Features I by I 16.08.16

The new wave of new age: How music’s most maligned genre finally became cool

For years a derided mainstay of yoga studios and health stores, new age music has enjoyed a resurgence this decade as producers and crate diggers re-evaluate a maligned genre. Adam Bychawski speaks to producers Matthewdavid, Deadboy and Sam Kidel about how they fell for new age’s soothing tones, and argues that in age of precarity and political turmoil, these records are far more than wallpaper music for hippies. 

Listen to FACT’s New Wave of New Age playlist on Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube.

Few genres have been the subject of as much derision as new age. In the mid ‘80s, as new age crossed over to the mainstream, it became an easy target for critics who scoffed at “music for hot tubbers” which was “numbing to both mind and palette”. That did little to dampen sales: in the space of a decade, new age had risen from a mail-order cottage industry into a major label cash cow. But by the end of the century, listeners’ appetite for the music had waned. Generic compilations with cheesy titles like Pure Moods flooded the market, and new age gradually disappeared from record store racks, banished to holistic shops and garden centres.

Yet despite the enduring stigma, new age is having a revival. Not long after the genre faded from public consciousness, it had an afterlife in the electronic underground, attracting converts from the post-noise scene: analogue synth noodlers Emeralds, stargazing composer Stellar Om Source and electronic conceptualist Oneohtrix Point Never. More recently, its influence has worked its way into dance music and found itself recycled, like so much cultural detritus from the ‘80s and ‘90s, as vaporwave. There are further signs of new age’s continuing legacy across various genres and geographies, from Max Richter’s neo-classical sleep tapes and Yamaneko’s grime explorations to labels like Vancouver’s laid-back house specialists Mood Hut and eclectic cassette hub 1080p.

At the same time, a glut of reissues has kickstarted a reappraisal of this maligned genre. Early exponents like Ariel Kalma, Gigi Masin, Joanna Brouk and Laraaji have finally been given their due through retrospectives on labels like Music From Memory and RVNG Intl., and compilations of new age rarities, particularly Light In The Attic’s 2013 release I Am The Center, have done much to rekindle interest.

Newcomers would do well to start with the Light In The Attic compilation, which features privately issued releases made by hobbyists, occultists, music therapists, session musicians and avant-garde composers between the 1950s and the 1990s. The tracks themselves are as varied as the backgrounds of their makers, ranging from softly strummed acoustic guitar pieces to spacey prog instrumental suites, with psychedelic organs, twinkling chimes, harp glissandos and folkish flute melodies thrown in. It’s a testament to how eclectic and occasionally bizarre new age music could be, before it took a commercial turn.

“All of the noise, punk and experimental musicians from the ‘90s and ‘00s were attracted to new age because they were feeling burnt out”Matthewdavid

Others have sought to continue where I Am The Center left off. Inspired by the DIY spirit of the genre’s early years, Los Angeles producer Matthew David McQueen (aka Matthewdavid) releases tapes on his label Leaving Records under the banner of “modern new age”. McQueen started collecting new age records while doing community service at a charity shop in Florida.

“I came across all kinds of strange and obscure cassettes,” he says. “No one was really looking for this stuff – everyone was passing it over and disregarding it as cheesy or uninteresting.” It wasn’t until a few years ago that his curiosity became a more personal attachment, however. While enduring a period of depression, he found that listening to new age had a therapeutic effect; ‘Planetary Unfolding’, a grandiose cosmic symphony released by American composer Michael Stearns in 1981, was a particularly significant discovery: “That record saved my life.”

McQueen says that finding solace in new age music during troubled times is what has drawn many of his peers to start producing their own takes on the genre. “My theory is that all of the noise, punk and experimental musicians from the ‘90s and ‘00s were attracted to new age because they were feeling burnt out and are in a different stage in their life now. We all really thrashed ourselves and fucked ourselves and our ears and our bodies,” he laughs. “I can say that for myself and for some of my friends that learning more about the art of listening and mediation and therapy through music can be extremely effective in helping us live our lives.”

With Leaving’s Modern New Age series, McQueen has forged a community around a small group of producers who share his love for the genre. While the title might suggest a contemporary reinterpretation of new age, there is nothing to distinguish them as such; the handful of cassettes that McQueen has put out so far have emulated new age’s characteristic sounds, even using instruments like the Roland RE-201 Space Echo, a popular choice during the genre’s heyday.

