Ancient Music for a New Age

<i> Wyma is a Burbank free-lance writer. </i>

New Age music isn’t new at all to Elisabeth Waldo. She views the recent popularity of New Age--the Grammy Awards added a category for it just this year--as an instance of the public’s taste finally coinciding with her own.

“I’m delighted that this term, New Age, has arrived,” said Waldo, whose specialty is the study, composition and performance of music using primitive instruments. “New Age is metaphysical and meditative. There’s something in it that Bach, Brahms and Beethoven just don’t touch. It’s what I’ve believed in all along.”

Leonard Feather, jazz critic for The Times, last year described New Age music as combining “impressionistic and classical overtones.”


The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, in its statement announcing the Grammy category for New Age, said, “This music is hard to define, but when you hear it you know what it is.” Harpist Andreas Vollenweider was the first recipient of a New Age Grammy.

“People who want to dream a bit and have a spiritual side can do that with this music,” Waldo said.

New Age musicians are branching into two divisions, electric and acoustic, much as folk performers did in the 1960s. As a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and a one-time violinist with both Leopold Stokowski’s All American Youth Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Waldo remains firmly in the acoustic camp.

The Northridge composer and her musicians use several instruments that predate not only electricity, but the European presence in the Americas as well. Some of her compositions are for primitive instruments only. Others, such as a violin concerto she will perform in China this month, also include conventional instruments.

The resulting music has a primal quality--sometimes eerie, sometimes melancholy, sometimes soothing. Often the sounds seem to hover between those an instrument might produce and those that come from animals, birds, the wind or the sea.

Waldo has collected the instruments, some of them 1,500 or more years old, over a lengthy career. She declined to give her age or say how long she has pursued her specialty, known as ethnomusicology. She said she traveled extensively in Central and South America, Mexico and the American Southwest “many years ago” when ancient instruments still could be found.


In her collection are flutes made of llama bones, ceramic whistles and pan pipes, rattles made of fruit shells, tortoise-shell drums and two rasps fashioned from human bones. The bones--a femur and a tibia--have serrations like comb teeth and are strummed with a sea shell. They produce an ominous, clacking sound.

Although Waldo has wooden instruments from the 19th Century, such as Apache and Mexican-Indian violins, she said very few pre-Columbian wooden instruments have survived. The same is true of pre-Columbian music itself.

“The Indians had no system of musical notation,” said Waldo. “The music was handed down from person to person. There are a few cases where the early Spaniards described a little of it, maybe saying it sounded somber. But really it’s only what you feel that’s left. You go into the forests of Mexico and you feel the ancient people.

“I’ve used that in composing my music,” she continued. “After a lot of study and love and imagining, I’ve created an idiom that brings a sort of truth into it.”

Waldo’s understanding of ancient Indian cultures was enhanced by what she termed an “intellectual partnership” with her late husband, Carl S. Dentzel, who for 25 years was director of the Southwest Museum. Founded in 1907, the Highland Park institution is dedicated to chronicling the history and culture of the Indian.

A longtime Valley resident, Dentzel was a force behind the 1937 drive to change the name of then-North Los Angeles to Northridge. He died in 1980. The couple’s two sons are grown. One lives in Northridge and the other in Germany.


Waldo has recorded five albums. Her works are played continuously as background music in the pre-Columbian hall of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. She recently provided the score for a videotape travelogue of Catalina Island.

Performs Regularly

Waldo also performs regularly. Her upcoming trip to China will be her fourth. She was invited to present her concerto and lecture at the Xian Conservatory of Music.

“My first interest was aboriginal American music, and then I became interested in ancient Asian music,” said Waldo. “Now I use it too. At schools, for example, I have two kinds of performances, one that uses Asian music and one for the American.”

For the last six years Waldo has performed at campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District under the district’s Intergroup Cultural Awareness Program. She brings with her two or three musicians and as many dancers.

“It’s very fine,” said Marilyn Piwarzyka, coordinator of the program. “Elisabeth doesn’t just do music. There is the dance, and she talks about the meaning of what the children are seeing. She’s gone into the writing of the Chinese, which is very elaborate.”

Waldo also has performed at museums and California missions. One of these events, a performance of her Catholic Mass “Misa de la Raza,” was taped and aired by television station KCET. She said she finds enough work to keep herself and her musicians busy, but that money sometimes is a problem.


“I do this out of love and the hope that I’ll leave something behind me,” Waldo said. “It isn’t what you might call a commercial success. I’ve talked to the strictly commercial record producers and they have a quick-buck attitude. They want to put a naked woman on the cover or make the music a hodgepodge--a little African here, a little American Indian there--so that it can have no lasting value.”

Nonetheless, Waldo said that listeners are increasingly receptive to her work.

“When I first started putting my aboriginal sounds in the music halls, people thought I was crazy. Now the audience is more sophisticated. Now people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re the shaman lady.’ ”

Richard Buchen, reference librarian at the Southwest Museum, said that interest in Indians as a whole is rising “slowly and steadily.”

More Sophisticated

“What I’ve noticed as a librarian is the increasing level of sophistication,” he said. “I see it in the queries we get. The people making a TV commercial for the Comanche Jeep wanted genuine Comanche articles. In the ‘60s you could get away with anything that looked vaguely Indian.”

One of Waldo’s laments is that archeologists who find an ancient instrument will “document it and date it and set it on a shelf, when it should be used and explored.”

The museum’s Buchen confirmed this, saying, “We have some instruments, but we don’t know whether they’re playable.” He said he is aware of no American composer other than Waldo who is writing music for Indian instruments.


“But I know that in Peru there’s an awful lot of Inca revival going on,” he said. “People are digging out replicas of Inca flutes and playing them as sort of a nationalistic statement.”

The museum’s oldest recordings of Indians playing music were made on wax cylinders in 1905. Buchen and Waldo agreed that the songs show heavy Spanish influence.

“There’s such a long history of domination by Spaniards, it’s very hard to know what a pre-Columbian song sounded like,” Buchen said.

Waldo, however, believes they were simple, using as few as three to five notes, and were repetitious.

“The musicians had a very clever scheme in making it monotonous, because they were trying to seduce the listener into a worshipful state,” she said “After a length of time, it can put a person into a sort of trance.”

And that, she believes, helps explain why ancient instruments and techniques fit well in today’s New Age music.


“It’s a path to the spiritual,” she said.