What We Left Behind:

Michael Brückner Talks with Robert Rich


Robert Rich

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"It has to start at the center…" - An interview with Robert Rich

First of all I'd like to introduce Robert Rich to those readers who do not already know him.

Robert was born in 1963 and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He started to build his own modular synthesizers from kits and experimented with long-form sonic environments already from 1976 on. In the late 70s he was involved in some local noise/industrial bands.While still studying psychology at Stanford University in the early 80s, he started to organize his first all-night sleep concerts for which he eventually became well known. Also around that time, he released his first solo albums (“Sunyata”, “Trances” “Drones” etc), first on cassette and then later on small European labels on CD.

In 1987, he contributed to Steve Roach’s album “Dreamtime Return”. Success on a larger scale came when a string of Robert’s albums were released on the American label “Hearts of Space” (most of all “Rainforest”). At this time his musical vocabulary already had encompassed more percussive and melodic elements than on his early drone based work.

During the more than 30 years of his career, Robert has grown into one of the most prominent figures of what today is called ambient (although Robert prefers the term “deep listening”). His calm, introspective music is not easy to categorize: it is at the same time unique as well as encompassing elements of different musical genres, while still remaining cohesive and of a strong personal identity. Robert's music is often synth based, or based on electronically treated recordings of acoustic instruments. In many cases it is combined with flute playing inspired by Indian, Middle Eastern or North African traditions and a very personal and almost vocal sounding lap steel guitar style. It often contains evocative "tribal" percussion and other traditional or self-built, acoustic instruments which reflect Robert's interest in Indian rhythms and Indonesian gamelan music.

Another feature of his work is the frequent use of just intonation or other alternative tunings. He weaves field recordings into the fabric of many of his compositions. The wide spectrum of Robert's work includes abstract, other-worldy soundscapes (for example "Below Zero") as well as accessible, highly melodic albums (like "Rainforest"), several-hour-long slowly evolving, meditative listening-environments (like "Perpetual") as well as shorter, lively, percussive tracks. There are some more sequencer-based "space music" albums (like his more recent "Filaments") along with introspective pop albums (with his project “Amoeba”) and a solo piano album ("Open Window"). Still all these different approaches have a special feeling in common that is a characteristic of all of Robert's music - a strong spiritual yearning and a sense of amazement regarding the wonders of nature and physical creation at the same time.

Robert has also collaborated with many notable musicians all through his career, like Steve Roach, Alio Die, Lustmord, Ian Boddy, Markus Reuter, and many others. He has also done sound design and soundtracks for movies, sound design / presets for synthesizers, he works as a mastering and recording engineer and teaches mastering techniques at a technical college. He is also engaged in visual art, and has a strong interest in food – especially mushrooms and wine… I'd like to start with some questions about the very beginnings.

MB: In some of your older interviews you mention your father, who was a jazz guitar player. When you started your musical career, was he interested in and appreciative of what you did? And when your career eventually unfolded, was he proud of you? Did he teach you anything musically as a boy, and did you ever play music together?

RR: I was a bad student of music. I wanted to learn guitar when I was about 11, and I asked my dad if he could teach me some chords. He did teach me a few to get started, but I didn’t practice. Instead I had more fun improvising on the piano. I didn’t really like the sort of jazz he played, which was west coast cool jazz like Stan Getz or Barney Kessel. It seemed too “white” to me, a bit boring. (I appreciate it better now, I think.) But he did introduce me to electronics, how to solder, how to understand a circuit schematic. That probably did more to get me started than any musical education. He bought me my first kits to build when I was 10 or 11 years old, Heathkit strobe light and a Volt-Ohmeter. Soon I started building synth kits from Paia and went in my own direction. I do think he is proud of what I do, in fact maybe a little envious because he tried playing music semiprofessionally but needed to make enough money to support a family. Being the nerdy engineer that he is, at 80 years old (still alive) I believe he is happy with his life, and he follows an internal compass like I do; but in other ways we have such different approaches to the world, or different belief systems, that we are not as close as we might wish. He tries to express affection, but isn’t very good at it. I try to express gratitude, but also have much to learn about being thankful. Alas, we have not played music together.

