Cloudwatch, Ambient Techno in Baltimore

March 1996

Ambient techno in Baltimore What is it with youngsters these days? They were throwing a house party all right, with DJ's spinning and everything, but nobody was dancing. Most everyone--and there must have been 300 in this southwest Baltimore warehouse--were lounging on blankets and sleeping bags. Some even wore pajamas. They could barely see each other. It was almost dark, except for the slide and film projectors, the Christmas lights blinking, and the abstract colored shapes oozing on a television-like screen.

And the music? When I walked in, it was just one tone, a single fat low-end sound snaking through the lower register. It increased in amplitude until it literally tripped off a circuit breaker, leaving the Christmas lights to twinkle and the TV to ooze in silence.

Such is the danger of ambient techno. Unlike its step-brother new age--also begat by ambient and electronic space musics--ambient techno can be dangerously experimental at times. Under its calm surface beats the heart of the avant garde.

Cloudwatch, as this semi-regular gathering is called, is put on by an entity called Sonic Soul. This event happened on January 27. Sonic Soul is a trio of DJ's who throw warehouse and club parties as well as publish the bi-monthly techno 'zine Sonic Soul's Retina.

"DJ Infinity plays ambient and jungle. DJ Bobble plays jungle and house, and I play ambient and dub," says George Concannon a.k.a DJ LoveGrove, or LG for short. The elaborate set of lights and props was handled by Seth Foster a.k.a Double Helix, who also does the visuals for the All Mighty Senators and the Ultraworld raves.

If the whole idea of sitting around with others in pajamas and listening to squishy space music feels a bit unusual, don't feel out of touch, for Baltimore is actually ahead of the curve in this particular trend.

"We are the first ones to actually do chill-out only parties in the US," LG boasts.

The who idea of "chill-out rooms" was born in the English techno clubs of the late '80s, as LG explains. Then, promoters would set up areas for exhausted ravers. The music in these rooms was more ethereal and organic but still driven by electronic polyrhythms. Originally conceived as an alternative to the dance floors, chill-out rooms soon started gaining in popularity as separate events in the U.K.

So two years ago, when the newly-formed Sonic Soul decided to try a chill-out in Baltimore, they followed the format of their English brethren: "The whole concept would be to start ambient, go to house music, and then back to ambient. [The night's music] would be like a pyramid of energy," LG explains.

As their first party unfolded however, Sonic Soul found the slipper-wearing revelers weren't too hip on the pyramid scheme. Many of the attendees who had shown up with blankets and pillows were taken aback when others started dancing to the house.

"We were expecting it to be the other way around," LG says. "We expected people sit around through the ambient waiting to dance to the house music." But the kids spoke. They hungered for space music. They wanted the little fluffy clouds of ambient techno.

And so it remains. Ten years ago, Brian Eno, the godfather of ambient music, predicted one day that there would be clubs designed in such a way as to make one feel as if time was crawling to a stop. He explained in interviews that they'd be the precise opposite of discos.

Cloudwatch was that club. The whole room, as one observer put it, felt like a big fishbowl. There was a tent fastened to the wall. There were also nets and mesh screens hanging everywhere. Behind the stage hung a sheet of Mylar, a shiny metallic paper reflecting the images from the projectors. In the black-light illuminated back room, someone played a sitar. The music endlessly poured from the speakers. It's no surprise these parties last until nine in the morning. One can just hang suspended in the feeling of timelessness that this environment evokes.

Not surprisingly, what was happening on stage seemed to be of little interest (indeed, this was even the first time DJ's were up on a stage here, LG tells me. Usually they're stuck in the corner). For each show, Sonic Soul brings outside artists, some quite known in techno circles. This night they snagged Matt Ducasse from the U.K. group Skylab. Though Ducasse was quite revered, a small percentage of the crowd actually watched what he was doing.

There wasn't much to see anyway. A DJ places a record on one of three turntables, plays the first few seconds, plays it again, pushes some slide faders on the mixer, fiddles with one of the pitch-controlled CD players, pauses to think for a second, adjusts knobs on the effects unit, pulls a record out, puts a record away and so on. It's more like watching a sculptor than musician.

Mixing on stage can range from anything from just taking one record and adding echo and delay to constructing more complicated pieces from scratch. With as many as five different sounds running through the P.A. at once--plus whatever sample being looped through the mixer--the art of techno lies in "in making sure everything ebbs and flows," as LG says.

And good ambient is nothing if not seamless. Its rhythms can soak up almost any sample given enough repetition. LG's own box of records contains not only pre-techno progressive artists like Steve Hillage and Michael Stearns but also albums of sound effects, radio shows, Rod McKuen poetry, how-to guides like The Joy of Sex, and other spoken-word long-players from Goodwill.

It wasn't only the music that was cobbled together from second-hand sources. At times, it seemed as if much of American culture was being broken into little bits and layered back into wildly exotic and fresh forms. Vinyl records, slides, and old film clips all were discarded mediums given new life. The tired building had certainly seen more prosperous days. The fashion sense of the crowd leaned as much to thrift store adventurism as did LG's record collection. Even the vibe was one of '60s counter-cultural feel-good eclecticism.

Sometime in the wee hours of that night, Ducasse slapped a copy of the Beatles' Revolver on the turntable and spun the heady "Tomorrow Never Knows." "Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream" boomed from the P.A. The song was filled with backward-taped guitar noises and buzzing sitars. John Lennon's busy three-minute creation needed little intervention. Ducasse just sat back, took a drag from his cigarette, and let this 29 year-old song reveal a secret history that continues to unfold.

--Joab Jackson, Baltimore City Paper