By A Rishi
Khokar travels through time (three decades of memory) and space (India, America and Europe) to understand the rhythm and soul of music that helps induce harmony and bliss
Krishna Nath, a numerologist and tarot card interpreter, was surrounded by a group of curious listeners in downtown Chicago. She was visiting America for her workshops and individual readings. ‘We are approaching the Age of Neptune with which the next century begins, the century we have lived in belonged to Saturn,’ observed Nath. ‘Hence, the 20th century saw destruction and development; wars and peace missions. In fact, the Age of Neptune has already been set in motion by the coming together of various concerns: in the fields of environment, medicine and music. The New Age phenomenon is but a precursor of things to come in making the world a better place to live in. ‘
As I head for New York, I muse over this. It certainly sounds reassuring. And though purists will argue that New Age music is really Old Age music rechristened, and with a new packaging, the first notes can be conveniently traced to the guitars of the Beatles and the sitar of Ravi Shankar. Although the Beatles became pop icons, they defied many established norms. In doing so, they provided fresh thinking and a new direction.
The music of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez also was a revolt. The mid-sixties, especially the Vietnam War, paved the way for a new movement, a need to prevent rather then cure; a need to think rather than merely act. In the two decades since, a whole new music vocabulary appeared. The spin-off to the Ravi Shankar-George Harrison type of music led to a more serious fusion music between the classicists (Yehudi Menuhin-Ravi Shankar) and between the neoclassicist fusion musicians such as Philip Glass and L. Subramaniam.
If the sixties were a watershed in changing the course and understanding of music, the seventies ushered in a new sensitivity towards the appreciation of emerging patterns in music. This process culminated in the eclecticism which finally enveloped musicians in the eighties. New Age music cannot, however, be put in any previously existing genre. It is a genre in itself.
How? Take, for example, its structure. Although the same old instruments—from the piano to the cello—are deployed in its creation today, it is in their use that the difference comes through. I asked Gerry, Whitney Houston’s manager, who, in his opinion, qualified for the top notch in New Age music today. His answer left me thinking.
On second thoughts, I do not know why it should. For Yanni represents the quintessence of this transformation. His music has melody, it suggests classicism, it has the free will of jazz, includes parts of orchestra music and still retains a newness, a charm, an appeal, an identity. His success from Acropolis to Agra (he is planning a concert in March by the Taj Mahal) speaks for itself.
Artistes such as Yanni also represent New Age music because it can encompass all—cultures, people and places. But the most significant aspect of New Age music is the effect it has on the listener. You have been hearing it in places of worship, in the soulful rendition by the Bauls, even in yoga classes. And in that sense, New Age music is timeless.
It provides a soothing backdrop for therapy sessions and personal growth workshops, for hypnosis and guided meditation. It calms, de-stresses, gently leading you to a world of harmony and bliss. New Age—and here I am almost tempted to call it Age Old—music is used for meditation or for reaching altered states of consciousness.
To fit the bill, the music must have a uniform and soothing structure, one that helps induce a freedom of mind and spirit. Any imposition by way of loud notes or heavy orchestration may provide entertainment, but it does not help in attaining tranquility. This music is often repetitive, almost one-track, mantra-like in its composition.
‘I suffered from a severe sleep disorder, now I just play a soothing flute score and doze off,’ says Ambika Paniker, Odissi dancer. Jehangir Palkhivala, a lawyer-turned-yoga teacher, simply defines it as ‘good, relaxing music’. ‘It is ultimately mind over matter,’ notes L. Subramaniam, who uses carnatic ragas (classical music tradition of South India) without the crutches of rhythmic support (percussion of any type ) to create canvases for varying levels of consciousness.
His works such as Shanti Priya (1987) represent these traits, where a higher state of music craftsmanship can indeed lead to something extraordinary. Extraordinary it certainly is, that within two decades, New Age music, as we know it, has not only been appreciated, but has also established itself as an important medium of communication.
