Echo, Echo: Death, Rebirth, and New Age Music

By Peter HolslinMay 7, 2024

Echo, Echo: Death, Rebirth, and New Age Music
This article is a preview of the LARB Quarterly, no. 41: Truth. Become a member to get this issue plus the next four issues of the LARB Quarterly.


CONFINED TO THE SOFT leather La-Z-Boy recliner, I switched on the television and let time slip away.

I partook in this ritual every time I visited my father at his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the final years of his life. He lived in a three-bedroom, Tuscany-meets-Southwest rambler plunked in the middle of a suburban subdivision on the west side of the Rio Grande. The neighborhood was filled with working-class families, retirees, and beefy military types who drove around in lifted trucks and had barking dogs patrol their backyards. Beyond the perimeter of Montecito Estates, there were prehistoric escarpments and basalt rock formations for miles, all colored some shade of tan. Walking to a nearby grocery store or coffee shop was out of the question; I’d have to drive 15 minutes down winding roads toward the strip malls of Coors Boulevard.

The sun was ruthless during the summer, the heat radiating off the abundant concrete. Snow fell in winter, and spring was a time of seasonal allergies and uncanny congestion. My dad grew up in the 1960s on a farm in Minnesota, so I imagine the isolation made him feel nostalgic, maybe even liberated. For me, it was suffocating. Sinking into that La-Z-Boy, I could feel my body atrophy, my critical faculties dull. This seemed to be the kind of aspirationally anonymous “Suburban Home” that California punk band Descendents paid tribute to in their classic album Milo Goes to College: “I don’t want no hippie pad / I want a house just like Mom and Dad.” The television was enormous.

My dad had a subscription to DirecTV. During the pandemic days, between doctors’ appointments, after he got his fill of anti-Trump coverage on CNN, he would switch to a channel called Soundscapes. There were no shows on this channel—no visuals at all, in fact. Soundscapes was devoted entirely to ethereal New Age music. Most of the tracks were long and meandering, consisting of sustained synthesizer chords, dreamy drone tones, and gentle acoustic instruments: woodwinds and gongs drifting over field recordings of nature. I watched—listened—with fascination. I didn’t recognize any of the artists whose names appeared on the screen, except for Enya, but it occurred to me that who they were didn’t really matter. In the world of Soundscapes, individualism dissolved into a bed of clouds. But for all the evocation of organic naturescapes, the music seemed suburbanized in its inoffensive, indistinct use of open space.

My instinct was to recoil. To be sure, Soundscapes represented the opposite of the DIY music I grew up on—punk and indie rock that prized chaos over calm, catharsis over quietude. I didn’t realize until later that many New Age artists had fomented their own form of DIY liberation, defying market trends with a mission of inner calm propagated through underground networks of home studios and private-press labels.

Something has changed in me since those days on the La-Z-Boy. Over the past few years, I’ve immersed myself in all kinds of placid, unstructured, atmospheric music. My playlists have become overpopulated with Japanese environmental tracks and Brian Eno’s “ambient” albums. My shelves have filled up with New Age cassettes, ambient records, and books about “open music”—the term musician and author David Toop uses to describe genres like ambient and New Age in his 1995 book Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds. I’ve also amassed a small collection of New Age–ready instruments like gongs, flutes, synthesizers, and drum machines, using them to create recordings with no discernible hooks, no apparent structure, and no market intention. Moving through waves of grief, feeling adrift in the world, I’ve been drawn to New Age’s boundlessness, its special way of releasing the listener from expectation.

Of course, I’m hardly the only one to embrace New Age lately—as OutKast’s André 3000 made clear in New Blue Sun, his debut solo album that dropped last year, in which he traded his usual rap verses for wooden flutes and MIDI wind controllers. The heaviness of our times, the looming specters of sickness and dying, the obsolescence of classic rockist assumptions in the critical sphere—these are all things that seem to have forced a reckoning in American critical taste. My own reappraisal of New Age has revealed a surprising truth about the magic a listener can find on these seemingly meaningless sonic wanderings.


