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Composer Robert Rich floats into Tucson

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Composer Robert Rich floats into Tucson

  • Brian Tirpack/

Avant-garde classical composer Robert Rich is one of America's proverbial buried treasures. His work — completely outside the pop music realm and often challenging — ensures that the 51-year-old's immense canon is largely overlooked, except for the most curious fans of modern classical music, as well as the outer fringes of IDM listeners (Intelligent Dance Music, an electronic micro-genre of which Aphex Twin is easily the most famous practitioner).

Rich was first inspired by the aftermath of first-wave punk, where artists such as Wire, Magazine and Throbbing Gristle moved the DIY ethos that defined the movement out of basic rock 'n' roll forms and into headier territory. These artists' use of electronic instruments, often primitive and homemade, also made a deep impression on the young Rich.

Over the last four decades, he's forged a singular path, furthering the minimal composition of Terry Riley and Steve Roach (whom he's occasionally collaborated with) into a fully electronic fusion of ambient and classical musics. His new album, "Filaments," is an excellent introduction to Rich's music, slightly more accessible than many of his other recordings, while retaining the uncompromising spirit definitive to all of his work.

I recently interviewed Rich, who spoke from his home in Northern California on the eve of his current national tour, which hits Tucson's Galactic Center on Friday.

In layman's terms, how would you describe what you do?

"It falls more in line with jazz or classical music. It involves improvisation. It involves concepts of modality and tonality. I'd say I'm very influenced by classical Indian music. If you open up to music beyond modern pop, you'll see that there's traditions that have gone on for hundreds of years that have concepts of improvisational music. I use a mixture of instruments that include synthesizers as well as a variety of percussion. But in the sense of many different forms of music that are based on improvisation and combine that with that of the millenia-old tradition of contemplative music or Shamanic music, in some cultures, there's a sense of the primordial."

Do you see yourself following along a tradition of these forms of music?

"I'd say that I'm following along in a tradition of modern western avant-garde composition, which started around 50 years ago. It began to reject some of the atonal movement in modernism and started exploring new forms of tonalism — people like Terry Riley and La Monte Young and all these wonderful composers. I definitely have influences that range from the world of music from other cultures, I would say that I pretty much am an American avant-gardist in that sense.

"But then you have this progressive rock music from the early-'70s that grew out of the first psychedelic movement, you have this music from the fringes of mainstream culture that's not confrontational, but rather seductive. I think that many people in my school of music — this ambient, electronic space music — want to create music that's enticing, creating a beautiful mess."

Is your music meant to be in a balance with the environment surrounding it?

"Well, ambient music as defined by Brian Eno can be a little misleading — his idea was that the music is background music. What I think I do is give a passive set of instructions to the listener, where what you put into it determines what you get out of it. It's music to explore the mind, and in that sense it's not confrontational and it's not hard to understand. It's not purely intellectual music.

"I'm very conscious of not making claims that I can't support, like claiming that this or that part of the music is intrinsic to changing your life. These are things that people bring to their own lives and the music is something they can choose to engage with. If it attracts you, you can make it part of your life.

"I feel there's a need in all of us to find meaning but I feel somewhat allergic to having a bunch of people telling us what to think and feel. I like the idea of possibility but I distrust people who make claims of what they can do with my consciousness. However, that doesn't mean I don't want my music to be imparted with substance. But I want that substance to be used by people as they wish."


If you go

  • Robert Rich concert
  • 8 p.m. Friday
  • Galactic Center, 35 E. Toole Ave.

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