About Robert Horton – experimentor extraordinaire (2008)


Below are some words about Robert Horton, with whom I’ve had the pleasure to collaborate in the past, releasing some records on Nothing Out There, and finally met in 2016.

For a sound artist as mind-blowing as Robert Horton, there is something really pleasant in knowing that one of the first shows that the man played in was in the middle of a city in riot. This was, incredibly, almost thirty years ago, in San Francisco, as Robert Horton was playing the third and last live show with his punk band, ISM.

Not only his music is interesting nowadays, but the fact the he remained almost thirty years without any kind of significant (even underground) publicity. Coming out of seemingly nowhere a year ago, Horton found dozens of labels ready to welcome the productions of a lifetime and spread them across the world (Digitalis, Sloow Tapes, musicyourmindwillloveyou, Celebrate-Psi-Phenomenon, New American Folk Hero, Rural Faune, and more).

There are two musical roots to the music of Robert Horton : punk and contemporary composers. Working solo most of the time, Horton is akin to some kind of weird genius, a “savant fou”. Often building his own instruments (some of them likely to become little legends, like “Boot”, a 4-strings wooden homemade in the early eighties), welcoming every surrounding sound as a partner, Horton’s music is touching every corner of contemporary experimental music without ever growing roots into one single genre. There is folk elements, pure noise, drone, blues, experimental, free improv, musique concrete, but sound is the only master. Horton’s sound sculptures may have very few constants, but two of them certainly are inpredictability and ludicity.

And this, it seems, was already true as soon as in 1979. After ISM, The Appliances were formed. “Our original intention was to combine noise with the energy of punk. The Appliances [were] the first punk funk band in SF, but years too early for the whole Primus etc. scene.” Then came Clang and, with it, it seems the Robert Horton that we now know was born. Building his own instruments out of trash, and recording solo, living illegally in a can factory, across a punk club, in SF – Horton’s fate may have been of these contemporary composers that inspired him : Pauline Oliveros, Harry Partch, La Monte Young… And so it went indeed for some years, with the Plateau name for the first part of the eighties. A huge amount of musical material was recorded, that is now coming out of night all at once. Horton came back at some DIY labels, when starting “excavating” like he says, his archives, while still recording tons of stuff. And, not surprisingly, in a way, since Robert has been doing this for so long, you sometimes can hardly tell a 1984 recording from a 2005 one.

Reasons for years of absence in the record circuit are part accidental, part bad memories. “During the mid-1980s, I was releasing a lot of material as part of the cassette revolution. Tapes were released in Japan, Europe and the U.S. In the late 80s, I had a health crisis that slowed me down for a few years. Then I started an anti-racism educational organization in 1993 that still continues. So, it’s a combination of chance, momentum, and label owners with open ears.” But Horton also remembers having had bad contacts with record labels owners that now contrasts with his comeback. He cites two names as the main actors for his come back : Tom Carter (half of Charalambides), and Brad Rose (owner of Digitalis Industries). Horton has now, two years later, put out several collaborations with Tom Carter (under the Kyrgyz, Turnstone and Mudsuckers monikers with others, and in duo) and half a dozen CD or CD-Rs on Digitalis.

Horton also likes to multiply his monikers according to his way of recording or playing. The amount of electronics or free jazz elements are one criterium – there’s Egghatcher, with whom Robert Horton already did split records and versus tracks. “Egghatcher uses fewer real-world instruments and more computer-transformed sounds and field recordings. “ And there’s also, amongst others, Future Ears, a more free-jazz oriented project with guests players like Tom Carter, Michael Donnelly, and Pete Swanson. Not of any help for tracking the productions of the man who seem to be put out faster than you can listen to. An all the more frightening releasing speed that Horton confesses that he’s pleased to now be able to select more the recordings he’s putting out.

But maybe that’s the attempt itself, to try to get the man figured out, that is out of the road, since Horton likes, above all, his musical freedom, and the ability it gives him to be “all over the map”. When asked if he considers himself as a contemporary composer, he replies : “There are lots of ways I can answer this. The first is that I have more of a sense of humor, and I don’t have to be consistent with a perceived historial lineage or school. […] I can have a lot of fun.”

But the man has his special loves and that’s what gives his music an unmistakable personality. Something hard to achieve in a world of noise, drone and free improv. Environment, for example is one of the main actors of Horton’s music. Not only are external events welcome (“Carpenters next door : hammers on track 4”, we read in Angel Humming Through a Wire’s liner-notes), but they also are regularly the very basis of the music – like on the recent Egghatcher’s Accidents, on New American Folk Hero (Mike Tamburo’s imprint), using only everyday sounds as a raw material ; or on the concrete project The Attemptations with Lon Huber : “In many ways, the Attemptations is the weirdest project I am involved with. It’s a sort of noirish musique concrete, though it involves improvising with environments. On one piece, we literally play my backyard.”

More information:

Robert Horton’s discogs page

Here is an interview we conducted in French.

And also a nice podcast with George Chen.

Records release by Nothing Out There:

A Piece Of Time (2014)

Ducksnort ! (Boot III) (2011)

If I Can’t Play My Boot… I Don’t Have A Leg To Stand On (2008)

Salts That Have Lost Water (2007)