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Arts + CultureMusicAmbient hero Steve Roach builds 'Structures from Silence' inside...

Ambient hero Steve Roach builds ‘Structures from Silence’ inside Grace Cathedral

Tapping into the sonic architecture of his 40-year-old breakthrough, the Arizonan returns to a sacred space.

When Steve Roach released Structures From Silence in 1984, the 29-year-old motocross aficionado and synth tinkerer entered the first rank of ambient artists, never to leave.

He’d made a splash as one of the first American proponents of the cosmic synth style that’d already been thriving in Germany for a decade, releasing two albums built on splashy drums and sequencer patterns, but Structures was an obvious breakthrough. Its great idea was letting the chords breathe, sustaining each note on Roach’s Oberheim synth until it sounded like it was light-years across. His subsequent albums of Quiet Music refined and elaborated on this style, and by the time he brought back the drums on 1988’s Dreamtime Return, his music was untouchable—maybe the artistic peak of the first wave of ambient, before ravers across the pond ushered in its most fruitful era in the ‘90s while looking for post-MDMA comedown music.

Like many of the ambient artists who emerged in this era—Brian Eno with his “wallpaper” compositions, Harold Budd with his chapels and pavilions—Roach thinks of his music in physical terms. Even describing music as “structures from silence” suggests a new spatial way of thinking about them. It’s no surprise that Roach has long been drawn to Grace Cathedral, where he recorded a live album in 2007 and will be returning to perform for Structures’ 40th anniversary on Sat/6, on the heels of a new remaster from Projekt Records.

I had the privilege to see Suzanne Ciani perform at Grace Cathedral not long ago, and the quadraphonic speaker system played the entirety of Structures’ cold, magisterial 29-minute title track as the crowd filed into their pews. The music seemed to hang between the rafters like smoke. “When I first played there in 2007, when I was playing into the space, I actually felt like I could see [the music] hovering at the top of the cathedral,” Roach says. “There were shapes and forms up there when I was playing. I felt like when I was working down at my system, I was also arranging and structuring things that I could see suspended very high up in the space.”

The new Projekt remaster of Structures from Silence comprises both the hour-long original album and two discs of bonus material Roach recorded for the 30th-anniversary reissue in 2014, all of it drawn from the same synth palette as Structures. Roach seems capable of returning to this headspace whenever he so desires, which makes sense given that its breathing chords would become the bedrock of his work. In fact, this music feels like bedrock, and Roach is enthused when I use the word “primordial” to describe it.

“I feel like there’s like a primordial sigh that’s woven in there,” he says. “There’s this quality of darkness, and a return to a womb-like memory we all contain. If we’re here on this planet alive together, we’ve all had that common experience of birth and coming into this world. And so there’s something down in there that I feel really speaks universally to some deep cellular memory that we all contain.”

48 Hills caught up with Roach over Zoom from his Arizona home, whose floorspace seems to consist primarily of synthesizers, to discuss Structures From Silence and his upcoming concert at Grace Cathedral.

48 HILLS This isn’t the first time you’ve played here. What resonance does this space hold for you?

STEVE ROACH: The fact that it’s a sacred space. It of course has a great history with music and performances there for many genres. That in itself is inspiring to know, that things like this are happening and have happened for many, many years there. But the cathedral space is naturally created for inspiration sonically through various musics—choir, organ—so the space itself is perfect for this quality of music that I’m doing. So much of the music I create—well, all of the music—lives in a reverberant space. It’s an expansive, larger-than-life space that I create through digital reverbs and that sort of thing, so to go into a place where if you just were to clap your hands you could hear that ring out for a number of seconds, that’s something I always consider when I’m creating music for these spaces. I really revel in that and what’s coming here at Grace.

48 HILLS One of the things about sacred spaces that I find really interesting is the way they use space and architecture to create this sense of transcendence, a sense of awe. Do you see an architectural quality to your music, or do you feel any kinship between what you’re doing as a musician and what the architects were doing with the space?

