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The Gatherings
Various artists compilation
Synkronos Music, 2002

        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

Chuck van Zyl, The Relic Centaur, 1995 Chuck van Zyl is an absolute enigma. He is an e-music DJ and concert host, tireless in his efforts to support and advance electronic music and its artists. And he is one of the e-music community's most accomplished artists, in and of his own right. The Relic is a double CD of large-scale sci-fi walls of sound. Chuck uses just enough sequencing to keep the set from being pure minimalism, but there are strong qualities of the same. The atmospheres are expansive and large-scale. Chuck's music is hard to find. Listeners making the effort to find it will not be disappointed! - Jim Brenholts




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