It’s easy to resort to cliché when defining New Age music. Critics call it sonic wallpaper, Muzak, elevator music, or hippie-dippie bullshit. Steven Halpern, a Grammy-nominated luminary of New Age, offers a more thorough definition in his fascinating foreword to Patti Jean Birosik’s 1989 compendium, The New Age Music Guide. Over two comprehensive pages, he outlines the genre’s basic elements, including consonant harmony, the absence of rhythmic pulse, and the generous use of effects like reverb and delay. Maybe the most striking feature is the use of melody, or the intentional misuse of it, as a New Age track is supposed to be shorn of hooks and easy to forget. “Even after repeated listenings, most people cannot remember the sequence of sounds in these works,” he writes. “When we eliminate the straitjacket of predetermined patterns, we open up new ways of organizing and experiencing sound for ourselves.”

In his foreword, Halpern emphasizes the importance of the music’s connection to the wider New Age movement, specifically to holistic healing practices like yoga and meditation. The way he puts it, a New Age artist has to be more than just a talented musician—they also have to be in a balanced “vibrational” state at the critical moment when they sit down to record. Traditional show-business models of virtuosity and spectacle have no business here; by design, New Age is more about centeredness and mental health. “We react differently to music an artist plays from a state of balance and love,” Halpern writes, “than to sound arising from a wish to glorify the ego, or, worse, from anxiety.”

In Ocean of Sound, Toop identifies 1889 as a significant year marking the emergence of the music that would eventually come to be tagged under categories like ambient and New Age. That’s the year French composer Claude Debussy attended the Exposition Universelle in Paris, a colonial exhibition where he first encountered a range of folk-music styles from Southeast Asia. At one performance Debussy is said to have attended, a Javanese ensemble played suling flute, bowed rebab, and some kind of metallophone (an instrument that produces sound through metal pieces like bars, tubes, or bowls) while accompanied by the “slow, eerie grace” (Toop’s words) of a bedhaya dance troupe. Toop, long regarded as an authority on ambient and experimental music, suggests that this was an early example of Western fascination with Indonesian gamelan, a musical tradition whose gong instruments would later captivate influential composers like Colin McPhee and Steve Reich. Toop makes an effort to draw a link between Debussy’s 1889 moment and his later works of aquatic-themed Impressionism—it’s one of many wishy-washy, not-totally-convincing thematic connections he makes throughout a book that is itself deeply impressionistic.

Still, the very fact of Debussy’s encounter may be significant, at least symbolically. For better and worse, New Age has often played out as an interface of “East” meeting “West.” On countless New Age playlists, LPs, CDs, and cassettes (that otherwise outdated format being especially popular among genre enthusiasts), you can hear European and North American artists appropriating music from elsewhere for their own ends, blithely overlooking the power imbalances of colonialism and global capitalism as they revel in a distinct idiom of representations, (mis)interpretations, and Orientalist tropes. This approach is one of many postmodern elements that contribute to New Age’s deliberately chilled-out vibe, lending it an atmospheric weightlessness that can also come across as intellectually hollow.

The New Age Music Guide, a collection of hundreds of mini-profiles of New Age artists, credits jazz clarinetist Tony Scott as the first artist to put out a proper New Age record. Released in 1964, Scott’s Music for Zen Meditation teams him with Japanese koto maestro Shinichi Yuize and shakuhachi flutist Hōzan Yamamoto to set a serene mood through a remarkable exploration of slow pacing and open space. Scott recorded the album after an extended stay in Japan, where he learned about Zen monks and studied Japanese classical music in between gigs that spanned the country and private excursions even deeper into the region. With its glacial tempos, Japanese scales, and a reed instrument (the clarinet) that had fallen out of vogue in jazz, Music for Zen Meditation represented not only a radical break from entrenched tenets of the genre but also a departure from the then-emerging free-jazz and post-bop movements. The album also happens to be an excellent tool for literal Zen meditation. No surprise, then, that it ended up a hit, selling 500,000 copies within a few years and setting the template for New Age releases to come.

