What is New Age music?
New Age is a deliciously ambiguous musical genre. In fact New Age it is more of a feeling than a collection of arranged sounds. It's a well meant intention, a positive energy transference, a pacifier, spiritual guide and a healer. OK it has certain tropes that have been perpetuated over its long and glacially evolving history. Amongst them are a fondness for instrumental tracks at soporific tempos, long drawn out notes and synth washes that attempt to lull you into a less stressed condition or guide you into zen like states. If vocals are involved then they are often mantras or softly spoken word guides to better living. If instruments are at play then there is a soft spot for the ancient kind and a fondness for wood over metal. Forget any lyrical narrative. Forget improvisational flourishes or calls to the dance floor. This is horizontal or at the very least, comfortably seated music. It's a vibe. So let's take a look back in time and see where this vibe came from.
A brief history of New Age music
New Age music was spawned, alongside so many other things, in the fertile, primordial creative soup of the 60s. The hippies were peeking through their newly opened doors of perception, as well as looking to Mother Earth and Far Eastern practises for solutions to their unsatisfactory lifestyles and society's ills. Meditation, yoga, drones played on ancient instruments, mantras and Buddhism were all imported to the West Coast of the US and then their seeds blown worldwide into the receptive soils of global pop culture and the less ephermeral, more natural home of peace loving, deeply stoned musicians.
Peace and love were everywhere the hippies roamed. These two simple, unarguable truths were the answer to endless wars, polluting industries, capitalism's relentless march & the erosion of meaningful democracy. Creativity, free love, altered states of consciousness and alternative thinking were embraced as an antidote to close mindedness, suppression of sexual desire or orientation, intolerance & suspicion of anything other than blind societal conformity and never ending consumerism. The Grateful Dead, Donovan, The Beatles, Sly Stone, Terry Riley & Pink Floyd were kings. Music would never be the same again. A million movements started in those years. The then untitled New Age music was one of them
If you want a date for the first New Age LP then according to the reassuringly named, New Age Music Guide, Tony Scott's, Music for Zen Meditation in 1964 is probably your ground zero and led by shining example with its title. I would point out though that many classic tropes appeared a few years early in Eden Ahbez's 1960 pioneering chill out work, Eden's Island. I mean just have a listen to the "La Mar" track!
The Development of New Age music
So the seeds were well and truly blown and sown in the 60's but ironically or, perhaps just because it was more necessary, the genre really started to take off in the 70's & wasn't even christened New Age until 1975 with Iasos and his Inter-Dimensional Music album (listen above). I mean what was the point of new age music in the 60s when a healthy percentage of the population were already wandering around naked with flowers in their hair, letting strangers into their houses, lives and beds whilst spending more time protesting against war, racism and injustice than working in a factory or office to improve the nations GDP? Optimism abounded. Things were just fine.
The 70's were a different matter though. The once widespread hippie dream began to collapse. Panicking governmental agencies had infiltrated popular counter culture movements and their well funded, divide and conquer strategy corroded unity, numbers and good intent. Staunch Republican president Nixon was a killjoy and the ever growing media hysteria wielded an unwelcome & unfailingly sensationalist spotlight. The police were finally aware of the cause of so many wide eyes, were gleefully catching up on arrests and locked up Timothy Leary to set an example. The free love sexual disease hangover played its part, as did the the ever charming Hells Angels and the shadow of public enemy number one, Charlie Manson was everywhere. Speed and coke grew in popularity and their associated downsides, cynicism and attitude, were an antidote to the mind expanding, thought provoking, often idealistic effects of pot and acid. If this wasn't bad enough the musical message was drowned out by new darker, heavier forms of rock music. The Man had recovered from the hippie sucker punch and had them pinned against the ropes. New Age music sensed the danger and responded to the cries.
Any success New Age had over the years was largely despite its well meaning practitioners. They refused to play the game, design decent LP covers, move with any sort of times let alone musically evolve. I mean when your main influences are the practises of ancient religions, the world's indigenous people, universal truths and the ever green Mother Earth, why deviate from all that good eternal stuff for the sake of musical fashion or even the emergence of your neo-liberal nemesis? I mean half the practitioners were sporting greying pony tails, wearing tye dyed t-shirts, had fixed smiles & woke up staring out at the Pacific ocean or wooded glens near bubbling streams. Life was good outside the mainstream, why jump in its murky waters?
Many New Age releases were small run, privately pressed affairs produced by well meaning individuals unfussed by money and fame and could only be found in health food, Afghan rug and head shops. Windham HIll did a good job of awakening the mainstream consciousness with a strong catalogue of well distributed instrumental music that stretched well into the 80's, making the owners a packet along the way. Many well known artists like Mike Oldfield and Jean-Michel Jarre, some to their distress were dragged unwittingly under the New Age umbrella, not through any intent or desire on their part but just because their music was a bit hard to classify and the record shops had a lot less genre sections in those days. Whatever. It was all good, if largely unintentional publicity.
