The New Age Music Conundrum
What is 'New Age' music? Who plays it, and why is it apparently so popular? Our resident musicologist Mark Prendergast traces its development back to the work of 'new music' composers Arnold Schoenberg and Erik Satie.
One could rightly place the responsibility for today's instrumental music on the shoulders of two men: Arnold Schoenberg and Erik Satie. One invented 'serialism', the other 'minimalism'. Both worked on the acoustic piano and created a radical new vocabulary of exploration for new music at the beginning of this century. Mark Prendergast traces the historical tradition through to its present day manifestation as 'New Age' music.
When Schoenberg devised the use of the 'chromatic' or 'off-key' scale as a part of normal music and emphasised whole 'series' of notes in cascades, he laid the groundwork for what the modern composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich dazzle their present audiences with. Moreover, these ideas coupled with Satie's 'minimalism' or 'small note pieces' are the concrete substance of 'ambient', 'mood' or so-called 'New Age' music.
Of course, stringent ideas on composition were not in themselves adequate, they had to be enhanced by other innovations. Following the Dadaists use of 'randomness' and 'spontaneity' in performance, John Cage applied it to composition and adapted electronics for piano. His mentor, Karlheinz Stockhausen, delved deeply into the area of pure electronic sound extracted from cumbersome sound generators and modifiers. With the invention of the tape recorder in 1935, it took Pierre Schaeffer to combine it with composition through 'musique concrete' or the use of everyday sounds to form music-collage. Simultaneously electronic equipment was being developed for musical purposes - the oscillator (1915), the sequencer (1929), the Theremin (1933) and the synthesizer (1944). With the exception of the Theremin, an object which sprouted antennae and altered tone with the nearness of the hand, the rest of the equipment had to be housed in huge laboratories. Then along came Robert Moog in 1964 with a modular synth.
In retrospect, the 1970s was the golden age for 'compositional' experimentation in rock music. Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Terry Riley, Brian Eno, Can and Kraftwerk - to name but a few - all heralded an era of music that combined the new equipment with ideas about composition that had been lying around for 50 years. The characteristics of this 'new' music were repetition, simplicity, unusual mood effect and a definite hypnotic quality. Lyrics were few and far between and the best of the music could be played over and over without loss of quality.
With notable exceptions, the bulk of this music developed outside the mainstream; unhindered by fashion, trend, image consciousness and formula. The protagonists and musicians wished to innovate 'new' music which was fresh, exciting and stimulating to the listener. Composers like Brian Eno started their own labels which utilised complimentary packaging to identify the 'new' music.
Even in the jazz field the German label ECM streamlined their pressings and packagings to coincide with their exciting innovative recordings.
Recently, an entire batch of recordings have been unleashed on the market by both major and independent labels to cash in on the demand for 'New Age' music. Unfortunately, this trend has resulted in the flooding of record stores with unoriginal, imitative and bland musak that mixes jazz, classical, ethnic and electronic strains down to a listening factor which renders the results easily forgettable. Worse than this the serious musicians are being lumped into the category simply because they play instrumental music. Yet 'New Age' music albums seem to sell in their millions!
If your taste runs to music which demands no attention or effort on your part, then 'New Age' music is for you. MCA Records have put together a selection of 'aerosol' music by some of America's best session players - Larry Carlton, Albert Lee, Jerry Douglas, John Jarvis, Edgar Meyer, Mike Utley and Robert Greenidge. It's pressed on premium vinyl, involves digital mastering and is beautifully packaged. The problem lies in the music; with the exception of the silicon compositions of Edgar Meyer, the album reduces to a quasi acoustic/pop/ethnic mush which never rises above the milk and water.
The same could be said of Kitaro - the 33 year old Japanese keyboard musician who, after years of meditation in the Far East on Mount Fuji and beside the sea at Kamakura, created 14 celestial electronic albums. The stress is on mood rather than melody and even though his new album Tenku never seems to go anywhere, Kitaro has attracted audiences of a staggering 16 million in the Far East.
Swiss electronic harpist Andreas Vollenweider has sold four million copies of his instrumental albums in the United States alone! His artistic background and instrumental abilities led him to take up the harp and expand its tonal quality. This coincided with plenty of soundtrack work and a major deal with CBS Records so now, at 33, he has four albums to his credit. He is one of the few artists to enter the pop, classical and jazz charts in the States.
