New age music remains misunderstood because new age isn’t a style or a sound but a sensibility; an exceptionally soupy, psychedelic one, at that. Contemporary listeners tend to conflate new age with ambient but their overlap is inconsistent: though much new age music exudes ambient qualities, the reverse is less often the case. In fact, over the years many prominent artists of the movement have rejected association with new age and its trappings, as it’s widely considered to be the domain of quacks and charlatans.
Even so, any utopian-minded subculture is bound to produce intriguing artifacts, and the past decade in particular has seen a widespread renewed appreciation of new age ephemera. Beyond the bulging charity bins of glossy Windham Hill LPs and saccharine solo piano cassettes there lies a fascinating strain of hermetic otherworldly music, much of it self-released, which poured forth during this period and now commands significant sums on the second-hand market.
The historical context of new age is important to keep in mind. The phrase itself, of course, is old, invoked over centuries by various mystics and spiritual leaders to refer to an impending, ill-defined future era of enlightenment as a means of instilling hope in their congregation. And hope was sorely needed in the 1970s, as the hippie dream of peace and love decayed ever into violence, decadence, divorce, and corruption. Certain remnants of the alternative-minded counterculture doubled down on the more fringe holistic practices and ideas of the 1960s youthquake: yoga, Eastern medicine, juice cleanses, crystal healing, reincarnation, Atlantis. It was a time when dropping out of society became less about rebellion than survival.
Tellingly, few of those who lived through new age music’s ascendance remember it fondly. For baby boomers, it lacked passion and personality; to young people, it seemed unbearably timid, slow, and empty, especially in comparison to the vibrant rock, punk, funk, disco, glam, and nascent hip-hop of the day; while most serious musicians considered it hollow, pseudo-spiritual drivel: indulgent, incoherent and insincere.
What perplexed and frustrated listeners then still holds true. For the most part it’s not a form driven or dictated by auteurs, innovation, or autobiographical expression. The intention was to make — and market — meditative, open-ended environments for relaxation and contemplation. Idiosyncrasy distracts from such an experience, hence the ubiquity of new age tropes like nature sounds, chanting, chimes. The result is that a lot of the music feels both brainwashed and brainwashing; its commitment to functionality over artistry often verges on cultic.
As is true with other forms of folk art, many of the lasting and evocative new age audio documents originated along its margins. Some of the artists featured below have had their legacies revived by deluxe reissue campaigns; others continue to languish unknown outside niche collector circles, their narratives uncharted. However, all of these recordings radiate shades of the ineffable, inner-space aura unique to music made under the influence of The new age.
Written by Britt Brown
Images by Olivea Kelly
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
Les Gabriel LaHeart
Moment of Heaven
(Heartline Productions, year unknown)
So little is known about this music and musician it might as well be a hoax, which is why it’s ranked last. Web stalking turns up nothing but a Discogs page and the audio. However, if these sounds are genuine, then this tape actualizes the miracle of the internet: a hazy, hissy, magical obscurity salvaged from some mysterious wishing well and uploaded to the democratic plateau of YouTube. Beyond a Tucson, Arizona post office box, four generic track titles (e.g. ‘Flying Dolphins’), and instrumentation (flute, kalimba, slide whistle, “sounds,” etc.), Moment Of Heaven reveals nothing of its creator, one Les Gabriel LaHeart. But anonymity doesn’t dampen the delay-soaked, frayed-fidelity transcendence of this music. Crystalline vibraphone tones and flute float above softly thrumming kalimba and muted ocean roar while a faint voice sings wordlessly in loose, looping arcs, like some lost moan-core CDR from the early 2000s. (It’s this FX pedal-refracted vocal mode that feels most suspiciously modern). Provenance aside, it’s a uniquely beautiful, visionary 60 minutes of new age Pacific drift, elusive yet emotive, fully delivering on the J-card’s promise: “soothing celestial improvisations.”
(Spirit Music, 1985)
Few titles and covers rival Crystal Rainbows for pure new age cliché, but this 1985 outing by the late Texan musician and author Don Campbell is a deceptively subtle and bewitching listen. Slivers of iridescent keys quiver over purring astral silences and gauzy wisps of synth, somewhere between Zen planetarium soundtrack and chill-out tent womb, while the flipside tiptoes through an equally skeletal mirage of bells, heartbeat, wind chimes and fluttering, gestural piano. Heard late at night in a darkened room it has the distinct effect of slowing the heart, which its maker intended.
