Name: Robert Rich
Occupation: Composer, producer, performer
Current release: Robert Rich's Neurogenesis is available directly from his bandcamp account.
If these thoughts by Robert Rich piqued your interest, he has a great website which offers plenty of information, music and media.
For a deeper look into his ideas, thoughts and processes, head over to the Robert Rich interview we conducted a while ago.
You mentioned in previous interviews that you preferred 'droney' music in the beginning to calm your mind. Do you think that a certain mindset, perhaps even a physical attraction to certain frequencies can lead to a preference for certain tuning systems?
I think my attraction to slower musical styles had more to do with a slightly hypersensitive disposition. The world has always seemed a bit loud to me, and I liked music that could help me journey inside, to a creative place that felt safer.
I didn't think at all about tuning and temperament until I met someone in the late 70s who had recently visited Bali, and had started building his own gamelan instruments. He played me an album of Harry Partch (The World of Harry Partch, on Columbia Masterworks) and it opened up my world. I also found a radio station in Berkeley called KPFA, with a music director Charles Amirkhanian who was friends with many of the composers of new tonal and minimalist music. That's where I first heard Terry Riley and Lou Harrison. This music just made sense to my ears. It sounded right to me, and it made me want to find ways to tune my instruments.
Did I have a special mindset that primed me for that feeling? I really don't know. I would like to think that anyone might feel attracted to a beautiful new sound.
You've spoken a bit about why you were interested in stepping outside of Equal Temperament. But there are, of course, infinite systems other than Just Intonation. Why did you, in the end, remain within the realm of Just Intonation for your own work?
Just Intonation made the most sense, and it offered the most expressive way to enlarge a harmonic vocabulary while enhancing a sense of tonality. Large EDO tunings are just different types of dissonance. Harmonic-based tunings sound better to me. We live in a time of infinite choices, and I consider it a skill to chose quickly, before I get lost.
Jazz by artists like Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman were early points of interest. I find this interesting, since it was the same for La Monte Young. What did they bring to the table for you?
I grew up with jazz in the house, mostly my father's variety of West Coast cool, which I found lacking a certain piquancy, an expressive spice I was seeking. I started exploring the cut-out bins in record stores, finding Chicago Art Ensemble, Sun Ra, Coltrane. My reaction was visceral, not intellectual.
Certain DJs at the local college station KFJC would play free jazz, and I fell in love. I remember the revelation upon first hearing Pharoah Sanders' The Creator Has A Master Plan. It froze me, unable to stop listening, almost in tears from Leon Thomas' yodeling vocal improvisations, the repetition, the optimism, the organized chaos. For me, this music was all about energy. I never thought about intonation in my in response to it. When John Gilmour would solo on tenor sax in Sun Ra's Arkestra, every note at once in a sort of spiritual orgasm, what is tuning then? Who cares?
I saw Sun Ra every chance I could in the 1980s. The Arkestra created a sacred moment, full of energetic celebration, unity and love. Those are the messages I got. Tuning did not matter.
The influence of La Monte Young obviously comes up frequently in connection with just intonation. What influence did he have concretely on you? And what about Terry Riley, whose music actually seems to have clearer connections to your own work?
Terry Riley is without doubt my biggest musical influence. Oddly, not so much with La Monte. I never connected emotionally to La Monte's austere minimalism, although I appreciated the ideas. Recordings of La Monte's music were very scarce when I was starting. I only could read about them, about the Dream House or Theater of Eternal Music. I liked the concepts but I had no idea how they sounded. On the other hand Terry expressed so much joy through his music, so much warmth. When I did finally get to hear some of La Monte's music, it had an obsessive quality that didn't capture me; although I must admit, "Well Tuned Piano" is perhaps a masterwork.
I met La Monte in San Francisco at the home of Henry Rosenthal and Carola Anderson, and he played us a tape of his House of Eternal Blues, with John Catler. That hour-long repetitive blues jam in JI seemed to go on forever. I felt honored to meet him, but I wasn't left with the best impression.