His new album Down To The Moon is light music with interesting shades of Japanese and country music. Although very MOR, Vollenweider plays music in a heartfelt way unlike most of the 'New Agers'.
Labels like Kenwest and Vital Body distribute 'New Age music to relax the body and meditate to'. Under the somewhat dodgy packaging of 'The Art Of Relaxation' and 'Colours', the labels market their product at those primarily interested in health rather than the qualities of the music. The results, predictably, are rather bland.
This whole craze started in America when Tower Records, the chain of record stores, kept on being asked by people in their late twenties, thirties and early forties about good quality instrumental music. They were dubbed the 'new age' of consumers and a plethora of labels began to market their product in this way. The music had the singular characteristic of selling in book shops, health food shops and the like. A recent visit to Tower Records in London showed that their 'New Age' music section comprised for the most part of all the serious electronic composers, ethnic stylists and radical innovators of the last two decades plus a sprinkling of the newer, more wishy-washy stuff. Paul Russell, Tower's 'New Age' stocker, commented: "I've only just sorted it out. This 'New Age' stuff has had little publicity. It tends to be bought by men in three-piece tweed suits with briefcases. 99% of it is bought by men." A cynical, fellow employee quipped: "Yeah! music for the muesli set with a positive ioniser in the corner who look at their Habitat furniture as they pay off the mortgage on their hi-fi!"
Even if the words 'New Age' are a meaningless way to describe the product, a small amount of this new instrumental music is worth investigating. A better term would be to call it 'state of the art' music since recording quality, pressings, packaging, design and imagery are all of the highest quality. In this country the Windham Hill, CODA, Pan-East and MMC labels all provide music which combines classical, jazz, ethnic and electronic styles of a degree worthy of analysis.
The Windham Hill story is an example of the American dream come true. Ten years ago William Ackerman earned his living as a carpenter and building contractor under the title Windham Hill Builders in California. In his spare time he played acoustic guitar for friends and so impressed were they that 300 dollars was provided for him to record an album called In Search Of The Turtles' Navel in Neil Young's studio. Through friends, the master tape was pressed for free and given good airplay. Soon joined by his cousin Alex de Grassi, another acoustic guitar player, more recordings were made and Windham Hill Records was set up in California. Demand outstripped supply; Ackerman's first album has sold a quarter-million copies and the company's turnover is now 20 million dollars a year.
Ackerman's approach to records is to package them in simple covers, adopting ECM's effective design style, that reflect a pastoral connotation. The music for the most part is acoustic and fits neatly under the title 'soft jazz' in the mould of Ralph Towner and Oregon.
Recently, A&M Records have begun marketing this product in England and the best way to judge the label is by listening to An Invitation To Windham Hill. It contains tracks by George Winston, Alex de Grassi, Mark Isham, Shadowfax, Scott Cossu, Michael Hedges and, of course, William Ackerman himself. George Winston is an above average pianist who has sold in excess of half a million records, yet his work pales when compared to that of Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea. The music is exquisitely played but never goes beyond shading or colouring the environment.
Guitarist Michael Hedges and Van Morrison player Mark Isham put Windham Hill into a class of its own though. Hedges has a definite unique style of acoustic guitar playing where chords and picking are intertwined along with percussive effects from the guitar body. His body of musical influences range from John Cage to The Beatles and his album Aerial Boundaries really cuts the mustard.
Mark Isham combines keyboards, synths and horns to create musical landscapes that are heavily influenced by Van Morrison's Celtic mysticism. Isham's work is deep enough to be in a class of its own, and his album Film Music can be justifiably termed 'brilliant'.
Will Ackerman now lives on Windham Hill Farm in Vermont while his label thrives in Palo Alto. His attitude to the term 'New Age' is derogatory: "New Age' has connotations of people in health food shops, a combination of mysticism, back-to-the-land ideas and idealism. That's not our primary audience." Despite the claims to high artistic seriousness, the logic behind the recent release of Bill Quist's Piano Solos Of Erik Satie escapes me when the great composer has been well represented all through recording history.
One man who does believe in the authenticity of 'New Age' music is CODA Records' founder Nick Austin, whose London-based label has the words 'New Age' emblazoned all over it. Set up in January of 1983, CODA has released some highly interesting instrumental albums, the best being Rick Wakeman's Country Airs, Tom Newman's Bayou Moon and Claire Hamills Voices.
