May 28, 2015

Stephen Hill on 'New Age' music

I pay $5 a month for the Hearts of Space ( streaming service. Noise-cancelling headphones and HOS preserve my sanity at the office.

I have trouble explaining to people what kind of music they play. I like to call it what they call it, "Space Music." People of our generation, when I describe it, will say, "Oh, you mean New Age music?"

This morning, the randomly-selected episode I listened to had this intro:

PGM 834 "Season of Hope"
FIRST BROADCAST : 28-Mar-2008 
INTRO : Way back in 1986, the Recording Academy in its wisdom decided to give an official name and a Grammy award to a popular new sound in instrumental music. Unfortunately, they chose the name "New Age" music. 22 years later it sounds...insane. What were they thinking? What kind of music could possibly live up to an expectation like that?  
 As a marketing category, things got off to a bad start. Musical categories are never 100 percent precise, but this was anarchy. Every kind of instrumental music that wasn't obviously jazz, folk or classical was dumped into the New Age bins. The home studio revolution was in full swing, so just about any artist that released an instrumental album wound up there.  
When cross-cultural saxophonist YUSEF LATEEF won the first New Age Grammy in 1987, he had to call his producer and ask "What is this 'new age' and why are they calling my album that?".  
With no filters and no standards, the genre soon had a reputation for inconsistent quality and boring music. After a few years the trend peaked, and both artists and listeners moved on. Some of the electronic music formerly known as New Age came to be called Ambient; the New Age handle had become a marketing taboo.  
In 25 years of Hearts of Space, we've rarely mentioned the term, while trying to bring you the best examples of electronic space, ambient and contemplative music — all of which were once called New Age. See, that's the thing: you could hate the name and still find excellent music there. Well, if Barack Obama can talk about political taboos like race and hope in his presidential campaign, we can certainly take a moment to reflect on what's good about new age music, while not denying any of its faults.  
The core quality of the new age genre is music that's gentle, peaceful and harmonious. While most music is designed to stimulate, the word "relaxing" is joined to it at the hip. The best of it is "psycho-acoustic" : psychologically and emotionally stimulating, even when it's physically relaxing. Most of us can use a little of that. As we say....slow music for fast times.  
As a form of sonic landscape, new age music aims to create images of heaven on earth — just as gardens did for centuries in the Middle East and Asia. The best new age artists are skilled sound designers and producers, who create very sophisticated sonic environments. On this edition of Hearts of Space, a new age taste of spring.


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