Steve Roach: Living Inside the Electronic Dream
by Bob Doerschuk, Keyboard, vol 14 no 2 (issue 142) February 1988
Laura lies deep within the bush country of Australia, far from the strangled freeways and teeming beaches of Southern California. But for synthesist Steve Roach, this tiny outpost in the Australian outback seems close at hand. In fact, it's as near to Roach as his own heartbeat. Though he lives and works in L.A., Roach has always been able to isolate himself from the city's chaos and fuel his music with energy from a quiet inner space or from distant lands and ancient spirits. In past projects, such as Structures From Silence and his Quiet Music series, he looked inward and came up with long soothing studies that helped define the parameters of new age synthesis. More recently, he collaborated with fellow synthesists Richard Burmer and Kevin Braheny on Western Spaces, drawing inspiration from the deserts of the American Southwest. His upcoming album, Dreamtime Return, combines the inner and outer approaches. It took shape in Roach's studio, but was molded into final form as a result of the composer's visit to the desolate country where Australia's aborigines conceived their ancient dreamtime legend.
Roach insists that field research is essential on such projects as Dreamtime. "I come from a feeling place, and that tactile kind of experience is where that comes through," he explains. "For example, 'The Breathing Stone' [from Western Spaces] is about the Joshua Tree area, about 125 miles from Los Angeles. This area is covered with thousands upon thousands of incredible huge, round rocks. I spent a lot of time hiking and just being in that land. One late afternoon, it was very hot, so I was just wearing my walking shorts and boots. I laid down on this rock, just like a lizard. There was so much heat and life in that stone! An accumulation of experiences that I've had seemed to be released there, as if the stone was breathing all these memories with me. Everything was completely inverted in terms of sound. It's so quiet that you really hear your blood pumping. That started to translate into a rhythmic element for me. And the texture of the rock, which was smooth but with a grainy quality, eventually became waves of chords that moved against the rhythm."
Dreamtime was an even more intense and, in Roach's view, more musical experience. He began developing a concept for the album more than two years ago, based at first on the evocative power of the word "dreamtime." So when he was invited to do the soundtrack for a PBS documentary titled Art Of The Dreamtime, the assignment seemed predestined. A ticket on an expedition to Australia was part of the package, so late last summer Roach found himself with the noted explorer Percy Trezise and his crew, stalking the dreamtime through a wilderness of termite mounds, eucalyptus trees, and vast empty stretches. "We flew in small six-seater planes from Cairns to Laura, which is basically a pub, a hotel, and a store in the middle of Cape York," Roach says. "We had a base camp about 20 miles from there, but it seemed like we were millions of miles from anywhere. It was completely remote lots of interconnecting valleys with plateaus stretching endlessly in all directions. You could get lost within seconds, as I did many times. At one point our helicopter broke down on a cliff way the hell out there. We had to hike about four hours back to camp." Sandstone and lava formations cover these plateaus like frozen waves, forming the caves which aboriginal tribes turned into sacred sites. Trezise led Roach and company to roughly 30 sites, including one or two that had previously lain undiscovered by Western explorers.
The experience left a powerful impact on Roach, who had no trouble finding music amidst the natural reliquaries. "I sampled more than 12 hours of sounds on my Sony Pro-Walkman," he says. "From the minute I hit the airport I was recording. I got these very exotic bird sounds, with echoes you'd have to pay a lot of money to get in the studio. And at one sacred site in a ravine, we came across a hollowed-out sandstone area. I accidentally hit this ledge, right by what was supposedly a burial site, and it rang back in tune. I started playing it, and there were several pitches all the way across the ledge. You could actually play it as a percussion instrument. I recorded about ten minutes of playing on the sandstone." Roach's visit led him to reconsider certain fundamental elements of his work. "The main feeling that's growing from this experience is the sense of life," he explains. "The tribes and their interaction with the land, which allowed them to survive and to develop their art and themselves. That's a feeling I kept meditating on there, and it's starting to come through now in my music. In musical terms, it's leading me toward a darker kind of color. Also, I began thinking about the way we work in the city, always wanting to organize, to get into the flow of time and fit everything into a schedule. What I did over there was step out of time. I found that the dreamtime is a real concept. It was a real experience for me to actually go there and come face to face with these people whose survival is in that place of wandering. There's a lot to learn there and apply to the process of the album, and even to some pieces I feel are already complete. It feels like this is part of a longterm emergence, much more than just for this album."
