A damn fine live ambient music experience

A very pleasurable experience.

That’s the phrase that runs across my mind as I think about a performance that I just did with saxophonist and musician Michael Teager at the Wanderer’s Tea House in East Lansing.

As I’ve talked about in the last few months on here my focus has been doing more of a singer/songwriter thing in the form of Teag and PK, which is the duo that Michael Teager and myself have put together. However, after a particularly exhausting performance in February and a few in January, I decided that singing, and sort of, exposing myself emotionally in that way while people either looked on in disinterest, or in the case of cafe/restaurant gigs, just tried to talk over the music — was creating an emotional exhaustion in me that I could imagine only the most desperate of narcissist would want to pursue, I think of Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney character on the popular TV show, 30Rock, and more than a few singer/songwriters I’ve known and watched with disdain. No thanks, not me…  I have to say I was also moved by attending a Charles Lloyd performance that was just like two straight hours of mind-blowing jazz and sonic immersion, where at one point I turned and looked around and everyone was fixated – LISTENING!

Now, let me stop there, all that I’ve ever wanted was for people to listen, as many of my friends and colleagues have heard me say, “I just want to get to ears, for people to listen”… in the age of the iPod this is no simple task, and our particular epoch has played a role, too, as we’ve all learned to block out sounds and noises and music to focus on other things.

So with this gig booked at the excellent and cozy Wanderer’s Tea House, I was unsure how to proceed. I turned inward, and for the six weeks between our last gig and this one, I dug into my roots, the contemplative ambient music and I worked up various tones and textures that I had not pursued before…. things that I could do in a “live” setting without a laptop and a lot of pre-recorded sounds.

As we showed up to the gig and got set up, Michael leaned over and asked me “what are we thinking for tonight?” Over the previous few days I had teased him with the idea that I might be feeling the need for an ambient direction. An expert improviser, musician and collaborator, Michael has more than learned that sometimes even I don’t know what the plan is… We had rehearsed and played upwards of thirty songs, but on this night, I just wasn’t feeling it. I looked at him, with concern, but also unable to meet his gaze because I was feeling insecure and I said, “I’m thinking improvisation and some ambient kind of stuff…” vague as shit; as he processed that I went back to busying myself with set up.

The Tea House was full, finals week at Michigan State University, right off the campus…laptops and notebooks abound. Having not done an ambient music performance in a setting like this, well, ever… I was concerned…  the owners of Wanderer’s Tea House are friends of mine… was I going to clear out their business on a peak business night with my ambient noises… concerned, I thought: probably, but I had to be true to myself…

I struck the first note…

As the sound opened up and rushed into the room, I just looked at the ground… not wanting to make eye contact with anyone. The sound of chatting and kettles brewing was replaced by wave after wave of calming, evocative and contemplative sound.

After thirty minutes of my own immersion, I looked up, to find smiles, congratulatory nods and overall looks of satisfaction. The few empty tables that there were had become occupied. Nobody had left, everybody was engaged and listening.

Surely, this is a fluke… I thought to myself, but as we moved into the first hour and then the second hour, the room filled more, people became engaged and were listening, or so it seemed.

They can’t really be listening, can they?

As we rounded off the second hour and the last notes subsided into the quiet of the evening and the closing of the Tea House, I was confounded.

People had stuck around, seemingly enjoyed themselves, and we played, what I would consider a far less accessible and mainstream music performance than the songs I’d been singing for the last 10 months…

Before I could unplug my first cable, my suspicions about the performance were confirmed. First one person, then another and then another, came up to Michael and myself and praised us and the music. As I type these lines, I’m as confounded by this pleasant response as I was in the minutes following the gig. I still don’t know quite what to think… and I’m hoping for an, as of yet not forthcoming bit of insight, through the process of writing it out…

Before we wrapped up that night and before anybody stopped by to complement our work, I felt proud and musically satisfied, more so than I have in the last 20 gigs that had preceded this one. It felt right. I was true to myself. So having folks come up and tell us they enjoyed it and they thought it was great and for us to continue to get praise for the performance was just something that I had to tell people about.

When I booked my first ambient gig in 1999, it was called experimental, noise, ambient, space music, space rock, art music, electronic, electro-acoustic, gothic, even… I didn’t give a shit what they called it as long as I could get a gig bringing this music to receptive ears. Years later that’s still all I want and it’s a rarer and rarer occasion, but I kind of feel like if we can do this here in East Lansing, Michigan on the Michigan State University campus, a nice place to live, but far from the cultural epicenters I’ve traveled to to get to open ears and open minds for this music, then maybe, just maybe… the time for this music has come, a music that (as Jack the non Music Journalist aptly refers to it) emphasises the creation and maintenance of a powerful surrounding mood above all other artistic goals… I don’t know… stay tuned….

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