|SINE WAVE MAGAZINE (David Marino) - Interview with Chuck van Zyl February 2013|
SWM: I realize this may be rather difficult but for all of those readers who are unfamiliar with space music can you please explain what this style of music is and perhaps a brief summary of the historical origin? There are strong roots emanating from Germany correct?
CvZ: Music is usually defined through comparison. When people talk about music the easiest, most convenient way to describe what one has heard is to compare it to something similar. When space music came along in the 1970s no one had ever heard anything like it before, and so now as it was then space music is very difficult to define or explain. The content of music often changes, but rarely have we noticed any significant changes in its form. Form changes only when composers are unable to express themselves through existing methods. The post-war youth of 1970s Germany (especially the city of Berlin) had something unique to express, and in this nexus of political, spiritual and technological awakening arose a most expressive form which we've come to know as space music.
Space music may not sound like any other known music, but it does possess elements from other genres. One example may be found in Indian music. While its overall sound does not resemble space music, the idea of long form musical excursions based on a pulse or a cycle, as opposed to marking time through rhythm, is one of the significant ideas behind space music. Many early space music recordings consumed the entire side of an LP, and live performances lasted even greater durations (which now seems natural in a music coming from the land of composer Richard Wagner). Space music's fascinating musical arc, and varying levels of energy and atmosphere, may be traced to the experimental textural works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, and on to early concerts by Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead - where a rock audience would be guided across a vivid musical terrain of light and dark, loud and soft intelligently improvised aural explorations. There are even more facets to this free-form space music, but observers agree that its most noted component is a piece of hardware, the synthesizer.
In expressing a new music one will need a new instrument. The first space musicians found a great tool in the synthesizer and (as did earlier University based electronic musicians) through experimentation developed a genre based primarily on timbre, which is the character or color of sound, and also defined as everything outside of pitch and amplitude. We take for granted now that the synthesizer is capable of producing a great range of sounds, but in the 1970s this was an incredibly powerful new idea - and seized upon by space musicians. Creating one's own sounds provided electronic artists with the means to realize a truly surreal music. The word "composition" was replaced with "realization" as conventional musical notation and methods of presentation could no longer represent these newly found sonic experiences. Synthesizers began to turn up on every space music album and became synonymous with the genre.
Due to its free-form open-ended nature, it's hard to provide criteria by which to describe or evaluate space music. It does differ from ambient music in that the composer wants us to actively listen, but not at the level expected by that of the somewhat related genre of classical music. The pieces are often lengthy instrumentals and may seem hypnotic or wandering, but good space music always crafts a specific, texture, mood and atmosphere within which the listening mind may dwell. Works in the space music realm often contain minimalist tone patterns created with a sequencer and echo device, which provides a sense of propulsion I've likened to an engine. But just as often pieces are composed of sustaining synthesizer chords, metallic drones and fluttering modulated effects, and yield an encompassing sense of drama, motion and discovery.
And maybe that ending phrase best sums up what space music is. It is music with drama, attained through sensitive pacing, unique arranging and a distinctive tonal center (or lack thereof); motion, which provides a sense of traveling; and discovery, leading us to areas of thought we've not yet visited.
SWM: What was your first space music experience? Is there a particular memorable moment you first heard space music or electronic music that really inspired you?
CvZ: In the late 1970s I was way into Progressive-Rock, and not yet open-minded enough to understand the virtues of space music. I had come across works like "Oxygene" and "Autobahn", but I was really looking for an instrumental version of Prog. And then I heard "Stardancer" by Klaus Schulze. It's not really one of his space music pieces, but it really hit me hard. The motorik drumming, the swirling effects and dramatic chord changes, all expanding beneath a full-throated synth lead, only to echo out in a concluding cold drop - it was just stunning. After hearing this I vowed to learn more about where this music came from, who was making it and how it was made. This moment really put me on an entirely new path.
SWM: How did STAR'S END come into being? It was started by two University of Pennsylvania students correct? How did you become involved in the program and eventually become the host?
CvZ: STAR'S END airs every Saturday night at 1:00AM until 6:00AM Sunday morning. It was put on the air at WXPN FM in Philadelphia (which is licensed to the University of Pennsylvania) in the summer of 1976 by then Penn students Steve Pross and John Diliberto. Their aim was to have a radio show that aired exclusively the space music that was then coming into being. This would be a five hour contemplative musical journey - with the listener providing their own narrative and the DJ being a sort of background presence or guide. STAR'S END was also seen as an ancillary project to the acclaimed (and much more energetic) radio program DIASPAR, and its weeknight presentation of "a synthesis of musical forms".
Presently, WXPN is professionally staffed, but in 1980, and for some years prior and after, it was a community run all-volunteer public radio station. I got on the air doing STAR'S END in 1980 through their annual outreach, which offered listeners the opportunity to get involved in hosting music shows, producing news and public affairs programming, and many other aspects of running a University/community radio station.