MB: Your mother, was she, too, into music in any way? Had she any interests, points of view or qualities that were of influence for what you later did as an artist?

RR: She has no ear for music, and doesn’t really understand how I could have a career doing something that she considers a slightly disreputable hobby. However, she was an excellent caring and loving mother, who allowed me to follow my own compass. She understood that I had a brooding independent streak and she did not try to push me too hard into conforming to her expectations. For this I am also very grateful. I’m sure she was worried about me, as I was growing up, but both my parents would say positive things like “We know you’ll be good at whatever you do.” I feel that they tried hard to show me their unconditional love.

MB: On Steve Roach's "Dreamtime Return" you have provided percussion on three tracks, I think, and if I'm not mistaken, you also played percussion as a guest musician on several other albums around that time (the late 80s). Did other musicians perceive you as a percussionist in the first place, back then?

RR: I think people just thought of me as a slow-motion electronic musician who also plays acoustic instruments. My previous releases, like
“Sunyata" “Trances” “Drones” or “Numena”, were all electro-acoustic hybrids, but I don’t think people knew that. My percussion was nevervirtuosic. I would use delays, looping, variable tape speeds to create an abstracted percussion sound, which fit the electronic context. I met Steve back in 1985 or so (maybe ’84?) and we have remained friends all this time. He had heard the percussion on side two of “Numena” and when I was working on “Geometry” he liked the direction I was going with the drums. We arranged a little trade, that I would contribute percussion on his next album, and he would help me mix some of the pieces on “Geometry” in his studio, which had much better gear than mine.

MB: Already as a young person, you had the idea of creating an equivalent to shamanism, that would make sense in our modern society, by the means of sound, or music. Did your interest in shamanism precede, or rather grow along with, your interest in music? Was there any special impulse that triggered, or any influence that nourished your interest in matters like spirituality, or psychology? Or did it evolve over time? Did you, at any point in your life, follow any special spiritual path?

RR: All of these interests grew together since the beginning. I would journey in my mind, using sound as a key to unlock imagination. Also I was very drawn to the earth — to the power of nature to give us a sense of place. I was always seeking meaning in my actions, trying to fix something unknown about the world that felt broken. I did have - perhaps typical? - adolescent crises of spirit, asking myself how I best could make myself useful. I realized that I had a skill in journeying in the mind, but how to use that? Art seemed like the best way. I saw the way a rock concert could bring people together, but in a more Dionysian way. I was more introverted, more attracted to quiet stimuli. So I looked at ethnomusicology writings, and sacred music from all traditions, trying to understand how it worked, how it transformed people. The question became: How to create a shamanic journey without the trappings of appropriated cultural languages, but rather with our own relevant language? How to create a 21st century shamanism that allowed room for a more scientific critical mind, rather than trying to obscure things in magical language? I saw Psychology as a middle path, which could help us to understand the power of the mind without resorting to obscurantism. Especially the questions in State Psychology, such as the work of Charles Tart, and the work I got involved in with Stephen La Berge, studying Lucid Dreaming. I was already doing sleep concerts by then - all these questions grew together.

Did I have spiritual or religious training or background? It is a modern story of low levels of commitment. I grew up in a protestant Christian household (Presbyterian) but rebelled as an early teenager, and enjoyed listening to lectures by Alan Watts. I read a lot of Zen and Taoist writings, became rather multicultural in my studies, while staying rooted in western scientific critical thinking. Perhaps my deepest and most useful education came in studying Sufism with a small group of friends around the Bay Area. This opened up a great deal of sensitivity for me, and you can find many Sufi references in my work. However I must admit that I have a difficult personal characteristic which makes it hard for me to believe or follow anything. I try to adapt the best parts of what I learn, into something that works for me. I could regret that I neglected several chances to follow a teacher farther into that tradition … but I needed to do what worked for me, and I have trouble with frameworks of belief and with hierarchical systems that deal at that energetic level. It is a weakness in me, not a strength.

