We sat down with Scott and Jamie of THE AMBiENT PiNG to chat music, influences, and the history of one of the oldest drone music collectives in Toronto. This year the Toronto based creative community of audio artists, performers, musicians and visual artists celebrates its 18th anniversary.
What is THE AMBiENT PiNG all about? How did it start?
Scott: THE AMBiENT PiNG is all about supporting the development and live performance of ambient related music. The PiNG is also a social scene for open minded types and many sonic projects have been conceived by new friends meeting there. It was founded in 1999 by artist/musician Arnold Sprogis along with sound artist Chris Hutton. I remember encouraging Arnold to give the new series a name and he concocted THE AMBiENT PiNG.
Jamie: Scott pretty much covered it, but I’ll reiterate that the Ping is a community of like-minded artists who come together to share ideas and to be inspired, as the performers keep raising the bar to another level. Because it’s such a nice community of friends, we continue to present it as a labour of love.
For me, the PiNG all started with a chance meeting with Arnold and Chris at a Planet of the Loops show. Scott had just handed the loop baton over to Steven Sauvè who started layering some beautiful textures reminiscent of Terry Riley’s music, so I leaned over to Scott and mentioned that what Steven was doing was a lot like “A Rainbow in Curved Air“. Arnold was sitting behind us and chimed in that he hadn’t heard that LP in years and would love to hear it again. Arnold showed us his Kensington Artist magazine and introduced us to Chris Hutton, who wrote about ambient music for the publication. We soon discovered that both Arnold and Chris were sonic explorers too, so we spent the rest of the night talking about ambient music and the weekly series of ambient shows in bars that Arnold was about to start. A few months later, Arnold got the PiNG going at Garvey’s with Wally Jericho performing at the first show, followed by a Planet of the Loops night, and dreamSTATE played at the third PiNG. Unfortunately in 2000, Arnold had to leave the city for a few months so Scott stepped in to keep the PiNG rolling in his absence. When Arnold returned, he decided to officially turn the PiNG reins over to us as he wanted to pursue other creative endeavours.
Where was the very first AMBiENT PiNG held?
S: The first AMBiENT PiNG was held on August 17th, 1999 in a bar called Garvey’s on Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market, Toronto. It shifted down the street to Cafe Vernon in October and then further south to Southern Po Boys Club at 159 Augusta Ave in November – where it was a weekly residence until January 2001. Over the years the PiNG has had residences throughout the city, but returned to Augusta Ave in 2009 at Supermarket, then around the corner to Ratio in 2015, and most recently, full-circle to 159 Augusta (now named Handlebar). Augusta Ave seems to be our power spot and holy ground.
J: Although Kensington is hallowed ground for the PiNG, we’ve also had homes at C’est What!, the Gladstone Hotel, Tequila Lounge/Hacienda, the Drake Hotel and many other locales. We have a fairly complete history of the PiNG’s residencies across Toronto over the years on our website.
How did you get into the ambient drone genre and who were the artists that influenced you?
S: dreamSTATE’s first album, “Between Realities,” was a recording of our “waveforms” infinite ambient installation. For technical reasons, it needed to be rooted in a single key and so our drone explorations provided paths to a harmonic solution. We recently created an infinite “ambient installation” for iPhones and iPads called “Ephemeral City” which is based on the same ambient drone principles.
Later, in January 2000 I began to book the PiNG but didn’t yet know a lot of ambient artists in Toronto. Andrew Aldridge of Planet Of The Loops stepped up and played every second week for the first few months with a variety of amazing loopers. dreamSTATE initiated The Drone Cycle 2000, where we visited one note of the chromatic scale each month as a foundation for ambient drone improvisations with a rotating cast of special guests.
This series deepened our roots in ambient drone-improv experimentation, leaving only one show per month to book other artists. Since drone music was not at all “trendy” then, we promoted the shows with tongue-in-cheek posters parodying movie titles. While Steve Roach and Brian Eno were definitely modal ambient influences for me, I’d particularly name-check Robert Rich‘s “Trances and Drones” as an album I would ponder and sleep with regularly.
J: It happened rather organically for Scott and I. Back in the 80s & 90s Scott and I would always get into these ambient drone-like sections when we got together to play in our previous group, Radio Silence, an electronic music project focused on sequenced electronics. We called those sections “moon landings” with sonics sweeping and drifting about into evolving textures. Eno’s early ambient LPs as well as his explorations with Jon Hassell and Daniel Lanois were definite early points of reference as were Robert Rich’s legendary Sleep Concerts and “Trances and Drones” LP and Steve Roach’s “Dreamtime Return” LP. I guess the soundscape that I regularly woke up to as a kid also played a part too, as the sounds of church bells, suburbia and nature would drift down the creek behind my house into my window. Then my next door neighbour, who was a train enthusiast, would start playing his recording of old locomotives starting up and hitting the rails while another neighbour would start droning away on the bagpipes while my father played ragtime and swing jazz on the piano. Definitely set a sonic reference tone for me.
What music are you enjoying most these days?
S: I love being immersed in sound – and surround music is a special treat for me. I’ve acquired all of Peter Namlook’s wonderful surround albums and return to them regularly, as well as Diatonis, Robert Rich, and the entire King Crimson catalog (superbly remixed in surround by Steve Wilson). The recently released “Kraftwerk: 3-D The Catalogue”, where they recreated all their albums in surround, has been barrels of fun for me. For this summer’s driving music, I’ve been digging the new Slowdive and Broken Social Scene albums and on the ambient front, Northumbria‘s “Markland” and Forrest Fang‘s “Following The Ether Sun” are new treasures.
