by Mike G, March 2014
This year marks the 30th Anniversary of American composer Steve Roach's sublime meditative album Structures From Silence, now re-released in a newly remastered edition on Projekt Records. Steve Roach talks to Ambient Music Guide about its creation, while aficionados Stephen Hill, George Cruickshank, John Diliberto and Mark Prendergast reflect on a bona fide ambient classic.
With his distinctive melange of analogue and digital synthesisers, acoustic instrumentation and imaginative soundscaping, Steve Roach is a giant in modern ambient and one of the most respected electronic musicians in the world. Active since the late 1970's, his discography of solo albums, collaborations and compilations is now enormous, his range of styles broad.
His 1984 album Structures From Silence marks the first time he moved away from the sequencer-driven, Berlin-school ambient trance of his earliest releases to record an album-length foray into beatless ambience. There are just three tracks - all extraordinarily delicate. The slow-motion melodic strains of the 30-minute title track, in particular, breathe and sway with exquisite gentleness.
Steve Roach's music is part of a wider progressive ambient movement that rose concurrently with new age music on America's West Coast during the 1970's - and at first intermingled with it - but which had no overt spiritual or healing purpose. Initially the focus for these sounds was neither an artist nor a record label, but a radio show: Music From The Hearts Of Space. This groundbreaking public radio program was founded in 1973 in San Francisco by sound designer, producer and former architect Stephen Hill and the late Anna Turner. In 1983 it went national and is still running today. Although it was not the only FM radio show of its type, its influence and importance cannot be overstated - both its role in the development of American-based ambient music artists and the part it played in bringing ambient styles of music to a wider audience.
By the 1980's this Californian-based scene was rich with adventurous musicians and extraordinary music. It was in this creative ferment that Structures From Silence was birthed. Says Roach: "That time was exciting. All that mattered to me was living inside this sound world and music and wanting to share with those who were open to it."
On the air
Radio was crucial to the album's initial success in America. Structures was originally a cassette release on Roach's little-known Soundquest label when it caught Stephen Hill's attention. He heard the album through his friendship with Michael Stearns and Kevin Braheny, two accomplished West Coast ambient composers who were living near Roach in L.A. at the time and helped him with mastering and spatial enhancements.
"I remember right after it was released in 1984 he came to my tiny bungalow in L.A. near MGM studios to see what this guy was all about," says Roach. "Those little bungalows were originally built for the workers at MGM a few blocks away. There was a perfect analog hive feeling around there with fellow visual artists, film and music people."
Stephen Hill describes the meeting thus: "I vividly remember visiting him in that bungalow in Culver City, where he was living a monk-like existence. It was a brick motel-looking place that could have been in rural Kentucky. The main room had been turned into an early Timeroom [Roach's official name for his studio], with all his equipment set up and purring out fat analog waveforms 24/7. I don't recall seeing a bed - he was probably sleeping in the studio - but there were two chairs so I sat down and he offered me a glass of water. We had everything in common artistically and we talked for hours."
Roach laughs on hearing this. "Well if I slept, it was standing up or sitting at the Oberheim. Pretty much the same as now."
From that encounter, big things grew. "The music was perfect for Hearts of Space and we used it on the national radio program immediately," says Stephen Hill. "The track 'Quiet Friend' became a kind of closing theme song for a while. This was before we started HOS Records, so I recommended he contact Ethan Edgecombe of Fortuna Distribution who was building his own label. Ethan put it out it right away. That release on Fortuna helped Steve establish himself as an electronic artist to pay attention to. His raw talent and awesome work ethic did the rest."
Breathing the deep
For Roach, the shift from the energetic Berlin-school sequencer music of his first albums Now (1982) and Traveler (1983) to the beatless Zen-like calm of Structures From Silence came about quite naturally.
"The big spaces I would create with the sequencer framework would always eventually melt down into a slow-motion return and place of reflection. In this way the Structures music might seem incongruent to the sequencer style, given its meditative calm. But it was partly born from a very dynamic place."
One of albums extraordinary qualities is the sense of natural breath in the music; an organic quality not easily realised with synthesisers back in the day. These 'breathing chords' quickly become part of the DNA of Roach's music over the following decades, as he sought to release his machines from their mechanical moorings.
He explains: "With an an acoustic instrument you have to be 100% there to make a sound. Traditional instruments draw from the physical body's interaction. With synthesisers as the new instrument emerging in the 80's it was clear to me that you could almost stop breathing, lose the body connection as part of the instrument interaction, sit sprawled out in a chair and still manage to play the instrument. So my entire waking and sleeping focus was to deepen this connection to the essence of sound, body and breath awareness. This was directly translated into the title track - playing with breath, the place in between the breath, the sigh. Just sitting in perfect stillness and playing that through the analog warmth of the Oberheim OB8 synth."
