“We have this gift of all these beautiful spaces and they need to be used to their maximum potential,” says Brian Sweeny, the cofounder and curator of Ambient Church. His semi-regular Brooklyn concert series pairing experimental electronic musicians with the borough’s churches has been attracting a growing, devoted audience since its launch in the summer of 2016.
The rest of 2017 is a busy one for Ambient Church with multiple shows across Brooklyn. On October 21, the German-musician Hans-Joachim Roedelius will headline a show at the Bushwick United Methodist church; Brooklyn-based Jefre Cantu-Ledesma will play the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn Heights on November 10; Bill Laswell and Laraaji will perform as a duo on December 16 at a location to be announced soon.
“This is the project of a lifelong, passionate fan of esoteric music,” Sweeny says. He first became involved in producing events while a student at the University of Vermont, but it was only after moving to New York on a whim — he read on Facebook that a friend was renting a room for $200 a month — that he conceived of the idea. Sweeny traces Ambient Church’s evolution to the time he spent living in a communal space in Bushwick called Surreal Estate with 25 other people, and later as one of the founders of the Body Actualized Center, a now-defunct venue in Bushwick that he says “combined spirituality and party time.”
In 2012, he attempted to rent Bushwick’s historic St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was about to be developed into condos. But the timing wasn’t right, he says. The project remained on the back burner until 2016, when he went to an event at Park Church Co-op in Greenpoint and realized it was the perfect venue for a concert.
“Most churches are empty at least five days out of the week,” Sweeny says. “Most gatherings besides the main gathering on Sunday typically have a separate room. So the main sanctuary in churches are vastly underused, and they’re acoustically built for sound.”
Each Ambient Church event is planned with meticulous detail, from the sound to the lighting design to the overall atmosphere — he will occasionally walk around with lit incense to produce a specific scent. “All three elements — lighting, music, and location — work in tandem to create an overall experience,” he says. “By creating a new ecology within the space, we’re able to reappreciate the innate beauty of the architecture.”
Ambient Church is a completely independent series, with no institutional backing. “We can become our own institution,” Sweeny says proudly. But their plans for the future are ambitious. When Brownstoner asks Sweeny about future space for Ambient Church events, he says there is a long list of dream venues. But his sights are on the biggest: “The top of the list is Cathedral of Saint John the Divine,” he says, very seriously. “It’s breathtaking.”
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