Something different: Ambient/space music

The music that dare not speak its name (because no one can pin it down)

Jóhann Jóhannsson: Abstract, yes, but with an emotional core.
Jóhann Jóhannsson: Abstract, yes, but with an emotional core.

Over the past 15 years, with little fanfare, Philadelphia has slowly but steadily grown into one of the world's premiere centers for a largely misunderstood yet highly innovative musical genre. This genre — known variously as space, ambient, experimental, electronic, or that tired old phrase avant-garde— is challenging, inspiring, soothing, sometimes disturbing, often beautiful, abstract and sometimes just plain danceable. Some of the most notable names in the field are recognizable even to the uninitiated: Jean Michel Jarre, Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Brian Eno.

Ambient/space music (as I'll call it here for want of a better label), however tiny its niche, also benefits from a highly diverse and creative community of artists and fans worldwide. As continuing advances in computer and digital audio technology have brought the resources to create, record and distribute music within the financial reach of independent musicians, the ambient space genre has burgeoned accordingly.

Philadelphia's importance to the genre lies in the radio show "Star's End," hosted by Chuck van Zyl and broadcast on WXPN every Saturday night/Sunday morning from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. for more than 30 years (it's one of the longest continuously-running radio programs of any stripe in the entire world), and the "Gatherings" concert series at Penn, also founded by van Zyl.

The Gatherings concerts attract artists from all over the planet, many of whom make the trek to Philadelphia solely to play at the series. Consequently it offers perhaps the city's most wildly eclectic range of musicians and musical styles. If the phrase "ambient space" makes you think of synthesizers, you're only partly correct.

True, you can find plenty of synthesizer wizards weaving spacey textures and driving sequencer beats, but the series has also featured traditional Tibetan chanting, classically-trained violinists and cellists, world music percussionists, avant-garde jazz and rock instrumentalists and vocalists, woodwind players, ambient tuba music, quiet young men who create entire sonic worlds simply by tapping keys on a laptop computer— in short, few musical instruments have not been heard inside the cloistered confines of St. Mary's Hamilton Village Church on Locust Walk, where the Gatherings concerts are held.

He's a star in Iceland

One of the most fascinating performances occurred this past month when composer Jóhann Jóhannsson came to town. Jóhannsson, a major artistic figure in his native Iceland, is still relatively unknown in the States. He's probably best described as a modern classical composer, since his work displays the same aching spirituality and cool beauty of an Arvo Pärt or perhaps Philip Glass in his more introspective moods. Jóhannsson's latest album, Fordlandia, is a meditation on Henry Ford's ill-fated attempt to create his own factory town in the Amazon— the "idea of failed utopia," as Jóhannsson describes it on his website.

His Gathering appearance featured a traditional string quartet, an electronic percussionist and the composer himself on piano and synthesizer. Save for the ensemble's unconventional makeup, the performance wouldn't necessarily have been out of place in the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society's season.

Jóhannsson's music is deeply layered and introspective, and though he sometimes incorporates some distinctly nonmusical sounds in his compositions— for example, heavily processed computer-generated or human vocals, or other mechanical or ambient sounds— such effects complement the lyricism of the music rather than detract from it. The results can be highly abstract, and as Jóhannsson himself admits, this is not program music. Listening to selections from Fordlandia, you'd probably never imagine that the composer was inspired by an American industrial giant. It doesn't matter, though, because the emotional core of the music remains, even in pieces with titles as unwieldy as "Melodia (Guidelines For a Space Propulsion Device Based on Heim's Quantum Theory)."

Ghostly Christian images

Like most Gatherings events, the concert featured a visual element as well— in this case, random film clips (which may or may not have had anything to do with Fordlandia) projected behind the performers directly into the rear of the church's chancel. The ghostly black-and-white images flickering against the altar, crosses, stained glass and other Christian accoutrements served to enhance the sometimes-eerie contemplative mood that Jóhannsson created. Other Gatherings have used everything from simple colored lights and video projections to full-fledged laser theatrics and smoke machines that you might find at a Pink Floyd show.

Opening for Jóhannsson was a solo artist from Chicago named Robert Lowe, who performs under the name Lichens. Rather than filling St. Mary's nave with blinking electronic consoles like many other Gatherings performers, Lowe used the most primal musical instrument of all: his own voice. Aided by some effects pedals that allowed him to loop and alter his vocalizations, Lowe managed to build up, layer by layer, an entire tapestry of sound, his eyes tightly closed and his body twitching and gesturing as he tapped into the depths of his muse. It was as mesmerizing to watch as it was to hear— rather as if an ecstatic Bobby McFerrin were describing a trip to Alpha Centauri.

Not for Billy Joel fans

It's impossible to call this outing a typical Gatherings event, since none of them is truly "typical." The series is certainly not for everyone. Those who are content with pops orchestras and light generic classical music, or for that matter the routine bar cover band that plays the greatest hits of Journey and Billy Joel, would be well advised to look elsewhere.

But anyone with an adventurous musical spirit and a sense of artistic adventure will find the Gatherings a refreshing, exciting, and often inspirational experience, and will see and hear things they've probably never imagined.

Case in point: a few years ago, I watched cellist David Darling literally dancing with his instrument like Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers, holding the cello in one hand, bowing it with the other, all the while scat-singing with the music. It was odd, it was bizarre, it was completely the wrong way to play the cello— yet it worked.â—†

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