Kranky and Ambient Church raise the rafters—but gently | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Kranky and Ambient Church raise the rafters—but gently 

The Chicago-born label and the Los Angeles-based promoter demonstrate the transcendent power of a house of worship—even without the worship.

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Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, the site of this week’s Ambient Church concert celebrating 25 years of the Kranky label - MATT FRANKEL
  • Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, the site of this week’s Ambient Church concert celebrating 25 years of the Kranky label
  • Matt Frankel

Update on Thursday, December 6, at 5:30 PM: Windy & Carl will not perform at Ambient Church Chicago due to a family emergency. Matt Jencik has been added to the beginning of the bill. Ticket holders who would prefer a refund may e-mail support@withfriends.co.

People have made religious or otherwise sacred music for just about as long as there have been people: Jewish piyyutim, Sufi ghazals, Gnawan trance music, Gregorian chants, Zen Buddhist honkyoku, African-American gospel, Native American powwows. But some music aims for a transcendence that's unconnected to the divine. It encourages listeners to immerse themselves without telling them what they're connecting with, invites them to meditate without telling them what to think about, and asks them to be patient without telling them what if anything they're waiting for.

Making music that has nothing to say about God but can still live up to the potential of grand church architecture is a tough job, but if any label has the roster to do it, it's Kranky. Founded in Chicago in 1993 and relocated to Portland about five years ago, Kranky is celebrating its 25th anniversary by pairing up with event programmer Ambient Church for four concerts in historic American churches, including one this Saturday in Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel.


Ambient Church Chicago with Steve Hauschildt, Pan•American, Justin Walter, and Matt Jencik
Part of a 25th-anniversary tour celebrating the Kranky label. Sat 12/8, 7 PM, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn, $25-$30, all ages


Kranky debuted with Prazision, a beautifully glacial album by Virginia drone-rock trio Labradford, and since then it's maintained a focus on meticulous, entrancing sounds, sometimes understated and ghostly (Grouper's 2014 ambient piano-and-vocals record, Ruins) and sometimes towering and awe inspiring (Godspeed You! Black Emperor's 2000 album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven). Much of the music under the Kranky banner evokes or facilitates secular transcendence—it rewards concentration, stillness, and the abandonment of preexisting structures and conventions. At Kranky's Ambient Church events, this should manifest itself as a reverence for sound and for the magic of people gathering as quiet witnesses to creative expression.

"Churches are the ultimate acoustic architectural entity," says Ambient Church founder Brian Sweeny. "They're built for acoustics, beauty, and transcendence for the listener." In 2016, when Sweeny lived in New York, he visited Brooklyn's progressive Park Church Co-op for a concert of ambient music presented by a friend, with a backdrop of dancing projected visuals. "The environment could not have been better," he says.

Spurred by that epiphany, Sweeny created Ambient Church that same year, organizing events not just at the Park Church Co-op but also at the First Unitarian Congregational Society and the secular Knockdown Center, booking artists such as synthesist supreme Suzanne Ciani (famous for her mastery of quadraphonic sound), Krautrock godfather Hans-Joachim Roedelius (best known from the canonical projects Cluster and Harmonia), and ambient vocalist Julianna Barwick. He moved to Los Angeles in June 2018, where he's continued programming at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles.

Churches are particularly suited for ambient music—they instill silence. In Sweeny's opinion, a club or venue built into a bar simply isn't appropriate for the artists he promotes; thus, churches. "And they're everywhere!" he says. "They're in every city, and they're frequently not occupied. Every evening these places are open—sometimes hundreds in one city. You have this underserved genre world, and the possibilities from this amazing resource. Those things can meet up."

Pan•American (aka Mark Nelson of Labradford) and Steve Hauschildt - PHOTOS COURTESY THE ARTIST AND BY MARIA TZEKA
  • Pan•American (aka Mark Nelson of Labradford) and Steve Hauschildt
  • Photos courtesy the artist and by Maria Tzeka

Ambient Church hopes to introduce ambient music to people outside its niche audience, since the music itself isn't especially outgoing. "The dedicated ambient listenership isn't huge," Sweeny says, "so why not make it an audiovisual experience with which anyone can get on board?" Even the name and premise of his operation are designed to entice. "If you tell someone you're going to a church to see a show," he says, "as long as they're adventurous, they will immediately start asking more questions. I've been invited to church shows many times, and I'm always curious."

Kranky is a perfect partner in this endeavor: most of the label's more than 200 titles seem designed to blossom when treated to the kind of focused, fully engaged attention Sweeny wants to encourage (often called "active listening" for short). Kranky cofounder Joel Leoschke, who's led the label himself for more than a decade (the other founder, Bruce Adams, sold his share of the operation in 2005), prefers to direct his discipline and enthusiasm toward the fundamentals of the business—manufacturing, releasing, and distributing records, then making sure royalties get paid on time. "From my view, it's a practical matter," he says. "We are a label. We don't book shows." He appreciates Sweeny's affinity for nontraditional venues, and he's happy to let someone else take care of presenting and promoting events.

