A new age for New Age music
In late 2009, noise-pop group Animal Collective followed up its critics-poll-topping album “Merriweather Post Pavilion” with a stopgap EP, “Fall Be Kind.” It generated buzz for featuring the first-ever licensed Grateful Dead sample, but what was more peculiar was a curlicue of pan flute woven into the song “Glaze” and credited to Gheorghe Zamfir. Zamfir, as the Romanian pan flute musician is best known, was a ubiquitous presence on television in the ‘80s, peddling wispy flute albums. For many people, it was one of the first sounds that came to be known by the label of New Age music.
“It didn’t even dawn on me that people would have the reaction that it was a New Age flute thing,” said Animal Collective’s Dave “Avey Tare” Portner from his home in Baltimore. “It just seemed like something that would work for the song.”
Portner is part of a new generation of musicians and producers who are working such calming, serene, yes, even sappy sounds into their music. Despite its association with crystals, color therapy, holistic medicine, incense, lucid dreaming and chakra manipulation, New Age music — once resigned to the dollar bins of record stores and the vitamin section of health food stores — has somehow entered into the misty echelon of coolness.
In addition to bands like Animal Collective, other acts have been delving into New Age music for inspiration. Jimmy Tamborello, who releases music as Dntel and is half of the Postal Service, recently posted to the Web a series of loving (and free) remixes he did of Celtic folk singer turned New Age superstar Enya, whom he’s claimed to have loved since he was a teenager.
Breakout indie dance act Teengirl Fantasy’s video for its single “Cheaters” featured the celestial light visual effects created by one of the fathers of founders of New Age music, Greek composer Iasos. Last year for his website, Beck and some musician friends, including Thurston Moore, Feist and the band Wilco, covered the entirety of New Age superstar Yanni’s “Live at the Acropolis.” The 4AD band Gang Gang Dance eschews harsh feedback and instead builds its highly rhythmic tapestries around synth tones that — as the Village Voice recently put it — “have taken the staple sounds of Lite-FM hits and repurposed them for evil.”
Underground noisemakers like Emeralds, Oneohtrix Point Never, Stellar Om Source and Blues Control are following suit, mixing the soothing sound textures of the genre as well as its visual aesthetic into their own works. San Francisco specialty record shop Aquarius Records raves not just about the latest Norwegian doom metal album but also the dronescapes of composer David Parsons, and New York’s Other Music touts artists like Claire Hamill. For some, such music might be of passing interest, but other musicians gravitate toward it as a balm in the age of digital overload. Call it the new age of New Age.
“ ‘New Age’ is a thoroughly discredited term,” said Douglas Mcgowan, who reissues rare New Age albums through his Yoga Records imprint. “Part of why I like the term is because of how much it bothers people. I think it’s more fun to enjoy something that is frowned upon. There’s a rebelliousness to embracing something that has been discarded and deemed worthless by the culture at large.”
In addition to working on reissues of acts like Bobb Trimble and Ted Lucas, over the last few years Mcgowan has had a hand in re-releasing privately pressed New Age albums too. There’s “Wizards,” a 1982 album by Texas electronics musician J.D. Emmanuel; “Traveler’s Advisory,” a 1986 curio for hammer-dulcimer and drum machine by Matthew Young; and “Celestial Vibration,” an album made by zither player and street musician Edward Larry Gordon before he recorded for ambient pioneer Brian Eno under the name Laraaji, initiating a decades-long career in the music and healing arts and status as one of the genre’s finest practitioners.
“I have found younger listeners across the planet who dive into contemplative listening, and I feel there are also devoted musicians cultivating their roles as well,” wrote Laraaji Nadabrahmananda via email. “And I accept my role in helping listeners young and elderly locate their own sense of deeper stillness through this music.”
As these albums make clear, the tag New Age is rather broad. It encompasses the electronic soundscapes of Michael Stearns and Steve Roach as well as the gentle acoustic albums that Windham Hill made ubiquitous. It has roots in American composers like Terry Riley as well as Indian classical music. New Age founding fathers Paul Horn and Steven Halpern come from the 1960s jazz tradition, and yet it also contains Native American and Sanskrit chants. It’s also influenced by the series of ambient albums made by Eno in the mid-'70s as well as the adventurous German music of Klaus Schulze, Manuel Göttsching, Deuter and Vangelis, not to mention the synth pop made in Japan by Kitaro. And then there were the California communes that gave rise to artists like Peter Davison and Iasos. “The best New Age albums to me are the ones that are an outgrowth of the hippie scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” said musician Greg Davis, who also runs the popular New Age music blog Crystal Vibrations. “People had been living in communes for years, digging into alternative lifestyles and started making some amazing music. Being a big fan of drone, ambient, cosmic and psychedelic music, all of these characteristics can be found in the New Age world.”
In a way, an appreciation of New Age stems from running out of other genres to listen to. “Our interest in noise music waned,” recalled keyboardist Lea Cho of the experimental Philadelphia duo Blues Control. “And consequently, we started exploring different types of psychedelic music like New Age. But I remember playing those records at our house and getting fully laughed at by our friends.”
Blues Control is now collaborating with Laraaji in the studio for a full-length album slated for release on the RVNG label in the fall and is playing live with him at the 32nd annual Life Spectrums Conference this month in Pennsylvania. “The recording experience affirmed my initial love and understanding of music,” said Cho. “And it made inconsequential a lot of negativity I had come to associate with modern life and modern music.” Next month, RVNG will also release a collaborative synthesizer ensemble album from minimalist composer David Borden in conjunction with Oneohtrix Point Never’s Dan Lopatin, former Skaters member James Ferraro, Laurel Halo and Sam Godin.
“I always enjoyed the idea that krautrock was considered highbrow, yet New Age textures signaled something more cheesy and lowbrow,” said Lopatin. “But there’s also a superficial dissolution of the ego in both New Age music and Western mysticism that I find amusing.” Animal Collective’s Brian “Geologist” Weitz agrees: “I think the reason there is a stigma attached to a lot of New Age music is because of the personalities associated with it and the naive optimism to their aesthetic.”
New Age music preached spirituality, environmentalism, self-evolution and the like, yet when musicians and the major record labels saw the successes that an auteur like Halpern had with his cottage industry, big money soon followed. “New Age music was one of the very first completely amateur-driven genres,” said Mcgowan. “Yet it became commercialized around the same time as Ronald Reagan’s remaking of America in 1984, where something that started as a countercultural hippie movement was completely co-opted.” New Age became big business, leading to subsequent Halpern releases with oddly utilitarian titles like “Music for Your PC” and “Attracting Prosperity,” not to mention the international success of Enya, who has sold more than 75 million records worldwide.
And yet for all of this co-option and financial success, for this new generation of music makers and artists, New Age music strikes at this trend in the 21st century. For Portner, the music serves as an aural balm: “Being on tour and listening and playing loud music every night, I just want to listen to something that’s going to calm me down after.”
Which might be how this new wave of New Age helps a generation of listeners who don’t remember Reagan, the ‘80s or when Whole Foods Market was just a funky grocery store and not a corporate conglomerate. “We are in such deep need of chilling out these days and popular culture for this generation doesn’t leave you with any room for meditation or space,” said Mcgowan. “Sitting and quietly listening to a New Age record is the opposite of checking your Facebook every two minutes. It’s as far from that kind of mentality as you can get.”
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