Chuck van Zyl

To visit Star's End's website
click here
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Contact Point
by MoIT

 

The Gathering Vol. 2
by Various Artists

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Star's End 30th Anniversary:
Ambient Visions Talks with....Chuck van Zyl

2001-2010 AmbientVisions

STAR'S END is (with the exception of "Music from the Hearts of Space") the longest running radio program of ambient music in the world. Since 1976, STAR'S END has been providing thePhiladelphia broadcast area with music to sleep and dream to. There are many suggested uses for the program, but most people tune their radio to STAR'S END as they get into bed on Saturday night and allow the gentle aural soundscapes to influence their sleep and dreams. 

The music is presented in a non-stop drifting blend and drawn from a diversity of genres including: electronic, ambient, spacemusic, chillout, avant-garde, low-intensity noise, new age, international, spoken word and classical. 26 year veteran host Chuck van Zyl, has a low-key announcing style that gently informs listeners of show content without disturbing their sleep. Many listeners feel he is a welcome guest in their intimate listening environment. 

"STAR'S END is a unique listening experience, not just an exchange of information like most radio shows", says van Zyl. "Due to the unique presentation and the subtlety of the music, the program really affects people, often in a profound way". 


AV:  Tell me about your introduction to ambient/space music and what kind of 1st impression this music made on you after you had a chance to listen to it few times.

CVZ:  When I first came across this music back in the late 1970s the more modern meaning of the term "Ambient Music" had only recently been coined. So it seemed to me that this genre was just a less active version of what I'd been referring to as "Spacemusic". Looking at this music from the perspective of the 1970s Progressive Rock I was into, I related to the more melodic and rhythmic works which were an extension of the synthesizer parts I'd heard on albums by groups like Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. A friend at a small college radio station I was part of first exposed me to spacemusic by way of Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, and directed me to the Penn radio station WXPN which presented this and other innovative music. I was looking for new territory as the Prog-Rock genre was waning, giving way to Punk and Disco, so I tuned in as much as I could stand it. The music and the way in which it was presented was so different than anything I'd ever come across before that it took quite a while before I could absorb the high concept of the radio shows and the music. The turning point came while listening to the "Diaspar" radio program on WXPN while driving in my car. The piece "Stardancer" by Klaus Schulze came on and with its steady drumbeats, ethereal atmosphere and searing lead synth lines I'd found my access point into Spacemusic. It was awesome!

AV:  Did you have much of a musical background or any kind of formal musical training in your past?

CVZ:  Not much. In elementary school I played trombone in the orchestra for a few years, but eventually gave it up. I think what was of more importance was that my parents and I listened to music quite a bit together. After church on Sundays my Dad would play records on the old hi-fi and read the paper. He liked Louis Armstrong and my Mom liked church hymns (the day my Dad let me work the record player myself was like a rite of passage). Exposure to this music is probably where I got any sense of melody and harmony I may possess.

AV:  When was it that you decided that you'd like to be a performer of ambient/space music?

CVZ:  After I'd become one of the hosts of the aforementioned "Diaspar" on WXPN, through attending their concerts and conducting a few on-air interviews, I became friends with a local spacemusic trio called The Nightcrawlers. I saw them play live throughout the 1980s in the Philadelphia area and would stay on afterwards to help load out their gear into the U-Haul truck. I gained quite a bit of insight into synthesizers this way (enough to get me to take a basic electronic music class at the local community college night school). During one of our on-air interviews I asked Nightcrawlers Peter and Tom Gulch about the possibility of someone with no conventional musical knowledge acquiring a synthesizer and producing something worthwhile. Tom thought that without some serious musical background one could only make bleeps, bloops and noise. Peter countered with the fact that The Nightcrawlers started out this way and look what they'd achieved. Shortly thereafter I bought a Korg MP4 from a friend (which I still own). After I'd become familiar with this instrument (and the others I'd bought), developed something of my own style and produced a few cassettes I considered realizing this music at a concert in front of people. Advancements in technology helped me too. In previous years, The Nightcrawlers would have to rent a truck to transport all their gear to the venue, then spend hours connecting, tuning and programming their synthesizers. With a just few MIDI synths and modules I could put together an interesting live performance with much less effort. This endeavor also seemed like the best means of expressing any artistic tendencies I'd been developing as well as a way to portray my inner state of being, which until then had eluded words.

AV:  When did you form The Ministry of Inside Things and did you have in mind what kinds of music that you'd like to perform from the outset?

