It’s 1968. Psychedelic music is peaking, but the drugs themselves are starting to wear off. The Beatles visit India to study with the Maharishi, searching for a new source of enlightenment and, perhaps, escape. Fast forward to today and give the track, “Helter Skelter” a listen, and you might catch a bit of what they, and a lot of others in the counterculture, might have been feeling at the time: a tense mix of waning ecstasy and exhaustion.
Along with The Fab Four on that trip was the Jazz flautist Paul Horn, a fixture of the “West Coast” jazz scene who had recorded with Chico Hamilton, Cal Tjader, and Duke Ellington. He, like The Beatles and so many of their peers, had taken an interest in Eastern religion and philosophy. In an effort to reflect this in his music, Horn recorded Inside Taj Mahal, which captured his Mid-Eastern-tinged flute playing and chanting colored by the lush reverb of the Taj Mahal.
It’s regarded as one of the first albums of a new kind of music and a reaction to and an offshoot of psychedelic culture’s larger goal: freeing the mind. At the time, people didn’t exactly know what to call it. Some said, “consciousness music” or “space music,” but because many Aquarians felt that this was the music of a “new age” of peace and spiritual discovery, “New Age” stuck.
Yes, that New Age music. The kind that they sell in yoga bookstores and play at health spas. The kind that Yanni and John Tesh play in huge amphitheaters to crowds of adoring Zima drinkers. The idea, to the genre’s creators, was that the music was medicine in a very direct sense. It was to serve both as andedote to and an extension of drugs like LSD, and was why it found a home in places like health food groceries next to vitamins and green juice. People wanted to continue “expanding their minds”, but not at the expense of their physical and mental health. For the aging hippie in the early seventies, this evolution of psychedelic culture away from drugs and towards spiritual meditation occurred naturally because the two served the same goal, New Age music was the soundtrack to this shift.
It’s no accident, then, that two of the first explicitly New Age records were released in 1975 and recorded in the Bay Area: Steven Halpern’s Spectrum Suite and Iasos’ (ya-sos) Inter-Dimensional Music (a subtle attempt to name the genre on the artist’s part). And while Halpern’s record is no less important and amazing, I’d point to Iasos as the spiritual godfather of the movement, and Inter-Dimensional Music as the more diverse and interesting record. To me, it retains the best characteristics of psychedelic music (space, experimentation, and heady atmospherics) and combines them with the best of New Age’s more explicit spiritual focus. And, Earbits has it! Listen here.
Iasos works mainly with acoustic instruments on this record, but in a way that evokes the sparse, warm analog synthesizers on Brian Eno’s ambient records (no coincidence that Discreet Music, the first ambient record, was recorded the same year) and the lush colors of Vangelis’ film music. The pieces are like short sound paintings or auditory poems rather than songs proper. Their pace is gentle, and the tracks mostly swell and fade in and out of each other. Thick textures serve as a bed for bursts of heavily processed electric flute and piano, all of which wouldn’t feel out of place as an interlude from a Miles Davis “electric” session.
New Age’s heyday, which occurs from the mid seventies through the end of the 80s, produced a lot of really amazing experimental electronic music as well. Robert Rich, for example, created music to ease the mind, but perhaps, like Eno, in a less explicitly spiritual way. “My music a little bit edgy for a massage,” Rich once said, which highlights a tension in the genre, and why it’s often mistaken for little more than Pure Moods: it’s not always easy, explicit, or even necessary, to say what the genre is or isn’t.
Musicians don’t like to be pigeonholed or labelled, especially if they’re being associated with crystals & astrology and don’t want to be. Listeners might find it hard to separate the music from that stuff. I guess that’s by design. But, I’d argue, a lot of experimental music, like Rich’s or Eno’s, shares a similar aesthetic: eclectic instrumentation, great synthesizer programming, minimalism. And, they a similar goal too: making music to clear the mind. Rich himself is famous for putting on all-night “Sleep Concerts” in the 80s, which sounds pretty “New Age” to me. So, the line’s not so clear.
Something to think about, while you listen to a playlist I made to accompany this post. It has pioneers like Iasos, Robert Rich, and Kitaro, with some more contemporary figures like Paul Avgerinos (the 2015 New Age Grammy Award winner!) and plenty of other ambient and experimental artists that might not even call themselves New Age (but definitely are). I think you’ll find, they all make sense together and really, that they belong together. Making music for a quiet mind is the sole province of gurus or yoginis.
For further exploration:
1979 Documentary About Iasos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4OSn_RJcwl0
A Great Interview with Steven Halpern: http://daily.redbullmusicacademy.com/2012/08/steven-halpern-interview