The Sound of Silence

San Francisco's Ambient Music Labels Find Their Groove

The waitress offers us hand-rolled cigarettes wrapped in psychedelically patterned paper. I choose an electric blue one with red stripes. "They're a blend of herbs," she says, lighting two at our table, "but they taste like sage, really." She counts our change and disappears into the crowd.

Reduced to a roach in just a few drags, the cigarette is flavorless, its bland white smoke wafting above the bleary-eyed white kids, couched threesomes and shoe-gazing wallflowers who fill the cozy front room of a SoMa nightclub.

It's Thursday night at the Cat's Grill & Alley, where the Eighth House Experiment has taken up weekly residency. Self-described as an "empyreal manifestation of aural psychonauts," the Eighth House is, in plain English, a local ambient club, one of several weekly events that feature moody electronic music. Like other such venues, Eighth House divides itself into two environments: a "sentient lounge" (which offers a crash-pad atmosphere with easier-listening music, live performance and Ken Russell films flickering silently on a video screen) and a separate "metta-trance" dance floor. As we relax in our chairs, chest-throbbing techno pulses from behind the back door that separates us from a roomful of twitching dancers.

Earlier that evening, outside the club, a well-dressed couple in their 30s asks the doorman what's happening inside tonight.

"It's ambient music," he says, never looking up from his newspaper.
"What's ambient?" they ask him.
It's a question well worth asking. Commonly dismissed as elevator music, Muzak or aural wallpaper, ambient is background music brought to the fore. Like the genre's name suggests, these sounds are meant to surround you like a natural environment, to subtly immerse you in a panoply of emotional landscapes. With roots in psychedelia, New Age and space music, ambient is considered a reaction to the soulless "liteness" of New Age music, which is usually designed to soothe the listener. Ambient, however comforting it can be at times, also has a darker, sinister side and an intellectual depth. And unlike New Age, which is meant to take center stage in the listening experience like other conventional forms of music, ambient is designed to be heard but not noticed.

But in San Francisco, ambient music is getting noticed. More than just background noise, the local ambient scene stands to spearhead a major musical movement. A close-knit society of performers, record labels and DJs is finding itself at the heart of a laid-back, chilled-out, blissful revolution. Bay Area artists like Space Time Continuum, Stephen Kent, Robert Rich, Heavenly Music Corporation and Trance Mission are enjoying growing acceptance of their work. Several S.F. ambient labels -- Silent, Hearts of Space, Fathom, City of Tribes and Visible -- are reaping the benefits of rising sales as the music enjoys increasing commercial acceptance nationwide. And growing attendance at clubs like Eighth House and the Caribbean Zone's Gardening Club reflects a public that, however fickle or trend-chasing, is currently digging ambient's trance-inspiring soundscapes.

Borne of the melodic bubbling of the Earth's first springs, ambient's surging popularity reflects an ever-growing interest in several areas: Eastern music, whose organic structures are in direct contrast to the rigidity of Western pop music; broadening digital technology, capable of spinning ambient's crystalline strands onto a background of pure silence; and the popular resurgence of "tribal" acoustic instruments -- didgeridoos, sarods, tablas, the gamelan, et al. -- as millennia-old tools for making spiritual connections. Shawn Bates, of Hearts of Space, deems ambient "incredibly special" to its players and promoters, who often envision the music as a ladder to some divine alternate reality.

And where there's enlightenment, there's often drugs to be found.
Performer Robert Rich, whose trance and soundscape portfolio is released by Fathom, feels that the local ambient music scene reflects a decades-long outgrowth from San Francisco's '60s psychedelic subculture.

"When I was starting 15 years ago, ambient referred to something very specific, meaning 'background music,' " Rich says. "I called what I was doing 'trance music' because I saw it as a psychoactive musical form rather than background. A lot of the younger artists are looking to the '70s as a frame of reference -- going by people like Brian Eno -- but I was making electronic music during that time, growing up, already tired of those clichŽs."

Ambient's current popularity is undeniably linked to the "chill room," the soft-walled haven from beat-battered dance floors, where weary dancers and ravers tweaking on crystal meth or Ecstasy can soothe their psyches with liquid sounds.

"Ambient was co-opted by the techno movement as an antidote to having your body revved up," says Kim Cascone, president of Silent Records. With his dark-circled eyes, Cascone has the look of a man who, if he sleeps at all, does so in the dawn hours. Slouching in a chair in Silent's South Park studio, he says, "The chill room is a re-entry room, to calm you down before you get back on the dance floor. It's part of the drug culture, but it's only a small part of the whole spectrum in the resurgence of ambient music."

A prolific electronic musician himself, Cascone has for nine years sculpted Silent to embrace the sonic pleasures of atmospheric and ambient industrial music, a genre whose historical pioneers include turn-of-the-century composer Eric Satie (who once scolded an audience for paying attention to his "furniture music") and Art of Noises master Luigi G. Russolo. But unlike Brian Eno, who spurred a resurgence in ambient experimentation with releases like Music for Airports and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and his ambient-flavored production of artists like U2, it is American composer John Cage who Cascone believes will stand as the music's true mentor: In 1986, Cascone's own group, PGR, released the first Silent recording -- Silence -- in homage to the late American song sculptor.

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