New Age Music

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New Age Music

The genre of calm, tranquil music known as New Age emerged from several conflicting trends in popular music in the 1960s and 1970s. It originated on one level from the electronic music (some-times referred to as "space music") of the late 1960s. Itself a nascent musical form, electronic music was embraced by groups like Tangerine Dream, and incorporated into the music of progressive rock groups such as Pink Floyd and Yes. On another level, and slightly after the popularization of electronic music, New Age music grew out of the dissatisfaction of some musicians with the pervasive influence of technology in contemporary music. These musicians made an attempt to return to simpler ways of making music, and began writing and recording peaceful, unobtrusive pieces, mainly for acoustic guitar and piano. These two trends, paradoxically, combined to form what would be known as New Age music; in addition, the style was informed by other established genres like jazz and classical music, and by various forms of ethnic music, particularly Celtic. As a result of New Age's disparate roots, listeners, fans, and critics have always had difficulty in defining it, and record company executives have had similar difficulties in labeling and merchandising New Age recordings. Nevertheless, New Age music became very popular in the final two decades of the twentieth century, with many successful record labels devoted solely to releasing New Age music.

Much of the draw of New Age music lies in its functionality; it may be the only form of music to have a purpose beyond that of the enjoyment of the music itself. With the advent of all manner of self-awareness and higher-consciousness trends and fads floating about in the 1970s, and the increasing popularity of non-traditional ideas regarding health and well-being, this music, because of its characteristic placidity and lack of dissonance, became the soundtrack for the emerging "New Age" lifestyle. By the 1980s, New Age shops were quite common, and customers could buy healing crystals as well as books on diverse topics relating to concepts like "inner harmony" and "cosmic consciousness." Cassette tapes of relaxing music were also offered in these stores as aural companions for whatever New Age program the browser had embarked upon. This function, then, was what provided New Age music with its single unifying aspect: the ability to provide an appropriate relaxing soundscape for meditation or other restful, pensive pursuits.

The initial thrust of New Age was electronic, and the interest in it was mostly due to pioneering FM radio shows like Inner Visions and Music from the Hearts of Space, which began in 1967 and 1973, respectively. These programs showcased the synthesized music known then as "space music" and only later dubbed "New Age." In the mid-1970s, the confusion began when guitarist Will Ackerman started the infamous Windham Hill record label as a means of distributing his own music. Ackerman, and the other artists who were signed to his label, felt their music had little in common with the highly produced, highly synthesized music being recorded in the late 1970s, and sought to bring about a revival of acoustic music. It is ironic that Windham Hill, a record label with an aesthetic so opposed to that of the "space" and electronic music movement, ended up sharing the same shelf and record bin space with that very genre. Music released on Windham Hill albums was homogeneous in structure, if not instrumentation, and the strikingly austere cover art was always identifiable as a "Windham Hill cover." This meant that, when Windham Hill was widely recognized as a New Age label, all the artists who recorded with the label were considered, by extension, New Age artists, regardless of their classical, jazz, folk, or bluegrass backgrounds. New Age recordings became very commercially lucrative, even if consumers and marketers were unsure of what actually constituted "New Age music."

The profit margins and confusion increased with the introduction of ethnic music into the equation, a process that began to take place in the late 1980s. Celtic music (itself a very broad and vague category) was the most successful ethnic music to be affiliated with the New Age genre, an assimilation made possible by the success of Irish pop musicians Enya and Clannad, the group she occasionally performed with, who specialized in a breezy, ethereal type of music. The particular instruments used in traditional Celtic folk music appealed to the Windham Hill acoustic aesthetic and the mythology associated with the Celtic culture and history fit well with the mystical and spiritual characteristics of New Age music. Windham Hill and other New Age record labels like Narada and Hearts of Space started releasing albums with "Celtic" in the title with the (well-founded) assumption that sales would increase even more. Other ethnic music that found a home under the New Age firmament included Native American and Indian music, highlighted respectively by Douglas Spotted Eagle and U. Srinivas.

