Sunday, March 20, 2016

Richard Osborn 13 Questions

Richard Osborn first came to the guitar from the world of classical piano, as a result of the civil rights movement and the folk music revival growing in strength in the early 1960's. He learned Delta Blues fingerpicking from a friend but ended up more influenced by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt. At the same time, he discovered the traditions of world music, and became a passionate and lifelong fan of the great master of the sarod, Ali Akbar Khan. He studied and performed with legendary guitarist Robbie Basho in the early 1970's. Robbie Basho first created a new style and musical philosophy, after studying Indian classical music with Ali Akbar Khan himself, arguably one of the greatest living musicians of India at the time.  In the mid-1970's, Richard took over 3 years off to delve into the technique and repertoire of classical guitar. But he then disappeared from public view for 20 years, due to a severe injury to his left hand, and turned to painting for a creative outlet during that time.

Richard represents a renewed and vigorous link in the new chain of “guitar thinking” first created by Robbie Basho and John Fahey in the early 1960’s. Both trailblazers established the acoustic steel string as a viable solo concert instrument.  Where Fahey brought his dark inner visions and a composer’s sensibility to the American blues tradition, Basho’s work was a re-spiritualization of the connections between east and west, exemplified especially by the Indian raga. Basho’s epigram, "soul first - technique later", is interpreted in the work of Osborn as a more open way of creating a sound universe of beauty centered on contemplation and dramatic inner movement, fresh, renewed and direct because improvised. All the paths of a personal "free raga style" on the acoustic steel-string continue to expand the genre, allowing influences from other world music sources, as well as American folk and the deep treasuries of Western classical music as well. 

He re-emerged in 2010 with his inclusion on Tompkins Square’s Beyond Berkeley Guitar, and in 2012 published his solo debut album, Giving Voice: Guitar Explorations. Giving Voice has garnered dozens of enthusiastic reviews, has earned Richard a nomination as “Best New Artist of 2012” (Zone Music Reporter), and was #21 in the Top 100 Albums of 2012 in the category of worldfusion/new age/ambient music (ZMR). His last release is 2015's disc, Freehand. He appears in the documentary Voice of the Eagle: the Enigma of Robbie Basho (2015) about the legendary guitarist by British filmmaker Liam Barker.

What do you remember about your first approach to sound?

I was about 8 or 9 years old, and a typical goofy kid. I was at a summer camp in the mountains above the Los Angeles basin, and on Sunday the counselors led us all across a meadow to an open air chapel under the pine trees for a service. There was nothing but rows of logs for benches and a crude pine pulpit. I paid little or no attention to the service. But at one point, they announced that the camp cook would sing the Lord’s Prayer. He was a youngish Japanese American man with a high but very strong and beautiful tenor voice. As soon as he began, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I felt like someone had cut open the top of my head and lifted me up and out. Those two elements, that of unexpectedness and that of floating freely into a landscape in a hitherto unknown dimension discovering in the process deep emotional states of which I had been unaware, have accompanied most of what I would call my primary or primal experiences of music.

Can you describe a sound experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a musician?

Becoming undone and somehow articulated as a conscious sentient being by a first experiences of Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Ali Akbar Khan’s sarod playing. When I first heard Khan-sahib, I experienced his music as though it had arisen in my own throat from deep within.


What do you recall about your playing and learning process?

My evolution as a musician has paralleled my spiritual journey, and follows the idea contained in the sadhana expressed in Sanskrit as neti neti (roughly, neither this nor that). It is one thing to “follow one’s passion”, but it is another to discern which path is the unique personal path meant for you. As a young musician, I loved Western classical piano literature, but my life was not such as to allow a whole-hearted full-scale entrance into classical music. In succession, other “incarnations” were entered and passed, every one of which deserved its own whole career: folk music, blue grass, blues, American primitive guitar, jazz, and so forth. Discerning your way comes from a willingness to enter without actaully knowing the way and from a vigilant mindfulness. Learning music for me has almost more to do with listening than with playing, what Basho once called being aware of the suchness of the sound. For instance, while I am not the mental giant that Bach was, to be able to improvise 5 voice fugues, my lifelong passion for Bach’s music has helped me to listen in multiple layers, lines or zones. This kind of far-flung awareness may be compared to a spider attending to the entire surface of his web and responding to new developments arising in different Zones.

Where are your roots? What are your secret influences?