CVZ:  I formed The Ministry of Inside Things about ten years after my first live concert. I started out playing live spacemusic back in 1986 with Tom Gulch in our group "Xisle". Later, I worked with his brother Peter and our friend D. Andrew Rath and this group became a trio. Xisle was based on concepts taken from The Nightcrawlers, who'd been a big influence on me, as well as Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and the many other artists I'd come across in presenting the Star's End radio program. Our practice sessions consisted of us three discussing influences and inspirations, playing multi-layered sequencer patterns, song ideas or just cool synth patches we'd come up with for one another. Out of this interaction came suites of music that we would rehearse and eventually bring out to an audience. The sets were fairly structured but with plenty of room for improvisation and discovery. Often the most powerful music arose when we ventured off the map. Each individual in Xisle had their own distinctive talent and direction, and between the three of us I thought we put together some interesting sets of live music.

The Ministry of Inside Things began with Peter Gulch and myself further exploring the basic concepts of Xisle. When Art Cohen was added on guitar our musical palette expanded. Art's intensity pushed the energy level of MoIT away from deep space and towards Rock music. This did not dawn on me until one day shortly after our CD "Everlasting Moment" was released. After listening to the CD in the sobriety of post-release I found the work to be several levels above the floating spacemusic I'd set out to realize. I guess this music was forged out of the tension caused by me pushing further out into space and Art pulling the mood back. I never would have been able to achieve this music on my own. It's a true collaboration.

AV:  Has the style of your compositions and performances changed much over the years since you formed the group? In what ways?

CVZ:  Our compositional style changed quite a bit when Peter left MoIT. But we've continually tried to come up with new material and different atmospheres and moods for the audience. An audience member once handed a great compliment to us when we were told that while our music quotes many influences, ultimately we sound like ourselves. Another thing that has remained the same is how I conceive of the sets: they're like hour-long segments of the Star's End radio program I produce. We pay alot of attention to transitions, energy levels, timing and especially the overall arc of the set - which we hope is always greater than the sum of its parts.

AV:  Tell me about the choice of the name for the group and what it means to you?

CVZ:  Your readers should watch the documentary about Leon Theremin. It's fascinating. There's a part in this film where Theremin tries to name the government agency that abducted him decades earlier. Through either a lack of vocabulary or western analogue, Theremin explains that "The Ministry of Inside Things" took him. I turned to my friend in the theater and remarked that this would be a great name for a group.

AV:  Do you see Ministry of Inside Things being around for the foreseeable future? Any plans musically for what you might want to tackle next?

CVZ:  I'd like to do a solo spacemusic project, both studio and live, but as long as there are venues willing to have MoIT play for their audiences we'll be there.

AV:  Let's talk about Star's End for a bit. I know that you were not the originator of the show but tell me how it came to pass that you ended up as the sole host of Star's End. Did you have any idea that the show was going to continue on for so many years and that the show would eventually become so associated with you?

CVZ:  When I first started hosting Star's End back in 1980 there were always four or five hosts in rotation, so I only went in once a month or so to do the show. Over the years hosts came and went until eventually the number diminished down to just one, which was me. I guess the other hosts left either for their careers or families, or were students who moved on after graduating from Penn, or they just got burned out from the hours. It could be that some just couldn't sustain an interest in the music; they'd move on to other more interesting and rewarding genres. As for me, I've always found it exciting to be involved with Star's End and working with music on this level. But maybe the trick has been my ability to embrace new and different styles and innovations while remaining nostalgic for the classics. Another factor in my longevity comes from the sense of living on borrowed time. When WXPN moved from being an all-volunteer community radio station to the professionally run NPR flagship it is now, almost all of the offbeat shows that made up the original patchwork of the program schedule were cut. I feel fortunate that Star's End remains on the air, now for over 30 years. I do not take this for granted.

AV:  Since the show was already a working entity when you took it over did you bring any changes to the music played or the format when you began to host the show? Do you recall any of the music that you were playing during those first shows when Star's End became yours?

CVZ:  The only new concept I brought to Star's End has been having musicians play live on the air. It was difficult to produce this type of activity years ago. I also occasionally now do a live interview with a musician. I've also been told that I started the once an hour break. I guess I felt that if people are trying to sleep or are involved in something they don't need me breaking in several times an hour to let them know what tracks I've been airing. Also, with the advent of the compact disc came tracks and compositions significantly longer than an album side as well as the ability to pre-plan shows with more accuracy and ease.

