Photo: RBMA

It was ethereal, mind-expanding, and at times akin to a surrealist adult baby conference, but before we get into the more far-out aspects of Red Bull Music Academy’s Beyond The Clouds: Ambient Excursions 10-hour event that was held yesterday in Brooklyn, a word on its pragmatism: This event solved the two most annoying things about seeing live music in New York.

The first is that events not held in proper concert halls or arenas generally demand the bulk of their crowds to stand for the majority of the programming, which often means you spend hours on your feet. Not at Ambient Excursions, where lounging was encouraged. In the performance room, those who couldn’t find a spot on the structure taking up most of the audience area and covered in shiny white foam padding pictured above that had been erected in front of the stage (obstructed in the far end of the picture above) opted to sit and lie on the floor, where pillows were distributed. During the revelatory set from sound sculptors Chino Amobi and Johnny Utterback, the front row consisted of a sole young woman curled up on her side.

The second thing was an almost total dearth of drum sounds. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a beat. I’m almost never not thinking in Janet Jackson’s voice, “Gimme a beat!” whenever in the absence of one. Almost. But drums have a way of sucking up the air in a place, of making themselves the most important (slash unignorable) thing in the room, of distorting all of the other sounds that dare to share sonic space with them. But as a festival devoted to ambient music, this was different. Now “ambient” is a category so broad it’s borderline descriptively useless, but it does generally signal two things: it’s heavily electronic and it lacks beats. The sound that poured out of the specially designed giant white speakers was invariably pristine, not muddied up by bass.

It was all so pleasant, and clearly tailored to be that way. The people working there who’d, say, help you climb up the ladders on wheels to get on the upper level of the communal foam cloud bed or take care of your shoes that you were politely requested to remove so as not to disturb the foam, smiled warmly and often. There was a sterility to their warmth, so the effect was not unlike Chelsea gallerists who just got laid.

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Essentially, Ambient Excursions was a place for an old person like me to feel like a baby again. It was very easy to be seduced by its charms, but it was just as easy to look around and snap into reality and start laughing. Meditation has given me a greater appreciation for the simultaneity in cased in every moment, thus it felt highly appropriate that Ambient Excursions was at once straightforwardly excellent and hilarious. I giggled while taking in the people reading books as Mary Lattimore played her harp fed through a Line 6 pedal, which sometimes made her nourishing melodies sound like they were going forward and backward at the same time. I chuckled at how the white fabric seat slings that hung from the ceiling around the communal foam bed looked kind of like bridal testicles. I watched how the communal foam bed was so in demand early into the event that when one person got up, another was quickly in their place, just like on the subway. I guess you can’t ambient the New York out of New York.

Really, the comedy was in the very DNA of the event: Nothing quite says chill out like Red Bull.

“We recommend you chill upstairs for a while,” said the woman who greeted us by the elevator upon our arrival. Ambient Excursions was held at the Bogart House, a sunny, multi-level structure in East Williamsburg. “Upstairs” meant the welcome hub, a small indoor area with a bar, restrooms, and a headphone rental. The headphones were provided so that you could have a direct sonic mainline to whatever music was being played a level or two down onstage (though there were speakers placed around the outdoor area so you didn’t need headphones to hear what was happening onstage). Right outside of the welcome hub was a swing set and a series of multi-level covered purple platforms for sitting on.

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There were more outdoor seating areas higher up, including one that featured a bunch of geometric cushions that required some Tetris-type configuring in order to be used as proper sitting furniture (I felt like I was being fucked with as I tried to help my friend make a seat out of what looked like giant purple felt crystals). Clearly much of this event was meant to be taken in outside, but the problem was that it was a little cold (if only we had Saturday’s weather yesterday!). I appreciated how a sky full of gray, rippled clouds complemented the event’s focus (those clouds couldn’t be any more ambient if they were programmed), but I hadn’t dressed warmly enough and the one accoutrement Red Bull did not provide were blankets. Given the nurturing care put into maintaining the comfort of everyone who had entered this celestial womb of an event, it was enough to make me cry out, “I want my blanky!!!” (My boyfriend picked up one of the giant white lollipops that were in bowls scattered around the venue’s several floors and added, “And why isn’t this a rattle?”)

