It’s been a little more than a year since fans said goodbye to the venerable Concerts at the Crossing series, run by promoter/producer Scott Cullen for some 20 years, and held at the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing in Titusville.
But the sanctuary with the gorgeous acoustics is welcoming a new series featuring a very different kind of music, and hoping that area music lovers will come out for a listen and get hooked.
Called “Cosmic Crossings,” the concert series is dedicated to electronic, ambient, experimental, and space music, and the monthly concerts will showcase live performance by electronic musicians and bands from around the region, across the country, and even around the world. Their cosmic sounds will be accompanied by lighting and multimedia visual effects, crafted by lighting designer Ken Palmer. (More about the multi-talented Palmer later.)
The series’ first evening of music will be Saturday, March 25, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 and all proceeds benefit the Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing.
The concert will feature Twyndyllyngs (the duo Howard Moscovitz and Bill Fox), who hail from the Allentown, Pennsylvania, area, but have an international following, thanks to performing at electro-music festivals across North American and Europe.
Future Cosmic Crossings concerts will be held on April 15, May 27, June 17, September 2, October 21, and November 11 — all Saturdays, all at the UUCWC. Look for such notable performers as George Wallace, the Time Merchant, Mike Hunter, Karl Fury, local favorites the Melting Transistor, and space music duo Guitar Pilots, among others.
The series is the brainchild of Lawrence Township resident Nick Mellis — the organizer, planner and producer of Cosmic Crossings — who has been a passionate listener and devoted concert-goer since his youth, but is not a musician himself.
“We’ll have different genres of electronic music, and we’ll be inviting artists from the different sub-genres to come in and perform,” Mellis says. “Although some artists add vocals, it’s mainly instrumental. The artists mostly work with keyboards, computers, tapes, and ‘tape loops.’”
“To me, electronic music is the 21st-century version of classical music, just a different way of looking at it,” he continues. “For example, it’s very much live, it’s symphonic, and it’s a lot closer to classical than it is to rock. A lot of these folks are inspired by classical music, and many are classically trained.”
When asked for an example of electronic music, Mellis’ mind goes first to French musician and composer Jean-Michel Jarre and his 1976 album “Oxygene.”
“In Europe, guys like Jarre are rock stars. They play huge concerts and fill stadiums, but not over here,” Mellis says. “The closest thing in the U.S. (that would draw a large audience) would be such groups as Yes and especially Pink Floyd. If you love the instrumentals they do, you’ll love the kind of music we’re presenting at Cosmic Crossings.”
Do not expect a slick show with the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus type of song, since electronic and space music are created as they are being played.
“It’s not like performing a conventional song where you can rehearse,” Mellis says. “It’s very atmospheric and in-the-moment. A lot of creativity happens on the spot. You can’t replicate your songs and albums with this style. The concerts are all improvised and it’s ‘create as you go.’”
Although Jarre is Mellis’ favorite elder statesman of the genre, Brian Eno is also one of the “granddaddies” of electronic/ambient music. The former member of the British group Roxy Music, prominent producer, and multi-instrumentalist has had quite a solo and collaborative output starting in the 1970s, including “Here Come the Warm Jets,” “Another Green World,” “Taking Tiger Mountain,” “Ambient 1: Music for Airports,” and, with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, “No Pussyfooting,” among other projects just in that decade.
All were minimalist, dreamy, mostly instrumental recordings that opened the gates for other instrumentalists to follow.
Then there’s Kraftwerk, the German quartet famous for “Autobahn” (1974) and the much-sampled “Trans-Europe Express” (1977). They’ve been a major influence on a variety of modern pop music sub-genres, including synthpop, hip-hop, club, and techno music — the latter being that throbbing, hypnotic stuff you might have heard if you’ve been to a club lately.
Other famed electronic and space music composers and performers run the gamut from the mainstream Vangelis and even New Age music superstar Yanni, to those on the academic side, pioneers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.
In between are a myriad of groups and individuals, but the prolific German electronic music collective/ensemble Tangerine Dream stands out as one of Mellis’ favorites.
In the last decade or so, thanks to big leaps in technology and social media, electronic artists, DJs, producers of dance-oriented music have flourished, even become mainstream.
Yet making and performing space music, ambient music, and electronica still seems to be a labor of love, at least in the United States. Mellis says it will probably not pay the rent, unless you’re Jarre or Vangelis.
“It’s not the kind of music you can do full time,” he says. “The people who come to America to play are usually on their vacations from regular jobs they have back in Germany or the U.K. We Americans find their music on SoundCloud or YouTube, etc.”
Lack of financial reward is one of the downsides of making and performing this music. Another challenge is the daunting technology itself.
“You can’t just grab your keyboard or synthesizer and start pressing buttons,” Mellis says. “You need to study your instrument, really learn the ins and outs of it before you start creating.”
On the positive side, however, “You can do it yourself,” Mellis says. “It’s very soothing, you can let your mind go while you’re playing. You can use it as a kind of meditation. I hate to use the word ‘deep,’ but it does tend to get deep. You can get lost in it.”
The concert on May 27 will be special because it features musician, recording artist, and WPRB FM’s Mike Hunter and his “Ombient” project. Hunter is the host of WPRB’s Music With Space, and when he isn’t performing he handles the complicated sound for the Cosmic Crossings series.
His concert guest will be Chuck Van Zyl, multi-instrumentalist and host of the long-running space music program “Star’s End,” which airs in the overnight period (1 to 6 a.m.) on WXPN 88.5 FM.
Van Zyl is also the coordinator of the Gatherings, Philadelphia’s premiere concert series of electronic, ambient, and space music, which has been meeting at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania for more than two decades (www.thegatherings.org).