And this has been pretty much the state of affairs for the last 40 years apart from the addition of a few, now affordable synthesizers, the odd online shop & a small section in the far corners of your local record store. New Age has been hovering in the background of modern life. Its calming tones generated in off the grid studios and its healing vibrations coming from well meaning, somewhat isolated individuals and communities dotted across the world. It settled comfortably into being the soundtrack to relax participants after an energetic ecstatic dance or side splitting laughter workshop. It became the low level background music of Reiki healers, meditation workshops and flotation tank centres. Until now.
The present and future of New Age Music
Something has been in the air the last few years. There has been a movement in the force and a resurgence in New Age music. Ambient music, and you can safely pop New Age music under that larger umbrella without fear of argument, has been growing in popularity over the last decade. Perhaps as an antidote to the always connected, advert bombarded lifestyles and social media encouraged, "look what you haven't got rather than what you have", mindset of Generations X, Y & Z. Times have been changing, quicker than even the early adopters can keep up with. People are stressed but too occupied by app notifications to question why, let alone do something about it. Many have been turning to ambient artists and mood playlists for some sort of relief from their undiagnosed or simply ignored symptoms.
Young, cool guns have been digging through all those dusty New Age tape and vinyl releases, discarding the generic overly wishy washy & talentless and releasing choice compilations of New Age's greatest hits. Old faces like Laraaji have come out of obscurity to spread the word & enjoy 15 minutes of unasked for but welcome attention. Even the Guardian newspaper played a part.
Admittedly, apart from a bit of Leaving Records social media & Light In The Attic marketing influence, the genre's limited resurgence is still a minor blip in the music matrix. It takes more than a couple of well respected but relatively obscure labels to ignite a scene. It's a sign though of New Age music's newfound, don't stop until the earth is saved intentions, that it is heading into global consciousness largely due to the meteoric rise of mood playlists that have been pushed by data driven streaming services. Most of these playlists are horrible, generic dens of banal music by numbers endeavour, but the vibe of new age music is still there, buried under the cynical money making intentions of major labels and disguised behind disingenuous playlist titles like, "A Perfect Day", "Get Home Happy" and "The Stress Buster". With thousands of playlists having garnered tens of millions of followers you know something is afoot, vibrations have been set in motion and New Age music is definitely benefiting.
Virus aside, these are darkening times and more than ever sustainable practises, respect for the earth and genuine social cohesion is again required and the quicker the better. Our increasingly screen focused, physically isolated faux social media relationships need to feel human warmth again. Our existences in polluted cities near rising seas, staring out at bleached coral and floating plastic needs to smell fresh air, hear the sounds of nature & sense the seasons changing. New Age music is all those things. Humanity and the earth are again crying out and this time it's a scream, even louder than the hippie movement death throes that galvanised the first wave of New Age artists.
The Anthropocene is here and we're entering the final straight of a wealth accumulation competition between the world's richest and most sociopathic, all at the expense of humanity and its habitat. But New Age music is here to assist the green movement, yurt dwellers, charities, altruists, new economic models, anarchists, farmers markets, carers, permaculturists, purpose driven businesses, tree planters and lovers. It's urging us all to listen to and be inspired by its positive vibes and make a difference by voting for well meaning conviction politicians, by putting ambient flowers in the guns of the military complex and throwing New Age playlist spanners into the cogs of capitalism's excesses before it's too late.
This time New Age is serious. As well as its traditional, frankly unmarketable, previous forms, its tropes have kept their positive essence and love vibrations but craftily mutated to infiltrate the system, not just stare from the sidelines. As well as getting into the mud with mood playlists, New Age vibes are being attached to all sorts of cool genres from leftfield pop to cutting edge electronica, the ever protesting music of jazz. Its feel good energy and psychedelic roots are appearing everywhere from the new wave of Kosmische to the laziest of house music.
This article, playlist and mix is my celebration of these new forms of New Age music and an attempt at helping the most healing of musical genres gain a wider consciousness by highlighting some its recent incarnations as it finally comes out of the spa and evolves into more listenable forms that are attractive to modern, mainstream attuned ears.
Let's spread its healing tones, meditative drones, positive vibrations and hopeful messages into as many silently screaming minds as possible. What better time to do it during the most difficult times for most of the world's population? Anthropocene aside, if ever there was a time for some New Age vibes then the age of virus is it. We're all on pause, reflecting, speculating, wondering, fearful. The quick fix is to hunker down and get back to normal ASAP. But normal was the problem. If ever there was a time to think about positive change to a greener, fairer future that you would be proud to be a part of and one in which the children will flourish then now is that time.
Things will have to get worse before they get better, sleeves rolled up and sacrifices made but New Age music is here to help and it wants you know that love is the answer. Love for yourself. Love for others. Love for the planet.
Spread the word.
OUR MISSION STATEMENT GOES SOMETHING LIKE THIS
Lazy Days, Hazy Moments & Dancing to a Slower Groove