|Live Review: Ambicon 2013 @ San Rafael, California May 3-5
Reviewed by Mike G, May 24th 2013
“Go as deep as you can go.” – Stephen Hill
40 years is a long time for any radio show. For a radio show that plays music not easily defined or understood by many, an unbroken 40 year run seems little short of miraculous. Yet Hearts of Space still stands, a testament to self-belief, hard work and a remarkably loyal audience. It remains a musical epicentre for fans and artists alike, and for thousands of people the show provided their first experience of this multi-dimensional music we call ambient.
First airing on San Francisco's public radio station KPFA-FM in 1973, Music From The Hearts of Space was the first regular ambient music radio program in the USA. Founders Stephen Hill and the late Anna Turner called it spacemusic. That label turned out to be neat one, somehow encompassing a wide range of contemplative music, electronic ambient sounds and contemporary instrumental music, most of which sat in the spaces between established genres. Some of it was about outer space, some inner space; some was about the natural world and some about the technological world of man. Stephen, a former architect, has already spoken and written eloquently about his concept of spacemusic many times, so I won’t double up here.
In 1983 this program of “slow music for fast times” went into national syndication on public radio. Within three years the show had signed its 200th station and became the most successful new music program in public radio history in the USA. The weekly one-hour show continues to this day and now includes a comprehensive online streaming service for subscribers all over the planet.
Also launched the following year was the equally important Hearts of Space Records: founded by Stephen and Anna, managed by his wife Leyla Hill, and home to some of the most gifted ambient and downtempo artists in the world. The label was sold in 2001 to the New York-based Valley Entertainment and today almost the entire catalogue remains available.
And so to Ambicon 2013. This three-day festival in the San Francisco Bay area marked the 40th Anniversary of the radio show and was an extraordinary chance for fans, broadcasters and musicians who had been in orbit around Planet HOS to come together for the first time. The venue was the Embassy Suites Hotel & Convention Centre in San Rafael, its ballroom decked out with drapes and lights and a stellar 5.1 concert surround sound system. There were eight live performances, an artist Q&A panel, and a presentation by UK music journo Mark Prendergast.
Stephen Hill’s brief to the eight acts lined up to perform at Ambicon was a line borrowed from Manfred Eicher of ECM Records: “Go as deep as you can go”.
I believe they did.
Artist Panel, Saturday 10am
Following Friday night’s reception party, Ambicon’s first session was not a concert but an artist panel on Saturday morning moderated by Stephen Hill. Featured were Tim Story, Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Jeff Pearce, Michael Stearns, Hans Christian, Stephen Micus and Sam Rosenthal from Projekt Records. Also on stage to help lead the questions was myself and HOS co-producer Steve Davis. Later in the morning the audience lined up to ask questions of their own.
The artists talked about their early careers, creativity, music technology and the business of music. One of my questions was: analogue synths versus digital synths - discuss. That got some laughs from the audience and a few eye rolls from the panel before Steve Roach, Robert Rich and Michael Stearns gave thoughtful answers. I specifically asked Michael Stearns about ye olde Serge synthesiser – an analogue wonder that became synonymous with his sound - and whether he’d found digital tools that could capture its magic. In his answer he said that he was very happy working in the digital realm and spends a lot of time fashioning his own samples and sounds so that his music remains distinctive. That was demonstrated eloquently on Saturday night where he performed fresh set of recent and new material.
Jeff Pearce, Saturday 2pm
I was unfamiliar with the music of Indiana-based guitarist Jeff Pearce until recently and as a guitarist myself I was curious to see how he makes all those spectral, swelling, cloud-like forms with no more than electric guitar, effects pedals and a loop box for layering his playing. One of his trademark techniques is using a brush, with which he caresses his strings to produce hovering, airy drones. It was lovely, enveloping stuff and it was apparent during his set that Ambicon’s surround audio rig was well worth the setup effort. Visually speaking, all the concerts at Ambicon were essentially static, so I often found myself closing my eyes and just drifting deep into the sound.
