Caravanserai Magazine Archive

Published 1988-2000 semi-annually on behalf of the Sufi Movement International by the Sufi Movement in Canada.


1988 Volume 1. Rahema E. A. Alexander. "Children of Eternity. Random Notes on New Age Music"

One of the most culturally pervasive phenomena of the New Age is its music; and since, when we speak of New Age Music, we usually mean, specifically, electronic music, we might find it helpful, at the outset to define it. Electronic music is that performed on instruments which generate sound electronically, such as synthesizers; and those which modify sound, such as reverberators. We may also include reed and string instruments, such as the electric flute and the electronic violin, which derive their distinctive character through electronic amplification.

But how new is New Age Music? The term 'electronic music' came into use around 1930, following the development of several prototypical instruments in the nineteen twenties, which are of interest chiefly as forerunners of the instruments mentioned above. But it was not until after the end of WW II that this music had its greatest impetus, following the invention of the tape recorder in 1948, and in 1955, the development of the synthesizer. And as it has evolved over the years, electronic music has given rise to completely new systems of musical notation. The earliest composers of electronic music were influenced by the serial school and musique concrete, among them Pierre Schaeffler, Karlheins Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt and Otto Leuning, to mention only several. Marie Davidovsky continues today in this more or less classical tradition.

Without going further into the historical background of New Age Music, we may say that this music can be 'pure', that is, written for electronic instruments only; it may consist of combinations of taped sounds including those of the natural world, in addition to the music; or it may consist of combinations of electronic sounds in tandem with the sounds of conventional instruments.

Most electronic music is distinguished by its complexity. Magnetic tape, upon which much of it is composed, may be cut or spliced, thus creating a rich montage of contrapuntal systems, timbres, rhythms and percussive effects. The province of this music is the entire spectrum of sound.

Synthesizers can be played, as we have said, in combination with not only the instruments of the traditional Western orchestra, but also with such culturally diverse ones as the Japanese koto and shakuhachi, the Balinese gamelan, the Indian vina, tabla and sarangi, the Persian santur and the African drums and m'bira or thumb piano, among others. The world of New Age Music is truly that of the global community.

Electronic music has become so widely diffused throughout our culture that often we are hardly aware that what we are listening to is, in fact, electronic music; from rock ensembles to discotheques, as 'background' music for films and television documentaries and dramas, on the radio, and even in the traditional concert hall.

Some New Age Music is composed specifically for relaxation or healing, or as a non-intrusive background for meditation, prayer or guided imagery, for example that of Steve Halpern, Danile Kobialka, Georgia Kelly and Robert Burns and Ron Dexter, among others. Often it includes pretaped sounds from the natural world, such as birdsong, the sound of wind and water, or even, as in Steven Halpern's 'Leviathan Blue', the songs of the humpback whale.

Further, in an age of space exploration, many composers of New Age music are preoccupied with images of near and outer space, as is seen in such titles as 'Sun Space' (Daniel Kobialka), 'Dawn' and 'Eventide' (Steven Halpern), 'Celestial Meditative Music' (Albert Gorayeb), and the award winning Down to the Moon' (Andreas Vollenweider). One popular programme of electronic music on the American public radio is entitled 'Hearts of Space', and indeed much electronic music has an ambience that suggests to the listener being detached from the body and floating in space. But even more important, much of it as we have already seen is intended to encourage an exploration of inner space.

Another characteristic of electronic music is its repetitiveness. Pir-o-Murshid Musharaff Moulamia Khan has suggested in an address preceding a Sama in 1967, that repetitiveness in music creates a more abstract sound. Moreover, the deep, organ-like drone of the synthesizer at times suggests to the listener the mantram of the Nada Brahman, OM.

What, specifically, then is this 'new' music saying to us? To recapitulate briefly, New Age music speaks to us of our roots in the natural world, or our interconnectedness with each other and with the global community, of our perceived destiny in outer space, and even more importantly, of our spiritual legacy as children of Eternity. And music being the universal language, New Age music is instantly accessible to anyone, in any part of the world.

Electronic music will not, at least in our own time, displace the standard classical repertoire, but it can point in new directions both for the composer, and for the informed listener.


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