Jherek Bischoff, the Ambient Chamber Orchestra and the cistern.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture...” something my husband, Kurt, says from time to time, though it’s actually someone else’s quote. So if you’re trying to learn about ambient music, a brief trot through cyber links will quickly lead a person, amusingly enough, to learn of the French composer Erik Satie’s “furniture music” - so-named by Satie himself because it could as easily drift into the background of a dinner party as the furniture. Satie, according to the sites I visited, (check out www.ambientmusicguide.com) is unanimously considered the originator of ambient music.
Last night I had the pleasure of performing with Jherek (http://jherekbischoff.blogspot.com) as a violist in the Ambient Chamber Orchestra at the Chapel Performance Space. I met Jherek pretty recently and ran into him not too long after at the Deep Listening Band’s phenomenal “Great Howl at Town Hall” where this iconic group, whose members include Pauline Oliveros and Stuart Dempster, two personal musical heroes of mine, played a simply amazing show inspired by the extraordinary echo in the 2 million gallon now-empty water cistern underground at Fort Worden State Park. At 45 seconds, it is a crazy-long musical hang time.
The cistern, dubbed “Washington’s Official Instrument”, has become popular among recording artists as a great natural acoustic site. If you want to record there, you have to get a permit from the park - one paragraph of the application reads:
“The cistern is defined as a "confined space" by Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. It does not meet any of the safety requirements established by that agency. It does not have a "safe" access hatch, does not have a "safe" ladder, and to be legally correct the air quality (oxygen levels, etc.) must be tested before entry and then monitored during any occupation.”
And you have to have an above-ground contact person waiting with cell phone in hand at the opening in case of emergency!
Evidently, it is not only the long echo but also the way that sounds ping off of the pillars, reinforcing, reflecting and canceling out harmonies that provides a singularly remarkable musical environment.
Jherek got a residency at Fort Worden’s Centrum, the famous arts center, and was able to compose music in the cistern. The result was the music we presented last night.
I didn’t know that much detail about ambient music, except that my two sons are into electronic dance music, so I did a rather cursory investigation, aided in part by Wikipedia, and here is what I learned.
· Ambient music prioritizes instrumental timbres over vocals, or if it does use vocals, focuses on the quality and types of sounds produced rather than lyrics.
· Erik Satie and Claude Debussy were the forerunners of this music, as they busted apart older musical forms that were narrative in nature to create much more open and spacious forms.
· John Cage’s 4’33” is considered a seminal work as it encouraged listeners to open their ears to sounds in the present environment.
· Karlheinz Stockhausen’s early work with tape collages was a precursor to modern digital sampling.
· Bands like the Beatles and Pink Floyd explored the studio capabilities of electronic music - distancing themselves from the dominance of lyrics and opening up the rich instrumental possibilities of rock music.
· Ambient musicians don’t like being conflated with New Age, which they consider bland and banal.
· Brian Eno’s “Airport Music” is big in the ambient world.
· Minimalist composers like Philip Glass and John Adams, though their music is not specifically ambient, inspired bands with their exploration of musical repetition over vast expanses of time.
· Everyone should check out the Velvet Underground. Also Tangerine Dream and Moby.
· Downtempo electronic dance music like house, progressive, techno, trance and psy-trance, hip hop, breakbeat and electronic dub are contemporary iterations of ambient music. I only have visibility to this music through my kids, who are big devotees (though they, I believe, have extremely specific tastes within these genres.)
Lastly, I really enjoyed seeing some listed examples of ambient music. Some I’ve already experienced, and some I’m looking forward to hearing for the first time.
Here’s my edited list:
2001, a Space Odyssey
Lost in Translation
The Social Network
Nine Inch Nails
NASA (Voyager recordings - “Symphonies of the Planets”)
Anyway, the Chapel was packed and it was a beautiful show. Glad to have been part of it.