DSI INTERVIEW – ROBERT RICH

With over 40 albums spanning four decades, Robert Rich has helped define ambient music. Robert began building his own analog modular synthesizers in 1976, when he was 13, and later studied computer music at Stanford’s CCRMA while researching lucid dreaming. Robert has performed worldwide, and since 1982, his all-night Sleep Concerts have become legendary. His 15-hour, Blu-ray Perpetual maintains this tradition. Robert’s sound design graces many films and preset libraries, and as a mastering engineer he has applied his ear to hundreds of albums. His latest release, Vestiges, is available on Bandcamp, CDBaby, and robertrich.com.

We chatted with Robert about his music.

You studied at Stanford under John Chowning and others, but musically you’re essentially self-taught, correct?

Yes. I never took theory lessons or anything like that and am self-taught in that regard. I basically fell in love with music. And in particular, before I even knew what psychedelic meant back in the early 70s, fell in love with what I realized later was psychedelic rock — you know, Pink Floyd and so on. In fact, I remember growing up in the mid 60s listening to the Grateful Dead practicing a block away behind the cemetery near where I grew up in Menlo Park. Ken Kesey’s bus was up the hill and The Dead were practicing nearby and I found out it was somebody’s garage a block away.

You could hear them Thursday and Sundays. I didn’t know what that was, but it was wafting over the back fence. I was also immediately attracted to Indian music and drony introspective things. When I was a teenager, I discovered Harry Partch and gamelan and Terry Riley and Ali Akbar Khan. Things like that.

What was your first instrument?

My first real instrument was building synthesizers.

Let me guess… the old PAIA synth kits?

Exactly! I was 13 when I started building it in 1976. It was my first synth. The PAIA Gnome. They made it seem like you could actually play music with it but it sounded like a tortured mosquito. I think John Simonton has a lot to answer for. (laughs) Now he’s passed away so we can’t quite give him that strange backhanded credit that he really deserves. But he started so many people’s careers.

They had a string synth, too, among many other things.

Yes! It was a top-octave chip and a chorus and it sounded like a vacuum cleaner. It was so bad and it was so many discrete components. Something like 400 resistors. Simonton would go to these auctions and buy pallets of components that companies would be selling off because they were going out of business. And so suddenly he’d have a hundred thousand 33k resistors or some weird capacitor size and he would design all of his kits around the components that he had jillions of. The oscillators and filters would barely work because the resistors and capacitors were off kilter. You ended up with something that sort of made sound and you’d figure out ways of making music with it. This ended up teaching me ways of making sound with bad electronics because the stuff wouldn’t stay in tune. So I’d end up making sort of rainforest critter noises with it. You know, bird calls and frogs and create these evolving landscapes of little random events that didn’t have to be in tune.

I didn’t have any money then. I was doing gardening, babysitting, paper routes, and anything I could to scrounge money. Maybe making a couple of hundred dollars in a summer. Working gardening gigs through the school year and in this way I was eventually able to buy enough kits to build a 200 system over the years. By around 1979 I had a handful of modules and it was a system that I could perform with and I was trying to look for a band to play improvised noise. I wanted to do industrial Throbbing Gristle-ish things. Improvised weirdness.

What were you recording with in those days?

Live to cassette. In Germany two years ago they put out a 4-record set of my material called Premonitions. A lot of that was straight off the master cassettes that I played live to. That recording was from 1980. That was all created from multiple sound sources using a mixer. I had a tape echo. It was a Memphis tape echo that used an 8-track cartridge.

Around 1980 I bought a used lap steel guitar for $80. The tape echo cost me about $60 and it was just pieced together. I built a kit from Radio Shack that was an electronic reverb kit which turned out was designed by Paul Schreiber who does MOTM synthesis technology. He was working for Tandy at the time. I couldn’t afford the Tandy Moog which came out around 1981. But I could afford the kit and the instruction for the kit gave tricks on how to modify it. Turned it into a full-on echo with feedback so it would oscillate.

