The Sound of Silence

San Francisco's Ambient Music Labels Find Their Groove

"Cage was the first American to truly give composers and musicians permission to allow all sounds to have equal importance," Cascone says, "and though Eno is responsible for initiating a certain amount of '70s and '80s ambient culture, I think Cage is the person who people will come back to."

Seeking to educate its audience in the music's history and versatility, Silent now counts 55 releases to its name, with an international roster that includes artists from Italy, Sweden and Germany. From its sparse, loftlike warehouse tucked under a freeway, Silent is emerging as the country's premier independent ambient label, recently fortifying its catalog with four sublabels -- Sulphur, Furnace, Flask and Serene -- to further categorize the diverse music it produces.

On the opposite end of the size scale, City of Tribes features a half-dozen, primarily local, artists, and has been promoting the ambient scene for two years. The tiny label focuses on the acoustic side of ambient; it's best-known for elevating the didgeridoo into public view on Stephen Kent's Landing. City of Tribes manager Pamela McCleave responds with guarded optimism, however, to suggestions that ambient may be entering the mainstream. She is quick to address the cycles of media.

"I think we exist in a fractured industry where you can avoid that glare and [still] accrue the proper amount of exposure," she says. "We were all excited that Trance Mission got reviewed in Billboard; that was a good thing for us. But I don't think it significantly changes anything.

"Orb, Aphex Twin and Moby are thrilled to be major-label acts," she continues, "thrilled to be part of the mainstream. There's inherently a choice: They, their management, attorneys and A&R people have consciously made an effort to put them where they are. But 15 years from now, [commercial ambient music] will be a glimmer as far as popular culture goes, and that's fine. Remember the New Romantics?" She pauses for a moment. "In 15 years, our artists will still be making music."

As a partial response to a "fractured industry," Silent, Fathom and City of Tribes eschew competition, electing instead to present a "United Ambient Front" and seek exposure as a collective. At last week's NAIRD (National Association of Independent Record Distributors) conference in San Francisco, the triumvirate created its own chill room, inviting interested parties to drop by. Still, diverse tastes amicably divide the "front": As an artist dedicated to electronics, Cascone jokingly calls the didgeridoo "the kazoo of the '90s."

"The acoustic-only stuff is very pretty, but it's been done to death," he says. "I think there's a lot more range to electronics. I like to turn things inside out, and you can't do that with acoustic instruments unless you've practiced extended techniques."

Hearts of Space's Bates, on the other hand, views the growing "ubiquitousness" of tribal instruments as a sign that ambient music's elements transcend time. As she tells it, the emergence of a centuries-old talking stick doesn't lessen the impact of the music itself: "The didgeridoo has been around a lot longer than this kind of music, and will be around long after we're gone. It's a perfect example of a cultural instrument brought into the mainstream that will survive all these trends."

The ambient genre, too, seems destined to outlive the passing attentions of the rave scene. For Alaura, a performer who held tenure with Psychic TV (a media-dadaist noise group) for 12 years and who recently released solo projects on Silent, ambient belongs in the chill room -- but as the soundtrack to a legitimate club environment, and not just a dance-floor detour.

"I could never understand why, back in the '80s, people who did Ecstasy went to rave parties," she explains. "That's not something I could do; I would just want to chill, to listen to really nice music, not the loud, 2,000-beats-per-minute throb of techno.

"The drug is about feeling yourself and being in touch," she says, and asserts that listening to the "wrong" music achieves neither.

Similarly, Fathom recording artist Robert Rich believes pill-popping doesn't do the music justice.

"I think the situation with drugs in rave culture is overplayed," Rich says. "My feelings are that psychedelics aren't necessarily bad, but they can be harmful. Altered states of consciousness -- some heightened, some lowered, I'd say -- are accessible through many different means. Some aren't desirable; some may be potentially dangerous. With this music, if the stimulus itself is psychoactive, why use chemicals? I think one of [ambient's] aspects is to create an environment conducive to experiencing some inner quality without requiring chemicals."

As evident on Yearning, a recent collaboration with Lisa Moskow, Rich's music reflects studied self-awareness, a deep-seated theme likely to outlive any noisy (and probably temporary) dance club scene. Opposed to the zoned-out, passive listening associated with the chill room, Rich -- like many artists of the genre -- advocates "deep listening" to his music.

"I've always thought of what I did as a more introspective thing, not a social one. You can take a drug and participate actively in the state that drug provides: You can take a drug and go to a party and what you'll experience is a party. Or you can listen to music and bring yourself to it and experience something deep from it. The music people like me are making is OK to do the dishes to, but it's going to unfold -- to blossom -- if you can [do that]."

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