Riding…

The Soundwave

Scenes of life and death from the biography of ambient pioneer Steve Roach.

“Just yesterday, I received a fantastic piece of art from a man who works with concrete. He’s created his own unique style of carving with concrete. He’s made his own special blend of concrete … And he listens to my music while he moves into the space with his work. He’s created a whole universe of work from that point of view … It was immediately such a visceral feeling, of feeling this loop happen. And I just immediately could see this interaction with my music, feeding it back to him.” (Steve Roach [1])

“Steve Roach could thrill an audience with a rubber band.” (Peter Grenader [2])

*

At the age of nineteen, Steve Roach experienced a life-threatening motorcycle accident out alone in the desert. It took hours for an ambulance to pick him up. During the time he was lying there by the wayside, his body bruised and broken, he was put in touch with death. There was a taste of its grasp, his field of vision widely expanded yet blurry, all colours replaced by a ghostly white. Time took on a different meaning,  the digits of the clock speeding up, slowing down and occasionally coming to a full stop. All around him, there was sound, a visceral noise putting him in touch with his true self. He’d seen these fields of his inner world stretch out in front of him before. But for the first time, perhaps, it became clear to him that it was through creating music, rather than the rush of racing or his active attention as a serious listener, that he could briefly capture it and feel its presence most clearly. When he opened his eyes again in the hospital, he wasn’t merely regaining his consciousness – he was waking up to a new life. [3]

*

He’d always been a solitary boy, preferring to be contained in quiet or rarefied sonic spaces over the company of contemporaries. As a little child, he created womb-like experiences under blankets or in small, confined spaces. He would love to sit in these dark spaces and travel in thought and feeling. Later, a lot of time was spent driving out to the deserts of Southern California, where, as he explained, “the sense of the vast internal state was met equally with a kind of expansive silence that would occur in the right conditions in the desert landscape” [4]. There were neither wind, nor sounds of animals or insects, no planes overhead. Gazing out across its vast plane of rock and dust, he would sometimes walk through the desert in “dreaming hikes“, sometimes explore it in his mind. He was trying to tap into something, although it wasn’t quite clear what it was and the best days were when he managed to take back that feeling from his “present moment meditations” and continue holding it for the rest of the day. He didn’t know it yet, but already then, as a teenager, he’d found his approach to composing.

*

“I started to create directly on synths in the mid-70’s : Arps, Moogs, the first Rolands. Their hands-on, twist-the-knob and carve-out-a-sound processes were for me, ironically, the traditional way of creating sounds … I remember that feeling of finally discovering “my instrument.” … The most important aspect was I could move in a sound and stretch it out, let it breathe, give it life, even at its most basic form … Starting on the synths gave me a great basic understanding of the foundation of sound and how to manipulate it for my own purposes. Synths have taught me to listen deep into the music and to search for new sounds from a variety of different instruments …” (Steve Roach [5])

*

For a while, in Los Angeles, Roach’s morning ritual as an aspiring composer would consist of listening to Klaus Schulze’s Timewind over breakfast. Ingrained into the album, in a nutshell, were the two sides of his creative personality, which would come to dominate his work for decades to come. Both sides of the LP were taken up by a single track, with the A-side an epic sequencer meditation (“Timewind“) and the B-side comprising a mournful dirge by the mysterious name of “Bayreuth Return“, an endless cycle of sorrowful harmonies slowly washed-over by acidic sound effects. Although Schulze, in an interview conducted in 2005, denied the existence of an outright concept for the work (“It’s purely improvisational music … There’s no explicit intention behind it, other than making beautiful music” [6]), it at least implicitily suggested that he was traveling back in time to meet his idol Richard Wagner. There was a sense of inside and outside reality converging, of pent-up desires becoming true. This, to Roach, was an ideal he wanted his music to express as well. Slowly but surely, Timewind was replaced by his own material, which he’d keep spinning in loops for days on end, sometimes while he was asleep, to spend time within its architecture and attune himself to its vibrations. The 80s were approaching fast, but he was slipping into a place and time entirely his own.

