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‘New Age Goes Mainstream’ at Conference Assessing an Array of Sounds and Rhythms

<i> Heckman writes about jazz, New Age and world music for Calendar</i>

There’ll be shimmering space sounds, kinetic tones, channeled chanting, microtonal melodies and electronic symphonies across Santa Monica this week as the Bay View Plaza-Holiday Inn plays host to the third annual International New Age Music Conference.

Starting Wednesday night and continuing through Saturday, an assemblage of between 400 and 500 composers, performers, technicians and audio entrepreneurs are expected to gather to assess the condition of the colorful array of sounds and rhythms grouped under the catchall title of New Age.

Saturday night, the conference concludes at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles with a concert of more than five hours featuring Paul Horn, David Gibney, Steve Kindler, Spencer Brewer, Dik Darnell and Jai Uttal, among others.

The conference, which has grown by leaps and bounds in its three years of existence, is oriented toward professionals, with a preregistration price of $295 and $345 at the door. One-day passes are available for $150.

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The event was founded by Suzanne Doucet, a former European pop singer who has become in the last few years the doyenne of New Age music. Her Only New Age Music record store in West Hollywood, established in 1987, was the first specialized retail outlet in the area, and her New Age Music Network--an affiliation of artists and entrepreneurs--has quickly grown from 15 members to more than 300.

Doucet, who somehow manages to simultaneously raise a young daughter, run a retail store and a record company, network with New Agers around the globe and compose her own music, views the conference as an opportunity for a community of strikingly individualistic artists to meet on common ground.

“New Age doesn’t really have much to do with new for me,” she says. “It has a lot more to do with individuals, and the way in which certain expressions and messages come from inside the state of mind of the person who is doing the music. When listeners can resonate with that state of mind, that’s what I call New Age. What’s important is the experience we create between the performer and the audience, and there are millions of styles and methods in which that can take place.”

A healthy sampling of those styles and methods will be demonstrated, discussed and argued about during the conference. One of the more fascinating events will be the hands-on demonstration of electronic instruments that can generate microtonal intervals and scales unfamiliar to Western ears. Others include kinetic light and music techniques to transform dancers into musicians (and vice versa), as well as the world premiere of “Big Thunder,” a “giant drone and solo Contra Bass Slide guitar.”

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Panels and seminars will deal with such topics as “Catching Money Consciousness,” “Microtonality, Healing Frequencies and Instruments for a New Age” and “Music for Mother Earth.”

The theme of this year’s event is “New Age Goes Mainstream.” Some participants believe that the key to mainstreaming lies in diversification--especially via the ethnic sounds and rhythms of world music. Frank Forest, host of “Musical Starstreams,” a New Age music radio show, suggests: “The world music aspect, more up-tempo, world beat sound . . . broadens the appeal.” Composer Steven Halpern, a New Age music pioneer, sees the “rhythmic and instrumental textures from around the world” blurring boundaries, while “bringing psychoacoustic affects of deep space to mainstream access.”

Others aren’t so sure that the growing addition of rhythms, vocals and pop music style production necessarily enhances either the salability or the creativity of New Age music. Bill Traut of Open Door Management points out that “the broadening period is coming to an end and . . . companies are returning to what has been called traditional New Age.” And veteran programmer and record executive Stephen Hill notes that the genre “needs to refine and deepen its commitment to the directions already established.”

Doucet views New Age mainstreaming from a somewhat different perspective.

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“Since the last conference, I’ve been working with a lot of small companies,” she says. “And the general trend is that the new technology has allowed them to be more flexible than ever before.

“So my approach to New Age going mainstream is that computers, desktop publishing, MIDI interfacing, digital recording and all the associated technology have finally made small companies capable of competing with major record labels. I think this will lead to a revolution in the business world--not by big labels swallowing small labels, but by small labels retaining their individual identity. In that way, the creativity of this music remains, no matter how successful it becomes.”

Hill, whose “Music From the Hearts of Space” was the first nationally syndicated radio program of New Age/Spacemusic, takes a different slant. “I get a bit nervous,” he says, “when New Age music becomes too much a form of alternativism--the New Age group, the New Age community, people getting their identity out of being non-mainstream.

“They’re not making any money, they’re not getting any glory, but at least they feel they’re not like everybody else. I would much rather be judged by more universal standards. It keeps going back to that age-old premise: Music is either good or it isn’t.”

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Clearly the conference will have to find room to contain many divergent opinions. In one view, the identity of New Age has already blurred to the point where it includes virtually every kind of contemporary instrumental music as well as world music, religious music, ethnic music and a grab bag of other expressive forms. A more classical approach limits New Age to its earliest definition as a healing, meditative and contemplative medium.

Such differences in perspective should result in an event filled with healthy intellectual and creative interaction.

“I’ve always felt,” Doucet says, “that it’s important to find a balance, to combine the opposites. There is no plus without minus, no good without bad.

“I hope this conference shows that we are moving into a time in which New Age music--no matter what the form--can provide a holistic experience that will balance the emotions and bring the opposites together.”

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