Someone I spoke to afterwards compared Jeff’s music to fellow American act Hammock, but I think Jeff has taken the sound of the guitar further. He’s been at it for 20 years now and has built a substantial discography to match. I might also add that he’s a very funny guy, both on stage and off, and he provided us with loads of laughs over the weekend.
Robert Rich, Saturday 3.45pm
Robert Rich is a San Fran Bay area legend, an electro-acoustic ambient composer who’s been producing the goods since the 1980’s. Interestingly he’s one of the relatively few old-school ambient artists finding a new-school audience, as in recent years he’s been playing the chill stages at outdoor psytrance and dance festivals around the world.
His set at Ambicon blended rich drones, slow motion beats, liquid flute and steel guitar lines into a dreamy, intoxicating set that was specially prepared for a 5.1 mix. The effort that went into creating a genuine multi-channel mix was worth it; it sounded amazing. He finished with an epic new track that had a strong Berlin-school flavour via its pretty, cosmic arpeggios - a taste, he told me later on, of his upcoming album.
Tim Story (with guest Jeff Pearce), Saturday 8pm
The Ohio-based Tim Story is a pianist and electronic synthesist with an extraordinary ability to make music of the shadows without abandoning melody or tipping us into the abyss. Mark Prendergast whispered to me during Tim’s set: “This is deep ambient”. I had to agree. Not quite in the same way that pure drone music is deep, but deep in its emotional depth and harmonic richness. His set included exquisite tracks from his releases on Hearts Of Space and Windham Hill, as a well as a few more abstract tracks from other albums and at least one unreleased piece.
Live cello or woodwind accompaniment was missing from this performance, which meant some of Tim's very best piano tunes went unheard. But by the end of his set I found I didn't care. Guitarist Jeff Pearce sat in for the second half and was a perfect foil for Tim to recreate the gorgeously dark, siren-like melodies of “When Night Falls”, “Eyelids Of The Sea” and "Beguiled", before finishing with “Glass Green”. This time at concert’s end the audience took a while to get to its feet during the applause, and I’m sure that was because of the bittersweet, melancholic beauty that his remarkable music can evoke. Once everyone awakened from their reverie, the reception was rousing.
Michael Stearns, Saturday 9.45pm
During the 80’s and 90’s, American composer Michael Stearns infused electronic ambient music with both a new level of humanity and a dynamic range that could be as wide as any classical or symphonic music. Yet the dynamics were achieved with extraordinary subtlety, his delicate touch and gift for sound design gracing some of Hearts Of Space Records greatest releases as well as many film soundtracks.
At Ambicon he hadn’t released a solo album in over ten years and hadn’t played live for an even longer span. What would he play? Surprisingly, it wasn’t a retrospective set. Instead he opted for recent and new material that he had composed for film and TV including Ron Fricke’s wordless doco Samsara and the short film Fragile Planet. Using electric guitar and a bank of synths and samplers, he played an exquisitely constructed set, fresh yet somehow familiar, and taking full advantage of the 5.1 surround sound. His knack for building chords and drones that float without floating away was especially in evidence. A most welcome return to performance from a master of the genre.
The Ambient Century by Mark Prendergast, Sunday 10am
On Sunday morning the UK music journalist and author of the weighty tome The Ambient Century gave an audio-visual presentation based on his excellent book. Mark Prendergast is a very knowledgeable guy and funny to boot and I really enjoyed his presentation. He took us through amazingly varied audio examples starting with Debussy and Satie and ending with the likes of Pete Namlook and Vangelis.
I must re-read his book; I’d forgotten a major revelation about German avant-garde composer Karl Stockhausen. In Germany in the 50’s and 60’s, with American funding, Stockhausen taught an upcoming generation of post-war German musicians and composers to abandon their past and embrace new ideas about music. What emerged from that was - among other things - the explosion in experimental and ambient music in Berlin and Cologne that began in the late 1960’s. As I’m sure you know, the rest is Krautrock history.
