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In Steve's words: "Performing at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral was a dream come true in many ways, and a high point in my live performance memories over the last decade. It's a fitting release to commence the times. This will be the first live recording I've released with the natural reverberant sound of the performance space predominant in the mix. The expansive reverent ambience of Grace Cathedral is the perfect environment to experience this music within. To honor this space, I built a set that offered options to directly respond to the unique acoustic properties I knew I was heading into. The influence of the massive space and the spirit it contained were unseen collaborators holding the music and all of us in a dynamic embrace. From my performance location, I could hear and see the sounds constantly blooming outwards in the space hovering above the audience, collecting energy and then receding away within the expanse of the cathedral. I would spontaneously respond to this sense by shaping, carving, holding and releasing the music back into the void as the night evolved. Merging with Grace indeed.
"Because this recording utilizes microphones in the space, along with a small blend of the sound board mix, the audience is sometimes heard, as it's all a part of the living breathing space created that evening. I made the choice to not include any audience response or applause at the conclusion of the concert, since outside the live context, ending the recording into the deeper silence felt more appropriate." -- Steve Roach, January 2010
Just how natural the act of presenting his work in front of an audience has become is demonstrated on Live at Grace Cathedral, a double-disc-package documenting a gig in San Francisco dating back to 2007. The difference with a fail-proof laptop performance could hardly be more striking: Rather than merely using pre-recorded passages and atmospheres from previous albums as a backing to a couple of real-time manipulations, there is no safety net here. Instead, sounds, sequences, melodic motives and harmonic particles – sometimes as short as a single sustained chord from a studio edit – are re-combined from scratch and carefully applied to a blank canvas. In some instances, not only are tracks seamlessly segueing in- and out of each other, but various references actually appear to have been stacked, creating acoustic meta-structures of utmost density and suspense. In sync with this philosophy, Roach has grouped the tracks into two extended suites, „Embracing the Space“ on the first- and „Merging with Grace“ on the second disc, thereby defining them as stages in the unfolding of a single thought and avoiding the impression of clearly delineated borderlines – very much the way his audience will have experienced the concert at the time.
Nowhere is this both transformative and demiurgic process clearer than on Roach's rendition of „Westwind“. The original version – published on Future Proof and coincidentally also recorded live and „in the spirit of the spontaneous impulse“ in his Timeroom studio – constituted a tour de force of riding a rhythmical wave, an effort of replacing dynamic concepts of development with an intricately interlaced architecture, which revealed itself through insistent repetition, minute variation and deep listening. The piece marked an exercise in gracefully sustaining the tension and then entering a long phase of decomposition, the last ten minutes of which constituted a long, nostalgically tinged withering process. On Live at Grace Cathedral, the hypnotic sequencer run is still in place, but it is now flowing through a seventeen-minute long riverbed as a mere rhythmical backbone. Instead of carving out its nuances through a cornucopia of continuous and simultaneous filtering operations, Roach is allowing it to plow away on its own, dedicating his full attention to the layering of cool, cathedral drones and shuffling of sorrowful triads floating on top of it. As if caught in meditation, the music remains firmly put, holding the space and moving laterally - into the fabric of time rather than alongside it.
He isn't alone on his journey. Every step of the way, an invisible collaborator is adding ideas and thoughts to the proceedings: Grace Cathedral itself.To Roach, being able to perform in a space built to express the sacred mystery through visual and acoustic cues was „a dream come true“ and, as he has pointed out in the liner notes, he eagerly made use of the opportunity by consciously emphasising this spiritual bond with the actual environment by placing microphones in the room rather than merely using the line-out of his mixing console. In itself, awarding the concert hall a seminal role in the delivery of the music is nothing new. Here, however, compositional decisions were actually influenced by the resonance, reverb and specific sonic properties of the cathedral. As a result, Roach was capable of further reducing his pieces to their essence: When the simple process of a tone fading away is extended by another four or five seconds, the advent of the next will create overlaps and, subsequently, new patterns, while even something as simple as a chord can seem a momentous event. Rather than abusing this power to blow his audience away, Roach is using it with utmost subtlety, building a limitless corridor leading straight into the sky, spouting harmonics and glistening cloud-clusters of sound. The result is an atmosphere which is as complex in terms of the simultaneity of events as it is transparent: As a listener, one can literally see and hear through the multitude of different layers as though one were looking at the waterplay in an Italian fountain in summertime.
It is through this confluence of chance and determination, of chaos and structure that the album turns from being a mere live document into an integral work. While Roach will usually spend months in the studio to tweak his compositions to perfection, the interplay between space and artist is creating a continuum of similar perfection in the moment on this occasion. The clock may be running out for all of us eventually. But for just under two hours, Live at Grace Cathedral is slowing its fearful ticking down to a consoling heartbeat. -Tobias Fischer