The original concept of Star's End was to create a musical environment suitable for introspection; not to induce sleep, but to make it more interesting. I hope that after all these years this concept remains intact, as it cannot be improved upon. I think this is a very important yet rare thing to experience in the world today - the five hour space of time created by Star's End where nothing is asked of you but to sleep or be lost in your own thoughts or work. Star's End also presents music some distance outside the mainstream, which is of value to artists seeking exposure and validation for their work, and an audience open to the diversity this format offers.

AV:  Tell me about your relationship with XPN and how it is that your show came to be on this station? Is this a monetary arrangement that allows your show to be heard on XPN and if so where does the money come from that funds your show?

CVZ:  John Diliberto (currently of the nationally syndicated "Echoes") and Steve Pross founded Star's End sometime around 1975 or 1976 while both students at Penn. What with the open format of WXPN at the time, getting a show like Star's End on the air was achievable. Over the years public radio in the states has changed dramatically, and while no official contract exists between Star's End and WXPN, every effort is made to keep this show relevant to the goals of the radio station. But the main factor in the success of Star's End on WXPN has been the support of the listeners. For this I will be forever grateful.

AV:  What is it that guides you in choosing the music that you feature each week on your shows?

CVZ:  I guess I have developed an ear for what fits in best on Star's End. Mainly I'm looking for music with character - that nexus of musicianship, process and concept. Also, music that sustains an energy level or craftily builds from one mood to the another. I try to include a diversity of styles, genres and eras. Recently I've become fascinated with spiritual symphonic music. This has led me to many film soundtracks as this style often occupies the same area. Lately I have been enlisting the help of a few Star's End listeners in discovering new music. Through their hour-long mixes I've been periodically presenting on the show, I have discovered many unique and wonderful artists I'd not have found on my own. But all this builds on early electronic works like "Rubycon" and "Mirage". The timeless space and mood created on these albums is difficult to quantify or recreate.

AV:  Do you fully listen to each and every CD review copy that comes in to Star's End to find the cuts that you want to feature on your shows?

CVZ:  Unfortunately I do not have time to do as you describe. The CDs that do get chosen usually receive intense scrutiny, especially if I'm writing up a review.

AV:  If you had to deliver the ambient version of The State of the Union Address how would you characterize the state of ambient/space music these days from your perspective with Star's End and The Gatherings you do?

CVZ:  There's always room for improvement, but locally things are pretty great right now. Star's End has hit its 30-year mark, with a CD release and celebration concert to mark the occasion. The Gatherings Concert Series is now in its 15th year and has released another CD of concert excerpts. Our most recent concert with Steve Roach was sold out. The state of the scene here in Philadelphia is healthy - so long as the community chooses to support it. Once again I must point out that none of this can happen without an audience supporting it. It's a fragile peace.

AV:  Is Star's End available via the web if my readers don't live close enough to pick up XPN radio and has the web made a difference in how many listeners you might have compared to having the show strictly on a location based station?

CVZ:  Star's End streams live by way of the WXPN website. It's logical to believe that the audience size has increased due to the additional outlet of the Internet. But information about audience size and demographics are unavailable to me, so I'm not sure exactly who's out there listening - that is until fundraising time (when people call in to support the show).

AV:  Shifting gears now tell me about the origins of The Gatherings series of concerts that you are involved with?

CVZ:  The first Gatherings concert took place on 9 May 1992 and was a Star's End related event. I had no idea then that this would be the first of a long-lived series. My group Xisle had been playing concerts around town to a diminishing audience. I'd just about given up on the live scene when I'd noticed how a group of fund drive phone room volunteers were so engaged with each other (talking about music) that no one wanted to answer the phone when it rang. I thought that there must be a better way of getting people together for this kind of interaction, so I inquired with WXPN about having a member party. My group would play for free and we could invite Star's End listeners to come out for the music and a communal experience. The plan was agreed to and we set up in a room in the building where WXPN was then located. I think about 60 people came out (it was a tight fit) and while no one really mingled or chatted much, everybody seemed to really like the concert part. Afterwards, WXPN advised me that were I to do another gathering I should use a bigger hall on campus.

