Rich Osborn is a Bay area acoustic guitarist working in the style of the late Robbie Basho. Rich is featured on the new Tompkins Square release Beyond Berkeley Guitar. We recently interviewed Rich about his track, his history with Basho, and his approach to playing the guitar.
W&W : Please describe the guitar you play on your track, how long you’ve owned it, where you got it.
For this piece, and almost all of the “free raga style” work that I do, I play a guitar made in 1915 by Vincenzo DeLuccia. I got it in 1976 at Jon Lundberg’s once famous mecca for vintage guitars on Dwight Way in Berkeley. Jon told me that the face had been caved in when he first got it, so it’s gone through a major restoration. The saddle is not the original, and has been extended out to meet the fan bracing underneath. I recently learned in a conversation with luthier Paul Hostetter that this large saddle design was a unique signature of a luthier named Mario Martello who worked for Lundberg.
When I first played it, I was thunderstruck… it felt like I had encountered the Platonic ideal of “The Guitar”. It’s a long story, but the guitar almost cost me a divorce. By the end of the story, I had been kicked out of the house by my wife, then gone back to buy the guitar a month later, went to India, and finally reconciled with her a year after that, but now with the DeLuccia in hand.
W&W : What is the tuning on your track?
“Dream” is in open “C2” tuning (Open C with a D on top instead of the usual E). Having the 9th or 2nd D on top keeps the sound open to going almost any direction modally.
I tend to use variants of C tunings a lot for my “free raga style” work. They mimic the typical tunings used on sarods and sitars (which often have an F on top). I like the deep bass, and the clean sound of the tuning. The parallel strings of alternating tonic and dominant help to keep modal fingerings clear, moving from one register to another. It does help to have large hands, though, as stretches can span 5-6 frets instead of the usual 4-fret type scales and fingerings that many guitarists prefer.
W&W : How do you know Sean Smith? How did you get involved in Beyond Berkeley Guitar?
I have been exploring in this free raga style since 1968 (minus a 15 year or so hiatus, when I injured my left hand and couldn’t play the guitar at all, but that’s a whole other story, if not incarnation) but always in nearly complete isolation. These days I hang with a very supportive community of acoustic musicians in the South Bay area, but, still, I’m the only one doing this kind of stuff. Also, I’ve had this very heavy jones for Indian classical music since about 1964. This is also a rather far out sub-set of the world of music that brings some isolation.
Over the years, I’ve been keeping an ear to the ground, hoping that someone else would pick up on the style of playing that Robbie Basho championed in the 1960’s. As you know, however, probably 99% of solo acoustic free-style players today play in what Will Ackerman once termed either the “Fahey platform” or the “Hedges platform”. But my interest has been constant in what new ways guitarists are finding to express themselves. I started following Tompkins Square’s Imaginational Anthem series. I don’t usually read liner notes, but when I first heard the 3rd album in that series, I did start reading the notes, and realized that at least a couple of the guitarists live in the North Bay area here. I was suddenly overcome with this intense longing to make some kind of connection. So I e-mailed Josh Rosenthal, who owns Tompkins Square, and asked if he could point me to somewhere where I could connect with guitarists like this. The next day, I got an e-mail from Sean Smith, who was both on the album as well as being on and producing Berkeley Guitar. I had only recently started to post stuff on YouTube, so I directed him to my YouTube site. He immediately called me back, and said he really wanted to get together and talk. The next week he dropped by and we rapped for several hours; it was wonderful to meet a serious younger guitarist who thought musically in ways very similar to me. Sean then offered to let me record a cut on this upcoming album. I think Sean is one of those doing the most interesting serious new stuff from this “Fahey platform”.
W&W : Please describe the recording of your track. Home? Studio?
My track was recorded at Wally Sound in Oakland, that Sean Smith has favored. This was my first experience of studio recording. I like Wally’s set-up because it is in the large sound-proofed basement of his house, with a separate control booth. This means that the look of the place is more like playing in your own studio at home or in a garage music hangout than being in the kind of elaborate professional studios I have seen in documentaries. I also think very highly of Wally’s ability as a sound engineer… he really understands the physics of sound and guitars.
