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Robert Rich Performing At Mexican Heritage Plaza

In Music
Robert Rich is known for creating lush soundscapes. Photo by Brian Tirpack.

Robert Rich is known for creating lush soundscapes. Photo by Brian Tirpack.

In a suburban Silicon Valley garage, piles of digital and analog instruments surround Robert Rich and myself. A decades-long legend in the ambient music world, Rich works out of his studio, and as we’re sitting here, Afghan rugs hang from the wall and ethnic percussion instruments seem asleep in one corner. In another corner, homemade flutes constructed from sprinkler pipe lean up against the wall. Soundboards, meditation cushions and a full-surround mastering system comprise the rest of the environment. And it is indeed an environment.

Rich is preparing for a performance at the Mexican Heritage Plaza Theater in East San Jose on Saturday, May 23rd, although he’s just now returned from a six-week US tour that included a planetarium and several theaters. For the gigs, he incorporated elements of his most recent work, Filaments, a sonic paean to cosmology, the mysteries of human existence and a work that simply asks questions about the physics of the universe.

Now that Rich is back in Silicon Valley, he seems ready to invade San Jose again. From both his perspective and mine, the Mexican Heritage Theater offers one of the best in-house sound systems and advanced assemblages of speaker configurations in the entire South Bay, yet hardly anyone in San Jose even knows about it. Rich last performed at MHP in 2012 and says he’s looking forward to this show.

“It’s a really classy theater,” he tells me. “I hate playing clubs and bars. Because they don’t work very well with my music. What works better for me are things like planetariums or nice theaters–usually theaters that are half the size of this one–but there aren’t many nicer theaters than Mexican Heritage. It’s just a really beautiful place.”

Genre fetishists categorize Rich’s music as “electronic” or “ambient,” but it often behaves like acoustic music in many respects. This is especially true in live contexts. The experience is more of a psychological soundscape designed for the concentrated listener, almost meditative at times, sort of like an immersive Rothko painting.

“I don’t go for volume,” Rich says. “I don’t like loud concerts. My music works better at a middle level. I’m going for an audiophile experience, something that’s full spectrum, dynamic, and not particularly loud. A lot of sound systems are designed just to push a lot of power and what I’m looking for is something that’s almost closer to jazz, as far as the frequency spectrum and the dynamic range.”

So expect a fair degree of improvisation, but without loud servos slaughtering the bass. Rich goes for a quality low-end and a quality high-end. He doesn’t dictate what the audience gets out of the sonic palette. Instead, his music is whatever anyone decides to make of it.

At MHP, Rich doesn’t have a planetarium to play with, but the audience should still expect lots of unique visual stimuli taking advantage of the space. To accompany the live sonic textures, Rich will supply at least two hours of processed video, plus his own laser projectors, machines he says create a slow-motion, liquid-style visual effect, sort of like light dispersed through rain as it drips down a windowpane.

“That kind of stuff for this theater is really appropriate because it has a huge stage,” he explains. “We can play around with really interesting lighting configuration as well, which is a rare treat.”

That means experimentation with scrim systems, projection mapping, see-through screens and who knows what else. Separate light and projection designers will contribute to the experience.

In 30-plus years of activity and over 30 releases, the Rich brain has crossed over into many discussions. He effortlessly shifts from aeronautical engineering verbiage to Middle Eastern tunings to Japanese noise acts like Merzbow. He delivers talks at SETI and arthouses. But in the end, his music tends to ask for something indigenous, something that returns listeners to the earth, their original environment, rather than fetishizing technology in order to disconnect from anything physical and material.

“There’s a certain geek quotient–the synthhead–they just want to show pictures of their equipment,” Rich says. “I just don’t care. As an artist, whether it’s music or whatever else that we’re doing, the [idea] is to try to reconnect what we are as a species, as an organism, as an animal, to the planet that allows us to be here.”

Robert Rich is performing at the Mexican Heritage Plaza Theater on May 23 at 7pm. More info.

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