With a career that spans three decades, Robert Rich is an intricate part of electronic music culture in the quietest possible way. Focusing on delicate sources of audio and engaging with them in an abstract and ambivalent standpoint, he has amassed a career that has taken his recordings and live shows to a level of near-legend. Releasing cassette albums from the early ‘80s (when he was still a student at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics), Rich cemented his status in the worlds of ambient and drone by releasing LPs at a fervent pace and crafting new takes on his previous elemental structures by adding instrumentation, rhythmic complexities and just intonation. From his famed “sleep concerts” to his countless albums (both solo and collaborative), Robert Rich will surely bring a unique and special experience when he takes the stage at Electric Forest.
What do you take on the road with you? It seems like quite a production, not just a laptop show.
RR: It’s not a laptop show, but like any sane person performing, the laptop is certainly the hub. It’s a hybrid of live electronics, modular synthesizer controlled with MIDI, tracks in Ableton Live, keyboards, flutes, steel guitar; the whole thing is a bit of a juggling act. It resembles these carnival acts with spinning plates, being as interactive as I can be while doing everything.
How much of it is planned out as opposed to improvising on the spot?
RR: It’s fairly planned and rehearsed; I perform compositions that have notation, so it’s musical in that sense. But when I go on a driving tour as opposed to a flying tour, I have room to bring more gear, which means more room for improvisation. I like having a lot of space to go off into left-field. I have this weird habit of when I play a bigger festival, that I go crazier. *laughs* I do like mixing things up between compositions and improv, it’s a luxury to have the instruments there instead of just the laptop. I can just set-up loops and start squiggling off.
Have you played venues or festival in the same sort of stage as Electric Forest?
RR: I don’t know what to expect with this festival, but when I went to Australia in February, I did two big outdoor fests; Rainbow Serpents and Earth Frequency. Rainbow Serpents had 14,000 people and the other was a bit smaller, but in both cases I was inaugurating the live stage. If I’m onstage after some psytrance thing at 5AM, I’ll get lost in that. It’s better off if I’m playing an ambient stage or something quieter. Two years ago I played the Boom Festival in Portugal, with about 20,000 people. In a place like that I’d usually play at an ambient or chill stage.
How often do you actually tour? It seems like a lot lately.
RR: I usually get out every year, but a tour like this takes out a lot of me. I keep it going as best as I can though. I tour a year and then spend a year in the studio so I don’t get stagnant. I try not to oscillate between the two.
I know you’ve done quite a bit of work with field recordings; what would be your advice in someone who’s developed an interest in it and wanted to explore that?
RR: It’s funny because a lot of what I use nature sounds for; they’re very deep listening experiences, when you go to a sort of quiet place. What I like to do is make it a psychic relocation, to take the imagination into a place that’s different from where the body is. The performance aspect at a festival can work against that, so when I’m performing live, like, in a forest, rather than relocating the body or mind, I’m interested in making everything more immediate. There’s a certain shamanic process that takes place—transference of energy—when people are in a heightened state of expectation.
I do love using field recordings, but the challenge is to steer it away from using just sounds and using the musicality in nature. To use a sound with the same energy as a bird or an insect intended it. To me, those sounds represent life bubbling out of carbon soup.
Do you feel like there’s a way you’re actively conveying that to the audience? What is it you can do to make the audience have that same experience, make them understand what you’re going for?
RR: The reason we get attracted to music is that it can work in non-linear ways; there are ways of conveying energy in music that we don’t understand, especially when we analyze it in words. What I use in my music is melodic and rhythmic motifs that are common in transient music, in a sense of North African or Indian classic music or even Buddhist prayer. The language of melody that permeates this traditional culture has grown out of experience of communicating a thread of consciousness. I’m very attracted to the melodic approaches in Arabic or North Indian classical music, which is a linear thread of ecstatic communication.
That makes me wonder what it is you think is maybe lacking in the more popular types of non-indigenous music.
RR: I don’t think there’s any lacking in the mainstream sort of music, there’s just different uses for music. In modern culture, we have many forms of music that are used for ecstatic experiences, and others that convey teenage sexual energy, politics, anger or whatever is needing to be communicated. In the thread of modern psychedelic culture, you have an attraction to musical forms that are focusing on energetic exchange and forms of trance. Some of those are purely rhythmic and some are mental or more subconscious. I don’t think in terms of negative but rather think in choices, in choosing what we listen to.
I have trouble with ecstatic forms in dance music; I just get fatigued and as a mastering engineer, I have to protect my hearing. I try and provide an alternative with a quiet and introspective approach, which is still thoroughly intense.
Is there a chance of seeing you dance at another stage once you’re done with your performance?
RR: It’s quite possible! I mean, I’m not averse to cool music; I think Bassnectar is playing the fest and he plays really loud, but I really like his music! There’s a few groups on the bill that definitely interest me, but I’m really fond of good, sort-of dubby things, and if someone’s doing that, then I’d probably be interested in that.
Even though that tends to be the louder stuff.
RR: It can be! But I’ll have some earplugs with me.
I was looking through your website, and I see you have an interest in collecting and cooking wild mushrooms; how did you get interested in that and what do people think about it?
RR: They ask me often “Won’t you eat the wrong one and kill yourself?” but that’s why you learn about them and look to avoid the ones that are dangerous. Absolutely, knowledge is essential, but how I got into it was just feeling the love from the world around me. I was studying about the species that were growing around us that were edible, I found myself awaking to a very primordial memory of hunter-gatherer existence; finding that our cognitive skills for immediate recognition of complex shapes and forms. So when I ate something that I had accurately recognized and identified, it became integrated into my body so when I would see that species next time, I would recognize it. It had become part of my web of existence, and that conscious knowledge of hunter-gatherer skills was breathtaking.
Do you attribute that to a Pavlovian response or do see it as something beyond that?
RR: I don’t think we need to distinguish the two because it’s just two different views of the same phenomenon. I think if we look at it from other cultural perspectives we see that we’ve reintegrated ourselves with a part of our existence. Cognitively, I would say that latter point is much more truthful, because what you really start noticing is how distanced we’ve become from the planet we live on and how technology takes us further and further away from this fundamental web of existence. As we re-teach ourselves to recognize things from our planet, it awakens things that are sleeping. It’s not actually a Pavlonian thing, but it’s a remembrance of our body and how it interacts with our planet.