At SXSW, Spandau Ballet are playing their first American show in 28 years, but this year has already seen an even less likely 80s comeback. Spacey, ambient sounds are increasingly pleasing the ears of music buffs both nationally and locally, and a new historical compilation has sparked a reappraisal of the often-derided genre of new age music.
I first became aware of new age music during its 80s prime. I was just a kid—not quite the target audience for the sleek, yuppie-friendly records from Windham Hill—but I was fascinated by the mystical spaciness of artists like Ray Lynch, and I’d fall asleep on Sunday nights listening to the syndicated radio program Hearts of Space. As an Omni subscriber and increasingly doubtful Catholic, I was coming to believe that I was more likely to encounter God at the far reaches of outer space than at my neighborhood church, and new age would be the natural soundtrack to that journey.
New age music hasn’t been a mainstay of my adult life—by the time I was in college in the 1990s, the genre’s popularity was decidedly on the wane—but last December I had the occasion to revisit my childhood new-age fandom when I attended a St. Paul concert by George Winston, the pianist who’s often described as “new age” but who prefers to call his music “rural folk.” Douglas Mcgowan, producer of the new compilation I Am the Center, clarifies that debate by making a case that new age music is folk music.
I Am the Center harks back to the pre-Yanni days when new age was an indie phenomenon, recorded by artists who sold their work at performances, via mail order, and through the national network of new age bookstores. “New age was the first genre to emerge after the 1970s home recording revolution,” Hearts of Space host Stephen Hill told the New York Times.
The Times article, headlined “For new age, the next generation,” argues that new age is making a comeback among members of the MacBook generation who are revisiting the same electronic trails that were blazed by Brian Eno and other musicians who—whether they considered themselves “ambient,” “classical,” “new age,” “folk,” “prog,” “jazz,” or what have you—were interested in exploring an ambient, often improvisatory, aesthetic.
Whether or not I Am the Center becomes your new meditation soundtrack, it’s a fascinating collection featuring musicians with names like “Aeoliah,” “Laraaji,” and “Iasos” (the latter of whom Mcgowan considers “the Duke Ellington of new age”). Though they played a variety of instruments and came from divergent backgrounds, these artists shared an interest in atmospheric music that inspired contemplative states of mind, often breaking or ignoring conventional rules of musical form in their expansive explorations of timbre and mood.
It’s this meandering quality—as well as an intentionally vague mysticism—that has historically made new age an art form marginalized by mainstream critics and music fans. On I Am the Center, tracks like “Unicorns in Paradise,” “Gongs in the Rain,” and “Two Souls Dance” evoke those incense-choked shops offering over-the-counter transcendance; Mcgowan has culled the very best of this breed, making I Am the Center a new-age version of the Harry Smith folk anthology—that definitive record of what Greil Marcus famously called “the old, weird America.”
By highlighting the days when new age was really new, I Am the Center leapfrogs the bloated years when “new age” gained massive popularity via the slick, highly commercial sounds of artists like John Tesh, whose stadium spectaculars erased any trace of an outsider aesthetic. The selling-out of new age can be tracked in the progress of the Windham Hill label, which debuted in the 70s with a roster of spare acoustic musicians such as Winston and guitarist William Ackerman. Those early releases might captivate you or they might bore you out of your skull, but their tranquil eccentricity is a marked contrast to the soupy department-store tinklings of 90s-era Windham Hill artists like Jim Brickman.
The time, then, seems to be ripe for a reappraisal of new age music. In addition to the Times article, I Am the Center won a “best new music” designation from Pitchfork. Giving the compilation an 8.3 rating, Mike Powell praises what he regards as these artists’ punk-like dedication to their unique sensibility. That makes sense: if it’s cool for the Ramones to play a guitar solo that’s just one note repeated several dozen times over the course of ten seconds, why should it be uncool for a new age musician to play that note just once, then pause for ten seconds before playing the next?
There’s an unmistakable kinship between the mid-century new-agers and local composer/performers like Jon Davis, Mark McGee, Grant Cutler, and Ryan Olson—all of whom use ambience to great effect, even when it’s pounding (a la Marijuana Deathsquads) rather than peaceful. For his recent “Drone Not Drones” concert, Luke Heiken enlisted 28 hours worth of local artists who were excited to explore the frontiers of atmospheric noise, to benefit Doctors Without Borders—Hearts of Space with a heart, if you will. These artists also share early new agers’ interest in experimenting with electronics to create unique soundscapes that take you where—for better or for worse—you’ve never been before.
These experiments in noise and atmosphere aren’t as explicitly spiritual as entries in the new age genre proper, but links to the transcendent and religious are certainly there to be found. Holly Newsom, a singer-songwriter-vocalist-guitarist (better known under the name of her band Zoo Animal) who’s collaborated with Davis, Cutler, and others in experimental music projects, has also provided music for church services; and Alan Sparhawk of Low (the original “drone not drones” band) has spoken of the “spiritual nature” of his music.
That’s not to say that any of this local music could be easily confused with “new age music” as it’s traditionally been defined. Besides Yanni (the Greek-born musician attended the University of Minnesota before finding fame and fortune in California), Minnesota’s most prominent contribution to the new age music charts might be the bestselling Lifescapes CDs that are found in Target kiosks. Still, the rediscovery of new age music’s indie roots sheds light on the musical heritage the genre shares with today’s experimental musicians.
Will we see a rebirth of new age music at art galleries and house shows? Will the next new age star be a Minneapolis musician who tours with a guitar, a sampler, and a dreamcatcher? Will surviving new age pioneers embark on Rodriguez-like tours for the benefit of newfound twenty-something fans? (After all, there’s no generation name more new-agey than “Millennial.”) Where this all will lead is anyone’s guess, but it’s certainly becoming clear that those who consider new age music to be nothing more than a punchline will have to reconsider—rapidly.