Ambient music festival and conference celebrates 30 years of Hearts of Space on NPR
Last month, I attended AMBICON 2013: The Hearts of Space 30th and 40th Year Anniversary Celebration and Music Conference, a festival of ambient, new age, and experimental music in bucolic San Rafael, CA celebrating 30 years of Hearts of Space on NPR.
Starting in 1973 at KPFA-FM in Berkeley, Stephen Hill’s Hearts of Space radio program has been broadcasting long tone, minimalist “space“ music for the last 40 years. In 1983, the program became accessible on National Public Radio and for the last 30 years has been syndicated to over 200 NPR stations across the US. This year, Hearts of Space broadcasts its 1000th show.
AMBICON 2013: The Hearts of Space 30th and 40th Year Anniversary Celebration & Music Conference
(5 May 2013: Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center San Rafael, CA)
In high school, I listened to Hearts of Space on our local NPR station. Broadcast in the evening, while I drove out of the vast expanse of the California Central Valley toward home in the rolling Sierra foothills, somehow the ambient music gave a depth to that mundane highway, revealed a power in the wide open valley floor which I might not have otherwise seen (or heard).
To be clear, I have long despised anything associated with the term new age. And while I would call this festival more ambient than new age, the association is still there. However, my journey into this very wide range of music in the months before and since attending AMBICON 2013 has been one of the most eye-opening, awe-inspiring, and downright interesting musical journeys I’ve taken since descending into IDM way back in the late ‘90s. The ambient and new age genres I once disregarded as mere “relaxation sounds” or quasi-spiritual hogwash have since become a personal obsession, as well as my work and general purpose listening music of choice. These deceptively simple tracks have opened up pathways in my mind that have kept me awake at night wondering about what music is and what music can do.
AMBICON 2013 featured performances by some of the most popular and influential artists in the ambient, new age, and space music genres—Stephan Micus, Tim Story, Hans Christian, Stellamara, as well as Robert Rich, Steve Roach, and Michael Stearns, who also contributed to my most beloved ambient drone music collection, The Sombient Trilogy. To top it all off, there was a talk by Mark Prendergast, author of the definitive book on ambient music, The Ambient Century: From Mahler to Moby—The Evolution of Sound in the Electronic Age.
Below are my thoughts on each of the performances, as well as the opening artist panel discussion (videos to the performances and panel discussion are included at the end of the article). I hope this music is as inspiring and illuminating to you as it was to me.
Opening Session: Artist Panel Discussion
Day One began with a panel discussion with all of the artists performing at AMBICON 2013.
Introducing each performer individually, Stephen Hill is like a proud high school band teacher showing off his finest students. An impressive assortment, I think that if everyone currently on stage had died 40 years ago in a Buddy Holly-esque plane crash, Hearts of Space never would have introduced me to ambient “space” music; The Sombient Trilogy probably wouldn’t have been released; and the epic, experimental documentary Baraka might never have been made. Or maybe it would have been made, but with music by, say, John Tesh—and the world would have been that much lamer as a result.
Stephen Hill asks his panel of musicians and synthesists how they all managed to achieve the unlikely feat of becoming successful ambient musicians. They all take turns telling their individual stories, and while each path to success is unique, there seems to be a consistent thread running through all of them—they all explain their respective successes as being the results of a series of un-planned, unexplained, seemingly disparate, synchronistic events, driven in part by a love for and compulsion toward this music, this particular sound. Tim Story says, “You just do the thing that you can’t imagine not doing,” and find unlikely success through “small accidents and overlapping coincidences.”
In the panel discussion, Jeff Pearce talked about how he first came to know and love the music of Steve Roach, Stephan Micus, Robert Rich, and Tim Story on Hearts of Space when he was a young man. The program inspired him to pick up the torch and continue making this kind of music, so that he could, as he says, “continue following that sound.”
Stephen Hill introduces Jeff as “unquestionably the finest electric guitarist in West Point, Indiana.” Jeff is mild-mannered, sweetly nerdy, and, like a few of the musicians here today, undeniably midwestern. There must be something about the vast, flat expanses of the midwest that inspires meditation or perhaps necessitates sonic transmigration to other realms.
