Rrose is the potent, gender-fluid electronic music vehicle that starts outside of the American DJ, composer, and producer Seth Horvitz. Since releasing a handful of successful EPs on the now defunct Sandwell District label, Rrose retained the aura of an elegantly forceful enigma. Almost a decade later, in summer 2019, before the release of their debut solo album Hymn to Moisture, we spoke to Rrose about paradoxes of experiences that extend beyond techno.
There are a number of opposing beliefs around the idea of death. Some manners of thinking assert that it spells the end — of everything. Others, on the contrary, are assured of the fact that death is a beginning. And then there are those that find solace in the end that is actually a beginning. The concept of darkness too fuels itself with such dualities. And it’s the art created from such darkness that inhabits vague territories and reveals itself to be contextually dependent — that’s to say, in permanent flux.
The contemplation of what these paradoxes of darkness consist of — sonically and emotionally — is part of the disposition that gave birth to the Rrose project. His other musical personas include Sutekh, as well as his work in groups like Moron, Lotus Eaters, and Pigeon Funk.
“I thought of [the Rrose project] as giving birth to an entity that wasn’t actually me but somehow crossed over with me,” said Horvitz. “So I could sort of observe how the music evolves from a distance and see how it all connects with the imagery I combine with it. In a sense, it’s kind of rebirth but giving birth to a new creature that I can observe a little bit and interact with, that’s how I think of it.”
The distance from Horvitz’s own diverse interests helped him cultivate Rrose’s distinctly firm and fierce-sounding techno. Rrose’s releases, like Shepherd’s Brine (Sandwell District, 2011) and Secretion (Sandwell District, 2011) were gaining wide recognition after they began to appear on Regis, Function, and Silent Servant’s Sandwell District imprint. Part of Rrose’s efficiency and clarity came from working within a self-imposed sonic palette. But over time, the effectiveness of Rrose’s techno exports — at once exquisitely tailored to throbbing dancefloors and introspective arrangement analysis — actually began to offer Horvitz more freedom to explore other realms of caliginous experimental music.
By initiating a project focused on pulse-drive dance music, Rrose created more opportunities to synthesize a career’s worth of experimentation. Some notable exploits on stage include their album with pianist Charlemagne Palestine, The Goldennn Meeenn + Sheeenn, a 38-minute-long systematic exploration of the octave, and their gong performance of James Tenney’s Having Never Written A Note For Percussion. Along with several solo EPs and an upcoming album on Eaux titled Hymn to Moisture, Rrose has also worked with artists like Luca Mortellaro (performing together as Lotus Eaters), with whom they’ve released Desatura (Stroboscopic Artefacts, 2018) — a mesmerizing and slow-burning LP. Many of Rrose’s projects maintain a recognizable genealogy through their explorations of the paradigms of darkness. This is a style crafted of feelings that take hold slowly; forged of tones seldom outrightly discomforting, but instead ones that spell the arrival of something monumental and ominous. The most cinematic example of this tendency can be found in his performance of James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion. What Rrose does is generate a collection of dissociative sensations; of not recognizing the previously ascertained difference between concepts like hard and soft, dark and light, or pleasure and pain. Notwithstanding his emotional and professional investment in the genre, Horvitz lost interest in dance music around a decade ago.
It was around the same time that he enrolled in a Master’s program at Mills College in Oakland, California in 2008. In the process of attaining a degree in Fine Arts in Electronic Music and Recording Media, Horvitz released a thesis and subsequent album entitled Eight Studies For Automatic Piano (Line, 2011), which was inspired by the work or James Tenney, Conlon Nancarrow, György Ligeti, and Charlemagne Palestine. It was another example of Horvitz’s immersion in classical composition during his calculated distance from dance music. But conversations with musician Bob Ostertag regarding the cold, computerized nature of electronic music prompted Horvitz to reflect on his thoughts and relationship with it.
“I already started to feel that techno was getting boring and I wanted to get away from it,” Horvitz remarked. “At the same time, I realized that there’s something about techno that I really identify with very strongly. The thing that draws me to it is that it has the fewest defining characteristics of any genre, especially dance music. Something can be techno just by the simple fact that it has a regular pulse and almost nothing else. And it can even go further: it can imply a pulse. That skeletal nature of its identity means that it can really go anywhere. I like the idea that you can sort of find techno music in other things. You can find the idea of techno in an image in a plant.
It’s the genre’s flexibility, however, that leaves its music and composers vulnerable to complacency. It doesn’t take a long listening session to discover techno’s discernible characteristics. And while some of the genre’s efforts come off as charred and dull, others have prevailed for decades. The sense of restraint found in the latter examples and an aversion to the safe approach to dance music are what has helped Rrose’s output remain fresh.
