Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Genesis of New Age Music (Part Six) - Time to Leave a Crazy Scene

The Genesis of New Age Music - Part Six

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.

      In this article, Part Six of my series on the genesis of new age music, I continue my discussion of the events that took place as this new genre unfolded. It is now the beginning of the year 1984...

   Enter Windham Hill, Stage Right 
     New-age-music distributor Ethan Edgecomb had expanded his catalogue by including the music of a guitarist friend of his who had started a label called Windham Hill. His name was Will Ackerman. Will wanted nothing to do with the so-called new age music genre, as I recall. His vision was a label that encompassed folk, classical, and jazz. But Edgecombe got Windham Hill records (their first albums were acoustic guitar instrumentals) into his bookstores, placing them alongside all of our albums and cassettes, and soon Windham Hill became as "new age" as Iasos and Halpern, despite the fact that the music had nothing to do with healing and meditation.
      Thus, the new age genre slowly became filled with music by people who had no idea what the actual new age musicians were doing, or what our goal was. 
     Next, in the cut-out bin of San Francisco's Tower Records Store, Ethan discovered an album by an artist that was unknown in America: the Japanese electronic musician Kitaro. Ethan gave this record to Stephen Hill to play on the "Music from the Hearts of Space" radio program, and then he began distributing the music of that artist, importing cassettes and LPs from Japan. Soon Kitaro himself came from Japan just to meet Ethan, and eventually Kitaro moved to Boulder, Colorado.
     Ethan also put George Winston on the map by taking Winston's first Windham Hill album to the popular San Rafael radio station KTIM, and the DJs there put cuts from the album into heavy rotation. 
     The Last Hurrah
    The last new age event that I attended was a big bash that someone threw for the "Hearts of Space" radio program in 1984. It took place in a big San Francisco upscale home. All of the movers and shakers from the new-age-music scene were in attendance. This was the first time that I had ever seen all of these people together in the same room, where I could experience in full, the new-age-music mass mind.
    It was circus. People were showing up dressed in their new age regalia, the shear purple-laced dresses and tie-dyed day-glo fashions bedecked with crystals. Some had sprinkled glitter all over themselves.
    My French friends Bernard Xolotl and Ariel Kalma were there. We looked at each other in astonishment. This was an indescribable scene of self-obsessed trendiness that was beyond our belief, and it was as phony as the establishment cocktail parties I had to attend in my youth, where everyone dressed up in evening dresses and suits!
    As the reefers were passed around, the marijuana fumes rose overhead and Bernard decided to blow them all away. He got into his car and dashed out to a liquor store where he bought a pint of Kentucky bourbon. When he returned, he and I started passing the pint back and forth.
     The reaction to this was classic. A buzz began to stir amongst the glitterati, and then this turned into laughter and astonishment as people moved toward us with wide-eyed disbelief. Bernard and I were pretty well-known artists whose music was featured on the "Hearts of Space" program. We were so-called "new agers" and yet, here we were committing the outrage of outrages... drinking hard liquor! 
     A cubby long-haired guy who had a Disney "Goofy" button pinned to his shirt - it had a string attached to it that he pulled to light up Goofy's eyes - came up close to snap photos. In fact, several people had their cameras out. Here before all the astonished faces was a new-age news event extraodinaire!

Move While the Movin's Good
     This cult mentality was highly disturbing to me. I didn't like what I was seeing more and more of each day: people wearing glitter and talking about how they were reincarnated from Atlantis, as if they were participating in some kind of game. They carried big crystals with which they "channeled the masters." I would just shake my head and laugh. Why would true spiritual masters waste their time with these people? 
    Newsletters printed with purple ink sprang up from new age enclaves, and these were peppered with so-called channeled messages written by people with Hindu names like Ramadama and Shivanangi, who were probably just spoiled Jewish kids from wealthy neighborhoods. "Messages from Saint Germain," said the headlines on these pages. Then when you read this stuff, it was drivel. In fact it was recycled drivel, all the same "You are the light workers. Carry on the great work. I am with you..." kind-of stuff. You would think that if higher beings were giving people information, it would be something useful.
      The clincher was when some guy came to town who claimed to be God. He was going to destroy the world, he told the new agers, but before he did, he was holding one-on-one sessions with people for only $1,000 a sitting, to bring them into total enlightenment, and to instantly transform them into powerful master teachers! I couldn't imagine how anyone would swallow this stuff until I got a call from one of our distributors informing me that he had given the guy all of his money and had moved into his home, and now my distributor was "Lord Ezekiel" himself!
     It was time to pack my bags. I had been living in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, and my oldest daughter was getting ready to start high school there. I didn't like the influence that I saw around me, the direction that Santa Rosa kids were headed into and the insanity of the new age scene... It was all too crazy and I was tired of it. I needed to save my children and get the heck out of Dodge. 
     And so, back to my home state of Colorado, we moved. Northern California had given us a lot, but I was through. When I told Stephen Hill that I was moving to Colorado, all he could say was:
     "You asshole."
     I guess he was joking.
Rocky Mountain High
         I relocated my family in Fort Collins, Colorado in July, 1984... far away from the maddening new-age crowds. Fort Collins at that time was a cow town, where ordinary folks lived. 
    For two years my ex-wife and I built our "DBR MUSIC" business. By 1986, we had over a dozen distributors selling my cassette albums and Spring LP. We sent large boxes of tapes to cities all over America on a daily basis, and to Australia and Europe as well. We sold over 22,000 cassettes of Starmusic alone.
This is me in my Fort Collins home studio. That's my little Casio keyboard that my friend Don Slepian had rewired for me, that I had taken to Mount Shasta.