Though Roach sees Dreamtime as a personal milestone, his visceral response to aboriginal culture fits right in with his lifelong pattern. A self-taught musician, he avoided playing instruments for nearly 20 years because the sounds they offered seemed like pallid echoes of the timbres that reverberated in his imagination. Today Roach describes these timbres as "sound events, sort of like what you heard on soundtracks from early sciencefiction or fantasy films. It was more like forms and shapes than music. My appreciation of music was definitely synesthetic. In fact, when I heard Timewind by Klaus Schulze [released in 1975, now out of print], this physical experience went with it, to where I was more or less tasting the music." From his first instrument, a Roland SH-1000, to his current sophisticated setup, Roach has used music technology as a key to unlock the doors imprisoning his inner music. "What drew me to the SH-1000 was the fact that it had a frequency range I could really get into," he recalls. "The first thing I did was get-these real highfrequency sounds that blew the top of my head off and blew away everybody around my apartment. And then I got into the very low tones. My primary experience was with raw sound. I'd run the thing through a Small Stone phase shifter. Then I got a Vox organ, put the SH-1000 on top of it, and ran it all through my stereo speaker. I had seen Keith Emerson stick knives into his organ to hold keys down, and I remember looking at Klaus Schulze's Moondawn album and seeing little chess players on the keys. That gave me the idea of putting steel weights on keys to get certain notes to drone and churn through the phase shifter. That pulled me even deeper inside the sound."
Roach continues to prefer instruments that can respond quickly to his impulses and keep the channels clear between imagination and performance. "That's why I'm still very much into analog equipment," he says. "It's so quick, so synaptic. I do use digital stuff too. I've used DXs on just about everything I've put out since they've been around. I used a DX5 on 'The Breathing Stone' for a strummed guitar sound that comes in beneath everything toward the end. But my nervous system and the DXs just haven't combined yet. When I get into my creative inspiration, I'm much more drawn to the instruments I've spent the last 10 or 12 years with. I have everything set up in my studio so that I can sit in the center and everything is within an arm's reach. That's very important, because I want to be able to tap into memories or feelings quickly." Much of Roach's equipment reflects his interest in being able to shape his sounds in real time. "I still build sounds in a modular way, especially with my [Oberheim] Xpanders," he says. "I have two of the new Xpanders. I've also got the three ARPsequencers,which have all been cut down. I had the power supplies taken out, and they're mounted in smaller boxes because I was using them in concert. Recently, though, I replaced the ARP 2600 in live performance with that second Xpander, using it primarily for sequencing and staccato-type voices. I use the other Xpander for textures. I also have two Roland SH-3As, those old dinosaurs, which I modified so that I can control them from the DSX [Oberheim sequencer]. It sounds so incredible. Last night we listened to it run a 12-note sequence for an hour and a half."
Roach does use more modern gear too. "The [Ensoniq] ESQ-1 is my main keyboard controller " he reports. "I couldn't use it alone. While there are certain areas where the texture and the sound quality are very strong, it really has to be MIDIed up with something for the way I use it. I'll do a lot of different patterns with M [Intelligent Music improvising software], then save them into the sequencer on the ESQ. That sequencer is amazing. It's so musical and intuitive, and it's very intelligent in terms of MIDI, in how you can control external instruments alone from the sequencer, or both the ESQ and the external instruments, or just the ESQ, for each track. It's only eight tracks, but within its limitations it offers infinite possibilities. "I'm also using its sequencer pretty heavily in conjunction with the M program," Roach adds. "I like the fact that you can set up sequences with M the same way you could with the ARP, with four completely different notes patterns of different lengths phasing against each other. You can do that in seconds, and have control over so many parameters."