My deepest roots musically have to be the Western classical composers who were most meaningful to me as I was developing music consciousness when I was learning to play the piano: Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, (all of whom were known as great improvisers!) I had the fantastic good fortune just at the time my musical taste was maturing, to run across a guy with a very eclectic taste which included great traditions of world music. As early as 1964, this man, Roy Lundholm, had introduced me to Ali Akbar Khan, Japanese koto music, Near Eastern oud, gamelans, and on and on. From this chaotic mix, I think my own nature gravitated to Bach and Ali Akbar Khan as the major poles of my own musical thinking.

The second part of your question may be even more interesting: “secret influences” with an emphasis on non-musical ones. For me this brings up the entire “track” of the inner journey. Jungian psychology, zen Buddhism, phenomenology and poetry have been influential in my musical development. An interest in physics, especially the thinking about quantum mechanics and relativity, is also at play in my encounter with the world. The practice of Albert Einstein of conducting thought experiments has been a very useful paradigm for me. A few books have had an abiding influence on me throughout my creative life, most notably the Gospel According to St. John, Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, and Charles Williams’ The Figure of Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy. As my journey continued, I discovered roots in Sufism, both musically and spiritually. From 1980, my predominant influences have been from Christian mysticism, especially the Carmelite saints (Santa Teresa de Jesús, San Juan de la Cruz, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Blessed Élisabeth de la Trinité). I think I have also been strongly influenced by great jazz improvisers, and interestingly most of those have been saxophonists for me (like Branford Marsalis) but also Keith Jarrett.

What is your relationship with other art disciplines?

As for most people, certain art forms speak to me more than others. Music was the first that spoke to the depths of my soul and passion. Then came literature. My undergraduate degree was in literature, and I think this does contribute an underlying predilection for music that has a feeling of “narrative” and “statement” and development of motifs within a unity. This persists in the particular “gharana” (“school”) that I prefer in Hindustani classical music as well as my prejudices in all listening. I injured my left hand around 1980, severely enough that I could not play the guitar at all. Initially there was some doubt that I would even have an opposable thumb for the rest of my life. It was such a psychic shock that I immediately jumped into painting for a creative outlet.

 After 15 or more years, my left hand regained enough strength to make playing guitar again a possibility, but it took another 10 years to rebuild my chops. When I finally got to the point of being able to improvise, I was very pleasantly surprised to find that my earlier difficulties with improvisation had been resolved, and the well-springs of melodic invention had opened up. I quickly realized that the things I had learned as an abstract expressionist painter were applicable to musical explorations as well. I still carried a prejudice for the play of musical ideas that are integrated as a whole in some kind of unified or overarching frame, and the ways to accomplish this had been foreshadowed and prepared by my thinking in the visual arts, and probably literature and poetry as well.

Let me add that one of the most important “artistic disciplines” to me consists of walking mindfully in the natural world. I recommend being inspired by the melodic lines suggested by the growth of a branch of an oak tree, bird song, or the edge of a cloud or the dance of light and sound on a stream of water.

What's the relevance of technique in music, in your opinion?

Technique is essential to realizing one’s full potential. The guy I first learned the raga style from, Robbie Basho, used to say “Soul first, technique later”, but he clearly put technique in the back seat. This was somewhat ironic, since in Indian classical music, soul and technique are intimately fused from beginning to end, which I believe is correct. There is of course a danger in getting too technical. But in my own development, I realized early on that if you don’t develop technical competence and mastery, you are always going to be limited in the choices available to you, the things it is possible to “say” musically.

 This can be something as simple as wanting to jump to a note on another string at a time when your picking has flowed the wrong direction. In a melody-driven approach like the raga, one also has to be ready to move up and down the fretboard and across the strings at a moment’s notice. Although many look down on “scale work” and other technical studies (“palta” in Hindustani music) as drudgery, I believe that, along with sheer facility, it also brings the musician into an ever-deepening encounter with what I call the “absolute meaning” of each note in a scale or raga and with the “valences” of combinations of notes, where they want to go or move. So technique leads one into a deeper appreciation of soul, while it is creating the means for soul to express itself.

If you could, what would you say to yourself 30 years ago, about your musical career?

I don’t really have (or want, for that matter) a “musical career”. From the beginning, and in the end, it’s only music itself that interests me. I would say that it is OK to come to music just as you are, to enter that relationship in the way that you want, and just encourage myself to do what I have done: be true to yourself as man and musician, and be guided by the deepest part of your soul. That and pay no attention to the vagaries of the music biz.

Which work of your own are you most surprised by, and why?