MB: You grew up and lived most of your life in the San Francisco Bay Area - a part of the world that has a reputation for attracting people with alternative ways of life - beat poetry, the hippie movement, new age for example. I also think of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur and scientists / writers like Stanislav Grof or Fritjof Capra, whose attempts to align modern science with spirituality seem to have parallels in the way you view these topics.

Have you ever visited the Esalen Institute or did you meet some of the people who were teaching there? What do you think of them, and this movement? At some point these writers anticipated a "paradigm shift" in science and hoped for a marriage between "soft" and "hard" science and certain aspects of mysticism, or religion. Do you think there is, or has been, something valid to such ideas?

And, are you familiar with "The Long Now Foundation" (located in San Francisco)? If so, what do you think about it?

RR: I think Stewart Brand had a lot to do with the Long Now. They have an exhibit at Fort Mason in San Francisco, a beautiful (maybe Quixotic) plan to make a clock that could run for 10,000 years. I hope they succeed with their more important goal of showing people how brief our time has been so far on the planet as a species, and how a longer perspective can help shape our behaviors to something less self-destructive.

I have always felt a strong attraction to the alternative ways of thinking that have found roots in the San Francisco area. I am a native here, and I was a young child growing up in Menlo Park with the Grateful Dead practicing in a garage in a nearby house, Ken Kesey’s “Further” bus parked on Perry Street two blocks away, behind the school where I went. Change seemed inevitable, desirable; anything seemed like a better choice than the Establishment, pollution, big business, nuclear threats and the war in Viet Nam. My family is very conservative - I was rather rebellious, but too young to be a part of “the revolution.” I didn’t understand what it meant at that time. Later, as I was in University in the early ‘80s, it felt like the “revolution” had failed, had been forgotten. I did find myself attracted to the more introverted side of “seeking change” — and places like Esalen, and the Zen Center, lectures by Alan Watts, the classical Indian music taught at Ali Akbar Khan school in San Rafael, the post-hippie psychedelic philosophers like Terrence McKenna — combined with the radical subterfuge of Industrial subculture: Throbbing Gristle, Mark Pauline, the Residents, Caberet Voltaire, TuxedoMoon - all of this brewing together in a feeling of angst. I found the “new age” practitioners to be cloying, saccharine and insipid; but I also felt that a more positive energy needed to become infused into experimental counter-culture. I often felt confused and lost between these extremes, attracted both to an edgy experimentalism but also trying hard to express balance and beauty. It was a difficult language to seek out, trying to discover a vocabulary of ideas and sounds that might convey hope without being religious, judgmental, naïve or cloying.

In the mid-80s I did have an invitation to perform at Esalen. They offered a place to sleep that night, and I could use the famous hot mineral baths hovering above the crashing ocean waves. It is a beautiful place and the small audience of workshop-attendees listened nicely; but it did not connect with me as much as I hoped. I wanted to love it - the place is very special, it is in one of the most perfect locations on this planet - but the people there seemed hurt and needy, the New Age scene appeared to be more about therapy for problems I didn’t understand. I didn’t need therapy, I wanted to make an art that could merge with everything, break through limitations. Yet these people seemed self-limiting. To this day I have a complex relationship with “new age” culture - when it seems fake it makes me want to run away screaming, but I actually have some respect for musicians who honestly make music for this audience without compromise (perhaps like Iasos, or Deuter, or Constance Demby), because they are at least serving a need and being part of a community. It is not a community that I understand very well, but I respect its existence.

Another part of your question: When I saw many of the efforts to blend science with spirituality, I often just saw weak science. I think that we can make better connections between these ways of understanding, but perhaps they are better to live side by side rather than interbreeding. I know good scientists who also have a spiritual life, but they don’t try to shape their science with their beliefs. The sort of spirituality that interests me actually interfaces well with critical thinking. For example, a person who practices meditation can easily discuss cognitive science with a psychologist, and wear electrodes during meditation that show real changes in the brain. Yet the material evidence of those changes don’t undermine the reality of the meditative insights. They are just different ways of looking at related phenomena. The sort of observations we make are an outcome of the sort of questions we ask. If we ask “what does my life mean? why am I here?” we get answers with a spiritual flavor. If we ask “How did I get here? What are the mechanisms of the cosmos?” we get answers with a scientific flavor. The two are not mutually exclusive, nor do they particularly need to speak each other’s language. In my own mind, they coexist rather well.