As is true of other practitioners in this field, Campbell valued sound as much for its metaphysical properties as its musicality, even founding an institute in 1988 dedicated to implementing music in healthcare facilities. He published The Roar Of Silence: Healing Powers of Breath, Tone, and Music the following year, surveying methods of “awakening vibratory awareness by exploring the energy beneath sound”, but he’s most remembered for his 1997 book, The Mozart Effect, which claims, among other theories, that listening to 10 minutes of classical music a day makes humans verifiably more intelligent.
Music For Massage I
Advertising itself as “an hour of soothing music designed for massage therapy”, Gainesville, Floridian Ric Kaestner’s first volume of mercurial vignettes demonstrates just how malleable a notion new age could be. Though the J-card’s artist text references ancient Indian healing rituals, “quantum theories of oscillation” and Pythagoras, the reality of these sides is far more intimate, innocent and spontaneous, zigzagging through Zen hymnals, soft-focus Steven Halpern homages, Asiatic synthesizer themes, bamboo flute ragas and obtuse soundtrack sketches, few of which top four minutes. The thought of a masseuse popping in this cassette before a session seems unlikely due to how erratic and distractingly melodic much of it is, but the tape exudes an appealing eccentricity, inventively affirming new age as a spectrum of possibilities rather than a singular sound. Curiously, it took five years for the second and final installment of Music For Massage to surface, after which Kaestner largely withdrew from music save for a puzzling mandolin cameo on Bauhaus bassist David J’s Kickstarter-funded 2014 album.
(Aquamarin Verlag, 1987)
German multi-instrumentalist Klause Wiese got his start guesting on tambura in foundational krautrock collective Popol Vuh before pivoting into a prolific solo career characterized by durational drones conjured from singing bowls, bells, zither, cymbals and voice. From 1981 until his unexpected death in 2009 he released upwards of 60 recordings, not including collaborations and posthumous collections. Wiese’s music exists at the nexus of several overlapping modes — ritual, dark ambient, environmental — yet new age exerted an influence as well, most audibly on this late 1980s outing. Qumra II sways like a censer in some ancient holy place, birdsong and pensive strings simmering across a smoke-streaked, slow-motion expanse, as if willing an extra-dimensional visitation to occur. The B-side (‘The Hidden Treasure’) is more literal in its mysticism but no less levitational, a swirling, endless Om braided with majestic, resonant tanpura, epitomizing Wiese’s Sufi pursuit of “the fugitive moment of ecstatic sensation.”
Clouds: New Music For Relaxation
As measure of new age’s surging prominence (and profitability) in the early 1980s musical landscape, it’s telling that even Moses Asch’s venerated Folkways organization deigned to dip a toe in the pond, commissioning Inglewood, California experimental composer Craig Kupka to craft a pair of “quiet, non-rhythmic” LPs aimed squarely at this growing market. The first and more effective of the two, Clouds: New Music For Relaxation, is notable for its fragile, phantasmal interplay of electric piano, bowed bass, celesta, and chimes — unearthly yet uneasy. The music is less relaxing than contemplative, disembodied and diaphanous, stardust glinting in swaths of night sky. Kupka’s chops earned him acceptance to a doctoral program at Stanford in electronic music but he declined in favor of session work, including a stint as trombonist for the LA Philharmonic. His approach to meditational music reflects a background both academic and versatile, sophisticated and experiential, closer to abstracted avant-jazz than self-taught space drift.
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
(no label, 1986)
As with many forms of folk art, new age didn’t require money, talent or industry connections to participate. Any third eye enthusiast possessed of a cheap Yamaha, bongo, rainstick and an answering machine with built-in microphone was capable of tapping into some ephemeral zone of transcendence. Case in point: Joshua Tree, California entity Shining Lotus.