STEVE ROACH: Absolutely. When I build my music, it’s really centered so much on the quality of tone and the power of the sound itself. So from there, it’s like I’m building these forms and structures, and even the title Structures From Silence suggest some kind of form that is emerging out of a space. So within the sets that I present in there, there can be a range of sonic architectural forms and shapes and pieces so that it feels like I’m building something structurally and creating a more ethereal structure inside of the container of Grace itself. I can’t wait to play that live in there and respond to that.

48 HILLS The 40th-anniversary edition of the album includes two discs of additional material, tripling the runtime of the album. Tell me a little bit about that decision and why, you wanted to go back into that headspace. Is that easy for you to get back in the zone that you were in when you first recorded these tracks?

STEVE ROACH: That place that that Structures was drawn from—it’s a space that I can maintain, and I feel connected to that space ongoing. I mean, it reveals itself in different ways over all of my music, I think. Or not all of my music, but the realms of my music that are more reflective and quiet and meditative. There’s kind of a DNA of Structures that I can tap into, so when I had the opportunity to expand on that and visit that and bring it into now, that, it just felt like a natural connection to where that music first emerged from within me in the early ‘80s. It’s not tapping into a sense of nostalgia or a tribute to Structures. It’s like, where does that feeling live now in the present time?

48 HILLS Can you elaborate a little bit more about what that feeling is?

STEVE ROACH When you hear Structures From Silence, that can bring up a different feeling within every person that hears it, but the common space is for me is complete engagement with the present moment where there’s no anticipation of what’s coming or what’s behind you. You’re just in this fully contained space of breath and tone and reflection and warmth and being embraced and nurtured through the quality of that sound. And that’s really the essence of that. It’s just being in that flow space, in the embrace of this feeling of safety and comfort. It’s almost a womb-like space. I’ve met young adults that were born with that music while their parents were playing it, so that itself speaks to the nature of the music being nurturing and embracing of the moment.

Steve Roach in Tucson, Arizona, 2010. Photo by Cometmoth Sight & Sound / Adam Fleishman

48 HILLS I remember hearing a quote from you where you said the feeling that remains once the piece is over is as important as what’s going on when the piece is actually happening. When you have a record or a CD you actually have to get up and change the disc, but if you’re streaming Structures From Silence, disc one bleeds into disc two and it’s a continuous experience. Does the physical medium through which people consume your music have any bearing on the meaning or the way it’s perceived?

STEVE ROACH With the return to vinyl there’s the return of what I see as almost a ceremonial ritual process of playing music, which was lost for a certain period of time, where you have the album, you hold it in your hand, you’re looking at the cover, you pull this object out, and you place it on an object, and then you go through this whole kind of ceremony to listen to the music. I love that, and that’s back now, you know, that way. And the CD has a certain aspect of that. I mean, you can certainly put a CD on infinite repeat, and there’s that intentional listening quality where you’re putting something on and you’re dedicating yourself to experiencing it potentially, but you can also put it on and have it drift into the background.

All those elements, I think they’re all equally there to experience. There’s not any one particular mode that I’m asking listeners to use to experience it. You could even be using it in the car for driving, and then you go into silence for a while. I use a lot of music for driving because I live where I have to drive a certain distance to get to the city or to get to places. And so I’ll interchange just thought-time and non-music with selected music in that way.

48 HILLS What do you listen to while you’re driving?

STEVE ROACH I’ll go back and listen to my roots and tap into my inspirations: Jon Hassell, Harold Budd, Klaus Schulze, and Tangerine Dream. There are those long stretches between Arizona and California where you just have these expansive, beautiful landscapes, and there’s certainly a lot of times I’m driving and I’m listening to pieces that are in progress and having it as a time of development in that space as well. And then, you know, I love heavy metal. It’s like getting hosed down with water, it blows everything off, so that’s another world I go into. 

REFLECTIONS: STEVE ROACH ‘STRUCTURES FROM SILENCE Sat/6, 8pm-10pm, Grace Cathedral, SF. More info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield
Daniel Bromfield is a San Francisco native and arts journalist whose work has appeared in the Bay Guardian, San Francisco Magazine, Resident Advisor, and various music sites. He ran the SF Rebirth blog, documenting all-ages shows in the Bay Area, from 2010 to 2013. His work can be found at danielbromfield.com

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