What is New Age Music?
FOREWORD: A note from the Persian version
Over ten years after writing the first version of this
research, I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with the works of an Iranian
musician by the name of Amir Baghiri. His music is essentially focused on
a certain style of new age music referred to as space music and he has worked
with great musicians of this genre such as Steve Roach and Michael Stearns.
He was surprised that an Iranian listener likes his music. Actually inside
Iran this genre of music has many fans but oddly enough this music is not known
that much among the Iranians abroad! For more details about his music
please see my article entitled "Music of Amir Baghiri
In the late 80s, I used to write a new sound music column in a magazine called "Whole Life Network". The magazine was based in the San Francisco Bay Area. The following is my first article in that magazine, published in the Dec 1988 issue of that magazine.
I would not write it the way I wrote it back then, if I was writing this article today, but overall I think my article is still a pretty accurate overall description of this genre of music.
After this initial article, I published my column for three years, but all those subsequent columns were about specific music pieces, whereas this article, is an overall view of this music. But of course, before listening to a number of these music pieces, any discussion about them would be superfluous.
Nowadays, one can read Heartbeats Catalog of Backroads Music for excellent up-to-date reviews of specific music pieces of this genre of music. Their toll free number to ask for their latest catalog is 800-767-4748 and the following is their URL:
Also to listen to sample pieces of this music, try Hearts of Space Radio program:
I used the wording "New Age Music" in the past, but I do not like using that term anymore. I have changed the term "New Age" to "New Sounds" in this article. Nowadays there are some cultish groups, mostly against science, who call themselves "New Age", and I prefer to avoid using the term.
I wish this music were called *FUTURISTIC MUSIC*. But among the names that are common currently, such as Space Music and New Sounds, the latter is more encompassing, although I have no problem with the former either.
The term "New Sounds", was first used by John Schaefer, in his excellent book "NEW SOUNDS". Nowadays, I am not following this genre of music that much. In fact, I do not listen to this music or classical that often. Those who follow this music closer, may be able to better comment on new releases.
Here is my article "What is New Age Music?":
What is New Age Music?
What is new sound music? It is surely "reasonable" to ask this question because the genre is so new that it still may need some time to become part of our "common sense." 1987 was the first year new age music was recognized as a category for the Grammys. No one asks what classical, jazz, country, or rock music is, because such genres have found their place in the auditory experience of the general public. You may not like country music, but you "know" what parts of you is touched (or dis-touched!) by it. It is like our knowledge of differentiation between fruits and vegetables. Even such old conceptual categories are not completely or globally well-defined. For example, in Persian language a cucumber is a fruit whereas in English it is a vegetable.
To my knowledge, new sound music can be defined on FIVE principles. ONE that philosophically it takes its inspirations from global subjects. For example, environmental issues like desert, ocean, or space are not particular to any nation. Thus, using such inspirations in works like Kitaro's Silk Road (desert) or Jim Chappell's Tender Ritual (ocean) or Constance Demby's Novus Magnificat (space) is not due to the environmentalist approach of the artists necessarily; but it definitely shows a yearning of these artists for global themes. Also subjects such as peace in Vollenweider's music, or relaxation in Annie Locke's Living Earth, or love in Chris Spheeris' Desires of the Heart are not particular to any race, nation, or religion. Thus this music, similar to the art of the Renaissance has many themes yet retains a general philosophical approach within itself. An observation that may support my claim is that out of probably 4000 works of this music, I have not heard even one military march composition, whereas I have found among the classical composers, composers with even more than one march composition!
The SECOND characteristic of new sound music is that it draws upon the musical experience of the whole world to develop its particular styles. In other words, it does not confine itself to Western or Eastern styles of music. I agree with John Schaefer, author of New Sounds, who considers Eric Satie and Debussy of the turn of the century as predecessors of new sound musicians; because they too went to the world music to form their own musical style. Good examples of inventing a world style in new sound music are Deuter and Peter Michael Hamel, who with their mastery of both Eastern and Western music developed their own unique forms of synthesis. I need to point out that developing a world style does not prevent new sound music from holding a variety of styles within itself. In fact, an unprecedented enhancement of variety in new sound musical style has followed from its global approach to style. Some works are very close to jazz that are conveniently called new sound jazz, such as David Boruff's Dreamstreet. Whereas, some works such as Teja Bell's New Spirit of Christmas can be termed 'new sound' classical!
The THIRD characteristic of new sound music, in contrast to classical music, is that most of its artists claim to have a goal for their music. Classical musicians, just like eighteenth century philosophers, talked the least of 'final causes' and goals for their music. Although, today we may attribute some form of nationalism as the hidden 'goal' of their compositions, they would never admit any purpose or goal. For classical musicians, the relationship between what the artist felt and what the audience received was the weakest bond even to ponder on. The first challenges to their philosophy was presented by G.I. Gurdjieff (1877-1949), a Russian philosopher/musician, who thought of music as a vehicle to transform man. He was a predecessor of today's new sound musicians who consider the purpose of their compositions so important, that they sometimes feel the need to write it on the cover of their albums! It is ironic that the major labels that are used to classical works, usually eliminate such comments to avoid offending the audience. But strangely enough the audience relates to this music better, when they are informed what the musician has intended to describe in the music!
