Robert Rich,
(Relapse, 2000)

Among new age, experimental and ambient music enthusiasts, Robert Rich is something of a legend. Generating a string of releases since 1982, Rich has straddled genre lines and avoided genre conventions, as well as engaging listeners across all of these musical categories along the way. His interest in academic subjects such as psychoacoustics and musical concepts such as microtonality has also given his work a more concrete and scientific basis than that of many new-age musicians, while not taking away from the warm, organic sounds which he often uses.

Rich's 2000 release Trances/Drones is a case in point. This collection gathers all of the material from the previously separate Trances and Drones recordings, along with two lengthy additional tracks, "Sunyata" from Rich's out-of-print debut and the previously unreleased "Resonance." The result is an impressive package of two discs and more than 140 minutes of music from early in Rich's career. At the time, Rich was completing his psychology studies and holding a series of "sleep concerts," 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. affairs where the audience would slumber while Rich produced a series of ambient pieces keyed to established sleep cycles. While Trances/Drones is not as minimalistic as that material, it is quite contemplative and elongated, well suited as the backdrop for serious thought, or as the transitional music while one attempts sleep or arises from it.

It's nearly five minutes into the opening "Cave Paintings" before some delicate keyboard-like sounds create a more tangible pathway through the largely atmospheric piece. Muted electronic cicadas add the tangible sense of place hinted at in the title.

"Sunyata" too contains naturalistic sounds, this time rain and frogs, which act as a backing track for a more darkly ambient piece, long sustained tones taking on a disturbing edge, static and intense. "Seascape" is the longest track at nearly 30 minutes, and it does a fine job of conveying the constantly shifting and yet cyclical ocean, with synthesized drones that swell and recede. As before, natural ocean sounds add to the ambience. "Wheel of Earth" encloses the listener in a heavy set of slowly changing vibrational tones, while the final track, "Resonance," is the most minimal here, composed of a single shimmering wash of sound created by "acoustic room resonance derived from delayed feedback." The final impression is mysterious, elemental and all pervasive, and when the track ends and silence falls, the lack of sound seems particularly empty.

Experimental music is sometimes at its best when it's reshaping our definitions of what music is, and what it can be. Likewise, minimalistic works can change what we mean by the term silence, by blurring the lines between it and music, and by making us realize that there is tone, pattern and rhythm in the smallest and most discreet of places. In these modes, Rich's Trances/Drones is a strong success. After listening to it, you may find that the sounds and spaces around you seem themselves changed, becoming both richer and emptier than they were before.

Welcome to a broader perspective, courtesy of Robert Rich.

[ by Ken Fasimpaur ]
Rambles: 16 June 2002

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