During the Age of Aquarius in the 1960s and ’70s, plenty of other musicians “opened their minds” to New Agey artistic approaches. Synthesizers, sequencers, tape loops, and effects units broke previous molds on music-making: among the advantages was “unlimited sustain at the flick of a switch,” as Halpern explains, allowing for infinitely wider vistas of experimentation and exploration to come into view. The rising popularity in the United States and Europe of sounds like Indian raga, Pakistani Qawwali, and Indonesian gamelan also helped reshape the relationship between artist and audience. Toop writes that the marathon-length performances of gamelan could shift a listener’s priorities: “[I]ntense focus, even a literal entrancement, could be alternated with peripheral listening, eating, drinking, or, ultimately, sleep.”

In at least one case, inspiration came as a result of the vulnerability brought on by convalescence. Music journalist Geeta Dayal, writing in Another Green World (2009), a book about Brian Eno’s 1975 album of the same name, relates an anecdote about how Eno came up with the idea for ambient music while recovering from being hit by a taxi. He’d just returned from the hospital to his home in London when his friend Judy Nylon stopped by, carrying a tape of 18th-century harp music she had just bought. As Nylon tells it in an interview, the famed songwriter was in a miserable state, stuck in bed in a drab room: “The room was grey, the carpet was grey, the light was grey.” After she put on the tape, the two started fiddling with the volume, realizing that the sound of the delicate instrumentals could be EQ’d so as to find a tranquil balance with the sound of rain pouring outside. “This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music—as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience,” Eno later wrote of this aha moment.


While different in many respects, Ocean of Sound and The New Age Music Guide both adopt nonnarrative formats that emphasize the unstructured nature of “open music” genres like ambient and New Age. Ocean of Sound is packed with freewheeling insights and endless references to artists, and I’ve found that its lack of coherence makes the book an effective sleeping aid. The New Age Music Guide’s mini-profiles, meanwhile, lump together a disparate collection of key musical figures—including avant-garde composer Morton Feldman, Yellow Magic Orchestra co-founder Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Miami Vice soundtrack scorer Jan Hammer—under a ludicrous array of subcategories (“New Age Traditional,” “New Age Sound Health,” “New Age Space”).

As I read these books, I found myself veering back and forth between curiosity and suspicion. Free-improv analysis can be liberating, but it can also be dangerous. It’s cool to be chill and go with the flow, but you should wonder where the current is coming from, and where the flow eventually leads.

New Age practices can bring about deep healing and positivity, but they’ve also been known to promote anti-intellectual, conspiracy-minded thinking, weakening peoples’ defenses against nefarious forces like fascism. New York Times critic Ben Ratliff pinpoints a central concern about New Age and New Age–adjacent music in an interview for the 2021 documentary Listening to Kenny G. Speaking about G’s smooth-jazz tune “Going Home,” Ratliff says that the “calming effect” of the instrumental’s synth-pad reveries and soprano-sax lamentations has the power to “reduce people’s desire to resist things or cause trouble.” In China, “Going Home” has been used for years in malls and other businesses to signal to shoppers that the doors are closing for the night—in much the same way that G and others have been deployed in American malls, waiting rooms, and customer-service hold lines. “Is Kenny G’s music a weapon of consent?” Ratliff wonders.

Still, it would be unfair to single out New Age as the only kind of music capable of brainwashing the masses. As if to preemptively counter Ratliff’s argument, Halpern posits in The New Age Music Guide that it is, in fact, the strong melody of pop music that makes listeners suggestible in ways they never expected. He makes a smart case for New Age’s subversive side, as its open structure and emphasis on mood over melody push against the preconceived assumptions built into most peoples’ listening habits. “Indeed, we’ve all been culturally conditioned to respond to particular patterns in sound,” he writes, “whether we are aware of it or not!”

Looking for a third opinion, I recently cued up an episode of Music of Mind Control, a weekly show on New Jersey’s WFMU radio station devoted to the music of cultist movements. I expected a healthy dose of creepy New Age fare, and host Micah Moses certainly delivered by kicking things off with a New Age–leaning track—a group chanting “Thank you very much!” in eerie unison over synth drones, chimes, and seagull sounds. But Moses soon switched things up. He recently spoke to about how cult music tends to be imitative of popular genres, but in a way that “doesn’t quite pass muster” because it’s often so poorly produced or pandering. On his show, he spun two trainwreck attempts at country-western music by Tuaca Kelly, a “truth-targeting vocational reality voyager” based in Amsterdam. There was also a batch of cheerful if slightly bizarre psychedelic folk from 1972 by a band promoting the creator of Transcendental Meditation. And, most entertaining of all, the Hearts Center Community dished out some keyboard-orchestra waltzes and jaunty choral numbers that could’ve been the score to a Pixar movie about Heaven’s Gate.


