Raising Vibes in a Garden

            Pasadena. August eighth. “Floating ☁,” a text-messaging-based “community through sound and nature,” hosts a night of “sonic blessings” from Yialmelic Frequencies, Dustin Wong, and Jeremiah Chiu at Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden. Information is texted out twenty-four hours before the donation-based show, along with a playlist. The community also sends suggestions to arrive early with a blanket (for seating), snacks (“snacks! snacks always,” they texted) and a sweater (for implausibly cold weather on a summer day. Spoiler: it did not get cold; I used my sweater as a pillow instead). Advertising no website, nor a social media presence, but only a text-based system, Floating attracted a full crowd of hip fans between their early-twenties and early-thirties, with some older people and a few children. They all lined up ten minutes before five in the entrance to the garden, while two members of Floating walked through the line with a QR-Code link to a donation website. Ten minutes after, we were silently allowed into the garden, permitted to wander the two-acre property and sit wherever we liked.
            The garden contained two large ponds, split by a central path. In the center of the central path, the artists performed. And, surrounding the ponds, one large path looped around the garden, cutting between a persistent density of trees that blocked out most of the property’s sky. On the far end of the garden, a closed-off Japanese tea house juxtaposed the second pond; next to that, a wide clearing off the path became the main seating area. The bluetooth speakers spread around the garden all synced up to the central hub, playing ambient sounds as a prelude to the show (like Satoshi Ashikawa). So, as people filtered in, accompanied by both environmental garden noise and music designed to be environmental noise, most placed blankets down in the clearing, opened their snacks and wine bottles, chatted lowly, and relaxed. I, with my friend Greg, sat on a towel close to the pond, across from the artist.

            Yialmelic Frequencies, an ambient artist who “has been receiving visions of another dimension since childhood,” performs first. She writes music “to accompany meditations;” each piece is its own sonic journey. And she begins by playing water noises, which she controls and modulates from her laptop. The conversations fade away. Water noises expand beyond just the streams entering the pond. And a synthesizer unfolds, sparsely in a long-term crescendo, orbiting epiphenomenally around the water, until, after several minutes, the synthesizer overtakes them. And here the ambient electronics began.
            Blissed-out in a fog of ambience, many of the garden-visitors laid down, eyes closed. It was music that barely reached the body, finding a quiet place among the surroundings. An occasional passing plane or loud motorcycle cut through the environment, but it made no difference, for Yialmelic Frequencies created an atmosphere of contemplative reflection, of relaxation—one which reached an inner part of the self, paradoxically, not contingent on the surroundings. And so, when the artist’s laptop froze and quit, the audience remained quiet, unagitated, as if it were a long rest in the middle of the performance (just as the synthesizer was decentered by the water, music, in this instance, was decentered by a pillar of silence). When the music continued, Yilamelic Frequencies sang into a heavily-processed microphone; her voice became weightless and thin, and, finally, the performance ended restfully. A round of applause. The audience tread the trails until the next performance.
            I explored and found people spotted around the entire garden; some right off the path, some placed blankets next to a Buddha statue. Some had books to read, some had journals to write in, and some just gazed endlessly into the pond, thoughtfully. Many chatted in small groups, a few quietly followed the garden path. Others shared their wine and crackers, a group on the fringe of the property passed a joint around. As a whole, it was a space for the self—the self with others. One, maybe, of “new age” spirituality, or none at all. It was here that I wrote down the controversial claim that “religion should make you nap,” and, similarly, “I am so fucking relaxed right now.”
            I completed a lap around the garden as Dustin Wong and Jeremiah Chiu began their improvisatory set. It was their first live performance, with Wong on a guitar and reverbed microphone, run through a shoegazey pedal board, and Chiu with several synthesizers linked together. A lingering ambience began the set, slowly transitioning into a more percussive electronic blend; complicated guitar, organ, and moog-ish sounds alluded to prog rock; and, culminating, the music solidified its beats into a structured dub track with spiraling guitar, before dissolving into sporadic low steel drums sounds with a reverbed-key jingle. The music evaporated into sparse sounds, drawing me into the environment, into the garden, instead of creating an alternative space for escape. And, as the sun began to set, and the music returned to a more persistent ambient hum, I leaned back into my sweater-pillow and the set ended. An intense applause this time; the host thanked us for attending, a woman with the munchies asked my friend for his snacks, and people chatted and lingered in the garden, slowly filing out.

