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Steve Roach: Live at Grace Cathedral

img  Tobias Fischer

Performing live tends to be an awkward proposition for many ambient artists. Not so for Steve Roach. Since the earliest days of his career, the stage has been integrally connected to his oeuvre, both as a laboratory for experimentation and a space to re-visit and re-examine the past. In an interview with Bert Strolenburg for the Sonic Immersion webzine, he even spoke out about its existentialistic aspects against the backdrop of a quickly approaching 60th birthday, the prevailing sensation of the clock ticking faster and time running out. With an almost obsessive passion, Roach has re-entered the arena, not only offering private gigs in front of forty to sixty people within the privacy of his own conference center, but increasingly taking his huge gear park on the road again. Many of these gigs have been documented and more and more of them are being released: While a full decade separated his first two live albums, they now almost constitute a self-contained series within his discography, with 2000's aptly titled Live Archive being followed by All is Now, Storm Surge, Live at Grace Cathedral and Live at SoundQuest Fest. Increasingly – and this may distinguish them from earlier predecessors – these releases are feeding back into his overall approach: Landmark-works like Landmass and Arc of Passion were recorded either directly after or inspired by stage appearances, demonstrating the beneficial symbiosis between two areas often held to be each other's antipoles.

Just how natural the act of presenting his work in front of an audience has become is demonstrated on Live at Grace Cathedral, a double-disc-package documenting a gig in San Francisco dating back to 2007. The difference with a fail-proof laptop performance could hardly be more striking: Rather than merely using pre-recorded passages and atmospheres from previous albums as a backing to a couple of real-time manipulations, there is no safety net here. Instead, sounds, sequences, melodic motives and harmonic particles – sometimes as short as a single sustained chord from a studio edit – are re-combined from scratch and carefully applied to a blank canvas. In some instances, not only are tracks seamlessly segueing in- and out of each other, but various references actually appear to have been stacked, creating acoustic meta-structures of utmost density and suspense. In sync with this philosophy, Roach has grouped the tracks into two extended suites, „Embracing the Space“ on the first- and „Merging with Grace“ on the second disc, thereby defining them as stages in the unfolding of a single thought and avoiding the impression of clearly delineated borderlines – very much the way his audience will have experienced the concert at the time.

Nowhere is this both transformative and demiurgic process clearer than on Roach's rendition of „Westwind“. The original version – published on Future Proof and coincidentally also recorded live and „in the spirit of the spontaneous impulse“ in his Timeroom studio – constituted a tour de force of riding a rhythmical wave, an effort of replacing dynamic concepts of development with an intricately interlaced architecture, which revealed itself through insistent repetition, minute variation and deep listening. The piece marked an exercise in gracefully sustaining the tension and then entering a long phase of decomposition, the last ten minutes of which constituted a long, nostalgically tinged withering process. On Live at Grace Cathedral, the hypnotic sequencer run is still in place, but it is now flowing through a seventeen-minute long riverbed as a mere rhythmical backbone. Instead of carving out its nuances through a cornucopia of continuous and simultaneous filtering operations, Roach is allowing it to plow away on its own, dedicating his full attention to the layering of cool, cathedral drones and shuffling of sorrowful triads floating on top of it. As if caught in meditation, the music remains firmly put, holding the space and moving laterally - into the fabric of time rather than alongside it.

He isn't alone on his journey. Every step of the way, an invisible collaborator is adding ideas and thoughts to the proceedings: Grace Cathedral itself.To Roach, being able to perform in a space built to express the sacred mystery through visual and acoustic cues was „a dream come true“ and, as he has pointed out in the liner notes, he eagerly made use of the opportunity by consciously emphasising this spiritual bond with the actual environment by placing microphones in the room rather than merely using the line-out of his mixing console. In itself, awarding the concert hall a seminal role in the delivery of the music is nothing new. Here, however, compositional decisions were actually influenced by the resonance, reverb and specific sonic properties of the cathedral. As a result, Roach was capable of further reducing his pieces to their essence: When the simple process of a tone fading away is extended by another four or five seconds, the advent of the next will create overlaps and, subsequently, new patterns, while even something as simple as a chord can seem a momentous event. Rather than abusing this power to blow his audience away, Roach is using it with utmost subtlety, building a limitless corridor leading straight into the sky, spouting harmonics and glistening cloud-clusters of sound. The result is an atmosphere which is as complex in terms of the simultaneity of events as it is transparent: As a listener, one can literally see and hear through the multitude of different layers as though one were looking at the waterplay in an Italian fountain in summertime.

It is through this confluence of chance and determination, of chaos and structure that the album turns from being a mere live document into an integral work. While Roach will usually spend months in the studio to tweak his compositions to perfection, the interplay between space and artist is creating a continuum of similar perfection in the moment on this occasion. The clock may be running out for all of us eventually. But for just under two hours, Live at Grace Cathedral is slowing its fearful ticking down to a consoling heartbeat.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Steve Roach
Homepage: Timeroom Editions

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