I do have to say that I was pretty wound up, this being a first time. I made a real bonehead-mistake in the first take, which was actually going extremely well until then. I was wearing my crap digital watch and its alarm started beeping in the middle of the take. I don’t think I ever quite recovered, although Sean and Wally both liked the third and final take. But it still bothered me. Also, I had probably over-practiced the piece, so instead of the feeling of the fresh sound of improvised “discovery” which I am always striving for, to my ears the cut sounded dull, a re-hash of musical ideas I’d already explored. So months later, I asked Sean if it would be OK if I re-recorded at my own expense, and he said that would be fine. The take on the album is from this second session.
W&W : The words “American Primitive” are thrown around a lot these days in reference to modern acoustic guitar music. What, if anything, does “American Primitive” mean to you?
I was kind of buried for two decades from 1970 on, just living out a very long stretch of life that was important for me. I called it being on the dark side of the mountain. So, when I began to emerge in the early 1990’s is when I discovered that this realm of guitar had been dubbed “American Primitive”. At first, it kind of bothered me, implying as it does a kind of dumb-shit approach to music. But I’ve finally grown to like it, because it reflects a “Zen mind, beginner’s mind” attitude which is very essential to my own approach to the guitar. This is the positive way to look at the dumb-shit approach! At its best, it can signify being completely open to anything and able to see fresh new ways. At its worst…. well, no comment.
Still, when asked to describe what it is I am doing, I usually use the term “free raga style”. This locates my own basic approach and attitude, as well as a large part of my own cosmology. But that terminology does not give you a feel for the whole realm of guitarists working from the folk/blues “Fahey platform” and others. Terms are always going to be limiting, so I don’t put a lot of worry into the whole thing. Only the music counts.
W&W : Please discuss ways that you go about constructing a guitar instrumental, or alternately, what do you think makes a great guitar instrumental?
First, I have to say that, because of long experience with playing other’s compositions as well as classical repertoire, I now aim as much as possible for a totally improvised approach to music. This poses some real problems, of course, not the least of which is the unpredictability of the process. For instance, in performing “A Dream”, even though I have a general strategy and plan, sometimes a little new voice will call out, and I’ll fly over to investigate and take a whole different direction. This has happened to me in the first seconds of a performance. In the current recorded track, in the latter half of the piece, a new idea popped in and it took all the control I could muster to rein the horse back in, because I knew how much time had already gone by! So, improvising, which is really “composing on-the-fly”, makes answering the question of “constructing” overall form and structure problematic. Not impossible, but problematic
To get more down to the level of process and actual practice, the form a piece takes is dictated by the musical idea itself. There are musical ideas that are mostly texture and fragrance (James Blackshaw’s work strikes me as being aimed in this direction); there are others of themes and variations in a straightforward sense; and then there are musical ideas that just seem to grow organically from the inside out, and keep “ramifying”, while keeping organically tied to their origins. I think this last description is mostly what I am searching for. I definitely have a predilection for “statement”, melody, or what I call “narrative”. I like the sense that one is on a journey of discovery and realization.
Usually when I launch out, I expect to go somewhere new, or turn the musical ideas around in a new way. In performance or exploration, there are general techniques and tactics that all musicians will use, and these should be no secret. A good instrumental or solo will start with a statement, follow a gradually rising arc of intensity (moving up in both register and speed) to a climax, then return to a re-statement. The ways of varying and playing with the themes are also relatively straightforward, able to generate wonderful complexity from simple building blocks: repetition, sequencing (repeating on different degrees of the scale), reversing or inverting, rhythmic variations, call-response, counterpoint, etc. An extreme textbook in many of these is Bach’s Art of the Fugue. If you do not use any of these tactics, but rather just go and go and go and show off every flashy thing you can do, there is never that deeper satisfaction of feeling the musical ideas all tie together, knitting-and-purling in and out into a larger integrated living form.