          Some observations. I’d like to follow my experience of being drawn into the environment against a type of musical escapism; neither is better than the other, and both types of experiences happened during the show, so the dichotomy here is not concrete. I’d also like to examine this type of concert community as an alternative spiritual space, especially for queer people.
            First, the difference between being drawn into the environment, and creating an alternative environment to be drawn into. The former, in this place, plays on silence and garden noise—the stuff that is already in the environment; the latter constructs an environment of its own, inviting the listener along on a journey. So when Dustin Wong holds keys in front of the microphone, letting them resonate subtly, before creating an emptiness between sounds, the keys act to draw a focused attention, centered. As the sound fades away, so does the grip of attention, allowing the listener to be relaxed and immersed in their surroundings. The music is just part of the environment. Yet, this is not the entire show, and when something like an ambient pad, a beat, or a more persistent guitar melody enters, it draws attention back to the music, and begins to create an alternate space; or, begins to transform the garden into a reality shaped by the music. Instead of working with what is already-there, the music becomes like a sheet blanketed onto reality, so that the outline of the environment serves as a boundary, but the content of it is filled in by, for example, the synthesizer. And so, the world of music is a constructed one beyond the given environment. I do not think that there is a hard and fast line between these types of experiences, though. It is a passing observation, like a loose thought, and often these experiences work in tandem.
             Another observation. “There are so many gay couples here,” my friend said as we scanned to crowd. This is not surprising, for the label hosting Yialmelic Frequencies, and, occasionally associated with Dustin Wong (without Jeremiah Chiu)—Leaving Records—declares its acceptance of “All Genres,” which is a nod towards a musical type of inclusivity; almost like a musical queer theory. And although the label did not host this show, the label’s founder sat centered in a chair in the audience, while many hosting the show wore the label’s t-shirt. This correspondence between the record label’s “all-genre” motto and the inclusivity of the performance itself is neither an immediate nor direct signifier of queer activity, but it alludes to a musically-inclusive atmosphere, which is a disposition that, hopefully, exceeds its purely-music object. And, another artist on the label makes a statement applicable to this performance too: when you’re a queer person and life has not always been easy, you want to participate in music that is healing in some way. So, there is an engagement with a broader sense of acceptance and calm that invites queer people to, possibly, engage something spiritual.
            At least, the spirituality is the focus of Yialmelic Frequencies. But a “spirituality” also permeates the community as a whole. One of the text messages from Floating, for example, speaks of elevating the overall vibration of planet earth. Another speaks of creating sonic blessings. And Jeremiah Chiu has published guided meditations; Dustin Wong, a meditation of ecstatic energy, emphasizing spirituality. Not to mention that this performance took place in a Japanese Garden, giving the performance the option to be interpreted spiritually. And, although there is no orthodoxy to this community, the subtle spiritual undertones suggest a fluid religiosity to the event. Or, instead, the music is just relaxing; the listener can have it either way.
            And mostly for me, I, again, do not see a hard-and-fast boundary between relaxation and spirituality. As I nearly napped into the music, engaged with the surrounding environment, and also got caught up in the scene painted by the sonic landscape, I realized that this was the first time I had allowed myself to relax in over a year; to sink into an environment and trust it. And it is this type of relaxation (why not just get high?) that seems to be restorative—“healing,” as one person put it. So for those who have an existence that is not always so easy, why not come to an ambient concert in the garden on a Sunday evening, raise the vibrations of planet earth, and chill out.