The Sound of Silence

San Francisco's Ambient Music Labels Find Their Groove

Timothy Hendricks, whose 23 Degrees ensemble has signed to Silent, also sees the genre as a timeless form: "Music's role in society over the course of history has been to enhance the spiritual, to authenticate some type of religious experience," he explains, his legs tucked under a stool in Silent's studio. "That experience is where music came from. Now, I think, technology has broadened to where visual images have a much stronger role in pop culture. Music used to be the medium for expressing people's emotions," he says, "and it got diluted."

Likewise, Cascone is convinced that Silent, almost 10 years old now, will outlive any fleeting hype engendered by a newly recognized "scene."

"Scenes are trends, and trends are short-lived," he says with a wave of his hand. "Lots of trends are fashion-oriented or social, rather than art-oriented. I've always wanted to maintain kind of a healthy distance from any scene in particular."

Tim Hendricks swivels on his chair like a restless schoolboy. "Artists," he says, "just have to pay more attention about where they choose to exhibit their art. For a long time, I was in a group who refused to play in any place that served alcohol -- and not because we had anything against alcohol, but we knew we weren't getting the audience's attention if we played in a bar." For him, the forum is as crucial as the music itself, and the dance scene isn't doing his music justice. "Some ambient music is a very fragile, very subtle thing," he explains.

"And pop culture," Cascone quickly adds, is not about subtlety."

I'm finishing the last tart bites of Key lime pie just as the Caribbean Zone becomes the Gardening Club, the familiar thub-thub-thub of techno abruptly replacing the lazy shuffle of reggae. The club's Monday-night digs feature a makeshift dance floor cordoned off with a hanging screen that swirls with computer-driven images. In one darkened corner, chilling ravers occupy scattered bean-bag chairs; still others have ascended the stairs to the plane, a cross-section of airline fuselage where, glassy-eyed and stocking-capped, they sit smoking under a hazy yellow light. Outside the plane's windows, black-shirted bartenders, one of whom nods appreciatively to the deafening beat, pour tropical drinks.

Though the DJ stirs in an occasional track of ambient, the Gardening Club features no chill room, no "escape from the fascism" -- as Cascone has commented with a smile -- of the dance floor. The club seems proud of its still-underground status. There aren't many friendly glances traded among the crowd, which is serious about its dancing. After an hour, while the silhouetted figures spin and jerk in isolation on the concrete floor, I check my watch, notice the second hand leaping with every other beat of the music. It's time to go.

Outside in the night air, the soft sighs of the traffic's flow along the freeway above remind me: Some sounds are meant to soothe.

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