MB: Some of your musical heroes, like Terry Riley or Pauline Oliveros, are today considered serious composers; you also sometimes have worked as a recording engineer for some neoclassical/avant-garde ensembles; you give classes at University, and also have an academic degree (in psychology). So, where do you see yourself and your music within this polarity of "serious" academic music and entertainment? Is this something you think about a lot, or is this distinction not that important to you?

RR: The world of academic music seems very rarified and isolated to me. It seems that they are asking questions in ways that are almost intentionally un-aesthetic. However I do appreciate the intellectual underpinnings and attempts at rigor that should infuse that world. I don’t personally have any connection to mainstream popular music either. I honestly don’t quite know where I fit in. I enjoy works of art that simultaneously inspire wonder and introspection, which can express both sensuality and intellect. I think these sorts of work pop up as a minority in any art medium or genre. It depends a lot upon the intentions of the artist, and the energy they choose to imbue into their work.

Terry Riley’s work shows intellectual acuity but also is filled with joy and contemplation. So do the films of Andrey Tarkovsky, the stories of Jorge Luis Borges or Italo Calvino, the paintings of Yves Tanguy or Marc Rothko, certain albums by Talk Talk, or Peter Gabriel, Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Arvo Part …. I don’t care about categories, whether something is classical or pop, commercial or academic, mainstream or fringe — I respond to intention, when art moves me to a place of recognition, to a place of wonder and reflection, to flash open that brief window that reminds me of the miracle of being alive and conscious.

MB: Regarding your teaching activities: what exactly do you speak about in your classes? Is it more about technical matters like mastering etc. or also about artistic/aesthetic/musical topics? Do you also speak about your own work? And: how much do you enjoy teaching? Do you feel there is a feedback, or a mutual inspiration taking place between you and your students?

RR: I do enjoy teaching, and certainly good students do inspire new ideas and a sense of possibility. Mostly, I teach a college course on audio mastering each year. It is not about my music at all, and I generally avoid the deeper questions about art and life. It is really a technical class in techniques to make a recording sound better. I have been teaching that for 8 years now - it is a five-month course in Autumn, organized through a nearby technical college (Cogswell) that meets once a week for 5 hours in my studio. Besides that I give the occasional lecture on topics that range from microtonality, sound design, having a career in the arts, or the history of “ambient music”. I recently finished a one-week residency at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I showed people techniques in modular synthesis, sound design, live performance, improvisation, and we put together a performance with student volunteers at the end of the week. I enjoyed being challenged by these young adults. While many of them are better skilled musicians than I am, I tried to offer them some insights based on my own life-experience.

MB: Your famous sleep concerts were expressions of your ongoing interest in shamanism and the wish to develop a modern times equivalent of it; however, for several reasons they remained, I think, a couple of singular events for a limited audience. Do you still feel today, that music - especially your kind of deep listening music - has the potential to have a healing, transforming, or otherwise beneficial effect on enough people to fulfill a significant role in our society? If so, do you think for helping this effect to unfold, it's necessary to create special events or settings, that enable people to step out of the routine and expectations of their daily lives, like you offered with the sleep concerts? Or could this effect also happen when people are immersing themselves in "shamanic" music in the privacy of their homes?

What do you think about the idea of installing something like a tradition, or "school" to continue the concept of sleep concerts, or maybe develop other forms of "shamanic deep listening events"? Is this something that can't be "taught" at all? Or is this something that occurs naturally anyway with gifted musicians?

