It opens with a delicate piano piece, an ambient overture. “The struggle of the magicians, part three”. Credited to composer Thomas De Hartmann and mystic cum guru Gurdjieff (1866 – 1949), this is a lovely neo-classical piece that seduces with a gently pastoral beauty suggesting the magicians aren’t straining too hard.
Next is a wispy harp piece by Gail Laughton, then a short interlude of muted gongs.
Now in creeps a slightly unsettling keyboard track called “Witch’s will” by occultist-musician Wilburn Burchette followed by windsong and flute.
Such variety, and all on side one of this three record set of early New Age music. Compiled by the dedicated folk at Light In The Attic, this collection of private releases and ambient experiments covers the period 1950 to 1990; little of it saw commercial release other than self-produced cassettes.
Some of the artists are known: Iasos, Steven Halpern, Michael Stearns. Others produced their music at home and sold the tapes through alternative bookshops and spiritual healing centres (whatever they are).
And that’s the thing about both this style of music and this particular release. It comes from a place of innocence, of search for connection with self and the universe, a place far distant from commercial imperatives and record company marketing.
A patina of other worldly sincerity lays gently across these sides. Take “Seraphic Borealis” by Joel Andrews. The informative (if slightly earnest) liner notes tell us how Mr Andrews taped the piece “in 1977 at Seabird Studios in Edgewater, Florida. A group of friends sat in a circle around the harpist during the session”. Later, he visited an Egyptian temple at Luxor as part of his quest to balance yin and yang. The music, Andrews assures us, “promotes Ascension on all levels of being”. I think we can all relate to that.
Side two concludes with a drifting piano/synth wash overlaid with echoing chant. “Om Mani Padme Hum” is the title of Constance Demby’s piece. Was it written for Anakin Skywalker’s wife, I wonder? And can I hum along? Perplexing questions, yet it is easy to listen to; a beguiling combination of electronica with human voice mixed far back. Fans of Popol Vuh will love this one.
“Sound created the universe,” Ms Demby asserts, “it wasn’t a word. Sound created atoms; sound and light are the original manifesting principles for worlds.”
It’s the (new) age-old tension: entrancing music versus the absolute bollocks spouted by some of the musicians.
In an effort to accommodate as many different artists as possible, Light In The Attic have chosen to edit down some of the long pieces, offering variety but eliciting frustration along the way. I would have liked more of Don Slepian’s “Awakening”, for instance, with its synthesiser drones and sequenced flute-like trills. Same with the Laraaji track, “Unicorns in paradise”. No dulcimer here, just shimmering layers of phased synth veering towards the discordant. Really interesting; I wanted more.
Michael Stearns is perhaps the most widely known and successful of the artists represented on I Am The Centre. Album curator Douglas McGowan interviewed sometime Stearns collaborator Gary David for the liner notes (Why? Didn’t Michael want to talk?). Anyway, despite attempts to define music in words being a bit like trying to shovel smoke, Mr David takes a brave stab at defining New Age music and its intent:
I see new age music as an attempt to create musical emotions based on the bodily feelings of contentment and joy. It was an image of what people at the time considered to be ‘spiritual’ and was aimed at inducing ‘right brained’ washes of unfocused sensing in which the boundaries of ‘self’ were loosened. It did this using repetition, modes, ambitious rhythms, etc, using both electronic and acoustic instruments. But it was overwhelmed by a culture moving towards excitement, and not contentment. The lack of dramatic tension and resolution in the music kept it from ever triggering interest in a wider public.
Certainly there is little drama in this collection, but there is variety and interest despite some of the later pieces being much more the tinkly-boing style associated with most commercial new age music (neither Larkin nor Judith Tripp’s contributions did much for me).
Unhooking from the habitual (physical and mental), unlocking the constrained (emotional, muscular); these are worthwhile goals for Homo sapiens generally, and seem particularly relevant in whatever age we are now in.
Finally, a word about the cover art. These paintings are the work of Gilbert Williams who is known as a “visionary artist”. His website tells us that he “draws great inspiration from celestial realms, which are portrayed in (his) mystical paintings that bring to our imaginations magical worlds that, until now, have only existed in our purest of dreams”. Although I’m not sure I’ve ever had a pure dream, the works present a kind of soft-focus fantasy; eschewing Conan the Barbarian machismo in favour of Rainbow Fairy dreamscapes. Pleasant—intriguing even—yet I think I prefer Roger Dean or Mati Klarwein.
In summary, I Am The Centre is a beautifully produced three record set (or double CD) of music that really does evoke another plane of existence; one where tension melts like dawn mist and gentle waves wash away troubles.
I guess that is a destination we could all benefit from visiting more often.