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Michael Stearns at The Gathering - Oct 4

Michael Stearns at The Gathering
Michael Stearns performed last night, October 4, at The Gathering, Philadelphia's premier ambient, electronic and space music concert series. Stearns has been doing space music since the 1970's and is considered a pioneer in the genre. He has composed music for many films, including Baraka Chronos, Ring of Fire and the Lost World. He's also produced nearly 30 albums, collaborations and anthologies.

At The Gathering, Michael played a relatively modest collection of equipment set up in front of a large screen. All of the music was accompanying videos. He said in an interview reprinted in the program notes that he's been collecting visual material from friends, many are in the film business, over the past four years. "I have a lot of out-takes from Baraka - there were eight and a half hours of material which were shot of Baraka which wen not used in the movie. " One of the videos was provided by a friend who returned from Yemen with some very compelling 8mm black and white footage of Yemenite market places.

The videos were consistently excellent. Many of the movies were scenes of animated space travel, much like the opening of the Star Trek TNG or Voyager series. Some scenes were of more abstract geometric images. The ones I liked the best were time accelerated images of the sky, with cloud formations and weather patterns that take many hours being seen in a few seconds.

Stearns opened the evening by asking the audience not to applaud because 1) he didn't consider this performance to be entertainment, and 2) he feels that applause breaks up the energy that his is trying to create. He said he was creating energy that he wanted the audience to take in and use now and later in dreams, thoughts, meditation or whatever we wanted. Instead of applause he suggested that if at the end people really felt like they had to do something, "just wave your hands silently in the air" when he was finished. The audience in fact respected his request; so between pieces, there was only silence as we watched Michael turn knobs on his sound equipment to prepare for the next piece and select the next video from the menu screen on his DVD player. At the end, most people waved their hands in the air, but many couldn't resist applauding - proving, to me at least, the awesome power of ritual.

The music was for the most part was very beautiful and relaxing. There were long continuous washes of sounds sometimes garnished with bright accents of very clear bell-like sounds. Early in the concert I found these to be very exciting, but as the evening progressed they became more and more predictable. There were occasional drum beats backing up the textures. Sometimes the music was very loud, with intense bass; very effective.

Scene from Yemen
Parts were a bit disturbing, especially the scenes from the Yemenite market. The poverty of the people was quite apparent, and there was a dramatic closeup of the face of a slaughtered sheep, and at one point there was a child wearing a grotesque mask of some sort of animal. During this, the music became appropriately dissonant and intense. This tension was immediately resolved in the next piece, which was again peaceful and relaxing.

I enjoyed the evening, but I was somewhat disappointed because much of the music seemed to be prerecorded. At times, Stearns was obviously playing pads on his Roland keyboard, and he clearly was in control of the mix and volume level throughout. Perhaps he was also adjusting digital effects in realtime, it was difficult to tell. Many times, he would stand with his hands together and intently watch the screen on his Apple laptop, or focus on the video. The music seemed to go on with or without him, or so it seemed. Maybe my reaction has something to do with what he said when he started, "This is not intended to be entertainment."

Videos and music together are certainly here to stay, but I personally don't need the video part. Great music creates images in my mind that are usually much more inspriational to me than the low res stuff coming off a computer or DVD player. Michael acknowledged this and suggested that if you don't care for the video, then just close your eyes and enjoy the music. I often closed my eyes, and I did enjoy the music.

The next Gathering, November 15, will feature The Ministry of Inside Things and Orbital Decay. While maybe I shouldn't say, "That's entertainment", but it'll certainly be 100% live electronic music. Orbital Decay has been working on some new fractal videos that they are very excited about. I'm looking forward to it.
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