I, as of yet, do not know how to understand this phenomena in musicological terminology. It is true that sometimes the new sound artists' comments about their music is excessive, but it is noteworthy to mention that for classical musicians the opposite extreme was true and the neutrality of music was stressed? For example, most people who have heard Georgia Kelly's Seapeace have experienced the tranquility of water, which is intended in the album. The pictorial dimensions of Ray Lynch's Deep Breakfast or Emerald Web's "Traces of Time" are shared by many listeners. The geometrical effect of Western Spaces and the way it opens "gates" of higher levels of consciousness is hard to deny after 40 times of attentive listening! Especially, works such as 'Soundings Tapestry' intend to bring out the deep yearnings for a whirling nature in the listener and the experience is easy to feel. Are such effects only imagined in the mind of these artists?
The FOURTH characteristic of new sound music lies in the non-traditional use of instruments. It is true that synthesizer is a new instrument, but if it is used to imitate the sound of traditional instruments in their traditional way, we would not call the music new sound. In contrast, if the traditional instruments are played in a non- traditional way, we would consider the music as new sound. For example, Windham Hill studio of Menlo Park (California) is a pioneer of using traditional instruments in new sound music in the world. Will Ackerman, the founder of Windham Hill, has tuned the guitar in different ways for the various cuts of his album 'Passage', none of them to be the traditional tuning of this old instrument. Or Andreas Vollenweider's innovativeness with the harp is so extensive that one can hardly call his instrument harp anymore. Or Deuter's performance of the Eastern sitar is very different from the traditional use of that instrument in the East. Innovations with electronics, computers, and lasers have just begun. Heart of Space's Starflight(1) and Emerald Web's "Traces of Time" are examples of such achievements. This characteristic is a reason that people, who are not ready for such drastic changes in the sounds of the instruments, have difficulty relating to this music.
Finally the FIFTH characteristic of new sound music is its mood orientation as follows:
1. Some works are very JOYFUL; they are pleasant in a playful mood. I think Tangerine Dream's "Underwater Sunlight" and Dan Ar Bra's "Music for the Silences to Come" are good examples of such works. In Eastern style music Deuter's SAN is a noteworthy example.
2. There are works that are UPLIFTING, can wake you up from a passive mood to an active mood. Works such as Kitaro's Silk Road, Don Harriss' Elevations, Robert Safir's Sound Paintings, and Ray Lynch's "Deep Breakfast" are good examples of such effect. One can best use them when participating in creative activities such as drawing or painting. They reinforce your energies during the creative process.
3. There are works that are CONTEMPLATIVE in a sense that they help one to brainstorm or read, and even works that have some ROMANTIC effect. For example, George Winston's Autumn, Jim Chappell's Tender Ritual in piano, and Bruce Bec-Var's "Take it to Heart" in guitar, are perfect for brainstorming and reading. And, Mark Sloniker's "Paths of Heart" exhilarates a romantic mood.
4. Some works of new sound music aid in RELAXATION. Annie Locke's Portraits and Herb Ernst's Dreamflight in piano and electronic music have tremendous therapeutic effect. Jon Mark's "Callanish" and Raphael's "Music to Disappear in" in keyboard and Voyager's Sound Dreams in environmental sounds are the finest examples of this effect. These works are the best for massage, therapy, unwinding or any other undertaking that requires a relaxing background.
5. Finally, some works of new sound music have a MEDITATIVE effect. Repeated attentive listening sometimes up to 40 or 50 times, even for people who are familiar with this music, is necessary to experience these works thoroughly. A resonance with different parts of one's auditory system such as a trance-like state may even follow. These works are intense and are not necessarily good for relaxation. They usually require complete attention and are not good as background music. Michael Stearn's "Planetary Unfolding", Richard Burmer's "Bhakti Point", Constance Demby's "Novus Magnificat", Steve Roach's "Dreamtime Return", Iasos' "Angelic Music", Kevin Braheny's "The Way Home" and Tony Scott's masterpiece clarinet work "Music for Zen Meditation" are good examples of such multi-layered musical pieces. There are even works of Gregorian chants or chants of Gyoto Monks or even works like Klaus Schulze's Dome which uses Muslim prayers (azAn).
After listening many times, the multiple layers begin to differentiate like a rainbow. Your auditory system will be like a prism and this music will act like a white light breaking into a rainbow. In fact, classical music by bringing the simultaneous performance of many instruments (in orchestral music) opened a new stage in musical experience. It has taken three centuries until a major portion of our city dwellers have become auditorily comfortable with that invention. Then it seems that the multi-layered new sound works are a simultaneous performance of several concerts yet by "one" instrument! This phenomena is starting a new stage of music as significant as orchestral music. It is generally referred to as space music. I feel this to be an inadequate description of their music. I prefer to call this invention as "multi-layered music." Most likely in the future these works will make the main body of a "classical" heritage of our new sound music.