Three self-released mid-1980s cassettes issued under this moniker embody the raw, revelatory promise of new age as a feeling-based wilderness of forking paths. The solo vessel of electronic music pioneer and didgeridoo enthusiast Peter Spoecker, he also operated an independent desert recording space, Shining Lotus Studio, hosting projects for Synchestra collaborator David Blonski in addition to his own scrambled improvisations. Admittedly Mountain Magic ranks more for its kaleidoscopic strangeness than objective excellence but, even so, its 30 minutes are captivating — a torrent of tape hiss, howling wind and water cascading over wistful piano and wandering, sun-dazed synth. Later sections thread through aviaries of squawking birds, heavenly reveries and crooning coyotes, all crudely mixed and wobbly like some spray paint-soaked Belgian underground tape. In what manner such a slice of home-brewed psychedelic delirium was distributed back in 1986 is anybody’s guess, but its digital essence endures thanks to the miracles of file-sharing.
Music On The Way…
One of the rare vinyl entries, Idyllwild, California composer Peter Davison’s debut remains a quintessential private press gem from new age’s embryonic early years. Comprised of four extended excursions of synthesizer, sax, flute, cello and acoustic guitar, Music On The Way… meanders like a daydream, lulling and lyrical, half-awake in some golden midsummer meadow. On first pass, certain sections skew a touch twee and cloying (the doubled flute especially), but repeat spins reveal the record’s refreshing levity and warmth, a barefoot prance between carefree new age and electro-acoustic easy listening. Deeply inspired by a six-month sojourn to Bali in 1979, Davison originally named the album Selamat Siang (Indonesian for “good day”) before switching to its subtitle, Music On The Way…, at the request of distributors. Decades later, still burdened with crates of shrink-wrapped stock, he junked them in a dumpster during a move, thereby ensuring the record’s rarity and value. Davison followed the LP with five other solo releases on Avocado, gradually snowballing a successful career scoring TV, film, orchestras, cartoons, lifestyle DVDs, theme parks, airlines and awards ceremonies for companies and corporations all over the globe.
Journeys Out Of Body
(Valley of the Sun, 1983)
The convoluted chronicles of Dick Sutphen’s self-help empire Valley of the Sun could fill a book, but the two musicians who passed through its halls whose work has aged most gracefully are the Davids: Naegele and Storrs. In 1980, Sutphen hired Naegele, a classically trained pianist from Minneapolis, to serve as the company’s in-house music producer, creating royalty-free background ambience for guided meditations alongside solo new age tapes and various commissions released via VOTS “house band” Upper Astral. By late 1982 the assignments were so numerous that Naegele drafted his neighbor David Storrs to assist, leading to a fruitful series of collaborations. Unfortunately, only a year later Naegele left the company and, in a moment of financial stress, submitted several recordings to the label as solo efforts that were actually made by Storrs. Of these, Journeys Out Of Body stands supreme. The A-side unspools an eerie extraterrestrial expanse, disembodied keys adrift at the edge of an event horizon, while the B basks in a gauzy celestial drone, weightless and wondrous, a planetarium score to galaxies being born. Regardless of the drama or friction clouding their creation, these waveforms were worth it, navigating listeners into altered states of being for 35 years.
The Healing Music of Rana — Vol. I
(Sonic Arts Foundation, 1986)
In 1967, East Coast Ph.D. musicologist Randall McClellan co-founded the renowned electronic music studio at upstate New York institution the Eastman School of Music; later, like his peer Terry Riley, he became fascinated by North Indian vocal techniques, eventually formulating a compositional mode based on sacred geometry, intentional resonance, and harmonized consciousness. His reputation rests on recordings of a series of performances he gave between 1977 and 1983 staged in semi-darkened spaces and lasting up to three hours, with the audience relaxed on rugs or carpets, soaking in the sound. Dubbed The Healing Music Of Rana (“rana” being Sanskrit for “sunbreath”) and split into four cassettes, McClellan released the tapes via his own Rana Press initially, then reissued them a couple of years later through Sonic Arts Foundation — where he worked as director — but copies are so scarce none have been verified online except Vol. 1 of the SAF edition.
Even so, the mystery and mysticism of this music burns eternal, a low, glowing infinity of shifting tones and obscured vibrations crafted with synthesizers, tanpura, and tape delay. Its patience and duration are transformative, collapsing time into an endless present, mindful and mindless simultaneously.
