Key Tracks: Vapourspace’s “Gravitational Arch of 10”

It can take time for a dance track’s greatness to make itself apparent. But that was never the case with “Gravitational Arch of 10,” the 1993 techno classic by Vapourspace – upstate New Yorker Mark Gage. The first three-and-a-half minutes are celestial electronica a la Gage’s ’70s heroes Tangerine Dream – a hypnotically looping keyboard pattern overlaid with a siren call fading in and out of volume. Then the beat kicks in, and the groove turns the track to steel, with a lightly pitch-bent synth riff at the center.

The head-down, into-the-future feel of the track, not to mention its hypnotic mien, was one of the building blocks of what became trance. And it’s aged handsomely, from Plus 8 co-founder Richie Hawtin opening his set at the debut Detroit Electronic Music Festival with it in 2000 to Irish up-and-comer Matador using it to kick off his half of the Essential Mix he shared with fellow M_nus artist Gaiser in July.

Shortly after “Gravitational Arch” appeared on Plus 8, FFRR – a Warner Bros. dance-music subsidiary helmed by Pete Tong – snapped it up and issued a maxi-single with a number of remixes (Plus 8 co-head John Acquaviva’s among them – Acquaviva signed Gage to the label) and, in 1994, Themes From Vapourspace, an hour-long single-track “journey.” Gage also appeared on the infamous See the Light Tour, headlined by Aphex Twin, Orbital, and Moby (and recalled in detail for In The Mix by the latter’s bandmate Jim Poe). Gage is quieter these days, but “Gravitational Arch” has yet to fade away.

Vapourspace - Gravitational Arch Of Ten

Are you from New York?

I’m from upstate New York, Canandaigua, 45 miles from Rochester. I graduated from high school in 1980. I’ve lived in Rochester since 1985 – after college. I went to Marietta College in southern Ohio.

When did you become involved with electronic music?

In the late ’70s I became interested in electronic music, which at that point wasn’t so evolved. I was into people like Rick Wakeman and Wendy Carlos, who was Walter Carlos at that time – Switched-On Bach and that sort of stuff. In high school I sang in an 80-member choral ensemble. My choral instructor actually drove me to Rochester to take these synthesizer introductory classes at a place called [David] Hochstein Music School [& Dance] in Rochester; he knew of my interest in electronic music and encouraged me.

Also, the marching band at our high school had a small synthesizer. They would wheel it out onto the football field with a long extension cord for halftime shows. I didn’t play the synthesizer in marching band, but my choral instructor allowed me to use it, so I started getting hands-on time with an actual synthesizer in the late ’70s: I could shut myself in a practice room with a pair of headphones and dick around.

At Marietta College I met a married couple, Craig and Diane Worthen, who would go to Columbus and Cleveland every week and buy hundreds of dollars of import records, these Kraftwerk bootlegs, and they started letting me borrow them. I had a massive cassette ape collection of stuff I had recorded from their record collection. [The Worthens] really schooled me in a lot of obscure stuff. They also sold me a synthesizer, a Sequential Circuits Pro One. Eventually I sold it back to them.

There is a whole bunch of material that I recorded before I had any notoriety – 100 or more hours that have never been released.

I had awful grades in college because I was more interested in borrowing records from these people [than attending class]. I dropped out after two years because my heart wasn’t really in it. I moved back to Canandaigua – a real resort community in the summertime. I became head waiter of a restaurant, making $300 to $400 a week. I began to build up a huge reservoir of cash which I immediately started sinking into synthesizers, drum machines, recording equipment – everything I could get my hands on. I was buying Roland SH-101s, TR-606s; I had a 707. All of what became really sought-after equipment in the ’90s I actually owned in the ’80s. A friend I recorded with in the ’80s bought a brand new 909 for $500; I sold mine for $1,000 in the 90s.

I’ve been recording original tracks since 1983. I recorded them to metal cassette tapes on a high-end Nakamichi cassette deck. I still have all those tapes now. There is a whole bunch of material that I recorded before I had any notoriety – 100 or more hours that have never been released. Some of it is shit and some it is really cool. Maybe in the future I might try to do something with it. Right now, it’s all sitting on a hard drive.

How much of that stuff was straight-up dance music?

I had very little idea up until 1991 what was going on with club music. I was more into industrial, like Front 242. I was a huge Mute Records fan. I was really big on Depeche Mode; I had Mute 001, The Normal 12-inch that Daniel Miller did. I knew all of that music very well. Then in 1991, I had a roommate who DJed locally here in Rochester at gay clubs, straight clubs, and he also reported to Billboard magazine’s Dance [Club Play] charts. We were getting inundated with dance records every week that were shipped to him by the record labels. I started getting exposure to that kind of club music; a lot of that was influential.

How did you get signed to Plus 8?

