Andy Beta’s recent article for the Los Angeles Times, “A New Age for New Age Music,” starts off as a trend piece—New Age is back! It’s cool!—identifying Animal Collective’s sampling of Zamphir, Jimmy Tamborello’s remixes of Enya, Beck’s cover of Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis, and other examples as a sign that the maligned genre is being rehabilitated. Clearly there’s truth to that (ironic or otherwise), but by the article’s midpoint Beta also exposes just how messy concepts like genre or influence can be.
[T]he tag New Age is rather broad. It encompasses the electronic soundscapes of Michael Stearns and Steve Roach as well as the gentle acoustic albums that Windham Hill made ubiquitous. It has roots in American composers like Terry Riley as well as Indian classical music. New Age founding fathers Paul Horn and Steven Halpern come from the 1960s jazz tradition, and yet it also contains Native American and Sanskrit chants. It's also influenced by the series of ambient albums made by Eno in the mid-'70s as well as the adventurous German music of Klaus Schulze, Manuel Göttsching, Deuter and Vangelis, not to mention the synth pop made in Japan by Kitaro. And then there were the California communes that gave rise to artists like Peter Davison and Iasos.
In this paragraph alone Beta has cited a dozen different New Age roots, each of which has branched into a myriad different subgenres which may or may not have anything in common with each other. It’s a fool’s errand to try and pin down all the ways in which this once-cheesy genre has wormed its way into contemporary music—as I learned when I attempted to do the same with soft rock, also enjoying a parallel resurgence in 2011 (though I use the term “enjoying” loosely).
That post on soft rock generated a fair amount of response, much of it taking me to task for presuming the artists’ motivations or just being kinda pissed that I hate the new Destroyer record. The thing that disappointed me about that response was that I realized, in retrospect, that I had framed my opinions as a "problem with music"—like, it was the musicians who were failing me. In truth I was more concerned, as I always am on this blog, with my own tastes and peccadillos. I was trying to identify the line between so-called soft acts who I really liked (Feist, Fleet Foxes, Midlake, etc.) and those I really loathed (Destroyer’s Kaputt, Gayngs, and now add the Weeknd too). Clearly there is a line—since that post the term “PBR&B” has become a thing, and those bands I loathe fall into that category while those I like do not, and yet all of these acts have something soft or hokey in their music. Different reference points, but soft in any case.
That’s where Beta’s paragraph, quoted above, resonates. He’s talking about a parallel trend happening in on the electronic side of music right now, citing acts like Gang Gang Dance, Emeralds, and Blues Control, and he quotes, among others, members of Animal Collective and Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never/Ford & Lopatin. All of these acts are drawing from disparate roots—krautrock, jazz, Eno, synth pop, etc.—but are, according to Beta, winding up somewhere approximating New Age (Nu-Age? Neu Age?).
There’s a lot to unpack in all of this, not least is what constitutes New Age in the first place and whether or not an act like Emeralds is remotely close to that definition (I’m not sure they are). They are clearly influenced by Klaus Schulze, but then again Schulze has released 60+ albums over more than forty years, some of which are drone, some are trance, some could be considered New Age, and so on. Looking solely at krautrock for a minute, as a genre it enjoyed at least a decade (roughly 1969–1979) of wild experimentation and improvisation before many of its most esteemed practitioners either slowed their output or evolved into something more peaceful and serene (and cheesy). Tangerine Dream, Michael Rother, and others released some serious dreck in the 80s, and those are the albums where the genre known as krautrock (kosmiche!) begins to be identified with New Age. Ambient music, too, started from a place of extreme minimalism and ideas formulated by the likes of Alvin Lucier or John Cage, among others. But in time melody and structure—and synthesizers—crept into the genre and thus an entire strain of that style also fell into the New Age ghetto.
I don’t think Emeralds or Gang Gang Dance or Lopatin or some of the others referenced in Beta’s article have taken up with New Age in such an extreme fashion—I mean, I hardly want to get out my crystals and celebrate the solstice when I listen to Returnal. But Beta does point to a similar arc happening within these artists’ own evolution, noting that the group Blues Control was originally interested in noise but lost interest in that form, so they “started exploring different types of psychedelic music like New Age.” A year or two back I read an interview with Lopatin where he said essentially the same thing—that he came from noise but pivoted to ambient (or whatever you want to call his genre) because he was looking for something more challenging to his sensibilities. There is still clearly an edge to his Returnal album (it starts with a noise track, after all), and it would be difficult to confuse any of these acts with Yanni, but if we’re looking at the trajectory of noise artists, then yeah, they’ve gone pretty soft.
Whether you think this trend is worrisome or not probably depends on your own musical allergies. I, for instance, am clearly allergic to the saxophone, as my soft rock post and any number of tweets and other stray comments might make clear. But I’m not allergic to that retro synth sound that seems to be creeping into a lot of ambient/nu-kosmiche acts. Just give a listen the Steve Moore track (from 2007) or the Harald Grosskopf track (from 1980) I included in the mix I posted on Monday, or the synth-heavy tracks on the new Mountains album which I’ve named one of my favorites of the year so far. And yet I could fully appreciate someone wanting to turn these tracks off within fifteen seconds, so painful to the ears they might sound if one has nasty musical memories of the last time this synth sound was in vogue.
And even that’s not to say one’s enjoyment of a song begins and ends with the instruments being played, or their exact tone. All of these acts still have it in their power to create or destroy a pleasurable listening experience. This whole idea of tying an assortment of acts to one (awful) retro genre misses the mark—an argument I realize can and should be levied against my soft rock stance. As Bruce Levenstein, who has a great blog called Rockets and Rayguns and tweets as @compactrobot, said yesterday: “No, there’s a stigma attached to New Age music because a lot of it is/was incredibly shitty. Those New Age textures didn’t ‘signal’ something cheesy, they were cheesy. And Mr. Lopatin finding it 'amusing' doesn’t make it any better.”
This all loops back around to those concepts of genre and influence, of presuming an artist's motivations, and ultimately of how much stock you can put in identifying trends or viewing a trend's trajectory as a personal affront. As a fan of a certain genre, or of specific musicians, it can feel like a betrayal when the music heads down a path you don't want to go down. Of course that's not the musician's fault; what's really happening is you're seeing a schism between larger musical trends and your own listening trends--two totally different things. A couple years back I wrote a post called "Do I Want to Go There?", in which I tried to take a step back from my infatuation with music from Laurel Canyon to see where I'd wind up if I chose to go in deep with the genre. The answer was no. Frankly, whatever the genre, the answer is almost always no! If you go in deep with krautrock you wind up with a ton of shitty Tangerine Dream albums; if you go in deep with Laurel Canyon you wind up with the Eagles; if you go in deep the current nu-kosmiche, retro-synth trend, you're probably going to wind up with some hokey Enya-referencing ironic spiritualist; if you like PBR&B, god help you, you're already too far gone.
The experience of music is, at all times, a play on the tension between the evolution of an artist's creative arc and that of a listener's personal tastes. They mesh or clash every time you press play, leading at the best of times to epiphany, at the worst of times to a sense of betrayal. It's a relationship; both parties are free to make it work or screw it up.