Chasing the Dawn: Ultima Thule Ambient:
Ambient Visions Talks with....George Cruickshank

©2001-2006 AmbientVisions


George Cruickshank

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Chasing the Dawn








AV:  Back in 1989 you had an idea for a radio program that eventually became Ultima Thule. Over 17 years later this program is still on the air and now even available on the internet. What was it about ambient music that drew you to it and inspired you to want to share it via this radio program?  

GC:  My introduction to ambient music came as a 16 year-old, when I heard "I'll Find My Way Home" on the radio, and was entranced by the extraordinary female vocalist and swirling synth sounds. Then I forgot about it for a few years until a university friend of mine played the same song on his car stereo one day. That was when I discovered that the "female vocalist" was actually Jon Anderson, and the synthesist was Vangelis. I spent the next four years raiding my friend's music collection, working my way progressively through the entire catalogue of music by Vangelis, Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream and Mike Oldfield - and when I'd done with that I started searching out similar music by other artists. By 1989 I had compiled a huge collection of music, and felt that maybe I should share my collection, and my passion with others - at the time ambient music was virtually unknown in Australia.

Fortunately, the local (public) radio station I approached had a timeslot available the very week I contacted them, so I was able to go on air almost immediately - and the rest, as they say, is history.  

AV:  Why the name Ultima Thule and what significance does it hold for you in regards to the music that you play on your show?  

GC:  "Ultima Thule" is one of those terms that many people have heard of, but which they couldn't give a clear definition of if asked. It was originally the term used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to describe the high northern latitudes - what we know as the Arctic. In general use the term came to mean any remote area, far beyond the limits of the known world. There is an obvious link between this idea and the show's creation of narratives based on sources that lie well beyond the borders of most people's musical experience.   

AV:  Did you have any difficulty in finding a home for this show back then and convincing the radio station that folks out there would really want to hear this kind of music?  

GC:  Not really, it all seemed to fall into place very quickly as a fortunate series of coincidences. I did have difficulty explaining what the music was, and often had to fall back on "new age" - a term that I personally detest (I also detest the term "spacemusic",  incidentally) at first, because it was the only vaguely familiar reference point people had at that time. However, I found that after a while, once people had become familiar with the music I was broadcasting, the problem of definitions disappeared.  

AV:  When the show went on the air in Feb of 1989 what kinds of reactions did you get from the listeners in regards to the kinds of music you were playing and your format where there was a minimal interruption by voiceovers or DJs? 

GC:  None at all, at first, which rather concerned me. It took a few weeks for people to start calling in - but when they did the responses were unreservedly positive. I've personally taken only two complaint calls in seventeen and a half years - and there are still a couple of people who call up every few years to say they're still listening, after all these years. When the show moved to 2MBS - a fairly conservative classical music station - several people there couldn't grasp the notion of an uninterrupted cross-mixed music stream at first, being used to the "track/backannounce/track/backannounce" school of broadcasting. Once again, those objections dissipated fairly quickly once people realised what the show was trying to achieve. 

AV:  Just as a way of giving AV's readers some time perspective on the first few shows that you did could you give me the names of some of the artists and their music that you played on that first show.  

GC:  The first show began with the track "Escape" by Michael Garrison, and also included music by Jean-Michel Jarre, Enya, Vangelis, Mark Isham, some traditional Bulgarian music and part of the soundtrack from a New Zealand film called "The Navigator" by an Iranian composer. It's amazing how well it all holds up actually - although I cringe when I hear how immature my back-announcing sounds!   

AV:  Has your programming changed over the years in regards to the genres that you play? (ambient, electronica, new age etc) Was that a conscious effort on your part or were you just attracted to the wide variety of musical styles out there?  

GC:  It has to a certain extent. I personally play almost no Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream and Mike Oldfield, and a lot less Vangelis these days; I find them a bit cheesy actually. The audio quality of many early recordings also leaves a lot to be desired too, and this is particularly noticeable when older work is juxtaposed against or crossfaded into contemporary releases; it can sound quite jarring. My tastes in electronic music these days tend strongly towards the beatless and drone end of the spectrum. Aside from that my tastes in general are much broader than when I started out, embracing ancient and mediaeval secular and sacred music, some contemporary classical composers as well as indigenous music from the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. I try to find room for all of that in my programmes - and I think the audience really appreciates the variety. A lot of comments I've seen note that UT promotes an extremely broad interpretation of what "ambient" is. As far as I'm concerned, as long as a piece of music can be characterized as possessing a strong sense of resonant sonic space, then it's "ambient" - and I don't care if it's on an album by Tori Amos, Steve Roach or Umm Kulthum.   

AV:  Being based in Australia what effect did the advent of the internet and broadband connections do to your listening audience?  

GC:  The impact of new technologies in opening up access to the wider world for us cannot be overstated. Australia has always been a backwater as far as ambient music goes, and with terrestrial radio the Ultima Thule audience catchment is limited to the 5 million or so people who can receive the FM transmissions of 2MBS and 5MBS. Since we commenced Podcasting in May 2005 our overseas audience has exploded; as near as I can tell, there are now about 10,000 people accessing the show each month via this means - enough to ensure we've been consistently ranked as one of the top 4 music shows (in *any* genre) on the Australian iTunes portal over the past few months. 

