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When the Audience is Still and Silent, Free Planet Radio Hears Applause

Sandlin Gaither

Imagine you’re in a band performing at a club or even if you’re just a solo artist with a guitar in a coffeeshop. You want to sense people are listening. You want engagement. You want applause.

That is, unless you’re one of the members of the longtime Asheville trio Free Planet Radio. They recall a recent show at the Light Center in Black Mountain that was one continuous flow of music for nearly 90 minutes.

“Everyone is lying on their backs with their eyes closed,” said guitarist and composer Chris Rosser. “It’s more like a meditative experience, definitely the opposite of a concert, really.”

“The best response we could get was absolute silence. I’m deadly serious,” added bassist Eliot Wadopian. “How awesome was it to put people in a space where when it was all done, they floated away?”

Most musicians would find this astonishing and completely unrelatable. But Free Planet Radio has always come from a different place with its music, and that’s no more true than with the band’s new album, aptly titled “Stillness.”

Free Planet Radio performs an album-release concert—or sound meditation—for “Stillness” Saturday, Oct. 6, at Isis Music Hall in West Asheville.

“I guess one of the biggest differences in how to describe the music is there was no clapping in between. Part of the way to create music where people go into a deep space is trying not to infuse too much ego in it,” said percussionist River Guerguerian. “It has to start with us. It’s not how fast or busy can we play. We have music like that, but this was more about presenting a painting, presenting a vibe, so a listener can go into a trancey place.”

Rosser, Wadopian and Guerguerian had already established their individual credentials when they came together in 2001 for what they today term world-jazz classical music. They connected over an expansive view of music and its spiritual impact, and also as musical improvisers.  

“It took almost eight to 10 years to really get our sound together,” Guerguerian said. “We realized we had enough material, it was all about how we combined our textures.”

“In exploring Indian, Hindustani and Middle Eastern music, those styles have some very calm, loving sections and places in the music, working with drones, working in keys that we’d just take a scale and work it over the composition,” Wadopian said. “The styles helped us find that vibe.”

They created sounds firmly in the strike zone of world music and, to their ears, inflected their early albums with jazz. But outside of the relatively upbeat and energetic record they made three years ago with the Opal String Quartet, all their music comes from a temporal place.

“People heard world music and they thought ‘Oh, it’s going to be a jam band, upbeat, four-on-the-floor kinda music, everybody’s gonna dance,’ and our music moved around a little too much sometimes,” Guerguerian said. “We got into odd time and got a little jazzy, but we also created a set that works in those situations.”

And their chameleon-like qualities have allowed Free Planet Radio to perform everywhere from art symposium and education conferences to yoga and meditation retreats. Just don’t compare their music with Muzak—the background music most associated with office elevators and department stores.

“Muzak to me is a little mindless,” Guerguerian said. “I think you can have music that’s relaxing, but at the same time, it’s not just relaxing, it’s rejuvenating and recreative, without it being fluffy and disengaged.”

The trio frequently serves as hired guns in the recording studio for David LaMotte, Katt Williams, Billy Jonas and other solo artists. But they say as long as they can continue finding inspiration in each other, Free Planet Radio will continue exploring their brand of serene.

“We’ve had a whole visceral experience of being a group together. Things have been good and they’ve been tough and they’ve been awesome and sometimes they haven’t been,” Wadopian said. “Any relationship is built on trust and time, and we’ve had tons of that now.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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