YOU KNOW A NEW musical style has arrived when it gets its own radio station -- now Washington's WBMW-FM is specializing in "new age" music.
But just what is this hard-to-define stuff? Done right, it's real music, a gentle mix of acoustic and electronic. Done wrong, it's nothing more than audio anesthesia. Let the buyer beware -- "new age" is a convenient umbrella that covers composers with serious spiritual, psychological and musical aims as well as Casio-equipped hucksters with a two- finger technique and studio access.
Here's a recent sampling of the young genre's prime movers and fakers:
"The Light of the Spirit" (Geffen 24163). The grandfather of new age is still at it, composing his quasimystical movieless soundtracks from his home at the foot of Mt. Fuji. "Mysterious Encounter" opens his first album for a U.S. label with portentous chord changes that wouldn't be out of place in a Biblical flick (though the silly, spacey whoooshes and bleeps would).
This is not the usual one-man show -- this time Kitaro brings in some American rock sidemen, including the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart, on "percussion and spatial effects." Too boring and unmelodic to be considered music, too squirrely and noodley to function as meditation or trance music; the difference between this one and previous Kitaro creations like "Oasis" and "Son of Oasis," etc., is almost imperceptible. It's a superbly recorded sonic whatsit, though -- you have to grant the guy that much.
VARIOUS ARTISTS --
"The Soul of the Machine" (Windham Hill 1700). The foremost new age label commissioned eleven compos ers to submit pieces of electronic work, and amazingly, they all sent in variations on the same piece, resulting in a collection that's consistently rewarding -- or monotonous -- depending on how you hear it. The point seems to be to get away from the synthesizer's image as a cold, impersonal instrument, and the selections here do have a warm, touchy tone, all conforming to Windham Hill's standard chord sequences and air of contemplative melancholy.
WILLIAM ACKERMAN --
"Conferring With the Moon" (Windham Hill 1050). Ackerman founded the Windham Hill label, and is himself a guitarist who can do a few things quite well. The label has become known for its graphics as well as for its distinctive "house sound," and Ackerman's LP includes a beautifully printed booklet that tells about the origin and performance of each selection ("song" somehow seems wrong here).
The booklet also provides the tunings (Kids -- try this at home!). We're told that the title track is "a piece of music about unrequited love and misery. If you were in Paris in the springtime and occupied a suite of rooms overlooking the River Seine and the Eiffel Tower and romance was ostensibly in the air and all you could do was watch a French television documentary on oral hygiene, nurse a respectable bottle of Lafite indifferently and pine after the blonde in California who was essentially unaware of your existence, you might well write the central two chords of this piece and play them obsessively into the wee hours of the morning . . ."
So who needs to listen to the record? You might want to buy it, just to cheer Will up. Actually, I quite like these contemplative guitar pieces, some of which feature Washington bassist Michael Manring.
RAY LYNCH --
"Deep Breakfast" (Music West 102). Ignore the silly title. This is a cheery and cheering record, positive without being cloying. Lynch is a classically trained guitarist, and here he sets out a simple, sunny musical phrase then expands on it, playfully altering the plucks and plinks of his acoustic instruments through electronic systems. The record is especially effective with headphones, particularly the opening of "The Oh of Pleasure," which uses gradual amplification to give the strange sensation that you're being drawn deeper and deeper into the sound.
"Out of Silence" (Private Music 2024). This young Greek composer works out of his home studio and imitates an orchestra on his arsenal of digital keyboards, creating lively instrumentals with traces of imitation bouzouki and mandolin. This record, Yanni's second, features cryptic titles like "Sand Dance" and "Secret Vows." But, though skillfully performed, almost all the tracks sound like theme music for public-television science programs.
"Vision Seeker" (Yansa Music YM 1003). Actually, these piano/flute/synthesizer scribblings are nearly indistinguishable from George Winston's oeuvre. So why do I cotton to Winston's gentle piano improvs, and sneer at Shayla's recital? Perhaps it's because she burdens them with chuckle-inducing titles like "Crystal Vision" and "Ancient Myth," names that suggest the artiste is swathed in chiffon veils and clouds of incense. Titles, in other words, that would be more at home on a Stevie Nicks record.
GEORGIA KELLY --
"Seapeace" (Global Pacific OW 40724). This session of tranquil (and tranquilizing) harp music was recorded in 1978, before Kelly even knew she was "new age." There are four long songs here, and with Kelly's supple technique and the harp's natural warmth and sustain, each suggests the sound of the sea in a different way.
LUCIA HWONG --
"Secret Luminescence" (Private Music 2021). Hwong, who is dressed only in prismatic Saran Wrap on the cover, creates some witty, exotic sounds through electronic manipulation and has a genuine flair for composition, but she plays up the hokey Oriental mysticism a bit on her second LP. The disc is produced by Philip Glass associate Kurt Munkacsi, who pulled in some impressive names -- Blondie's Chris Stein chips in electric guitar on "Poetry and Passion," Japanese superstar Ryuichi Sakamoto plays piano on "Body Current."
Besides the usual synths and sequencers, Hwong and company make engaging noises with traditional and nontraditional instruments like the gamelan, Tibetan bells and marbles. Several of these pieces were commissioned by choreographers, but most would sound just fine in a sushi restaurant, too.
BRIAN ENO --
"Thursday Afternoon" (EGCD 64). You might say that new age music evolved from the experiments of Brian Eno, former Roxy Music keyboardist and current U2 producer. But really, new age has never caught up with him. After several solo rock projects, Eno became intrigued with the concept of "ambient music," pieces with no melody or rhythm to speak of, just an aural haze subtly tinting the environment.
Eno is the first to do a CD-only composition, the 61-minute "Thursday Afternoon," which consists of soft, muffled electronic keyboard sounds and an amorphous whirring hum that's impossible to pin down. The disc sounds different each time you hear it, mainly because it's so nebulous and atomized that you can't remember what it sounded like the first time. Program it for endless repeat so "Thursday Afternoon" can soothe you through Thursday night, and Friday morning . . .