I remember doing a whole piece with this PAIA, noise, and feedback on this echo. You work with what you have.

In some ways those early days were almost more exciting than now where there are so many sophisticated tools. Too many tools, maybe.

Right. What I find exciting is a lot of younger electronic music enthusiasts getting into circuit bending. That whole world. I remember reading articles by Qubias Reed Ghazala on experimental musical instruments back in the late 80s and he coined the word “circuit bending.” He was the first one to do these things with “Speak & Spells.” There’s a whole maker’s aesthetic of people doing crazy noisy experiments with tweaked-out, cheap, off-the-shelf gear and I love that. I think there’s a tendency for people to lust after $5000 Eurorack systems now with all the blinky lights, and they kind of missed the stage where you’re trying to struggle through just getting an oscillator to work. I think there’s a lot one learns by going through that struggle and it opens up a lot of ways of thinking about sound-making that are more flexible than your simple oscillator, filter, envelope kind of mentality.

Right. You can always process the raw sounds that are coming out of circuit-bent devices anyway. That’s just the starting point.

Yeah. To me all of the electronics are just the beginnings for processing anyway. The use of processors and outboard delays and filters and loopers and things has been fundamental to how I would get the sounds that were in my head when the electronics were really crude. You know, it was like: “Put everything through a tape echo and make it do weird cool things and suddenly change the speed on the tape echo!”

But the use of processors for me has always been central with synthesis. They aren’t separate.

You were once quoted as saying that at an early age you thought you didn’t like music. Do you think it was simply that traditional music was too structured and that you had a natural affinity for more long-form, evolving things?

Well, I think the actual context for that quote was this: My grandfather was very into big-band jazz. And there was this time when they were visiting us for Christmas when I was probably 5 years old. And my sister and my grandfather were trying to get me to dance to Count Basie or something. And I remember saying “I hate music. I don’t want to dance to this!”

The funny thing is I’ve come to really like jazz. But what I realized is that I’ve never responded to triadic harmony and chord changes like that. When I first heard Indian classical music I was probably 10 years old and that was on the radio and it was immediately attractive to me.

So, you know, not liking music is still sometimes true. I go through long periods where I don’t listen to things that I don’t want to. I go for a walk every morning and I’m just listening to the world around me and what I really came to appreciate was the sound of insects and for all that rain and wind and that’s what brought me back into sound making — the whole idea of music as sonic exploration rather than a bunch of chords which are supposed to make sense. I must confess that some of the greatest music ever written has made me feel a little claustrophobic.

Mozart felt too clean and tidy and everything ended exactly as you expected. And all the chords flow in exactly the perfect way. I find it like being in a cage of logic. For me the music always had a different logic — a flow that was like flow of water or the world around me.

“Watery” is certainly a word that comes to mind when listening to your work because of the flow and the space that it creates.

I think one thing that differentiates the way I use synthesizers is that I try to get them to sound organic. And usually that means even if they’re really weird-sounding there’s a certain roundness or woody-ness or earthiness to their sound. Oftentimes I’ll use filters with rolled off settings so that things aren’t super bright. Or if they’re resonant, they’re in the vocal range of resonance. I love things that land in the vocal range. And I love things that sound like entire worlds around me. Like environments of the imagination.

“Organic” is an overused word, but it applies to your music. But whereas some recordings might just throw in some birdsongs in the background, with your music, the listener often can’t tell the difference between the instruments or sounds that are truly organic — natural acoustic sounds — and those that are synthesized. It meshes together into an integrated whole. It’s not like: “Here’s a synth melody and just going to slap on some crickets.”

Oh, that whole that New Age cliché that was happening in the early 80s would make me want to puke. The inspiration for me was sound art and installation art. People like Bill Fontana or Annea Lockwood. You know, sound artists who were working with the idea of deep listening, where the music itself is about focusing into the sound and encouraging the listener to make a deeper focus into the fine texture of sound.