RR: Complex question. I’m not sure I know how to answer it completely. First off, I would have to admit that the sleep concerts were conceived as a true experiment, and I don’t know the extent to which they were (or are) a success. They often feel like a good start on an idea that does not quite fit our way of living. I never did intend them to become institutionalized or mainstream. I always thought of them as experiments in social interaction, trance, deep listening and environmental sensibility. There are a few layers to the idea of a sleep concert, which I still feel are not properly resolved by listening at home. I really wanted these to be communal experiences, and I feared something in our culture way back then… which has even become worse now. This is our tendency to get lost into virtual experiences. Now that half the Western population is walking around with a smart-phone in front of them, what are we really experiencing? Increasingly I want my art to speak to embodiment, as opposed to the disembodied abstracted experience that increasingly absorb us. The sleep concerts were an attempt to bring people together in a communal search, a communal moment of deep quiet and hyper-acuity to one’s environment, and this seems more needed now than ever, I just don’t quite know how to do it.

There is a second part to your question, about inspiring new artists, new musicians to try to make art with a shamanic intensity and purpose. I don’t know how to do this in an educational sense. I think the urge to take art towards a more psycho-dynamic and hermetic place comes from inside of a person; and I don’t think it can be taught, nor does it appeal to everyone. I think that there are streams of these ideas that run throughout culture and history, and in each era those ideas percolate to the surface in a form that grows naturally out of the context of that time and place. It’s like a lingering fragrance that many people can smell, but only a small minority of people seem attracted. If I were to impose my way of doing things onto people in the next generations coming up, then their art might risk being stagnant and imitative of mine. I would rather inspire by example, just as I was inspired by examples that came before me; yet I approached things in ways that made sense in my environment in my time.

I think, throughout history, there is a tradition of esoteric teaching and the art forms that go along with it, whether it be Pythagorean sacred geometry transforming into gothic cathedrals, or Taoist monks helping people to navigate the violent times of the Chinese warlords, or the visionary yarn paintings of the Huichol Indians that evolved from their peyote shamanism, or the exquisite filagree compositions that J.S. Bach created for the churches of northern Europe, or the Dionysian intensity of psychedelic rock, even the machine-mind melding of psy-trance raves or the post-apocalyptic tribalism of Burning Man. All of these moments in time manifest certain parts of a fabric that runs underneath our daily material society, and reaches back to more fundamental expressions of “God” - whatever that is, deep in our collective psyche - and offers us experiential windows into our personal expression of the sacred, or the meaning of our existence.

Addressing a more practical side of your question: I have been interested in sound-installation art for many years, and I have several concepts for permanent installations that might evoke a sense of wonder in the listeners. This is an area that other people have explored much more thoroughly. The German artist Bernard Leitner comes to mind, and Bill Fontana for example, who was a big influence on me, as were Marianne Amocher and Annea Lockwood. I often plan to go father down this path someday, but I seem to stay busy enough in the realm of recording and performing - for now at least.

MB: Jumping back a few years with my next question now: In an interview from the late 90s, I was rather surprised that you criticized Pete Namlook and Bill Laswell, or Namlook's FAX label, in the sense of "high output of low quality ambient" and expressed a concern that this could ruin the market for good ambient music (roughly speaking). I was surprised, because for all I know, Peter (who passed away unexpectedly in late 2012), and also Bill are well respected artists, partly also with a similar approach to your own (both musically and philosophically).

Did you ever meet Peter (or Bill) in person? What do you think about the FAX label and it's artists in general today?

RR: Usually I try to avoid saying anything critical about my colleagues for fear it might come back to haunt me someday. :-) I was not referring to every Fax release, only some of them. I still do feel that Pete and Bill should have spent more time on about half of those albums they put out. Some of them sounded like someone fiddling on a Minimoog through an echo for an hour, then releasing it as-is the following week. At the time, it seemed the only reason they were releasing albums so fast is that people were buying them. Some of the releases simply had less thought or care invested than some of the others. I’m not painting the whole Fax label with that statement of course. I thought Pete’s Air projects were quite interesting, and I liked Tetsu Inue’s releases quite a lot. Tetsu actually got in touch with me some years ago asking to do a collaboration, but our schedules didn’t mesh. I have always enjoyed Laswell’s Material projects and his global collaborations. We actually met once when he was playing in Meridiem with my friend Percy Howard, along with Fred Frith and Charles Hayward. He’s an odd guy, he seemed a little gritty and “urban”, perhaps just shy, it’s hard to tell. I bear no resentment nor ill-will to the Fax label nor anyone involved, it just didn’t fit with the path I had set for myself.

