The joke is right there: it’s ambient music, in a church! Yes, the Ambient Church concert series delivers performances in churches around Brooklyn, but it’s more than that—it’s an ambient church, or put another way, it is a church of ambient music.
The concept arrives with the spark of recognition. The nexus of church services and ambient music is time—both step outside of time for the duration it takes to experience each, both build and exist in an eternal, steady-state now, and seek in one way or another (and with varying levels of emphasis) to illuminate a non-material universe.
Ambient music is eternalism in sound, in the shape of an Ourorboros or etched like an Escher. It begins in time, at some point where the musicians start or you hit the “Play” button, but as a musical form the beginning and the end are arbitrary points. Ambient music doesn’t develop, it doesn’t have a verse and a chorus, it changes while not moving, it is the Alpha and the Omega.
That is the ideal state and that is what makes it preternaturally compelling. Where some music goes straight to the head, and some goes straight to the heart or the hips, ambient music makes it’s way through a qi center at the base of the spine, or just above the groin.
But to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, between the ideal and the realization falls the shadow. The Ambient Church season opener at the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn Heights had a quadruple-bill—and visual accompaniment from Eric Epstein’s enthralling projections—half the music came nowhere close to being satisfying nor even succeeding on its own terms. The other half, though, did come within sight of the Omega.
On hand were Lemon Guo, Qasim Naqvi, Angel Deradoorian, and Ellen Arkbro, each performing their own music in that order. The sets from Guo and Naqvi were so poor, and so at odds with the ambient aesthetic, that I was sorely tempted to leave before the Sacrament and the Benediction.
Guo is an MFA student in Sound Art at Columbia, but there was little congruity between those terms and her work. She played field recordings and electronic sound, and sang. The audio was indeed highly polished, with great presence, clarity and space, but she was a weak singer, and about a third of the way through the set began to have problems with her breath support and thus her intonation and ability to sustain notes wavered.
This was distracting, but less so than the overall form of her work, which moved from one audio concept (e.g. field recordings) to another—song—without ever firmly establishing any one idea. There was no foundation, no direction, no goal, she seemed to be making it up on the spot. Perhaps this satisfied the demands of sound art, but it was also music, presented in concert in front of a paying audience, and in the context of the night was a mess.
Naqvi, from Dawn of MIDI, played a set that was worse, just as directionless and promiscuous as Guo, though more agitated. He generated some nice square and triangle wave timbres, but mostly seemed to still be learning the rudiments of using and playing a modular synthesizer, setting up one patch here, another there. He seemed not to be listening to what he was doing, and even have no idea what he was doing.
Along with what seemed with each to be either a lack of thought or of preparation, the jumpy randomness was entirely at odds with the proper notion of ambient time. Going section by section, unit by unit, welds, as Robert Ashley pointed out, music to the timeline that rules most everything we have heard in the West since Medieval times. Deradoorian and Arkbro, thankfully, were fully in step with ambient time as eternal moment. Both played wonderful sets.
Deradoorian, who was in the Dirty Projectors, opened up with a drone with a warm timbre. It had a starting point in time, but the sound seemed to emerge organically, as if it had been running all along and we just had to tune into it. That is the nature and meaning of the drone, and her’s held time still and seemed to expand in the space, pressing into every possible corner and nerve ending like a fluid substance. Her music—she played material from her recent recording Eternal Reccurence—carved out an environment all its own and one that could be heard as unpopulated and beneficent. Then there was her lovely singing, vocal sounds and lyrics, her sustained tones deepening the experience.
Arkrbo is a Swedish composer who work with just intonation, her album For organ and brass was one of the very finest releases of 2017. At Ambient Church, she premiered for organ & electronics.
Using the church’s organ to make drones, single pitches, just intonation major and minor, and perfect intervals, she would fold in a dissonant note, producing subtle difference tones, that themselves waved and undulated, changing harmony and timbre in an organic way. This was composing with an ambient aesthetic but a classical composer’s values of structure, harmony, and exploration, the seemingly simple idea of ambient music pressed to a stimulating, experimental edge. And using an old-fashioned instrument with an old-fashioned tuning as a secular ritual rooted the experience deep into time. I stepped out into the night not only holding the performance in my memory but leaving a piece of myself to exist in immaterial eternity.