In the field of ambient music there’s no one quite like Robert Rich. For 20 years now, he’s been bringing his nocturnal, eerie vision to the world through electronic music designed to alter consciousness, even when the listeners are asleep. Sunyata
is a re-mastering of recordings made by Rich in 1981, when he was first experimenting with his “sleep concerts” at Stanford University, where he was then a student. Recently, Rich has been re-releasing his live concert performances from the past 20 years, such as the three-CD set released last year as Humidity
. There is a strong continuity of sound; Rich’s way was already recognizable at the very beginning. This Hypnos recording features two of the three pieces that were on the original ninety-minute cassette tape from 1981, including a 43-minute sound-stretch from a live performance, called “Oak Spirits.” The title track, “Sunyata,” which wouldn’t fit on the CD, was re-released on the “Extreme” label in 1994 among a Rich set called Trances/Drones
The music is a layered, steady mixture of electronic drones and microtonal chords which occasionally drift through a moment of conventional tonality. These cloudlike, continuous tones are mixed with environmental sounds like the rustling of leaves and dripping water. It is meant to be played softly, and if the listener nods off, that’s fine with Rich. Ideas of structure, rhythm, and harmony do not apply here in the traditional sense; this is more like a dream than a musical composition. Sometimes it is a disturbing dream, attended by whining sirens and whirling winds; other times, the sounds evoke a strange and desolate landscape of emptiness (“Sunyata” means “void” in Buddhist terminology) and mystery. If you are willing to take a journey to such a surrealistic environment, and wish to voyage there using sound as your vehicle, this is the way to go. But I wouldn’t recommend playing this album when you are trying to work or concentrate in the waking world of daylight.