Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Genesis of New Age Music (Part Five) - My New Age Albums

The Genesis of New Age Music - Part Five

By Don Robertson

"We love your gorgeous music"
-- Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Headwaters,Virginia

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.

     In this seven-part series called "The Genesis of New Age Music" I have been describing how the new age music genre began and evolved in California beginning in the 1960s. I was a part of this evolution. In Part Four, I presented the groundbreaking electronic music from Europe of the 1970s. In this Part Five, I describe three of my own albums, and my work with the ground-breaking digital musical instrument, the Synclavier.


   While I was recording my album Resurrection, I was absorbed in composing a symphonic work that I wanted to create with synthesizers... what I would eventually call a digital symphony. I didn't have the kind of synthesizers that would accomplish the task of creating a vast orchestral work, and this caused me to pour though trade magazines and to talk with fellow synthesizer musicians about various options that might be available.
     Anthem was my dream of breathing into life the orchestral music that I had been hearing internally throughout my entire life. Before I had discovered synthesizers as a means to the end of realizing my classical music, there seemed to be no hope for me to get my positive, concordant music played by orchestras in the midst of the the turbulence of discords that conductors expected from a 'modern' musical composition.
     Undaunted, I went to work composing Anthem on music paper. I wanted it to become my second cassette album.

     I felt that Anthem was a very special work. As had been the case for my first electronic album Resurrection, I didn't need to compose it; the music just appeared in my mind, and then I quickly wrote down what I was hearing. 
     I was now going to create a new age symphony! As the music evolved, I was amazed by it, and I wanted to create a recording that would match the great value of the music. However, I wondered if there would ever be any way that I could get this music into the growing new age genre. My first electronic album was not selling well, and this one, a deep symphonic and spiritual work... well it wasn't like the tinkly relaxation tapes that were now coming into market. This was my own very unique music. It was as if it had been waiting inside me to come out.
     Once unleashed, music, as it always has done, just pours forth from me. I hear it in my head and I write what I am hearing on paper as quickly as I can. All of Anthem, except for the first and third movements, had been composed in early 1982.

     There are a couple of interesting stories concerning my composition of Anthem. One story is about the climax of the work, near the end of the last movement, where in my head I could hear a theme playing in the higher register of the orchestra, while at the same time the same theme was playing upside-down in the bass register. The exact notes that I would need to create this combination of the two versions of the theme would pop into my head every few days or so and I would rush to the piano to write them down before I lost the image. But too quickly it faded from my mind and I wasn't able to get the correct notes. This happened four or five times until finally one day, while I was raking leaves in my backyard, I heard it again. I rushed inside, and this time I got it right.
     The other story is about a time when I was preparing to write an important section of the music. I wanted to have the right environment to hear it and write it down. I had been making frequent trips to Mount Shasta in Northern California, a very spiritual place, and decided to pack my tent, sleeping bag, some provisions, and a tiny battery-powered Casio keyboard instrument that my friend fellow synthesizer musician Don Slepian had re-engineered electronically to make it produce a better sound. I took all of this up to Mount Shasta where I hiked to the far side of the mountain, and there I set up a tent in Alpine Meadows.
    In this magic place I planned to write the music as came to me. However, after a few hours of hearing nothing at all, except for the beautiful silence around me, I realized it wasn't happening. After a peaceful remainder of the day, I headed home... frustrated. When I arrived back at my house, I sat down at the piano, and immediately it all came to me. Seated at my piano, I wrote out about fifteen pages in as many minutes. 
This is how Anthem was composed. 
     In the original liner notes, I explained how I simply heard the music and wrote it down, or I heard it, and then played it as I was hearing it. I never "think up" my music. When this music "came through," I knew that I was surrounded by angelic beings. I couldn't see them, but I could always feel their very, very strong presence. I'm not making this up. They were there, and they were strong. Sometimes those who were closest to me experienced the angelic presence when they were with me while I played, but other than that, my hearing celestial music and feeling angels was considered to be pretty crazy by some members of my family.
      I was still looking for instruments. I bought a Mellotron, a keyboard instrument that makes sounds by playing a strip of tape when a key was pressed. The Moody Blues had used a Mellotron to get their symphonic sounds. I also purchased a Roland Vokorder Plus with which I could create a choir-like sound. With these two instruments, I would be able to achieve added orchestral and choral sounds.
My Mellotron. I sold it to Frank Stickel in the 1990s and he beautifully restored it

