indonesian sulings and wire them all into synthesizers and sound processors to create the techno-tribal world of the trio's forthcoming album, Halcyon Days (Fathom/Hearts of Space). For Roach it continues the global-trance explorations he began on his 1988 album Dreamtime Return (Fortuna), while Kent and Newby were reformulating the rave-trance sound of their main group, Trance Mission.
Given that both Kent and Roach play didgeridoo, the Australian Aboriginal trumpet, it's a dominant sound on the album. "His way of playing tends more towards an animalistic style and mine is more detailed," observes Kent, "I tended to hold down rhythmical areas in the sound and leave some of the more earthy input to Steve to do."
On Halcyon Days, instruments are mixed, matched and mutated. "There'd be points where Kenneth and I were gene-splicing our sounds," says Roach. Newby would play a solo on the Indonesian suling flute or create a percussion sound and then find it reappearing transformed as part of Roach's sound library,
"Steve would take snippets of things I'd play and grab them with his digital gear and transform it into a Roach gesture," laughs Newby, "but with my sound."
Steve Roach calls his studio the Timeroom and it has become a meeting ground for musicians working on the atmospheric edges. He's collaborated there with synthesist Robert Rich on Strata and Soma (Hearts of Space) and released two albums with Suspended Memories, an international group with Jorge Reyes from Mexico and Suso Saiz from Spain. The German dark ambient duo Temps Perdu? and Belgian sound painter Vidna Obmana have all made pilgrimages to the Timeroom for albums and producer Brian Keane has dropped in, cherry picking Roach atmospheres for his score to the PBS documentary The Way West (Shanachie) or seeking environments for Native flute player Douglas Spotted Eagle's new CD Closer to Far Away (Windham Hill).
In between these projects, Roach found solace in a sonic maelstrom that was released earlier this year as The Magnificent Void (Fathom). Void is the other side of his influential 1984 album, Structures from Silence (Fortuna).
While Structures created an all-embracing contemplative space, the Void sends you hurling into the vortex, bereft of any familiar landmarks. There are no rhythms to speak of, no melodies to latch onto, and not even a famIliar instrumental palette as Roach stretches and morphs sound beyond recognition. "This pursuit of these sound worlds was the most compelling to me," explains the synthesist. "My methods of creating sound acoustically, electronically and the hybrid collection of that through sampling, for me it was like having an open palette, to work together with these sounds, as they develop a life of their own and a language and a relatedness."
Last year Roach was a ranked mountain biker in Arizona, and even got a write-up in Sports Illustrated. Mountain biking is his way of exploring both his inner and outer landscapes. "Going out to extreme places whare you can become frightened, it gives me a feeling that I'm pushing forward into new areas, through a ridge, down a canyon and into an open valley that you didn't know was there," he explains, clearly groping for a common vernacular for a singular experience. "You're flooded with wonder and the power of the land. That's what I'm drawing upon."
You might find Steve Roach's The Magnificent Void filed in the new-age section, but pray for the unwary buyer who slips this onto the CD player expecting soothing ministrations. "This controntational aspect is something I need to find in my life," confesses Roach. And that's clearly an experience he instills in the listener. When you look into The Magnificent Void, don't be surprised if it looks back.
- John Diliberto