By the mid-1990s, the category of "New Age music" had exploded in countless different directions, making a once-confusing genre now impossible to define. British singer/songwriter Peter Gabriel's Realworld record label specialized in bringing together musicians from disparate cultures; more often than not, the results were similar to what had become known as traditional New Age music, but without the underlying ethos that initially defined it. Another parallel genre, spearheaded by Brian Eno, was ambient music, which also had its roots in early 1970s electronic experimentation. The difference between ambient and New Age was more subtle and, perhaps, academic. Ambient did not necessarily share New Age's lofty ideals, and had no extra-musical function. By the late 1990s, however, New Age music had changed from a musical genre whose practitioners saw themselves as part of a larger spiritual movement, to a marketing and merchandising tool for record company executives and music store owners who were not sure where to place recordings by artists who defied easy categorization.

Critics were generally dismissive of New Age music, calling it "aural wallpaper" and claiming that it was devoid of content. Nevertheless, fans of the genre, mainly people who had bought into the corresponding New Age lifestyle, were undeterred in their appreciation of the music. While record stores, bookstores, and spas were airing the music frequently, many other people responded less than enthusiastically to it. By the 1990s, the music became the butt of many widely circulated jokes, to the extent that the genre began to gain significance not only as an artistic expression of the entire New Age phenomenon, but also as a cultural barometer indicative of the opinions shared by people who were not part of this group.

Due to the ambiguous marketing of New Age music, and the haphazard labeling of musicians as "New Age," many performers resisted the tag. The popular keyboardist Suzanne Ciani told Billboard magazine in a 1995 article that she prefers to be recognized "as a contemporary classical composer and performer," instead of a New Age artist, because "there was so much debris attached to the term, and I didn't want to spend half my day explaining what I wasn't." Many Celtic and other ethnic musicians are also unhappy with the tendency for their music to be viewed as "New Age," which they feel devalues the tradition and importance of their work. Others, however, such as ex-Jefferson Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico, are perfectly content to be acknowledged as New Age artists. The trend towards disavowal of the New Age genre extends to record company executives as well. Will Ackerman, the founder of Windham Hill, was never comfortable with the label's "New Age" image and preferred terms like "Contemporary Impressionism" or "New Acoustic Music." Neither of these, apparently, were as catchy as "New Age" and the term, with all its cultural implications, stuck.

Towards the end of the 1990s, New Age music became a victim of its own cannibalization of other forms of music, to the extent that the term no longer had any relevance in contemporary culture. All the styles that had been co-opted by New Age music, and its marketers, had grown and progressed beyond that genre. The role that New Age music played in massage therapy offices, clinics, and in meditation was still being filled by the same type of music, but it was now called any number of other names ranging from the aforementioned Celtic and Ambient to electroacoustic music. The term "New Age music" came to signify the aimlessness and blandness with which much of the music was identified.

—Dan Coffey

Further Reading:

Bergson, Billy, and Richard Horn. Recombinant Do Re Mi: Frontiers of the Rock Era. New York, Quill, 1985.

Diliberto, John. "Navigating the Shifting Terrain of New Age Music:The Evolution of a Genre, from World to Folk, Classical to Space." Billboard. April 6, 1996, 44-48.

——. "New Age Matures." Billboard. April 1, 1995, 60-63.

Schaefer, John. "ECM and Windham Hill: A Tale of Two Labels."New Sounds: A Listener's Guide to New Music. New York, Harper & Row, 1987.

Toop, David. Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds. London, Serpent's Tail, 1996.

Werkhoven, Henk, with an introduction by Steven Halpern. The International Guide to New Age Music. New York, Billboard Books, 1998.

Zrzavy, Helfried C. "Issues of Incoherence and Cohesion in New Age Music." Journal of Popular Culture. Fall 1990, 33-54.