How do you balance the micro with the macro? Maintaining focus on sonic details while creating the overarching long-form compositional structure of something like your “Sleep Concerts” which last for hours?

Well, I think part of it is that a lot of those environments are synthesized and not actually just recorded. And then creating electronic versions of nonexistent animal-scapes — you know, birds and frogs or whatever. Underwater sounds. And then integrating them with actual acoustic recordings that I make. Field recordings. And a little bit like the old trick of adding one trumpet to a synthesized horn section. The real instrument will suddenly bring the synthesized one to life.

I find the same thing works with environments. I have a synthesized environment of fantasy and animals. Or drips and drops and flips and flaps and then I integrate the sound of… like one of the weird recordings I’d make was electric fish in a bucket or hanging a microphone down a cliff in Big Sur and getting the sound of the crustaceans in the tide wash, popping little bubbles out of their shells so there’s these tiny little sounds and you hear the sloshing of the of the water in the distance and the tide pool. You integrate a sound like that which is very subtle and microscopic with a sound that might be electronic in nature and very reverberant and distant and the whole thing merges into a landscape in the mind. It’s not a physical, literal landscape. It’s a series of sounds that create an imaginary soundscape in the head — not a literal one.

The other aspect of that is the long term versus the short term. The microcosmic versus the macro. That’s just from trying to get to a stasis which is never the same. I’m trying to find these plateaus of sound where you just want to be there, but where the sound is constantly moving, because one thing I find really annoying is repetition. Those long-form pieces like Somnia and Perpetual. There’s no repeating loops that stay the same. If there are loops, they’re open loops or elements that crossfade constantly. If there’s a frozen loop, it’ll be constantly moving in relation to other loops and brought in and brought out.

So I try to avoid the mistake that a lot of people who do ambient music make — they just keep things standing still, holding a note down or looping the same thing. I don’t do that. I create long, shifting landscapes and then the underneath sounds, the micro sounds of creatures or drips or water or whatever, are organic enough that they also have the randomness of the real world. So like a fractal with parts. Patterns that are both large and small and they echo each other and the very small patterns also retain internal detail that keeps changing and has complexity.

So there’s a bit of a fractal structure there. And it is also conceptualized. One of those eight-hour pieces will take me a couple of years to put together, building components one chunk at a time. It’s really not like I’m sitting there just ripping it out overnight. When I’m doing a sleep concert, I have elements that I’ve been building for years.

So for one of your sleep concerts, you put these together in a form that creates a natural evolution for the time slot that you’ve allocated? Or how do you approach things?

There’s a bunch of layers to it. First of all, for a sleep concert, when they’re live, I think of it as a shamanic journey. I mean it’s really a trance. It’s something that I’m trying to create a sort of sonic… well, how to put it?  I use metaphors when I discuss with the audience what’s going to happen and one of the metaphors is “It’s like you’re exploring a cave and you leave a little thread behind you so you can find your way back quickly.” The music is like that thread. It’s like the string that you leave behind you in your spelunking. And so as you’re journeying into other states of consciousness which would include sleep consciousness or also include semi-dream states like hypnogogic imagery and things.

The music becomes a sort of shamanic metaphor for a spelunking rope, where you can find your way through by this thread of sound. And from my perspective, it’s trying to create a moving field of sound which is so seductive and velvety that you just want to sleep in it like a womb. You want to curl up into this mystery. And the journey in my mind as I’m improvising these these trance music exists to try to always be the listener as I’m also the creator and to want to create a velvety womb to curl up into.

Left-field question: Do you have a particular spiritual belief that informs your music? I ask mainly because some of the titles of your work are suggestive of a certain sensibility…

I do. I think I’m not alone in Western culture, having rejected almost any organized religion that just doesn’t fit my view. And I would say that I generally follow a more of a scientific curiosity as far as understanding the universe. But I also feel that there’s meaning and that information is a form of energy which we can see in information theory similarity to entropy and chaos. And I think that that it’s possible to integrate a scientific curiosity and an intellectual curiosity and a self doubt about knowledge.