The Oberheim OB8 synthesiser had recently been designed and built in nearby Santa Monica at the Oberheim Electronics factory. Says Roach: "I had lots of friends working there so it felt like a home-grown instrument. I was able to play versions of the instrument by just dropping in for lunch with guys there. I can't tell you how special that was." The new synth could play up to eight notes at once, making it the the gold standard for polyphonic analog synthesisers in the 1980's. By his own admission Roach became utterly obsessed with owning one, which he eventually did after securing a very high interest loan.
"The sense I had with this sound was no less than that a lustful guitar player yearning for a Classic Strat, Gibson SG or Telecaster," he says. "And then to just finally sit with it and start to connect and carve with the sound at such a pure level of desire...it was beyond pure bliss. This feeling mixed with the epiphanies of all that was unfolding in my life at the time was essential to the creation of Structures." He still plays one today. "You you can buy a soft synth version of this instrument now but it's really like comparing formica-countertop laminate and wood. You can't match the original in terms of organic texture and, above all, the warmth of pure analog sound."
The fans speak
Career-wise, Structures From Silence is the album that really got Steve Roach noticed - by radio broadcasters, emusic fans and new age adherents alike. New age publications and therapists in particular have praised it over the years, though Roach says it was never an audience he was consciously aware of. "I would say it struck a chord with people in general. The audience was and still is from many walks and backgrounds. I had no real awareness of a new age scene or audience at the time. I was steeped in desert and nature time, European electronic music, ECM Records, progressive music and so on."
Australian radio broadcaster George Cruickshank, producer of the long-running ambient show Ultima Thule, says that when he first bought the album he played it continuously for a month.
"There are very few albums I return to, and play over and over. It's aged very well and that's how I judge good music. Can you listen to something and, for example, easily identify a synthesiser from 1981 or whenever? If you can't then it's timeless." For Cruickshank, Structures From Silence showed great foresight on Roach's part. "It's a fairly radical departure from most of the electronic music that was being created in the 80's. Synths were still relatively new instruments then, and most people were using them to make sounds that were identifiable AS synths - rather than as a tool to create unique enveloping atmospheres."
John Diliberto, host of the U.S. radio show Echoes, pinpoints the album's significance in ambient music history.
"Structures from Silence was the next real step after Brian Eno’s Discreet Music (1975) and Music For Airports (1978)," he says. "It showed that you could make a music that slowed things way down, from perception to breathing, and that you could be enveloped in this slow motion wave of sound and maintain a balanced state of attention for a long period without many of the usual musical signposts."
Diliberto remembers hearing it the first time. "It was in Steve Roach’s bungalow in West Los Angeles. I was interviewing him for the Totally Wired radio series. He had just finished the work and I recall it was only on cassette at the time. I heard it as part of a new direction that he shared with works like Michael Stearns’ Planetary Unfolding , Kevin Braheny’s The Way Home and Robert Rich's Trances and Drones."
The Atlantic divide
Structures From Silence's longevity and historical importance amplifies a rather curious fact: the longtime lack of recognition of America's West Coast ambient scene across the Atlantic.
UK zines - from mainstream titles like NME and Q Magazine to underground bible The Wire - reviewed and lauded all sorts of ambience and art rock over the years; from Brian Eno's prettiest works to Aphex Twin's ambient techno, from Philip Glass and Steve Reich to the weirdest avant-garde electronica. Yet for many years the music of Roach, Michael Stearns, Robert Rich and their generation simply didn't exist in the minds of the music media in the UK and Europe.
With the the rise of the internet and social sharing has come some belated recognition - Structures was included in UK-based Fact Magazine's recent Best 100 Albums Of The 80's list in 2013, for example. But why did this musical blind spot exist in the first place?
At least part of the blame may lie with new age music.
Or more specifically, a lack of understanding about the complicated relationship in America between ambient and early new age. The corny packaging and often outrageous spiritual and medicinal claims associated with Californian new age recordings in the 1980's - and, let's face it, some truly wretched music - certainly created an image problem for those American ambient composers who had nothing to do with the subculture. It's easy to imagine the British music press, still in the thrall of punk's out-with-the-old attitude, simply dismissing it as hippie rubbish and never digging deeper.
I put this to John Diliberto. "You're absolutely right," he says. "In David Toop's book Ocean Of Sound he sees little difference between Yanni and Steve Roach. There is a snobbism there, even though Steve Roach's work in particular would be called avant-garde if it was in a different packaging and milieu. New age was painted with a broad brush as shit 30 years ago."
