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.
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.”