In fact, it was at a “Gatherings” event that Mellis got the idea for Cosmic Crossings. “I was inspired by the Gatherings in Philadelphia and then I would go to church the next day and think, ‘Why can’t I do this at my own church?’” he says. “So I reached out to Mike, and he was willing to go along with the idea. Then I approached my church with the idea of the concert series as a fundraiser.”
Cosmic Crossings put on four eclectic concerts last fall featuring regional talent and at least one European performer, at both the church at Washington Crossing, and the Dorothea Dix Church in Bordentown.
“Although we enjoyed it, the turn-out was sparse last year, but this year we’ll have a full year (of planning and concerts), so we’re hoping to get some stability,” Mellis adds.
Born and raised in Lawrence Township, Mellis does not come from a particularly musical family. His father was an engineer for the power plant at Princeton University, and his mom took care of raising the kids and running the household.
Mellis, 59, says he has never played an instrument, but he is “that guy” who always seems to have the best tickets for the best concerts.
“I can’t tell you the amount of concerts I’ve been to in my life,” he says, ticking off such names as Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead, Yes, and, especially, Pink Floyd — he says he has seen at least 50 Floyd concerts.
Mellis also has fond memories of seeing progressive rock icons Emerson, Lake, and Palmer at Princeton University’s Jadwin Gym in the winter of 1978, which is poignant since both keyboardist Keith Emerson and guitarist/bassist/vocalist Greg Lake died in 2016.
“I grew up listening to progressive rock, and I benefit from Cosmic Crossings because I have this incredible love of music,” Mellis says. “This is just an extension of that; it’s an outpouring of love for me.”
At Mercer County Community College, he earned an associate’s degree in telecommunications, specializing in radio and broadcasting, and graduating in 1980. While there, Mellis had the opportunity to be a roadie for various groups playing at Kelsey Theater, including the Ramones and Crack the Sky.
After working for about a decade in sales and marketing, Mellis became involved in politics, particularly as an advocate for environmental causes. In fact, he was co-founder of the Green Party of New Jersey in the late 1990s.
“I’ve been a political activist, and now I’m taking a little detour,” he says. “It’s not so much about politics, but it’s something that brings people together.”
Mellis is now a driver for Senior Star adult center in Ewing, while planning and promoting Cosmic Crossings in his spare time. His wife Kris, a social worker, also enjoys music and has been supportive of the new concert series.
Earlier we mentioned Ken Palmer, the lighting designer for Cosmic Crossings. He’s also a graphic designer, and he was energized by the challenge of creating the Cosmic Crossings logo, event flyers, and social media graphics.
“After running my own series of similarly themed music events about 10 years ago — the Cosmic Coffeehouse in Crosswicks — I already had some experience to share with Nick to help him realize his vision,” Palmer says. “We started talking, and by the time September of last year rolled around, we had confirmed dates, venues, and performers lined up to play.”
“I also really missed the thrill of creating a cool place in which all of my fellow ‘musical misfits’ could perform live electronic music,” he continues. “I’d collected a lot of sound and lighting gear over the years, but except for an occasional live gig, my gear was just gathering dust.”
For each Cosmic Crossings performance, all of the effects lighting and the sound system is set up by Palmer, who starts about six hours before the show. The arrangement of the lighting has been different for each show, and Palmer says he is still tweaking, experimenting, and discovering new techniques to make the venue as immersive as the music.
Some of the videos are supplied by the artists for projection above them; other times, the visuals are his own creations.
Palmer has high praise for the UU Church at Washington Crossing, and says it’s a wonderful venue for this kind of music. “The acoustics are great, and the high ceiling and tall curving walls make it the largest space I’ve done lighting for,” Palmer says. “The visual atmosphere has gotten me compliments both from the performers and the audience. It’s really satisfying to sit back during a performance and see how it all comes together.”
Palmer has recruited his son Kyle, 28, and daughter Sage, 22, for his latest trio PYXL8R (pronounced “pixelator”).
“I’ve been doing my own solo electronic music since I was a teenager and have been playing keyboards with my progressive instrumental rock band Brainstatik for more than 20 years,” he says. “When I started doing live performances of my own work about five years ago, I wished I had more hands to play the music that was in my head.”
“I’ve never liked the idea of playing along with pre-recorded backing tracks or sequenced parts, so I enlisted the help of my son Kyle, who is a very talented musician in his own right — performing by himself as BoomBeest,” Palmer says.
“Eventually, my daughter Sage got involved, even contributing her own compositions to the project,” Palmer continues. “Now PYXL8R is definitely a solid trio of musicians, and I’m so proud to have both of my grown children play such an essential part in the performance of my music. It kind of makes us a rarity among our fellow electronic musicians, too. We’ve become jokingly known as ‘the Partridge Family of electronic music.’”
Summing up his motivation for launching the Cosmic Crossings series, Mellis says, “We’re hoping to give people a taste of this kind of music in central New Jersey, but we try to promote the church as well as the music. Also, the sanctuary is a solar-powered church, so I feel a lot better doing it there, where the carbon footprint will be low.”
“I actually discovered the UU Church at Washington Crossing from going to the Concerts at the Crossing series, so maybe someone else will find that same spark when they come to this series,” he adds. “We’re also talking to others to approach their UU churches about doing these concerts as fundraisers. This music needs to be shared.”
Cosmic Crossings Concert Series, Unitarian Universalist Church at Washington Crossing, 268 Washington Crossing-Pennington Road, Titusville. Saturday, March 25, 8 p.m. $10. Future dates are Saturdays, April 15, May 27, June 17, September 2, October 21, and November 11. 267-642-1098 or www.cosmiccrossings.org.