What I love about scientific method is that it’s a method of questioning knowledge. Not of starting with a given known thing but rather starting with questions and trying to disprove yourself. I think that there’s a lot of traditions within true spirituality, within meditation traditions, and within the mystical tradition that deal with experiential questioning of meaning and meaning in life. I don’t particularly have a need for any kind of theistic idea or the “mind” of the universe. I think that the universe can be an evolving mind and I’m quite OK with that. And I still think that there’s meaning — yet I don’t have to understand what that meaning is. And I think that’s probably in the territory that a lot of people in anthropology would call “Western non-religious openness to spirituality.”

For me, I find that in the tradition of shamanism and also in the traditions of the spiritual traditions that deal with dissolution of ego that there’s plenty of room to have an openness to altered states of consciousness and openness to journeying into what the Buddhist might call “no mind” but also being very open to physics and cosmology and chemistry and biology and all of that. In other words I think that it’s possible to seek truth without a dogma. And I think that’s probably the summary of what I’m trying to do.

I remember years ago when I was starting out as a teenager trying to find a way to be helpful in the face of the pain of existence in the universe, and on the earth, and with the stupidity humans. I realized that the role of the shaman is one that can be a healing role for spirit. But I wanted to find a meaningful metaphor with a 21st century Western context rather than trying to appropriate the language of shamanic traditional cultures or developing people or other non-Western culture. I wanted to find what was true in the shamanic understanding of ego dissolution while appreciating the metaphors that we have as a scientific, technology-driven culture. I think that’s been the main driving force for the metaphors that I use and the titles that I use and the traditions that I’m attracted to.

Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m processing when I’m creating a piece until I’m finished and then a year or two later I listen back. Or I see how other people respond to it. Sometimes my albums are a bit like a Rorschach. They’re very strange and abstract and sometimes people find them very dark or scary.

But I think the seeking of nonverbal expression of the miracle of existence is a lot of what drives me. And lately, my last couple of albums and the one that I’m working on right now have a bit of a darker edge to them. A bit of sadness about how stupid people can be. Especially environmentally.

There’s been an environmental consciousness in my music since the very start. I remember writing a little “mission statement” back when I was getting started working on my first few albums. I remember a very pretentious 18 year old writing something like “I want to make music that completely vanishes and leaves the entire universe in its empty place.” We all have a license to be pretentious when we’re still teenagers I guess. (laughs)

For me, the musical language that I explore is one that is not just one of emotion. I’m trying to find music that presents things beyond emotion, that have a sense of awe. The emotion that you can’t name. That there’s no words for. If I can get that shiver down the spine and that sense that somebody has opened a window into another world, and it’s neither happy, sad, angry, in love or whatever. It’s that sense of being completely alive. And if I can find ways of expressing that sense of “being here now” in an ecstatic moment of perception that’s the “emotion which isn’t an emotion” that I’m seeking. That’s perhaps a spiritual thing.

You’ve done sound design for DSI’s synths. How does that figure into your work as a composer? 

Well, sometimes I’ll work on a sound and I’ll start getting lost in it and it will start inspiring me. I push “save,” then push “record” before I have to send the prototype back. That’s exactly what I was working on Filaments about two years ago. I was doing preset design for the DSI Pro 2 and found some incredible voices designing some of the 4-voice sounds in it. The paraphonic stuff. I had these tones that were almost sine waves and each of them had a pitch bend going into the next pitches. So using portamento the paraphonic mode with these really soft and drifty sounds and I only had the synth for about 3 days. It was one of the three prototypes and I had to rip through those presets and send it back. And the morning I was supposed to send it back I just basically recorded two pieces playing live and they ended up on the album. It was just so inspiring that they became the basis for two short tracks on Filaments. But and so that’s really for me. I make presets for synth companies that satisfy my own aesthetic.

