Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A blend of acoustic music, soft rock, white jazz and some electronics; difficult to define except as mood music: inevitably babyboomers have demanded their own aural wallpaper to succeed the Mantovani/Melachrino output of earlier decades. The new mood music like the old is technically slick and musically inoffensive; new elements are minimalism, improvisation, and somewhat pretentious presentation: the cascading strings of earlier times promised only soothing sounds for tired businessmen; New Age music wanted to be more substantial. It is also a reaction against the vocalism and sheer loudness of pop/rock, which does not make good background music. Albums by guitarists Leo Kottke and John Fahey may have been the beginning in the '60s (New Age was often called 'new acoustic'). A great many jazz records over the years by Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Paul Bley and many others have worked as dinner-party music; white jazz artists such as Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Larry Coryell and others have made so many records that some inevitably seemed to be time-fillers; the ECM label has been criticized for the laid-back ambience of records by these and others: guitarist John Abercrombie made nine ECM LPs '74--81; the Los Angeles Free Press wrote of his Timeless '74 (with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette): 'You lie back, close your eyes and journey-soft...' (But his Tactics '97 with Dan Wall on organ and Adam Nussbaum on drums, live at NYC's Visiones club, touched a few more bases, from moods to near-power-trio.) In general, jazz (or near-jazz) suffered from its avant-garde image for the Pepsi generation and others who cannot listen closely. Brian Eno's white noise and Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells were antecedents of New Age, as was the meditative sound of Spectrum Suite '74 by Stephen Halpern (long an apostle of serious relaxation, he wrote a book called Sound Health '85). The Windham Hill label was formed '76 by guitarist Will Ackerman (named after his California construction company) to distribute his own first record In Search Of The Turtle's Navel to a few fans; in '84 the label had sales of $20 million, copying ECM's artwork style, with several artists incl. pianist/composer George Winston, Mark Isham on keyboards, others. The product is flawlessly recorded (important to yuppies, proud of their state-of-the-art record players); the label's success was largely by word-of-mouth, with records sold in bookshops and health-food shops, showing again how poorly audiences are served by major labels, which spend most of their money promoting pop-rock despite the fact that the people who created that market are now older, and today's 15-year-olds themselves a minority. If some people's ears need a rest after decades of listening to amplifiers no one should be surprised; but the sampler An Evening With Windham Hill sounded like a soundtrack to a soft-focus love story, earning the rubric 'sonic laxative'. The term 'new age' was first widely applied to Windham Hill product, although an outfit called Vital Body Marketing in NYC were already producing a New Age Music Catalogue listing hundreds of albums of 'music that touches the spirit'. Ackerman disapproves of the term because it doesn't mean anything, but then some say that most of his music on his label doesn't mean much either. His subsidiary labels Magenta, Duke Street and Hip Pocket are intended to be jazz-oriented; excellent Anthony Braxton sets Seven Standards 1985 were issued on Magenta, but other issues were described by Peter Vacher in London's Jazz Express as 'manufactured in a wholly calculated way', 'solos by synthesizer, music by machines, rhythm by piledriver'. The UK Coda label Landscape series was intended to be adventurous: Simon Frith wrote about Claire Hamill's Voices '86 that 'her composition of a lush orchestral score with just the sound of her voice may be technically interesting, but the result is still Yuppie Muzak'. It is hard to say to what extent a critic's ears are conditioned by years of listening to pop, but Landscape's sampler Standing Stones had almost an entire LP side given to an electronic version of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto, done two decades before by Walter (now Wendy) Carlos. Eno's EG label released chirpy items by Bill Bruford, Robert Fripp's League of Crafty Guitarists (see King Crimson: some of the New Age stuff rose from the ashes of art rock). The UK MMC label, formed '81 in UK by drummer Peter Van Hooke, had a list of albums by Rod Argent, trumpeter Dave DeFries (who also plays on quartet LP Sunwind), vocalist Herbie Armstrong (backed by a quartet with Van Hooke and Isham), etc; other labels on the bandwagon were Global Pacific, Rosewood, Pan East (from Japan; Frith says Masahide Sakuma's Lisa '86 was 'interesting and intelligent noise').

After 20 years or so New Age is here to stay, but most of it is the kind of music that we don't have to listen to if we don't want to; meanwhile there is always plenty of thoughtful, beautiful, listenable, modern chamber music around: some New Age fans are probably looking for small-group acoustic jazz, if they only knew it, but the kind of people who run the shopping-mall record shops don't know the difference.