The recent success and attention that Convocation has received has had me having a lot of conversations about the music, creative origins, etc… and all of this made me want to revisit the history of the music I make, how I came to it and the origin of the music.
Ambient music, as it’s defined in the United States is very different than the way it’s defined in the United Kingdom. This has always been the case. The Ambient Music Guide has done an exceptional job providing a history here. It could be argued that US ambient is more along the lines of the work that Eno created, following his original intentions than the UK flavor of ambient, but then it also seems that UK ambient took more of a nod from electronic and beat-oriented music with ambient music whereas the US took things in a New Age direction. I don’t believe that this was just a curious divergence of paths, rather I believe that the New Age-influenced music of the US spoke to a hopeful awakening born of the religious and/or spiritual ambiguity that has always been at issue in the US, whereas I believe that the UK, with a much longer history, religious and otherwise, had been through all of that, and the orientation of dance aligned with psychedelics and transcendence was present-moment living to the core. I believe both were driven by socio-economic conditions and were responses to historical events and I’m waiting for someone to write that book so I can read the rest.
However, we got to things, the fact remains, particularly with beatless ambient music, that there’s more New Age influence floating around in this music than many of us, ambienteers, would like to admit. Or maybe I’ll just speak for myself — There’s more than I’d like to admit.
At the time I was thinking about all of this I stumbled upon a new recording that cast New Age music in a different light, or provided a different narrative than I had been familiar with – I Am the Center – Private Issue New Age Muisc in America 1950 – 1990 – A compilation put out by Light in the Attic Records – The timing of where my thinking was and finding this recording couldn’t have been more serendipitous. This recording got me thinking about New Age music and what it means to make New Age music.
When making my gritty style of ambient music, I certainly thought that it was as far away from New Age music as a music could be, but then on the other hand, I wouldn’t be averse to the idea of coming out to do a show in a dashiki with sandals, and setting up in front of my guitars in the full lotus position on a meditation pillow, ala Ravi Shankar – ready to play for 48 hours straight – sadly I can’t quite pull off the full lotus without some injury to my person, but the idea is appealing to me.
With this in mind, I started to wonder what it was to be a New Age musician. I imagined a slightly open button-up shirt, wind blowing my longish hair back as I stood on a craggy mountain-top with a blue sky behind me with wood flute or a flamenco guitar held against my torso while I smiled widely, knowingly, but again I Am the Center took me away from this idea and so I decided to look up New Age music and its qualities. The first page I went to was the first entry that Google gave me, the Wikipedia entry, which defines New Age music thusly:
New Age music is downtempo music intended to create artistic inspiration, relaxation, and optimism. It is used by listeners for yoga, massage, meditation, and reading as a method of stress management or to create a peaceful atmosphere in their home or other environments, and is often associated with environmentalism and New Age spirituality.
The harmonies in New Age music are generally modal, consonant, or include a drone bass. The melodies are sometimes recordings of nature sounds and used as an introduction to a track or throughout the piece. Pieces of up to thirty minutes are common.
New Age music includes both electronic forms, frequently relying on sustained synth pads or long sequencer-based runs, and acoustic forms, featuring instruments such as flutes, piano, acoustic guitar and a wide variety of non-western acoustic instruments…
Check, check, and check… Oh, shit, Houston, we have a problem!
Matt Borghi’s (now referring to myself in the third-person just to be objective) music is downtempo, intended for relaxation and meditation… the music is usually modal and consonant and always has a drone… It’s also frequently electronic with lots of sustained synth guitar pads and volume swells…
I’ll pause briefly for a memory as I contemplate my new ageyness. I remember when my friend Jason Sloan came to my wedding. He was like ‘This is the first time that I’ve ever seen Matt not wearing sandals…” I always wondered: Was that an allusion to my hippy-ness? I always fancied myself a hippie with a buzzcut, kind of like a Vermont hippie with the beard and short hair (full disclosure: I went to school in Vermont), rather than the west coast-flavored hippie with the long hair and optional beard… Was I a hippie or was I just a new age guy? Hmm… I’m beginning to wonder.
My primary impetus to make the music I make came from the music of Pink Floyd, well, that’s what I used to believe… then I dug a little deeper into my repressed memories and revised past to recall a portly lad of nine years old riding to fifth grade on the school bus through a dark wintery Michigan morning trying to convey the profundity of the chrome cassette tape (Seriously audiophile stuff in 1984) dupe that he had just gotten of his dad’s favorite record, George Winston’s December. Oh, but it doesn’t end there, friends, another memory has just crept like a foreign body up out of my creaky psyche – I spent hours listening to Enya’s Watermark and Shepherd’s Moon recordings when I first began to dabble in Zen meditation when I was 19. I still love those recordings, but they’re such a part of me that I’ve just come to take them for granted. In any case, those are both very positive memories and real doorway musical experiences that I had forgotten. I need to pause and let this sink in.
Perhaps, I was always destined to be a new age musician, but I veiled it in some bullshit contextualization’s to make myself feel less flakey.
I thought a little more about this and my beliefs… Energies, holistic healing, meditation, yoga, the relationship between mind, body and spirit… All of a sudden I started to realize that I believed a lot of the things that people in the New Age movement believed. I like reading A Course in Miracles, even if I don’t always know what to make of it’s origin, and I’ve read my fair share of Ram Dass, Eckhart Tolle and Alan Watts… Esalen, Omega Institute and Findhorn all appeal to me greatly as sacred places I’d love to perform and meet with other like-minds…
I don’t know that I can come to terms with casting myself in the same light as Zamfir and Yanni. I don’t know that I can reconcile the idea of my CD being next to one about music for your chakras. It’s not that I think Yanni and Zamfir aren’t cool… they’re not my taste, but hell, Zamfir made a King of the Hill episode… Yep, that’s none other than Hank Rutherford Hill holding that recording of Zamfir below… and as for chakras and stuff, it’s not that I’m opposed to it or don’t believe in it, I just don’t know anything about chakras, or color therapy, or reiki healing… I can’t criticize what I don’t know anything about. I’ll also note that Yanni has a lot of gigs lined up… what the hell is so bad about that? I wish I had a lot of gigs lined up playing the music I love, taking it to the people. I’ve got gigs, but he’s doing it for real. Looks pretty appealing from here.
New Age-types seem to smile a lot. I don’t smile a lot. I joke a lot. I think life is pretty funny and I laugh a lot, but to just smile disingenuously makes me feel inauthentic. There are enough fakers, I can’t be another one. Maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. It probably doesn’t have to be that way. It’s been characterized that way and that’s the caricature that’s come to be most prevalent when the New Age artist is considered.
Sitting here listening to I Am the Center there’s nothing bullshitty, or hucksterish, or phony, or disingenuous or smiley mountain top with a flute or guitar with this New Age music. This “New Age” music is more like me and the work that I hope to do than most of what I’ve been exposed to. If I Am the Center is New Age music, and categorically, it is, then I guess I would be proud to be a New Age artist. If being a New Age artist means reading much of what’s on my book shelf already, and being inspired by much of what has already inspired me and is in my music collection then I guess the last step is acknowledgement. That I never acknowledged this before is really more of a testament to the dissolution of my ego and/or my machismo, things that I don’t have much of an attachment to these days.
Honestly, it’s going to take me a while, when asked what kind of music I make, to let New Age, glide across my lips, but if I’m honest with myself, when I ask the question, am I a new age musician? I’ll probably just think if the sandals fit…