His latest album, Trust The Guide and Glide, released earlier this year, is similarly in thrall to the imagery and sounds of early new age, with its cover featuring a painting of an Atlantean landscape by Gilbert Williams, who previously worked with new age pioneer Iasos, and track titles like ‘Elven Invitation’. Born from McQueen’s improvised performances on his monthly Dublab radio show, it’s an unabashed homage to vintage meditation tapes built from synth flutes, harp, hulusi (a Chinese wind instrument) and field recordings.

Leaving Records represents only the most obvious strain of the current revival, imitating classic new age records right down to the esoteric liner notes. For the most part, the resurgence of new age has been more subtle, as producers have found ways of transposing its soft sounds into genres like house and instrumental grime. In doing so, they’ve brought certain aspects of their own genres to the fore: accentuating the meditative, elegiac side of house, for instance, or highlighting grime’s melancholia and taste for exotica (the subgenre known as ‘sinogrime’).

One UK artist playing with those connections is Allen Wooton, also known as Deadboy, who last year released an EP for Local Action that drew heavily on new age. In some ways, White Magick signalled a departure from Wooton’s past work with its soothing undercurrents of synth, echoing gongs and lullaby melodies, but the London-based producer has always had a knack for incorporating ideas from various genres into his own vision of club music.

Wooton discovered new age music while sifting through blogs like Crystal Vibrations and Sounds of the Dawn, where crate-diggers have uploaded hours of obscure tapes and forgotten LPs. While the former is now defunct, the latter has branched out into a monthly show on NTS Radio. Inspired by the vast catalogue of cassettes uncovered by both sites, Wooton decided to create a series of tracks that reimagine new age as various forms of UK dance music. The instrumentation, airy flute presets and mournful chimes are clearly borrowed from the former, but the beats themselves map onto UK funky and grime.

“I find it fun that most new age musicians were so serious about it. I think that’s the way music should be”Deadboy

After the release of White Magick, Wooton started a monthly party with Radar Radio’s India Jordan, producers Murlo, Yamaneko, Local Action boss Tom Lea and others of a similar mindset to bring new age moods to a serious sound system. Held once a month at Peckham record shop Rye Wax, New Atlantis is an appropriately laid-back Sunday event that recalls the chill-out rooms of raves gone by, soundtracked by a mixture of video game OSTs, new age, ambient and field recordings while kaleidoscopic visuals play out in the background. There’s a tongue-in-cheek element too, with residents giving themselves appropriately enlightened aliases, like DJ Distant Stillness and Super JV Lightbody. But for all the playfulness, Wooton is keen to stress that the event isn’t sending up new age. “I find it fun that most new age musicians were so serious about it and so in another world with it. I think that’s the way music should be,” he says.

While New Atlantis has brought together a clique of new age devotees in London, new age has found another contemporary hub in Vancouver, where two labels, Mood Hut and 1080p, have done much to define dance music’s current flirtation with new age. Slow Riffs’ Gong Bath, released on Mood Hut last year, comes with the instruction “for healing use only” and, true to its title, uses woozy, undulating synths to evoke the feeling of being entirely submerged.

Other artists, like 1080p’s You’re Me and Mood Hut’s Aquarian Foundation, allude to new age more loosely through the dreamlike ambience and mellowness of their compositions. The former, a duo made up of emerging Vancouver producers Yu Su and Scott Johnson Gailey, released their debut album Plant Cell Division earlier this year. There are touches of new age scattered throughout – babbling water, birdsong – but for the most part, the references are more about sensibility than sound. There’s something strangely comforting about its blanketing low-end, made all the more appealing by hypnotic chords that ripple like a capillary wave. Like many releases on 1080p, Su and Gailey’s compositions reach for the same lulling effect as new age while eschewing pastiche.

Although examples of new age-inspired records abound, it’s harder to pinpoint why the revival is taking place right now. It could be just another case of ‘retromania’, Simon Reynolds’ diagnosis of pop music’s increasing fixation on the bygone. As Christian Eede argued on FACT recently, rave and its attendant signifiers, from amen breaks to pirate radio chatter, have been back in vogue for several years – which perhaps also explains the renewed interest in chill-out music, the yin to rave’s yang. But it’s possible that the trend is symptomatic of some deeper malaise than nostalgia.