You might be wondering if I took drugs at an event that seemed... like a place designed for you to take drugs at. Well yes, I did. I took some shrooms and smoked weed because it seemed like the right thing to do. I wasn’t “tripping balls,” or whatever the non-alienating way is that you say that in 2017, but I did get high enough to know what people mean when they “see colors.” (I meditated during Laraaji’s set and saw bright oranges and reds—way more vivid were these colors than the black-blues and black-pinks and black-purples I usually see when I meditate. Meanwhile, a florescent yellow-green gradient showed up in my mind as Julianna Barwick sang her face off and looped her angelic voice into forever.) I was also out of my head enough to take the following notes:

  • Whatever the pretensions that people may think radiate from the concept of “new age” music, this music only asks to be taken for what it is. But then, how still and simple is anything? Nothing is simple! There are so many things happening at once!!!
  • Laraaji’s reverb makes me wonder why anyone even bothers to capture sound into writing! You’ll never capture it!
  • We are in the middle of infinity. The headphones they handed out block so much out that they really open a portal to a alternate reality — one that is just slightly shifted in terms of your sense dynamics.
  • I wonder if Steve Bannon has ever meditated.
  • Imagine the good that could come of Trump’s cabinet having a chill event like this.
  • This incense looks like the nodules [ossicones] on the heads of alien giraffes:

As I wore the headphones, meditating outside, my concentration was broken when I heard my friend laughing next to me, watching a baby who looked just old enough to stand try to eat one of the aforementioned lollipops. It was roughly the size of the baby’s head.

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We made our way down to the event to listen to Julianna Barwick. I sat down along a wall and I’ll never forget the image of her that I saw—from my perspective, she was flanked by two of the aforementioned fabric testicle seats, wearing a giant purple nylon hoodie sweetly singing words I couldn’t make out over and over and over again. It was like witnessing an alien transmission. Unfortunately, the communal foam bed would creak as people got up and sat down, slicing into Barwick’s sonic envelopment and obscuring some of the finer points of her sound design (like her use of multiple types of reverb—some washes, some chops). Sporadic shrillness: so not ambient.

By the time analog synth god Malcolm Cecil (who co-produced a lot of Stevie Wonder’s synth heavy early ‘70s work including the masterpieces Talking Book and Innervisions) went on, daylight had faded and the room was lit in pink yet lavender. Dry ice flowed on the floor as an 80-year-old man in a white shirt and white overalls, sporting a white afro, brought something of a groove in (still no drums, but there were bass lines and a cinematically ‘70s funkiness) on his various synths and flute...type...contraption might as well have been a magic bong. The entire display was like a low-budget ‘70s sci-fi movie version of a concert from the future...or maybe that’s just actually what it was. After his set, Cecil could be spotted walking around the venue, a small music-gnome whose all white aesthetic brightly reflected whatever mood lighting was above him.

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We went back outside after Cecil for a smoke. Over the speakers, what sounded a like an unsmiling woman reciting English in a German accent began to take over our consciousness: “A formless shade of divinity, in flight from its stale infinity...”

“I guarantee you, there is a German woman standing onstage right now,” I said, imploring my friends to go check this out with me. “This is dark-sided!” What we discovered back in the performance area, was in fact, two guys behind laptops playing something like this:

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They were Chino Amobi and Johnny Utterback and they created the most astonishing sound collage I’ve ever witnessed unfurling in real time. Voices were stretched out and manipulated to create atmosphere, there was an almost slapstick approach to samples (an alarm here, a clucking chicken there), and the pair daringly pushed and pulled the ambiance into dark places. Until then, we had heard aching in Dorit Chrysler’s theremin, and some of what Cecil played was legitimately sad, but nothing was as bold as the fraught tension Amobi and Utterback unleashed. Amobi is a spellbinding performer who winces and shakes his head when he plays as though his own samples are injuring him (a particular synth figure he pumped out was so melodramatic it felt like he was channeling a soap opera). Because its samples were so evidently field-sourced, it in some ways their performance felt like a 2017's answer to KLF’s seminal 1990 Chill Out album: Chill Out...But Less Chill. If I had to pick the single most imporessive trick up the sleeves of Amobi and Utterback it was that they’d sometimes throw a bar or two of a beat into their sonic soup—generally something hyper and crackling, like a split-second shot of Squarepusher. It was a way of acknowledging the existence of beats as sound, but from an egalitarian perspective: Beats were no more or less important than the sound of chirping birds or applause. How perfectly leftfield ambient of them.

Throughout the event, I posted moments to my Instagram stories. That collection (including several events referenced in the text above) is embedded below:

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