So that’s why I’m not always best at making the top ten presets in a given synth. It’s usually that I’ll stick my presets deeper into a synth because they’re weird and they have a tendency to take a long time to grow and develop. A lot of the classic music store presets jump out of the speakers and play a whole song when you hold a note down. But with mine you have to hold a note down for 5 seconds before you hear the full sound. Usually there’s a ton of modulation in it.

I love to explore the synthesis engine of each instrument I do presets for and find where the instrument does something unique and surprising. So a lot of times, finding the deep menus of the modulation sources and destinations and doing things that will really get people’s head scratching. I enjoy that because it’s a bit of a game perhaps, but it’s fun.

When you’re beginning a composition, how to do you choose which instruments or sound source you want to use? How do you even start? 

I have a mood or a sort of place that I want to go to and it becomes the target destination. And then I find myself wandering around in the dark exploring things and experimenting to find the tonality that has the kind of mystery that I’m looking for. I fall back on habits that I’ve learned — to hide the source and use tools so that you can’t identify it particularly. Its tonality. With electronics that often involves a lot of processing. So often the way I’ll begin is with setting up network of delays and reverbs and pitch shifters and things and start injecting things into those networks and just seeing if I can create a language of sound that becomes its own thing.

I have trouble with softsynths because sometimes their sound is too pure and discrete. Things coming right out of a plug in will often have way too much of an “etched” dimension, or a sharp edge, and I want the sounds to be coming from a place. Not from some algorithm. I want it to seem less mathematical and more physical. More embodied. This word I’ve been playing with for a couple of years is “embodimen.” Trying to find the physicality of something.

A problem that I have with a lot of techno that’s using a lot of built-in sounds and a lot of really sharp, drony concrete sounds is that it doesn’t feel embodied to me. It feels very abstracted and mathematical. And I want things that are a bit squishy or with some meat on their bones a little bit of decay. A little skank, you know? That seek seeking “rust” or seeking the “wabi sabi” is partially where I begin. And the tools that I’ll pick don’t really matter so much.

For example, here’s a typical beginning: I’ll start with loopers in a microphone and I’ll make weird sounds into the looper and I’ll lock it in and get something interesting then I’ll sample that into Logic and then make a like a 90-second sample. The computer can hold this huge, gigantic stereo file, and then I’ll hold that down and put it through a bunch of processors and have these long evolving pads that are coming from organic sounds looped and then sampled.

So that that’s a way that I’ll sometimes begin these textures. Or I might start with the modular synth and create a sort of forest of deep ocean whale calls or something and have that. One thing I love about the modulars is that because there are no presets, I have to push “Record” all time. You know, if there’s something cool, just record, and throw it away if you blow it. Just just keep a recording moving and that fights a tendency that’s a disease in MIDI: saving your decisions until later. The idea of “Well, I’m going to work on the notes in the chords, and then I’ll pick the sound, and then I’ll…” You know, always saving your final decisions until the end. That’s the best way to kill inspiration and the worst way to be inspired.

I try to find the sounds that inspire me and I’ll improvise and record and it’s first takes all the time. And sometimes I’ll just throw everything away that didn’t work. A lot of improvisation and a lot of experimenting and then cut and paste, glue and carve, until things become something that approximates that landscape that started out the experiment.

So it’s living and evolving in real time and you’re reacting to it at the same time you’re composing it.

Yeah. And they are performances. They’re live performances with electronics that are sometimes very chaotic, and you’re using feedback and things that could explode. (laughs)

It’s on the edge and weird. Even with the Prophet 12 you can sit and create feedback with that thing and make it just clip like crazy. So keeping it right on the edge and with record running, journeying down those alleyways of chaos and ending up with two minutes of something weird and unsettling that you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. And the other stuff where you clipped the heck out of it and you just throw that away.