In the end, I am against a technical or abstract approach to music, or also sheer flash and technique only. It is called “playing” the guitar for a very good reason, and when you play and people listen, I think it should be refreshing, joyful and full of wonder. It is not called working the guitar, or walking through the chord changes, or anything else. One of my biggest heroes is Ali Akbar Khan, and I have always thought of Khan-sahib’s performances as being like listening to an absolute master of technique and theory playing the instrument with all the joy and freshness and freedom of a 3-year old drawing with a crayon. I do believe improvising can be taught, but it’s always going to end up being your personal voice that sings the new tune into existence.
W&W : What sort of philosophies are behind a song like “A Dream…” It sounds improvised, yet consistently very peaceful. In this kind of composition, do you find yourself focusing on particular scales and modes, or do you drift wherever the mood takes you?
When I set out, I am always hoping to re-create through fresh exploration that sense of wonder I have experienced whenever I encounter great music. You know, the feeling like someone sawed off the top of your head, and you rise up in wonder, filled with a new living light and looking out on a totally unsuspected landscape. Your heart may feel like it has been broken and opens up to feelings you never knew you had. Or everything is suffused with a strange new fragrance. That kind of thing. One can always hope!
After that, I would say my lifelong love of Indian classical music is essential to my approach to the music. So I would mention especially the way that ragas unfold and their underlying philosophy. Raga means many things: it means the particular scale a song is played in, it means the particular theme or melody that the performance is hung on, it means the actual improvised exploration or performance. Although I ultimately decided not to take a rigorous formal approach to the raga, I still think that my approach and play are very much in synch with it. And one of the key concepts important to the Indian approach has to do with “rasa”, or the emotional content or vibration of a piece. Ragas are classified according to the rasa involved, as well as to time of day, seasons, and particular gods and goddesses. For the non-Hindu, this can be translated to a wide and articulated awareness of the range of human feelings as well as how those feelings connect with other people and the cosmos. Basho too was especially aware of rasa in his work (he usually spoke of “fragrance”). So, along with staying true to the particular mode or scale, it is even more important to be clear and consistent with this sense of rasa or feeling.
The next most important philosophy for me is the general raga approach to the musical idea. Ragas will begin with a completely free-form meditative section called the “Alap”. Although more structured, the beginning of “A Dream” has this Alap feel to it. When the formal and structured part of the raga starts, the tabla will enter, setting the “Tala” or rhythmic cycle, while the lead instrument first runs through the raga melody, and then starts to develop it. This section is called the “Gat”. My main interest in raga style development are in these two sections. The gat then gradually picks up speed, leading to the last flashy section called the “Jhala”. I don’t really practice the very fast Gat or Jhala sections yet (what I call 4th and 5th gears), but will sometimes let it develop in actual performances. That Alap section, though, is perhaps the most meaningful to me, as one hears in it the deepest, most inchoate movements of the soul. This may represent a difference between this recorded version of “A Dream” and one performed live, because if I have the time I will definitely open out the early Alap stage more.
I wouldn’t say that I just drift according to mood. I do try to stay focused on how the melody/narrative line evolves, as well as bringing back echoes of earlier parts of the theme. These are the things that can knit a piece into an organic whole, or, if missing, let it dissolve into pure technique or abstraction or meaninglessness. The specifics of “A Dream” started with the discovery of the tuning itself, and then the initial theme. The piece kind of composed itself out of improvisations from that point onward. The title relates to the fact that when I first stumbled into this we were in the midst of what passes in California for a VERY cold winter that was going on too long. It actually felt good to project myself into this summertime daydream, like floating on an inner tube on a lazy river. If and when possible, I like to develop at least a second if not third theme and weave them together. The way this song develops however is more akin to the endlessly transforming melody of Schubert’s “Trout Quintet”. The reference to the intro to Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite” seemed natural and fun. I generally try to stay true to the original scale/mode of a particular raga, but incidentals can add needed color and fragrance.
W&W : Please discuss your relationship with Robbie Basho, and share any great Basho stories that you would care to.
Another potentially multi-leveled question!
