Stunningly beautiful and profoundly moving on both emotive and creative terms, Stuart Dempster’s “Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel” is the great, unsung monument of 1990s Minimalism. It is nothing short of a masterpiece in the field drone.
Within the history of experimental music, there have always been figures whose presence has yielded a profound impact that far outweighs the attention and credit they’ve received. This is certainly the case for the composer, trombonist, didgeridoo player, and improviser Stuart Dempster. Active since the early 1960s, and arguably best known for his work alongside his lifelong friends Pauline Oliveros and Panaiotis - Deep Listening Band, etc. - over the course of his long career Dempster has collaborated with Sunn O))), Terry Riley, Lori Goldston, Ellen Fullman, Joe McPhee, Paul Dresher, Greg Powers, and countless other, in addition to producing numerous albums of his own work that rank as high-water marks in the history of minimal and experimental music, most notably 1979's “In the Great Abbey of Clement VI” and 1995’s “Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel”, the latter of which now joins Important Records’ important dedication to Dumpster’s work with its first ever vinyl release. Recorded in the same subterranean cistern within which he had created the legendary “Deep Listening” LP with Pauline Oliveros and Panaiotis in 1989, across this beautify produced double LP - issued in a heavy duty paper sleeve printed with metallic gold ink - the composer sculpts seven of the deepest drone compositions ever laid to tape, gathering the sounds of ten trombones, didjeridu and Tibetan bells to envelop the two million gallon cistern with dense sonic reverberations that are remain deeply haunting, profoundly healing, and entirely one of a kind nearly thirty years after they first appeared.
Born in 1936 in Berkeley, California, Stuart Dempster studied at San Francisco State College, alongside Pauline Oliveros - with whom he would form a lifelong friendship and collaborative relationship - and Terry Riley, among others. During the early to mid 1960s, he was assistant professor at the California State College at Hayward, instructor at the San Francisco Conservatory, a member of the Performing Group at Mills College, and first trombonist in the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. In 1964, he performed in the premiere of Terry Riley's “In C”, and later, while based in NY, helped to organize the work’s first commercial recording, the now legendary 1968 LP in the Columbia Masterworks series. Despite this remarkable pedigree, it wasn’t until 1979 that Dempster had the opportunity to record his own compositions, issuing two - “Standing Waves” and “Didjeridervish” - later that same year as his stunning debut LP, “In the Great Abbey of Clement VI”, now regarded by many as a monumental statement in the canon of minimal music. This was followed ten years later by “Deep Listening”, made in collaboration with Pauline Oliveros and Panaiotis in 1989, and then “Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel” - his second solo outing - issued on CD only by New Albion in 1995.
“Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel” builds on equal parts from the ground established by both “In the Great Abbey of Clement VI” and “Deep Listening”. Like the former, it deploys Dempster’s unique approach to durational tone and harmonic interplay on his chosen instruments, the trombone and the didgeridoo. Like the later, here we encounter him harnessing the possibilities tapped by large ensembles, in this case himself, Chad Kirby, Dave Marriot, Greg Powers, Gretchen Hopper, Jay Bulen, Jeff Domoto, Moc Escobedo, Nathaniel Irby-Oxford, and Scott Higbee, on four of the album’s compositions - “Morning Light”, “Secret Currents”, “Melodic Communion”, and “Cloud Landings” - all playing trombone, with the remaining three compositions offering different combinations of instrumentation, “Conch Calling” being a solo for conch shell performed by Dempster, “Didjerilayover” being a solo for didgeridoo performed by Dempster, and “Shell Shock” being a trio for conch shells performed by Dempster, Kirby, and Escobedo. Perhaps even more potently in relation to “Deep Listening”, “Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel” was recorded 14 feet below the ground in the same underground cistern that helped to define the famous album’s now legendary sound.
In many ways, “Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel” charts direct pathway between Minimalism’s origins in drone, specifically the work of La Monte Young, where artists like Phill Niblock, Pauline Oliveros, and Dempster would take it during the take it during the '70s and '80s with durational layers of multiple tones, and the more ambient drenched compositions favored by artists during '90s and 2000s. Each of the album’s seven compositions is an immersion in the possibilities of enveloping tonality over varying periods of time, from the album’s opener, “Conch Calling”, which subtly intertwines delicate tones over 3 1/2 minutes, its more substantial closing piece, “Cloud Landings”, which harnesses the cistern’s staggering 45 second natural reverb to startling effect over its nearly 16 minutes in length. Perhaps most strikingly is the breadth that Dempster manages to draw from the constrained materiality of drone, ranging from the dense, sustained harmonics of didgeridoo on “Didjerilayover”, to the more melodic interplays rumbling below “Morning Light” and “Melodic Communion” which flirt with the appearance of songs unfolding in slow motion within a sonorous haze.
Stunningly beautiful and profoundly moving on both emotive and creative terms, for nearly three decades Stuart Dempster’s “Underground Overlays from the Cistern Chapel” has remained one of the great, unsung monuments of 1990s Minimalism. It is nothing short of a masterpiece in the field of drone. This beautiful, first-time vinyl pressing by Important Records is pressed as a double LP, housed in a heavy-duty paper sleeve printed with metallic gold ink. Unquestionably one of the most important reissues of the year and a likely revelation for anyone who has yet to encounter it. Ten out of ten and beyond. This one can’t be missed!