Austin: "We are making music for the new age. Not everybody likes Motorhead and Bruce Springsteen at the same time and the concept of 'New Age' music is much broader than either 'ambient' or 'electronic'. The media here have not caught up with it and don't realise that there is electronic, acoustic, ambient, melodic, ethnic and classical 'New Age' music. It is very much a street-generated phenomenon. You have to consider that 90% of England is not London and since we market all over the country this music is definitely for normal people. The criterion of 'New Age' is 'can you write a good tune?'."
CODA's Standing Stones compilation is an adequate enough resume of the label's output to make an objective judgement. Rick Wakeman's 'Waterfalls' track from Country Airs is full of emotional depth and sound technique but, rather than it being 'New Age', the music harks back to Wakeman's obvious classical background. The acoustic guitar pastiches of John Themis and Stephen Caudel are fairly transparent while Dashiell Rae's piano technique is quite soporific. The selection really lifts off with Tom Newman's 'Fur Traders Descending The Missouri' - a real gutsy interpretation of American folk music combined with South American flute. The intensity of the acoustic guitar parts and flute blowing make Tom Newman's music powerfully evocative. As former producer of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, Newman's experience of how to make memorable instrumental music shines through. Tom Cross' synthesized re-interpretation of 'The Brandenburg Concerto' smacks of commercial hoodwinking, but Claire Hamill's version of Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' is a breathtaking use of solo human voice and the studio.
Nick Austin comments: "'New Age' music is a definition for people who buy it. They are people who have been through the Sixties and Seventies but have now changed. They are married, have families and responsibilities, and require a different listening experience. 'New Age' music is an alternative which is not an alternative. The real test of this music is that it can stand the test of time and remain fresh. People must be able to project their own feeling and attitudes onto the music. Lyrics tend to date music. Our customers and musicians are not interested in the image that is a stamped image. The music is the most important thing. Our new album is called Heartbeat which covers all the different emotions of the heart through the acoustic and electronic guitar playing of Michael Chapman. Another project is the re-interpretation of the works of Wagner on modern instruments."
Peter Van Hooke set up MMC Records in order to counter the high pressure selling devices of commercial music. Hooke, a noted session musician and Van Morrison sideman, wanted life after pop. In 1982 he and the rest of Van Morrison's crew recorded an album called Back Against The Wall but could not get it released. Instead of bemoaning the situation they decided to set up their own label. Peter Van Hooke explains: "We wanted quality in our music which was contemporary with a jazz feel. We also wanted to extend the quality to the sleeve artists, the photographers, the packaging and the vinyl. I think the idea of spending hours in the studio just to see the results ending up on bad vinyl was absurd. The 'New Age' grew up all around us and I think it's a good way of marketing our music, which is definitely relaxing. We have a wide variety of artists including Sunwind, RMS, Ian Lynn, 20th Century Blues, Dave de Fries and Rod Argent."
Barry Martin of Making Waves record distribution (who take care of MMC and handle new music labels Innovative Communications, Kuckuck, Pastels, Brain, Sky and Vital Body) remarks: "Peter wanted his musicians to express themselves in a challenging way through a modern jazz idiom. No one has really picked up on the therapeutic effects of 'New Age' music.
Ex-Tangerine Dream member Peter Baumann has a label called Private Music which tailors music of a very high standard for the home environment. A guy called Steven Halpin in the States has written a book on the effect of sound on health, dubbing the 'New Age' music 'anti-frantic'. In America there is always an interest in health and environment yet in conservative England there is this heavy attitude towards it."
The problem with so-called 'New Age' music is that for the most part it rehashes the familiar and claims it as innovation. David Sylvian, whose recent moody Gone To Earth album puts most 'New Age' fare in the shade, had this to say about the genre: "New Age fails because it lacks any musical interest and a certain amount of depth whereas Brian Eno has been working along similar lines for a long time but with a difference - it's music that enhances a mood."
Eno himself is the instigator of mood enhancing music that functions at a higher level than mere muzak. When he established his Obscure record label to attract interest in the ideas of John Cage, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars and other avant-garde musicians, he stumbled on a method of playing music in a systematic way which involved very long time cycles. From this he invented the term 'Ambient' music and brought a whole new system of ideas to environmental music. Recently, he has expressed a great interest in altering everyday locations through sound-painting and video art in order to make life more pleasurable. Eno's dozens of albums could be titled 'New Age' music in that the ideas, approach, instrumentation and results, all convey a fresh body of musical language that has heretofore been untapped.