A piece called The Glance. It has deep personal meaning that spans my entire life and is intimately connected with deepest experiences of love and death. What surprised me was that I created it at all. In my younger years, I had struggled with improvisation, not knowing how to proceed in a way that would open up. The piece came after a long forced hiatus in my musical life of almost 20 years. When I once again took up the raga style approach to the guitar, this piece showed up. I was so surprised that I had created an actual original melody that I spent several weeks pursuing the “cognates”, the pieces that kind of sounded somewhat similar to it, to see if I had just plagiarized it from someone.

Depict the sound you're still looking for, or the sound you'd like to hear.

This is impossible. In a way, musical exploration is like trying to imagine what the world would be perceived like with a sense that one does not yet possess. If you were blind from birth, how would you imagine sight? Yet when it starts to happen, when you begin to hear in a new way, find a new sonic landscape, something happens in your heart and soul. Part of the exploration then is learning how to perceive and move within this new space. The times I have discovered something new, exciting and satisfying, the experience has been something like smell: it is like some exotic unsuspected fragrance that transports you. I theorize that the somewhat synesthiastic experience (combining with smell) has to do with smell being the most primitive of our senses and connected to the oldest parts of our brains. I guess I would add that in my experience the new appears by grace, as something stumbled upon or given.

What’s your craziest project about?

This might be a piece I call “Unknown White Male”. The title comes from a documentary by the same name that is about a man who comes to consciousness riding a train to Coney Island one day. He has no idea who he is and no memories of prior experiences of any kind. Eventually, people work out his identity and try to reconnect him with family members and friends. But he doesn’t remember them. What is equally startling about the story is that having his memory “data bank” erased means that when he eats some strawberries, he is experiencing strawberries for the first time, but not as a child and unconscious but rather as an adult. There is one scene where a friend takes him to the seashore and he wades in: he is totally overcome by the experience of the ocean. My way of entering this “space” is to start with a very dark Indian scale, and then to play it one fret off from its usual location: the result is that the strings of the tuning (normally the supporting tonic and dominant) therefore are always deconstructing the notes of the scale: “home” (tonic) does not feel like home, “dominant” (the “home away from home”) is no longer a resting place, etc.

What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?

I’m working on my third album right now. Once that is done, I will be returning to my beloved dark “shed”, where I am happiest. My biggest project right now is to try to articulate what creating a “Western raga” might consist of, what meaning it might have for a Western musician to acquire the approach of Indian classical music without necessarily appropriating the entire apparatus and system.

That said, it is clear to me that just as with Indian classical music a spiritual practice (“sadhana”) of some kind must be central; otherwise, one is just acquiring mere technique, or imitating or trying to sound “Indian”, all of which are impoverished approaches to music itself. I have begun a blogging exploration of these concepts, and along the way to create practical paradigms for study and practice for the interested guitarist.

The other project that has been attracting me for a while is to create an improvised setting for the Spiritual Canticle of San Juan de la Cruz - St. John of the Cross. This is a poem in the vein of The Song of Songs. Unfortunately, I don’t have a great voice, but I take comfort and inspiration in the return of bassist Charlie Haden later in his life to singing, so I may plunge into that abyss.

How do you feel listening to your own music?

I do not enjoy listening to my own recordings. The perfectionist beast that I try to keep chained up in the basement gets out and points out every single nanosecond of error. I can literally recall the internal feeling and perception of every mistake. But I love re-entering the music worlds I have discovered in my explorations, and pushing those explorations further. Part of the mindfulness that should be part of musical exploration is to be aware of the emotional component of the music. So re-exploring pieces enables one to discover new connections and depths and heights, as well as enjoying all over again the joy of discovery.

What does your musical routine practice consist of?

I always begin with a free-form meditative exploration or “alap” on an acoustic steel string. This keeps me focused and centered in the stance of mindfulness and listening that I believe is essential for the musical explorer. When I come to a natural place to end, if something significant happened, I may pause to write down some notes or even go back and record some sections. Then I proceed with a “technical workout” on a classical guitar: this is a group of exercises that have evolved from my own years of study of classical guitar, exercises from Scott Tennant’s “Pumping Nylon”, others of my own devising, about 4-5 classical studies, then more exercises on the acoustic steel string again, this time aimed at developing raga style chops. By this point, if I have time, I remain open to hearing things happening and pursuing them.

Selected Discography

expanding raga style guitar into a new “American Raga,” Rich pushing the boundaries of improvisation. Freehand, is available at CD Baby and iTunes.
Giving Voice: Guitar Explorations
Rich’s beautiful new free Raga style CD, Giving Voice, Guitar Explorations is available at CD Baby and iTunes.

Beyond Berkeley Guitar
Rich is on this collection of some of Northern California’s finest acoustic guitarists. Available at CD Baby.