“The 80’s weren’t “difficult” so much as a time for growth in relative obscurity. Remember that our music never really fit into a popular or mainstream scene, so I never felt as if we had a famine before a feast. We were just a few distantly separated people exploring certain types of energy in sound.” (Robert Rich [7])

“Structures from Silence was about the whole combination of the inner world. It was really, finally, about learning how to breathe. I mean the actual act of breathing, in and out, and what breath can do. It’s profound. One of the most incredible things in the world is to breathe.” (Steve Roach [8])

*

By the time he published Structures from Silence, Roach had already, under the guise of Moebius, released a now-out-of-print album of experimental sequencer-driven electro-pop with Bryce Robbley and Evan Caplan – featuring a slightly bizarre cover version of The Doors’ “Light my Fire” – on which he’d contributed the kind of synthesizer lines which had still dominated some of his earlier works like Traveler and which he would continue to refine on Empetus. But it was on Structures that he found his own voice, leaving behind what he would frequently refer to as his “Teutonic heritage“. The quiet spaces he’d visited as a child nurtured the spatial qualities of the album, which, on the title track, culminated in an early version of his never-ending landscapes: “I see some of the pieces as a kind of massage on the senses. Slowly dissolve the sense of linear time, start to open up the space and let it breathe, the pause between the breath become as important as the sound that will follow. Beyond the musical- sonic shapes and structures is the forming of thoughts and bubbling up of memories. The Structures part of the title was ment to imply the forms of consciouness that rise up and recede back into the void.” [9]

Four years later, the structures would be strong enough to support the weight of a work which come to decisively influence the ambient world for more than a decade.

*

In 1985, director David Stahl was driving through the desert to Mexico. As the heat was building up, Stahl was meditating on his current project, a movie on the Aboriginal concept of the “Dream Time“. It was during this drive that the radio program changed from middle of the road rock to a most uncommon soundscape, the warm and deep stream that was Steve Roach’s Structures from Silence. Stahl decided to call him immediately, bringing Roach in contact with a continent which he had long felt a “compellable connection” with – in fact, just shortly prior to Stahl’s phone call and in a most unlikely coincidence, the owner of Fortuna Records had sent Roach a copy of the book Archaeology of the Dreamtime. Only months later, the duo arrived in Australia to “endless plateaus, gorges and sandstone escarpments which conceal the sacred and secular sites of times past” (Roach), documenting their experiences on film (Art of the Dreamtime) and in music. Upon his return, Roach would build tracks around Aboriginal chant and collaborate with Robert Rich and other percussionists and instrumentalists. But the finished record still bares a lot of the spontaneous sensation of being overwhelmed by the land and its people. [10]

*

“I first met Steve Roach in 1985, when I went to Los Angeles for the first time. A theater in Hollywood had commissioned me to create a sound installation, and I arranged a small gig at a place called the Anti-Club. Stephen Hill from Hearts of Space suggested I should call Steve Roach and introduce myself. We met for lunch, and became friends after that. Among other things, we shared an affinity for Hawkwind, and we each had pet iguanas! Around that time, I was recording Numena, which came out in Sweden. I started using processed percussion and looping delays. Soon after Numena, I started Geometry, which made more use of these percussion loops. I sent some of these rhythm ideas down to Steve to show him what I was doing. He asked me if I wanted to contribute some rhythms to his next album. So, I made some loops that he used on Dreamtime Return.” (Ribert Rich [11])

