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How new age healing music shaped underground music in 2018

In a frantic world, more musicians are exploring the intersection between hedonism and spirituality

In 2018, the trend for all things new age became an everyday mundanity. Meditation and yoga are universally endorsed methods of exercising and de-stressing, you don’t have to look too hard to find more avant-garde treatments like gong baths or bowl therapy, and mindfulness apps like Headspace are just a few taps away on your phone. It’s infiltrated popular culture, too, be it the prevalence of tarot cards, crystal grids, and astrology, the fact that 1.5 million Americans say they’re practicing witches, or how a show like Netflix’s recent zeitgeist-tapping The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina seamlessly integrated wicca mythology and mysticism into an otherwise conventional high school melodrama.

This ubiquity is echoed by the state of music in 2018. Last month, the idea was explicitly embodied when electronic artist Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s announced that her next album was designed to accompany her mother’s yoga sessions, but more quietly, a renaissance of new age music ideas is filtering into the mainstream. While this encompasses affiliated genres like ambient and drone music (with exemplary records from Sarah Davachi, Laurel Halo, and Ian William Craig this year), new age ideas aren’t only vibrating through yoga teachers’ speakers, but nightclub subwoofers. There are festivals and events dedicated to wellness raves, sober parties celebrating spirituality and healthy living through dance music without a gurn in sight. Sober or not though, clubbing has always been clued into spirituality, and this is reflected in dance music’s creation and consumption.

Jon Hopkins is someone exploring the latter. “Certain concepts are universal,” the English artist, whose most 2018 album Singularity musically maps the psychedelic experience, says. “Having the drone, a certain note that stays the same during the track, that’s a longstanding feature of most devotional music, and it’s very common in electronic music. I think there’s something about that drone that allows you to sink deeper.” Hopkins’s 2013 album, Immunity, charted the progression of a rave, invested in the arc of what he calls the ‘desert experience’, where dancing to loud music leads to being overcome by a sudden clarity that belies the frenzy of your surroundings. “I’ve had (those experiences) on the dancefloor,” Hopkins says. “Hypnotic rhythms listened to for many hours; being lost in your own inner world, that’s a spiritual experience.”

Victor Szabo is Assistant Professor of Music at Hampden-Sydney College, where he teaches music history, theory, and composition. He argues that “at least as far back as soul and disco, dance music has been about both hedonism and spiritual cleansing, enriching a part of the self that in everyday life was expected to be private and polite”. That hedonism should be ‘enriching’ makes sense – the dancefloor calmness that Hopkins refers to, and the catharsis Szabo diagnoses, are also symptomatic of more traditional spiritual practices like church-going and meditation. Hopkins judges that “spirituality is an activity of ideas that can never be fenced off entirely from other mediums. With the right judgemental perception or mood-altering compounds, you can enter that spiritual place on the dancefloor and find equilibrium, and then there’s the downtempo stuff you can sink into in chillout rooms or when you’re home.”

The original new age movement of the 70s was a mindfulness renaissance interested in spiritual interconnectedness, and though it was maligned in its time as a cheesy offshoot of hippie culture, its ideas and practices – particularly yoga and meditation, which they appropriated from Hinduism – have been revitalised largely thanks to economically anxious millennials. Its popularity today coincides with drastic declines in drinking, smoking, and drug use among young people, rises in gym membership and clean eating, and heightened awareness around mental health (not that his has necessarily coincided with better access to care). In a wider context, new age’s cultural ubiquity is an evolution rather than a cursory trend.

“Hypnotic rhythms listened to for many hours; being lost in your own inner world, that’s a spiritual experience” – Jon Hopkins

In an increasingly atomised social environment, underlined by an unstable economic reality that disproportionately affects the young, people are increasingly seeking fulfilment in spirituality. Kelly Lee Owens, a Welsh producer fascinated by new age ideas and sound’s healing potential, believes that “more people are living their lives where hedonism and spirituality intersect, integrating their experiences. At raves or gong baths, it’s the purge, the cleanse, and the integration.”

To consider the connection between raves and gong baths – their spirituality – it’s useful to understand the relationship between dance music and healing music. Ambient, as downtempo, intentionally relaxing, and predominantly instrumental music, best aligns with our traditional assumptions of healing music. Artists like Brian Eno have made conscious attempts at producing healing ambient, as exemplified by his 77 Million Paintings for Montefiore project, where he designed soundscapes for Montefiore Hospital in Sussex, but even this analogue is imperfect.

“It’s funny how our ears are trained towards defining specific tempos or chords or production methods as ‘healing’,” says American electronic artist Laurel Halo. “A minor ninth chord in a sustained pad sound immediately sounds like meditation music to me. But then someone else could listen to saccharine pop rock and think the same.”

