- Art by Gilbert Williams
New Age is ambient music in altruistic mode. New Age artists aspire to heal listeners and improve the world through tones intended to align chakras, soothe nerves, and pacify aggression. These musicians strove to help people deal with the formidable stresses of 20th-century life and, in general, to uplift mind, body, and spirit. New Age enjoyed an evanescent popularity in the ’70s and ’80s, but it soon became subjected to derision, as much of it was painfully earnest and egregiously sappy. However, as with any genre (except third-wave ska), a small percentage of New Age music is golden. At its best, New Age is profoundly spiritual, relaxing, and a huge boon to meditation—and also a pure sonic delight, even if you hold no truck with any of its mystical/hippie trappings.
The last half dozen years or so have seen New Age-oriented blogs surface and key artists like Iasos, Laraaji (aka Edward Larry Gordon), and JD Emmanuel receive the reissue treatment for some of their crucial works. But nobody up to now has made as strong a commitment to New Age’s resuscitation as Light in the Attic Records has done with the release of I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950-1990 (released Oct. 29).
Issuing a double-CD/triple-LP comp of this stuff is a risky and brave financial move for LITA to make, even in this slightly more receptive environment. Outside of a minuscule fanatical minority, New Age is still the music industry’s redheaded stepchild. One can scoop up used vinyl copies of some of the genre’s heavies—e.g., Steven Halpern, Paul Horn, Kitaro—for cheap (but probably not for much longer), reflecting the general disregard/apathy in which New Age is held among retailers and consumers.
Yoga Records boss/avid record collector Douglas McGowan has compiled I Am the Center with acumen and epicurean ears. His liner notes reveal that he’s been immersed in this field long enough to skim the most nutritious specimens from the ocean of newage that swirled onto the market in the last half of the 20th century. He’s dug deep; not that I’m an expert, but I only recognize seven of the 20 artists here. (I imagine it was somewhat of a nightmare tracking down the rights holders to these compositions, which were originally on ltd.-ed. private presses.) McGowan’s sequenced the tracks so they segue with an elegant logic, maintaining the sort of blissful journey to elevated planes that marks much of the best cosmic music of any stripe.
I Am the Center begins with a melancholic 1950 harmonium piece by the Fourth Way guru G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann and ends with Alice Damon’s 1990 cut “Waterfall Winds,” a gorgeous wisp of “aahh”s, spare, guitar somberness, and the titular waterfall burble. In between I Am the Center bestows several variations on minimal chillout soundtracks that ameliorate the crushing realities of modern life and usher you into ultimate comfort zones.
Gail Laughton—whose contribution to I Am the Center, “76 A.D.,” appeared briefly on the soundtrack of Blade Runner—played harp on most of Harpo Marx’s stints and his 1969 piece here is a gorgeous cascade of crystalline tones. Nesta Kerin Crain’s “Gongs in the Rain” is exactly what it says; Crain strikes various gongs and lets their resonant reports decay dramatically. Wilburn Burchette’s “Witch’s Will” features tremulous solo guitar flights that shiver somewhere between Popol Vuh at their most spectral and 13th Floor Elevators at their most minimal. Iasos’ “Formentera Sunset Clouds” scuds by on luxurious swaths of keyboard and ocean spray, inducing a decadent tranquility.
Steven Halpern’s “Seventh Chakra Keynote B (Violet)” might be the most archetypal New Age track here: well-spaced, angelic tones seemingly coaxed from a xylophone made out of Plutonian ice, but the liners say they emanate from a Fender Rhodes. Whatever its origin, this track is unspeakably beautiful and calming. Joel Andrews’ epic “Seraphic Borealis” is all florid undulations and delicately, intricately plucked harp passages that give you bliss vertigo. McGowan’s notes reveal that Andrews “would rather heal one listener than entertain thousands.” Mensch!
I Am the Center really hits its stride with the next four-track sequence. New Age star Constance Demby chimes in with “Om Mani Padme Hum” (the title’s a Sanskrit mantra that doesn’t translate precisely into English, but is said to encompass much Buddhist wisdom), a stately drone overlaid with pensive piano motifs and diaphanous chants. Demby claims that “Sound created the universe… A musician sources that primeval, eternal sound, and it comes out as music.” (But has she heard Hoobastank?) “Arabian Fantasy” by Daniel Emmanuel (aka JD Emmanuel) is probably my favorite on the comp—maybe because it’s the one that most closely resembles Terry Riley’s profoundly moving electric organ hymns. Too bad “Arabian Fantasy” doesn’t even last two-and-a-half minutes.
Another too-short piece is the excerpt of Don Slepian’s “Awakening,” a serious deep-space dweller worth losing yourself in. It twinkles and moans with a wonderstruck sublimity, and one can’t help thinking of Carl Sagan having an epiphany to it. Laraaji—who was discovered by Brian Eno while he was playing zither with eyes closed in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park—is represented by an excerpt from “Unicorns in Paradise.” It’s a momentous interstellar jam that pulsates in the same galaxy as Tangerine Dream’s work did in the mid to late ’70s. Peter Davison’s “Glide V” gently oscillates in a silvery ether, faintly filigreed by curlicues of flute.
Starting off CD2, Joanna Brouk brings bucolic enchantment on “Lifting Off,” a serene, cyclical ode on woodwinds (I think) and synthesizer (I think). Michael Stearns’ “As the Earth Kissed the Moon” (excerpt) weaves birdsong and cricket chirps into a mutedly grandiose keyboard constellation. The edit of Aeoliah’s “Tine Fu: Heaven’s Gate” is beyond the beyond, achieving a sonic peacefulness and beneficence via harp, flute, and guitar that seem impossible to generate at this late, awful date in history. This track actually might be the pinnacle of I Am the Center and of human achievement, in general.
Moving on, violinist Daniel Kobialka’s “Blue Spirals” glitters and drifts nobly in a manner not unlike Fripp & Eno’s “Evening Star”—meaning it’s in the upper echelon of ambient music, a beatific soundtrack to horizontal daydreaming and vertical stargazing. Larkin’s “Two Souls Dance” is 13 minutes of astral whir, stately ocarina (I think), and ASMR-causing synth murmurs. In the notes, Larkin says, “It is my wish that after listening you are more fully empowered to spread the light of which you shine so the world may have peace everlasting.” Nobody could get away with saying that now without receiving a hurricane of smirks and snarky chortles.
Heading into the homestretch, Judith Tripp’s “Li Sun” combines wispy, melismatic flute and distant thumb piano tinkles into a somber, tension-reducer. Mark Banning's “Lunar Eclipse” is a slowly revolving, glistening aural enigma recalls Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. If you were to play these tracks while sitting in a hot tub, you may simply vaporize in slow motion.
Are you going to party to I Am the Center? Probably not. You’re not that highly evolved. Just kidding. This kind of music always has been meant for solitary activities like communing with nature, contemplating infinity, and masturbating. But seriously, with humanity trundling down a path of self-destruction environmentally, politically, and in so many other ways, we should embrace the ethos and aura behind New Age music, as well as its healing power and pacifying effect. Real talk: We can’t go on like this. You have any other better ideas? Let’s hope that I Am the Center helps, in some infinitesimal way, to catalyze a movement toward a saner, more sustainable way of life.