It seems significant that new age, which drew so many devotees during Reagan-era America, has found relevance again at time of political turmoil and looming environmental crisis. Since the latter decades of the 20th century, many of the rights and protections once afforded to us in our workplaces have steadily been undermined as the labour movement has been decimated. Precarity has become normalised through zero-hour contracts, casual work, a shortage of affordable housing and harsh benefit restrictions. At the same time, technology has enabled work to intrude further into our private lives. As employees have become expendable and work hours more “flexible”, rest and well-being have stopped being seen as necessities and assumed the status of luxuries, exploited by a burgeoning “wellness” industry.

Perhaps it’s telling that new age’s return has coincided with the rise of mindfulness, a meditation technique derived from Buddhism that has been found to be effective in preventing relapses of depression. With a lack of readily available treatments for conditions like insomnia, anxiety and depression due to underfunded public health services, more accessible stopgaps like mindfulness apps and meditation music have grown in popularity. There is less of a consensus, however, on what effect the latter has on our mental state. One study concluded that listening to new age music can reduce stress while another suggests that it is dependent on certain characteristics – pieces that feature soft piano or string instrumentation and less complex rhythms were viewed as more relaxing by participants.

But what research into new age tends to overlook is that its appeal is rooted as much in fantasy as in music. The titles and imagery – idyllic seascapes, Buddhist figures, wild animals – evoke a lost paradise that’s vague enough to leave room for the imaginings of escapists. And now more than ever, there’s a comfort to be had in letting our minds wander to some otherworldly utopia. As Seth Kim-Cohen put it in his 2013 essay ‘Against Ambience’, “Who wants to live in either the macro-reality of the universe-as-data-set, or in the micro-reality of triple-digit inbox numbers? Wouldn’t a bath in an ascending oval of glowing fuchsia be preferable?” Perhaps new age is the aural equivalent of mood lighting.

Kim-Cohen was writing specifically about the art world, but his analogy to “bathing” in ambience resembles a term that has been used to refer to a number of ambient and new age records of late: “flotation tank music”. Like “elevator music” before it, it’s a joke label, but one that inadvertently reveals much about the consumption of the music itself; it implies a mode of listening that requires shutting yourself off from external distractions. Rather than background music, it’s a soundtrack for drowning out your surroundings, thoughts and anxieties; the flotation tank promises of complete withdrawal from the outside world, be it digital or physical.

But choosing to tune out can amount to burying your head in the sand. “[Ambient] politics,” says Kim-Cohen in the same essay, “is content to let other events and entities wash over it, unperturbed. Ambience offers no resistance.” It’s an assertion that holds true for new age, a genre that for all its spiritual underpinnings has long enjoyed a comfortable relationship with capitalist enterprise. Californian new age institution Valley Of The Sun, one of the genre’s first mail-order labels, was run like a hit factory, generating dozens of tapes in many different styles to appeal to the widest possible customer base, as Britt Brown’s recent profile of the label in The Wire attests. The label owners flogged their releases to hospitals, churches, psychotherapists and even nurseries, making bogus claims about the tapes’ healing and hypnotic properties.

In the mid ‘80s, several major labels started up their own new age subsidiaries to cash in on the boom led by Valley of the Sun, and both new age and ambient proved to be valuable additions to the catalogue of easy listening music pumped out in shops and workplaces by companies like Muzak, which specialised in background music. Muzak, which has since rebranded as Mood Music, marketed its services as morale and productivity boosting, evidence for which was largely based on pseudoscience. Today, it still provides custom soundtracks to retail brands, with playlists catered to an outlet’s target audience to entice shoppers to linger in their stores.

Successive producers making ambient and new age have grappled with the commodification of both genres. Some, like James Ferraro and Fatima Al Qadiri, have imitated the glossy, synthetic tones of early muzak as a form of cultural commentary; the former’s 2011 album Far Side Virtual, assembled from software idents and gaudy MIDI strings, is often indistinguishable from a grotesque corporate anthem. Others, like New Orleans-based artist Jonathan Dean, have satirised new age by drawing parallels between its inward-looking solipsism and free-market individualism. His last album, released under the name Transmuteo in 2013, reimagined a new age motivational tape in the language of a business self-help manual. Holly Herndon’s ‘Lonely at the Top’, an ASMR-inducing track on her 2015 album Platform, plays with a similar idea as a masseuse whispers ego-massaging nuggets to her client: “You know how to follow possibility through to success”.