The osmosis of new age sensibilities into wider mid-’80s musical culture occurred organically as well as artificially. For many it was meaningful, for others simply a mask. Philadelphians Charles Cohen and Jeff Cain, aka Ghostwriters and, later, The Ghostwriters, belong fully to the former camp. They emerged at the dawn of the decade as a wiry, wayward new wave outfit, releasing two mad scientist minimal wave 12”s before suddenly going silent. Their return half a decade later revealed a duo reborn, their palette reconfigured into polished piano, moonlit synth, whispering insects and subliminal ambience, occasionally congealing into patches of telepathic fusion. Though unevenly sequenced, Remote Dreaming remains a largely riveting hour of new age-galvanized expressionism, alternately stream-of-consciousness and sublime. Its 1986 unveiling on short-lived Narada subsidiary Mu-Psych seems to have made little impact, but Cohen’s career resurrection as a wonky synth pioneer in the years before his 2017 passing reawakened interest in his early work and its day of wider re-appreciation looms.
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
Laraaji & Lyghte
(Spirit Music, 1986)
Few on this list have enjoyed a more sustained career resurgence than zitherist and laughter meditation coach Edward Larry Gordon, aka Laraaji. Permanently smiling in a traffic cone orange smock, he’s a constant presence on the festival circuit, strumming his familiar strings in a sunny, spacy deluge with any and all proposed collaborators. Despite a creative demeanor verging on the terminally blissed, many of his recordings veer closer to some euphoric form of free music rather than true new age. An exception is this mid-’80s collaboration with sound healer and Jonathan Goldman aka Lyghte (whose Spirit Music imprint released this list’s no. 19 entry, Crystal Rainbows).
‘Equinox’ unfolds a miasmic, iridescent arc of crystalline bells, translucent synth and sparkling waves of zither, swelling to an ethereal crest of surprising emotion. Aside from an unnecessary dab of electric guitar noodling, Goldman grounds Laraaji, harnessing his vibrational haze to spiraling, ceremonial keys, plotting a skyward path to the celestial realms of the title. The flip inverts their alchemy but is no less mesmerizing, humming with afterglow, flecked with prisms of zither.
The only live recording on the list, Constance Demby’s October 1, 1983 performance in Sausalito, California captures the essence and ether of the West Coast progressive scene as new age took root and took over.
The Alaron Center was a short-lived but storied countercultural hub that hosted other figures of the new age like Steven Halpern, Timothy Leary, and Jordan De La Sierra alongside crystal exhibitions and consciousness workshops, which perfectly suited Demby’s background as a big city sheet metal sound sculptor turned holy land pilgrim enamored of yoga, Hindi scripture and devotional music. As the J-card notes (perhaps as a selling point — word has it At Alaron is one of Demby’s least favorites from her catalog) there is “no applause or audience noise” but whether this was achieved in post-production or the attendees were simply too spellbound to move, the effect is the same. It feels like eavesdropping on some esoteric ceremony in a geodesic dome, conducted by a high priestess wearing earth tones. Sacred synth hymnals ebb into mournful musings on gamelan, sheng (a Chinese reed instrument), and psaltery (similar to an autoharp). The mood is rapt but ambiguous, a litany of lotus positions for an invisible presence, as hinted at in the notes on the closing song: “This is an invitation / for the radiant form / of the Master (Guru Dev) / to appear within (Aja)”.
(Valley of the Sun, 1981)
Valley of the Sun founder Dick Sutphen fashioned Upper Astral as a permeable in-house vessel for various sonic ideas that he, as a non-musician, couldn’t execute alone. This task fell to the company’s first musical employee, David Naegele; by his own admission, “It was all Dick’s idea — the joke at the office was, ‘Up your astral!’” Following the project’s successful but starry-eyed debut, Upper Astral Suite, Sutphen’s second prompt concerned a notably more sinister shade of new age dream-weaving: “The energy of highly-evolved Masters manifesting upon the Earth.” Though Naegele disliked the cryptic directive, his playing is inspired and unsettling, nocturnal drones shimmering into spectral pentatonic scales and witchy choral voices, like a summoning staged in an arcane tower. A subtle Sutphen layout of a wheat field at dusk colors these excursions with autumnal foreboding, insinuating that no age, now matter how new or enlightened, is without its dark side.