On the other hand, sharing beers with Terry Riley in a pub after one of his concerts left me feeling all friendship and love. We became friends with his son Gyan at a festival we both played in London 20 years ago. Gyan has spent the night with us a few times. I confess I think Terry would have been a rather lovely father to have.
Pierre Schaeffer's vision of a world of sound, mostly outside of tuning considerations, and of using the sounds around us as compositional material, seems to bare some some overlaps with your work. Were you never drawn to it?
When I was forming my musical language, as a teenager in the 70s, much of the European and mid-century modernist avant garde left me emotionally cold: Stockhausen, Schaeffer, Henry, Babbit. I was attracted to Cage's philosophy, not so much his music, and I did like what I could hear of Xenakis, which seemed sensitive and interesting. I was still learning, still young, and just found myself attracted to certain ideas of tonality and improvisation. I listened more to Indonesian gamelan and north Indian raga than I did to Western experimental music. Music of pure sound did interest me, but I wanted it to express a more visceral, earthy direction. I especially felt connected to environmental sound artists like Annea Lockwood, Marianne Amacher or Bill Fontana, whose choices showed a grounded sensibility. Of course we all grow and change through our lives, and I appreciate those early innovators like Schaeffer and Henry much more now.
The way I understood it, you spent considerable time at university studying Just Intonation. Regardless of how fruitful this period was, what were some of the insights you gained that were actually relevant for you?
My degree at Stanford was in psychology, and the only music classes I took were the computer music courses at CCRMA, for which I technically didn't qualify. One of my most important insights, was that I got more music done on my poor quality homemade instruments than at CCRMA, because I benefit from limitations. The computer could make almost any sound you could imagine, if you only could figure out how to write the code for it. You needed to describe every gesture in methodic detail.
I learned I am better at improvisation and intuitive methods of working. I am tactile. I think with my body, with objects, with physicality, not so much in pure abstraction. Although nobody was teaching tuning theory, I did manage to create a bank of just intonation tuning frequencies using the CCRMA synthesizer, which I then put on a cassette and sold to people (at my cost) along with JI tuning presets for the Prophet 5. I did all that on my own, not as a student. After graduating, I discovered a group of like-mined musicians in the San Francisco area who started the Just Intonation Network, and that taught me a lot.
Do you think there are certain things one should know before starting the journey into alternative tuning systems?
The insights from calculating ratios in just tuning systems leads to a very beautiful sense of geometry and harmonic relations. For brief moments, we glimpse into the mind of Pythagoras, Ptolemy or Kepler. Those fleeting views of symmetry can feel ecstatic. This sense of symmetrical beauty can send newcomers into funny patterns of near-religious fervor. Composers who have been doing this a while start to recognize the recurrent waves of tuning zealots who feel they have discovered that perfect cosmic unification of all things beautiful and truthful, who then start to preach their new invention to a world they consider deaf and blind. I know, I was a bit like that myself back then. I quickly learned some humility when reading articles in the Just Intonation Network newsletter, by composers like Bill Alves, Lou Harrison, David Doty, James Tenney, Erv Wilson. For years they had been paving the road through the jungle opened up by Harry Partch, and I struggled to catch up to their level of knowledge. I still consider myself a beginner.
Besides humility, what I recommend for beginners is to get ready for a lot of fractions if they want to understand just intonation. It's a great way to get bogged down in basic 5th grade math. I ended up writing my own software "JI Calc" because I got tired of reducing fractions. (My friend Carter Scholz then took it over and made it really good. I still haven't found other tools that work quite as well for me as that, but computers have evolved so much it's hard to keep old gear around to run it.)
The point is that working in alternate tunings can be tedious, it will slow down the flow and add a level of detail and complexity that risks derailing the creative process. In the end, the music has to be about something other than just tunings. Tunings are a tool, not the final destination.