All about Passages: a transcendent audiovisual series presented by Great Circles at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Passages is the new audiovisual series bringing challenging, blissful ambient experiences to the sanctuary of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Kensington. Great Circles, the internet radio platform, label, and record shop stationed on Frankford Avenue, began organizing its monthly installments in October and will continue through the spring, to the delight of curious listeners from all around Philadelphia.

I first heard about Passages from my friend Lindsay Thompson (her photos appear here), who described to me an autumn night she spent lying on a church’s wood floor, wrapped in a blanket from her home, gazing up at the towering stained glass, walls and canopy awash with color from moving, glowing, growing images, animating impossible sounds like a dream. Silent strangers spread across the floor shared this dream for hours that felt like minutes, then came back a month later. I love multisensory performances, but I’d never attended one like this in Philadelphia, so in December I got excited to try it for myself and learn about the people who put it together.

Passages | photo by Lindsay Thompson

The crew running this series all work together under the name “Great Circles,” and they have their own backgrounds in audio, experimental art, rave and electronic music, as well ambient, which all converge at St. Michael’s. Justin Gibbon founded Great Circles as a record label in 2008 to release a friend’s techno EP on vinyl, and since then he’s held all the group’s components together: physical releases, internet radio, local storefront, and live events like Passages, where he speaks on the mic to open each night. Alex Mitchell, who engineers the sound for Passages, also sits at the center of Great Circles, which they now call a “platform” above all else. Before St. Michael’s, Mitchell and Gibbon hosted events around the city for years with a team of other friends, many of whom now contribute to Passages or the station’s online programming, or both. Some nights were hard house and techno parties, DJ sets at Khyber Pass or Lava Space, or multimedia art shows at a short-lived spot called “SINErgy.” From 2006-2019, they ran their own DIY space titled “Inciting,” where they threw dozens of electronic and experimental shows, including a recurring offbeat, heavy dance night called “The Grit.” With total power to shape the experience there, the Inciting team learned to stretch their audiences’ expectations. “Because we weren’t necessarily beholden to some venue,” Gibbon says, “or how much money came through the door, we would just do what we wanted to do, and present what we wanted to present.”

In 2019, Inciting’s home on Delaware Avenue got torn down by real estate developers, sending the team on a search for new space, never without ambition even as some of their allies moved away or aged out of the rave and DIY scenes. Mitchell and Gibbon luckily found a property on Frankford Avenue to grow the new project they had been imagining a while: a “storefront online radio station” partly inspired by New York’s East Village Radio, where the crew could host events, operate their online stream, sell physical music released by their label and others, and keep everything under the Great Circles name. The friends have self-funded the station since then while working full-time jobs, treating the internet platform as the main component while the storefront functions like “the gift shop for a museum,” where merchandise both “reflects” and supports the online content. “You can pick up a record here and also expect that someone will be playing that record on one of the radio shows,” Gibbon explains. The same is true at events like Passages, where the Great Circles team sells recordings by musicians who play that night, played last month, or might play soon.

Since the station started broadcasting, the team had always hoped to boost it with events as well as retail. They initially planned to host livestream shows, which felt unique at the time, but in 2020 streaming became less novel while retail became impossible. This left them with a lonely storefront – a space where they believed a music community could thrive, but no safe time to test this theory. They streamed a number of performances the following year from inside the shop, but by 2022 Gibbon was still itching to start some bigger live events like those at Inciting, especially ambient shows that could bring calm to a group of neighbors together.

Then last spring, on quiet walks between the shop and his nearby Kensington home, Gibbon started hearing musicians from inside St. Michael’s Lutheran Church at Trenton Avenue and Cumberland. He was glad to see the church renting out their space for extra income, as he knew some of the regular churchgoers from around the neighborhood, and always saw them running a weekly food pantry even as the front sign still sadly read “NO SERVICES.” So Gibbon decided to call them up and find out how to rent their sanctuary for a new kind of concert that soon became Passages. He wanted to support St. Michael’s financially, and he believed the building could work beautifully because of its huge, elegant space, its “wildly convenient” location by the Great Circles home base, the inclusive church community there and their past experience housing other events centering care for neighbors, including the food pantry, AA and other faith groups. The church directors proved entirely accommodating, letting Gibbon, Mitchell and their crew put in weeks of front-end work prepping the sanctuary for audio and projectors, including heavy carpentry and troubleshooting, even letting Mitchell house his hi-fi Klipschorn speakers in the space permanently. This sense of commitment, of home at St. Michael’s, has already resonated with many of the series’ performers and fans, grounding them in peace and proximity, making the experience “aboutthose speakers in that space.”