Obviously, you can take something deep like the Prophet 12 to strange places sonically, but how do you go about integrating something more conventional such as the Prophet-6?

Well, maybe I can show you. So right here, back in the corner there is a gong and it’s mounted on strings and it is actually like a butt-kicker speaker attached to it with a bolt and an a 50 watt power amp.

And to begin experimenting on the album I’m working on right now, which is called Vestiges, I actually use the Prophet-6 with some orchestra-like pads that I have on it going through the EOA resonator so that they become sort of metallic and ringing like a strange… well, like a gong. So I’m using a physical resonating system to play the electronics through and then recording it with a microphone. And that’s one way to sort of “rust” the sound as it were.

Other times I’ll use the Prophet-6 for bass notes. One thing I love is the low end on the Prophet-6. The filters are just excellent. The discrete filters. And they can get this powerful low end. I love the bass resonance of an OTA 24 dB-per-octave filter. And even though the Curtis filters on the Prophet 12 are capable of that, too, the discrete filters in the Prophet-6 have that really smooth, thick resonance. So for deep, low tones and sustaining sounds and soft resonances and things the Prophet-6 is amazing.

What got you interested in the Prophet 12 specifically?

It was an easy choice for several reasons, not least of which, it has a bit of me inside it. My relationship with Dave Smith and Sequential goes way back to 1980 when I got my first Prophet 5. It became my primary keyboard synth for decades. My recent connection to the Prophet 12 actually goes a bit deeper, because DSI asked me to create some oscillator wavetables for it while it was in development. Some of those wavetables are from my own voice, so if you play the “Ahh” wave at middle E it sounds quite a bit like me. There’s also the micro-tuning feature. Years ago, I promised Dave that I would buy any synth he produced that supported alternate tuning tables, as just intonation is a basic part of my music. I finally got my wish with the P12 so I upheld my end of the bargain; and I also provided the 16 microtuning tables for it.

During this development period, when I had a prototype Prophet 12 in my studio for a couple weeks, I got a chance to dig deeply into the architecture, and came to realize that the flexible modulation matrix opens up an almost modular-synth style of sound design. While some people prefer analog for the immediate knob-turning, I enjoy diving deep into cross-modulation and chaotic complexity to find sounds I haven’t heard before. The Prophet 12 has the depth to encourage and reward those explorations. It also has the immediacy of all those knobs, so once I establish an environment within a patch, I can explore it with all the immediacy and intuition that analog offers.

How are you using it?

In the studio, it’s on the front lines for sound design. I explore the modulation to the extremes, recording the audio while I experiment with knobs and touch pads as I would on a modular synth, looking for surprises that might be right at the edge of chaos. The feedback feature in combination with the four delays unlocks a whole world of edgy adventure, especially as filter resonance and delay times can be simultaneously modulated by the pads and aftertouch. The linear FM additions in the recent operating system offer yet a different new realm of harmonic experiments, as the oscillators in the P12 exist in a much more fluid and immediate realm of possibilities than we had in the fussy old days of DX7.

In a live performance setting, especially when I’m traveling by air, I have been able to use the Prophet 12 to replace modular synths. I love the flexibility of a modular system, but I hate the thought of lugging one through security at the airport. I have a little high-density Eurorack rig that lets me overlap four individual parts with triggerable MIDI loops coming off the laptop. When I travel long distance I can ask the organizers to provide a P12, and I load my presets into it when I arrive. With keyboard splits I can get sequencer arpeggios happening on the top end with full front panel tweakability, while using the bottom for deep drones and floating chords. Then, if I want to stretch out into the surreal I have my complex modulation sounds at the push of a button. It’s as flexible as a modular but a lot more portable.

What’s one of your favorite things about it?

I’ll name three: 1) 48 flexible oscillators, 2) powerfully deep modulation, 3) microtuning ability.