AV:  Having expanded your audience so dramatically in this fashion have you changed the way that you program your shows to accommodate all those new listeners out there? 

GC:  I'm conscious of the developments in the popular electronic music scene since the 1990s, and while I'm not really that interested in the various permutations of "ambient" that have evolved in that period (eg psi-trance, intelligent dance music and so forth), we've been fortunate that our producer Mike G, is - so we've been able to attract younger listeners, whose introduction to ambient came over the past decade via nightclub chillout spaces.   

AV:  Tell me about some of the folks who work with you on the Ultima Thule program. How did they come to be involved in your vision of getting ambient music out to the masses?  

GC:  For the first 9 years of the show I produced and presented every broadcast myself. This didn't leave me much time to do other things, such as have a normal life, so I trialed the idea of introducing a small group of other producers into the lineup as a way of introducing variety and sharing the workload. That was how Nev Dorrington first became involved. My other longtime collaborator, Mike G (aka Mike Watson) joined the team in 2000. We'd worked together several years before as music reviewers for "Ambience" magazine. Mike's 5-year involvement with the show recently came to an end, and Sydney DJ Mark Cottee will be taking his place in the lineup starting October. Currently we work on a 4-week cycle, where I personally produce the first and third shows and the two co-producers each handle one of the alternate weeks. It's important to note that each producer has a very high degree of autonomy in the music they choose to present; we each work in isolation, compiling our own shows from music in our own music libraries, and then I schedule the submissions three months in advance of broadcast to ensure there's a good variety from week to week.

AV:  Lets talk about the new compilation CD that you produced with some very special guests called Chasing the Dawn. First off what prompted you to create this CD? 

GC:  I founded a music label called Archon Music back in the early 1990s. It released 5 critically-acclaimed CDs of ambient music by Australian composers before failing through lack of distribution. In a way “Chasing the Dawn” was my attempt to see if I could do it better second time around – particularly as these days it’s so much easier to get product directly into the global marketplace. Aside from that, I saw the project as a creative challenge, and – most importantly – as a way of supporting music diversity on free-to-air radio inAustralia. 2MBS, the station I broadcast from, isAustralia’s oldest FM station; it’s also the biggest community (what you call “public” in theUS) station in the country, and relies almost entirely on volunteer labor. It puts a mix of classical, jazz, blues and contemporary music to air 24 hours a day, 365 days a year - all of it broadcast by people who simply love music. All the station’s operating expenses are paid for via advertising, donations and bequests. It’s a wonderful example of what radio can and should be – and I wanted to play a part in ensuring it continues long into the future.   

AV:  Tell me about the participation of the various artists who appear on this CD. How did you choose from all of the great artists out there who was going to be included on this CD? 

GC:  I actually approached about 20 of my favourite artists with the concept, expecting some of them to say no. I was rather taken aback when they all said yes – and then a few other artists heard about the project and offered to compose pieces as well – so initially it looked like being a double CD release. In the end however commercial realities meant we had to cut things back to a single CD; it was really tough having to lose some great tracks – but I think the end result has a beautiful overall consistency to its narrative. Hopefully the other tracks will eventually see the light to day too. 

AV:  Were the songs created for this project or were they songs that were previously unreleased and then sent to you for inclusion? 

GC:  The majority of the tracks were created especially for the project. The two exceptions are the pieces from Robert Rich and Robert Scott Thompson, which were previously unreleased. 

AV:  I noticed that on the page that was set up to sell these CD's the heading says the inaugural Ultima Thule CD. Does that mean there will be more of these CD's in years to come? 

GC:  I certainly hope that will be the case, but there are no immediate plans for a follow-up release at this point. The project needs to be a commercial success and deliver some much-needed revenue to 2MBS in order for the station’s Board to consider funding a follow-up. 

AV:  Finally do you have any reflections or comments you'd like to share with our readers in regards to Ultima Thule's journey over the past 17 years and where you might be headed in the years to come?  

GC:  I realized recently that producing UT is the thing I’ve done longer and more consistently than anything else in my life; the fact I still get the same immense thrill out of sharing my latest musical discoveries with our audience as I did that first time I opened the mike back in 1989 is a pretty strong indication that I should probably continue doing it for the foreseeable future. Personally, I’ve found the experience of producing the show, and the interactions I’ve had through it with artists and listeners over the years to be an immensely gratifying experience – one which I feel honoured and humbled to have been party to. I and my colleagues hope to be able to continue as long as there are people wanting to enjoy our work..

AV:  I second the idea of continuing your show on for the foreseeable future as a listener who has enjoyed your show on a regular basis. Keep up the good work of shining the Ultima Thule spotlight on ambient music and putting a smile on the faces of your audience there in Australia and worldwide via the internet. Good luck.