First of all, meeting and studying with Robbie came at a perfect time in my life, when I was going wild (in college, it was the 60’s with lots of radical politics, drugs and booze), and had gotten way off-base. For me, all this was almost certainly a mask over a severe deep depression. I had heard his albums, but it was when I first heard him in person that the force of his personality really opened up the inner meaning of his music for me. I called him up the next day and asked if he took on students. We agreed to meet, and I would show him what I was up to (mostly playing Fahey tunes, and a lot of folk and bluegrass). As an afterthought, he asked if I did any kind of drugs, “because I don’t teach anybody who is doing any kind of dope.” To my dying day, I will remember looking down at the second hand of my watch sweep through the next minute, and answering truthfully, “No, I don’t.” God clearly knew what the perfect carrot was to entice me back to a proper path! This may actually have saved my life. It certainly restored me to something like sobriety, and helped me get my feet back on to the spiritual path.
Robbie was not a good teacher. The basics of his techniques are relatively simple, and he never spoke of his own process or gave any ideas of how to develop one’s own ideas. I think I only studied with him for about 6-8 mondths. I was already a very competent guitarist when I came to him, and I shared his passion for world music (I had been a passionate fan of Ali Akbar Khan since 1964) and the spiritual journey as well. Maybe if you were already there and understood the process of improvising, he would be good to jam with.
But he had an extreme “gravitas” about him. If you have never been around someone who is obsessed with their art, or their ideas, or whatever, it is hard to get a sense of how far beyond the pale that can take one. Robbie was like that. He was so incredibly focused on the vision within, to the exclusion of all else. One day, he started talking about how it was necessary to conserve your energy, so as to stay focused on the vision within. He said, “For instance, you’ll notice I hardly every look at you directly,” (I had not really thought of it until he said it, but it was true), “because your energy goes out to whatever you are looking at.” He then did shift his gaze slightly until he was looking directly into my eyes, and it felt like someone had taken the palm of their hand and rammed me in the chest with it. Perhaps the story can be somewhat discounted because I was younger, clearly smitten with Robbie’s spiritual vision and musical talent, and predisposed by my own inner journey. But it still may stand as a metaphor for how he conducted his life, and what set him apart from other people.
He told me once, laughing, about the last ordinary job he had tried, working as a stock clerk. He thought it was hilarious that he would always end up just sitting down in the back whenever a musical idea came to him, and trying to write it out. I don’t think he even had a driver’s license: this is how far off the ordinary grid he was. So as a consequence of his absorption in his vision, and his lack of ordinary world skills, he tended to use the people around him as vehicles, stringing together rides and help where he could get it. Robbie was “eccentric” in the extreme; anyone who knew him will admit it. But that eccentricity was grounded in a spiritual passion and joy that really sets him apart.
W&W : Have you heard the new Robbie Basho tribute CD on Important Records?
I have only heard the 30 second clips available on-line, but I ordered a copy. I knew it was coming up some time because Glenn Jones had announced it in a Yahoo forum on Robbie Basho. Actually, over three years ago, I was in communication with Glenn about Basho, and he asked if I would like to record a cut for a tribute album. I was extremely flattered, because at that point I hadn’t even put up a YouTube site. However, Glenn was so busy with his projects (and remember that he was very involved with a project with Jack Rose, just when Jack died last December) that he had forgotten to notify me of the album and get me involved. In the meantime, I wrote out some reminiscences and commentaries for him for the liner notes of the new issue of Basho’s 1980 concert Bonn Ist Supreme.
Since Glenn never came back to link to the actual album (and I have been overwhelmed with a large home remodel project), I didn’t know that the album had actually come out.
It is very nice, from what I can hear from the clips. In all modesty, I think if I had been included, it would have been perfect! Only because I am consciously exploring in the same ways that Robbie himself did, representing Robbie’s “straight ahead” raga style of playing and composing.. but it [the tribute CD] has a very nice, wide range to it. Glenn Jones really stepped up to the plate from what I can hear so far. I’ll look forward especially to hearing the full cut of Helena Espvall’s electric violin (or whatever, maybe it’s that Swedish violin that is so cool), because that sounded really magical. Steffen Basho-Junghans does well, in his minimalist ambient explorations; I’m looking forward to hearing the complete tracks. Since I was never much of a fan of Robbie’s poetry and lyrics, I have to admit that the covers of a couple of his songs seem really magical.