Jeff’s performance is a showcase of reverb. His electric guitar sings and reverberates a holy song through which we meditate on the majesty of the major chord, the miracle of the minor chord. Jeff spends time on each set of tones, letting them ring and grow and blossom into sonic ripples on an airy sea upon which we the audience now float. When a mildly-discordant note is introduced, you can actually hear the sound waves colliding, bouncing, ricocheting off one another. In a nutshell, this is one of my favorite parts about ambient music: it gives the listener time to really listen to tones and harmonies, and wonder how curious it is that these mundane intervals, triads, and chords delight and mesmerize us so.
Robert Rich has been making ambient records for the last 30 years. Albums like Trances/Drones and his glassy, flawless masterpiece Somnium are quintessential within the genre. With Rich, you often can’t hear where one note ends and another begins.
While at Stanford University, Rich became famous for giving live, all-night performances for sleeping audiences; part of experiments to see if REM sleep cycles could be influenced by auditory stimulus. To do this, he would generate abstract drones and atmospheres and let them continue to play, mutating gradually as tones bounced back and forth through analog gates. Like Brian Eno, Rich also saw the value of exploring music that could “do something” in addition to simply being entertaining.
At AMBICON 2013, Rich plays multiple keyboards, a lap steel guitar, and PVC pipe flutes, processing them all through a big, rectangular calliope of knobs and patch bays, deconstructing and reconstructing every blip and beep that passes through its fiery gates.
Unlike the creators of algorithmically generated, random fractal soup, Tim Story is a composer. His songs are elegantly minimal, rich in their simplicity. His second song consists entirely of four notes he sampled from a cello player.
Before performing, he says he’s met more people at AMBICON that know his music than at any other event he’s been to.
I spoke with Tim Story about how challenging it is to put this music into words without descending into the sticky goo of new age cliche. About his own music, he says that he always just asks someone else to describe it, because it means something different to everyone.
Tim says something that I’ve heard said a few times already here at AMBICON—this event is a coming together of truly like minded people. These are people who find solace in rich, deeply harmonic, uncannily meditative tones. A casual glance at the audience shows a number of them to be part of the ever vibrant ilk of the sweetly odd, the socially awkward, the mildly autistic, the gentle, and the shy. These are people who long for the same harmony in human interactions that they hear in ambient music. Because if it’s possible in the sonic realm, then why not in real life, too? How can humans create such beauty on one hand and be so cruel, inhumane, and warmongering on the other? For those who have found their center somewhere in this music, this becomes a real and present question.
After the festival, Stephen Hill remarked, “No one complained about anything. What other event can you say that about?”
In the panel discussion, Michael Stearns talked about how he found unlikely success in ambient music. The story is also told on Stearns’s Wikipedia page:
Stearns’s interest in experimental “space” music left him unsatisfied, as he found no audience to play his musical ideas, which could be at this time only related to the drug experience. After three years, Michael Stearns underwent a spiritual crisis and thought about stopping music.
At that point, Stearns says, he decided to sell all his music equipment and apprentice himself to a Sufi mystic. Then, he was given a “transmission” through a series of dreams that told him to make his first album, Ancient Leaves, an album which ultimately led him to meet Ron Fricke, the cinematographer of Baraka, a movie for which Stearns would compose and produce the soundtrack. And from there, “a path just seemed to open up.”
Stephen Hill introduces Stearns before his AMBICON set: “I met Michael Stearns in 1980…1978…1977! It had something to do with a hot tub in Berkeley.”
Michael Stearns takes the stage unassumingly and tells us all that he hasn’t performed in ten years, and that his ten year-old son is joining us in the audience today.
Making full use of the surround sound system, Stearns’s tones gently rumble, wash, sweep, and shimmer around the room. Synth pad sounds of the ‘90s swell, layered with a little thunder here, a little indigenous chanting there, I realize we’re hearing a track from the Baraka soundtrack, and I feel nostalgic for college. Later in the set, crickets chirp steadily beneath his vast sea of tones. I think about how the cricket plays a rhythmic, meditative drone with those long, buggy, violin legs. And, though not intended for this purpose, it has had a calming effect on me at bedtime. Perhaps drone music was born of the cricket, lulling humans into a restful sleep state for as long as humans and crickets have coexisted.
Mark Prendergast: Keynote on Ambient Music
Brian Eno wrote the introduction to Mark Prendergast’s book, so Prendergast opens his talk at AMBICON 2013 with Brian Eno’s seminal Ambient I: Music for Airports. We learn that it was Eno himself that coined the term “ambient music” in the liner notes of this album. We also learn that Eno produced Ambient I: Music for Airports by recording all the tracks to tape, stretching the tapes in his London apartment, cutting the tapes at random, looping the random cuttings and, voila! Could this really be true? I’m skeptical, but magic synchronicity seems to run rampant in this group.