And while it is yet to break records in India, New Age music has come of age in the West, where it is charting its way to the top. Many professional musicians and composers were instrumental in bringing about this change. Drawn towards the New Age movement in America, they began placing their musical abilities at its service. At first, their efforts received scant attention or interest. So they set up their own recording and distribution networks and started selling their music directly to the public.
Steven Halpern is one such classic case who is, writes The New York Times, ”…as close to being a superstar as anyone in New Age music’. According to Halpern, the human body resonates to sound vibrations, and that certain frequencies affect certain parts of the body: ‘It seemed to me this music could be used as therapy. ‘
‘I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I had no choice but to dedicate my life to researching and composing music for health and healing,’ Halpern wrote in his book, Sound Health: The Music and Sounds That Make Us Whole (1985). Halpern, who has a doctorate in psychology of music, went on to create several lasting works. In his book, Tuning the Human Instrument, he describes a system of correspondence literally.
A pianist and saxophone player, his stint with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi brought him to India in 1968, when he visited the Taj Mahal, and created his first of the Inside series, recording in the central dome of the monument. He duplicated this feat with Inside the Great Pyramid, in Egypt, Inside the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, and by playing music to killer whales in Canada. As if taking a cue, the Oshoites created their own brand of meditation music when Swami Chaitanya (Georg Deuter) recorded his early albums in Pune and later in Oregon.
His first album, Aum, mixed acoustic instruments with the sounds of the sea. This was followed by Celebration, compiled by Swami Govind Das. Two anonymous releases, Nataraja and Nadabrahma, emerged from the commune in Oregon. In Auroville arose an alternative lifestyle which reflected a spirit of search in all sorts of human endeavor, Straight to Our Heartis what Nadaka and Ganesh offer under the Rain Tree Records label from Pondicherry.
This type of Indian-Western fusion is not new, but is part of New Age thinking simply because it follows and flows more from the heart than from the head. There are no compulsions of grammar, technique or classically correct arrangements. And even though instruments such as the carnatic violin (Ganesh) and the ghattam (Vikku Vinayakram) are used, the whole ambiance is almost surreal.
Mohit Satyanand, who has formed the Friends of Music circle in Delhi, doesn’t think that India is the right context for New Age music: ‘In India we live in a different conditioning of the mind. Unlike in the West, where meditation and therapy and such activity perhaps needs the inputs of the right environment, the right setting, the right music, for us these are not altogether necessary or affordable. An atmosphere may help, but that atmosphere can also be created in the mind itself. I think our classical music is perfect relaxation material. Thus we really do not have as much use for New Age stuff as is in the West.’
Besides, he asks: ‘Is New Age really new? Take the case of Jethro Tull: what came out 10 years ago is totally different to what is being attempted today. Just because an artiste progresses in his own artistic pursuits, can his work derive a new label? In India, I feel only Indian Ocean qualifies for that label; their work has integrity, they are honest without jargon or pretense.’
At the other end of the spectrum is the avant garde work of a few composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. A sort of minimalism often dominates this style. Glass first achieved recognition in 1974 for his Music in 12 Parts, followed by his operas Einstein on the Beach( 1976) and Satyagraha (1980). His music fitted with the concerns and contexts of the New Age approach, of reliving and revealing higher states of consciousness.
Pink Floyd has devoted an entire side in Meddle ( 1971) to an instrumental evocation of the ‘textures of crystalline space’. Rober L Fripp, formerly of King Crimson, joined Brian Eno to create An Evening Star (1975). Eno produced several other compositions in this mould. New Age music knows no cultural boundaries and in that it is truly representative of world music language today. In fact, in many music stores in India it is sold in the ‘world music’ section.
European artists such as the German group Tangerine Dream, and Britisher Edgar Froese and Swede Lief Strand have contributed significantly. So have the Japanese Kitaro and the African Shadowfox. Germans Kai Taschner and AI Gromer have used the sitar, Mrican drums and Urdu poetry to create Black Marble and Sweet Fire.