Leoschke takes a no-nonsense approach to Kranky—the label once ran an ad saying "heads down, blinders on"—and this practice of stripping away superfluities dovetails with his devotion to active listening. It's been important to his life and work, he says, and it can unlock new details even on a recording he's listened to casually ten times. He had his first active-listening experiences when he engaged with records on headphones because his roommates or his parents needed quiet, or when he went to shows where audiences were expected to be respectfully attentive. "I think active listening is best when you empty your mind," he says, "and it can actually help encourage that."

For Kranky's quieter acts especially, Leoschke recognizes, a church may be a more suitable environment than a typical rock club. "I certainly prefer an alternative to the typical live-music venue where people tend to talk during performances and noise from a bar can be intrusive," he says. "It's one thing if an artist can bury those issues with volume, but if they are playing quietly, it's much more conducive to active listening to be in a space that suggests to attendees that they should be in a quieter, more meditative state."

Justin Walter and Windy & Carl - PHOTOS BY DOUG COOMBE AND CHRISTOPHER JACKSON
  • Justin Walter and Windy & Carl
  • Photos by Doug Coombe and Christopher Jackson

Brian Foote, who helps Leoschke keep Kranky ticking, relocated to Chicago from Portland, Oregon, around the time cofounder Bruce Adams divested himself of his share of the label. While Foote was living in Portland, he'd released recordings through Kranky by his bands Nudge and Fontanelle. "I had been a fan of Kranky in real time since Labradford's A Stable Reference," he says. "I moved to Chicago, and Bruce asked me if I wanted a job. I thought he was joking, just because if you go on the website, it still says under frequently asked questions, 'Can I have a job? No.' Then after I had been working there for about a month, Bruce took me out to lunch as he was training me. I told him how happy I was to be working with him and how much I was looking forward to learn from him, and he was like, 'Well, actually, I'm out of here.'"

Though that was disappointing to Foote, it's also the reason he's been working at Kranky for 13 years—Adams had handled publicity and promotion, and now they're among Foote's duties. He also books special events, including Kranky's 20th-anniversary gigs in 2013 and the current Ambient Church concerts. "I had the idea to do something for the 25th," he says. "Joel is never one to honk his own horn."

Foote has known Sweeny since 2010, when a previous Sweeny operation, Vibes Management, hired a Kranky artist for a party. "When he started Ambient Church, he ended up booking a Kranky artist on almost every bill," Foote says. "So it seemed like a natural choice." Foote has lived in Los Angeles since 2007, and after Sweeny moved there this past summer, they quickly began planning Ambient Church shows for Kranky artists in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.

"It's not unusual for artists on our roster to say they'd rather not play a rock club," Foote says, "but Ambient Church drives at transcendence—to evoke something beyond. The architecture. The acoustics. The scale of it. The reverence of being in it and being quiet. Then you add the music and visuals of the series, and you can see that everything is moving towards that."

An Ambient Church concert with Robert Rich, celebrating the 2018 autumnal equinox at Saint Ann & the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn - JULIA DRUMMOND
  • An Ambient Church concert with Robert Rich, celebrating the 2018 autumnal equinox at Saint Ann & the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn
  • Julia Drummond

The lineup for each Kranky anniversary celebration is unique, showcasing the label's diversity as well as its cohesive vision. The bill at Rockefeller features two Chicagoans—Steve Hauschildt, previously of Cleveland psychedelic electronic trio Emeralds, and Pan•American, aka former Labradford guitarist Mark Nelson—and two Michigan acts, Ann Arbor-based experimental trumpeter and composer Justin Walter and Dearborn ambient husband-and-wife duo Windy & Carl.

The Kranky catalog is peppered with Nelson's work in Labradford, Pan•American, and Anjou, going all the way back to 1993. "It seemed like a much smaller world then," he says. In the early 90s, he reflects, a band could make 500 copies of a seven-inch and reasonably expect it to get to the right radio stations and distributors. He's happy to be celebrating his long history with the label in a house of worship. "Churches are so critical to public life for me," he says. "The idea that there's a place where the door is always open, and it's dedicated to contemplation and refuge, is incredibly powerful and meaningful to me. I know there is plenty of difficult context for many, but I still think it's possible for a church to be a place of peace, sanctuary, and acceptance."

