Imagine a nightclub. Or, as Q Nightclub describes itself, imagine a “state-of-the-art, 12,500 sq. ft. multilevel lounge and nightclub,” with 18-foot ceilings, explosions of meticulously designed light, its own line of signature vodkas, and a semi-secret bourbon bar. The furniture is space-age, milky-white polyethylene or red vinyl; there’s a man in a suit selling high-end cologne in the LED-lit bathroom; and it’d be easy to drop $500 on bottle service. There’s a line out the door, and immersive, obliterating sound inside.
Now imagine walking into an ambient-music event where everyone is on the floor with blankets or yoga mats, leaning against their friends and partners or lying down alone. Spectral, transportive music accompanies a show of mesmeric lights and projections. People drift in and out, chat, or meditate, and you might see someone popping a melatonin or asking if the bar has tea.
Astoundingly, these two worlds cohabitate at the unlikely, extraordinary event Rare Air, a semi-quarterly night of transcendental ambient and New Age music that invites attendees to “explore inner space” with the “the blissful, cosmic side of the beatless music spectrum.” Rare Air was started in February 2014 by Valerie Calano (DJ Explorateur), renowned vinyl archivist and Seattle apostle of experimental music, and takes place at the ultra-modern Q Nightclub, a dance club in the heart of Capitol Hill that usually has all the chill of a Black Friday sale.
Calano started scheming up Rare Air when she was spinning vinyl at the Living Room, a Capitol Hill bar that closed in 2012 but once hosted an array of weirdo DJ nights, including Calano’s psych and prog nights. The Living Room was the kind of place you’d expect to find something like Rare Air—dingy, independent, small, and barely hanging onto its lease. Calano and her frequent DJ partner at the time, Stranger music writer Dave Segal, “threw the idea around half-jokingly of starting a New Age night—it was something we were both interested in and we both had a lot of those records, but then the Living Room closed.”
But in 2014, Calano’s friend Marz Martinez invited her to do a night at Q, and Calano started scheming again. “My gut feeling about doing a DJ night at Q was ‘No way, my music is too weird for Q, how would I ever fill a space that large?’ But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it could work, with the amazing blank walls and space for visuals. Since I knew there wouldn’t be people dancing, obviously, I got the idea to encourage people to bring yoga mats or blankets or sleeping bags as a way to get people engaged in the night and not just hanging out at the bar.”
It is incredibly rare, and likely unique nationwide, that such a strange, experimental night of mellow, idiosyncratic music is able to use the world-class resources of a club like Q. The space itself was created by the architect behind the iconic Apple Cube in Times Square, and the lighting was designed by the crew who lights the mainstage of the international electronic-music festival Ultra, which counts its attendees in the hundreds of thousands. Most important, Q boasts Seattle’s only Funktion-One sound system, a speaker set that’s landed Q at #6 on Beatport’s list of the 10 best sound systems in America. It’s the same speaker system that powers Berlin’s legendary techno temple Berghain.
“I feel like I’m getting away with something sometimes,” says Calano, “like when I play some New Age dollar record on that six-figure sound system. There’s something slightly subversive about it that I really like … that space was built very meticulously for a very specific purpose, and we come into it and just flip it on its head. It seems like it shouldn’t work, but it totally does.”
For Rare Air’s second-anniversary show last February, Max Schneider from Portland’s Visible Cloaks did a cassette-only DJ set. “That has never been done at Q before,” says Calano. “It was the first time cassettes have been played on that $100,000 sound system.” The next Rare Air, this coming Tuesday, will feature M. Geddes Gengras, an L.A. composer who works with analog modular synthesizers to create blooming timbral soundscapes. Hearing an artist like Gengras on an F-1 sound system is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When I asked Christian Peterson of I WANT YOU Art and Design, the man behind the visual projections and posters for every Rare Air, why he participates in the project, he said, “It’s something totally different and cool and new and good for Seattle, especially the way things are going in this city. Having this New Age-ambient night right in the center of the rapidly changing Capitol Hill, it’s a cool statement and helps keep things weird.” Indeed, Rare Air probably is helping Seattle get even weirder. New Age is a widely lampooned genre that has lately enjoyed a kind of redefinition and resurgence, thanks in part to curators and DJs like Calano. For example, Calano noted that since the release of the popular 2013 Light in the Attic compilation of American New Age, I Am the Center, the records she used to find for $1 or $2 are now $5 or $10. “As someone who’s been buying music like that for a while,” she says, “it’s a little irritating, but it’s cool to see people starting to recognize the value of that kind of music. I mean, some of it is terrible, just crap, but there’s a lot of great stuff out there that has been underrated for so long, and people have just dismissed it as New Age schlock … Hopefully we’ve done our little part in making New Age less of a dirty word now.”
It’s worth noting that though the mission of Rare Air may seem subversive—and though New Age is pretty much the antithesis of club music—Q is bankrolling Calano’s psychedelic dream come true. “They have a high overhead,” she says of Q. “It’s a big space and they have to hire a lot of people even for a small night like Rare Air. They’ve been incredibly generous in letting us use the space and super-supportive with keeping it going for two years now.”
Rare Air is a free night, and keeping it that way is important to Calano. “I think it being free contributes to people just kind of walking in and out,” she says. “I had someone tell me they were getting groceries across the street at QFC and saw people outside and they remembered, ‘Oh, Rare Air,’ came in and hung out for 20 minutes, and then brought their groceries home. Even if you put a price tag on something as cheap as $5, people make it more of an event that they have to go to and ‘get their money’s worth.’ ”
It seems fitting there’s no price tag on Rare Air, because it’s truly a priceless experience. If you’re getting groceries on Tuesday, come drift in. E
With M. Geddes Gengras, Aos, Archivist, DJ Explorateur. Visuals by I WANT YOU. Q Nightclub, 1426 Broadway, 432-9306, qnightclub.com. Free.