Before "New Age" Music
The Evolution of Music for Meditation and Spirituality
My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.
My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
The 1970s were the formative years for so many threads of electronic music. The essential quality of electronic music, as Bob Ashley once remarked to me, was that it continued until you pulled the plug out of the wall. For this reason, music made with synthesizers had a natural appeal to those who created music for meditation and other spiritual practices.
The term “new age” was really a marketing tool, a brand name that identified the kind of audience to which this music might appeal. Like another term “smooth jazz,” it also signified a particular radio format that could be targeted to this audience. Familiar practitioners of new age from the 1980s, included Enya, Suzanne Ciani, Constance Demby, Andreas Wollenheider, Yanni, and later Enigma. But honestly, in considering the earlier practitioners of this musical style from the 1970s, I have never seen any of these artists use the term "new age" to describe their work.
Throughout the 1970s, before new age became a thing, there were people creating music around the theme of meditation and spirituality, often combined with the sounds of nature. The variety of sounds ranged from those of electronically-generated gong sounds to the use of synthesizers to weave electronic excursions for the listener. These longer compositions could be formless and abstract or structured and highly musical. Listening was considered a form of meditation and a way to connect with one’s inner self. A few of these artists—Eberhard Schoener and Kitaro for example—went on to have diverse careers in music. But a number of them were self-produced and distributed their recordings on their own private labels, never had great success, fading into the background of modern culture. Even so, their music also made an impact on what would become new age music and we’ll listen to a few of them here.
This music all has some similar features. It is almost entirely harmonic, usually in the major key. There is no dissonance, no conflict, little hard drumming, no sarcastic sounds, and it is mostly longish with gradual instrumental transitions and a stable source of energy that does not fluctuate wildly.
Many of the creators of these works were sometimes as famous for their liner notes and the hype they created around their spiritual practices. I’ve included some quotes from the liner notes in the playlist below to offer a sampling of these statements. But for the podcast, I wanted to focus on their music, all hype aside, and appreciate what they have contributed to the history of electronic music.
One regret I have is that women artists are not represented in this early era of new age music. This, of course, changed by the 1980s with artists such as Enya, Suzanne Ciani, and Constance Demby really leading the market.
I will play these recordings in chronological order, hoping to show how this style of music progressed until we get to the 1980s when the genre called “new age” was better established and had many familiar practitioners.
You can check-out the playlist for this podcast for the instrumentation and other details about each track below.
1. Irv Teibel, "Tintinnabulation (Contemplative Sound)" (excerpt) from Environments (New Concepts In Stereo Sound) (Disc 2) (1970 Syntonic Research). This one side of the record is a rare work of purely electronic music in this series of ambient sounds. It uses computer-generated bell sounds, falling back on Teibel’s experience processing sounds on an IBM 360 mainframe computer at Bell Labs. Electronically generated gongs are the key sound and the record was promoted for meditation. A sticker on the cover said "A Sensitizer for the Mind." We will listen to the first ten minutes of this track 30-minute track from the album. From the liner notes: “As an illustration of the possibilities currently under examination, Syntonic Research decided to experiment with bell sounds as an environmental sound source. . . . Tintinnabulation can be played at any speed, from 78 to 16 rpm, in full stereo. At different speeds, the sounds change in tone and apparent size, although the harmonics remain unchanged. The effect, unlike real bells, is fully controllable by the use of your volume, bass, and treble controls.” 10:11
2. Eberhard Schoener, “Meditation Part 2” from Meditation (1973 Ariola). Synthesizer and electronics, Eberhard Schoener. From the liner notes: “The voices are vocal transmissions. The material consists of white sound, sine, triangle, pulse and saw-tooth waves. No "live" or concrete sounds were used in the music.” This album is more in tune with the Environments approach, harmonies without musical structure. 18:19
3. Master Wilburn Burchette, “Yin” from Psychic Meditation Music (1974 Burchette Brothers). Impro-guitar, analog synthesizers and electronics, Wilburn Burchette. Californian spiritual, Burchette self-produced and distributed his records on the Burchette Brothers label in collaboration with his brother, Kenneth, from 1971 to 1977. He gave up music in the late 70s to self-publish his prophecies by newsletter. In Burchette’s liner notes, he claimed to have discovered a new type of music called Impro. “Impro’s transcendental tone scale takes you into the frontiers of human experience.” 18:06
4. Bill Reddie, “Starbody Suite” from Starbody (1974 Channel 1 Records). Produced and all instruments played by Bill Reddie. 20:08
5. Iasos, " Maha-Splendor" from Inter-Dimensional Music (1975 Unity Records). First album by this Greek master of the electric flute. Composed and played by Iasos, all instruments including synthesizers. Electronics consultant, Rich Hensolt. From the liner notes: “The music of one who, with his inner eye, envisions the vast magnificence of Creation and becomes so overwhelmed by its infinite splendor that he goes into a state of spiritual ecstacy.” 5:51
6. Steven Halpern, "Dancing Through The Rainbow Part 2" from Spectrum Suite (1976/79 Halpern Sounds). Composed, Produced, Fender Rhodes, Prophet 5 and Vako Orchestron synthesizers, Steven Halpern; electric flute, Iasos. The Vako Orchestron played pre-recorded sounds stored on an optical disc, primarily orchestral sounds as an alternative to the Mellotron. First of what would be thought of as a new age album from Halpern. There are many versions of this recording on cassette and LP. Originally released in 1975, this edition of the LP included for the first time the tracks "Dancing Through the Rainbow," parts 1 and 2. From the liner notes: “On this recording, his first in an entire series of Anti-Frantic Alternatives, Steven Halpern not only performs on his exquisite keyboard, but he plays YOUR human instrument as well.” 4:46
7. Robert Bearns & Ron Dexter, "Flowers of Our Childhood" from The Golden Voyage Vol. One (1977 Awakening Productions). Produced and played by (all instruments) Robert Bearns and Ron Dexter. The first is a series of six albums around the theme of The Golden Voyage, initially released on cassette. 5:04
8. Kitaro, "Mu/Dawn of the Astral" from Ten Kai/Astral Trip (1978 Polydor). Moog Synthesizer, Korg Synthesizer, ARP Synthesizer, Roland Synthesizer, Koto, Mandolin, Acoustic Guitar, Drums, Percussion, Bass, Kitaro. First album by Kitaro, recorded in Japan. Album renamed Astral Voyage and reissued in 1985. From the liner notes: “This sound is not created by me, but is felt in my soul.” (Kitaro). 8:11
9. Kitaro, "Oasis" from Oasis/喜多郎 (1979 Canyon). Korg, Roland, and Yamaha synthesizers, Acoustic Guitar, Percussion, Kitaro. 6:21
10. Bernard Xolotl with Daniel Kobialka, "Adieu" from Procession (1983 Nada Pulse). Composed, all instruments including synthesizers, vocoder, and guitar synthesizer, Bernard Xolotl; Violin, Viola, Daniel Kobialka. Self-produced and release album, originally on cassette in 1981. 8:18