Carlos Santana once said “I like new age music as long as it doesn’t put me in a coma or make me feel like I’m standing in line at a health food store” (Viva Santana liner notes, 1988). The tracks on Light in the Attic’s I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950-1990 are tracks you’re not likely to hear playing in your local health food emporium.
This is new age music before it became a commodity, before it evolved into aural wallpaper and background music. When it was the domain of outsider artists, eccentrics and experimentalists. As evidenced by this collection, the music’s goals were often lofty. No less than a connection to the Divine through sound, and to enable spiritual transformation for the listener, was the aim of many of these early new age musicians.
That’s not to say none of this music wasn’t created to simply soothe. Don Slepian’s “Awakening” is regularly used for yoga and meditation, and is said to have been used to accompany childbirth. Another track, “Waterfall Winds”, by Alice Damon is one of the most peaceful, tranquil tracks you’re likely to hear anywhere.
Compiled by record collector and independent new age music reissue label owner Douglas Mcgowan (Yoga Records), much of what’s on this compilation was found by scouring used record stores, book stores, and yes, health food stores around the U.S. Many of the recordings were only ever issued on cassette and in many cases were self-released.
One such find is Wilburn Burchette (about whom the liner notes say “little can be revealed at this time”) and his “Witch’s Will” from 1973, composed of unsettling and slightly sinister sounding patterns of electronically delayed guitar notes. It’s not the type of music you’d typically categorize as new age, but it’s definitely experimental. The presentation of these little known musicians gives them a welcome rescue from the archives of obscurity.
Balancing things out, a few well-known and popular names in new age appear. Iasos has had his music used by NASA and is regarded, along with Steven Halpern, as one of the pioneers of the genre. Halpern’s Spectrum Suite is noted as the best-selling private new age album of all time, and that album’s “Seventh Chakra Keynote B (violet)” is included here. Further, Gail Laughton’s shimmering harp piece “Pompeii 76 A.D.” was used in the soundtrack to Blade Runner where it was retitled “Bicycle Riders” (and incorrectly credited to Vangelis), while Laraaji has worked with Brian Eno.
Above all though, this is the music of people with a burning desire for expression – a calling almost. In fact, according to McGowan’s voluminous and thorough liner notes, some of these artists heard the music in their heads first and felt they were merely channels for it. Mcgowan writes, “Iasos’s Inter-Dimensional Music is credited as through rather than by Iasos.” In multi-instrumentalist Constance Demby’s liner notes bio, she furthers this idea: “Sound created the universe, it wasn’t a word. Sound created atoms; sound and light are the original manifesting principles for worlds…A musician sources that primeval, eternal sound, and it comes out as music.”
In this time of information overload and rampant technological overstimulation, new age music has been making a modest comeback. People are finding that it helps them disengage from the chaos of everyday life and re-focus on the internal. To just plain relax. From a therapeutic as well as a historical perspective, I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music in America 1950-1990 couldn’t have come at a better time.