Enya has her own niche and with her latest, The Memory of Trees, brings in vocal notes to New Age music, as does Loreena McKennit in Celtic Twilight by Hearts of Space. The Native American music has a wide range, too, with artistes such as Carlos Nakki, Douglas Spotted Eagle and Perry Silverbird (Narada’s Between Father Sky and Mother Earth).
The Native Americans connect to the gods as represented by the elements. There is yet another section pertaining to spirituality with titles such as: The Angels of Venice, Heavenly Relationship, Angelic Meditation and I Cantori: Choir of Angels. The Billboard magazine (the music Bible of sorts) commented in 1987: ‘New Age music may be the most startlingly successful undefined music ever to hit the public consciousness.’
Wesley Van Linda, in New Age Music Comes of Age: ‘New Age music is defined more by the intention of the artist, rather than the style and range of music.’ When range, style and intention are combined, it results in a New Age music promotion company such as Narada. How this Wisconsin-based company adopted the name of the maverick Indian saint-cum-troublemaker and musician-of-sorts remains a mystery to me, but what is more mysterious and magical about it is that it represents music cultures as disparate as the Asian, the Latin American, African and the American.
Narada started in 1983 by releasing Pianoscapes by Michael Jones and Heartsounds by David Lanz. Both the musicians continue to be immensely productive and successful, having released many more titles. In 1985, Narada introduced Eric Tingstad, Nancy Rumbel and Spencer Brewer. By 1987, its Natural States had climbed the Billboard Top of the Charts. In 1989, Cristofori’s Dream by Lanz achieved a rare distinction of consecutively heading the charts for 30 weeks and selling 500,000 copies.
Today, however, Celtic music is a bestseller. The Irish landscape and its harps, cellos and strains have captured the imagination of listeners and Michael Barnes, a music lover, says: ‘It is all post-Braveheart success. The film brought Scotland and Ireland of yore and that has led to spin-offs musically. ‘
Celtic Legacy, Celtic Odyssey and Celtic Voices have a combined sale of over a million. The owner of the Gem City Records music stores across the USA, John Huffman, gave me a compilation of the tapes of Windham Hill which also ranks among the major producers of New Age music titles. For Huffman, ‘New Age music represents freedom from form. ‘
The other top names in the line, according to him: Alcazar, Ancient Future, Canyon Records, Fortuna Records, Serenity, Hearts of Space, New Earth Records and New World Productions of England. In India, the first signs of this Age have appeared in the form of music produced by classical instrumentalists such as L. Subramaniam, Hariprasad Chaurasia (with Oshoite Amareesh Leib ) or L. Shankar with Jan Garbarek and Zakir Hussain who have created musicscapes connected to either their music genres or their instruments.
Experiments such as Elements by Music Today have created a groove for this type of music, but other companies are yet to follow the lead in any conclusive manner. ‘The whole New Age music is rather syrupy here. The fact that it is being equated with spirituality is a bit of a joke,’ observes Anu Majumdar who lives in Auroville.
Dr Raghava R. Menon, music critic and author, admits that ‘audiences are slowly becoming curious about the New Age milieu,’ but adds that ‘in its absence and in the presence of such a heavy tradition of classical and popular [read film] music, India has yet to focus itself on this genre. Also, because unlike in the West, we are just entering the TV boom. This has resulted in all kinds of music cultures: pop, Indo, fusion, bhangra, rap, tap and what have you.’
Deepak Marwah of The Music Shop in Delhi includes ‘everything: fusion, jazz, alternative music’ in the New Age music label, offering me titles such as Garbage and Babylon Zoo. The label may be undefined; it may even appear new to us, regardless of the fact that we have been unconsciously listening to this kind of music for many years. But when music transcends all barriers, synthesizing with our body and mind to bring us to a feeling of well-being—well, that’s what I call New Age music.
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