Temple of the Invisible
Temple of the Invisible finds Robert Rich at his most organic,
eschewing the trappings of modernity or stylistic boundaries.
Using only simple acoustic instruments, Rich has crafted a document
from a distant time and place, a lost culture with musical underpinnings
that reach from Java to North Africa, from Medieval Europe to
the Tibetan Plateau. Rich uses the music of this unknown civilization
as a platform to express an intensely personal quest.
Each piece documents part of a lost ritual, with mythical
and spiritual components conveyed through a strangely familiar
yet foreign musical language, as if unearthed from an ancient
Contributors include Sukhawat Ali Khan (son of the great Indian
vocalist Salamat Ali Khan), Paul Hanson (from Bela Fleck &
Flecktones, Wayne Shorter, Zenith Patrol), Percy Howard (from
Meridiem, Bill Laswell), and noted solo artists Forrest Fang
and Tom Heasley, adding dimension and power to this mysterious
world out of time.
Robert Rich: prepared piano, mallet kalimba, flutes, percussion,
Sukhawat Ali Khan: voice
Forrest Fang: baglama, gu zheng
Paul Hanson: bombard, bassoon
Tom Heasley: voice, conch
Percy Howard: voice
Here is an excerpt of an article about Temple of the Invisible
by Derk Richardson, for the San Francisco Chronicle's SF Gate
website. You can read the entire article and the interview that
preceded it on the "Interviews" page of this website.
Brave New World
The new world music of Bill
Frisell and Robert Rich
by Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
May 1, 2003
If the world didn't change completely after Sept. 11, it certainly
did get smaller. More people on planet Earth are sensitized to
one another's existence than ever more. Unfortunately, heightened
awareness doesn't necessarily translate into greater good will.
In often fatal ways, cultural differences have grown more rigid
Music has long been touted as a soothing antidote to savagery.
And "world music," that unfortunate catchall for just
about any ethnic artifact that's "foreign" to mainstream
American ears, supposedly promotes cross-cultural understanding
best of all.
But even as the neo-flamenco of the Gipsy Kings, the mourna
of Cesaria Evora and the lilting Cuban melodies and rhythms of
Buena Vista Social Club offshoots become a kind of hip Muzak
at bookstore cafés and middle-class cocktail parties,
I wonder how many insightful, let alone enduring, bridges are
being built between the culture of the consumer and that of the
Perhaps what's called for is a new kind of world music, one
that truly represents an openhearted meeting of the minds from
radically disparate cultures. The experiment has been ongoing
in pop for decades, from projects by Ry Cooder, Paul Simon and
Peter Gabriel through grassroots world-beat bands to today's
multiculti dance-floor mixologists, but rarely has it reached
the level of synthesis achieved in unique new recordings by jazz
guitarist Bill Frisell and ambient soundscape musician Robert
While the music on The Intercontinentals is self-explanatory,
and Frisell's intention to cultivate connection across borders
is fairly transparent, Robert Rich's Temple of the Invisible
is harder to pin down. Rich's Web site describes the music as
"a document from a distant time and place, a lost culture
with musical underpinnings that reach from Java to North Africa,
from Medieval Europe to the Tibetan Plateau," with each
of the album's seven pieces further documenting "part of
a lost ritual, with mythical and spiritual components conveyed
through a strangely familiar yet foreign musical language, as
if unearthed from an ancient common ancestry."
Playing flutes, zither, prepared piano, mallet kalimba and
a variety of percussion, Rich recruited a mixed musical family
of friends to join him on his journey: Sukhawat Ali Khan contributes
impassioned Indian vocals; widely traveled virtuoso Paul Hanson
plays bassoon and bombard (an obscure oboe-like reed); Forrest
Fang plugs the bouzouki-like baglama and the ancient Chinese
zither known as the gu zheng; Tom Heasley, known for his ambient
tuba work, adds voice and conch shell; and Percy Howard, of Meridiem
fame, deepens the textures with his post-operatic vocals. As
with every Rich production, the attention to sonic detail gives
new meaning to obsessiveness. Few studio technicians can match
Rich's mastery of sound placement and the complex relationships
between aural foreground and background, while keeping the focus
on musical content. Temple of the Invisible sounds like nothing
-- and a little bit of everything -- you've heard before.
"I've been interested in musical archeology for some
time," Rich explained in a recent e-mail exchange, "often
ponder what the music would have sounded like in vanished cultures.
It makes me aware of the fragility of our own musical heritage.
... Also I have long loved the music of Harry Partch, which somehow
invents a culture of its own.
"For years now I have been playing around with trying
to assemble a small ensemble to invent music from pre-Hellenic
cultures," he continues, "perhaps even pre-Sumerian
Akkadian. Not exactly an archaeological forgery, it would be
more like a question posed to history, projecting a 'possible'
language into the past."
The project, Rich explained, would be called "Rites of
the Bronze Age." But as it would take too long to realize,
he scaled back to "trying to make a very personal music
from my own vocabulary, which nevertheless sounds like it came
from somewhere else ... By including the contributions of other
musicians with mastery in some different styles, especially Sukhawat
Ali Khan and Forrest Fang, I was able to pull the sound a bit
away from my own personal vocabulary and give it a taste of authenticity."
Rich chose the instruments by imagining the sounds of his
invented culture, consciously avoiding "some instruments
that have too much of a specific cultural reference, or have
become clichéd by recent 'world music' overuse, such as
didgeridoo or gamelan." The players came individually to
his studio in Mountain View and improvised on the tracks initially
laid down by Rich, who then edited it all together, giving the
resultant pieces titles from a made-up language, such as "Etranon,"
"Pa Tanak," "Fasanina" and "Lan Tiku."
"I have a vague libretto in my head," the composer/producer
admits, "but I would rather leave it hidden, to allow other
people to imagine their own stories."
All the World's Music
Creating one's own narrative from the limitless resources
of the world's history, culture and imagination -- that's what
connects the new world music of Rich and Frisell. "I agree
with Lou Harrison that all music is 'world music,'" Rich
explains, "and no music is pure. Yet calling something 'world
music' is a bit like saying 'Mediterranean restaurant' -- it's
meaningless and overgeneralized: Spanish, Moroccan, Provencal,
Turkish food are all 'Mediterranean,' but very unique from each
other. These general terms are convenient inventions for marketing
novelty to Americans who don't want to take the time to understand
the subtleties of other cultures.
"I think we each need to find personal approaches to
digest the wonderful diversity of our polyglot society, especially
as information and immigration bring widely different cultures
into constant contact. My own approach is to digest as much as
I can of the vocabularies that personally resonate with me, and
somehow subconsciously integrate them into a personal voice."
In short, to paraphrase Wes "Scoop" Nisker, the
trickster sage of '70s alternative radio newscasts and contemporary
Western Buddhism, if you don't like the world music you're hearing,
go out and make some of your own, or listen to someone who does.