MB: In 2013, you were involved in the production of the orchestral version of "Todmorden 513", a composition by Markus Reuter, with whom you had collaborated on the excellent "Eleven Questions". Was mixing "Todmorden 513" rather one of your "regular jobs" as a mixing and mastering engineer, or were you in this case involved more deeply in the creative process? Were you present at the recording sessions? And, were you familiar with the older (small ensemble / electronic) version of the composition when working on the mix?

RR: Actually I was involved in both versions - the first electronic version and the orchestral, because I did the 5.1 surround mix of the first one also. A few years later, Markus asked me to do a surround mix of the orchestral version to complement the electronic one, and I also did a stereo mix which got included in the package, and mastered the mixes I made for him. I wasn’t even slightly involved in the composition or recording of either version. Actually, Markus wanted me to stay uninformed about the meaning or compositional techniques, so I would approach it only sonically. He likes to play those sorts of puzzles, and I enjoy participating. Because Markus is a friend and collaborator (on Eleven Questions) I treated this more as a favor for a friend than as a purely “regular job.” It remains entirely his music and conception though, I was only involved in the final mix.

MB: Recently I've read somewhere that you don't have children and wondered if this was a conscious decision - maybe because a family life can be hard to align with the life of an artist, or maybe for other concerns or considerations - or did it just not happen, for no special reason?

RR: My wife and I would have liked to have had children, but it just didn’t happen. She is a bit older than me, and when we were younger we
didn’t feel ready. She had an interesting job as software engineer, and she enjoyed some of the professional challenges. When we did feel ready, I guess it was too late. For us it’s probably better that it didn’t happen, but nobody can know these things.

MB: Well - after a lot of questions about the past, and about more personal, or philosophical topics, I think it's about time now to speak about your current projects. You mentioned a while ago that you were involved in doing sound design for a synthesizer that was presented at this year's NAMM show back in January. What exactly was the company, and synthesizer, you did that for? And how did the project develop? Is it already completed, or will you work on it further after the NAMM show? And how was the response there?

RR: I have made samples and synth presets for several different companies. I have a long friendship with people who used to be at Sequential Circuits, who then formed Dave Smith Instruments. I have contributions deep inside many of their synths - the Tempest drum machine has some very particular noise spectra that I created, and the Prophet 12 and Pro 2 have some single-cycle wave tables, many of which I created with my voice. Along with many other sound designers, I contributed presets to all of their recent synths, most recently the OB-6 collaboration with Tom Oberheim, plus some FM sounds for the new operating system upgrade to the Prophet 12. The OB-6 seems to be getting a very enthusiastic response. People like the sound of that 2-pole multi-mode SEM filter. I finished that work before NAMM, and I imagine they will contact me when they need my help for their next instrument.

MB: You also recently were - or maybe still are - involved in a movie project: "Mandorla", an independent fantasy movie directed by Roberto Miller. Could you briefly describe what the movie is about? How did you get involved? I think you are credited as "music supervisor", what exactly was your job in this case? I also was quite amazed to see that Vincent Villuis aka Aes Dana contributed to the soundtrack. Was it your initiative to get him involved, or was that Miller's / the film company's choice? Did you meet Vincent in person to work with him on the project, or was it all accomplished via email etc.? Can you think of any anecdotes / memorable things that happened during production? And when and where can we see the movie?