New age lends itself easily to ridicule, but would it be possible to reclaim both new age and ambient from their capitalist associations rather than merely poking fun at them? It’s a question that Sam Kidel, a member of Bristol collectives Young Echo and Killing Sound who also produces as El Kid, seeks to answer on his recent album Disruptive Muzak. The record was born out of his growing unease with his own ambient productions and where they might end up. “Quite often I’ve ended up thinking, ‘I’m not going to release that track because it’s too pretty’,” he says. “Lots of people that I make music with have this leftist political stance, but quite often their music gets taken up by advertisers and used in contexts that they’re probably not comfortable with.”

“I wanted to make ambient music that was confrontational, that made people think more critically”Sam Kidel

Conscious of avoiding a similar fate, Kidel decided to write a piece of ambient music that purposely agitates listeners, as the title suggests. To test it out, Kidel phoned the helpline of the UK’s Department of Work and Pensions and played excerpts of his composition down the line, recording the responses of the bemused operators. The idea was partly inspired by Kidel’s own experience of working in a call centre. “It’s this really sterile, dehumanising environment,” he recalls, “where you’re unable to express yourself with the person on the other end of phone.”

Around the same time, he was also getting involved with a form of grassroots protest known as “hive spam”, in which offices are paralysed by a flood of phone calls – essentially the old school version of a DDoS attack. One of the protests Kidel participated in was aimed at the Home Office, which was then attempting to deport a woman whom a doctor had deemed too unwell to travel. “I was really intrigued by that method of resisting,” he says, “so I thought, why not do something similar by wasting [their] time playing music back down the phone?”

Kidel couldn’t have chosen a more fitting medium for his experiment. The widespread use of ambient as hold music made it synonymous with the frustrating experience of being left hanging at the end of the line. Market researchers had previously suggested that playing soft instrumental music would calm dissatisfied customers and make them less likely to hang up early, but a 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology revealed that callers have now become so accustomed to “elevator music” that even a soundtrack of bygone chart hits angers them less.

Kidel was similarly interested in trying to provoke a reaction. “I wanted to make ambient music that was confrontational, that made people think more critically,” he explains. To counteract the supposedly sedating properties of ambient, Kidel sabotaged one of his own “pretty” compositions to make it subtly disturbing. The resulting 20-minute long piece is deceptive: just as you begin drift off, you’re interrupted by an off note or a staccato burst of bass. It refuses to recede into the background.

Disruptive Muzak suggests that ambient music might not be inherently apolitical. But like all music, it is vulnerable to being co-opted for purposes it might not have been intended for. The ways in which we view both new age and ambient have been shaped to large extent by the environments with which they have become associated: offices, spas and retail spaces. There is a tendency to view new age listeners as passive subjects, but it is possible to think of alternative scenarios in which they have agency.

We might just as easily choose to listen to new age to resist capitalism; to zone out from the constant bombardment of advertising in public spaces, to procrastinate at work, or to counter an anxiety attack. They might seem trivial, but those small acts hold weight in an age when human welfare is disregarded as something expendable and frivolous, squeezed out as cost-saving manoeuvre. Even sleep is at risk of becoming a luxury, seen as a hindrance to capitalism, as Jonathan Crary argues in his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. “In its profound uselessness and intrinsic passivity, with the incalculable losses it causes in production time, circulation, and consumption, sleep… is one of the great human affronts to the voraciousness of contemporary capitalism.”

The notion of giving our time and attention to a piece of new age music chafes against a dominant work ethic that valorises constant activity, even in our leisure time. With their minimal instrumentation, beatlessness and lack of distinctive builds or changes in pace, new age music is well-suited to contemplation and idleness. If we choose to immerse ourselves in listening, as new age invites us to, it mocks the imperative to spend our free time, as enterprising individuals, on activities that might be considered ‘productive’. With the last scraps of our waking hours being encroached on by capitalism, the return of new age has come at a more significant moment. Those soothing tones are a reminder that time and space for our rest and wellbeing must be fought for.

Adam Bychawski is on Twitter

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