Profane Grass - I'm Coming Out As A Fan of New Age Music
Profane Grass is the exact opposite of a Sacred Cow. A Sacred Cow is something that's so revered as to be generally above criticism in the eyes of all but those who go out of their way to be iconoclastic. Profane Grass is something that all agree is awful, and heaven help he who disagrees.
Most of the time, I disagree. Heaven help me.
In terms of art consumption, for the richest, most rewarding and most interesting experience, you should generally accept the existence of Sacred Cows and question the existence of Profane Grass. Embrace Sacred Cows, and the absolute worst that could happen is that you'll find yourself slightly underwhelmed. Reject Profrane Grass, and the absolute worst that could happen is that your prejudices will be confirmed, but having taken the time to sample the water yourself, you'll emerge stronger, more discerning, and more open to new ideas.
But if you make it your mission to topple the Sacred Cows and openly accept the existence of Profane Grass, well! Who knows what you could be missing?
I spend more each week on incense than I do on milk. I insist upon sleeping beneath a sizeable dream catcher. My favourite t-shirt, bought in the Green Fields of Glastonbury, depicts a Stonehenge union between the Earth Spirit and the Seed of Man.
This is the story of how I embraced the New Age spirit, quite by accident, over the course of about a decade.
I should make it clear. I have very little interest in New Age ideas as religion, philosophy or as a political movement. If you look at the New Age Wikipedia entry, you'll find that not only is the movement considered offensive by certain indigenous American cultures, but also that it draws from so many different sources and means so many different things to so many different people that, as an ethos, it must sit somewhere on the scale between “vague” and “meaningless”.
No disrespect intended to those who base their lives on New Age teachings (who must be some of the nicest people you can meet), but my interest in New Age extends to the imagery and, above all, the music.
The focus of this piece will be on the music, but a brief word on the imagery. What's not to like about stars, moons, planets, dolphins, rainbows, dragons, wizards, crystals, unicorns and waterfalls? New Age art can hardly be said to be in good taste, but come on. It's brilliant! If I lived alone, my walls would be full of lurid airbrushed and computer generated disasterpieces. Seeing as I live with a young woman with quite impeccable taste and a zero-tolerance policy on dragons, I'm instead limited to certain small corners of the house in which to unleash my inner Zen (or something).
But New Age Music! As a term, it's become synonymous with the sterile and static Muzak usually associated with elevators, waiting rooms, and those strange CDs with names like “Pan Pipe Reflections” that used to be sold in service stations and gift shops. It's thanks to this misconception that New Age Music might be considered the quintessential Profane Grass. The term is often deployed as a shortcut to describe the sort of music that makes your mind rot and your thoughts stagnate.
But it's so much more than that. Wikipedia describes New Age Music as “peaceful music of various styles intended to create inspiration, relaxation, and positive feelings while listening”, and I cannot understand how anybody might have a problem with that. Some fascists insist that all music must sound a certain way or perform the same basic function. Evangelical metalheads might insist that, if it's not metal, it's not music. Nosebleed ravers might shirk away from the sort of music that doesn't invite dancing. People with Paul Weller haircuts might decide that only guitar music is “real music”. Also, Nick Hornby.
The fact is, music is capable of so much that only the foolish would insist that it must do certain things or sound a certain way. There's plenty of room in the world for music that specifically sets out to be relaxing. Therefore, there's plenty of room in the world for New Age Music.
But where do you draw the line between New Age Music and, say, ambient music, chillout music, or even some forms of minimalist electronics? This is the the crux of the problem. New Age Music might be used as a derogatory term to describe underwhelming, unadventurous and uninspiring examples of the above. Similarly, musicians might object to the label in fear of the connotations, or they might not wish to imply a connection to the New Age movement.
Light In The Attic Records are about to release a stunning two disc collection of Private Issue New Age Music recorded between 1950-1990. It's called I Am The Center, and it sounds incredible. They attempt to recast New Age music as a more mystically-minded branch of outsider music, a “reverberation of psychedelic music”.
“This is analog, homemade music,” they say, “communicating soul and spirit, often done on limited means snd without commercial potential, self-published and self-distributed.” In short, the compilation attempts to recast New Age Music as “great American folk art”, and why not?
I'd hate to impose a definition of my own, but perhaps New Age Music could be used as a vague and adaptable means of describing the sort of instrumental music that sets out not just to help you to relax and unwind, but also to meditate; to transcend; to consider that there's a whole world out there, or to invite you to consider the possibility of a higher power.
When listening to I Am The Center, an immensely varied collection of 20 beautifully moving meditations, I hear roots. It makes me think that New Age Music is so hot right now, darling. The likes of The Orb, The Future Sound of London, Biosphere, Brian Eno and more contemporary explorers such as James Ferraro, Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, Four Tet, Com Truise, Boards of Canada and Pye Corner Audio each owe a substantial depth to these gorgeous meandering instrumentals.
Of course, critics will pass off the notion that they might sound “a bit New-Agey” as irony, deploying an impenetrable mess of pseudo-academic drivel to “explain” their appreciation. But judge this music on its own merits, and the rewards feel endless. There's a whole world out there, and Constance Demby's Om Manu Padme Hum is one of the most affecting pieces of music I've heard in a very long time. It's like finding an old photograph album, presumed lost, of a trip that changed your life.
It feels liberating to be able to declare yourself a fan of New Age Music without a single quantum of irony, but how did this happen? How did I evolve into a New Age Music fan?
Let me count the ways.
1. I'm a migraine sufferer. They've never been as frequent as they were when I was a child, but they've never been as bad as those I started to get when I first left home and went to university. They were the absolute pits. The usual instinct is to clench your eyes shut, bury your head in a dark room and try to sleep through the worst of it. But these evil migraines actually intensified when I was supine, and somehow got even worse when I shut my eyes.
To prevent myself from going mad, I used to try and lose myself in music, and my most reliably transcendent album, at the time, was U.F.ORB by The Orb. If New Age Music sets out to take you out from your body and ease your pain, then that's exactly what The Orb used to help me achieve.
2. I come from a prog family. The surreal photography of Storm Thorgerson and the Hipgnosis crew and the fantastic landscapes of Roger Dean undoubtedly sowed the seeds that would eventually grow into a deep appreciation of New Age art tropes.
3. I stumbled across a soul-stirring broadcast on Information TV called The Landscape Channel. It sets nearly static images of landscape to earthy and relaxing instrumental music. The Landscape Channel is to New Age Music what CBGB is to punk.
4. Some of the best times of my life have made me associate The Glastonbury Festival with pure, unbridled happiness. Happiness itself, then, is to be found on the doorstep of the tie-dyed folk, the sort of people who speak of crystals, auras and wood-turning.
5. I saw a film called Beyond The Mind's Eye, a showcase of “state-of-the-art” computer art from the early nineties with a Jan Hammer soundtrack. That film flicked a switch in my brain, kickstarting what will be a lifetime fascination with early computer-generated imagery, much of which, of course, has an undeniably New Age look and feel.
For the ultimate in Profane Grass, look to New Age Music. Too long has it been a byword for everything that we're supposed to hate, for Mike Oldfield.
But I can't hear much difference between the more becalmed electronic sounds that have always seemed to be popular and that which is commonly derided as “New Agey”. And I don't think this comparison makes a mockery of low-key electronic music at all. Rather, it puts New Age Music on a plinth that it's been unfairly denied for too long.
If I were to throw a New Age coming out party, would anyone come?