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Unheard Genres: New-age music

Kitaro has been lauded for being a prominent exponent of the genre (image via Getty)
Kitaro has been lauded for being a prominent exponent of the genre (image via Getty)
Aditya Mandhane

This week, we take a look at new-age music, as part of SK POP's 'Unheard Genres' series.

While 'new-age' sounds like an off-kilter term describing a modern or postmodern take on the subject of the conversation, it is peculiarly a musical genre, and a niche one at that.

There is no exact definition of this genre of music. A Billboard article in 1987 stated:

"New Age music may be the most startling successful non-defined music ever to hit the public consciousness."

And it is true; this genre of music is all around us due to the ambient nature it possesses, while rarely being recognized by its true identity.

The purpose of this genre is to incite artistic inspiration, relaxation, and optimism. It is used to enhance the experience of yoga, massage, meditation and reading, and provide ecstacy rather than a trance.

The genre borrows from a variety of musical and cultural movements, and poses an interesting listening challenge.


New-age music: Hallmarks, origins, milestones, and gateways

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Hallmarks

What sets new-age music apart is that it eschews the traditional chorus and stanza structure of a musical piece in favor of exploratory, lingering, prolonged lengths.

This genre uses both acoustic and electronic forms, relying on non-Western folksy instruments to lend it a mystical touch. Synthesizers and natural sounds are also used in a sustained, steady fashion.

Although they were initially rare, sparse vocals, especially Native American-, Sanskrit-, or Tibetan-influenced chants, or lyrics based on mythology are another hallmark of the genre.

There is an atmospheric quality to this genre's soundscapes. Ecological awareness and philosophy also find ample emphasis in this genre.


Origins

New-age music took definitive form when professional musicians entered the eclectic new-age spiritual movement, which in itself conformed to the zeitgeist of universal divinity,

In the mid-1960s, George Harrison found himself drawn to Hindu philosophy and Indian instrumentation, especially the sitar. His use of the string instrument in a number of immortal Beatles tunes, together with the band's highly publicized study of Transcendental Meditation in India, kick-started what would become the New Age movement.

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Although it was never sold nationally till the '80s, Tony Scott's Music for Zen Meditation (1964) is considered to be the first new-age recording. As the counterculture and spirituality began to spread across the West, record studios finally began to get involved.


Milestones

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Windham Hill Records must get due credit for getting New Age albums onto record store shelves. Founded in 1976, the label fortified artists such as pianist George Winston, pianist Yanni, and world music crossover artists Shadowfax.

Paul Winter's Missa Gaia/Earth Mass (1982) is touted as a masterpiece of New Age ecological consciousness. It was an environmental liturgy sanctifying elements of nature such as land, sky and sea. It even used natural sounds as melody.

Flutist Dean Evenson combined serene music with the sounds of nature to facilitate atmospheric, subconscious listening. This kind of music proved perfect for massage and yoga.


Gateways

What music pieces would give a listener the best idea of new-age music? The challenge is a tough one, as this genre is rarely given a listen for its own sake, and overlaps with a multitude of genres.

Nonetheless, here are a few classic examples of new-age music to give one a taste of the genre.

Mike Oldfield's seminal album Tubular Bells (1973) is a perfect blend of new-age philosophies and progressive rock.

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Although he scoffed at the term, pianist George Winston was one of the most successful new-age pianists of the 1980s. His soothing all-piano album December, which was a tribute to the winter season, was certified triple-platinum.

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Japanese multi-instrumentalist Kitarō pursued the electronic side of new-age music to massive impact. He melded contemplative synthesizer loops with Eastern instrumentation to create a truly global vein of music. Kitarō holds the record for most Grammy nominations in the Best New-Age Album category, with 16 nods.

Kitarō's five-part Sacred Journey of Ku-Kai series, inspired by the classic Buddhist pilgrimage across 88 temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku, is one of the most recognizable bodies of new-age music.

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While individual tracks in this genre rarely ever find recognition, Enya's Only Time has broken into the mainstream due to the distinct, ethereal quality the singer possesses.

The German band Enigma created an otherworldly worldbeat interpretation of this genre, and sold 12 million units of their song Sadeness Pt. 1.

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Greek composer Vangelis has composed the background to some immortal films, most notably Blade Runner (1982). His symphonic arrangement of electronica has revolutionized music across genre boundaries.

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New-age music is a genre destined to forever be shrouded in a partial veil of mystery due to it being so all-encompassing. In fact, Paul Winter, who holds the record for most wins in the genre's Grammy category, chooses to instead describe his style as 'earth music.'

Nevertheless, as ambient and lo-fi music makes a modern renaissance with the rise of streaming services, this style of music is finding a prominent place as a trusty accompaniment to daily existence.



Edited by Sijo Samuel Paul

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