It’s about a five-minute walk downhill from the Bolton Valley Resort to the Lotus Mountain Retreat. My wife and I found a place on the mountain outside of Burlington during the off-season, so the little ski town feels dead, maybe a little post-apocalyptic. I hardly see any other humans walking around, and the only sounds I hear are running water and some rustling of leaves in the distance. I’m far from the city and a little afraid of all the serenity. A crow stares down at me and squawks.
When I make it to my final destination, where I’m booked to get a massage, I feel like I’ve arrived at a safe space, that nothing can hurt me now that I’m standing in the shadow of the yoga retreat’s geodesic dome. Inside, my masseuse explains the technique she’ll be using. She looks about twenty-five, smells of patchouli, and is wearing the type of lacey dress you’d expect from somebody who gives massages in a yoga and meditation retreat in Vermont. She leads me to a small room where I take off everything save for my underwear—I’ve never quite figured out if I’m supposed to take off my underwear during massages, and probably wouldn’t even if I was. She tells me to relax and mentions something about my chakras before turning on some music that I can only describe as somebody with a synthesizer recreating whale sounds and then laying those overtop a gentle repetitive beat—a tiny pumping human heart amplified to sync up with ten-thousand-pound mating calls from the depths of the sea.
I get massages fairly often these days; it’s something I’ve made room for in my budget because it helps me deal with my anxiety, a suggestion from my shrink. I’ve taken a number of steps in the past few years to decrease how incredibly anxious I always feel, and the one thing I’ve come away with—from my bi-weekly sessions in various, high-end spas that I get a discount on through Groupon, to places that I’m pretty sure are filming me and uploading the videos to the dark web—is that they all play really bad music. The type of music that, if hard pressed, I’d reluctantly describe as “new age”—nature sounds looped and given a slow backing track; drawn out pulsing synths; white people layering chants from a native people to which they have no connection or religion they don’t practice to achieve some sort of deep, spiritual feeling in the listener; nonsensical lyrics with some mystical framing or, even worse, some self-help babble set to music.
The problem with that description, though, is that I’m perpetuating a trend that has gone on far too long. While there are genres of music that get treated unfairly (classical music as the soundtrack either for snobs or deterring “anti-social behavior,” the infamous “anything but rap and country” proclamation), none have been as misunderstood and despised as what we think of as “new age.”
“What is ‘new age’ music?” asked John Schaefer in the December 1985 issue of Spin. “Is it music that’s made for meditation, stress reduction, or massage? Or is it whatever California’s post-hippie generation or the yuppie crowd happens to be listening to at this moment?” More than thirty years later, we’re scarcely closer to an accurate working definition. In a 2016 A.V. Club article, Eli Zeger wrote that, “Initially, the term ‘new age’ characterized soloists who devoted their instrumentations to the grace of Mother Nature, whose track lists and discographies swam with references to solstices, rainfall, and other outdoorsy phenomena.”
The latter was closer to my early experiences with new age—at least in terms of how I was exposed to it. As a child of the late 1980s and ’90s, the very mention of the term conjured up sitting with an “alternative healer” named Marcus my parents sent me to when traditional psychotherapy didn’t fix my A.D.H.D., anxiety, and bouts of depression. The first time we met, Marcus and I sat staring at each other. He was in a robe, had a beard, a donut cut atop his head that tied back into a ponytail, and wore two necklaces, one a Hebrew chai and the other a beaded, vaguely Native American-looking piece. That inaugural staring session with Marcus did not yield a second one, but he did suggest to my mother that if we ever see the commercial for the Pure Moods CD, that we dial the 800 number and order it. He said it was very relaxing.
The Pure Moods album is mystifying—a collection of largely instrumental tracks with not much of anything in common otherwise. It is also the likely source of both our current understanding and misunderstanding of what new age music is and is not. Released in 1994, the commercial snuck onto MTV between images of Blind Melon’s Bee Girl and Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage”: a woman dancing with a unicorn to the sound of a chant by native Amis people of Taiwan layered over an unmistakable sample of John Bonham’s drumming from the Led Zeppelin song “When the Levee Breaks.” The song, “Return to Innocence,” by the Romanian-German producer Michael Cretu’s project known as Enigma, gives way to a narrator prompting you to “imagine a world where time drifts slowly.” Two songs after things kick off with Enigma, you’re listening to Jan Hammer’s “Crockett’s Theme” from Miami Vice. Later, you’ll transition from Enya to “Tubular Bells Part 1”—because nothing says relax and chill like the theme from The Exorcist—before eventually moving onto Angelo Badalamenti’s theme from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, tracks from Ennio Morricone, The Orb, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Kenny G, and, most importantly, Brian Eno, whose early ambient works are often cited as the beginning of new age music, although Eno himself has worked to distance himself from the label on more than a few occasions.
