Previewing Glide, Chris Richards‘ new-age DJ night at Cafe Saint-Ex, gave me a chance to make two points about the genre. First, you can argue that the music is a home-grown development, with roots in the guitar style John Fahey developed in Takoma Park. (For more on that, check out David Dunlap Jr.‘s stellar 2006 City Paper feature, “The Cosmos Club.”) Second, the music is nowhere near as bad as you’ve probably been led to believe; if you have any kind of enthusiasm for the wooly New Weird Americanisms of Jack Rose or Brian Eno‘s ambient experiments, there’s lots to like.
I don’t have to make that case, though: Richards has done it for me. In advance of tonight’s installment of Glide, the Washington Post pop music critic sent me YouTube links to five of his favorite new-age songs. (Comments are my own.)
JD Emmanuel, “Attaining Peace”
Emmanuel pitches his music with a lot verities about how it’s a pathway to greater spiritual awareness, enlightenment, etc—-last year he dubbed his music “Time Traveler” because “it can put the listener into a state where time seems to disappear.” Good luck slipping into a wormhole of astral bliss here: There’s something creepy and insistent amid the gentle keyboard swells and drones on this track from 1983’s Wizards, like the unsettling soundtracks Popol Vuh worked up for the Werner Herzog films where Klaus Kinski slowly loses it.
Peter Davison, “Glide III”
When Windham Hill Records became a national phenomenon in the early ’80s, largely on the strength of George Winston‘s piano solos, a door opened for relaxation-music pros like Davison, who blends Eastern-ish flutes, harp, and washes of keyboard. It’s a peaceful easy feeling for sure, though it’s also undone somewhat by the layer of synth figures zapping gently across the tune.
William Aura, “Come My Way”
The path from Fahey to Yanni involved a few ugly genetic mutations—-its evolutionary end goal was to please PBS pledge-drive callers, after all. But while I appreciate Richards’ crate-digging efforts (presumably in 25-cent bins), on the evidence of this track Aura trafficks in the Reunite-on-ice hot-tub grooves that gave the genre a bad name, from the bubbly bassy synths to the angel-chorus melodies. Released in 1987 on Windham Hill rival Higher Octave, this track appeared on an album titled Half Moon Bay, in tribute to the San Francisco peninsula rich-hippie town where it was recorded, and where I’m guessing 90 percent of the LP’s owners currently live.
Steve Roach, “Reflections in Suspension”
In the liner notes for Music for Airports, Eno pointed out that he was looking for a kind of music that was “an atmosphere, a tint.” Roach has the same mission, though his music is at once more colorful and more sinuous than Eno’s ambient gestures, and it never sounds soporific; I’ve happily taken in this track’s 16-plus minutes repeatedly in the past week. This comes from his 1984 album of the same title, reissued in 2001. It may be the only album that Alternative Press and Yoga Journal ever agreed on.
Swami Kriya Ramananda, “Song of the Golden Lotus, Part 1”
The intersection between jazz, Eastern, ambient, and new-age music is complicated, but its ur-text is clear: clarinetist Tony Scott‘s 1964 album, Music for Zen Meditation and Other Joys. Eastern flutes have been used (or exploited) in relaxation music ever since, but 1978’s Song of the Golden Lotus elegantly works in cello and ocean-wave electronics while the flute goes about its chakra-alignment business. “At the conclusion of the music, remain quiet for a few moments,” the liner notes read in part. Beats being told to immediately tweet about something you like.