Monday, March 7, 2016

The Genesis of New Age Music (Part Two) - California Composers Part 1

The Genesis of New Age Music - Part Two

By Don Robertson

In this eight-part series, I provide the true story of the birth and development of the new age music genre. This series will reveal how we, the new age composers and musicians, began placing the first new-age recordings into distribution, how writers and critics transmogrified what we were doing into some kind of "new-age movement," and finally, when we were beginning to have international influence, how the music and radio industries hijacked the name "new age music," and in order to make money, created a false new age music genre, forcing me and some of my colleges to leave the genre altogether, never looking back.

Stephen Halpern           
     At the point that I had reached in 1979, which I described in Part 1 of this series, I began to wonder if any contemporary positive music was being composed or recorded. For several years I had heard about a recording artist named Stephen Halpern who had created some albums of meditation music, and I decided to find out more about him. I discovered that he held seminars, and so I attended one of them.
     Stephen Halpern’s seminar was at Sonoma State University, close to my home in California, and after listening to Halpern talk and play some of his music, I was happy to find someone else who was interested in positive music. At the end of the seminar, I invited him to dinner at my home. During dinner we talked about music and discussed issues such as the use of a drone instrument like the tamboura that was used in the classical music of India instead of the chordal harmony of our own tradition. 
     As Halpern about to leave, I asked him about his album Spectrum Suite. The liner notes claimed that the seven tracks on the album could be used in meditation to tune the seven chakras of the human body that are described in the Hindu teachings. These are metaphysical centers in our energy systems (they are real, by the way). In his liner notes, Halpern claimed that each chakra was associated with a particular musical key, and when music was played using that key, it affected that particular chakra. 
     I felt that this could perhaps be a revolutionary concept and I wanted to know from where he had obtained his information. He didn’t answer me right away, but I continued to press him because I thought that maybe he had found some mystical goldmine, a link between human spirituality and music. Finally on his way out the door, he laughed and told me that it was just a gimmick that he was using to sell records. Needless to say, I was not impressed, and our relationship ended there. 

Spectrum Suite album by Steven Halpern, with Iasos

    Music From the Hearts of Space
     I got one thing from Steven Halpern's seminar that was absolutely important to me: the name of a radio program. I had not listened to the radio for ten years and did not own one. I had discontinued listening to radio back in 1970 when I had realized that the music of the "Top 40," as rock radio was called, was beginning to feature music by negative rock groups such as Black Sabbath, and I knew that there would be a continued downward plunge, and I was correct. 
     And so I bought a radio and begin listening to a show called "Music from the Hearts of Space." I learned that this Bay area late-night radio program had been on the air since 1973 and its host was a guy named Stephen Hill who used the pseudonym “Timetheo.” The following year, “Annamystic” -- who was really a young lady named Anna Turner – had joined him as co-host.
     Ten years later, the show will become a sensation on National Public Radio, growing in its outreach to nearly 300 stations, but at this time, Steve and Anna’s three-hour-long show was broadcast at 11pm every Thursday night on the far-left Pacifica radio station KFPA out of Berkeley. The music that they played could today be described as new age music, but they never used that term and called it “space music” instead, as Stephen's interest was in large ambient halls and reverberation.
     Individual shows typically consisted of long, slow ambient pieces of music that Stephen artfully blended one into another using nature sounds such as crickets and ocean waves to tie the end of one recording into the beginning of another. You heard from neither Anna nor Stephen for at least an hour into the show when they would finally emerge, speaking very quietly and very slowly using a highly reverberated ambiance, sometimes with ocean waves or soft summer winds playing gently in the background. Large amounts of Lexicon reverb gave their voices a great other-worldly effect. It was great. "Music from the Hearts of Space" introduced me to a wealth of music that not many people in the United States had heard before.

My dear friend Anna Turner passed away in 1996. There is a show in the Music from the Hearts of Space Internet Archives (here) dedicated to her passing that includes music from my album StarMusic. I really miss her.

Music from the Hearts of Space compilation (1973-1983)

Things That Go Smoothly in the Night
     Here is a sampling of some of the early works one would hear in the early days of Hearts of Space, with Timetheo and Annamystic deep into a Thursday night on KPFA, Berkeley.
Golden Voyage by Bearns and Dexter

"Lay Down Your Burden" from the Common Ground album by the Paul Winter Consort with Susan Osborn
live version:
"Lay Down Your Burden" Live by the Paul Winter Consort - Susan Osborn vocal

Ancient Leaves, by Michael Sterns

Awakening from "Sea of Bliss," by Don Slepian

Angels of Comfort, by Iasos 

Visionary Art
     Meanwhile, I continued to listen to the Hearts of Space show. Actually, because it started at 11 at night, I taped it and listened to it during the following few days. 
     On one of his shows, Stephen Hill announced that there would be an event at the old movie theater that was in nearby Petaluma. Recordings of space music (as he called it) would be played while transformative images were projected on the movie theater's screen.
     I was very interested in this because I had been thinking about ways of combining music with visual imagery for several years. At first I had ideas about playing Renaissance sacred music in a hall and having real people dressed in costumes enact various scenes, but that had changed to newer ideas about how recordings of Renaissance sacred music could be played in a theater while 35mm slide images of Renaissance sacred paintings were projected on the screen, combining the sacred music with the sacred art.
    I went to this event. The music that was presented was by local electronic composer Iasos, whose music I liked very much. The images mostly were of paintings by "visionary artists" and I had never seen anything like these before. 
"Moon Temple" by Gilbert Williams

