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synth pioneer Malcolm Cecil played “Ambient Church” (review); Suzanne Ciani playing in June

As he wrapped up his set Saturday night (4/21), Malcolm Cecil faced the pews and remarked with surprise on the size of the audience – he had fully filled two levels of seating at the Bushwick Methodist Church. “I knew if I lived long enough,” he joked. At age 81, he was certainly more than deserving of the warm reception he received at Ambient Church’s latest event.

A brief look at Cecil’s resume begs astonishment: he began as a jazz performer in Britain in the ’50s and ’60s before moving into electronic music, becoming a pioneer of analog synthesized audio with his gigantic multitimbral, polyphonic synthesizer, TONTO. After showcasing the instrument’s capabilities on 1971’s Zero Time, Cecil was tapped by Stevie Wonder to produce (along with Cecil’s Tonto’s Exploding Head Band partner, Robert Margouleff) much of his ’70s output, including Talking Book and Innervisions, for which he won Grammys for Best-Engineered Non-Classical Album. Even putting his impressive past aside, last night’s show was a spectacular showcase of Cecil’s range, and his mastery of his equipment. His set began with a bubbling synth that recreated the sound of a babbling brook, before jumping onto the keys, a setup which included both a Kurzweil and a Roland synthesizer (sadly the TONTO is up in Canada at National Music Centre). He also interspersed an electronic valve instrument that acted as a sort of conduit between Cecil’s human input (breath) and a beautiful, saxophone-like patchwork of sounds. He also used his most analog instrument, his voice, layering thoughtful musings over the jazzy synths: “I am the river, but I am not the current.” It was a beautiful set that touched on all aspects of his career – his jazz background, his experimental electronic music from the early days of TONTO, and his bluesy production work with Gil Scot-Heron, Stevie Wonder, and countless others.

Steve Moore (of Zombi) also had an ambitious opening set. As opposed to Cecil’s minimal projections (he mostly opted for a single colored spotlight), Moore’s performance utilized the space, projecting floor-to-ceiling animations on the church’s  high arched windows. It was a colorful and dramatic performance, which matched his dark and pulsating synths, programmed using four different synthesizers (Sequential Circuits: Prophet 6, Pro-One and Six-Trak, Korg Polysix). He also made use of two drum machines (the MFB-522 and CR-78), which added an asynchronous beat to his assemblage of low frequency synths. Taken together, Moore and Cecil made the church space feel otherworldly – a setting for reflection and awe, with just enough playfulness to remind the audience that they’re seeing the man who produced Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” in a church with a bunch of twentysomethings on a Saturday night.

The event was part of Ambient Church, curated and produced by Brian Sweeny (formerly of the memorable Bushwick DIY space Body Actualized Center). Their previous lineups have featured Steve Hauschildt (of Emeralds), Laraaji, Julianna Barwick, and more. Their next event brings yet another electronic music pioneer, Suzanne Ciani, to the Bushwick Methodist Church on June 2. Ciani has provided sound effects for the certified platinum disco version of the Star Wars soundtrack, as well as countless indelible commercial works (Coca-Cola’s “pop and pour” sound, for example), in addition to many of her own high water mark new age albums. More info and tickets here.

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