The Magnificent Void
by Cliff Tuel
The 90's are to ambient music what the 60's were to rock & roll, the 70's to disco, and the 80's to heavy metal. These days everyone with a keyboard, a tape deck, and a pseudonym is cranking out one-off ambient albums. Some of them are gems, but simplicity and imitation are everywhere. Steve Roach has been swimming in the ambient waters since the early 80's, while most of today's ambient artists are just getting their feet wet.
In recent years, Roach followed the ancient calling of tribal-ambient music, laying his music in a bed of exotic rhythms and instruments; the Australian didgeridoo, ocarina whistles, and rainsticks were just the start. On his new album THE MAGNIFICENT VOID, Roach leaves the tribe behind, and takes a very personal journey into the Void. Since his classic 1984 release STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE and the trio of QUIET MUSIC albums, Roach has worked with guest musicians. THE MAGNIFICENT VOID is Roach's first true solo album since then, aided only briefly by a chorus of heavenly voices.
Discovery of the Void is spiritual, personal, primordial, and unfathomable. What follows is an attempt to describe my journey into this magical place.
I am literally on top of the world as "Between the Gray and the Purple" takes its first breath, the steep cliffs dropping straight down in front of my feet. I close my eyes, and gravity takes me over the precipice. But instead of pulling me down, an unseen force lifts me higher and higher, and I'm falling off the planet, floating into the sky like a feather. I look down, and my stomach churns as the ground gets smaller with each gust of wind. The ominous sound I hear is probably just my mind playing tricks on me, so I oustretch my arms, drifting through the clouds. I hear the sound again, and it reminds me of ancient caves far below the Earth's surface, hidden from the light for thousands of years. The blues and greens of the ancient planet soothe me, as I'm taken above the clouds.
My initiation into the Void is captured in "Void Memory One", as I break through the thin atmosphere. The heavens are everywhere, with more stars than I have ever seen before. My breathing slows, and my lungs don't seem to mind the lack of oxygen as they keep time to the gentle waves carrying me deeper into space. I turn, and behind me Earth is but a speck. I am entering a vast emptiness, a place without boundaries, definition, or preconceptions. I search for meaning as the ominous sound returns, reminding me that in this desolate zone, there are no simple answers.
I am drifting into an uncharted ocean, and as I leave the "Infinite Shore" the bouyant waters carry me away from all boundaries, away from solid ground. I begin to see beauty in the emptiness, light where I had previously only seen darkness. A chill rushes through my body as I realize that perhaps I am not floating in space, or drifting at sea, but lost in myself. Lost in the Void that I have discovered deep inside. Sweet, life-giving rain is falling from the sky, but I can only barely hear it. The wind carries the sound of distant bells, and I wonder what ancient ritual is being performed, and if any ancient Gods are to be found here in the Void. Thunder erupts in the night sky, the Gods acknowledging their presence.
As thunder roars from this great "Cloud of Unknowing", my inner voice cries out for silence. My back turns to the world, for I have found more comfort in the Void. My breath breaks the silence, my body warm and relaxed, my mind clear of worldly thoughts. Time is gone. My memories are gone. There is nothing around me, beautiful nothingness. An angel joins me in my solitude, appearing high above in a faint shimmering light. She cries out in sweet song, welcoming me to this... this... she wants to tell me where I am, but I close my eyes and bow my head, refusing to listen. This place cannot be described, even by an angel. I hear the beckoning again. Or was it the wind this time? Or perhaps the rain, or my own breath? I cannot tell, the sounds melting together, flowing around other sounds, and eventually dissolving away.
"Void Memory Two" and "Void Memory Three" take me further into the depths, as I hear my heart beat; it must be my heart, although it is beating slower than it ever has before. I feel very much alive, yet my heart sounds so far away. This tired body is only weighing me down, pulling me back from fully exploring a magnificent inner world. I am entering a deep sleep, and all physical sensations fade away. In my dream I ponder the wealth of religions that have been practiced by Man since time began. Are they attempts to find meaning in the Void? The angel appears before me again, smiling at me as I struggle to find the answers, but dare not ask; there are questions which are best left unanswered. My lungs pull in the heavy air around me, and as I exhale, I see my breath escape into the darkness. The dream fades away as I fall back into my slumber.
I have given this place a name: THE MAGNIFICENT VOID. A name will make it more familiar, more comforting. But perhaps this beast doesn't want to be tamed; defending their territory, savage animals leap into the air and tear into my flesh, fangs flashing in the moonlight, howls piercing the air. But strangely, I do not feel any pain. I breathe deeply, and the demons withdraw into the darkness. Somehow I feel calmer and more assured than ever before, having purged these haunting apparitions. They have wandered off, and will never return. I feel vulnerable on all sides, but take safety in knowing that my attackers cannot return to find me here, for they are lost without a frame of reference. They will not discover me unless I call out for them again. I mustn't try to disturb the sanctity of the Void. It is what I make it.
I stumble along, on an expedition to find the boundaries of this hidden place. Only by finding the boundaries can I pinpoint the center, the focal point of my existence. I try to recall how long I've been here, but I have no concept of time. I try to remember my family and my friends, but there is no room in the Void for others. It is impossible for them to join me here; they would never understand. Once again the ominous rumbling reminds me of the fragility of my presence here, of the delicate bubble that protects me. I must be silent, or the bubble will burst.
Focusing on emptiness and nothing has taken its toll on my spirit, and now I cannot help but to think of the sorrow and unhappiness I have suffered in the past. Memories of distant friends and lost lovers flood the Void, and I double over in pain and agony. My thoughts threaten to pull me under, to stop the breathing, to seal the Void forever. I am unable to control this wave of grief. Once again I breathe deeply, and accept it as a part of the Void, giving hope to the emptiness I feel. As I come to feel the warmth and comfort around me, my pain subsides.
I realize I've fallen into another deep sleep. Awakened by falling rain, my breath slows as I see my home planet again. I do not wish to return, and turn my back to take a last look into the Void. But my longings to stay are futile; the rain is all around me, bringing me out of this nowhere land, this timeless place. As the rain falls on my skin, my body chills. Thunder shakes the heavens. The demons are waiting at bay in the distance. I take another calming breath. Beyond the horizon, the Void stretches out towards infinity. I close my eyes, and there is silence.