The New Age Artist Collective
     We had just moved to Colorado when the community of new age music artists in the Bay Area, including myself now in Colorado - Iasos, Xolotl, Ray Lynch, Connie Demby, Aeoliah, among others - were working to put the fledgling genre of new age music onto the national map. CBS Records was looking for new age artists and we were working with a woman who called herself Isis. She was negotiating with CBS Records, setting up record deals. We assumed that soon we would all be signed to the CBS label, but that didn't materialize.

Castles in the Sun
     I continued to work on Anthem. However, with the prospect of a deal with a major record label seemingly looming ahead, I went to work on an album that would be more commercial, more in a popular instrumental music vein, and I called this new project Castles in the Sun after one of the titles that I was recording for the album. 
     After I had completed the album, I heard Ray Lynch's album Deep Breakfast that I had mentioned in Part Two of this series and I was "Blown Away." Ray had come up with the perfect new age album. It had popular appeal, and it was selling like crazy. This caused me to change my plans for Castles in the Sun. I compared it to Ray's album and decided mine wasn't commercial enough, and so I did something I would never do again. I created three pieces of music solely for the purpose of commercial appeal. I created these three pieces intellectually instead of allowing inspiration to create the music for me, as I had always done before, and always did after. In 2008, I will fix this problem, but more on that later.
"Castles in the Sun" from Castles in the Sun by Don Robertson

The Album Castles in the Sun by Don Robertson

Work on Anthem Continues...

Recording sound effects for Anthem with cousin Ashe in the Colorado mountains during 1984 (photo by Mary Ellen Bickford)

     In Colorado, I continued working on the recording of Anthem. However, trying to create orchestral music on my Teac 8-track tape recorder was such a huge challenge that it occupied and haunted me for four years. 
     My home studio overlooked a beautiful panorama of the Rocky Mountain Front Range that was inspiring, helping me to keep on going. I had played all of the parts for Anthem into the Synclavier II's computer and they were stored on dozens of floppy disks. The problem for me was getting the sounds that I wanted from this primitive (by today's standards, but advanced then) system, and somehow squeezing all of the resultant music onto eight tracks of analogue tape!
     First I had to create the sound of a string orchestra. Oh, this was frustrating. But I finally came up with a "string patch" that I liked. I diagrammed it on an 8x10 piece of paper and had it laminated. In this patch, practically everything in my studio was plugged into each other and set up very carefully with particular settings. The sound originated in the Synclavier II and my Roland Vokoder Plus (which I sold to Jeff Tweedy and his group "Wilko" in 2002). These two sound sources were then fed through two digital delays, chorus units, equilizer, and a Roland Dimension-D chorus unit.

My String Patch

     It got so frustrating that sometimes I thought about forgetting this album and writing the music into a big orchestral score, but I longed to hear it, and I wanted to complete this project!
     I finally gave up trying to record the remaining music with my 8-track semi-professional reel-to-reel and I bought two digital recording units that used betamax tapes as a storage medium. Constant recording back and forth from one track to another on the 8-track was causing tape hiss to build up, and so I began recording the music digitally, bouncing tracks back and forth from one betamax machine to another.
     I told my friends that even though recording the work was occupying so much of my time, I had been convinced from day one that when it was finally released, very few people in America would ever accept it. I wanted to release it in Europe only. 
     Instead of working on Anthem, I could have been using my music studio to produce numerous easy commercial recordings, as many of the other "new age" musicians were now doing in their studios, but instead, I worked on Anthem, originally composed in 1982, during all of 1984 and 1985, knowing that we would probably sell no more than 100 cassette tapes if I ever managed to get a decent recording of it.
     After agonizing for four years, often having to start parts of my work from scratch over and over again, I finally declared that Anthem was finished in 1986. I had decided to end the torture, even though I was not happy with the sound of the final recording. My artist friend Barbara Faulkner created the cover for me.
    Anthem was considered by several of my friends to be a synthesizer masterpiece. I was even told that someone had heard it playing on a national TV show about businesses that helped people relax. Because it was inspired by classical sacred music from Victoria to Franck and Wagner's Parsifal that most people had never heard of or cared about, it didn't make any sense to most people. Not even Stephen Hill made sense of it. Archie Patterson, however, created a cassette release that he sold through Eurock Magazine. 
     The frustration that I experienced recording this orchestral-like work led me to eventually return to writing music for a real orchestra instead of trying to create my music with the limited electronic resources then available, even though I realized I may never hear my written music preformed. Thus, I began work on Kovapi, my ballet for orchestra and choir sometime in 1991, finishing it in early 1993.

Next in the series "The Genesis of New Age Music" is Part Seven - "The Hijacking of New Age Music"

© 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.