Astral Loitering: Excursions In New Age, 1970-1989

New age music has never been cool. This is not a knock; it is simply a statement of fact. Coolness, at least in its initial cultural formulation, requires a certain measure of detachment and imperturbability, a studied carelessness in the face of the competing intensities of contemporary life. To get worked up about work or religion or politics or romance was to lend these things more credence than they could possibly deserve. In disinterest, it was hoped, there would be honesty, if not freedom.

But new age, by contrast, radiates warmth. It is uncool, almost by definition. New age lends credence to everything—not just the patchwork of non-Western religious traditions it has long draped itself in, but flying saucers and angels and crystals and, for some reason, dolphins, and, above all, the healing force of music itself. Even at its most sonically reduced (“quiet music,” as the composer Steve Roach dubbed it), new age cannot contain its affection for the universe. It believes in believing. It is enthusiastic in the original sense of the term: en + theos, the god within, a spirit bubbling over.

When the great Greek-born, Sausalito-based new age composer Iasos died at the beginning of this year, I re-watched that wonderful 1979 documentary about him that has been floating around YouTube for some time. And this time I kept noticing the way Iasos giggles. “I realize this is hard for you to believe,” Iasos laughs, as he explains to the interviewer the nature of the being from whom he channels his music. He emits a single shrill ha! as he informs the interviewer that the so-called “paradise music” he manifests might have “sixteen thousand melodies at a time.” Iasos wasn’t crazy; he knew what he was saying sounded outlandish. He laughed because he was unabashed by it, where one might have expected him to be otherwise. He was unembarrassed by joy.

This brazen, unapologetic ardor is what sets much of new age off from the other musical genres in its vicinity. Indeed, the more you listen to new age the more it tends to evaporate as a distinct and recognizable musical form. (Which is just as well since its many of its most famous practitioners disclaimed the label altogether.) At its margins, new age was continuous with nearly every other mode of exploratory music in the 1970s. The mix that follows aims to capture something of this continuum. Much of this sound evolved out of the broader world of European progressive rock. Tim Blake, for instance, with whom the mixtape starts, was a veteran of the Radio Gnome Invisible-era version of Gong. And Vangelis, captured here in a 1971 London jam session, had just emerged from the Greek expat prog band Aphrodite’s Child. The German sitarist Al Gromer Khan, meanwhile, played on some of the classic Popol Vuh albums of the later 1970s. And the Frenchman Bernard Xolotl is often best thought of as a Gallic Ash Ra Tempel. The Belgian Joel Vandroogenbroeck parlayed his time in the krautrock-inspired psychedelic outfit Brainticket into a career in library music.

Others here were clearly working through the impact of minimalism. The Texan J.D. Emmanuel, for instance, is clearly hammering out a workingman’s Persian Surgery Dervishes. While Ariel Kalma and Büdi Siebert are plainly drawing on Terry Riley’s circular, time-lagged saxophone. And the marimbas and vibes on Brian Slawson’s percussion workout achieve a Reich-ian momentum. Still others were cooking on the fringes of 1970s jazz. Steve Kindler, for instance, had played violin in the second incarnation of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. And Jon Bernoff and Marcus Allen’s duet bears more than a passing resemblance to Chick Corea and Gary Burton’s great Crystal Vision sessions. The duo Emerald Web, the Berlin-based Achim Gieseler, who performed as Jakino, and the California synthesist Sanford Ponder were all building on the ‘fourth world’ fusion sound pioneered by Jon Hassell. William Eaton, meanwhile, sounds like a refugee from the Takoma school of American primitivism hiding out in the Arizona desert. New age was, in many ways, a confluence of developments across genres: prog and krautrock, electronic and space music, ambient and fourth world, modern classical, spacious ECM-style Euro-jazz. All of them were cultivating their own approaches to paradise music. What tips any of these experiments into new age may have been, more than anything else, a vibe—an earnestness about the spiritual potential of the music being made.

Ironically, the utter guilelessness of new age music may have helped degrade this most ethereally lofty sound into crass utilitarianism. No other genre of music bothers to spell out its purpose on the package. But straplines like “Timeless Music for Meditation and Healing” or “Induces an Altered State of Consciousness” routinely appear on new age albums. It is not so much that their promises were laughably overwrought but, rather, that art shouldn’t promise to do anything. Poetry, Auden told us, makes nothing happen. And music, I suspect, does even less. The evangelism of the musicians (or, increasingly, new age label marketing departments) about the curative properties of their work permitted their weird, beautiful music to become mere therapy—a treatment for the innumerable symptoms of modern malaise. The whole thing became just another American medicine show. I don’t blame them for trying to sell records. But I do wish they hadn’t mistaken art for analgesics.    

New age music, it turns out, was something of a canary in the coalmine. The evolution of new age from a music of often surpassing strangeness and sometimes unendurable expanse into a bland fixture of bourgeois wellness heralded the dispiriting way for the entire counterculture. As goes new age, so, eventually, followed yoga and organic produce, juice cleanses and microdosed psychedelics. Mindfulness is now something human resources recommends in lieu of a decent healthcare plan.

Still, new age was once wooly and weird and, occasionally, ecstatic. Iasos laughed, unembarrassed by joy. We can pass a few hours there. We’re not all unhappy. | b sirota | art joseph parker

Download: Astral Loitering: Excursions in New Age, 1970-1989 (zipped folder)

Tim Blake, “Last Ride of the Boogie Child” (1977)
David Friesen, “Journey” (1987)
Michael Stearns, “Life in the Gravity Well” (1981)
J.D. Emmanuel, “7 Note Trance” (ca. 1981-3)
Büdi Und Gumbls, “Was Ist Die Zeit” (1983)
Marc Barreca, “Oleo Strut” (1980)
Zavijava Orchestra, “Magnetic Dreamscape” (1986)
Christopher Tree, untitled (1970)
Iasos, “Crystal Petals” (1975)
Bernard Xolotl, “Nearing the Gates of Eleusis” (1980)
Barry Cleveland with Bob Stohl and Kat Epple, “Indigo Ruins” (1986)
Frank Fischer, “La Isla Vedra” (1989)
Ariel Kalma, “Saxo Planetariel” (1978)
Emerald Web, “Lifeforce Celebration” (1979)
William Eaton, untitled (1978)
Joel Vandroogenbroeck, “Group Meditation” (1980)
Jakino’s 7th World, “Ocean Alpha” (1987)
Sanford Ponder, “Frontier” (1985)
Jon Bernoff and Marcus Allen, “Breathe” (1980)
Brian Slawson, “Distant Drums” (1988)
Al Gromer Khan, “Oriam Qarz” (1984)
Don Slepian, “Life After Life” (1982)
Bob Kindler, “Trance” (1982)
Karl L. Schaffner & Lothar T. Grimm, “L.A. Jet” (1984)
Latitude, “Cloud Dancing” (1986)
Vangelis, “Stuffed Aubergine” (1971)
Steve Kindler & Teja Bell, “Windsurfer” (1987)
Ric Kaestner, untitled (1982)

For heads, by heads. Aquarium Drunkard is powered by its patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support via our Patreon page.