Photo by Elizabeth Renstrom
New age music: a genre despised and misunderstood by untold numbers of music fans. Its time has finally come. Douglas McGowan’s 2013 compilation record, I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America, 1950–1990 (Light in the Attic Records), recontextualizes the genre brilliantly and has managed to catch the attention of many who previously overlooked it. Simply put, the lifestyle and content associated with new age have acted as a roadblock for secular and serious listeners. Nevertheless, if there has ever been a time for new age, it is now.
I first got into new age by exhaustively scouring every other genre that was of interest to me. In the mid 90s I was dealing in rare records, long before the internet made every obscure but substantial title in every cool genre a known, digitized collectible. My digging partner, Tony, and I would learn what was of value and quality through experience and judgment rather than social media and blogs. We eventually fell into a working relationship with an influential Japanese record dealer who introduced us to thousands of little-known but exemplary titles over the years. Before the internet, there was no easy way to procure the knowledge it took to distinguish a record that should be worth $40 from a $4 one.
This era was a particularly exciting and interesting time for record collectors and sellers. The CD format had a firm grip on the retail market, and vinyl, considered to be the bottom of the market, was being unloaded at an astonishing rate. Many records were sold for a dollar or less, regardless of their scarcity. Even more astounding was the glut of phonographic records of all kinds. Pasadena City College would devote the entire eastern parking lot of its campus to a monthly vinyl flea market. Japanese buyers, both stereotypically relentless and undoubtedly prescient, would search the lot with flashlights in the pre-dawn hours, buying up thousands of rare—and now expensive—items.
In the late 90s, the demand in Japan for the Jackson 5’s ABC, on the Motown label, was so high that I was able to sell hundreds of copies to my buyer for resale. Because this title kept on selling at $15 a copy, regardless of its condition, I finally asked him what was so special about this record, which could be found at almost any music store in the US. He told me that this particular title was being used as a popular fashion accessory in Shibuya, Tokyo. Young people would literally walk around with the LP under their arm, hence the sale of the record in any condition. This reframed my entire concept of the market and the product we were selling.
There was no way anyone could place a firm value on records anymore—evaluation now took place on a global scale, and the information about what was valuable was privileged. Things that looked cool on the outside often sounded terrible, things that looked terrible often sounded cool, things that sounded cool often had little value, and things that sounded terrible might well be worth a fortune for seemingly arbitrary reasons. The demand and trends were always in flux. Successful dealers had very open minds. Even considering long-discarded genres like Christian records and new age music was essential to making new discoveries.
So it was only natural that around this time I was traveling across the country in search of marketable records. I started to come across rare new age albums, many of which were privately pressed by individuals. Most were uncommon and some quite rare, though not necessarily expensive. New age music was in full swing in the late 70s and early 80s, which was a time when you could record an album of decent quality at home. Many of the best new age LPs from this time were self-recorded and made by simply plugging a keyboard into a 4-track, or by playing an acoustic instrument in front of a microphone. Before the internet, the distribution of this kind of album relied on a dedicated network of small, independent book and music stores.
In line with Brian Eno’s descriptions of his late-70s Ambient series of albums, most of these self-released new age collections were recorded for both listening pleasure and more specific purposes, such as meditation, relaxation, affirmation, massage, and self-help. This notion created a genre of music that was both applied and marketed in a very different fashion from mainstream jazz, rock, and soul. The best examples open a window into another world. The most talented and inventive artists of this era include Joel Andrews, Joanna Brouk, Wilburn Burchette, David Casper, J. D. Emmanuel, Iasos, Larkin, Laraaji, Ojas, and Michael Stearns, among others.
What collectively came to be known and marketed as “new age” was in many ways a by-product of the Baby Boomers. It was the distillation of whatever vestige of hippie ideals was left after the haze of the 60s, a hodgepodge of mostly appropriated cultural touchstones that somehow formed a whole when grouped together. After the hangover of the Vietnam War, social unrest, and drug addiction, many of these men and women wanted to get it together in the 70s; they sought answers from human-potential movements, religion, cult situations, recovery programs, self-help programs, and alternative lifestyles.
Photo by Elizabeth Renstrom
Music, like most creative endeavors, was primarily seen as a vehicle for self-awareness, meditation, and recovery. New age musicians were looking to have a relationship with something beyond the material world. The notion of cosmically driven creativity was just taking shape, but it was not particularly inspired by familiar genres like spiritual free jazz, psychedelic rock, or socially and politically driven folk. New age was informed by different tones and timbres, incorporating the sounds of everything from synth-pattern oscillation, post-Kraut rock, ambient music, and electronic drums to Eastern composition, drone, field recordings, and a wide range of indigenous music, as well as soundtracks for meditation, musical accompaniment for spoken word performances, and so on.
Some of the finest examples of this somewhat vague genre were made by the Arica School, a human-potential movement that was very much thriving in the 70s. They made three records, the most essential being the remarkable Audition. The group was led by the Chilean guru Oscar Ichazo, whose teachings were based on the early-20th-century spiritualist and thinker George Gurdjieff. The Arica School did incredible things with art, music, dance, psychology, and calisthenics, all created with the ultimate goal of helping people reach their full potential. I remember one photograph from this era that depicts Arica School participants sitting at consoles and staring at a large geometric image known as an enneagram while listening to music through headphones. Many participants were trained musicians, from jazz players to soul and rock dudes. So musically, at these Arica School sessions, you’d have these really long, drawn-out pieces coupled with spoken word that served to guide corresponding exercises and meditations.
At its core, new age was lifestyle music to the extreme. Steven Halpern, who is basically the godfather of new age music, realized this in the mid 70s. A Pd. D in the Psychology of Music who made minimalist music primarily for relaxation and chakra alignment, he first pioneered the idea of making music that could heal. He was so firm in his beliefs that he advocated for the rejection of the tension-filled music of Stravinsky and others whose work reflected the atrocities of the 20th century. His books, Tuning the Human Instrument: Keeping Yourself in “Sound Health” and Sound Health: The Music and Sounds That Make Us Whole, provide the basis for much of his philosophy concerning sound. His work completely changed my perspective on what music can be. This man had dedicated himself to music that literally healed, bringing his musical salve to sick patients in hospitals and clinics. It was music with a practical application, not just a stylistic one. The model is similar in function to indigenous or ceremonial music—early, purpose-driven forms that are arguably the foundation for why we enjoy organized noise today.