For more than three decades, electronic composer Robert Rich has explored a wide palette of expansive sounds, categorized under a variety of terms—"new age," "dark ambient," "tribal," "industrial,"—but when the 51-year-old Californian discusses the kinds of music he makes, he mostly uses two terms: "active music" and "quiet music."
Rich's latest albums explore both sides, respectively. "Filaments," released earlier this year, is filled with dynamic washes of sound and warm synth arpeggios, and while it's still a meditative, enveloping listen, it's practically speed metal compared to "Perpetual (A Somnium Continuum)," released late last year, a Blu-Ray album which combines eight hours of humming soundscapes, with slow, glacially-paced shifts in sound paired with his tonally similar seven-hour album, "Somnium," originally released in 2001. The latter features the kind of music he became known for performing at "sleep concerts," eight-or-ten-hour performances he began hosting in 1982, and has continued on-and-off since, at festivals worldwide and live on radio stations.
The goal of his sleep concerts isn't to lull listeners to sleep, Rich explains, but rather to explore altered states of consciousness, accompanying liminal states of light sleep, where hypnogogic imagery becomes accessible to the listener. Rich won't be performing sleep music on Friday, April 3, at the Galactic Center, but his sounds always aim toward a unified goal: to act as a catalyst for inward reflection.
"One of the themes that goes through all of my music, both the active music and the very slow music, is a desire for intensity, and a desire to explore the non-linear parts of the mind," Rich says over the phone from his studio in Mountain View, California. "It's using music in perhaps its most ancient, shamanic intention, to journey into altered states."
Due to his desire to create engaging sounds—not the background sounds of Brian Eno or the "furniture music" of Erik Satie—Rich has always been ill at ease with term "ambient music."
"I've frequently pointed out the phrase that [electronic composer] Pauline Oliveros has used for years, 'deep listening,'" Rich says. "I like that better than the phrase ambient for several reasons ... ambient implies that (the music exists solely in the) background, that it's a neutral stimulus. I like the phrase 'deep listening' because it sort of gives instruction to the audience on how to approach the music. It's an active process, where the person engages in the listening experience. When they put that energy into the music, put that concentration into the music, they get something out of it that's very different from either background music or entertainment music."
Ultimately, Rich's music is best described with a term most often applied to rock music, "psychedelic." While the term carries with it connotations of San Franciscan acid trips, Rich isn't necessarily talking about drugs.
"When I use the phrase 'psychedelic,' I'm not referring to drugs, particularly," Rich says, citing Frank Zappa as an example of a drug free musician capable of making truly weird music free of substances. "His point was that we can go into interesting places in our consciousness without drugs," Rich says.
"The music can explore humor and the human experience and weirdness without drugs," Rich says. "The mind is capable of going into all sorts of interesting states of consciousness on a day-to-day basis. I think of it as psycho-active sound, really, dealing with it as that's friendly to the exploration of the things that are around the edges of consciousness."