All is Now
by Mark Morton, Wind and Wire
This release documents spacemusic pioneer Steve Roach's 2002 concert series. Disc 1 is a selection of excerpts from several of the concerts blended together to make a representative "highlights" concert. Disc 2 is the second set from the Sedona concert, subtitled "Formation Creation in 8 parts".
Perhaps even more than in his exploratory studio creations, in his liner notes Roach emphasizes the metaphor of a "journey" to describe his live performances. The terrain may contain some familiar sounding moments but the audience, whom Roach describes as "passengers", and the musician are essentially entering unknown terrain. Thus, listening to a Roach concert is a little like volunteering for an expedition; more is required of you than just leaning back and being "entertained". Active listening is the key. Both discs here contain much challenging music as Roach largely abandons quiet, harmonic atmospheres and, instead, goes for the gusto with soundscapes that challenge our notion of what musical form is.
This set can be recommended for the fan of soundscapes that do not use much tonal or harmonic material but, instead, attempt to paint a picture in the mind of the active listener. It can also be recommended to the longtime or hardcore Roach fan. I do not recommend it to someone who is unfamiliar with Roach's approach or someone who wishes to be introduced to his way of making music. I liked the recording very much, particularly disc 2, although I found it challenging at times.
Disc 1 opens with a night or desert landscape with what sounds like sampled or synthesized crickets giving way to distant sound masses from what appears to be a squadron of guitars. This is accompanied by an array of metallic sounds and whooshing noises, heard from a number of perspectives (far away, close, big, smaller) etc., before sampled percussion, driving but quiet, takes over. Roach layers this with a few "deep space" atmospheres before heading into driving locomotive territory. All of the music sounds spontaneously-created and the forward momentum generated with the driving rhythms gives the listener much to absorb. After some glissando-like sound effects, the percussion drops out and we appear to have taken a turn into deep space with our journey producing bell-like star sounds and quiet, upward spiraling effects. The next segment features quiet, distant drums and an undercurrent of soft whirring noises that gradually increases in volume and then trails off into nothingness, perhaps as the aural equivalent of those hidden aspects of the journey, the parts that may be there that we can perceive in the distance but which are too far from us to make out in greater detail. This segues nicely into a briefly relaxing part of the journey, a nice chugging rhythm with synth washes functioning as drones underneath. Almost before the listener realizes it, however, the soundscape shifts and a jungle appears, with ominous noises close by. This slows into a repeating, hypnotic figure.
The San Francisco portion of the concert (which Roach titles "infinite heart") is next, and begins with languid guitar tones and the amplified sound of one of Roach's many acoustic sound generators (the liner notes list rocks and organic percussion among others) being rolled across some sort of surface. Despite the fact that there is virtually no tonal reference for this, the mood is one of peace. The mood slowly expands as more tone generators (primarily guitars) are brought into the mix. Roach sustains this mood until the brief closing segment, which returns to the tentative sounds of the opening as the mosaic winds to a conclusion.
Disc 2 opens with the cricket soundscapes of disc 1, but soon departs from the template. Guitar washes are brought in almost immediately and the listener is invited into a different sonic universe, with more elaborate sound. Roach uses dynamics effectively here, occasionally boosting or lowering the guitar volume in a subtle way. A percussion sequence begins, similar to the one on disc 1 but this time Roach follows a different muse and brings in soft, searching synth pads to accompany the rhythm, as it grows louder and more defined. The listener is now in a section that sounds similar to a previous release, CORE.
This churns ahead agreeably for a while, but then a radical departure from the other concerts takes place. Glissando synth effects begin to spiral up and down as the percussion recedes slightly. Chromatic drones begin to proliferate. This section has urgency and communicates very well the fact that the music is being created "in the now". The percussion drops out and the listener is left with the cascading glissando drones. This is both a masterful display of spontaneous composition and a new dimension for composing with drones that does not sound tired or cliched. More and more pad sounds are introduced into the mix and the rich harmony is slowly replaced with space sounds as another percussion sequence begins. A digeridoo drone is introduced. The glissandos and drones eventually take the traveler to a space which seems very still despite the constant motion. Strange, earthy-sounding new percussion sequences well up from the desert floor.
The traveler is now in an altogether different world than the one presented at the outset. A wind begins to pick up and howl across the soundscape. It gradually fades in volume and only the distant echoes of percussion (or is it thunder?) are left. Suddenly, a slow, dense, harmonic drone begins with many melodic strands reaching out into what now seems a vast space. The final section begins with an attractive drone that leads the listener inward.
For a musician to improvise this freely in front of a live audience, he or she must overcome a good degree of social conditioning and, of necessity, expose some of his or her authenticity. These moments occur spontaneously and are to be treasured. The fan of soundscapes and the active listener will be rewarded by disc 2, particularly the luminous final 20 minutes or so, which speak of communion between the boat captain who initiated the journey and the travelers who consented to partnership.
Recommended for the adventurous.