I had sent demos out to five or six record labels, and a friend of mine suggested I send one to these guys in Canada. I sent one to John Acquaviva; I didn’t really know Richie [Hawtin] at the time. John called me back and said, “I’m calling you back for one specific reason. I don’t particularly like the tracks you sent me on your demo, but your production style is so professional sounding. I don’t care for the tracks; they are a little too ravey.” And I have to admit, they were very ravey tracks I sent him. They weren’t that intelligent side of electronic music that Plus 8 was known for. John said, “I’m going to send you some records that our label has put out. I want you to listen, take it all in, and if you do more work in the future, send me the stuff you’re doing.” That summer of ’92, I recorded almost the entirety of my Cusp CD that came out on Swim years later. John called me back: “We really like this Cusp stuff. We are going to put out an EP first.”

“Gravitational Arch of 10” was released in May 1993. When did you record it?

I wrote “Gravitational Arch of 10” in January 1993, and I think a lot of it was because I was so inspired by the fact that Plus 8 were going to put out an EP for me on Probe. Also, John had given me inspiration by sending me a lot of their records.

The original version of “Gravitational Arch of 10” was much longer than on the first Plus 8 12-inch.

I recorded it in one evening. It just kind of happened. It was a complete one-off performance. It was all done live. It wasn’t like I sat down and worked on it for weeks on end. I banged out the drum machine patterns quickly, recorded the sequences into the synthesizers very quickly, and luckily turned on the DAT machine and recorded it. I had Sound Tools, the precursor to Pro Tools, and editing tracks was a big part of my shtick. Typically, I would roll the tape and record and change things live on the fly, and then go back and edit out mistakes or whatnot. The original version of “Gravitational Arch of 10” was much longer than on the first Plus 8 12-inch.

If you have a skilled ear you can actually hear where the edit points are, because I do reverse edits, which Richie Hawtin taught me about. If you listen to some of the earlier Plus 8 records, they do a lot of reverse editing – a quick little quarter-note or half-note value. There’s one or two of those in “Gravitational Arch of 10” that are very distinctive.

How long was it originally?

I couldn’t even tell you – for the life of me, I cannot find the original DAT that has the full-length performance. I only have the edited version. And I am kicking myself at this point, because I, of course, would love to have that.

You went on the See the Light Tour in the fall of 1993 with Moby, Orbital, and Aphex Twin, not long after “Gravitational Arch” was released. Did you have much experience playing live before that?

None. [laughs] But I was so ready. Before I got signed to Plus 8, John Acquaviva came to Rochester to DJ. He knew that he was signing me and he called the promoters of the club and said, “I want you to have Mark Gage playing in the ambient room the night I am DJing in the main room. I want to see what Mark can do.” I played for two or three hours straight without a break and without stopping. It was one continuous set. When John and his wife, Carla, came to Rochester that night for that gig they both said to me, “You’re ready for this, because you’re capable of pulling this off.” They were impressed with the fact that I was capable of doing it all live. That became a plus for them in signing me.

When I played live, I triggered things pattern by pattern. I didn’t typically work with the sequence where I pushed the “Go” button and it just did things. I triggered patterns on the 909 and the 606 and I used the tom outputs; there was a left and right tom output on the 606. Typically I would use either a Sequential Circuits Pro One or FH-101. I would record sequences into those synthesizers. On the fly, I would trigger those sequences to the control-voltage outputs of the CV/Gates – the low tom and the high tom on the 606, and then the mid tom on the 909. The rim shot [was] on one or the other.

It’s got to be gratifying that “Gravitational Arch of 10” is still around. It’s hard to predict that sort of thing.

For FFRR Records, they were expecting me to be able to come back with something monumental, and I didn’t know how to do it.

It blows me away. [laughs] The sad thing is I don’t think I could ever top it, and I think that’s something that plagued my music career afterwards, as I don’t know how I ever could’ve come back with something better or as good as that track. In a way, it was the most important musical thing that ever happened to me – but it was also a curse, because I could never one-up it. It was always going to be my defining moment. For FFRR Records, they were expecting me to be able to come back with something monumental, and I didn’t know how to do it. Unfortunately, it was a happy accident that I recorded. That aspect of it sucked because it kind of ended my career. It’s very gratifying that people still play the track. It’s very gratifying that the track still stands up all these years later. I wish I was rich from it, but I’m not. It is kind of bittersweet.

One of that track’s highest-profile moments came when Richie Hawtin opened his headlining set at the first Detroit Electronic Music Festival with it.

Richie has always done an amazing job of supporting that track and playing it. At the beginning, before the track had a momentum of its own, Richie and John were really helpful in getting it noticed. Once the track gained its own notoriety then it spoke for itself. It’s still an honor for me that Richie plays the track and people still react to the track. That says a lot to me, and it means a lot to me as well.

By Michaelangelo Matos on November 20, 2014

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