J: Well to be honest, I’m less of a music consumer these days and spend most of my listening time reviewing and producing our own stuff that’s in process, as well as to the new music that flows into the PiNG from new and old artists looking for shows.
Like Scott, I’ve been a music collector since the 60s and love the surround mixes from the original quad movement from the 70s and the newer 5.1 surround mixes of recent years. The loudness wars of recent years spoil a lot of the new music for me as its lack of dynamics fatigues my ears and can only listen for short periods. When I do spin others’ music, it’s usually prog and electronic music from the 60s and 70s (Tangerine Dream, Pink Floyd, Klaus Schulze, Morton Subtonik, Terry Riley, Roxy Music, Eno, etc.,) punk and new wave music from the late 70s and early 80s (The Cure, Cocteau Twins, Ramones, Depeche Mode, Yaz, Love & Rockets, etc.,) experimental (The Residents, Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa and the Mothers) as well as current ambient, drone and soundscape artists like Steve Roach, Robert Rich, Diatonis, Northumbria, Sylken and all of those other PiNG artists who have shared their music with us.
Tell us about dreamSTATE. What gear are you using to create your sounds?
S: The gear has evolved over the years from analog & digital hardware synths through a multitude of laptop VSTs. You’ll be happy to hear that I’ve used a ridiculous number of Roland devices in the past and with dreamSTATE – most prominently the JD-990 Synthesizer, XP-60 Music Workstation, XV-5050 64-Voice Synthesizer, MKS-50 Synthesizer Module and SE-70 Super Effects Processor. In the last five years though, I’ve become deeply addicted to using iPad synths and treatments. The portability, with the ability to work on sounds and grooves anywhere, has made them central to my creative work. Animoog, Borderlands, Addictive Pro and iDensity will be wielded whenever I play out and I usually bring one to three iPads. They’re processed through Kaoss Pads and Eventide H9 treatments. Sonics from the hardware synths are still vital in my studio but are now more likely to be sampled and twisted up in my iPads for a live situation. I’ve grown to love small and powerful.
J: Like Scott said, our gear has evolved over the years – for me the bulk of my dreamSTATE hardware sounds came from the Roland MKS-50, JV-80 and SE-70, but racks of gear and full sized keyboards are heavy to carry and as I’ve aged I’ve had to lighten the load to continue performing – so nowadays I use a collection of VST soft synths on a Windows laptop and tablet with a bunch of small keyboards (like the K-25m) and various button and knob boxes for control. Size and weight is also why your compact Boutique line of synths and your recreation of analog synths as digital plugins are so attractive to me, as they are very powerful and portable, with all those familiar Roland sonics that I love on board.
What is your favourite piece of Roland gear?
S: The Roland JD-990 is my absolute fave. The sound quality is excellent and it’s very programmable from the large display and associated buttons. The JD-990 is the synth I built my first evolving ambient patches with back in 1995, and it has always been a signature recurring element in my ambient scapes over the years. I own three to ensure that I will always have a working unit.
J: That’s a tough one as I’ve had a long, loving history with Roland gear too (TR-606, TB-303, MC-202, SH-101, TR-727, S-10, S-220, U-20, U-220, MKS-50, JV-80, JV-880, MC-303, JV-1010, SE-50 effect unit, VM3100Pro mixer and I’m sure I missed a few,) but the MKS-50 with the PG-300 controller would be my absolute favourite as I could spend an entire performance (and have) just playing the filter sweeping its cutoff and resonance while modulating it with the LFO and its wacky envelope. To me it’s the most musical sounding filter ever and playing with a synth’s filter is a big part of my sound. Also loved my JV-80 with the vintage sample board installed and it too was a big part of our early ambient sounds especially when paired with Scott’s growing JD-990 arsenal. Our first dreamSTATE LP – “Between Realities” from our “Waveforms” surround sound installation features both the JD-990 and JV-80, as they were the main synths used for that project.
The Roland MC-202 Synthesizer and SH-101 Synthesizer combo also holds a special place in my heart as my first music project, Modern Times, used only those two synths along with a drum machine to record our first 4 song EP – “Gasping for Culture”.
Are there any new products that you are excited about?
S: I’m very interested in the new Roland SE-02 Analog Synthesizer, as I love big sound in a small package and appreciate lots of controls. I had a brief preview of a beta-version at a recent DRONE:KLUB event in the Roland Inspiration Centre and it sounded great! I imagine that with the new on-board sequencer and synced delay, it will be wicked for Berlin school musics.
J: Ditto, I’m lusting after the SE-02 to replace the Roland A-01 Controller+Generator in my Roland Boutique K-25m keyboard. The new Roland Boutique SH-01A Synthesizer looks interesting too, especially now that my old MC-202 is sick and need of repair. Basically the 202 and 101 had the same synth engine so if my old 202 isn’t fixable, the SH-01A would be a great replacement to get at its lovely sound again. Nice to see Roland celebrating their heritage and bringing out new analogs too. Really looking forward to what’s coming next from Roland. I’ve had a lot of fun playing with your recent new toys that we’ve been given the opportunity to explore at the recent DRONE:KLUB gatherings.