During the audience Q&A, local musician Loren Nerell quite rightly grilled the speaker on why the whole American West Coast ambient scene going back to the 70's was absent from The Ambient Century. I remember that Mark's response was something along the lines that he had an upcoming 5,000 word piece on ambient music to write for a magazine and that he might make it about that very subject. We're counting on you, Mark!
Stephan Micus, Sunday 2pm
Imagine what all the ethno-ambient, world beat and exotic dub music around these days might sound like without any electronic instruments or production. In the new digital century, that's a pretty mind-blowing thought. In that regard the German-born Stephan Micus is the ultimate purist; all his instrumentation and sounds are acoustic and unprocessed except for a little reverb. In another sense, however, he's completely non-purist, having collected a massive array or instruments from all over the world and learnt to play them in his own unique and deeply personal way.
At Ambicon he played two tin whistles (Ireland), shakuhachi (Japan), nohkan flute (Japan), kalimba (Africa), zither (Europe), and bass duduk (Armenia). He used recordings of himself playing accompaniment on some tracks and this didn’t prove a distraction; on his albums he’s an accomplished multi-tracker after all. He also sang in that warm, big, soulful voice of his using a language made up entirely by himself. It was a mesmerising show in a perfect space, the audience sitting in rapt silence as his soulful tones filled the room.
Steve Roach, Sunday 3.45pm
“Sonic acid”, said the woman next to me at the end of Steve Roach’s epic set at Ambicon. "Yes", I replied, "and without the bad flashbacks". It was a full house for his set on Sunday, Steve having built a loyal following on the West Coast over the past 30 years that brought in a fair number of single session ticket holders.
Surrounded by his arsenal of analogue and digital tools as well as a didgeridoo, he touched on most of the sounds he’s explored over his years of electronic synthesis: cloud-like chords, primeval drones, tribal beats, swirling melodies and deep earth rumbles. The subwoofers and bass bins also got a real workout at this show and held up beautifully. Around mid-set he slowly built the music into a dark, unsettling roar (although less apparent on the concert recording for some reason) before it suddenly tapered off into silence; the tension release in the audience was visceral. Steve loves what he does and his passion shone brightly in this wide-ranging and thoughtfully constructed set.
Hans Christian, Sunday 8pm
I’m a little ashamed to say I knew next to nothing of Hans Christian’s music before Ambicon and so I came to his concert with zero preconceptions. What followed was the most astonishing use of looping by a live performer that I’ve ever seen.
His largely improvised set featured cello, sitara (an adapted sitar), Tibetan singing bowls, a Swedish instrument called the nyckelharpa, and the sarangi. At times he layered his playing up to 3 or 4 levels using loop boxes. Many of these loops had a rhythmic structure, which meant that in order to stop the others drifting out of sync his timing had to be absolutely precise. And to my amazement, it was. So technically his performance was astonishing, but musically and emotionally it was also a revelation, especially when he played cello. He was totally involved in his performance and the final applause was long and loud. For me, this set was the highlight among eight concerts at Ambicon that were all of very high quality.
Stellamara, Sunday 9.45pm
Local four-piece Bay area band Stellamara closed Ambicon which a special all-downtempo set created especially for the event. Once upon of time this band’s sound was probably called world music, which is pretty meaningless really. More specifically, their songs are rooted in the folk music of Bulgaria, lightly sprinkled with global exotica and subtle electronics.
Vocalist Sonja Drakulich has a terrific voice: big, resonant and soulful. Such an instrument needs some time to warm up, which it did beautifully by the third song. She was accompanied throughout by various string and percussion instruments, and some really intriguing samples from keyboards including ghostly Theremin melodies which made a striking juxtaposition with the Gypsy and Eastern flavours so prevalent in the band’s music.
Ambicon 2013: thoughts, stories & impressions
So was I in heaven at Ambicon? God, yes. What started as an event I was going to skip due to travel expenses ended up as one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.