The Ecliptic of Omicron by Brian McGovern

    I loved these images and wanted to know more about them and the artists, as I could use images like these for a slide show that I was planning to produce that paired positive images with positive music, and negative images with negative music. I had already started shooting photos of refineries and pollution and other negative things as well as photos of nature that were positive, but these visionary art photos would be ideal for me.
    To find out more, I approached the guy who had been operating the projector and asked him where he got the slide images that he had been projecting. It turned out that I was talking to Stephen Hill himself. And that's how I met him. He told me where I could find the slides of this art, and I ended up looking through hundreds of slides, and ordering copies. One particular artist that I liked was called "Govinda." I wanted to use one of his paintings for my album Celestial Ascent that I was working on, and so I contacted him. 
     Visiting Govinda's home was an experience, and so was Govinda. His name wasn't really Govinda. I know Govinda's real name, but I won't reveal it here.
     He was very effeminate and very talkative and "up." He had gained a great deal of spiritual attainment, but he also had a strong self will. His paintings were spread throughout his home and the effect of all of them in one place was pretty stimulating. He excitedly told me that he was going to change his name to "Aeoliah."
Angel of Illumination, by Aeoliah
Cloud Angel by Aeoliah

    Also, the man who gave me the slides and the information about Govinda (soon to be Aeoliah) told me about a man named Norman B. Miller who had once operated light shows and was now creating shows with slide projectors using visionary art along with music. I knew that I needed to meet him, and so I did.
     Mary Ellen Bickford had just moved to Sonoma county down the road from Norman and she was working with him, putting together slide shows featuring nature and visionary art. That's how I met Mary Ellen, my current wife and partner.
     The work that they were doing is an important part of the story and I won't try to retell it here. Mary Ellen put the story of their "Rainbow Light Show" on our DoveSong Website and it can be found at "The Story of the Rainbow Light Show"

Still a Nameless Genre
        At this time, there still was no one "new age" genre of music. There was music that various musicians had created for meditation, relaxing, and healing, and there was the great electronic music from Europe that I was beginning to hear for the first time on the Hearts of Space show and that I will describe in Part 4 of this series. Additionally, no music was associated with a “new age movement” as it is today.

     The concept of a new age movement did not occur until the book 
"The Aquarian Conspiracy" by Marilyn Ferguson was published in 1980. Before this time, the term "new age" was one that came from astrology and it referred to an astrological principal describing the Earth as  gradually moving from the sign of Pisces into the sign of Aquarius. 

     At this time, some metaphysical bookstores began calling themselves "new age bookstores." 
     It had been no problem at all for me to associate my music with the idea of an astrological "great year" and the concept that society was slowly moving toward something better than the wars, politics, poverty and prejudice that I saw happening around me at that time. But the Aquarian Conspiracy book, widely read and much talked about in society in general, was about something other than this. The life styles that had been born in the sixties were now, at the beginning of the eighties, being neatly tied up into a package with a nice bow on it and being transformed into some kind of one-for-all religion with its own prescriptions for spiritual advancement, its own philosophy, and most importantly in my case, its own music.
    No movement like this had existed before. We had seen ourselves as free people, not a part of a movement. I didn't like this new age movement at all.
     Soon all kinds of people on the West coast were changing their names to some Hindu name and the "new age bookstores" began lining their shelves with new "wisdom" written by some of these people, while the old metaphysical books quietly slipped away.

New Age Music in the Book Stores 
     The California harpist Joel Andrews, who in 1971 had begun "translating spontaneously the music he was hearing in higher dimensions," performed concerts of soothing and healing music. A man by the name of Ethan Edgecombe worked Andrew’s record table at concerts, selling his tapes and records. In 1980 Ethan went solo and started the first new age distribution business that he called Fortuna. Ethan lived not to far from me in Novato, and we became friends. He encouraged me to start my own record label and record some music, and he would distribute it.
     I recorded the cassette Celestial Ascent in my Santa Rosa, California bedroom and gave it to Ethan to distribute. I made an agreement with Aeoliah to use one of his paintings on the cover.
Celestial Ascent by Don Robertson was remastered and released in Italy on vinyl on the Black Sweat label here

      Ethan had less than a dozen cassette tapes of healing music (and that is what he was calling it at the time) that he would take over to the metaphysical book stores in the bay area where they would be displayed on a table in the store, along with LP record albums by Halpern, Joel Andrews, and an album called Seapeace by another harpist named Georgia Kelly.
     I was happy about this because there had not been any outlet for my music before.

Celestial Ascent, by Don Robertson

In Part 3 of this series on the Genesis of New Age Music  I will cover the second half of "The California Composers"

© 2005, 2016 by Don Robertson - Originally published in 2005 as a part of "Music Through the Centuries” by Don Robertson on This material was revised and expanded in 2016.

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