Ryuichi Sakamoto is widely regarded as one of the most important pioneers of electronic music, playing a vital role in the evolution of hip hop, techno, and ambient. In the 80s, he and contemporaries such as Midori Takada and Hiroshi Yoshimura made ambient that’s been described as healing music. Yet Sakamoto argues that “people still misunderstand healing and ambient music, they don’t see the emotional distinction. Healing music is to me not a style of music, but any kind of music, like Bach, or Beethoven, or Chopin, or some branch of world music, which has the innate power to heal, regardless of what it sounds like.”

“More people are living their lives where hedonism and spirituality intersect, integrating their experiences. At raves or gong baths, it’s the purge, the cleanse, and the integration” – Kelly Lee Owens

For some, the liberating dirge of techno or incorrigible joy of disco might hold that power. Victor Szabo agrees that healing music is distinct from ambient, and highlights its relationship with the new age movement. “It’s hard for me to disentangle the phrase ‘healing music’ from the conventional genre label new age, since these two terms grew up together in the 1970s,” he says. “Although this bleeds over into the ambient genre label, I don’t associate ambient with ‘healing music’ directly. Ambient music as a genre label partly distanced itself from new age by disavowing any overtly therapeutic function of the music.”

A more cynical reason behind new age music’s resurgence, though, is that streaming services like Spotify are jumping on the bandwagon. Since new age music’s main quality is its soothing unobtrusiveness, it’s become popular as simply something to have on in the background, a trend that Spotify has readily commodified. Hop on Spotify’s ‘Browse’ section at 3pm and you’ll be overwhelmed by playlists promising ‘chill’, ‘mellow’, and ‘concentration’ under the banner of ‘getting you through your afternoon’. There are playlists titled ‘stress relief’ and ‘peace’, abstract mental health concepts reduced to a simplistic, data-driven functionality, like a workout playlist, the end product of modern life’s relentlessness to hit shuffle and hope algorithmically-ordered healing music does its thing.

Regardless of the origins of its popularity, new age theories and instruments are certainly being implemented in music today, with Hopkins and Owens two of its champions. In Hopkins’s single “Neon Pattern Drum”, he uses the new age texture of bowl echoes, and before her show at London’s Oslo last November, Owens asked her friend to perform a gong bath as her warm-up act. “For my Oslo show I used a gong bath, because I knew that even if people don’t understand what gong baths are, they’ll feel it without knowing,” Owens explains. “It’s an unblocking, a very powerful, reverberating sound. We don’t have to understand things cerebrally for them to affect us.” Artists’ appreciation of new age exercises and principles, the mood-affecting importance of echoes and vibrations for instance, are influencing the progression of their sound, with Owens suggesting using gongs in her recorded work in future.

The use of field recordings to relax the listener is an effective motif in new age meditation. On Sakamoto’s “Walker” there is the gentle crunch of leaves underfoot; on Hopkins’ “Echo Dissolve”, the muted blare of car alarms and sirens, the natural calm of the forest and the unnatural calm of the twilight city. Hopkins clarifies: “I was recording music in Shoreditch Treehouse and miked up the room. When I listened back I thought ‘Oh shit, there’s traffic over everything,’ but listening closely that’s how the record is supposed to be, naturalistic. It opens to let the outside world in.” Recalling Owens’s assertion that we’re all searching for spirituality in everyday life, these are vignettes of the everyday, dreamlike and disconnected, interposed into the fabric of the song, an instinctive peacefulness that transcends melody or rhythm.

New age exercises and music’s creation also share the capability for processing tragedy or pain. “When I was 21, I had chronic fatigue syndrome for six months, and I recorded a piece called the ‘The Fourth Estate’, a 30-minute ambient track, to try to bring myself, successfully, into a new state of self-hypnosis,” Hopkins admits. Meanwhile, complementing his daily yoga, Sakamoto similarly sought to process not only his pain through music, but also the disorder of natural calamity. His 2017 album async was conceived as a response to being diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer in 2014, as well as the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami. “Two events are in the background of async; the first is a tsunami, which is the short power of nature of which we are terrified. The second event is my own sickness, the closest moment in my life,” Sakamoto says. “Those two very different events are both coming from nature, so I thought that was kind of a reverberation. The tsunami was outside of myself, the sickness a part of me, and I had to accept both.” He elaborates: “In my opinion, the true power of healing is acceptance, so async was my processing acceptance.”

In 2018, every conversation and thought we have heaves under the subtext of economic uncertainty, encroaching fascism, and the existential threat of climate change. New age ideas and practices promise Owens’s “integration”, Hopkins’s “singularity”, and Sakamoto’s “acceptance”. Music reflects the mood of a civilisation, and new age’s popularity – whether in the devotional drone of the techno kickdrum, a livestreamed yoga class, or the stressbusting playlist on the office speaker – illustrates a collective need to escape, connect, and heal.