Roach's main sampler now is the E-mu Emax. "I like its sound," he explains. "And I've known [sound department manager] Kevin Monahan at E-mu for years, so that has something to do with it too. But the main thing is that the Emax is so easy to samplewith. It seems like I was sampling with it even before I had turned it on. Again, for the way I work, I want things that are very intuitive. And the Emax is right in there. One of the first things I did with it was to sample some really lush monophonic sounds from the Xpander, so now I can play them in eight voices. Then I can take that further, since the sampling process changes and mutates the original sound in a way that's just beautiful."
Though Roach enjoys sampling, he seldom features samples or synthesized approximations of other instruments in his music. Most of the time, he prefers working with purely electronic sounds, either in the meditative textures of his Structures From Silence or in the exuberant rhythms of such projects as his Empetus album. The fact that he has a growing interest in ethnic instruments makes this absence of acoustic references even more surprising. "I find myself wanting to play acoustic instruments more these days, because of how accessible they are through samplers," he admits. "But when I listen to a sample, I'm really hearing the instrument emulated, and I find myself needing to go to the source.
Part of this feeling came through working recently with [percussionist] Michael Shrieve. I learned a lot from him in terms of actually playing percussion. I have drum samples, but now I prefer going directly to a drum, learning the articulation directly on the instrument and then coming back to apply that. So it's the direct experience of playing acoustic instruments that really attracts me now." [Ed. Note: Shrieve's upcoming album, The Leaving Time, will feature his collaborations with Roach. It is scheduled tentatively for release in February on the Novus label.] In his synthesizerwork, Roach points out, his purpose is not to evoke acoustic instruments. Rather, he seeks to "create emotional sounds that have the impact of a piano or a guitar or something. I'm inspired by musicians who can just play their instruments directly. That's what I want to bring to my approach. If I could ultimately show up with one Xpander and a keyboard, and play with the same involvement in the music and the instrument that these musicians have, I'd be happy. Having the prowess of, say, Jan Hammer or Chick Corea doesn't interest me, although I respect what they do. But I am into playing. I construct my music from the experience of playing it."
Toward that end, Roach has been concentrating on harmony in his recent work. Influenced in part by Twentieth Century Harmony, a treatise written by composer Vincent Persichetti, he mixed rich bitonal voicings with simpler intervallic passages in his Quiet Music studies, and delved even further into complex harmonies on Dreamtime. Still, as he moves beyond Dreamtime toward new challenges, Roach maintains that simplicity is the beacon that guides his musical explorations. "I'm working with a pianist now who is approaching the synthesizer for the first time," he points out. "His tendency is to play with all the notes he would play on the piano. The first thing we see is that this doesn't work, because it tends to garble the palette. Simplicity allows you to feel beauty of the colors in this palette more clearly. So writing simpler music is like creating an easel for colors. I really want to focus on the quality of sound. When I'm playing, say, some altered chords or polyphonic combinations of chords, if I pare it down to just two notes in the bass, or octaves or fifths, I feel more complete. I love it when I can find a combination of colors, and then come up with two or three chords that work well together. It's like, I don't need to go through 150 chords in the composition. I can just bring it down to three chords for seven or eight minutes, and see how that feels."
And how does it feel to listen to Roach's explorations of pure synthesized sound? Perhaps something like what Roach himself felt in the Australian wilderness, discovering the music that had been locked for centuries in a sandstone ledge. Perhaps he has found a path for us through the electronic maze toward a kind of techno-dreamtime. At least that's what Roach is hoping for. "What I'm doing is just what the aborigines did in their ceremonies," he says. "In my own way, I'm continuing that experience, based on how I perceive reality and the way I need to continue the ritual process of the experience of life. Ultimately, when everything is working, the meticulous crafting I do in the studio is all part of the ritual, so to speak. For me, the process of doing the music is really the experience itself."