A Gebrauchsmusik Gesamtkunstwerk: Three CDs, almost four hours of music and every detail fits.
Thanks to Beethoven (and a few of his colleagues, admittedly), "Gebrauchsmusik" has become a four-letter word. Composing for specific purposes used to be highly customary before the "Gesamtkunstwerk" (excuse my German) took over and even today most musicians are ashamed rather than proud if listeners remark how great their music is for falling asleep to or as a background tune for romantic candlelight dinners. When used as a spending stimuli in shopping spaces, most have even reverted to using the derogatory term "muzak". On his "Immersion" series, Steve Roach is openly objecting to this point of view. And he has brought the music to back up his argument.
Of course, concept-wise, this is not just about utility. "Immersion" was inspired by Roach's personal interest in the "hypnagogic state", meaning the stage between being awake and sleeping, and is to be seen as the harbingger of a new phase in his work. And yet, he freely admits the music "is perfect for creative states, sleeping, reading, long hours at the computer and other functions where traditional music could be considered invasive." Before we get to the question of whether or not he is hereby consciously or unconsciously degrading his music, let's have a look at whether the album actually keeps its promise. Thanks to a recent relocation to a quiet place 50 miles out of Tucson and a complete change-over of his famous Timeroom recording studio, Roach has found the space to fully live his passion and indulged in a veritable composing spree: "Immersion" consists of three discs of almost four hours' total length, each CD containing a single piece with its own unique ambiance. "First Light" is a light-flooded bank with a panoramic view of an everblooming landscape, "Sleep Chamber" a dense, compressed, deeply breathing black room with no walls, entrances or exits and "Still" a mysterious moonlit night of crystaline harmonics and soft scrapings.
I have had these discs running again and again over the last few weeks (and I'm playing them while writing this feature as well), in the most diverse situations and they have certainly made them more agreeable. As it seems, Roach has created various event lines, which he treats like transparencies drifting on water, gently rocked by the hand of chance. There is no logic development, there is no rationale, there is no destination vector, everything is in motion, yet moves without force. You'll be able to get back to the sounds in moments of short blockades and to use them as spring boards into new phases of concentration once focus has been newly established.
"Non-invasive" is not a bad term for these tracks, but you could also call them "unconsciously pervasive", as they subtly engulf you. Mission accomplished, therefore, but in this case I didn't want to just leave it at that. Telemann may have composed excellent digestive music, but its appeal extends well beyond the dinner table and I was interested in whether this set also held this particular quality. Listening to "Immersion" attentively is definitely a trip without a safety net, and more like a dream of watching the Earth from high up above. Because of the absence of all forms one has come to expect of music, the first minutes may be a bit disorientating, as the brain starts to work out what exactly is happening here. But as the answer to that question remains unspeakable, it starts to sink in the floods and becomes one with the waves. And as this happens, just before you reach that hypnagogic state yourself, you can understand why Roach talks about this work as a "possession": every detail fits, every meeting of events is a piece of the puzzle. Or as he put it in a recent Ambient Visions interview: "It was nearly impossible to let go of them and stop working on them or listening to them in the final stages of nearly invisible brush strokes..."
The press release talks of these works as having no beginning and no end, and that is the only thing I do not agree with: everything has a beginning and an end, and the mere fact these pieces come boxed on silver discs automatically awards them the status of "compositions". Going one step further would mean offering his music as endless streams on the Internet, which one could tune into and out of at will, but which would continue to keep playing. Not that it matters for the evaluation of this album. Downgrading it because of its "functional" aspects would mean ignoring that music has reached its highest peak if it is a perfect representation of what anrtist wanted to achieve. Judging from his notes and comments on "Immersion", Roach has. I'm sure Beethoven would feel the same.