Eno collaborated with Jon Hassell, the Memphis-born trumpeter, music scholar, Stockhausen pupil and inventor of 'Fourth World' music, on two extremely advanced albums - Possible Musics (EG Records 1980) and Dream Theory In Malaya (EG 1981). Both records were critically acclaimed for providing a hypnotic, trance-inducing music that had been unheard of in the West. The beauty of the records was that the textures and trumpet sounds were those of the Third World put through the equipment of the first, hence 'Fourth World' music. In Hassell's words: "I propose a kind of classical music of the future which is as structurally well defined as, for example, a symphony but with a new proposition as to what kinds of sound textures and gestures in which this structurality may be expressed. I want an integration of the best qualities in Western music and the freedom that exists in all great non-Western classical music."
After his stint with Stockhausen in the Sixties, Hassell began playing with La Monte Young and Terry Riley in the minimalist vogue. He then connected electronic music with the idea of sound sculpture for which he received the highest accolades. In 1972 he went to India with La Monte Young and Marion Zazeela to study the Kirana tradition of singing with master vocal artist Pandit Pran Nath.
From this he applied the singing technique to the trumpet by using a digital pitch shifter to create a hum of sound similar to a blown conch shell. Dream Theory In Malaya was an album made in Canada with Brian Eno, Michael Brook and engineer Daniel Lanois (who recently collaborated with Peter Gabriel on So), centred around and inspired by the splash rhythms of the Senoi tribe of Malaya whose early morning dream interpreting ceremonies have averted violent crime and war for 300 years. Jon Hassell has problems defining his music and would probably vomit at the title 'New Age'.
In reality, the words 'New Age' fall apart short of defining the wave of instrumental music which has hit the shops in recent years, simply because 99% of this work is 'old age' sound repackaged. Eno and the rest of his contemporaries in the 'innovative' sphere are creating 'future' instrumental music which breaks the boundaries of the past thus re-orientating the listener into different aural experiences and sensations.
The American pianist Harold Budd (interview: SOS December 86), a former jazz musician and art teacher, became interested in 'atmospherics' music through fine art and since the Seventies has released numerous beautiful piano works that do much more for the listener than any of the 'New Age' pretenders. His new album Lovely Thunder (EG Records) mirrors the climatic conditions of earth in a series of piano tone sketches.
Michael Brook, Canadian guitarist and creator of the 'infinite guitar' based on Indian string sounds, has worked with Eno and Jon Hassell extensively on future music. Currently he has just released a soundtrack album titled Heroine with U2's guitarist Edge, the second side of which dips into several areas of emotional ambience.
Roger Eno's Voices (EG 85), Morgan Fisher's Water Music (Cherry Red 86), Hans Roedelius' Like The Whispering Of The Wind (Cicada 1986), Piero Milesi's Modi (Cherry Red 82), The Durutti Column's Circus And Bread (Factory 86) and LC (Factory 81), Bill Nelson's Sounding The Ritual Echo (Cocteau 81), Philip Glass' Glassworks (CBS 82) and Tim Blake's Crystal Machine (EGG 1977), all convey original approaches to instrumental music which treat the listener as an intelligent, aware species and not a mindless idiot. The best recent compilation of 'new' instrumental music comes from Holland and is called A Sense Of Beauty.
After many years at EG Records, John Pearson joined LOE Records and soon after set up the Pan East label to market the best of the Japanese composers, musicians and producers all over the world (see 'Japanese New Age Music'; SOS November 86). The recent release of four albums Seigen by producer Seigen Ono, Ichiko by Ichiko Hashimoto, Lisa by Masahide Sakuma, and Morning Picture by Yoshio Suzuki demonstrates that some labels and musicians are capable of producing progressively rivetting new instrumental music. John Pearson has the last word: "This music is serious stuff and the artists pride themselves in their own work. I'm not interested in sampler albums as I would rather put my money into the product itself. I consider the entire project very precious to me and had no idea the music would be so popular. My only regret is that I had to call it 'New Age' music in April of this year because people needed some sort of identification banner to tag onto it."
Special thanks to Neville Farmer of New Hi-Fi Sound magazine for providing the David Sylvian quote and some background info on Windham Hill Records.