A few years later Jeff Greinke was looking for gigs in the northeast USA and while I really wanted to see him live, there was nowhere for him to play in Philadelphia. Working through WXPN I managed to get the use of Houston Hall on the Penn campus and we set up the second Star's End listener gathering for 1 May 1994. About 200 people came out to this event, which amazed me. I think people really must've missed these kinds of events, plus Greinke is a well-known name. I was further amazed when, after a completely uncharacteristic set of insane vocalize, trombone blasts and flailing dance moves, the audience roared with enthusiasm. Up until then I thought we were doomed. But the event was well received and we went about producing just one a year until 1996 when a number of talented and internationally known artists became available and got involved. Ultimately, WXPN wanted a member event while we wanted a concert series, so later in 1998 after we'd moved to St Mary's Church, and went it alone.

AV:  Has this helped raise the awareness of ambient/space music in and around the Philadelphia area?

CVZ:  Maybe a little. I'm bad about measuring these kinds of things. To me success is just the fact that a place for this music still exists. I think that if you're a fan of this music (or any kind of culture), Philadelphia is a great place to live. There is so much happening. I've focused less on promoting our events and music to the general public and more on enriching and motivating our existing known community.

AV:  How often do you get attendees from outside the Philly area? How is it that these folks hear about the concert and do you have some folks who faithfully come concert after concert?

CVZ:  We get attendees from other parts of the country and the world with some frequency. I think that for many of these people The Gatherings is the first electronic music concert they've ever attended. I'm told that elsewhere access to this kind of music is almost non-existent. I've found that the better known the artist, the wider an audience attracted. The well-known names get more traffic to their websites, have bigger email lists and generally have more supportive and enthusiastic fans than more obscure artists. The Gatherings does have a small core of faithful attendees, but by and large the people who know this music choose but one or two concerts to go to per year, usually with artists with whom they are familiar, rather than just coming out to experience the diverse season we've put together. I believe that this mentality is a result of our culture's poor understanding of the tenuous nature of non-profit organizations presenting out of the mainstream music and art. So as you see, along with our many other challenges, community building and involvement is at the top of the list.

AV:  Is the organization of this concert series a difficult task for you year in and year out? Are there other folks beside yourself that help out with the work involved with putting on these shows on a regular basis?

CVZ:  It's not too easy. Every concert presents its own set of unpredictable situations so, as David Torn once said, "Procedure is what happens on the day". Plus, after the public concert at the church, I move over to WXPN (often with musician and gear in tow) to do the all-night weekly broadcast of Star's End. It's a long day.

I depend on the help and support of my friends in just about all of my activities. While I get most of the recognition, there'd be not much happening without several key people who share my love of this music. There are numerous others in the cast of characters who help out in a variety of ways. I'm always asking to borrow keyboards, mixing consoles, lighting, projectors and screens, looking for rehearsal space, seeking advice or expertise in recording or CD production - not to mention asking all the musicians who've come out to play with little or no guarantee. I feel very fortunate to have such good friends who share this work with me. It's a rare thing to be involved with people who all want the same thing. Several years ago I founded The Corporation for Innovative Music and Arts of PA (CIMA of PA) and officially enlisted my friends Art Cohen and Jeff Towne to be on the board of directors. These guys are consistent figures at The Gatherings.

AV:  Are there any of the concert that you have put on over the course of this event that really stand out in your mind as being the perfect example of everything coming together just right?

CVZ:  I feel that all of the concerts I've been involved with at The Gatherings have been successful on most levels. Our job is to provide the artist with a space where they may reach their potential - and we most always do that well. The big variable is the audience and their number. It puts a slight damper on things when hardly anyone shows up. But even a small number of the right people can make the night special. This is one of the great things about The Gatherings - our people.

The 1994 Greinke concert I mentioned above was singular in that I really thought everyone was going to leave when they heard his more avant-garde material. When they didn't I knew right then and there that Philadelphia would support this music. I also think about the concert we did a few days after 9/11. Almost no one showed up, I guess everyone thought it had been cancelled. But it was an extraordinary concert. Jim Cole opened up with a duet of the most beautiful and somber overtone singing. This was followed by Tom Heasley playing his tuba through heavy digital processing. Both sets were extremely soothing and introspective, which is just what I needed that week. I only wish more people had been there to share these serene moments with us. Another memorable night found Roger Eno playing his delicate solo piano pieces during one of the most violent summer storms I'd ever sat through. As thunder and lightning rolled and flashed and rain fell in buckets outside Roger smiled broadly as he played atop a most realistic environmental backdrop of wind and raindrops. The Ben Neill concert was cool too as that was right after I bought the Bose PA and we had a clear full-range sound system for the first time. Thrilling. But these are just a few memories that have randomly surfaced. I know I've felt moved by this music many times. This is one of the reasons to present concerts.

