Perceptions of the ‘New Age’ revised

, 3 March 2013

I genuinely enjoy ‘dolphin music’: those inexpensive, largely anonymous cassettes, which promise to synchronise your alpha waves, permanently reduce stress or miraculously make your fortune. I’m particularly drawn towards those encouraging you to relax, close your eyes and breathe deeply; their covers most likely depicting a dolphin jumping through a prism or a rainbow, bisecting a serenely smiling head. Despite their holographic naiveté and positioning on the fringes of charlatanism, I manage to listen to them entirely without prejudice. This has nothing to do with the concept of ‘guilty pleasure’, nor a cooler-than-thou defence of the kitsch and tacky. There is something more to these releases, a surprising gravity, which makes them worthy of closer inspection.

During the 1970s and 1980s, synthesizer music developed a more saccharine, decorative branch. This subgenre was the less sophisticated neighbour of minimalism and deep listening, the ambient sounds of Brian Eno (especially his works with Laraaji), and kosmische space exploration. From a little of each, together with the echoes of wallpaper music from earlier decades and postcard ‘world’ influences, a synthetically updated mood music was born; lavish exotica for the computer age. While 80s technocrats would grease their high-end audio systems with smooth jazz and glossy adult pop, their more mystically-oriented contemporaries chose the imaginary east of Kitaro, the rippling harps of Andreas Vollenweider, or Gheorghe Zamfir’s pan flutes. In the 1980s, these mild, ethereal compositions, often referring to noble incentives (e.g. world peace and the brotherhood of nations), matched designer ‘natural’ furniture, fashionably exotic food and aspirational lifestyles – yet were simultaneously criticized as modern-day Muzak -mere tasteless reverie.

“New Age is often little more than background music for tired neurons. Doctors should prescribe it with caution: Whatever you do, don’t listen to it. Music is food; New Age is a drug”, bemoaned pianist Keith Jarrett in 1994 (whose ECM label releases, ironically, are considered one of the most influential sources of what would later become New Age music). That this professionally produced, commerce-friendly soundscape steadily gained popularity can be attributed to many factors – its unobtrusiveness served a role, as did its relaxing qualities, promising an effortless, instant pause for breath, which the successful consumerist generation welcomed as their wholly-deserved reward. Stylish New Age music was primarily a lifestyle accessory which appeared at the right moment; lest we forget, the zeitgeist of the time saw the rise of eco-friendly attitudes, a Gaian, back-to-nature approach and heightened environmental consciousness affecting both mainstream and underground culture towards the turn of the millennium.

There was also a far more interesting DIY undercurrent to matters; amateurish and easy to dismiss as the height of naiveté but intriguingly full of genuine good will. Musically, the 1980s and early 90s had a strong quasi-occult resonance, and New Age synthscapes – contrary to the likes of Current93 and Coil – served its more superficial, safe, ‘white magic’ side. Its content and iconography suited the ‘Californian’ strain of modern, eclectic spirituality, evolved for the needs of grown-up hippies: crystals, chakras, hypnotherapy, Reiki, Feng Shui and dream catchers, offered by serene people with symbolic jewellery, wide smiles and very, very shiny teeth. Contrary to Kitaro or Vollenweider, whose CDs were a stylish element of interior design, these budget tapes lacked big names, and were based mainly around an anonymous ‘best relaxation music’ tag. Their main difference from sophisti-New Age resided on the level of purpose: while the pleasure of the ‘new quiet music’ was its mild, inoffensive mood, designed to accompany meals, the rustling of Filofaxes and afternoon coffee, the role of ‘dolphin tapes’ was strictly functional. Relax, close your eyes, and breathe deeply: they actively offered the listener their desired outcome, whether inner peace, a brain-boost, love, luck or heightened self-esteem.

This type of music, distributed via esoteric shops and mail order rather than regular music stores, had its small moment of revival circa 2010-2011, as the secondary echo of two interlaced movements: fashionable interest in all things occult (raised by ‘witch house’), and mellow nostalgia for the idealized, perma-sunny 1980s, served by chillwave. The ‘New New Age’ fitted somewhere in-between, satisfying the need for mystery (albeit in sanitized form) and for a rainbow-coloured memory lane. The rehabilitation of relaxation music may be read as the last gasp of cliché recycling and its unfashionable stylings – especially given its use of blatantly mawkish, childlike tropes (there’s even a record called Dolphin Music for the Inner Child), made the genre an obvious target for trendy irony. Thankfully, things didn’t turn out to be that simple. Self-help tapes were either thoughtfully used as an element of clever social and cultural critique (the path chosen by James Ferraro and Transmuteo), or in other cases – treated with defiant earnestness. Belgian composer Dolphins Into The Future (aka Lieven Martens) admits to being fascinated by the work of cetacean researcher Joan Ocean and when asked, in an interview with Tiny Mix Tapes, about a potential streak of irony in his music, he replied in a disarming manner: “I’m afraid that element is not present in my work. I deal with a complete adoration of beauty in natural environments, and with the romance of these metaphorical power spots, these islands of insight”. Simon Reynolds, who devotes a few pages to the ‘New New Age’ phenomenon in ‘Retromania’, suggests that there is an element of risk-taking in reviving what he calls “unfashionable Hallmark mysticism”. It’s a sense of pushing the limits of obscurity, yet, in the case of Dolphins Into The Future, he revises his standpoint on his blog. “Perhaps Martens is trying to locate the buried utopianism in New Age, reactivate its psychedelic potentials? In which case, the title of this lovely album–The Music of Belief–lays it on the line. It’s a dare to the listener: suspend your cynicism’.

In fact, ‘dolphin music’ never actually disappeared. It had its loyal followers, surprisingly far from stereotypical aging hippies. A short excursion into the world of file-sharing suggests that the audience of these tapes is entirely average; those who collect relaxation records alongside mainstream pop music and films, adorn their computer desktops with cats and kissing lovers and, last but not least, buy self-help books. A friend of mine, a professional fortune teller, once told me that it’s not ‘hippies’ but rather corporate employees that make up the majority of her clientele. It’s hardly a revelatory outcome; according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in 2009, 25 per cent of Americans believe in astrology, while 26 per cent admit they’re certain of the spiritual powers residing in trees.

‘Dolphin tapes’ respond to this layer of hidden vulnerability. There is a leap of faith in this music, which makes me keen to defend even its most kitsch manifestations. New Age music and the purposes it serves reveals yet another aspect of the rich tapestry of contemporary mythology, stubbornly prevalent in the technocene era. Despite being a skeptic myself, I welcome it not only as another field of ethnographic research, but also as an admirably sober antidote to the modes of irony or cynical ‘new rationalism’.

Obviously, the New Age industry itself is as profit-oriented as any other enterprise of the late capitalist era, and it succeeds on that level, often bordering on the edge of exploitation. But still, there is virtue in deliberate suspense of the prosaic, in declining to accept mundane solutions (“screw you Mr. Dawkins, you’re probably right, but I choose not to care!”). This choice is, in itself, ultimately human, and more worthwhile than the sardonic sneer. It’s the decision to buy a cassette in order to actually deal with a problem, even at the risk of running up a dodgy alley, as opposed to merely scoffing “deal with it!”. The existence of the industry, however mercenary it may be, exposes the needs and shortcomings that our culture doesn’t sufficiently meet. No self-help book or fantasy reverie will provide as much as the words of the greatest psychologist ever known, Dostoevsky – but the existence of tools such as ‘dolphin tapes’ are a peculiar reminder that, beyond their awkward aesthetics, they are chosen in response to very real needs.**