Next, we listen to Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel Im Speigel,” a haunting piece by the 20th century Estonian composer. I hadn’t thought of Pärt as an ambient composer before, but now I can see why he is included, like Erik Satie, in a subgenre of hypnotizing, ambient music which is “composed and performed” on live, classical instruments rather than computers or synthesizers. And there is an underlying tradition of contemplative sound that extends back into pre-history and has an integral relationship to human perception and consciousness itself, says Mr. Hill.
Being British, Prendergast finds an opportunity to bad-mouth America by telling of Pink Floyd’s initial inability to woo US concertgoers with its grand, amorphous, psychedelic soundscapes. But Pendergast then shares an early track by America’s own developers of what Prendergast calls quiet, telepathic, improvisational music: The Grateful Dead.
In addition to sharing numerous beautiful and mind-bending songs, Prendergast walks us through the development of sound recording and generating devices, beginning with Debussy’s favorite: the Player Piano. From there, it’s photos, samples, and commentary on the Arp Odyssey, the Putney, the Prophet, Vangelis’ keyboard-filled Nemo Studio, and the Yamaha DX7 on which Brian Eno played the beautiful lily pads upon which U2’s The Joshua Tree rests.
Prendergast is playful, exhaustively knowledgeable without seeming pedantic, and extremely endearing. This Sunday morning keynote feels like the time-honored human tradition of hanging out and listening to cool records with friends.
In the artist panel discussion, Stephen Hill introduced Stephan Micus as the only current major label artist on the stage. He’s right. Micus is with ECM Records.
Micus has a wonderful, quiet confidence. He’s actually way more down-to-earth than I would have thought from his music. He talks about how as a young man he decided that he wanted to “make a record.” So, in his innocence, he simply drove to London, walked into Island Records, Transatlantic Records, and Virgin Records and said, “Ok, I have some tapes…”
Somehow, he was able to convince Virgin Records to make his first album, Archaic Concerts. And that was the beginning of a his 37-year-long career making this music.
Micus—whose name is, mysteriously, an anagram of “music”—says, “The important thing is that you really have something to say and you feel this urge to do it. How to make a living? It will come by itself, I guess.”
I have seen three distinct camps materialize in this ambient scene which I will describe in my own words:
Electronic ambient—Electronic tones or samples run through a series of analog or digital machinery; the music often self-modifies, grows, and develops unpredictably as it bounces through analog gates or algorithmic processors (i.e. Brian Eno, Robert Rich, Steve Roach, etc.).
Classical ambient—Hypnotizing, psychedelic, or meditative (ambient) music composed and performed in the traditional manner—with notes on a page, acoustic instruments, etc. (i.e. Arvo Part, Tim Story, etc.).
Traditional/shamanic ambient—A solo performer of some strange and haunting “traditional” instrument (pan flute, didgeridoo, rainstick, Gamelan instruments, etc.). These instruments are often part of the spiritual, shamanic, or religious traditions of their culture of origin, which suggests that these simple, pleasing “ambient” sounds have been helping humans to meditate on harmonizing tones for eons.
Stephan Micus is definitely part of the third group. He uses traditional instruments from all over the world—Irish tin whistle and ancient Japanese flute that chills and haunts like wind riding banshees; Bavarian zither; a deep, droning, Armenian duduk.
Dressed in a simple but dramatic white robe and speaking in a serious, stilted voice; one gets the feeling that Micus was either home-schooled by thoughtful parents or picked on as a youth. Either way, his nerdcore earnestness and ambient-scat-singing in Greek or Byzantine chants finds a receptive audience here at AMBICON 2013.
In the artist panel discussion, Steve Roach said that it’s the love of being immersed in this sound that drives him.
“Follow your bliss,” he said.
He talked about how he had “a natural desire to create this music”, so “after six months of having an R-2600,” he started making cassettes and giving them to friends at the Comicon comic book convention. Roach was so moved by the beautiful sound of ambient music that he became overwhelmed with the desire—the need—to share it with others.
