In the past year, New Age music has begun to escape the lamentable late-’80s stereotypes — Harmonic Convergence, crystals, Kenny G — that have long plagued it. Last fall, Light in the Attic released a stellar compilation called I Am the Center that catalogued small-press New Age releases from the ’50s to the ’70s; Warp records reissued Laaraji; All Saints reissued Harold Budd. Articles popped up in Pitchfork and even in the New York Times.
One name conspicuously missing from this mini-renaissance is the California-born/Arizona-based Steve Roach. Much of the creative churn of artists like Daniel Lopatin and Mark McGuire has been Roach’s raison d’etre for decades: working with many different fellow musicians over a seemingly endless stream of releases, evincing a desire to experiment with electronics and beyond.
The album that fully established Roach as a force was his third overall, Structures from Silence, originally released in 1984 by early new age label/distribution service Fortuna Records. After various represses and remasterings over the years, it’s now back in a three-CD edition for its 30th anniversary by longtime Roach supporters Projekt Records. The two bonus discs that complement the reissue consist of four later, previously unreleased pieces Roach indicates in the liner notes came from the same sources of inspiration, specifically a “place of stillness and deep inner quiet,” as Structures.
From the start, one can easily hear the deep sense of serenity initially explored by acts such as Popul Vuh, Tangerine Dream, Vangelis and others. What makes Structures from Silence so special, still, is how Roach had both come to match his inspirations and suggest a new way forward. The opening “Reflections in Suspension” lives up to both its name and that of the album’s, slowly emerging from deep quiet only to again fade away, a pattern repeated on the other two original tracks. While this itself is a common enough pattern in the field, it’s the arrangement’s focus that calls attention here, pared down and extremely deliberate.
It’s almost shocking to hear something so deceptively simple take shape, a soft, very slow lead melody of sorts in a steady loop while deeper layers of sound sometimes wash up like a just-on-the-horizon slow wave waiting to come in. Structure over silence indeed, but also suspension as tension, a surface beauty that suggests potentially dark as well as vast depths. “Quiet Friend” is even more understated, the gentlest of tones softly overlaying another and never quite disappearing, taking a calmly playful turn towards its end. It suggests the lovely moment when Arthur Conan Doyle has Sherlock tell Watson “You have the grand gift of silence.” Like a trustworthy friend, the music is just there, a reassurance.
As for the half-hour long title track, two notes in initial sequence almost resemble a fanfare, or a call to a ceremony, repeated at points as other melodies — almost but not quite missable as melodies, so intentionally, carefully drawn out are they — emerge in sequence, evolving and sounding warmer as the piece progresses and hints of distant murmurings play out. The whole idea of making a structure out of silence is an intentional paradox; making that idea tangible, while simultaneously suggesting closeness in a vast space, was Roach’s self-imposed challenge. There are no random washes of what Matt Groening once called “Spacey Tinkles” in a Life in Hell gag, no “beautiful” sounds or tones or glissandos, just a composition that demands focus as much as any explosive noise might.