Finally, I need to acknowledge that I differ with some musician/authors such as Steve Halpern in my understanding of new sound music. From my readings of his works, it seems to me that Halpern thinks new sound music is essentially a music that does not have beats. Although this may be true of his own works, it is not true of the majority of new sound composers. For example, Andreas Vollenweider (who received the first Grammy Award in the New Age Category in 1987) undeniably has beat in his music.
Also, I need to site that although some works of new sound music (such as Deep Breakfast of Ray Lynch) are conducive to the improvement of creativity, I do not regard this characteristic as a differentiation for new sound music. In fact, probably Baroque music has more such capacity than most of the new sound works. Yet a new sound approach to Baroque by institutes like Lind Institute of Vienna or Barzak Institute of California has helped to bring this side of music to light. They have compiled the Baroque adagios, andantes, largos, etc. according to the moods they bring rather than the artists' original themes.
In this respect, some subliminal works such as Halpern's Study & Learn are probably a new development in our times, although I have a hard time viewing them as music. They seem more like forms of psychological learning tools to me. The guided relaxation tapes of Emmett Miller (e.g. Rainbow Butterfly and the Healing Journey) are great works which help people to visualize the state of being they wish and to approach that state through visualization. They are the finest for stress reduction or to deal with the so-called "non-curable" diseases. Shakti Gawain's Creative Visualization tape is another example of a visualization method which does not even have music. One could probably use poetry, crystals, tarot cards, I Ching, or even ordinary dice for meditation. This is why I prefer not to include these phenomena as a part of new sound music.
Moreover, the scarcity of vocals in the new sound music is not necessarily a characteristic. There are three reasons for this reality. The *first* is that the appeal of lyrics in a particular language is minimal globally, and opera-like sounds may only play such a role! The most noteworthy achievement in such an approach is the use of vocals in Mathias Thurow's Cornucopia, that I would like to call a "new sound opera!" The *second* difficulty with vocals is that traditionally human voice reinforces a particular interpretation of music and reduces the multiplicity of musical appreciation. The best historical examples of the use of this phenomena are the Medieval Church that used choral voices as an instrument to focus the music for praise of God and the Church. Or the use of choral voices in the Soviet music of Stalin's era to reinforce the praise of the state and Stalin at the top. Probably this is also another reason for the avoidance of vocals by new sound artists who desire to promote openness. *Thirdly* I think an essential non-traditional use of voice comparable to the "invention" of opera, probably has not occurred yet, and we may expect breakthroughs in this realm. I view Constance Demby's Novus Magnificat as the beginning of this journey.
The most recent development in new sound music is Visual Music Video. In contrast to ordinary music videos that bring in a story and limit oneU's interpretation of music, the visual music videos bring in pictures of nature or animations that expand one's visual repertoire for constructing one's own interpretation of the music. If you watch a visual music video and listen to its music without the picture later and back to the picture again, you will find that you have enriched your musical experience without limiting it to any particular interpretation. In other words, the imagery is open, in contrast to most visual imagery of TV or the movie industry that are closed forms. This is why to an uninformed watcher, they seem like: "So what, where is the result? What is the goal?"
Allan Kessler, the founder of New Era Media and a pioneer of this invention explains this phenomena in a different way. He says that the visual imagery resonates with other senses bypassing our conscious split mind resulting in a holistic experience. This phenomena is called *synesthesia*. His Natural Light, is a good example of what visual music video can bring to our musical experience. It is a very well-thought work which he and David Fortney have produced using masterpieces such as Burmer's Bhakti Point. It is extremely appealing for meditation. Structures from Silence, with a multi-layered visual imagery created by Marian Dolan and the music of Steve Roach, is also a real masterpiece of space music video concept.
I have written my impressions of new sound music and would like to invite and encourage musicians, musicologists, and listeners to respond to these opinions in order that we can all increase our understanding.
The commercialization of new sound music has two opposite results. On the one hand, more people are being exposed to this music and this broadens the base of the music. On the other hand, many mediocre works are being produced for the market that are not worthy of the genre and they are the reason many people have the impression of "elevator music" for new sound works!
One way to insure the growth of quality works in this music is to provide a close rapport between the sophisticated listeners with exquisite taste and the talented musicians who wish to release only high quality works. I think this newsgroup is helping to improve this rapport.
I originally wrote this article in 1988 and published it in Mundus Novus and later republished the next year in the Whole Life Network magazine of the San Francisco Bay Area. The new foreword was added in 1999 when I posted this article on SCI newsgroup on the Usenet.
Sam Ghandchi, Editor/Publisher
August 22, 2006