RR: I have been in touch with Sandrine and Vincent at Ultimae for many years, and they put a piece of mine on one of their compilations back around 2002 I think. We are friends and they even sell my music in their shop. I met Roberto Miller around 2005, when he was producing a video for a website called Global Mindshift, a non-profit organization in Palo Alto that had a charter to help the world find a dialog between science and spirituality. This meeting also resulted in “Atlas Dei” which I did with Dan Colvin. If you want a story here it is: The Center For Global Community started in the 1950s from intellectuals at Stanford University, and a wealthy patron from Canada. They had evolved into several different sub-groups with different charters. Global Mindshift was one of these. Roberto Miller was working at Stanford in the computer science department, in administration (he has many Hollywood contacts as a writer and production assistant, but this was his day job) and he made friends with the organization.

They hired him as a producer for a web video with Brian Swimme, connecting cosmology theory with the history of myth and humans seeking to understand their origins. That project connected Roberto with Dan Colvin, who eventually created the motion graphics behind the Swimme lecture. Dan Colvin was a fan of my music, and suggested that they use me for the score. We had a fateful lunch meeting, when we realized we had many common interests, and we all became friends. Dan and I took the lecture backdrop and built it into “Atlas Dei” and Roberto hired me for work with Hewlett Packard product releases (I did sound design and mixed the TV ad for release of HP’s “Touch” computer.) Then Roberto started writing his very personal film Mandorla, and asked me for my opinions during development. As a friend, I offered to help him however he needed. I gave him a big hard disc with my entire catalog plus hours of experimental sound design, and told him I can help find whatever he needs if it was not already on that. He told me that some of the music he was listening to came from this label Ultimae in France, I told him I knew them, and I put them in touch. He also then became friends with Vincent and Sandrine, and actually stayed with them for a few weeks and filmed part of the movie in Lyon.

We are now working on making a soundtrack CD which they will release. It is all a question of community and being helpful. Roberto came to me with music questions, and if I thought another artist might have a more appropriate sound than mine, I put him in touch with that artist. The opening credits use a piece by Michael Stearns - that’s how it happened. This is the reason Roberto gave me credit as music supervisor. I simply connected him with people I thought would suit his film; and then he also used many elements from my recordings that I gave him. I also created some specific music for the film, loaned him my cargo van for production, did voice-over recording and foley work for him… anything he needed. It grew from a friendship. “Mandorla” is basically about searching for meaning and truth within the everyday world. It deals with the basic themes of myth - or the Joseph Campbell idea of “The Hero’s Journey” - but most of the journey is really in the imagination of the main character. It is a quiet movie about normal people trying to balance the demands of everyday life with a calling to quest for meaning. I believe it will start distribution in Autumn. There is a distributor in France and Belgium, and in the USA. Hopefully it can find an audience in some other countries also, then I assume next year it should be on DVD or Blu-ray. News about showings and distribution should get updated on their website http://mandorlamovement.com .

MB: Last but not least, you have recorded a new album which hopefully will be released soon. Can you already tell us it's title? Does it, musically, continue the direction of your previous album, "Filaments" or is it more in line with the feeling or approach of one of your older albums ? Or did you go in a new direction altogether?

I also remember that you've told your listeners a while ago that the topic of the album was "earth after the humans", which at first sounds a bit sombre, maybe even pessimistic (from a human point of view at least). Did it turn out a "dark" album? Does the choice of your topic reflect the current state of affairs on this planet, maybe the rising political tensions or ongoing ecological problems, or is it rather an idea that interested you for a long time (I'm thinking, for example, of your fondness of Olaf Stapeldon, who wrote about similar topics)? Or is it connected to your interest in the intelligence in other species (for example, crows)? Would you like to tell us about the process of recording the album? Did you use any new approaches to music or sound design?

RR: Once again, many questions. I will try to answer a few. Yes, my new album is called “What We Left Behind” and it imagines a journey on the wing of a messenger with black feathers, showing me the future. The crow is like a spirit guide in this dream, or a bit like the moment in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” when the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his own funeral, and Scrooge realizes nobody misses him. In my vision, the earth is doing just fine without humans, and the harm that we caused, the massive extinction event, climate change, lingering radioactivity… all of that has faded in a million years. New minds have evolved, new problems perhaps. We were just a part of the flow of life.