“Dark techno or ‘dark this’, or light jazz or ‘light this’ — those forms of music take on that attribute-based on these very obvious stylistic signifiers,” said Horvitz. “And that happens in techno, definitely. And I’m kind of drawn away from those signifiers that I think are too obvious. I don’t think I’m always successful at this because I’m guilty of using predictable formulas as well to make something that seems ominous or whatnot but I try to be aware and avoid that.”
Moving through Rrose’s discography, the level of direct aggression is in audible decline. It seems, however, that their music has begun to delve into even darker sounding territory. Beginning with Sandwell District and tracing the constellation of releases through the foundation of Eaux into Lotus Eaters leads to a much more refined collection of music, but it does so without conceding any of the music’s absorbing attributes. Instead, there has been more focus placed on patiently developing a style of drone-informed electronic music. On many tracks, Rrose’s abrupt transitions have been supplanted with languid hypnotism that takes hold in a much less aggressive, yet chillingly forceful fashion.
It’s within this ambiguity that Rrose feels most comfortable. And its creation is realized from a state of consciousness accessed not through technical or scientific methods, but as a result of trial-and-error. When exploring their music’s effect on listeners, Rrose depends on an experiential approach:
“I spend a lot of time listening to what I make or what comes out of my speakers. I do try to process it on many levels and try to respond to it. I might just have gotten deeply into what I’m working on and not even thought about whether it’s dark or light. But at a certain point I want to step back and try to remove myself from it and think of myself as another type of listener: what would this sound like? And if I hear something in it that does actually seem like a cliché of darkness or light or anything like that, then I might actually have to go in and take that out, or edit it.”
Although Rrose often works with sounds that many of us associate with darkness — metallic, incendiary sounds — determining what actually conjures a sense of darkness is anything but explicit. Could there be light, liberating feelings in the same scenario? Lost in percussive, primal rhythms and engaging with spaces so dark as to have the dissociative quality of a dream, I’ve experienced countless sensations of gravity that are simultaneously weightless. And it’s exactly this kind of subjective duality that propels Rrose’s output.
“I’m sort of obsessed with finding these paradoxes of experience, where you’re not sure if what you’re experiencing is pleasure or pain, or darkness or light — these kinds of things that seem to be opposing qualities but can somehow coexist, or be complementary forces coexisting,” Horvitz said. “I think that the James Tenney piece that I perform is a perfect distillation of that idea. Because it starts in this very meditative and relaxing kind of way and at a certain point it becomes painful; almost pure white noise. But somehow, the transition is so gradual that you can never really say where one experience becomes the other. That kind of transition between those states really fascinates me. I look for that when I make music: something that on some level seems really aggressive but could actually be the opposite or simultaneously be the opposite.”
The fluidity Rrose refers to is apparent in their performances. It’s not only the acoustics that changes with each outing. The music does too. With such a diverse repertoire, they have achieved a familiarity with sounds that helps them methodically cultivate an ambiance as simply as it does throbbing techno selections. Yet, their DJ sets and live performances retain a captivating essence that’s distinctly theirs. It’s rooted in a sense of control that Rrose hasn’t always had.”
Instead, as Sutekh, Horvitz says his enthusiasm for change left the project wilted. Rrose, however, is a separate entity. The persona is at once an extension and exploration of his mind yet simultaneously separate: an organism to be observed and interacted with, before walking away. And for Horvitz, it’s helped to inspire in him a longer-lasting sense of creativity and interest in electronic music.
“I’m trying to make Rrose start somewhat outside of myself so I can shape the identity,” Horvitz noted. “I can control it more, but I can also control where it goes out and that makes it more resilient. With Sutekh, it seemed impossible to rein it in once it had lost its direction because it was too conflated with too many things.”
The diversity of styles that Rrose works with today has offered a more reliable sense of sustainability to his compositions. But it sprouted from an admiration toward artists who actually worked within a narrower focus — like the initial intention of the project. In addition to proving an effective production dogma, creating a genre-specific alias has taken some of the risks out of the investment in its existence.
“That’s kind of the beauty of having a persona; it’s much easier to put it to death, to kill it intentionally and start something new,” said Horvitz. “If all of your work goes out into the world under your given name, there’s sort of more pressure; it’s a much bigger deal to kind of kill your direction and start anew. So having that persona there, it gives me a little bit of distance between Seth Horvitz and Rrose that allows me to sort of evaluate it and decide: does it need to die?”
It doesn’t appear as though Rrose is about to be subjected to lethal force just yet. And the title of his next work, Hymn to Moisture, seems to imply more life than others he’s chosen in the past, like “Seeds of Discontent,” “The Ends of Weather,” or “Purge.”
The title, it seems, invokes an image of water — a crucial part of every living organism and a symbol of life, health, and regeneration. And yet, it conjures images of the abyss: of large swaths of dark, uninviting, and forceful territory. Even death. But that’s a result of the realities that we create; they are the ones most worth exploring.