Robert Rich is an ambient musician and composer based in California, United States. With a discography spanning over 20 years, he is widely regarded as a figure whose sound has greatly influenced today's ambient, new age, and even IDM music.
At an early age he thought he disliked music. However, at age 11 or 12, he began growing succulents as a hobby. He would leave a radio tuned to static at a low volume for his plants. This experience influenced his interest in avant-garde and minimal composition.
In the 5th grade, he began studying viola and choir. He never completed his formal training, though, since he never became comfortable with reading musical notation. He began looking for ways to generate sounds similar to those he heard in his mind. He started improvising on his parent's piano to hear the sound of the sustained strings droning in tonal combinations, à la Charlemagne Palestine. He began building his own synthesizer in 1976, when he was 13 years old. In the years that followed, he adopted several musical influences ranging from John Cage and Terry Riley to Cluster and Klaus Schulze.
In 1979 he began working with a musician named Rick Davies, creating experimental music inspired by a wide range of avant-garde and art rock influences. This was the beginning of a long-term working relationship between these two artists.
In 1980 he bought a lap steel guitar from a pawn shop. With it, he began experimenting with alternate tunings and developed a fluid and almost vocal tone that he continues to use. Around that time he had also learned to overcome the limitations of his synthesizer rig with spring reverb, tape delays and custom made feedback systems he created himself.
Also around this time, he attended Stanford University. During his tenure there, Rich became well-known in the San Francisco Bay area for giving live night-time performances for somnolent or sleeping audiences. These were experiments to influence REM cycle sleep with auditory stimulus. They were usually nine hours long and lasted from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.. During these performances, he would generate abstract drones and atmospheres while the audience dozed in sleeping bags that they brought themselves. In the morning he would end the concert with piano solos. He would then serve tea to the audience.
During this time he released four albums on cassette: Sunyata (1982), Trances (1983), Drones (1983) and his first live album titled LIVE (1984). The first of these was recorded when he was 19. The music on these albums reflects similar droning atmospheres to those of his sleep concert series.
Rich applied to study at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. He scheduled a meeting with John Chowning, the founder of the class and inventor of FM synthesis. When Chowning saw Rich’s first three albums Rich was approved for the class. This was a unique privilege for an undergraduate with incomplete formal music training.
In 1983 he and Rick Davies together with a bassist named Andrew McGowan formed a group called Urdu. They performed several live concerts in the San Francisco Bay area. The group dissolved after a live radio broadcast in 1984. Some of their recorded material was released as a self-titled album in 1985.
In 1987 he released an album titled Numena. This was the beginning of a new sound for Rich. It was his first album to explore complex rhythmic patterns, a wider range of acoustic instrumentation and just intonation. It was also his first album to be released on CD originally.
In the years that followed he developed a complex range of sounds founded upon the seamless integration of electronic, electric, and acoustic instrumentation, and the exploration of complex just tunings. His music continues to tend toward the organic and much of it is based on a concept in synthesis he refers to as glurp. His interest in using unique sounds has inspired him to create a large collection of original field recordings and homemade instruments. One of these instruments is a range of flutes made from PVC pipe.
His interest in unique sounds has also given him work as a sound designer for synthesizer presets and for E-mu Systems’ Proteus 3 and Morpheus samplers. He has also designed sounds for films including Pitch Black and Behind Enemy Lines, a series of sampling discs called Things that Go Bump in the Night, and a library of Acid Loops called Liquid Planet. He has also helped develop the MIDI microtuning specification, which is the standard used to create justly tuned compositions in MIDI.
In 1992 he formed a new group called Amoeba. The group has released three albums featuring ex-Urdu members Rick Davies and Andrew McGowan at different times.
In 2001 he released an album titled Somnium. Somnium was a 7-hour album divided into three tracks on one DVD video. This album was a recreation of the sleep concert environment he created during the 1980s at Stanford. Although not officially recoginized, many people believe it to be the longest artist album of all time.
In 2004 he released an album of piano solos titled Open Window. This album documents his improvised piano style that has been part of his live concerts for decades. It was recorded on a 1925 vintage A.B. Chase baby grand piano.
On March 11, 2005 Robert suffered a hand injury. He had been cleaning a glass jug and accidentally slipped and fell on top of it. The shards penetrated his right wrist, severing an artery, 7 tendons and the ulnar nerve. During the recovery process he continued to record new material and tour. He also constructed end-blown flutes from PVC pipe that are more easily played with limited right-hand dexterity.
During his 2006 tour, Rich performed in front of a film created by visual artist Daniel Colvin as a backdrop. After the tour he created a score for the film, which was released on CD and DVD in 2007 under the title Atlas Dei. In 2007 he also released the album Illumination, a companion soundtrack to a multimedia installation by Michael Somoroff, and a collaboration album with touch guitarist Markus Reuter.
One of Rich's other interests is food. He maintains a Web site of recipes and other food related topics called Flavor Notes. He also has a long list of recipes for wild mushrooms.