Our extinction (which we caused) is just a blink in the memory of deep time. Our arrogance about consciousness and our creative minds…nobody remembers it. If there is sadness in the album, it is merely a regret that we are not around to see the future, because of our self-destructive tendencies. Something else will come up in time, do a better job in its moment. In this sense I think the ideas of Olaf Stapledon play a large role. In “Starmaker“ we take a journey across many planets and millennia, we see the repeated evolution and destruction of beautiful things. I tried to capture a blend of the beauty, wonder and sadness of that idea. In particular, I wanted this album to feel true on a human scale, because it is our mind that is traveling on the wing of the messenger, and it is our emotion that we must communicate. I am not making this album for creatures in a million years, I am making this for us, because it is a vision that feels true to me, a recurrent dream that will not go away.

 I don’t want to try to anticipate what other people will think of the music. I do know that I wanted the sound to be organic, without machines, without steady repetition or a sense of current human-made technology. All of the album is made without a tempo grid (the sort that audio workstations impose), and most of the sounds are either acoustic, processed in some way to make them more abstract - or the electronic sounds are organic, distant, rusty or underwater. I wanted everything to feel like it is happening outside in a landscape or seascape, so reverbs and sound design are matched to a feeling of forest, mountain, desert, sky or ocean. When there is a rhythm, it comes from synthesis that tries to emulate natural sounds, living things, or it comes from layers of acoustic percussion. I wanted everything to feel a bit distant, like in a dream, and completely organic, non technological, not from the world of our making. There is emotion, but it is the emotion of crying inside, the visitor (ourselves) feeling the flow of the earth without us, after us, perhaps feeling a yearning to be there again, to go back and fix the mistakes we are making right now.

Is this about our modern situation, political divide, global unrest, overpopulation, climate warming, genocide, deforestation, hypercapitalism, militarism? Of course it is, because if our art does not speak to our present condition it will not accomplish much. Yet it also needs to speak to beauty and the essence of humanity, the possibilities within us, and visions much bigger than us. Perhaps we might make art that speaks to people in 200 years, but I cannot predict that (J.S. Bach did that well, but he also spoke to his own people.) I feel things inside me that I don’t always understand, that need to be expressed right now… I am not completely in control of these feelings. I go through difficult periods where the next idea is processing through me, gestating like a baby. Then as the ideas become an album it is my job to select among the many ideas, the few that will collect into a meaningful unity. Sometimes it takes months of pushing, pulling, fighting with ideas, because some of them are strong but they don’t fit. That is when the *next* album starts to grow, because the strong messages - signals - that do not fit become seeds for something else.

In fact that next album might be closer to the foreboding landscape you imagined this one could be. That was the place all of these messages were coming from. This album, however, is an act of will to pull those dark forebodings out of the shadows and into a place of beauty, blended with sadness, because I wanted to send a message of possibility mixed with warning. The next one might be the storage tank for those feelings that I can’t easily fit into other places… I think everyone feels them, but some people are better at suppressing those feelings.

MB: Beyond the release of the new album, what are your further plans for 2016? Any upcoming concerts, or other events? Maybe re-releases?
Or any other - perhaps non-musical - artistic projects?

RR: I have one Sleep Concert coming up in May, at Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina. Otherwise no other major concerts scheduled at this time. I am feeling more in hermit-mode, wanting to get a lot of good studio work done. I will start working on that other album that began while I was in the middle of “What We Left Behind.” I suspect I will work on that new album over the summer and into Autumn, and maybe I can get it released this year or early 2017 if it comes to fruition.

MB: Is there anything more you'd like to add or tell us about?

RR: Life is short. We need to use some of that brief time to find our sense of meaning, and we need to tell the people close to us that we love them. If we can start to do that, and forgive ourselves for our own flaws, then maybe we can start to move forward to make a bit less damage around us. But for me at least, it has to start at the center.

MB: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions, Robert!

Copyright © 2016 Michael Brückner & Robert Rich

Want even more interview time with Robert check out these other talks with Robert here on AV  Interview 1 and Interview 2