Dreaming Now, Then
Steve Roach In Concert
Tucson, Arizona – March 1, 1997


Steve Roach's music has long been inspired by the desert, but it wasn't until visiting his home in Arizona that I fully understood what that meant. On March 1st, Steve invited both locals and out-of-town guests to a sold-out concert in his hometown of Tucson. Concert attendee Brian Skiff wrote his impressions of the concert, which appear below. Linda Kohanov wrote an article about the concert for Tucson Weekly. Don't miss the concert photos.

The desert photographs on this page are only a peek at the beauty and serenity of the Arizona desert. The mountain range in the photo at right is a similar view to that from Steve Roach's studio, The Timeroom. Saguaro are everywhere. The road to the concert venue gently climbed the west foothills, then dramatically dropped into another cactus-peppered valley, with views that stretched forever.

Never having visited the desert before, my preconceptions were of vast, stark, lifeless plains, devoid of features. Picturing Steve's music in this context, I could never make the connection. Steve's music is incredibly intricate, textured, and full of life, and this also describes the lands that inspire his music. Landscape and soundscapes complement each other perfectly.

– Cliff Tuel

Concert Impressions
by Brian Skiff

The Steve Roach concert was remarkable. It was held in a small theatre (425 seats), which was packed SRO-full. The audience was of all ages, plus a few Gothic-type youths (I was expecting a lot more of the latter, and mostly 20-30 year olds). Although I do not have every one of his albums, I've got a bunch of 'em, yet Roach played hardly anything I recognized; I'm supposing that 80% of the material was new or improvised. The style was also completely different than anything I'd heard before. He played without a break in the music for a bit over two hours. He began by materializing in the audience with a didgeridoo, starting a drone he kept up using circular breathing (I was already impressed) until he wandered onstage. The didg had a little black-box gizmo at the end, so the sound went into the PA system (look ma, no cables!), allowing him to wander among the audience with it again later in the performance.

His instrument set-up on the stage included two synthesizers, a small box with a lot of red LEDs on it whose purpose I could not discern [a MIDI analog sequencer – ed.], and another box that seemed to be some sort of recording device, all on racks at standing height. Scattered on the floor was a large collection of percussion and wind instruments, such as a bodhran, a conch shell, an ocarina, a metate, two smaller cut sandstones, a wooden rasper, a small bell, a "Sonoran didgeridoo" made from a century plant stalk (a didg the size of an alphorn!), two large and beautiful-sounding clay-pot drums, plus various shakers and rattlers. Two things I was expecting but didn't see was a set of rain sticks and a Cannondale bicycle frame, which he's used with beads in it to make sounds (when he's not riding it in mountain-bike competitions). The two synths were used to produce rhythm loops and the trademark slow-breathing textures that appeared to be both canned and composed on the spot. There was also a microphone that he used to both amplify and record the live instruments. Little snippets of the percussion or the flute-like thingies would be heard "live" then come back filtered and majorly processed to join the huge, cavernous sonic texture already created over usually quite heavy percussion. Not a bit of this sounded "electronic".

The sequences would evolve continuously for maybe 15 minutes or so before making a more dramatic shift to new sonic territory. A few times there was familiar music: a few moments of "The Dreamer Descends", or a passage from "The Magnificent Void", which would transform itself away from the album version before your ear could latch onto it. It was quite interesting to watch him make all this happen: once sounds were set up, he would move very deliberately around the stage twiddling knobs, or grabbing something from the floor and adding some of its sound into the mix. Other times you could see that he'd had an idea, and while one set of still-evolving material was running, he would be keying-in stuff like mad into one or the other of the synth control panels to set up further mutations. Other times he would hold the didg in one hand on the top of the synth facing the audience while working the synth with the other hand. Once this resulted in the "live" didg getting mixed with processed sound recorded from it a few moments prior. In another episode, he held a chord for a few minutes continuously with one hand seemingly glued to a synth keyboard while playing the didg or working the second synth.

Since the music is not tonal and without a progressive harmonic or formal mathematical structure as in ordinary Western song- or sonata-forms (which show up everywhere, no matter how rudimentary), it's difficult to describe. His recent material has given me very dark coloristic impressions: of deep maroon-burgundys, purples, browns, ultraviolet-blues, and dark green flashes from vacuous blacknesses. Unlike the extremely float-y/space-y material I prefer, which transports me right out into the Cygnus starcloud, the concert sounds seem to have been mined from a hard rock grotto miles down. The performance and the music were therefore much more immediately engaging. I enjoyed the concert in a completely different way than I would when listening to the music while observing outdoors at the telescope on a dark, starry night.

It wasn't clear how something like this would end after metamorphosing for two hours, but the obvious cue was to come to a halt rather quickly at a place where the sequences were fully developed. What about an encore? For this he started very quietly with the rather muted, dull, mourning-dove-like note of the conch shell, which he played/recorded and played back reverb-ed, echoed, and otherwise processed until the note had become a continuous, shimmering, microtonally-oscillating base on which to build a composition. This finale included a rapid drum loop [from Cavern of Sirens – ed.], more sounds from the furry shaker-thing and the rasper, plus the howling, wildly processed voice of Roach himself screaming like a banshee into the microphone. Quite something!

Even with just the hardware he had on stage, it's clear that he has command of an enormous sonic palette (a full symphony orchestra is nothing in comparison) that he's hardly begun to explore. I think it will be quite challenging for him to remain creative in this essentially completely unrestricted artistic environment. (The greatest artists in any medium seem to have produced their best work when forced to create using limited materials.) However, after more than ten years in this domain – admittedly with tremendous advances in the technology available to him – he's still getting better; his most recent solo album is the best thing he's produced.

(Small sunset photos courtesy Peter Crown, Tucson Sunset. "Concert Impressions" desert photos: Organ Pipe National Monument, courtesy Steve Roach.)

– Brian Skiff

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