Skip to main content
Membership advertisement
Membership advertisement
Courtesy Ambient Church
Courtesy Ambient Church

Ambient Church Gives Electronic Music a Surreal, Spiritual Home

The roving series mounts meditative performances inside houses of worship, accompanied by site-specific light shows.
June 14, 2022
6 minute read
  • Share:

For Brian Sweeny, the line between performance and religious experience is ambiguous to say the least. Starting in 2016, through an initiative called Ambient Church, he began renting churches for musicians to perform their interpretations of meditative, devotional, and minimal music, quickly drawing in both a host of dedicated ambient practitioners and experimental sets from crossover artists including Weyes Blood, Julianna Barwick, and Caroline Polacheck—all accompanied by stunning, site-specific light shows that transform venue walls into strobed, psychedelic canvases. What began as a Brooklyn-focused experiment has since ballooned into a cross-borough and -country endeavor, filling churches across New York and Los Angeles with an eclectic gamut of immersive, unconventional sounds.

Sweeny comes from a D.I.Y. background, having been a founding member of Brooklyn’s Body Actualized Center—a storefront he and his friends transformed, using found and Craigslist-sourced materials, into a yoga studio that morphed into a venue for events including raves, film screenings, and New Age concerts at night—until its 2014 closure. Ambient Church continues this penchant for idiosyncratic expressions of spirituality and spectacle, but in a more inward direction. This time, the crowd is a silent partner to the acoustic and visual might of a given space. It all makes for a singular, cerebral experience that blurs the boundaries between sacred and secular, while opening some of the most sonically-adept venues out there for a wider audience to appreciate.

We recently spoke with Sweeny about his roving multisensory project, the allure of ambient music, and what’s behind its distinct ability to impact listeners in deep, visceral ways.

Along with the acoustic benefits and aesthetic backdrops that churches provide, what do they bring to the performances you stage that more traditional venues can’t?

Some music is really delicate, especially when performed indoors, and needs complete quiet to be enjoyed—no clinking of the bar, no audience banter, no slamming of doors. When I first started Ambient Church, all of the art-focused venues in New York that could facilitate this kind of atmosphere were ruled by strict curatorial bodies that didn’t take contemplative space music seriously. I’ve always felt this music deserves the grandest stages, and the grandest accessible stages happen to be within the resonant walls of beautiful, historic churches.

What draws you to ambient music?

I tend to think of ambient as more of an adjective, describing a sound or approach to musical creation rather than a genre. I love all music, and regularly go on all-night internet rabbit holes to the farthest reaches of any given category. The music I discover that ends up on repeat is the trippiest and most interesting, but it also has this ineffable spiritual resonance. I love exploring sound worlds that ebb and flow, seemingly without direction but always end up somewhere surprising. Any music like that belongs at Ambient Church. Lately, I’ve been enjoying a new wave of music that you could classify as “fourth world.” Acts like Salamanda from Seoul, YAI from Brooklyn, and Carmen Villain from Oslo come to mind.

You call these performances “community experiences,” and never “concerts.” What makes you draw this distinction?

The concert is a cultural construct that Ambient Church certainly overlaps with, in that we feature amplified and unimaginably beautiful performances. But I feel use of that word pigeon-holes the experience in a way that may unnecessarily evoke preconceived notions of what to expect to those who have never been in attendance. Concerts are also for fans of artists, to the exclusion of all those unaware. We like to host sound and light experiences in beautiful spaces that are open to all, featuring pioneering, notable, and emerging artists.

The use of concerts in this context also doesn’t give deference to the jaw-dropping visual performances that occur at all our events, and are integral to the experience as a whole. We love working with visual artists to create site-specific works that highlight the architecture of these spaces. Some artists are particularly great at this, such as Eric Epstein, who has been blowing audiences away with his visual artistry since the beginning of the project.

How has your approach to Ambient Church shifted over time?

The vision has changed mostly in terms of its inclusivity. In the early stages, the audience I was trying to attract was mostly my peers in New York’s weird-music scene and their friends. Now it’s become more ambitious to include a wider audience and in less culture-dense geographic areas.