I think almost everyone who attended came away feeling they had been part of something really special. Over the three days I met a diverse – and I mean really diverse - range of fans from all over the USA as well as from the Japan, UK, Spain, Brazil, Germany, Russia and Canada (I believe I was the sole Australian visitor). People mixed and talked freely at the Friday function, during the concert breaks and over lunch and dinner in the hotel restaurant and bar. The artists also were by and large very approachable and happily mixed with the fans, and I saw many people relish the opportunity to at last meet Stephen and Leyla Hill and express their gratitude for what Hearts Of Space – both the radio show and record label - had brought to their lives.
The crowd numbers averaged around 300 for the shows. I heard many comments by the artists and the HOS crew about what incredibly good listeners the audience members were during the 75 minute sets. Very little rustling, fidgeting or getting up to go to the bathroom. "They didn't even run out of the place when I started playing my guitar with a paintbrush," quipped Jeff Pearce. Robert Rich, who has toured extensively and played all kinds of venues since the 1980’s, said that this was his best ever experience with an audience. That speaks volumes about how successful Ambicon was. It had the right listeners, exclusive performances, sympathetic and well-designed production, and a year of solid planning behind it. I witnessed no major hitches or glitches despite - I later learned - some substantial and unexpected hurdles faced by the HOS crew in the final weeks leading up to the event.
The last-minute live stream organised by volunteer Scott Rouse was also very well received, with some 600 listeners online at one point. It was fascinating to monitor the live text comments from stream listeners, too.
Of course over the weekend I also got to indulge my fanboy dreams and hang out with the artists. I played roadie on Friday for Steve Roach, helping lug his gear into the venue. I found him to be a super friendly guy and he also said some complementary things about my overview of his work at AMG. Tim Story and Jeff Pearce were also terrific company and generous with their time. Bay area local Robert Rich I had already met in Australia last year and it was great to see him again and hear him perform in such an ideal setting. I also enjoyed a couple of long discussions with Stephen Micus, an unassuming and beautiful soul who expressed a certain puzzlement over where his purely acoustic music fitted in among so much electronica.
Meanwhile journalist Mark Prendergast kept me entertained with some fantastic stories about legends both past and present. These included his role in ambient ambassador Pete Namlook's crusade to set up live events in early 90's London, as well as his memorable encounter with a very dictatorial Edgar Froese about writing an authorised biography of Tangerine Dream. I also got to know some of the non-performing artists who attended including Michel “Neuronium” Huygen from Spain. He's an urbane, charming and funny man and was another source of entertaining and revealing stories about Krautrock icons that he’s known and played with over the years.
Will there be more?
In the weeks following the event I saw a lot of Stephen and Leyla Hill - two wonderful people who went out of their way to make me feel welcome in America - and the signals were strong that they would like to do it again, possibly in 2015.
But for now you can immerse yourself in HQ video and audio of all the performances on the Ambicon 2013 Youtube channel.
Happy journeys, space fans.
Ambicon 2013 videos
1 of 10: Musicians' Panel Discussion and Q&A - http://youtu.be/T5LC5Y6boTU
2 of 10: JEFF PEARCE Concert - http://youtu.be/jbgZ9n1PToo
3 of 10: ROBERT RICH Concert - http://youtu.be/c5FZH2Yen-8
4 of 10: TIM STORY Concert - http://youtu.be/7XK19bwqWwI
5 of 10: MICHAEL STEARNS Concert - http://youtu.be/10YGKfUE2hU
6 of 10: MARK PRENDERGAST - The Ambient Century - http://youtu.be/dshrGS1Q4y0
7 of 10: STEPHAN MICUS Concert - http://youtu.be/i1SL1rwLQ50
8 of 10: STEVE ROACH Concert - http://youtu.be/bNqs9qa9pGM
9 of 10: HANS CHRISTIAN Concert - http://youtu.be/a4zssJJLzeo
10 of 10: STELLAMARA Concert - http://youtu.be/CGO8zJX0voQ