Eno’s not alone there. Jon Pareles, in a November 1987 New York Times article, wrote that new age is mostly “timid and constricted,” and that it “promises an exotic sanctuary, but it’s a sanctuary furnished like a playpen.” A few months earlier, Pareles would write about Eno’s contemporary, the composer Harold Budd, and his war with anybody who would associate his own “consonant, slow-moving and atmospheric” music with new age. Budd told Pareles, “I reach for my revolver” whenever he heard the term, and that “I’m fighting tooth and nail against people throwing me into that bag.”
Dedicated fandoms with often-practical appreciations of the music notwithstanding, though, the disrespect continues. In a 2015 BuzzFeed profile of the artist Enya, Anne Helen Petersen pointed out that the Grammy Award winner, who routinely adds to her more than 80 million records sold, “has been derogatorily described as Muzak or New Age.” In his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan goes on guided psychedelic experiences, usually noting the music is “New Age drivel.” Eli Zeger, in his above-mentioned 2016 article, wrote, referencing Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” “There’s nothing wrong with seeking peace and calm—it’s a beautiful thing, in fact. What’s irritating is how new age has preached the same message—‘sail away, sail away, sail away’—that many of its artists have become seemingly desensitized to its significance.”
None of that stopped the music’s early ’90s “mainstream” push. Pure Moods is the culmination of the idea the article mentions about how participants in that year’s International New Age Music Conference believed that the “catchall” title could gain more fans “via the ethnic sounds and rhythms of world music.” Pure Moods was also the illogical conclusion of that idea: future releases in the series would include everything from the X-Files theme to “Albatross” by a pre-Stevie Nicks Fleetwood Mac and Giorgio Moroder’s theme from Midnight Express. A way to market “the perfect soundtrack for your way of life,” as the voice in the commercial put it, the mish mosh compilation was continuing a trend that had been building throughout the 1970s and 1980s: music as therapy for the masses. Few were as successful at this as Steven Halpern, who, as a 1995 Billboard article explains, focused on selling the records on his Inner Peace record label to health food stores and at yoga conferences. According to Halpern, his targeted sales have helped push millions of his albums into the hands of consumers.
“My message is that we can harmonize our body, mind and spirit more,” Halpern has said. “By minimizing effectively, by using healing music and by bringing healing sounds into our life; by minimizing some of the distracting and noisy and disease-forming sounds and bringing more life-affirming sounds into our world, into our work and into our life.”
“I think the oddest tape will always be Steven Halpern’s Music For Meetings: The Sounds Of Success, which seems to not have been actually commercially released to the public, but nevertheless exists,” says Douglas Mcgowan, founder of Yoga Records and A&R for the reissue label Numero Group and expert on the genre. “It’s hard to imagine a more absurd and mundane thing than that tape.” Mcgowan is a large reason music tagged as “new age” has been getting a second look in recent years, built up by blogs like the now seemingly defunct Crystal Vibrations and compilations like Light in the Attic’s I Am the Center (for which Mcgowan wrote the liner notes). Today, however, trying to figure out what new age is as a genre isn’t as interesting as trying to figure out what you can put under the despised label. Would one consider Enya deserving of the tag? Or what about some of the work of Oneohtrix Point Never? Laraaji, who Pitchfork dubbed a “new-age icon” certainly fits the bill, but Spotify suggests his listeners also like Kraut rock groups like Cluster and Popol Vuh, along with minimalist composers like Terry Riley and William Basinski. Are they new age music? Is anything?
“‘New age’ is a cluster of memes,” explains Mcgowan. “The sound parts—of intention towards inner and outer peace, the imagery and aesthetics—are fit ideas that will not go away and will only grow. The worthless parts—of chakras and crystal power and every other part that is clearly bullshit—only persist by riding along with the aesthetic, and because there are so many gullible people with money.”
The thing is, all these years later, after being one of those people who also used to use the term “new age” as a catch-all for so much, I realize that music that falls under the label can, and often does, help me.
Inner and outer peace is a goal I’ve been striving for basically my entire life, and at some point, I found that simply changing when and what I listen to could be a big help. For years, my own morning routine was pretty much the same: wake up, go to the gym, and listen to the fastest, loudest music I could stream to get me ready for the day. Charge into it, I’d say. From black metal to ’80s hardcore bands like Negative Approach and Minor Threat to hip hop, guitars and drums, aggressive vocals and abrasive production all made up a big part of my morning. What I found was, yes, I’d start my working day intense and with an edge, but I’m a writer and editor, not an athlete. The more I pumped myself up, the quicker I deflated, and the more anxious and agitated I’d become throughout the day. Of course, it also didn’t help that I consumed more coffee than I probably should, but the combination made me feel a little more aggro than I like; I found myself prone to panic attacks on a constant basis. By the end of the day I had nothing to give.