It was truly a remarkable experience. I learned so much about music from the other DJs, and became closer to it through many evenings of exploring WXPN's vast music library. The contemporary music staff had specific criteria I was expected to maintain each time I went on the air, and these values, as well as whatever mystique and aesthetic STAR'S END had established, still have influence on the way I produce the show to this day.
When I first began doing STAR'S END there were four or five DJs in rotation, which means that for the first few years I hosted a show just once a month or so. As the decades past, for various reasons, the other hosts moved on and eventually I was left on my own to get STAR'S END on the air every week. At first I could not imagine how I would be able to manage this, as the overnight shift was quite an imposition on my sleep patterns (not to mention my personal life). But I also could not imagine that STAR'S END would be no more - which is what would happen were I to succumb to the show's physical demands. This program and all the music it aired had such meaning for me that I just had to stay on.
Thankfully that desperation is no longer felt. It is tiring but I get myself to WXPN every Saturday night to host STAR'S END live. I remain fascinated with the countless innovative musicians out there making works for STAR'S END (especially those who've come in for live to air radio concerts). I'm also impressed with the show's reach, and the many people who tune in every week to listen. Some have been there since the very first broadcast.
SWM: What is the object of STAR'S END? What do you wish to convey to the listeners?
CvZ: Over the 30 plus years I've been hosting STAR'S END, I'm sure the show's meaning for me (and for the listeners) has evolved. Today I'd say that STAR'S END has two basic functions. For one it presents innovative music. There is not enough of this going on in the world. Playlists are drawn from a deep library spanning several decades of releases by a great diversity of musicians from all over the world. The works are often unconventional and rarely heard on mainstream musical outlets. This lack of commercial potential proves to me that this music has been realized in a true act of creation for its own sake, is valid and deserves to be heard. The other thing STAR'S END does is provide listeners with a five hour space in their lives where nothing is asked of them. Nothing more than to experience the stimulating calm that this music has the potential to bring.
SWM: How has this program been received in the Philadelphia region?
CvZ: It's really hard for me to deduce how well the show is doing. The fact that it's still on the air is the best evidence that it is in good health. That and its strong showing at fundraising time.
My belief is that, what with it being on the air now for almost 40 years, there are a great number of people who know of STAR'S END at least at a very basic level. But since it is an ambient presence in the listening space, not calling attention to itself, many listeners do not fully appreciate what the show is or what it's doing. Some have it on all night merely because they live in a noisy neighborhood, and with STAR'S END on in the background drowning out annoying street sounds they sleep better. Others only listen in the car while on the way home from a party, or to unwind after a gig, or while they study, or as they drift off to sleep. But there are also people who listen and examine the broadcasts quite thoroughly. In some ways STAR'S END is a well-kept Philadelphia secret, but in others it is something almost everyone who has ever lived here has experienced on one level or another.
SWM: Additional to playing music on STAR'S END, you have live musical performances on air. What are some memorable live performances you have experienced on STAR'S END radio?
CvZ: Every time a musician or group does a live to air concert on STAR'S END it is a memorable occasion. A lot of planning and energy goes into these performances and I'm always impressed with what is brought out of the performer. Each one is a unique experience for me and for the musicians too. On the one end of the spectrum are the musicians who already get the idea behind the STAR'S END format and what's expected of them for their live radio concert. At the other end are musicians who come to understand what's going on while in the act of playing. These guys are often from outside the space music community, or have little experience with the dynamics of filling up an hour of STAR'S END with something appropriate. Afterwards, I believe that all have experienced something unique and valuable - and grown in some way as a musician.
I've had guys fall asleep while playing music, another time a power strip suddenly went out shutting down several synths in the middle of an on-air concert, one time I observed a musician still reading his synth owner's manual minutes before airtime, and there was a guitarist who ate an entire cheese steak sandwich while in the midst of playing his set. But mainly I've seen in every on-air performance a musician pouring themselves into their craft and becoming so lost in the experience that they had to be reminded when it was time to stop.
SWM: Many of our readers may need to be filled in on The Gatherings Concert Series? What is it and how did The Gatherings begin? Was this a collaboration between yourself and several others or did you spearhead the campaign to have live space music performances in Philadelphia?
CvZ: I didn't know it at the time, but on 9 May 1992 I founded The Gatherings Concert Series. Throughout the 1980s Philadelphia had seen the rise of a significant space music scene. Known acts like The Nightcrawlers, Tangent, Darren Kearns, The Ghostwriters, Stephan Spera, Xisle and others, in conjunction with a few venues which hosted innovative music concerts, brought a great deal of creative activity to the Philadelphia area. For various reasons by the early 1990s just about all of this energy had dissipated.
