Mood Music
by Linda Kohanov, Tucson Weekly, February 1997

A few weeks ago, I was roused from my computer by the sound of a solitary, unadorned singer wailing as if he were calling down the moon. I figured a new field recording had arrived in the mail, and my husband Steve Roach was listening to it in the living room. Maybe it's a shaman from Siberia, I thought, or a hunter from the Laplands offering praises to the ghosts of his prey.

The stereo was silent when I ran into the den. I followed this strange sound out the door and over to Steve's studio where I expected to find him playing the new disc on his own system. Instead I spied him standing in front of a microphone, headphones on, eyes shut tightly, chanting as if his life depended on it. I couldn't hear the vast array of electronic drones, trance rhythms and synthesized atmospheres that were flowing into his ears. To me, it sounded like the weathered voice of some forgotten ancestor rising up through the dry ground.

People usually convey a certain amount of trepidation when they ask me why my husband's electro-acoustic sound journeys are soaked in dark, primal textures, as if they're afraid I might admit he's been possessed by a group of savage spirits that latched onto him during one of his mountain-biking treks through the desert. With Steve shaking his rattles, growling through his didgeridoo and chanting up a storm during his recent recordings and concert tours, it certainly seems that way at times. One gentleman even sent us a New Year's wish that Steve's music might move through the "shadows of the primitive mind" and "embrace the light" for the coming millennium.

My favorite response to this notion is a quote from Carl Jung. "Enlightenment," he once wrote, "is not a matter of imagining figures of light, but of making the darkness conscious." Steve hangs out in the shadow realms of sound because he's striving to convey aspects of life that haven't been fully mapped by the rational side of the human mind. Even when they're alluded to in music, these sensations are not entirely conscious. Some forms of art take unconscious insights to a pre-conscious state, and the audience gets to share in the feeling of discovery.

"We're talking about experiences that have been brought up from the darkest depths of the earth, but are still in the cave, so to speak," Steve says, referring to the imagery that accompanies albums like Suspended Memories: Forgotten Gods and his new collaboration with Belgian synthesist Vidna Obmana, Cavern of Sirens. "A cave is nature's long-standing invitation to travel into the deeper, more primordial aspects of creation, human and otherwise, places normally hidden from logical consideration. You might never be able to lift the immensity of this knowledge up and carry it into the light of day, which is why you often feel speechless as to why a certain painting, poetic phrase or piece of music moves you so profoundly."

In concert, Steve accepts the role of sonic travel guide, leading listeners through a variety of moods, tempos and atmospheres to create a single, continuously evolving work of ritualistic intensity that one critic characterized as "a collective dream unfolding before your very ears." To this end, he employs a sophisticated balance of composed material and improvisatory techniques to tailor each program to the venue and audience involved. It's taken him 20 years and three dozen recordings to perfect this technique, but the response has been overwhelmingly favorable. As Wired magazine recently observed, the 42-year-old composer offers audiences an experience that "sounds distinct at each encounter, reflecting the listener's own receptive labor as much as the composer's active one. Roach gives us not new music, but new ears with which to hear."

Over the last five years, performances have taken place in a 13th century Spanish abbey, a subterranean theater of volcanic rock in the Canary Islands, a number of European clubs and concert halls, an outdoor festival held in a sea of ancient lava in Mexico City, planetariums and IMAX domes on the West Coast, an all-night rave in Baltimore, a gothic music festival in Chicago, and a showcase for avant-garde composers in San Francisco.

"After carting my equipment around the world, I'm pleased to be performing in the desert," says the California-born artist. "I moved to Tucson seven years ago to be a part of this landscape, to allow it to seep into my sound on a daily basis. I love the expansive quality, the intense heat, the fact you can see, and in my case hear, the dramatic resonance of the creative force all around in the primordial rock formations, mountains, canyons, and so on. Whenever I play the big cities now, the anticipation of coming home to the land is overwhelming. I'm looking forward to sharing my music with other desert dwellers this Saturday."

The March 1 concert at the Pima Community College Proscenium Theater marks Steve's second performance in Southern Arizona, a rare opportunity for friends new and old to hear him live. The concert is also attracting the attention of Roach fans from around the country who want to experience his shape-shifting palette of indigenous instruments, trance percussion, earthy didgeridoo rhythms and state-of-the-art electronics in the environment that has so often inspired it.

"This land feeds my soul like nothing I've ever found," he stresses. "The feeling of standing at the very same spot where a man thousands of years ago felt moved to carve a spiral into a cliff ledge that looks out a hundred miles in all directions gives me a sense of my origins in a truer sense than, say, returning to Ireland and visiting my family's homeland.

"Maybe I am possessed on some level, but it's not by the ghosts of any particular tribe. I'm moved by the mythic, archetypal relationship between earth memories and the awakening they provide if we tune into them. Music can create an opening, a glimpse of what we all forgot when we decided to become civilized."

Steve Roach performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 1, in the PCC Proscenium Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets range from $8 to $14, and are available at Dillard's, Hear's Music, Antigone Books and the PCC West Campus cashier's office. For information, call 884-6986.

– Linda Kohanov

Steve RoachNewsMusicDiscographyLivePressReviewsStoreLinksBioContact