New Age Music reasserts its hold on the Grammy’s New Age Category.
I won’t be able to get my chakras in an uproar about the absurdity of the New Age Grammy category this year. (See previous rants & reflections Grammys Goof Again in the New Age) There aren’t any hack New Agers that no one has ever heard of on the list this year. In fact, while hardly inspiring in a musical sense, this year’s class represents the purest New Age music nominations in years.
Devotees of the genre, the ones who lamented Peter Gabriel winning a Grammy in 1990 for Passion, Jack DeJohnette in 2009 and Pat Metheny in 2012 will be happy to see several examples of pure New Age Music in the Grammy category this year.
Four out of the six nominated albums, Krishna Das’s Live Ananda, Michael Brant De Maria’s Bindu , Steven Halpern’s Deep Alpha and Peter Kater’s Light Body, are examples of new age music in its most unadulterated form. All but Krishna Das are meditative, light on rhythm and melody, high on atmosphere and mood. It’s the quintessential sound for massage, guided meditation, and healing that New Age purported to be back in the 1970s. That’s exactly when Steven Halpern began.
It could be argued that Steven Halpern created the New Age genre. He’s certainly a pioneer, one of the first to specifically market to the meditation and healing community. Surprisingly, this is his first Grammy nomination. Halpern’s Deep Alpha, whose subtitle is Brainwave Synchronization for Meditation and Healing, could’ve been recorded back in 1975 when he released his first album, Spectrum Suite. Sonorous and relentlessly tonal, Halpern floats on clouds of electric Rhodes piano, its soft-focus bell-like tones hanging in space, always pleasant, but never resolving into a melody or a progression. In other words, classic New Age music in caps.
Eight-time Grammy nominee, Peter Kater follows suit with Light Body, music designed around the chakras, the most popular New Age trope. Kater is a pianist and composer of broad skills and technique, but here he goes for drifty music: spare piano notes etched in the sky while the voices of angels caress your brow with gates-of-heaven sighs. But unlike Halpern, Kater can’t help but bring in some melody eventually, playing classically-tinged themes, like Debussy in a dream with Paul McCandless’ always soulful oboe keening across the changes.
Michael Brant DeMaria is a little less well-known, although he’s been nominated twice before. He has albums with a more robust chamber world music sound, but this psychologist/musician also has a hard core New Age side. Bindu is lovely in its sonics; beautiful keyboards from acoustic piano to synths, ethnic percussion, native flutes. It’s all present in music that blows perfumed breaths but never really intrudes, or aspires to much beyond a serene mood.
All three of these albums subscribe to the hard core, original dictates of New Age music, the sound before more adventurous sonic explorers like Steve Roach, Michael Stearns, Robert Rich and even George Winston came on the scene.
Krishna Das’ music isn’t quite as meditative as these three, but he also takes his inspiration from eastern music and philosophies, in this case, Hindu chants. He’s one of the superstars on the Kirtan chanting scene. As Das recordings go, Live Ananda is less ecstatic and more serene than some of his other CDs. His coarse, guttural voice intones the chants against tablas, harmonium, occasional strings and a chorus of his followers. For the uninitiated, think Hare Krishna for the upwardly mobile.
While these artists subscribe to the original tenets of New Age music, Omar Akram’s Echoes Of Love represents the commercialization of New Age into the middle of the road, easy listening music. This is upscale dinner music, pleasant melodies, vaguely exotic instrumentation, nice atmospheres, all mixed into a sweet sonic cocktail. No healing, meditation or exploration here, just Muzak™.
The odd nominee out this year is Loreena McKennitt. For years, the New Age category has been a harbor for artists like McKennitt who couldn’t find a home elsewhere. But in 2012, her Troubadours on the Rhine, a live recording of her more traditionally Celtic, albeit exotic and Middle-Eastern-ized sound, seems to be from another planet, and certainly another category entirely.
The Grammys are flawed in so many ways, and the fact that an artist like Loreena McKennitt sticks out in the category is an issue that should be addressed. She elevates the category by her presence, but really shares little with it aesthetically, spiritually or even in image. In which case, where does that leave groups like Dead Can Dance, Hammock, Steve Roach, The Album Leaf, or even Sigur Ros?.
Oh, and if I’m making a pick, I guess it’s Loreena McKennitt, both to win and as a personal choice.
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ADDENDUM: The main reason we conduct our Best of Echoes year end polls is we want to recognize artists like Loreena McKennitt, who don’t get acknowledged by other awards or even other media. For example, check out NPR’s Year End lists. Let me know if you find an Echoes artist on there, let alone an Echoes list.
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