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Contemplating the Cosmos

Ambient music pioneer Robert Rich comes to Memphis.

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Tune into WEVL-FM 89.9 on a Monday evening between 8 p.m. and midnight and you might think you've intercepted errant sound waves from alien spaceships. You'll hear recordings of light-bulb filaments that pop and explode and the fluctuations of wind as it whips toward a concrete floor. The ambient music -- a construction of natural elements and man-made instruments that are further manipulated on a computer -- resonates and reverberates in your eardrums like caveman music filtered through an iPod.

Allan Bogle, the host of Into the Deep, the long-running radio show, deems the genre "an extreme range of ambience, from downbeat chill-out music to beautiful sonic experiments."

The Memphis native was first exposed to the underground music movement when working in Russia, Denmark, and Dubai as an IT repairman of underground pipelines.

"I was able to collect a lot of different stuff, which I would bring back to Memphis," Bogle says. "In 1994, WEVL gave me the chance to play it on the air. Now, I get e-mail and CDs from all over the world."

This Friday, Bogle is bringing in Robert Rich, a pioneer of ambient music, to play a concert at the Psychology Auditorium at the University of Memphis.

"We always blow Atlanta away when we do shows like this," says Bogle. "We've got crazy demographics. People are traveling from St. Louis and Birmingham to hear Robert Rich perform."

"This is a very grassroots movement. Most of my promoters are people like Allan who just want to help out," explains Rich, who will travel an estimated 15,000 miles during a two-month tour originating in Pomona, California, not far from his home in the Bay Area.

"Allan is one of those folks who has such an energy and fondness for the music I make. He's been determined to keep playing this music until an audience developed," Rich says.

"Most people don't know that it exists, but when 1 or 2 percent of the population stumble across it, they tell me it's something they've always wanted to hear."

In describing ambient music, Rich lists ritualistic songs, shamanistic practices, and Gregorian chants as similar art forms. "It's almost like an archetype, floating around in the air. It's not a style like blues, folk, or jazz. It's just something based on that prehistoric vocabulary of trying to communicate," he says.

"My music is the opposite of Nintendo," Rich adds. "It works best for people who have an active attention span and are able to create worlds inside their head. It's a stimulus for the imagination, and it requires a bit more from the listener to build a world between the cracks."

According to Rich, "It's not meditation music. It's far too intrusive for that. My concerts aren't as active as a rave, but they're not as passive as a movie, where you're in a state of hypnosis. It occupies a weird place. Like really good fiction, you need patience, but eventually you just immerse yourself in it."

Rich prefers unique performance spaces, which he says "encourage new ways of listening." So far, he's turned caves, cathedrals, art galleries, and planetariums into concert halls.

For his U of M concert, Rich plans to reference his early, minimalist works, along with material from his newest album, Electric Ladder, which was released in February. Film footage by fan-turned-collaborator Dan Colvin has been incorporated into the performance, which will feature instruments such as the modular synthesizer, flute, and lap steel guitar.

"Certain aspects of my pieces are driven by computer processes in non-real time," Rich says. "The sounds of sheet metal bent around a contact microphone and then slowed down aren't performable in the normal sense. Those elements become static in concert, but I've left a lot of room for improvisation.

"Composing music today is a fascinating business," Rich says. "As the technology gets more complex, I feel more like a computer programmer than a musician. But I take the sounds in my head and in the world around me and bend the technology into the world I want to create," he says.

"I have no other way to categorize this music other than call it a clash of time periods," Bogle enthuses. "You can really use it to contemplate the cosmos."

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