Fortunately, throughout this downturn STAR'S END had remained a constant background influence in the city and surrounding area. Since it was no longer feasible to present this music at a proper venue, I managed to obtain permission from WXPN to host a STAR'S END listener concert in a meeting room at the radio station. It was called The STAR'S END Gathering, and was a pleasant success.
After a few years of putting on live concerts through WXPN and STAR'S END I realized that the series could not reach its potential were it to remain a radio station member event, and so in late 1999 I personally took on the responsibility of funding and producing the concerts. A few years later I founded The Corporation for Innovative Music and Arts of PA to further legitimize what the series was doing, and soon thereafter we achieved 501(c)3 status - which makes The Gatherings Concert Series an IRS recognized charitable organization.
The series remains funded entirely through event admissions and audience donations. The sound gear and lighting used at the concerts is loaned by me, as are many of the artist's keyboards, mixers, signal processing, etc. Plus, I usually lodge the musicians at my house.
The Gatherings Concert Series reached its 20th year in 2012 and presented its 100th concert in November. Presently the performances take place in the sanctuary of St Mary's Hamilton Village, a functioning church on the University of Pennsylvania campus. This reverential space adds an immeasurable factor to whatever the artists bring.
The Gatherings presents concerts by artists primarily from within the ambient, electronic and space music realm. But, like the radio show STAR'S END, any musician making innovative music of an atmospheric or ethereal nature will feel comfortable as part of this series.
The audience is seated in pews and conduct themselves much like those attending the symphony - although I believe that attendees at The Gatherings feel somewhat less of a shared experience, as each individual audience member will glean a different meaning from the music.
Although I am often seen as being behind The Gatherings, it should be noted that the events are produced by a group of dedicated volunteers - not least of which are my long-time friends Art Cohen and Jeff Towne. Art is often seen handling the sound system while Jeff the lighting. But their involvement goes deeply into the organizing and strategizing of the series for the past 20 years.
It's difficult to explain what a typical concert is like, as we've presented a wide range of musicians over the past 20 years. Maybe the most significant thing about The Gatherings is how we treat the artists who come to play. We do our best to provide a safe space for them to perform. Not just a solid sound system, and a unique light show, but we deliver an informed, appreciative audience to experience their music. There is no need to explain anything to attendees as they already comprehend what's about to happen, and possess enough attention span and intelligence to fully appreciate what the artist is trying to communicate. I truly believe the act of playing a concert for The Gatherings has a lasting effect on the musicians who've participated in the series, and that they carry this experience with them into future projects.
SWM: What impact has STAR'S END and The Gatherings Concert Series had on electronic musicians locally and nationally? Have you had artists express these two musical presentations as being an influence on their own music or perhaps inspiring them to create space music? Also have you seen an increase in space music musicians in the last several years?
CvZ: I would imagine that the series and the radio show have both had a positive impact on musicians. In pre-internet days I had musicians tell me that the decision to go ahead with the expensive and time consuming process of producing an album was based on the fact that their work would get airtime on STAR'S END, and that at least these radio listeners would be hearing their music. With The Gatherings I imagine that by playing at a venue that so closely shares their musical vision a musician may come as close as they ever will in realizing their full potential.
There is the community aspect of this too. Many friendships have been made and alliances forged out of the natural socializing that occurs when somewhat like-minded people get together. I do hope that by attending these concerts people will also see not only who is making this music but also how it's made - and maybe at some point decide that they want to step out of their position in the audience and have a go at making their own music and expressing their own ideas. That's how I got started in all this, by watching others make music and eventually deciding that I needed to do it too.
I have indeed seen quite a few new musicians enter this field year after year, especially since music making equipment and software has become so easy to acquire and master. It is so interesting to watch as some artists establish themselves by putting out their works in series while others change their names and styles with each new release. Because there is no significant commercial market driving this genre, it has been expanding in all directions, in unpredictable patterns, for decades. This is a significant aspect as to why electronic music has remained so fascinating for so long. There's no order or reason. No one's in charge. It's new every day. With advances in music technology stirring up bright ideas, yielding surprising new releases, and even new sub-genres, it's hard to follow the thread that connects this vast process.
SWM: How has space music evolved over the years? Is the style purely a nostalgic attempt to recreate its German roots or an ever evolving musical expression?
CvZ: I think there are some space musicians who are making music just because they enjoy acquiring and playing with the gear (of course the gear is always an integral part but there is more to space music than merely tweaking the machines that make its sounds). Or they have been inspired by some classic space music LP and want to have a go at making their own version of the original.
It is my opinion that while the original space music LPs became quite influential and well-known, there were only a handful that truly set the standards of the space music genre. After the initial volley of albums the core artists began to acquire more gear, and gear began to acquire more capabilities, and soon space music gave way to a more fully formed, full sounding (and broader based) electronic music style.
