The Gatherings Various artists compilation Synkronos Music, 2002 http://www.synkronosmusic.com http://www.thegatherings.org Ambient, electronic, and space music has a Friend in Pennsylvania, in Chuck Van Zyl. For more than 10 years, he has produced concerts of this esoteric music in various venues, including a cathedral, in Philadelphia. All the finest names in electronic ambient and spacemusic have played there: Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Vidna Obmana, Jeff Pearce, “Vir Unis,” as well as some not-so-familiar musicians. In 2002, Van Zyl decided to release a compilation album that would showcase the best of the “Gathering” series, in excerpts from live shows. It seems an impossible job, to winnow out a representative sample from more than a decade of shows, but Van Zyl has tried to choose music from both the famous (at least famous in ambient listening circles) and the not-so-famous. The criteria for the choice seem to be a sense of coherence and flow, as well as a recognizable melodic line and harmonies. There is a reassuring musicality to all the selections there are thankfully no glitchy, atonal, cut-up, or bizarre entries to annoy the listener. All of the tracks except the last one are excerpted from live performances at Gatherings concerts. The first two excerpts, from entities called “The Ministry of Inside Things,” and “Bionaut,” hark back to the classic European style of electronic rock or pop. There’s a melodic line, modal or even pentatonic, played on a synthesizer keyboard in a tone-color which wouldn’t be out of place in Vangelis’ studio. Synthesizer whooshes recall the big sound of Jean-Michel Jarre or Kitaro. The third excerpt, from Ben Neill, features insistent electronic drum machine rhythms, and a repeating melodic fragment which is played not just on a trumpet, but on Neill's own custom-built "Mutantrumpet." This incredible multi-instrument can not only play muted and unmuted notes in rapid alternation, but can also be played with a slide like a trombone. And on top of that, it's tied in to an electronic network which can direct not only other instruments, but the light-show on the stage as well! The Neill piece has a nervous, cynical, even grim mood that is characteristic of the jazz-rock-electronica known as “trip-hop.” The star attraction of this compilation is Steve Roach, who has the longest excerpt at over 17 minutes. This entry is a perfect example of Roach’s grand, dramatic style. He uses sources from two of his albums in this section, his 1997 On This Planet and his 1992 collaboration with Robert Rich, Soma. Roach adds live improvisation on synthesizer and didgeridoo (with chanting and thunderclaps at the end) over these percussion loops and synthesizer bases, to create another one of his intense, majestic desert space experiences. The other major artist in this set is Robert Rich, who is represented by a version, played live (along with pre-recorded elements), of a piece (“Mosaic”) from his 1991 masterpiece album, Gaudi. In contrast to the dynamic Roach piece, this is ethereal and delicate, played in Rich’s signature “just intonation” harmony which is not quite the harmony we Western listeners recognize. Later in the Rich excerpt, he adds in a tracery of electronic sequences, while his lap guitar sings over it in high, floating lines. It’s Rich at his very best. Track 6, by Kevin Bartlett, has an enigmatic, “you had to be there” title: “GDS1? Ask Larissa, she knows.” It features misty chords with slightly “oriental” bell tones, over which an acoustic guitar gently picks in a nostalgic, prog-rock, psychedelic style. The last track is the only one which was not recorded live at a Gathering concert, but was re-created in the studio since the concert was not recorded. Jeff Greinke is known in the ambient world for his weird, non-tonal, even grotesque sound, and this piece is a fair example of his work, though he is using recognizable notes. He pairs croaking “overtone chanting” with a slow, ominous background of chilling notes, also derived from voice sounds; the last track on this album is by far the darkest. Van Zyl had a tough job indeed choosing which artists to include in this compilation. This compilation derives mostly from performances in the early and mid-90's. Later Gatherings have included the brilliant “Vir Unis,” whose performances at the Gathering have been the basis for some of his most wonderful studio work, such as his 2000 album Aeonian Glow. Other concerts have featured mystical guitarist Jeff Pearce, creator of warm visions of heavenly peace and light, as well as the Belgian multi-instrumentalist "Vidna Obmana," who evokes a far darker world of mist, dissonance, and mystery. I look forward to hearing these and many more in subsequent compilations from the Gatherings. Hannah M.G. Shapero June 19, 2003
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