*

Despite pieces having been cut down, sometimes to a radical extent, on the vinyl version, Dream Time Return, first released as a double LP on the Fortuna label, was almost a world onto itself. There were rhythmical, slow-burning sequencer rides (“Towards the Dream“). There were long stretches of pure drumming, on which Rich’s programmed percussions blend with goblet drum field recordings from Australia. There was the glacial majesty of “Looking for Safety“, which, on the CD version, exceeded the vinyl edit by a full twenty minutes. And there were pieces occupying a space between realities, states held in suspense for what seemed like an eternity. The claim made in 2005 by John Diliberto for Echoes, that Dreamtime Return had proved to be “more than a seminal recording that has influenced a generation of musicians” was accurate: Somewhere in Norway, for example, guitarist, keyboarder and composer Erik Wøllo developed a similar obsession for the album as Roach had for Timewind in his formative years – they would finally meet in almost twenty years later. The success of the work also paved the ground for continuing the collaboration with Rich, whose contributions on tracks like “Songline” and “Airtribe Meets The Dream Ghost” had turned out vital for achieving the sought-after fusion between the electronic and acoustic. The result would be Strata and Soma, two duo-efforts today considered classics.

“We recorded both Strata and Soma during transition points in our lives. Since my studio was more primitive, we started each album with a session at Steve’s studio – first in LA then in Tucson – around a week long both times. After the initial sessions, I took some parts home to develop alone for a few months, to work out some ideas of melody or counterpoint. I tended to work a bit more slowly than Steve. Then, each time, after our lives settled a bit again in a few months, we got back together at Steve’s to finish and mix the albums … The two albums do share some common themes, but they each stand alone in their focus … Strata deals with uncovering common memory, whether that means personal evocative memories, or the memories of our species, or Jungian archetypes. Music has a way of uncovering things beyond words, and archeology felt like a good metaphor for that process. Soma focuses more purely on the use of sound as a shamanic tool, and relates directly to altered states of consciousness. That’s not to imply that we wanted people to take drugs to enjoy the music; rather, we wanted the music to act like its own form of entheogen – a role that music has played in ritual since prehistory.” (Robert Rich [12])

*

Shortly after Soma and Strata, Roach struck up a bond with Projekt Records and its owner Sam Rosenthal. Based on a “no drama” business relationship and personal friendship, it would turn into the most important outlet for his music until today, next to his own Timeroom imprint. This is how Rosenthal remembers their first meeting: “I moved to California in 1986. The first time I met Steve was at a concert he did that year, most likely in Pamona. I went with my friend Walter Holland – we had an electronic band together, named Doppler Shiftm which released a cassette PRO17. Steve and I met again in 1988 when he was producing Walter’s 2nd album, The Transience of Love. I was renting a room at Walter’s house, and Steve came by to work on pre-production. I cannot really remember much …. but I do recall mentioning O Yuki Conjugate’s Peyote album to him, which reminded me of some of Steve’s music. In 1992, I was putting together the From Across This Grey Land no 3 compilation, and I asked Steve to contribute a track. He gave me “Three Reptiles Wait at the Opening to the Underworld.” Grey Land was PRO35. In 1995, we kicked off the Roach/Obmana collaborations with the double-CD Well of Souls, PRO60. A really beautiful album in a really lovely digipack.” [13]

*

In many respects, the 90s were a decade of collaborations for Roach. Among the most important were the ones with late Mexican sound artist Jorge Reyes and Belgian ambient master Dirk Serries aka vidna Obmana. Both, to Roach, felt like brothers – musicians with an incredible and unrepressable passion for their art and a sonic philosophy which extended into all aspects of life. Despite the obvious kinship with Reyes, they would record only a single duo effort and two full-lengths as Suspendes Memories (with Suso Saiz), before Reyes’ early death in 2009 endeds all hopes of a reunion. In comparison, the vidna Obmana connection would turn out to be far more fertile. Frequently evolving around shared gigs while touring – one-hour-long Spirit Dome was recorded on the spot in a Philadelphia hotel room – and improvisations in the studio, Serries and Roach developed a creative partnership, which would stretch across a staggering eight works, including a triple- (Ascension of Shadows) and a double-album (Well of Souls). Common to all is a tranquil and controlled hence-and-forth between rhythmically driven passages and moment of complete standstill, when the impetus of the ideas seems to have reached not so much an impasse but a gravitational point, from whence it could potentially go in any direction. Even more than in Roach’s solo work of the period, the notion of suspending, arresting, bending and reshaping time is vital here. It is further fueled by an immersion into tribal wisdom and shamanic philosophy, which will increasingly manifest itself in the 2000s through Roach’s work with, among others, percussionist Byron Metcalf.