The Synclavier II
    One day, I read about an instrument that I hoped would enable me to get the kind of sounds that I needed for Anthem. It was called the Synclavier II. 
The keyboard of my Synclavier II computer musical instrument

    The Synclavier was a digital music computer that had been developed at Dartmouth College. Early 1980, a more advanced version called the Synclavier II was created and was being sold by a company called New England Digital, located in White River Junction, Vermont. I read that an arranger named Denny Jaeger, who lived in Oakland, California, had been working with Sydney Alonso, the brainy engineer who had co-founded New England Digital. Denny was helping perfect the sound of the instrument. Syd and Denny's goal was to turn a college project into a commercial machine that would revolutionize the way music was created. 
     I telephoned New England Digital and was given the contact information for Denny. My goal was to obtain an instrument with which I could create fully orchestrated music, and there was nothing else quite like the Synclavier at the time. I had absolutely no hope that Anthem would ever be performed by a real orchestra. It was the same situation then as it has continued to be for me to this present day: the world of modern classical music was in the hands of intellectuals churning out propaganda for discordant music, and uninspired composers who just followed their baton like sheep.
     I visited Denny several times and was astounded by the Synclavier. It consisted of a keyboard that was connected by a thick cable to a metal cabinet containing a computer backplane and cards... in other words, it was connected to a computer. There was extensive development going on at New England Digital, and Denny explained to me what would be coming soon - sampling and MIDI options. Oh, and by the way, the Synclavier II came with its own language that I would be able to program the computer with. 
     My day job at that time was programming computers. I specialized in machine-language assembler code and LAN and WAN networking and created advanced systems for major US corporations. If I purchased the Synclavier II, it would include a systems-level programming language that I could use to design my own computer music programs. Not only would I gain an orchestra, but also a musical computer, something that I had envisioned even as far back as 1968. 
     And so I bought a Synclavier II, one of the first that had been sold. When it was delivered to my home, I set it up in my studio and immediately began learning how to use it.
     Denny took his own Synclavier II down to Los Angeles and began scoring music for films and TV. He urged me to move there because the movie and TV industry was crying out for scores created with the instrument, and he was the only one down there so far that had one. I knew that this would be a ground-floor opportunity, but I would not give in to being a slave to the kind of music that I would be forced to create to make a living - negative music and music to help sell unhealthy products.
     I decided that the first album that I would create with my new instrument would be an album for Stephen Hill and Anna Turner to play on their "Music from the Hearts of Space" radio program, and so I went to work on Starmusic. As far as I know, it was the second digitally created "new age" album anyone had made. The first was my friend Don Slepian's Sea of Bliss.
     The Starmusic cassette had two sides. Side One contained a single composition called "Horizons Beyond Infinity." Actually, this piece had three sections that were linked together into a single unified composition. The first section was "Horizons," the second "Beyond" and the third "Infinity." I liked this single name that included three names. Side Two had three cuts, the first two were tied together. I added another composition to the album in about 1999, but as of the time of this writing, I haven't re-released the album. Yes, I intend to do that. 
     "Automated mixing" was not available in back then, and I knew that I would not be able to properly mix Starmusic with my lack of experience and no high-end mixing equipment. My friend Stephen Hill from the "Music from the Hearts of Space" radio program offered to mix it for me. I took my eight-track machine to a studio and Steven mixed "Horizons Beyond Infinity," doing a masterful job. My friend Bernard Xolotl offered to mix the remaining music, and this was accomplished in his studio.
     Stephen Hill and Anna Turner started playing my album on their "Music from the Hearts of Space" radio show on a regular basis. Starmusic also received a lot of airplay on other new age music shows, on NPR, and on programs in Europe and in Australia. It was featured in planetarium shows, and it was even used as music for a ballet that I was invited to in San Jose.