Alene Marie & Klip Collective at Passages - November 19, 2022

Gibbon, like myself and so many of the Passages performers I spoke with, appreciates the level of deep attention the listeners bring in exchange for such hard work by the Great Circles crew. As I entered the sanctuary before the start of December’s show, featuring Ulla, Chaperone, and Carl Ritger, dozens of guests in circles around the room already sat in almost total silence. I couldn’t even hear whispers, only a few footsteps at the door beneath the pre-show ambient mix by DJ Anarres. The wood floor was cleared of all pews, revealing a circular, snakelike labyrinth painted at its middle. Soon, some of us lay flat on our backs, under blankets, among friends, pointing all our quiet noses to the far wall of the nave, where stained glass was alight above. Between us, only one yellow bulb peeked out from a little desk lamp atop the cloth-draped tables where musicians had their rigs set up, wires curling out across the labyrinth. Dark and emptiness built an intense sense of focus in the room, which Matthew Stone of the duo Soporus, who performed in November, says felt like an “overwhelming serene reverence” from the audience.

Each Passages lasts three hours, with three musical acts giving distinct sets from their seats in the sanctuary, accompanied by a visual team tucked up in the choir loft; the projections I saw in December were handled tactfully by Grant Bouvier and Klip Collective’s Ricardo Rivera. These visuals take so many forms: sometimes discernable footage, or more often abstract fields, layered, pointillistic, tessellating. Overlapping geometries move at their own paces, outlining and reinforcing the room’s architecture, the stone arch and ceiling’s edges, while off the walls, colors catch on hanging lanterns and their chains, or converge high up on narrow organ pipes. Rivera and Bouvier both sat at the controls, co-operating a visual performance that Rivera calls “like jazz” – “essentially all improvised” in response to the music, though they got familiar with the musicians before the show. Bouvier worked with “liquid light,” tilting oils and alcohols between thin glass plates captured on a close camera, tools which feel more “tactile and responsive” in his hands than a computer, and grow bubbly, elastic images like paints mixing in a bucket. Some moments, I thought I saw flowers, wakes and ripples on water, and others, organisms under a microscope.

Passages | photo by Lindsay Thompson

The musicians, too, bring great multiplicity to Passages with their dissimilar styles and equipment, pushing the experience in all different directions outside the vague “ambient.” Some sets might let us drift off to sleep in the sanctuary – which could be welcome here, and lovely – but others grab us with force. Carl Ritger, who opened December’s night, describes his style as more like “noise” or “musique concrète,” with sounds like settling explosions, scraping surfaces or crackling air. Phil Yeah played environmental sounds in his October set, too, with field recordings from his Pennsylvania camping trips, together with melodic material. Soporus performed as an electric guitar and bass duo with amps and pedals, while solo artists Apologist and Chaperone both incorporated cassette tape playback. I loved learning that Alene Marie devised her set after a dream about her recently passed grandmother “visiting [her] as the wind,” a celebration “of her spirit freed from a tired body.” And Apologist oriented her work “around Jewish new year rituals, particularly the selichot prayers” to make her set “reverent and worshipful – to make it fit the space.” (As soon as I heard about this series in St. Michael’s, I wondered how musicians might use the opportunity to reproduce, invoke or mirror religious ceremonies.)

For such a varied and experimental series, Passages has already built a glad following since October: Great Circles sells out the one hundred-plus capacity sanctuary, and some patrons come back ritually. Musicians, too, call the space one of the best they’ve worked in, for the beautiful audio mixed by Mitchell, its “adventurous and receptive” listeners, a chance to watch these visuals with the same perspective as the crowd, and the always outstanding work ethic of the Great Circles team. “It’s important to them that it works and in turn that makes me feel like I am also important to them,” says Chaperone’s David Coccagna, who has released his music on their label, too. “It’s a very loving and caring practice that I am really grateful for.” Some performers also appreciate the chance to fade into the crowd for a few hours of the night, the local artists who have known each other for years and worked around Great Circles since the Inciting days; William Stichter of Soporus says sitting among friends after his own set let him “settle into a mellow, happy glow” with everybody. And even the production team gets fleeting chances to enjoy the beauty born out of their work, as days or weeks of hectic preparation give way to a surreal three-hour decompression. Gibbon shares that he cried for a minute during December’s spectacular, ghostlike set by Ulla, which also moved me and a friend almost to tears that night.

Passages | photo by Lindsay Thompson

The Great Circles and Klip Collective teams look forward to continuing Passages into the spring, since Gibbon and Rivera feel their extensive front-end work in the fall got their process effectively “dialed in,” and prepared them to explore new possibilities for the coming installments. They still feel surprised about the audience this project amassed in just a few months, and grateful to know they’re building something “both unique and repeatable” that a small community in Philadelphia desires. I’m increasingly curious to see where the series goes, and I wait keenly for the next time I can walk to St. Michael’s in a Saturday’s dusk, smell the drinks they’re serving up in the nave (try the pumpkin Irish coffee from Forin Cafe), and find my own space to lie down as the glow begins.

Passages returns to St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Kensington this Saturday, January 21st, featuring performances by Earthen Sea, Jeff Zeigler (collaborator with Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs, Mary Lattimore), and Grant Bouvier & Simon Martinez (also of Flanafi). Tickets are available here. After that, Great Circles also continues their vinyl listening series at Fishtown’s LMNO, and their label returns with two new cassettes, including one by Chaperone. Later this year, Mitchell hopes to finish building out a program for streaming audio from Great Circles’ growing archive, allowing 24/7 listening at

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