The initial idea was to simply throw the perfect show. What I’ve realized over the years is that all the building blocks of what I felt it took to create this resulted in a hybrid experience of musical discovery and group healing. People take away either one or both, based on their individual needs.

Subscribe to get exclusive access to our stories, newsletters, events, and more.
Already a subscriber? Sign in
Membership advertisement
Membership advertisement

Keep Reading

The “Kwaeε” timber pavilion by Adjaye Associates. (Photo: Michelle Äärlaht. Courtesy Adjaye Associates)
An Intellectual African Revolution Comes to the Venice Architecture Biennale
8 minute read
Jasmine Marie. (Photo: Gerald R. Carter Jr.)
A Breathwork Practitioner Making Space for Black Women to Feel Free
16 minute read
Object No. 118, a set of white ceramic bowls, in the New York City home of Kate Berry, chief creative officer of Domino magazine.
Paola Navone’s “Take It or Leave It” Objects, as Seen in Their New Homes
5 minute read
Tom Delevan with his new Archival rug collection for Beni Rugs. (Courtesy Beni Rugs)
Tom Delavan on What He Watches to Laugh, Relax, and Unwind
11 minute read
John Pawson. (Photo: Gilbert McCarragher. Courtesy Phaidon)
John Pawson’s Approach to Making Life Simpler
23 minute read
Daniel Humm. (Photo: Craic McDean)
Daniel Humm’s Giant, Thought-Provoking, Plant-Based Pivot
15 minute read
GUBI’s presentation at Bagni Misteriosi for Milan Design Week. (Courtesy GUBI)
15 Standouts From Milan Design Week
13 minute read
View of the “Take It or Leave It” exhibition. (Photo: Antonio Campanella)
Our Milan Design Week Exhibition as a Celebration of Paola Navone’s Prolific Practice and Generous Spirit
8 minute read
Daniel Rozensztroch at the “Take It or Leave It” exhibition. (Photo: Antonio Campanella)
Daniel Rozensztroch on Curating “Take It or Leave It”
12 minute read
Photo: Antonio Campanella
Live From Our “Take It or Leave It” Exhibition
2 minute read
Frances Moore Lappé. (Photo: Mamadi Doumbouya)
Frances Moore Lappé on Fifty-Plus Years of Plant-Based Eating (and Living)
19 minute read
“Untitled (Coalescence)” (2021), an installation made of resin, LED lights, and a microprocessor, by New York–based artist Palden Weinreb in the Rubin Museum’s Mandala Lab. (Photo: Rafael Gamo. Courtesy the Rubin Museum)
Ivy Ross and Susan Magsamen on the Science-Backed Pleasures of Neuroaesthetics
8 minute read
Paola Navone. (Photo: Antonio Campanella)
Paola Navone on the Radical Act of Giving Things Away
23 minute read
A collective house near the Catholic mission on the Catrimani River in the Roraima state of Brazil, photographed by Claudia Andujar in 1976. (Courtesy the artist)
The Cosmovision of the Yanomami People and the Violent Forces That Threaten Them
12 minute read
One of three versions of Thomas Ball’s sculpture “Emancipation Group” on view at “re:mancipation.” (Courtesy the Chazen Museum of Art and the Colby College Museum of Art)
Sanford Biggers, a Collective of Artists, and a Museum Interrogate a Problematic Abraham Lincoln Monument
10 minute read
Lesley Lokko. (Photo: Murdo Macleod. Courtesy the African Futures Institute)
Lesley Lokko Positions Africa as a Laboratory for Harnessing the Vast Possibilities of the Future
16 minute read
Jonah Takagi. (Photo: Erik Benjamins. Courtesy Marta)
Jonah Takagi on Media as the Place Where the Practical Meets the Personal
13 minute read
Cover of “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life” by Dacher Keltner. (Courtesy Penguin Press)
Dacher Keltner on Why We All Need Daily Doses of Awe
17 minute read
Karl Lagerfeld in 2014. (Photo: Christopher William Adach)