Then, one morning, I hit the wrong button, clicked random on my “writing” playlist (i.e. songs light on vocals and distortion), and up came Celestial Soul Portrait by the composer Iasos (released by Numero Group). I let it play out, running with it, breathing with it. What I found, and continue to find as I start my days listening to albums like the Mcgowan-produced Hearing Music by the artist Joanna Brouk, or even Eno’s ambient records, is that I’m truly more at peace, then and throughout the day, than when I begin with something fast, loud and angry. When I go to do my morning meditation after working out, my mind is calmer, things don’t race around in my head as much—a feat for somebody who has lived with A.D.H.D. their entire life.
When Ezra Feinberg’s lush debut solo album Pentimento and Others was released earlier this year, the founder of the band Citay didn’t shy away from using the “new age” tag to describe his work. Like an ethereal, ambient John Fahey, there is a peacefulness to each song that I find helpful when, say, I want to go for a short hike to clear my mind. Yet Feinberg’s expertise goes beyond his musicianship: a practicing psychologist, he has a unique vantage point to understand the impact music can have on our lives and emotions. “Music is useful to your mind,” he says—it’s exciting to be able to turn your angst or sadness or fear into something functional when we listen to it. “Angry music is useful to your angry mind,” he says, “and sad music is useful to your sad mind… [But] the fact that we have something outside of us that we can identify with and that feels beautiful or that feels accurate in some way, in terms of how we feel, makes it so that we need it. You need it to elaborate where you’re at.”
I first came around to Feinberg’s music a little over a decade ago, in the middle of the Bush II administration. I wasn’t in a good place: In my early twenties and burnt out on everything, broke and with no health insurance to help me pay for treatment, not getting anywhere in my career or life, and just feeling flattened by the world. Maybe it was fate, but in 2005, I read an article in Arthur magazine by Michael Brownstein on “meditation as a subversive activity,” entitled, “Killing the Madman.” Co-mingling with my low feelings of self-worth and place in the world was the very state of things: endless wars, human suffering, the surveillance state, and the destruction of our planet. Brownstein’s piece was a life-changer. “The first revolutionary act—or fact—about meditation,” he writes, “is that it puts you in touch with what you’re feeling and thinking at this very moment. It puts you in touch with presence.” That’s when you realize that it’s not the president or a corporation that is in charge of your emotions—those belong to you.
After that, I began practicing meditation. I’ve never settled on one form of practice that consistently suits me, so I dabble. After more than a decade, it’s helped bring me to a better understanding of other steps I should be taking because I really, truly want to feel good. I drink less, exercise more, and try to sit down with myself twice a day. Things were moving along, I was going in a good direction, and then 2016 happened. Then, just like every other rational person, my anxiety spiked. All the work I’d been doing had been upended one night in November. I felt I had been stripped of the control I thought I’d gained over my anxiety and depression.
In an attempt to gain some measure of control, I started taking walks. Nothing too crazy: No Henry David Thoreau or Forrest Gump journey of self-discovery, nothing that took me far from my neighborhood. I live across the street from a large park, and as February started to settle in, as Trump started to destroy everything he touched, I found some measure of pleasure and stillness in being as close to alone somewhere in New York City as one could get. Sometimes I just listened to the wind blowing, the sound of car horns honking always present in the air. But mostly, I had some soundtrack coming through my earbuds. The day was silent and frozen, the main lawn occupied by a few squirrels. A few weeks earlier, I’d done something that I’d sworn I would never do: I started taking medication to help reduce my anxiety on my own as an adult. Unlike my childhood, where it was prescribed to me by adults who insisted each new med would lead to some cure of my ADHD or depression or anxiety, I had complete say in my decision. Although the anger and sadness about the state of things had not gone away, physically I felt as if a large leaden vest had been lifted off my being. After an over-medicated childhood led me to believe that taking pills was just not for me, the way I felt was a revelation.
I stood there, alone in this great big open field, inhaling deeply through my nose, and pushing the air out through my mouth. I was listening to “The Angels of Comfort,” a nearly eleven-minute track by Iasos. I had a cup of hibiscus tea in my hand. I thought for a second how funny and crunchy it all felt, but that subsided after a few more breaths. I wanted, and still want, to get better, to feel happy, to overcome as many of the obstacles this world puts in front of me, and, most of all, to live in the moment. Like meditation, just admitting this felt like a subversive activity, and I realized that what I was listening to played into that. That, like meditation, medication, or any of the things we believe could possibly help lead us down a more enlightened, happier path, it’s easier to be skeptical of music labeled “new age.” For every Eno album for airports or Joanna Brouk, there’s always somebody out there who thinks they can make a profit off the idea that music can soothe and heal. There are people who can take basically any musical genre and pillage its reputation so badly that any other artist associated will no doubt suffer. That, more than anything, is the greatest sin of new age music: it’s a genre that really doesn’t exist, yet encompasses so many strains of sound that people don’t want to give a chance to or outright don’t understand. Yet as we hurdle towards who knows whatever is next, just taking simple solace in the repetition, the mellow, the quiet—these things, at least for me, can bring about a few moments of necessary peace. And that, in these anxious days, amounts to a treasure.