Valley of the Birds
Bob Stohl and Kat Epple, the married couple behind, Emerald Web always followed its own fantastical path. The duo spent their honeymoon phase self-releasing vinyl sides of dragon-themed flute-and-synthesizer voyages culminating in the interstellar wizardry of their fourth collection, Valley Of The Birds. “Inspired by and realized in” a place of the same name in the hills above Berkeley (whether mythical or real is hard to tell), the songs swim with Stohl’s signature soloing on the Lyricon, the first electronic wind instrument ever invented, which he came to master. Though they touted these tracks as “excellent aids in meditation and relaxation”, Emerald Web’s music functions more as muse than mantra, melodic and windswept narratives evoking visionary landscapes glimpsed in crystal balls. They embody the prog potential of new age, idyllic synthetic-breath serenades to unseen worlds and grand illusions.
The Space Between
(Hummingbird Productions, 1981)
Bay Area transplant Joanna Brouk studied at UC Berkeley and the prestigious Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College in Oakland; her approach to sound was more sensual than cerebral, as evident on the five alluring cassettes she self-released via her Hummingbird Productions imprint across the 1980s. The second of these, The Space Between, best encapsulates her spacious and serene mode of enchanted stasis. Attuned improvisations of piano, synth, chimes and bells billow and flow in gentle, luminous currents, embracing the vibrational nuance of each element. Brouk’s gift was her hearing as much as her playing, the way she finessed resonance and silence, translating breath and bodily awareness into a mesmerizing odyssey of quiet, calm, and supreme beauty. Her 2017 passing was a huge loss to the West Coast canon of naturalist music pioneers.
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
(North Star Productions, 1982)
Shenandoah, Texas synthesizer pioneer James Daniel Emmanuel self-identifies as an electronic minimalist but his decades-long advocacy for the therapeutic power of cyclical music allies him equally with new age. His first proper album, 1981’s Rain Forest Music, was extensively used by a clinical psychologist to induce calm in clients, while Emmanuel himself taught classes in Creative Stress Management, espousing the virtues of repetitive music that “assists the mind in slowing down”. Wizards wears its Terry Riley worship openly but radiates an aura more cloaked and casual, weaving polyrhythmic organ and synth into muted, melting mandalas. Titles like ‘Attaining Peace’ and ‘At-One-Ment’ clarify the centered and solitary spirit of these pieces, somewhere between sacred and self-help. More blissed out than Berlin School but not audacious enough for the avant-garde, Wizards exists in the margins of new age’s open horizon, five candlelit communions exalting Emmanuel’s formative childhood practice of lying down with his eyes closed listening to music, entering into “this wonderful dream state”.
Reflecting Light Vol. 1
(Isis Music, 1984)
The saga of Suzanne Doucet is long and fascinating: she sang schmaltzy schlager pop for major labels in her teens and twenties in Germany before leveraging her industry contacts to bankroll the mother of all late ‘60s acid flashback audio-collages (the triple LP Trip • Flip Out • Meditation), then in 1979 founded a label (Isis Music) to issue her exotic ambient collaborations with fellow ex-schlager singer Christian Buehner (under the moniker new age). Doucet then moved to Los Angeles and in 1987 opened the first all-new age record store, incredibly called Only new age Music, in addition to forming another label (Beyond) and publishing company. Later, when the internet happened, she bought the domain newagemusic.com and runs it still, selling CDs and consulting services.
Both volumes of Reflecting Light were recorded just after relocating to California, a life-long dream of Doucet’s, and are suffused with the serenity and elation of a recent arrival to Shangri-La. The first cassette in particular exemplifies new age at its most naked and angelic, sinking and soaring through the sort of earnest, unselfconscious raptures the genre would later be mocked for. Glimmers of her German experimental roots filter through too, especially on ‘Spiral Dance’ and ‘Koan’, where she coaxes modular sequences into a captivating trance. In the wake of these tapes Doucet and her husband settled in the hippie coastal college town of Santa Cruz, where her son Shaman was soon born — to the sound, of course, of new age music.