Within this scene, there could not be a better contrast to Stephan Micus than Steve Roach. Roach stumbles unceremoniously on stage accompanied by the wildest hair in ambient experimental music. His set begins as a somewhat outrageous cacophony of swirling phasers, UFOs landing on echo-tropian landscapes, feedback worms wriggling through layers and layers of compacted tones. For the first 15-20 minutes, his set is a chaotic soup. But, somehow, like so many metronomes eventually finding common ground, an unexpected order seems to arise out of the chaos and the tones seem to harmonize. Then, sentient beings emerge from the UFOs, the worms wriggle and shake together in a sensual worm dance, and suddenly this ocean of sound waves materializes in beautiful, grand, profound, all-filling, and all-encompassing palpability. By the end, it is the spaceship that will lift off at any moment to take us all far away from Marin County, when as unceremoniously as it began … it concludes.
Stephen Hill comes to the stage and says, “I really didn’t want that to end.”
In the artist panel discussion, Hans Christian said that ambient music “takes us out of the dualistic mind into a sort of sacred space.”
Hans Christian builds his set on the fly using two independent loop samplers. He begins with an interesting assortment of jangling bells that he plays and samples on the fly, creating a loop upon which he can layer his next instrument, a cello made of carbon fiber, which he plays superbly. After all the knob turners and fractal soup makers, it is refreshing to see this well-trained player kick ass on an instrument of the classical, acoustic oeuvre. For me, that’s where it all began—in some smelly and human-stained high school band room, covered in pimples, grinding out notes in a desperate attempt to find some beauty in this awkward, embarrassing world.
Hans Christian’s loops are hypnotizing. At times, the audience truly goes there, to that sonic space he creates. And we dance around for a while. In this way, this music is telepathic.
Hans Christian finishes his set and says, “What an amazing audience. Nothing more to say.” And he means it!
But why? What did we do that was so amazing? We didn’t say a word to him! Then, I imagine clouds floating together to form the words “TELEPATHIC MUSIC” with Jerry Garcia winking knowingly in the background. Because, actually, we did say something to him. In fact, I might go so far as to say that we all “went” to the drone platform he created, and we danced around with him for a while.
A mysterious man with a computer walked up to me during Hans Christian’s show and showed me these images:
Stellamara concludes the festival with its past-meets-present combination of music from the Middle Ages in Eastern Europe dancing sexily atop sequenced, downtempo beats. Sonja Drakulich is their powerful, pitch perfect lead vocalist, who reminds me of Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance. She also did a TEDx talk in Berkeley.
Drakulich sings some songs in Bulgarian, some in Greek. When she sings in English, however, the lyrics sometimes seem a little corny and fall a little flat, like when Sigur Ros’s Jonsi sang in English on his solo album.
Stellamara is well-rehearsed, but the music feels ‘90s, formalist, with each note seeming pre-planned—not that there’s anything wrong with that! It’s just a contrast from the other music I’ve heard here which seems to invite me in. As Brian Eno said about not singing on his ambient albums, “If I left me out, I invited the listener in.”
In the end, I conclude that ambient music encompasses something much bigger than I had originally thought. In fact, it is everywhere, and in everything; inspired by our collective human experience listening to ocean waves, birds, footsteps, wind, as well as roaring engines, tick-tocking machinery, and whirring exhaust fans.
Speaking of the then (and now) popular orchestral form, Italian futurist Luigi Russolo said the following in a 1913 letter to a fellow futurist and composer:
Away! Let us break out since we cannot much longer restrain our desire to create finally a new musical reality, with a generous distribution of resonant slaps in the face, discarding violins, pianos, double-basses and plaintive organs. Let us break out!...
To convince ourselves of the amazing variety of noises, it is enough to think of the rumble of thunder, the whistle of the wind, the roar of a waterfall, the gurgling of a brook, the rustling of leaves, the clatter of a trotting horse as it draws into the distance, the lurching jolts of a cart on pavings, and of the generous, solemn, white breathing of a nocturnal city; of all the noises made by wild and domestic animals, and of all those that can be made by the mouth of man without resorting to speaking or singing.
So, let us none be afraid to eschew traditional forms in pursuit of greatness, beauty, truth. At its best, ambient music is a place of freeform sonic experimentation where everything is explored and anything is possible. I’d like to see our experience listening to music be scientifically, rather than anecdotally, quantified. Perhaps one day, certain combinations of tones can be prescribed by psychiatrists to treat mental illness. Either way, I have a funny feeling that the reintroduction of long, soothing tones into our daily, communal “life” experience could change us and the world for the better.