Ambient Church founder Brian Sweeny is well aware of the problems ambient artists face when playing traditional venues. For years, the Los Angeles organizer had been intrigued by the idea of churches as venues, especially for something as low key and fragile as ambient music.
"I walked into this church in Greenpoint [in Brooklyn] in 2016 where my friend was throwing music events," Sweeny says. "It was ambient music, and she had a projector there. And I thought, 'This should just be a thing.'"
So Sweeny created a performance series hosted in settings built for intimate gatherings: churches. Now two years in the running, Sweeny's nomadic Ambient Church books all ambient and experimental bands, and uses projectors to show visuals to enhance the aural experience.
Ambient Church aims to create a setting where music can be enjoyed without interruption. "In these times, people want a place built for transcendence and for being hyper-present," says Sweeny. "If you create space for them to come in, then they can have a very unique experience."
For two nights this week, Ambient Church will take over Portland's First Congregational United Church of Christ, with its dramatic gothic architecture and majestic stained glasswork. The two-night stint in the 130-year-old building is also a 25th anniversary show for Kranky Records. Kranky began in Chicago, but one of its founders, Joel Leoschke, now lives in Portland. In addition to Portland, Ambient Church and Kranky will hold other anniversary celebrations in cultural epicenters New York and L.A. as well as in Kranky's hometown. For Portland's two nights, the bill is full of Oregon folk and experimental legends—Valet, Strategy, Grouper and Saloli, plus Vancouver, B.C.'s Loscil and Seattle's Benoît Pioulard.
For Sweeny, building a music community with shows in churches meant that concerts would be more like religious experiences, meant not only to be enjoyed but to be participated in. Traditional venues, on the other hand, aren't always built with performance as their first priority.
"People mostly go to venues if they want to see music, and I just felt like that's not good enough," Sweeny says. "Those buildings were built with very different intentions, and are being operated with very different intentions, and are mostly for drinking, you know?"
Playing ambient music live is a challenge—there's the trouble of replicating intricate, often impossibly complicated sounds in a live setting, and there's the issue of connecting with the audience without diverting too much attention from the music itself. It's a fragile balance—a door opening and closing too many times or a drink order shouted too loudly can break the spell. Since ambient music's power comes from enveloping its listeners in a protective membrane, it's more dependent on its setting than most shows, which can simply smother all other noise with their own.
Since its inception, Ambient Church has produced shows that draw heavily from Kranky's deep roster. As a label that's ushered in some of the biggest, most influential acts in experimental and ambient music over the past quarter-century, Kranky knows the crucial nature of finding the right space for an artist's sound.
"[Venue] is absolutely important," says Kranky publicist Brian Foote. "It can change the whole thing, in particular for textural or ambient music. In a typical venue space, it's either so small that you're like, 'Well, there's nobody here to see it,' or there's chatting going on at the bar, and it breaks the spell almost instantly."
The Portland shows will include a cascade of Oregon talent at various stages in their careers. There's Mary Sutton, who performs under the name Saloli, whose debut The Deep End is understated and hypnotic in its loop-heavy beauty. While Sutton is a new name to Kranky, mainstays like Valet, Strategy and Grouper represent the foundation of ambient and experimental music in the Northwest.
For Portland veteran Honey Owens, who plays under the Valet moniker, playing in a church allows her music to be complemented by the silence.
"Let's say you're in a busy restaurant and all these sounds are happening at once. Altogether, that becomes its own sound of 'busy restaurant,' and you're not really tuning in to the nuance of like a spoon hitting a pot—it all just flows together," Owens says. "It's cool to have opportunities to play in quiet spaces so that your sounds can become alive with their own essence."
SEE IT: Ambient Church is at First Congregational United Church of Portland, 1126 SW Park Ave., ambient.church. 8 pm Friday-Saturday, Nov. 16-17. $40 two-day pass. All ages.