Jordan De La Sierra
Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose
Central Californian Jordan De La Sierra’s legacy is limited to a single work, the sprawling and prescient two-hour modal piano masterpiece Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose. Something of a prodigy, De La Sierra earned a full scholarship to San Francisco’s elite Conservatory of Music while a teenager, training in theory, composition and voice before becoming enthralled by Terry Riley, Hindustani singer Pandit Pran Nath, and the thriving experimental community centered around Mills College in Oakland. Gymnosphere originated from five and a half hours of piano recordings tracked in a Berkeley studio that were then played back in the vaulted stone halls of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and recorded again.
By mixing the two sessions together and layering in tape delay De La Sierra achieved his vision of a “trans-dimensional space piano”, infinitely ascending and descending like a divine double helix across four vinyl sides. Too melodic for true minimalism yet too glassy to pass as classical, Gymnosphere prophecies new age in its inner space introspection and widescreen mirage, a liquid looking glass through which any meaning can materialize — and just as easily dissipate. His own hopes for this work’s application are suitably elevated: “May this music be a key for Man in his search for himself, that he may find his life in love, realizing ultimately that for him all that happens is impeccably correct, reflected in the tone of the situation at hand, through this mirror, the sound of our life.”
What’s most remarkable about Inter-Dimensional Music is how immaculately conceived it appears, less a stepping stone than a lodestone magnetizing the entirety of future new age sonic aesthetics. Even its creator, eccentric Greek bohemian Iasos, seemed caught off guard by it, admitting surprise when in 1967 he began hearing a new, nebulous form of music in his head, which he referred to as “paradise music”. Less than a decade later — on May 17, 1975 to be exact — he manifested this vision into a 45-minute suite of smeared synthetic textures, strings, piano, percussion, flute, and field recordings, dusted in heavenly FX and backwards tape. It’s an astoundingly ahistorical invention, crystalizing the essence of a style no one else had even imagined, much less attempted.
The only remotely comparable form it shares a lineage with is some sort of outsider spiritual exotica but little in that world feels this hazy, immaterial, and limitless. The sides are diffuse and disorienting, evaporating into hypnagogic wisps of perfumed breeze or quiet creeks of frogs. Even so, Iasos distinctly intended Inter-Dimensional Music for focused enjoyment rather than background ambience because he believed his music could connect listeners to “heavenly realms of existence” — and heaven must be heard to be entered.
For me the best album this year was Smells like teen spirit by Nirvana
Pauline Anna Strom
(Ether Ship, 1982)
Everything that eventually went wrong with new age music — its insincerity, sentimentality and conformity — went right on Pauline Anna Strom’s dazzling debut. Trans-Millenia Consort could be characterized as yet another collection of questing, meditative synthesizer music, but the worlds and moods it articulates are singularly vivid, as though beamed into being at a higher resolution. Strom’s blindness seems a partial explanation, though not all impairments heighten sense memory to such an uncanny degree. Her lifelong love of audiobooks, especially science fiction and romances of the ancient past, certainly played a formative role, seeding in her a time traveler’s wanderlust and a yearning for experiences in alternate realities.
Strom’s substantial journey from small town Louisiana through military bases in the south to San Francisco at the start of the ’70s positioned her for prime appreciation of the city’s impending sea change. The Summer Of Love was history when Stephen Hill’s landmark Hearts Of Space radio program began broadcasting the latest waves of synthesizer artistry from Europe and beyond across the Bay Area, where Strom was tuned in and taking notes. She fell in love with Klaus Schulze and Brian Eno and soon bought a synth of her own — and then, momentously, a 4-track.
Trans-Millennia Consort emerged as Strom’s opus and thesis, composed alone, on headphones, late into the dawn. The songs channel alien ruins, secret gardens, hidden temples and distant galaxies, painting a psychic panorama of personal fantasias with precision and poetry. It arose from new age but belongs to no age, adrift at the axis and apex of a lapsed utopian dream, one in which sound could heal, music served the higher self, and enlightenment seemed only a vibration away.
Special thanks to resident advisor Ian James.
Additional thanks to Sounds of the Dawn and Mildly Amusing Channel for their non-proprietary archival work.