Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces
by Hannah M.G. Shapero
June 5, 2003
To call Steve Roach's new 4-CD set "ambitious" is an understatement. In MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES, Roach has given us more than two years' worth of work, actually originating from ideas he first worked with in 1996. MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES lasts more than 5 hours if played straight through. That's as long as a full-length Wagner opera, but mercifully without the singing. Indeed, this might be called the "Parsifal" of electronic music: a long, mythic journey into a world filled with esoteric light and spiritual passion.
To enter into the world of MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES, you must first understand its language and its culture. Roach's music grows from many musical roots; he has taken inspiration from rock, jazz, electronica, "world" and aboriginal music, even "Western" cowboy music. But here, Roach's musical world is that of what is called "classical" music, or rather, the "serious" music of the late 19th and early to middle 20th century. For MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES he has chosen to use mostly notes and harmonies which can be found in the work of composers like the late Romantics of Europe and Russia, and the French "Impressionists" as well as more recent composers such as Aaron Copland and even the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen. Most important for Roach's MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES is the exotic music of the late 19th century Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, who created a huge "mystical universal chord" on which he based many wild works.
This album could very well be thought of as "classical music," though Roach is using electronic media rather than an orchestra to do it. Yet it is still essentially "ambient," and it uses the musical language of "ambient," with its floating harmonies, its lack of rhythm, and its dreamlike slowness. For this set, Roach has put aside the aboriginal percussion that has been so characteristic of his work (except for one moment of rattle sounds at the beginning of disc 3). He has also left behind the insistent electronic rhythms of his earlier albums, as well as bells, chanting, special sound-effects, didgeridoo, ominous whispers, weird flutes, industrial clanks, and other familiar Roach features. What is left is pure harmony, played on layers and layers of synthesizers (and in places, modified electric guitar) which sometimes sound like an orchestra, sometimes like a great pipe organ. Only one track has an "acoustic" instrument, on Disc 1, where a cello is played as a drone.
On Disc 1, auto-titled "Mystic Chords & Sacred Spaces," Roach sets all this out for the listener: the floating chords, the underlying drones, the oceanic reverberation, and above all, the harmonies. Everything depends on the harmonies that make up the chords: major, minor, modal, dissonant, consonant. Other ambient composers have tried this, and have produced hours of boredom. But Steve Roach can make transcendent music out of this style. The reason for Roach's success is his outstanding musicianship and composing ability. He knows just what chord to use to evoke any emotion, whether happy, sad, warm, ominous, blissful or despairing. And these chords are not just simple guitar changes or plinks on a keyboard. They are highly complex tone-clusters, deliberately built up in each separate musical section from different keys and modes, and blended together with modern digital and sound-looping technology. One reason they are so effective, and unique to Roach, is that the notes in these chords are unusually spaced; a single chord may have notes that are two octaves apart, giving it a "vast" and open quality. Yet most of these chords can be played on a conventional piano or organ keyboard.
Enough musical analysis. I was not joking when I compared this to Wagner. MYSTIC CHORDS & SACRED SPACES can be considered a kind of music drama in four acts. Disc 1, "Act 1," sets forth a kind of grand musical uncertainty, a question; the mood in this first set is wistful, sometimes plaintive, and wondering. The listener is drawn in to the highly personal, yet universal story of a soul on a journey.