Nelson also sees transcendence as a vital part of his artistic mission. "Music is not 'self-expression' to me. It's a gesture outside of myself—a prayer for connection and community," he explains. "Music has given me the comfort of feeling less isolated and alone my whole life. All I hope for my music is that it serves someone in the way that so much music has served me. That it allows a space to open in someone's heart. That's the only point, really."

Hauschildt is used to people calling his music "transcendent," but he'd prefer they find other words. "I don't have any intention to relay transcendence," he says. "I think that's partially because I see it as a manifestation from the new age music tradition, which I've tried to divorce myself from—but that's a personal stance. It's easy for me to be frustrated by music being understood in a one-dimensional way. If you listen to the music of Arvo Pärt, it's clearly transcendent, but there are still avenues to appreciate it outside of that one notion. Music that operates that way has other qualities that would make it beautiful anyway."

The practice of playing in churches does appeal to Hauschildt, though—the architecture can enrich the experience, he says, and chapels with high ceilings naturally amplify reverb. He jokes that pews are just uncomfortable enough to keep an audience awake and paying attention.

Walter has warmer feelings about churches—they've been a significant influence on his creative process and sound. "When I was in Brooklyn, I was living kitty-corner to an abandoned church," he says. "The church was sold, and a promoter was able to get access to the grounds. I remember taking my stuff, setting up some speakers with 50-foot cables, improvising, and exploring sounds in that space." Since then, he's released two full-lengths on Kranky—his newest, last year's Unseen Forces, is built from layers of a breath-actuated synthesizer called an Electronic Valve Instrument, sometimes augmented by piano and trumpet. He recently acquired and refurbished a 1930s pump organ, whose sounds will appear in his Rockefeller set.

Transcendence doesn't come up much when Walter talks about his work, but he understands how important immersion can be for a listener who wants to get as much as possible out of it. "I think music should have meaning and a message," he says. "Maybe a long time after working on a piece or a record, you can get to the point where you put it on and you listen to the whole thing—it takes you somewhere else. A story was told because there was time taken to figure out what the story was."

Windy Weber and her husband, Carl Hultgren, are much more direct about the role of transcendence in their music, both when they write it and when they play it. "The high we get from a great performance is something that no drugs or alcohol or sex can come close to," Weber says. "That experience of connecting to the universe and expressing something there are few words for is so amazing. It is physical and emotional and out of body, and we have only ever been able to do that together. So we work together, knowing how amazing the result can be."

Windy & Carl began their collaboration the same year Kranky launched, though they didn't join its roster until the release of their 1998 double LP, Depths, which Weber jokingly calls their Spacemen 3 record because they each wrote their own songs. (The comparison is an exaggeration, thankfully: Peter Kember and Jason Pierce of Spacemen 3 eventually became so estranged that they'd record their parts individually to avoid interacting.) Windy & Carl also like the idea of playing in a church, but not because it's a hallowed space—for them it has more to do with Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem. "Our favorite movie is The Muppet Movie," Weber says. "It was for each of us before we ever knew each other. And in The Muppet Movie the band plays in a church." The Muppet combo even uses some of the same gear as Windy & Carl. "They actually have a Gibson Les Paul, a Fender Twin amp, and a Roland Space Echo, honestly!"

Foote believes that transcendence in music can transport people as well as bring them together. "Music can make anything you do be more extreme," he says. "It can imprint your experience to an immediate and visceral thing. If you are truly experiencing a music that you enjoy, it helps you get there. Ten times so, if it's music already evocative of that for you. It's similar to a religious church experience—it's all of those things combined with the fact that it's shared. Here you are, feeling this and sitting quietly with other people." Stillness is rare, shared stillness even rarer. That's part of what gives them their power to pacify and heal.

Kranky's music has allowed me to feel this personally, and I can illustrate how with stories from 2013 alone. In January of that year, I drove to Detroit with a friend to see a show by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. On the way, I got a call that a childhood friend had hanged himself—a terrible shock, and not just because he was young and brilliant. That night, as I huddled on a deflating mattress in a cold, decrepit house, my traveling companion snored like a foghorn. I was miserable and I was in mourning. I'd rarely felt so alone, and I didn't think I'd ever be able to sleep. I dug through my beat-up satchel for my iPod, hoping to at least mitigate the noise. I queued up Stars of the Lid's And Their Refinement of the Decline, a 2007 Kranky release, and it took me far away from the painful day.

I closed out 2013 by quitting drinking, ending a problematic relationship with alcohol. Suddenly I had newfound hours in my schedule, and I spent my evenings devouring books and listening to expansive, largely instrumental records. Many of them were Kranky titles—Stars of the Lid's The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid and Tim Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972 were serene and sublime, inspiring me to keep the dark fog of my old life at my back. A church can deliver those feelings, but if you've got the right music, you don't need one.  v

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