*

“I had been a fan of Steve’s work since the mid-80s. His sequencer grooves always inspired me – so much so that I believe that Steve must have been a master drummer in a previous life! … My music is deeply informed by my shamanic journeys and other inner-work that involved expanded states of consciousness. Our collaboration actually began with the intention to have Steve co-produce my second solo project. However, after sitting-in with him at small living room concert, it went so well that Steve suggested we pursue a full collaboration instead. I had already recorded some basic drum and percussion tracks which we then used for the project which eventually became The Serpent’s Lair. The project had a lot of energy and fuel in it and as we began working together, the inspiration and material just kept coming and we had a hard time finding a place to stop – so we decided to make it a 2-CD set. It could have easily been a 3- or 4-CD package. There was that much material … ” (Byron Metcalf [14])

*

Two important tendencies start manifesting themselves at the beginning of the new millennium. On the one hand, Roach starts re-conceptualising his Timeroom imprint, which had originally been envisioned mainly as an outlet for re-publishing out-of-print albums from his back-catalogue into a tool for direct-marketing his oeuvre to his listeners. Far more than just representing a clever distribution strategy, the results are palpable on a creative level. As someone, who’d spend large chunks of his life within the sound current, the typical fourteen month release cycles of the old music industry had always felt suffocating and unnatural. By circumventing these schemes, Roach was more free than ever to release a work when he felt its time had come, free also to release long-form or experimental pieces without having to consider their marketability. Certainly, an album like Darkest before Dawn, which, in its spatial quality could be considered a harbinger of the Immersion-series, would have made a hard sell for record companies looking for a quick recoup on their investments.

On the other, after twenty years working long shifts in the studio, Roach had developed the physical and psychological stamina required for the intuitive routes through these massive tracks. Collaborators were no longer required . Everything he required was contained within himself and the intimacy of his Timeroom studio.

“Steve has made his studio to be very effective and ergometric. All the equipment is connected in a way that allows you to work fast in a lot of usual and unusual ways … And the room, the house and actually the whole location of his ranch is very inspiring. I also brought with me my portable rig and guitar set up, which we easily incorporated. And the outside surroundings are awesome. The exact opposite to how I am living in here in Norway. At the time we made our recording Steve and his wife Linda lived at a place called Apache Springs Ranch. Embraced by expansive views, ridges, canyons and massive cottonwood trees, all of which contribute to a soulful atmosphere … We worked very intensively together that week, but after the sessions in the evenings, I spent some time outside walking around collecting sounds on my portable recorder. A lot of these ambient sounds were used on the album. I had to be careful in the dark nights though, as there was a bear that would come sometimes and climb the garden trees!” (Erik Wøllo [15])

“People who see the Timeroom for first time often ask “where do you start?” To answer this in plain English is not  possible. We need new words for this, but perhaps a better question is “when do I start?” The answer is “when the spirit moves me.” (Steve Roach [16])

*

There have long been clearly delineated phases in Roach’s oeuvre, with stillness frequently taking turns with beats. The early, sequencer-driven pieces were replaced by drifting, otherworldly aural territories, rhythmic rituals and more expansive soundscapes than previously deemed possible. Since the beginning of the new millennium, however, and despite many of his press releases classifying some of his releases as “heralding a new phase in his work“, the past decade has, in fact, seen the merging of many different directions into a unified script. Not only have the sequencers made a triumphant return on Proof Positive. Today, various strands from different periods are regularly merging on a single album: Rhythm has trickled into the strictly-deep-ambient-Immersion-series on Immersion:Five, live studio projects and filesharing collaborations are coalescing on projects like Dreamtracker or Nightbloom while, on Fever Dreams III, the first CD is dedicated to sweeping, machino-erotic grooves and the second to a sixty-minute, all but static “Molten Mantra“. Nowhere is this clearer than on Train of Thought, Roach’s duo with Erik Wøllo, on which snippet-like one-minute short interludes fuse with epic trance-sessions and futuristic electronica meets vintage analogue anthems.

