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.
“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.” [page]
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].”
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.” [page]
“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.