The B.A.C.H System
This is me in my Santa Rosa bedroom studio programming the Synclavier II with my teletype-style computer terminal. My ex-wife and I slept on a futon behind the Synclavier keyboard. That's Aeoliah's "Rainbow Ray" painting on the wall.
     I was fascinated with being able to combine my computer-programming skills with my music, and I went to work creating my own music system for the Synclavier II. The operating system for the machine was excellent. It had a great task-swapping algorithm and excellent system subroutines.
     After a few months of programming, I created the Binary Asynchronous Composition Handler, B.A.C.H for short. When I booted the machine with my software in the diskette reader, I programmed the LED lights on the face of the instrument above the keyboard to flash the word "BACH" in big letters several times when my software had completed the task of being loaded. That was impressive.
      What my system gave me was the ability to play special tunings and maintain those tunings in different keys. The bottom octave of the keyboard was where you chose the key of the scale that you wanted to play, and buttons on the face of the instrument selected which tuning to play in: mean tone, Pythagorean, and so on. I would improvise in say, "C", in mean tone tuning, then pressing the "F" Key in the lower octave of the keyboard, the tuning would change so that it was now based in the key of "F".
     This was a revolutionary concept, and I don't know if anyone else ever followed through with this after I invented it. I had completed a patent application and was going to submit it, but I never got around to it.
     I demonstrated my software for Denny Jaeger. Within weeks, the New England Digital Company flew me to Vermont and offered me a job creating software for the Synclavier II. I didn't want to move to the East Coast and their lawyers couldn't let their software leave the building for me to work on at home, and so that prospect did not materialize. However, I developed a relationship with the founder, Syd Alonso. He was a brilliant man who inspired in me a tremendous interest in the application of advanced mathematics as it applies to music and sound.

The Synclavier II Goes "High End"
     One day I went to Oakland to see Denny. He had hired some musicians and in his studio had made recordings of them playing notes. Denny had loaded these sound samples into his Synclavier II that was now equipped with New England Digital's new sampling-option hardware. When I pressed the keys on his Synclavier and listened to genuine sounds of orchestral instruments coming from Denny's studio speakers, I heard for the first time what this instrument would be capable of. It was a miracle! However, when the additional hardware that would support Denny's samples was released for sale, it was so expensive that I could not afford it.
     Next the company announced that a new interface for MIDI was going to be released, allowing the instrument to control other electronic instruments, enabling them to all play in an ensemble. My friend Chet Wood along with Dave Smith, the father of the Prophet Five synthesizer, were the inventors of MIDI, and I had sat on the dais at the first-ever midi conference in San Francisco, and so, I was ready for New England Digital to release its MIDI hardware for the Synclavier II. I had all plans for how I would interconnect instruments in a network using my own BACH software as a master controller. However, when the MIDI cards for the Synclavier II were released, they were way too expensive. I was shocked with the sticker price. I think the MIDI option was $8,000, if I remember correctly, for just a single card to slide into the computer. 
     In about 1882, I travelled down to Los Angeles to attend the the NAMM show where the latest in musical instruments were displayed and demonstrated. The Synclavier II was being featured in that summer's show. Syd was excited as usual, talking rapid fire about DFT transform algorithms and such (I learned so much from him!). Oscar Peterson was demonstrating the instrument and the stars were lining up with their checkbooks, snapping up their fully loaded Synclaviers with all the works for somewhere around $250,000 each! Frank Zappa, Pat Metheny, Michael Jackson, Laurie Anderson, Sting, the Cars, Herbie Hancock were among those who could afford such luxury.
     At this point I know I was out of the game. I would have to complete Anthem by some other means other than a quarter-million-dollar dream machine.

     The Spring album was all about my weekend trips to Mount Shasta in Northern California during the spring and summer of 1983. I spent many weekends on this mountain... a magic place. The energy there inspired my Spring album.
      Mount Shasta was a five-hour drive from my home in Santa Rosa. I went once with family and a few times with Mary Ellen Bickford and my cousin Ashe. Otherwise I was alone. After parking my car, I would hike up to the peak above timberline, then over onto the other side of the mountain to a magic place called Alpine Meadow, where I would sit for hours absorbing the amazing energy.
Alpine Meadow on Mount Shasta 1983, by Don Robertson

I created a music video for my song "Dance" from the Spring album in 2010. I had filmed the footage for the video in Amsterdam during the preceding summer. 

"Le Jardin Enchanté" from the Album Spring

Spring was one of the cassettes featured in this display in stores in Austrailia

The Spring Album by Don Robertson

A Word About My Musical Motifs
    There are melodic motives in Anthem that I re-employ in other albums and compositions. My use of reoccurring thematic material throughout my musical oeuvre gives all of my works a special unity. This is a trait that is possibly unique to my music.
     For example, the repeating ostinato bass at the end of "Horizons Beyond Infinity" from the Starmusic album can also be found in various places scattered throughout my works, in different registers. I wove it into so many places in my music that it became my logo many years ago:
    These and other motives appear in all of my albums, sometimes modified, and in my ballet Kopavi as well.

Next in the series "Genesis of New Age Music" is Part Six "Time to Leave a Crazy Scene"

© 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.