*

“The first track on the album was built on a recording I did with different layers of mandolin. A lot of small rhythmical patterns put together in an minimalistic endless row. Steve edited this a little, and later added some textures to broaden the image and sense of time … I think our two musical worlds really melted together. When we listened to the final result of the mixing, we kept asking, was that me or was it you?” (Erik Wøllo [17])

*

The more confident his style grew and the more his music embraced life in all of its facets, the more Steve Roach allowed himself to deal with the final frontier. Granted, the beyond had always been present in his music in it in some form or the other. It was a near-death experience, after all, which had made him aware of his calling as a musician in the first place and it was the encounter with Aborigine culture which suggested that it was perhaps life, rather than death, that was a dream. But never before has the topic of death entered his cosmos as explicitely as on works like Sigh of Ages of even Immersion:Three. More than ever, it seems as though Roach’s mind is living in a timeless continuum of sound, but his body is occupying another, which must eventually come to an end. But if his music really is delineating a tangible space, couldn’t one remain within it if the music just kept on playing? Couldn’t it sweep the spirit along, on and on to distant, unexplored shores, even as the body decays and withers away?

The so-called prolificness of Roach is, in reality, an expression of his will to live without fear, of his, as the title of Sigh of Ages’s closing piece puts it, “Longing to Be …“. His full, one hundred entries strong discography, reveals a meaning beyond their physical containers, lines and dots connecting into a bigger picture. They delineate a country whose outlines are constantly expanding, and whose shapes are gaining in resolution. Individual elements may confound or occasionally even appear alien and frightening. But taken together, this is a work of humanity, hope and, ultimately, great clarity, certainty and confidence. And with albums like the appropriately titled Back to Life mirroring this optimism in their shimmering sound design, it appears to be headed towards a cave of pure, iridescent light.

*

“Over these years of exploring the sound-silence- relationship it’s clear there is a vast range of nuance and ephemeral shades of perception that continues to be revealed inside the work. Currently, I am drawn to a sense in these soundworlds that is best described as a state of becoming, never resolving, always unfolding and never ending, I suppose this is some kind of desire to have my consciousness merge more fully with this state. And when the day of death arrives I will continue to ride out on the soundwaves …” (Steve Roach [18])

– Tobias Fischer for Fluid Radio / Tobias is editor and chief of Tokafi Magazine / Photos by Sam Howzit

[1] http://www.onepeople.com/intArtists/artists/roachintv2.html
[2] email conversation, 2007
[4] From an interview with Steve Roach by Gianluigui Gasparetti for Deep Listenings Magazine, Spring 1995 http://steveroach.com/Press/InterviewDeepListenings.html
[4] Interview with Steve Roach, 2009
[5] From an interview with Steve Roach by David Sottile for Frequence Magazine 002, 1992 http://steveroach.com/Press/InterviewFrequence.html
[6] http://www.terrorverlag.de/interviews.php?id=319
[7] Interview with Robert Rich, 2009
[8] A Conversation with Steve Roach: Deeper into the Soundquest
by Darren Bergstein, i/e No. 1, Fall 1992, http://steveroach.com/Press/Interviewie1.html
[9] Interview with Steve Roach, 2009
[10] From a review of Steve Roach’s Dreamtime Return, http://www.tokafi.com/newsitems/cd-feature-steve-roach-dreamtime-return/
[11] Interview with Robert Rich, 2009
[12] Interview with Robert Rich, 2009
[13] Interview with Sam Rosenthal, 2009
[14] Interview with Byron Metcalf, 2009
[15] Interview with Erik Wøllo, 2009
[16] http://www.ambientvisions.com/roach.htm
[17] Interview with Erik Wøllo, 2009
[18] Interview with Steve Roach, 2009

www.steveroach.com

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