Presently, it really takes some discipline to realize music as spacious and spare as the core classics. With modern synthesizers and software capable of multiple tracks and modeled waveforms that easily realize any sound whatsoever one succumbs to the glossy production values of layers deep sonic extravagance. The original space music had a special energy that may never be replicated. At the time of its origin this music was new and the practitioners were treading on new ground. This region can only be discovered once. But I'm not saying that this musical revolution is over. Far from it.
Insightful musicians are using the space music form to create very intimate statements as to their own inner landscapes, as well as abstract expressions of modern cosmic yearning - and all shades and moods between the two.
SWM: Philadelphia has a thriving art community, from music to dance, design, sculpting, painting, etc. The city has always prided itself on pushing the boundaries of artistic expression. What is it about Philadelphia that nurtures and encourages such an attitude towards artistic expression and the creative process? How has this impacted your own musical creativity?
CvZ: I've traveled a lot and been to many major cities around the USA and the world and have found that each place has its own unique art, music and theater scene both underground and above. Probably because it is situated between two major international east-coast cities (New York and Washington, DC) Philadelphia does have a distinctive attitude. Summed up it is, "Hey, we've got all this great stuff here! Great Museums and Galleries, Great Restaurants, Great Performing Arts, Great Shopping! The Liberty Bell! and The Weirdest New Year's Day Parade Anywhere! and if you don't care to come here and partake in it with us... then Piss-Off! Who needs you!"
I think too that there is something good about Philadelphia's size. It's not too big, not too small. It's not trendy and overwhelming like Manhattan, nor does it possess the irony of a city such as Baltimore. There are bad neighborhoods but there are really nice sections too. There are quite a few colleges and Universities, which means lots of young people reside here. And it's old, being the place where our country was founded. All this combines somehow to make Philadelphia a place where a few friends with an idea can make something happen. Concerts, plays, poetry, storytelling, performance art, and more are all happening here through independent small scale operations. They've come into existence because the people behind these groups believe that what they think and do matters. Whatever this resource is, I have felt it too - and use it to make music, put on concerts and keep the radio show going.
One thing that Philadelphia has that no other city in the world has is a thriving space music scene. No study has been conducted as to why this is, but my guess is that it stems from the many years space music has had a presence on the radio through the weekly broadcasts of STAR'S END.
SWM: What is the importance of live electronic music, why is it important that ambient/space musicians perform live to an audience, how is a live performance and human interaction beneficial to the listener?
CvZ: All music benefits when a community assembles together to listen to it. Something incredibly special happens when a group shares a common experience. Due to the expressive and powerful nature of this music, at a space music concert there is the possibility of wondrous things. In some way the attitude or mood of the audience has an influence on the performer - and this connection can have a lasting and positive effect on the musician.
I use the live setting to further define and develop my music. Both "MemorySpace" and "Cenotaph" began as live sets that I played out at various venues, each over the course of a year. I had to spend a certain amount of time in the studio initially coming up with the music but playing it out in front of people really made me understand what the music was supposed to sound like as well as what it meant. Playing my music before other people helped shape it in ways I could not have achieved on my own in the studio.
But I think every musician has a different expectation and reasoning when it comes to playing live. For some it is an environment meant for free exploration while for others it is a way to promote recorded works by performing pre-programmed live versions of back catalogue - and everything in between...
In my mind the most memorable concert for The Gatherings took place just a few days after 9/11, and not even one synthesizer was used. Tom Heasley, a tuba player, plus Jim Cole, an overtone singer, made concerts so minimal, deep and gentle that I felt it was truly healing to myself and to the few people who knew to show up. It seems that many believed we'd cancelled the concert what with world events disrupting so many other aspects of our day to day lives. But this concert demonstrated the full potential of this music. It took us out of ourselves to a better place, and once returned we were better able to deal with the tragedy of just a few days before.
SWM: What does the future hold for STAR'S END and The Gatherings Concert Series? Any artists we can look forward to performing? Future projects between yourself and Terry Furber or others?
CvZ: I'm looking forward to working on a third in a series of CDs which started with MemorySpace (2010) and Cenotaph (2012). I'm not sure yet what it'll be called, or what the music will sound like, or exactly what instruments I'll use - but my past work has reflected my emotional states and I'm looking forward to expressing myself again musically at some point in the near future. I have an MOTM modular that I'd like to incorporate into some new musical realizations, and maybe Terry Furber will allow me to create some music (I have for years been hearing in my head) on his 1969 Moog 1P modular. I also hope to further explore live concerts wit Terry. as we did in Fall of 2012.
But the future of both STAR'S END radio and The Gatherings Concert Series depends on the audience. Neither of these endeavors can continue on without an audience to listen to and value the music.
|Chuck van Zyl Profile|