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A new age for New Age music

Young bands including Animal Collective, Blues Control and others are incorporating sounds from the much disparaged genre.

July 03, 2011|By Andy Beta, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: Brian Weitz, left, Noah Lennox and Dave Portner included pan flute performed by Gheorghe Zamfir in their 2009 song "Glaze."
ANIMAL COLLECTIVE: Brian Weitz, left, Noah Lennox and Dave Portner included… (Takahiro Imamura / Motormouth…)

In late 2009, noise-pop group Animal Collective followed up its critics-poll-topping album "Merriweather Post Pavilion" with a stopgap EP, "Fall Be Kind." It generated buzz for featuring the first-ever licensed Grateful Dead sample, but what was more peculiar was a curlicue of pan flute woven into the song "Glaze" and credited to Gheorghe Zamfir. Zamfir, as the Romanian pan flute musician is best known, was a ubiquitous presence on television in the '80s, peddling wispy flute albums. For many people, it was one of the first sounds that came to be known by the label of New Age music.

"It didn't even dawn on me that people would have the reaction that it was a New Age flute thing," said Animal Collective's Dave "Avey Tare" Portner from his home in Baltimore. "It just seemed like something that would work for the song."

Portner is part of a new generation of musicians and producers who are working such calming, serene, yes, even sappy sounds into their music. Despite its association with crystals, color therapy, holistic medicine, incense, lucid dreaming and chakra manipulation, New Age music — once resigned to the dollar bins of record stores and the vitamin section of health food stores — has somehow entered into the misty echelon of coolness.

In addition to bands like Animal Collective, other acts have been delving into New Age music for inspiration. Jimmy Tamborello, who releases music as Dntel and is half of the Postal Service, recently posted to the Web a series of loving (and free) remixes he did of Celtic folk singer turned New Age superstar Enya, whom he's claimed to have loved since he was a teenager.

Breakout indie dance act Teengirl Fantasy's video for its single "Cheaters" featured the celestial light visual effects created by one of the fathers of founders of New Age music, Greek composer Iasos. Last year for his website, Beck and some musician friends, including Thurston Moore, Feist and the band Wilco, covered the entirety of New Age superstar Yanni's "Live at the Acropolis." The 4AD band Gang Gang Dance eschews harsh feedback and instead builds its highly rhythmic tapestries around synth tones that — as the Village Voice recently put it — "have taken the staple sounds of Lite-FM hits and repurposed them for evil."

Underground noisemakers like Emeralds, Oneohtrix Point Never, Stellar Om Source and Blues Control are following suit, mixing the soothing sound textures of the genre as well as its visual aesthetic into their own works. San Francisco specialty record shop Aquarius Records raves not just about the latest Norwegian doom metal album but also the dronescapes of composer David Parsons, and New York's Other Music touts artists like Claire Hamill. For some, such music might be of passing interest, but other musicians gravitate toward it as a balm in the age of digital overload. Call it the new age of New Age.

" 'New Age' is a thoroughly discredited term," said Douglas Mcgowan, who reissues rare New Age albums through his Yoga Records imprint. "Part of why I like the term is because of how much it bothers people. I think it's more fun to enjoy something that is frowned upon. There's a rebelliousness to embracing something that has been discarded and deemed worthless by the culture at large."

In addition to working on reissues of acts like Bobb Trimble and Ted Lucas, over the last few years Mcgowan has had a hand in re-releasing privately pressed New Age albums too. There's "Wizards," a 1982 album by Texas electronics musician J.D. Emmanuel; "Traveler's Advisory," a 1986 curio for hammer-dulcimer and drum machine by Matthew Young; and "Celestial Vibration," an album made by zither player and street musician Edward Larry Gordon before he recorded for ambient pioneer Brian Eno under the name Laraaji, initiating a decades-long career in the music and healing arts and status as one of the genre's finest practitioners.

"I have found younger listeners across the planet who dive into contemplative listening, and I feel there are also devoted musicians cultivating their roles as well," wrote Laraaji Nadabrahmananda via email. "And I accept my role in helping listeners young and elderly locate their own sense of deeper stillness through this music."

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