AV:  Tell me about the venue for this series and how it came to be held there.

CVZ:  The Gatherings has moved only a few times over our 15 years. From mid 1994 to early 1998 the series was held in Houston Hall. Closure due to renovations caused us to relocate to St. Mary's Hamilton Village, where we presently reside. The concerts are held in the church sanctuary while our yearly workshops take place in the parish hall. I've become really spoiled by the wonderful natural acoustics of St. Mary's. It holds about 200 people and is perfect for the kind of music we are presenting. It's an old place, with 19th century wooden pews, stained glass and appointments. But I think this setting brings out the best in the performers as well as the audience. When I walk inside I feel a kind of reverence. I've been told others feel this too.

AV:  For those who want to see this kind of event continue to happen in the Philadelphia area what is it that they can do to make it possible?

CVZ:  They can come out to the concerts! You will be missed if you stay home. This is not like a pop concert where throngs of people push to get in. While we do have an informed and enthusiastic community, our numbers are not really that big. I know it's hard not to be complacent in this day and age, but were that to happen this music would go away. The music presented at The Gatherings cannot sustain itself alone. It needs our attention and support. So the easiest thing to do is to just buy a season pass, show up and enjoy all the concerts!

For those interested in helping us through financial support there are underwriting and individual gift opportunities available. For example, for a $50.00 donation to CIMA of PA you will receive a copy of "The Gatherings vol 2", our 2 CD set featuring concert excerpts from performances by Vidna Obmana, Roedelius, Spacecraft and others. It even has a track by Xisle from the very first concert in the series.

AV:  What impressions do the artists who play this series have after participating in one of The Gatherings events?

CVZ:  You should ask a few past performers for their opinions on this, as their thoughts will surely be more insightful. What I've noticed is that sometimes an artist unfamiliar with our work will not be too sure about coming out to play. After some coaxing, negotiating, promises, reassurances and contortions they finally get here and do the concert. Afterwards, every one asks, "When can I come back?" I take this to mean they've had a positive experience! But I get this sentiment from everyone who has ever played at The Gatherings.

AV:   I also understand that you are quite a good photographer. How do you see what you do behind the camera as complimentary to what you do with your music and on Star's End?

CVZ:  Early on it didn't occur to me to ask how this music related to the photography. But after I'd accumulated a number of serious photos I began to wonder. My first thought was that both the music and the photos provide a transportive experience. But it wasn't until A-X-D Gallery owner Ed Barnhart gave me his insight. He told me that when he first saw my photos online he knew right away that they were made by the guy who does Star's End. The photos, like the radio show, provide an atmosphere and a narrative within which the viewer may experience their own story. I'm still pondering this.

AV:  How long have you been shooting and how is it that you chose your subjects when you are out shooting?

CVZ:  I've been interested in photography since I was a kid. As an adult it's been of great use in documenting my far flung travels. But since 2004 I've been trying my hand with Kodak HIE infrared film. The instruction books advised shooting a diverse terrain, like that of a botanical gardens, the seashore or a cemetery. The cemeteries have been the most inspirational. The old 19th century graveyards I've been visiting have been forgotten by modern society. The unique atmosphere has not only provided me with many distinctive photos, but also a peaceful communion with the memories of those I've lost.

AV:  Do you ever use your photography as a backdrop to the music during the live shows at The Gatherings? It seems like a natural place for your images to show up.

CVZ:  Not yet, but I'm being coaxed by friends to make this happen at a CvZ solo concert. It could be yet another powerful experience for me. We'll see. (editors note: Be sure to visit Chuck's photo site at the following address  http://www.chuckvanzyl.com )

AV:  Well Chuck it has been great talking to you and even though I lived about a half hour north of Philly for about 4 years I learned a lot about what you have been doing with ambient and spacemusic in the Philadelphia region through this interview. Here's wishing you many more years of successful shows on Star's End radio and a long run of Gatherings. Thanks for taking the time out to share with my readers especially as you are approaching the 30th Anniversary music festival coming up on June 16, 2007. I hope it is as successful as what you have done in the past. Here are the links for more info:

http://www.starsend.org
http://www.thegatherings.org
http://www.synkronosmusic.com
http://www.xpn.org/