How To Be Smarter About... New Age Music

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Let's face it: as much as we all know and love about music, everyone has at least some blind spots. In our new series, "How To Be Smarter About…" Soundcheck aims to help you become a more impressive conversation partner at cocktail parties and around the water cooler.

Lately we've been asking guests to reveal their musical blind spots. When Christopher Barnes of the Massachusetts band Gem Club visited the Soundcheck studio, he told us that he wants to know more about New Age music. To help, we turned to Mike Rubin, a frequent contributor to the New York Times, to help us get smarter about the largely misunderstood and poorly-defined genre. Rubin, who recently wrote a piece for the Times called "For New Age, The Next Generation," tells Soundcheck host that Barnes isn't the only contemporary indie musician expressing an interest in the long-derided form.

"There are a lot of younger musicians who are influenced by analog synthesizer sounds," says Rubin, "and they have gravitated to explore some of the early pioneers of the music." 

But is a modern artist like Mark McGuire really trading in "New Age" music, or just re-purposing certain kinds of synthesizer sounds that happen to have been in vogue before he was a baby? What are the genre's biggest names? Most importantly: Do Yanni and Brian Eno really deserve the same shelf at the record store? (We don't answer that question in the segment; you'll have to draw your own conclusions.)

What is New Age music?

It's a grab-bag term; in the late '70s, early '80s, it was instrumental records that didn't really correspond to jazz, country music, or rock'n'roll. If you went into a store you could find everything from some sort of harp record to Steve Reich all thrown in the same bin. It's a confluence: the musicians themselves were coming out of electronic music, influenced by progressive rock and German "kosmische Musik," but at the same time there was a post-hippie awakening and consciousness that was brought in by some of the musicians. Some of it was intended to be a meditational accompaniment. 

Who are some of the pioneers?

Laraaji -- Raised in Philadelphia as a trained musician; at a certain point in the '70s while meditating, he had a deep religious hearing experience, where he heard layers of brass instruments in his head. He swapped his guitar for a zither at a pawn shop. Later worked with Brian Eno. Key Track: "Unicorns In Paradise" (1981)

Daniel/J.D. Emmanuel -- Texas-based, early synthesizer adopter. Key Track: "Arabian Fantasy" (1980)

Iasos - Greek-born, San Francisco-based composer, improviser, and flautist; his 1975 album Inter-Dimensional Music is a touchstone of New Age music. Key Track: "Formentera Sunset Clouds" 

What about "healing music" and "cosmic consciousness"?

Rubin says, "Some of this music is directed to help people clear their mind." Douglas McGowan, the 37-year-old compiler of the recent compilation record I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age In America, 1950-1990 [which contains many of the tracks used in this conversation], told Rubin for his article, "Once you wrap your head around nothingness as being a virtue, it becomes so much easier to appreciate the music on its own terms."

Who are some contemporary artists mining New Age? 

Mark McGuire -- Ex-Emeralds guitarist has played with Iasos. Key Track: "In Search Of The Miraculous"

Julianna Barwick -- The "indie Enya" makes free-floating, amniotic, multi-layered music. Key Track: "The Harbinger"

Bitchin Bahas -- Out of Chicago, side project of psychedelic rock band Cave, working from German "kosmische" form. Key Track: "Bueu"