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At Ambient Church, a sacred setting for radically meditative music

At Ambient Church, a sacred setting for radically meditative music
Suzanne Ciani performs at London's Royal Albert Hall. (Gregory White / BBC Proms)

In 1949, the British composer Daphne Oram wrote a piece for two orchestras. A traditional ensemble would perform first, then its work would be manipulated through early-era electronics. When the two sides were joined onstage, it was to sound like nothing before it.

Or it would have, if anyone had ever bothered to perform “Still Point” at the time. The current version only premiered live in July of this year. That neglect of Oram’s vision bugged the analog synthesis visionary Suzanne Ciani for most of her life.

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“She was 23 years old and 70 years ahead of her time,” Ciani said.

Ciani paid alms when she performed her own live synthesizer compositions alongside “Still Point’s” London debut this year. But her lifelong devotion to the radical potential of electronic music is also bringing her to headline the L.A. debut Friday of the concert series Ambient Church.

The New York-founded series puts experimental artists into dramatically repurposed churches, for long nights of meditative live ambient music. It’s looking back at history (and specifically to the women who invented and pushed this genre) as inspiration for a better future.

“We have a job to do, and maybe we have to go a little bit extreme,” Ciani said. “Art is not a delicate interaction.”

The newly L.A.-based promoter Brian Sweeny started the series in 2016, following the many venue closures that decimated New York’s DIY music scene (including his own, Brooklyn’s Body Actualized Center).

One kind of music space that the city still had in abundance, however, was churches: gothic splendor, with lots of downtime and excellent acoustics that could make for a transportive experience with the right music.

“It’s exciting to come to a brand new space you wouldn’t normally feel invited to,” Sweeny said. “It gets you excited about possibilities, that the world is unexpected and new.”

Sweeny didn’t invent the idea of a roving church show. But he did see a particular kinship between high-minded spiritual pursuits and the form-breaking ambitions of experimental music.

“A lot of people think of electronic music as a bad rave,” he said. “But this music is the antidote to our culture, of go-go-go, where everything’s moving so fast.”

Coupled with gobsmacking digital projections mapped onto each church’s individual architecture, the series created a culture all its own, one somewhere between modern wellness seekers, contemporary classical fans and late-night techno hedonists. Veterans such as Ciani, Malcolm Cecil and Hans-Joachim Roedelius played with ambitious newcomers including Steve Hauschildt, Julianna Barwick and Earthen Sea.

Fans come for all kinds of reasons, both to tune in or tune out — sometimes both in one night.

“Some are huge music fans who appreciate the non-corporate setting,” Sweeny said. “Some are into sound meditation, and it’s really powerful to be there and feel the energy of hundreds of others in complete silence. And some just want a show that’s really something special.”

L.A. was a natural next move for the series (now partners with local promoter Eli Welbourne). But Sweeny also cited the area’s particularly rich history of ambient and New Age music, plus its abundance of film soundtrack composers, as draws.

Ciani also has deep roots in the California avant-garde. Friday, she’ll perform live with a rare quadrophonic Buchla synth, designed in the early ‘60s by the Bay Area electronics virtuoso Don Buchla. Ciani (who was friends with Philip Glass and Ornette Coleman) devoted her life to the instrument, wringing unprecedented sounds from it until irreplaceable parts of the unwieldy machine gave out or got stolen. She put it aside for decades.

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But as Ambient promoters such as Sweeny have rediscovered and re-emphasized decades of future-minded electronic composers, Ciani returned to a modern version and has begun to gently tour with it again. When she plays it, she feels a spiritual connection to Buchla, who died in 2016 — apropos for a show in this purposefully reverent setting.

“I still feel his presence so much. It’s such a grace to be able to perform with it,” Ciani said. “It’s alive. It’s a living, breathing thing.”

That’s true for the organizers as well. “Music is spiritual, and if you come with an intention of finding transcendence, you’ll experience it,” Sweeny said. “Churches were built for transcendence.”

Ciani and Sweeny both also emphasize Ambient Church’s mission to put women and non-binary artists at the forefront.

Women such as Oram and Ciani were some of the first composers to embrace this technology and to see it with new eyes in the contemporary world. While mainstream music fans sometimes viewed these female composers as somewhat of a curiosity (Ciani made much of her livelihood in film scoring and commercial sound design; watch her live performance next to a patronizing David Letterman to understand why). But today’s audiences primed on avant-garde techno and feminist New Age thinking are now flocking to see them.

“I was around all the top guys,” Ciani said. “But when it came to what was truly new, it was a woman doing it with a new, different perspective.”

That perspective still has radical potential, as does the idea of simply pausing in a beautiful space for a few hours, thinking about your place in the universe and getting lost in music with a deep history of imagining a better world.

“I’m so excited about this juncture. We never got to finish what we were doing then,” Ciani said. “It was a vision of a new language, where we’d all have sequencers in our living rooms. That vision got lost, but now kids have started looking backwards to see the future.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Ambient Church with Suzanne Ciani

Where: First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, 540 South Commonwealth Ave.

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Cost: $25

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