What does it give you that other synths might not?

The ability to push a sound right over the edge. It doesn’t put many restraints on the range of radical mangling a sound can undergo. So, yes, sometimes this means you have to keep track of internal gain structure within a patch, because things can get really extreme. I would much rather have this challenge of extremity than to keep running up against barriers in parameter ranges because some designer thought it might “sound bad.” Sometimes I find the most magical sounds when I am hovering at the precipice, right at the brink of insanity.

Any interesting Prophet 12 tricks or techniques you’d like to share?

Here’s one: Investigate the tuning tables and integrate them into your sound design. For example, the first tuning table above 12-ET is the harmonic series from 1-60. This is a non-octave repeating tuning, it gets much closer near the top of the keyboard. All of the pitches represent harmonics of the lowest note on the P12 keyboard. That low C is tuned to an A-55 (3 octaves below A-440). If you start experimenting with pure tones, like a sine wave with medium attack and release, swipe your hands across the keyboard and you will hear overtones droning with a fundamental of A. This alone can be the starting point for a wide vocabulary of intense sound design, because the tuning itself becomes a part of the timbral component of the sound.

Here’s another: Ghostly feedback. Start with a sound you like – maybe a string sound or pad. Route some slow LFOs (or the two additional envelopes, in loop mode) over to the delay times of the four built-in delays. Set the delay times to a middle position so they can get shorter or longer when the modulations change them. Put delay amount to the high-middle, and delay repeats to a low number. Now, use the global feedback knob, next to the delay section, in close relationship to the filter resonance knob. In no time you will discover the crazy fringe of sound design that feedback opens up. Just keep your speakers turned low, and keep the levels low throughout the internal signal flow of the patch, because feedback will kick it up through the ceiling if you aren’t careful.

This last point brings up some advice for those who feel that the P12 has a challenging gain structure. It’s true, you can create patches that distort because of internal clipping. This simply derives from the enormous dynamic range that comes from 12 voices with four oscillators each, 12 fully resonant OTA filters and processors that allow feedback. Don’t be afraid to turn down the outputs of the oscillators, then use the layer volume and master gain knob to make back the loudness. You can go through your patches and turn the layer volumes down so they match each other better, which then offers some headroom when you need to make up gain for a patch that uses strong internal resonances and might be prone to clipping. It’s a bit like managing gain structure on a mixing board to maximize headroom.

You seriously injured your hand several years ago. How has that affected your music?

That was about 10 years ago. After four surgeries the scar tissue is permanently stuck, so I basically have a gimpy right hand. But it didn’t change my career very much because I was never particularly virtuosic. But I did have a solo piano album that came out the year before that happened so I got that out of my system at least. But my music was always more conceptually based than it was based upon chops and I never really had that much chops to speak of anyway. It was a bummer but I couldn’t really let it get me down because you know, things happen. So I figured out other ways to do things.

I rebuilt a bunch of my flutes with different hole patterns because in part of the hand, the nerve got severed. And so I can’t separately move the fingers. So with flutes and things, I can do things with these three fingers and I just get this one tucked out of the way. Otherwise they flop around and hit things. But I kept the piano. I’ve been using it on albums and I love it. It has such a pure tone it’s not one of those big fat tones like a Steinway. It’s got a much more woody, very pure kind of precise tone and I just really like it. It’s the one instrument where I could express immediate musicality without having to think about it. And it’s still to this day is where I can all just go and work out an idea.

My music is so modal. I mean there’s no chord change kind of things going on. It’s modal more like maybe McCoy Tyner, but more like Indian music than jazz. And. I still think mostly on the piano. But I have a particular fondness for wandering modes or bending them. So even though I’m kind of known for ambient music, I think of Coltrane and McCoy Tyner probably more in terms of the way I like to incorporate what other people might call dissonances. I think of them as modal shifts.

Check out Robert’s website here.