Ten hours straight of almost anything seems daunting, especially for a captive audience. Ambient music is certainly no exception; when I told people I was going to attend the Red Bull Music Academy Festival’s Ambient Excursions showcase in its entirety, I was met with various responses, from “Sounds like sleepy town” to “Sounds like my own personal circle of hell.” Even as someone with a deep appreciation for the breadth of styles and approaches that currently energize the contemporary ambient scene, I knew it would be a test of endurance, but I also had faith in RBMA’s curatorial vision and their ability to execute each event in the month-long festival in memorable and unexpected ways. So I headed deep into the industrial heart of Bushwick to Bogart House, a third-floor loft with roof access and breathtaking views of the city set against a chilly gray sky.
Like the diffused light of an overcast day, ambient music has a reputation for unobtrusively existing, for the atmosphere it evokes rather than rigid song structure, and for long, tonal pieces that float by like listless clouds. Though they couldn’t have possibly planned the weather, the folks at RBMA certainly picked up on ambient music’s cloud-like associations — a two-tiered, white-vinyl coated foam sculpture, not unlike an oversized cat gym, sprawled throughout the space, twisting around itself and offering prime lounging spots for those that filed into the room. This — as well as eight white nylon cocoons suspended from the ceiling beams — was the “furniture built specifically to enhance the listening experience” that RBMA had promised its patrons, and it was blissfully welcoming. Because there’s not always a lot of action on stage during performances of this nature, the set-up was more about finding comfy nooks to settle into where sounds could pool and reverberate and wash over.
I scored a cocoon shortly into harpist Mary Lattimore’s set, and maybe it was the all-white motif, but I immediately felt as if I’d been transported to some weird version of heaven. Lattimore is classically trained but experiments with effects and loops; she’ll pluck a bright melody and then replay it in rewind or layer it with reverb. My little stocking chair made me feel not unlike an egg incubating. I was beginning to realize that this would be the most relaxing 10-hour show I’d ever attended, that the length of time would bend to meet me on whatever plane I existed by the end of it.
Brian Eno collaborator Laraaji was up next. His mbira-based compositions didn’t flout associations with new age vibes, going so far as to include the sounds of birds chirping and burbling water. Occasionally, he’d let loose a warm chuckle into his microphone, likely the calling card of the Laughter Meditation Workshops he presides over when not making his spiritually-minded music. I didn’t want to settle into too trance-like a state early on, so I wandered the space during Julianna Barwick’s set of looped vocal pieces; not only was the music piped into every area of the venue, you could also listen to its live stream on headphones provided by RBMA while swinging on the rooftop swingset, sipping Red Bull-infused Negronis upstairs (no drinks were allowed in the main showspace), or lounging on the felted geometric furniture on one of the roof decks.
I’ll admit here that I cheated a little on the whole 10-hour endurance thing; there didn’t seem to be any food available, other than several vases full of huge white lollipops — which meant, given the quietude of certain artists, that you’d hear someone’s lips smacking against the unforgiving candy treat every so often — so I grabbed some quick nachos at the nearby Anchored Inn while streaming the end of Barwick’s set and the beginning of a collaboration between thereminists Dorit Chrysler and Rob Schwimmer, which had me frantically googling places in Brooklyn where I could take theremin lessons (answer: The NY Theremin Society sometimes hosts workshops).
For this performance, Schwimmer played upright piano while Chrysler sang cryptic, stoic lyrics and made expressive hand movements over the oblong, antennaed box, her right controlling its volume, the left manipulating its oscillations and pitch, all without touching the instrument. While the theremin’s otherworldly warble is often association with sci-fi film soundtracks, Chrysler’s compositions gave it a unique levity. These songs were still in an ambient vein, but the nebulous mood in the room had begun to shift as evening fell toward more activated, direct tones. Malcom Cecil, who is perhaps best known for having produced several early-Seventies Stevie Wonder albums, continued that vibe with synth music that definitely bordered on horror movie score, his head of curly white hair bobbing over tiers of Rolands, Kurzweils and Moogs. Chrysler joined him for one number, the two hamming up with a conversational back-and-forth between Chrysler’s theremin and Cecil’s synth-woodwind hybrid.
By then, I’d climbed to the second tier of the marshmellowy human cat gym and sprawled out. The room was growing murky with fog machine mist and red LEDs bathed everything in crimson light as producers Chino Amobi and Johnny Utterback provided some of the more abrasive, staticky sounds of the evening. I dozed briefly as the low-end hummed and vibrated through the structure I was laying on and into my bones, snapping awake as the dense soundscapes shifted and played on one another in the carmine haze.
About a month ago, I’d seen Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith at Knockdown Center and was looking forward to seeing her set again. Smith’s synth of choice is the Buchla Music Easel, a more portable version of the famed Buchla 100, which she discovered while studying composition at Berklee College Of Music in Boston and forever altered her career trajectory when she became obsessed with it. Smith also sings over glittering, organic arpeggiations, her voice distorted by digital manipulation to harmonize with pitch-shifted, metallicized iterations of itself. Even when she’s singing simple colloquialisms like “I miss your face” she sounds like a benevolent alien-human hybrid descended to impart wisdom to mortals, which is far, far more pleasant that it sounds on paper.
The last act of the night was Huerco S., who hails from Kansas City and shadows his ambient works with the ghosts of clubby beats. The crowd had thinned, but there were still a good number of folks swinging languidly inside the suspended cocoons, or draped, as I was, across sections of the smushy, max-relax playground. Ten hours had drifted by as I lounged in a dreamlike stupor, almost before I’d even started counting them. Brian Eno once stated that ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting;” it is music that makes for a great background while other things are happening. By the end of my daylong odyssey, I felt as though I’d melted into the background itself — just as RBMA had intended.