Disc 2, titled "Labyrinth," opens with the idyllic "Wren and Raven," which incorporates nature sounds, recorded real-time at Steve's house. The sound of many birds, including not only a cactus wren but a cheerfully tweeting house finch, are paired with somewhat unnerving synthesizer drones. As the set progresses, the nature sounds become more and more filtered and remote, and the synthesizers come into the foreground. It's a chilling passage which depicts the transition from the natural world of birds and sunlight to the deep and often terrifying "Otherworld" (the title of disc 2, track 2). This disc, "act 2," is a dramatic expression of that otherworld journey, as Roach and so many other shamanic and inner travelers have experienced it. Disc 2 features the scariest, and most dissonant, music on the album. It also contains some of the most exalted and passionate sounds -- swells of yearning and dark sinks of despair, all of them portrayed just by the harmonies, moving along in their stately slow rhythm of change. Later on Disc 2, the harmonies change again, in a fascinating mix of tonal (playable on "normal" keyboards) and microtonal sounds. Track 11, "Soulwave," is the artistic climax of Disc 2, where pure vast vistas of starlit desert space emerge out of murky microtonal mist. It's like looking out into the vastness of space and finding that you and the distant galaxies are on the same wavelength, resonating to a gorgeous, multi-level synthesizer chord. Disc 2, which had started in Steve Roach's backyard, ends in sparkling, galactic bliss. But we are in no way done with the journey.
Disc 3, "Recent Future," is in my opinion the best one of the four. It has the most varied and inventive music, and the widest diversity of mood and musical narrative. Here some of Roach's titles edge towards the "New Age" ("Open Heart," "Turn to Light,") but this is hardly the twaddle which is still emitted by "new age" players. Rapturous shimmering tone-clusters, which sound almost like organ music, establish Disc 3 as a direct ray pointing into mystical consciousness, rising above any specific religious or cultural context. Interestingly, Roach reprises a chord from his frenetic CORE (2001) in one of these serene, contemplative passages, in Track 4, "This Moment is a Memory." The next track, "This Moment is Another Memory," is also filled with un-mystical bent guitar notes and weird creature noises. Perhaps these are musical memories of previous Roach albums! The middle tracks on "Recent Future" return to the mystical mood and get smoother and softer, until they drift off to a quiet, minimalist sonic sleep in tracks 8, 9, and 10. Track 11, "Grounding Place," sings not of sleep and bliss, but of melancholy and sadness, which even mystics cannot escape.
And then at the end of Disc 3, after the desolate "Grounding Place" fades out, come two tracks which I regard as the highest point not only of the disc, but the whole 4-disc set. Track 12, "Turning Back," is a short but majestic "orchestral" tone-poem which closely resembles a quiet moment late in the first movement of American composer Aaron Copland's "Symphony no. 3" (really! listen and you'll agree!) which then leads into my favorite track of all of them (and favorite title, too), track 13, "The Spiral of Time's Fire Burns On." This is the pivotal and most intense piece of the whole set, where the meaning starts to emerge; it's like the vision of enlightened fire, the goal which draws the mystic journeyer onward. Dazzling cascades and sequences of parallel 10th-chords build to a brilliant crescendo, echoing against each other in a glorious galactic cathedral sound. Yet, remarkably, it doesn't end here. The photonic cathedral fades away, into a strange coda of murky, nocturnal, muffled dissonance. Even after the vision, the dark Otherworld, and the musical question, remains. There is one more "act" to go.
Disc 4, "act 4," is titled "Piece of Infinity," and it is all one 74-minute track. This extended ambient piece is along the lines of Roach's other sound-environments, such as THE DREAM CIRCLE, SLOW HEAT, or the more recent DARKEST BEFORE DAWN (which is derived from one of Roach's "mystic chords" used on this album). Unlike the other three albums in this set, it is not meant for dramatic or narrative effect, but as an aural meditation or background to quiet contemplation. Musically, it is based on a slowly repeating arpeggiation of one of the basic "mystic chords," slowly revolving upward over and over again. High, drifting synthesizer tones accompany this bassline, but do not intrude. It's all much quieter in volume and in mood than the previous three albums. Here, the otherworld is left behind, and the journey is stilled. Is this the "answer" to Roach's musical and spiritual question? If Roach were a lesser composer, he would just pick a sweet chord, relax, and flow downstream into smug prettiness. Disc 4's music is comforting, but it's also strange. This Infinity is not sweetness and light, and these slow orbits don't provide an easy answer. The listener, and the journeyer, is left looking out into the darkness where despite all the memories of brilliance, the way is still unclear.