Ambient Artist Steve Roach Redefines The Sound Of Music.
By Dave Irwin
MAY 29, 2000: WHEN YOU LISTEN to the otherworldly music of ambient artist Steve Roach, it's best to put your preconceived notions aside.
First, forget about traditional concepts of melody. Roach's art involves soundscapes and textures, not tunes. Next, reconsider timbre, the tonal shape that differentiates a note on a clarinet from the same note on a piano. Roach's sampling techniques and subsequent alterations create tones that seem familiar, even though they don't exist naturally. Finally, redefine rhythm. Roach manages to juxtapose sinuous percussive elements against his vast floating structures in ways that inscribe the passage of time while hinting at infinity.
"When you listen to traditional music or classical music, it's more steeped in melody and harmonies," Roach says. "I'm taking more broad sounds, like the sound of wind through a cracked door. I can record that and process it and put it into my equipment and turn that into a sound that is very rich and harmonic. For me, melody is in my music, but it's there in the way that melody is in African or Indonesian music, where they use a combination of instruments to create a tapestry of patterns or a lattice work. Sounds carry the impact that a strong melody can have and can create a tremendous emotional pull."
Always prolific, Roach has recorded more than 40 albums, many of them at his home in Tucson. He gained a world-wide reputation with his 1988 album, Dreamtime Return, which mixed location recordings from Australia with synthesizers and percussion. Listening to the trance-inducing music, it's often impossible to tell if it comes from a Jungian pre-logic past or a mystical techno-mage future.
"My music is about creating an opening that you can step into for a while," says Roach. "It's almost like tapping into the collective consciousness. That to me has a lot to do with working with sound as a shamanic source."
Roach's desert home includes his sophisticated recording studio, dubbed the Timeroom. What might be another person's workshop for woodworking or home repairs is Roach's gateway to inter-dimensional worlds. The room is filled with synthesizers, samplers, keyboards and computer gear. There is also a collection of ethnic instruments from around the world that Roach has acquired in his travels. Watching him work in the Timeroom--selecting a particular note, shaping the harmonics of a wave form or moving a sound to a specific location in the stereo balance--is to view a highly focused artist practicing his craft with skill and ease.
Artists from around the world come to the Timeroom to record, from Australian didigeridoo master David Hudson to Mexican composer Jorge Reyes. Reyes will perform with Roach in Tucson.
Reyes and Roach first met in Europe when both were on the same concert bill. Although they had never discussed it, at the promoter's suggestion they began improvising on stage and things clicked.
"It was like we were already familiar with the terrain," Roach says. "The music was our map."
Reyes, who is from Michoacan state in west Mexico, studied at the National Music School in Mexico City, as well as in Germany and India. He recently provided the musical score for The Other Conquest, which has become Mexico's highest-grossing drama. Reyes, also a prolific artist, has 18 albums to his credit.
Roach and Reyes recently released their second album together, Vine, Spark & Spore, a follow-up to their 1994 release, Earth Island. The recording took three years to complete because of their busy schedules.
"It's taken us quite awhile to get back together in concert," Roach says. "It's completely about trust when we play together. We tune into the zone and listen as deeply as we can and just let the music happen. The nature of the music demands that it be carved and allowed to breathe."
Roach does not perform live very often, in part because of the technical restrictions of recreating what his banks of equipment can do at home. His last Tucson performance was in 1997. The rarity of his performances will draw fans from around the country, and possibly even from Europe, where Roach is considered a major artist.
Roach hesitates to call his multi-media performance a concert.
"It's not really accurate to say it's a concert because it's something quite different from a concert where you come and listen in a Western sense," he explains. "It's something quite different. What I present live is kind of like a collective dream, watching it unfold. It's not about watching a performer as it is listening to those sounds and letting those sounds enter into you, more like you do in a movie theatre. There are some passages in the music that are very subterranean. That's where the music becomes challenging. It becomes activated in your imagination and your consciousness. It has a sense that you're moving at all directions in a rapid rate, and yet you're floating. That's a place I really crave to be in."
Roach admits that his work is closer to auditory sculpture than traditional definitions of music.
"It becomes more clear that my music deals with elements of texture, color, shape, density, light and shadow, space, all the different objects that you can relate to more from a painterly point of view," he says. "In performance, one of the most exciting points is playing with the space that I'm performing in and using that space, which includes the people."
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