One of the virtues of coming up in the late-70s Philadelphia art and music scene, recalls Chuck Van Zyl, is that something interesting was always happening.
“Back in those days, and even today, there were always kind of offbeat things, unusual things happening,” he says. “Maybe someone in another town would think ‘Oh, that’s a crazy idea, putting on an electronic music show in a church.’”
But people did it here, Van Zyl included. Twenty years ago, the longtime host of WXPN’s late-night space rock soundscape Star’s End (36 years running, airing on late night Saturday / early Sunday from 1 to 6 a.m.) was searching for a way to branch out. The ambient and experimental music scene in Philadelphia ebbed and flowed in popularity and critical mass over the years, but there was no consistent venue to showcase it. A performing musician as well as a radio host, Van Zyl looked to bridge those worlds along with his contemporaries Peter Gulch (and his group The nightCrawlers) and Dana Rath, who together performed as Xisle.
“The three of us played tons of concert back in those days,” recalls Van Zyl. “At planetariums, in churches and art galleries. Back in the ’80s, you know, you were just trying to find places to play in—and some places weren’t always open to having an alternative kind of a concert like this.”
The name of showcase was also its mission statement – The Gatherings Concert Series, meant to bring together like-minded fans of esoteric music, purely for the sake of the music.
“I guess once we got over the fact that, ‘well, there’s no chance we’re ever gonna get any money out of this,’ we decided might as well just do it to try to, you know, further the cause of the music, or to keep the scene going, or do something to try to help Stars End and the radio station,” Van Zyl. “To make the people who listen to the show feel like it’s more like a community.”
It launched in May of 1992 as an event for XPN members at the radio station’s old location in Wayne Hall, a Victorian House 39th and Spruce. Subsequent concerts were co-presented and held at the University of Pennsylvania’s Houston Hall Auditorium, until the mid 90s when Van Zyl branched off on his own and began locating The Gatherings at St. Mary’s Church. To this day, all but a few concerts from the series have taken place there.
Located on on 39th Street and Locust Walk, the church is almost a miniature cathederal – there are vaulted ceilings, tall brick walls and tile floors, shimmering stained glass reaching the height of the building. There’s a lot of grandeur to the room, which is what appealed to Van Zyl.
“The venue itself is quite remarkable to see a concert in,” Van Zyl says. “And it’s more than just the acoustics, which are a little reverberant. You know, it’s something about being in a church, which is sort of puts you in a certain state of mind anyway.”
It fosters among the crowd an introspective state, allowing them to create what he calls an “interior narrative” around the expansive music. From solo performers like Jeff Greinke and Steve Roach to ambient ensembles like Stars of the Lid and A Winged Victory for the Sullen, the songs often pulse and build for the better part of an hour – not unlike Star’s End.
“Some musical states take thirty, forty, sixty minutes to build up,” Van Zyl says. “And when you’ve listened so long, and this emotional experience has happened, it might take that long for you to really calm down and really change your perceptions of yourself, and your surroundings. It doesn’t all happen in three minutes.”
One the one hand, Van Zyl says he occasionally feels like he’s interrupting the mood when, as host, he has to get up and speak to the crowd after long stretches of instrumental music. On the other hand, there have been occasions in the history of The Gatherings where the music has been interrupted on its own. He recalls one early show with the bands Tangent and Ghost Riders where a projectionist was working so many slide projectors, film projectors and overheads with colored dye that the church’s electrical circuit overloaded and power was lost. When it came to, the music had to restart from the ground up.
“In those days if you cut the power, there was no memory on the synthesizers,” Van Zyl laughs. “So then you had to start programming the sounds and the rhythms and everything over again. So, uh, yeah that was fun. All the guys just had to start from scratch again, and [the projectionist[ was laughing, he was like, ‘Oh, I wanted to see what would happen.’ And that’s what happened—it blew the fuse.”
Van Zyl’s own music is often accompanied by less demanding visuals – when he performs at The Gatherings, as he will for this Saturday’s final show in the 20th anniversary season, it’s accompanied by stirring black-and-white photographs from ornate local cemeteries. He says that this weekend’s performance will downplay the projections, however, due to co-headliner Terry Furber performing with interesting instruments from the annals of electronic music history.
“He’s bringing a Moog-1 Model P synthesizer, it was built in 1969,” Van Zyl says. “He bought it on eBay and totally renovated it himself. And so I think people might wanna see that, it’ll be more [visually interesting] than just a performer sitting at a laptop. “
After the show wraps, Van Zyl will bring the performers down the street to WXPN studios where, as he does every time The Gatherings holds a concert, the performers will then perform on the air. The more informal setting and free format has lent itself to unique radio and collaborations, from Saul Stokes’ playing a progressive piece that built into near-cacophony by the end of an hour, to Chicago musician Avir Arunes playing minimal pattering noise to field recordings of a babbling brook.
The musicians often perform until 3 or 4 a.m. on the air. Fortunately for Van Zyl, he doesn’t work on Sundays – he’s worked a longtime day job as letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. Which, considering the early hours Monday through Saturday, can be surprising. But Van Zyl takes a philosophical angle on it.
“When I explain to most people what my schedule’s like, they kind of say, ‘how do you do that?’” he says. “I always say ‘well, I do it because I want this to be in the world. I don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t have this music.’”
The Gatherings Concert Series 20th Anniversay Season Concludes on Saturday, November 17, at 8 p.m. with a performance by Chuck Van Zyl, Terry Furber and Charles Cohen at St. Mary’s Chruch, 3916 Locust Walk. Admission is free, more information can be found here.
Chuck Van Zyl, St. Mary's Church, The Gatherings Concert Series