Stephen Hill points to the European origins of much ambient and related music. "With the exception of rap and techno, U.S. electronic artists were importing and modifying styles and trends that originated in Europe or England, at least in the beginning. Why write about the derivations when you can celebrate the originators?" But he, too, acknowledges the negative effect of new age. "The more serious ambient artists had to be marketed within the broader new age category and were therefore tarred with that brush. That's not to say that the U.S. didn't produce some very original and significant artists, but few if any of them got European licensing deals for their albums...so the only Europeans who knew about them were the serious collectors and related artists."
UK-based music historian Mark Prendergast, author of the weighty tome The Ambient Century, offers a local viewpoint. He thinks the sheer distance - 6000 miles - was an obvious factor but he also saw what new age was doing to British people's perceptions of ambient.
"In the 80's instrumental music was seen as an antidote to the fast culture of get-rich-quick, Wall Street and Thatcherism," he explains. "Windham Hill had huge impact in the UK because of clever marketing through Warner Brothers, but new age was a lifestyle choice and seen as almost not music."
Although he witnessed an explosion in instrumental music labels and serious artists like David Sylvian and Holger Czukay being embraced as ambient gurus, none of the West Coast stuff was getting through and he saw no one coming over to promote it. "I was the one of the few music writers in the UK truly committed to instrumental music. There were a lot of European labels contacting me. If I had known about Steve Roach then I would have given him the same attention I gave Pat Metheny. He regularly performed in the UK and had substantial record company and PR backing."
Listening to Structures From Silence now, Prendergast finds that a track like 'Quiet Friend' has an "authority of landscape" that only an artist like Roach can imbue in music of this kind. "Like John Adams' work the sense of place is paramount. This is American music and nothing like Eno's imaginary landscapes. Remember that Eno put a lot of intellectual spade work into ambient in the UK. People had to understand before they could hear. Roach's music is more elemental. It's not intellectualised, it's not a theory made real through electro-acoustic or electronic means. It feels lived through."
Prendergast says that even if it's still coming out of the Tangerine Dream school of synth music, Roach creates something new, especially on the side-long title track. "It's a real musical space cut out of silence. It reminds me of Stockhausen's decision to start again in 1968; to start from scratch with silence and play a tune to the rhythm of the universe. It has that kind of commitment. It's pure art."
Then and now
So how does the album sound to the composer himself in 2014?
"From a sonic point of view, for me, it's aged well," says Roach. "It's like looking at a picture of home from years past - one of comfort and peace, warmth and safety. The emotional and personal spiritual resonance of the the pieces feel connected, part of an a uninterrupted continuum from that point to now."
And on the technical side? "I went back to the original analog reel tapes for a 24bit-96khz transfer and had it remastered with high end analog equipment. I think this current version really presents the subtle warmth that was always present on the masters, but not fully realised in the previous CD versions".
Whether you were there in the 80's, or discovered it later on, Structures From Silence still resonates - across time, across cultures, across different sub-genres. Steve Roach went to great lengths to infuse the music with humanity, to the point where the technology became invisible. That, perhaps, is the key to its enduring appeal. As John Diliberto says: "I think the more important aspect is not when I first heard it, but how resonant and undated it sounds 30 years later."
The remastered edition of Steve Roach's Structures From Silence is available on CD and digital download from Projekt Records' Bandcamp page.
Introducing Steve Roach: recommended listening for newbies
Structures From Silence (1984, Projekt) - Of course.
Western Spaces (1987, Fortuna) - Classic collaboration with West Coast artists Kevin Braheny and Richard Burmer. Inspired by the desert landscapes of America's South-West.
Dreamtime Return (1988, Fortuna) - Epic electro-acoustic exploration of the Australian landscape and Aboriginal Dreamtime.
Suspended Memories - Earth Island (1994, Hearts Of Space) - One of the best from his 90's tribal period, recorded as part of the trio Suspended Memories with Jorge Reyes and Suso Sáiz.
Mantram (2004, Projekt) and Nada Terma (2008, Projekt) - The composer goes East for some of the most sweetly intoxicating music he's ever put his name to. Rich Eastern-flavoured drone ambience and slowbeats with Byron Metcalf and Mark Seelig.
Sigh Of Ages (2010, Projekt) - One of his prettiest solo albums in years - the haunting "Quelling Place" is a perfect example of the breathing chords he does so well.
The Road Eternal (2011, Projekt) - Widescreen harmonies and complex sequencer-based patterns created with Norwegian composer and guitarist Erik Wollo.
Live Transmission From The Drone Zone (2013, Projekt) - Epic double-length live set from his appearance on SOMA FM's Drone Zone channel. Covers much of the territory he's explored over four decades.