A New “Cultural Biography” on Karl Lagerfeld Illuminates the Person Behind the Image
23 minute read
Overlapping copies of “No Finish Line.” (Photo: Weston Colton. Courtesy Nike)
Nike Imagines the World 50 Years From Now
15 minute read
The classic “Blue Marble” image of the Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 crew on Dec. 7, 1972. (Courtesy NASA)
Marina Koren on Rethinking the “Overview Effect”
16 minute read
Cover of “Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory” by Janet Malcolm. (Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Piercing Prose of the Late Janet Malcolm
9 minute read
Pieces in Brush’s “Wave” series of steel objects. (Photo: Takaaki Matsumoto. Courtesy Rizzoli Electa)
Remembering Daniel Brush and His Immaculate, Otherworldly Objects, Paintings, and Jewelry
16 minute read
An Yu. (Courtesy Grove Atlantic)
The Eerie, Dreamlike Piano Melodies Behind An Yu’s Latest Novel
6 minute read
Courtesy Anne Helen Petersen
Anne Helen Petersen on Keeping Media All Around—But at Arm’s Length
11 minute read
The cover of “Question Everything: A Stone Reader,” co-edited by Simon Critchley and Peter Catapano. (Courtesy Liveright)
Simon Critchley on the Sheer Delight of Questioning Everything
13 minute read
Aerial view of the new Son Bunyola hotel in Mallorca, Spain. (Courtesy Son Bunyola)
Five Trendsetters on Their Most Anticipated 2023 Travel Destinations
12 minute read
Washington Square Park in New York City’s Greenwich Village. (Photo: Spencer Bailey)
A Walking Tour of Greenwich Village With Architecture Critic Michael Kimmelman
28 minute read
Clockwise from top left: “The Essentials” from Eleven Madison Home, Ikebana Kit Box from Space of Time, “Conversations with Noguchi,” Ghetto Gastro Ancestral Roots waffle and pancake mix, Gohar World Host Necklace, Rice Factory New York rice, Papier d’Arménie “Discovery Box,” and Michael Kimmelman’s “The Intimate City.”
Eight Distinctive and Delightful Gifts for the 2022 Holiday Season
9 minute read
“Ilan's Garden” (2022) by Doron Langberg. (Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro)
As Art Basel Turns 20, Miami Art Week Enters a New, Slightly Less Hyped-Up Dawn
12 minute read
Installation view of “Young Lords and Their Traces” at the New Museum. (Photo: Dario Lasagni. Courtesy the New Museum)
Theaster Gates’s New Exhibition Poetically Prods the Meaning of a Museum
6 minute read
Installation view of “RE_________” at the ICA Philadelphia. (Courtesy the ICA)
At the ICA Philadelphia, Sissel Tolaas Presents Smell as a Poetic Provocation
7 minute read
A view of Auster’s performance “Sound Mo(ve)ments.” (Photo: Destiny Mata)
Sara Auster’s Sound Baths Are a Tonic for Our Tumultuous Times
5 minute read
Photo: Zeph Colombatto
Sound Is at the Core of Musician-Turned-Ceramicist Kansai Noguchi’s Vases and Vessels
7 minute read
Courtesy Tertulia
This New App Gives Readers a Place to Convene and Connect
3 minute read
Courtesy Jill Singer
Sight Unseen’s Jill Singer on Why She Doesn’t Actually Consume That Much Design Content
5 minute read
Photo: Andrew Zuckerman
A Start-Up Is Monitoring Space Junk to Enable a More Sustainable Space Economy
8 minute read
Le Bernardin’s apricot sorbet and chamomile ice cream, infused with Nature’s Fynd dairy-free cream cheese. (Courtesy Nature’s Fynd)
A Microscopic Fungus From Yellowstone’s Hot Springs Is Spurring a New Culinary Movement
3 minute read
Courtesy Artisan Books
Ghetto Gastro’s Jon Gray on “Durag Diplomacy” and the Beauty of the Bronx
11 minute read
A view of the “Slow Show” performance. (Photo: Anne-Sylvie Bonnet)
With “Slow Show,” Choreographer Dimitri Chamblas Emphasizes the Mysterious Power of Slow Movement
4 minute read