My father was most definitely not a holistic-healing guy. A nuclear physicist by profession, he was a proud atheist with a logical mind. But New Age music soothed him. He was sensitive to loud noises and bass, and for years was wary whenever I started tuning the radio dial while riding with him in the car, lest I turn on something too intense like punk rock or hip-hop or techno. We finally found our musical connection one day in the middle of the pandemic. I had just dropped the needle on my new copy of Hiroshi Yoshimura’s 1982 album Music for Nine Post Cards when I got a call from him. As we talked on the phone, delicate electric piano tones emanated from my home speakers, and although the volume was low, it was loud enough for him to hear. He paused. “Oh, what is that?” he said. “It sounds nice.”

At his home in Albuquerque, he’d adopted a new bedtime ritual—as close to a spiritual practice as I ever saw him doing. He would spend several minutes in the bathroom applying eye drops and taking a range of medicines, and would then climb into his enormous California King bed. He kept his iPhone charging on his nightstand, and he would cue up a New Age playlist to help him drift off to sleep. Back in the living room, I would sit in the leather La-Z-Boy and watch TV. I kept the volume low as I listened to the synthesizer drones and soothing acoustic instrumentals billowing from his room, like stray tendrils from a vape pen. The music came courtesy of artists like Steve Roach, known for instrumental pieces that stretch out and blend together in ways that evoke vast landscapes and dream-time journeys.

One afternoon last March, about a year and a half after my father died, his beloved Soundscapes channel echoed back to me during a journey of my own. I was on a trip to Lebanon with a couple of friends, and we were racing up a mountain in a rental car with hopes of catching one of the last rides of the day on the Teleferique, a gondola lift that offers beautiful views of the Mediterranean coastline. We had gotten a late start and kept getting distracted by things on the side of the road, so we arrived at our destination right as the Teleferique was closing for the day. But we forgot our cares as a glorious bevy of synth drones beckoned to us from beyond a gated entryway.

Soon, we found ourselves gazing upwards at Our Lady of Lebanon, a Maronite Christian shrine to the Virgin Mary. Standing on a mountain peak over 2,000 feet above sea level, the statue of Mary towers atop a 65-foot-tall stone base, into which is built a small chapel. Nearly 30 feet tall, painted all white, Mary holds her hands out to her sides in a gesture of mercy.

As tourists and other casual visitors strolled around, looking out on Jounieh Bay and posing for pictures, a smaller assortment of worshipping pilgrims found spots to stand along the spiral steps leading up to Our Lady. I speak Arabic and have been to Lebanon several times, but I had no idea where I was, nor the significance of the shrine I was now visiting. I assumed, ignorantly, that everyone had found their perch on the steps simply to get a better look at the views and to snap pictures. But they were all quiet, serious, focused on prayer and reflection. The sun began to set, and those deep, murmuring electronics piped over the PA system. Sustained chords quietly drifted over the area, helping create an ambience of spiritual concentration. The music, if you could even call it music, was like a thin layer of fog, or the slow dimming of sunlight at dusk: there and not there, beautiful but nonintrusive, part of the environment in the same way that low-volume harp pluckings became a part of Eno’s environment back in 1975.

I often wondered what my dad thought about in quiet moments of alone time during the last months and days of his life. He became deeply reflective in his later years, and I gathered that he was making peace with things, reflecting on what he had accomplished in life, and maybe wondering where the next step into the great beyond would take him. The world of Soundscapes clearly helped make that a peaceful journey for him—as it has done for me ever since. On the mountain in Lebanon, the sweeping vistas of sound were washing over me, creating an unexpected moment of surreal beauty. My focus shifted, and shifted again. The muscles in my neck relaxed. I was in a place I had never been to before, but it all felt familiar, and I thought about how much I missed my dad.

LARB Contributor

Peter Holslin is a freelance journalist, music writer, and musician originally from San Diego, California.


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