Friday, December 02, 2011

Begin Again, Keep Going

Having completed a large commission of songs for male chorus and piano, which occupied all of my attention for several months, and which produced a concert's worth of music, I have this past week been newly commissioned to do another, very different musical project. A CD I had made on commission almost a decade ago, a CD of trance music to be used as background for yoga classes, meditation, and similar situations, has led to a commission to make a sequel CD. Not a repetition, but the next level. I'm a better composer and musician now, or at least I hope I am, since time is meant to improve your art-making, not stagnate it.

This new CD I am recording now will be used for meditation, yoga, healing, massage, Reiki sessions, and so forth. Thus I'm writing it to sustain those purposes, not interrupt them. That calls for a particular kind of music. A particular tone and tempo very different from the dramatic, narrative songs I've been writing for most of this year. It will be completely non-verbal, instrumental music. It will use original recordings of Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist meditation bells, bells recorded from my own collection. It will use a fair bit of shakuhachi. No doubt there will be some synthesizers and keyboards in the mix, and Chapman Stick. It will have a variety of shapes and tones, but overall will hopefully take the listener deeper into meditative states of consciousness, the opposite of overstimulated, stressed-out, Type A caffeinated states of mind.

There's a lot of bland, boring New Age music out there. The best of that genre has always been music first, New Age music second. I think of musicians such as Paul Winter, Will Ackerman, and a few others, who pretty much invented the genre, but also transcended it. Contrast their vibrant, emotional music with the soulless boring pap of Stephen Halpern's random noodlings on electric piano. Contrast the powerful presence of the music in Stephan Micus recording against the flatlined neutral of most New Age music. Even ambient music, created in modern times by Brian Eno, inspired by Eric Satie's semi-joking idea for "furniture music" a century earlier, has more soul than most music you hear played in New Age bookstores, or most healing centers, massage offices, or new Age spiritual healing seminars. People often make the mistake of equating music meant to be unobtrusive and supportive with toneless, dull, bland, and spineless.

Yes, I do have strong opinions about New Age music.

That's because I was a participating witness to the development of this music from its start, back at its inception in the 1970s. Some roots of that style of music are ambient (Eno), folk, cool jazz, especially West Coast jazz, and the encounters of improvising musicians with the musics and spiritual values brought over from India, Japan, Tibet, and China in the 1960s. A lot of improvising musicians from the jazz and rock world contributed to growth of New Age music by introducing multicultural music into Western pop. The movement was strongly influenced both by world music, and by spiritual and moral ideas from the East.

If you want to blame someone, blame The Beatles: their introduction of Indian classical music into Britpop in the late 60s and early 70s, instigated by George Harrison's encounters with India, opened that door to a million and more people who otherwise would never have heard the music, or learned to meditate. The influence of popular culture icons, especially those as beloved, and as restless, as The Beatles, cannot be underestimated. George Harrison's post-Beatles solo albums have been part of the trend, seminal and central, even when basically pop music.

The music I tend to create, now, when asked to make healing music, or trance music, or meditation/yoga music, tends to be on the ambient side. Not static and unchanging, but not tonal or harmonic, not based on Western ideas of music theory, and essentially timeless. One of my influences is of course my years playing Indonesian gamelan music. Another strong influence is Buddhist music from Japan, the Himalayas, and Southeast Asia, all of which I have listened to and studied for decades.

I am making it up as a I go along. It's an improvisation on a theme, a tone, an idea, a feeling. Most of my music is just so, whether notated or improvised. Art is improvised, life is improvised. It's all of a piece. So I keep going, making art, giving myself something to do that means something, a reason to go on, a purpose and a meaning, for my own life.

Music surrounds hate and forces it to surrender. —Pete Seeger

Hate, fear, all the corrosive forces of entropy, give way before music's power to make us all come together in harmony. So Mote It Be.

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Anonymous Swanee said...

Actually, that's "This instrument surrounds hate...," which is the inscription on Pete's banjo. And I'd argue that there's plenty of hateful music out there; what's incontrovertible is that real music makes us FEEL, gets us out of our ruts and stupors, whether it's (to use Western examples) Beethoven, Souza, or Sondheim.

2:53 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, New Age music. You never quite know what the record store owner’s going to stick in that section, do you? And, you’re right, a lot of it is awful. Tangerine Dream tends to end up there, which is a sad end for the once great kraturockers but it has been a while since anything they’re released has really excited me, along with Mike Oldfield, Jean Michel Jarre and Enya – none of whom I would tar with that particular brush. Don’t see much Brian Eno there or Roy Budd. I have seen some Roger Eno’s stuff but is he a New Age composer or, as Wikipedia describes him, an ‘ambient composer’ – whatever that is exactly? It all gets very confusing. And wearisome. I have a number of albums that have … what shall I call it? … wandery music, stuff that washes over you and it’s all fine and good but I can get as much from one of Bach’s suites for solo cello or some Pärt.

4:06 AM  
Blogger David-Glen Smith said...

Again, Art, you have touched on a subject close to my own perspective. I always disliked the term 'New Age'— but always enjoyed the creative output that results from ambient sources such as Brian Eno, Harold Budd, and Will Ackerman.

Where can one obtain a sampling of your work? Have you posted a clip or link?

The idea of trance yoga music appeals to my ears— and I have a new project myself that needs inspiration, a channeling so to speak.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Swan, that's the quote on the banjo, yup. And in the documentary I just watched about Seeger, he verbally said it the way I quoted. The message is the same, of course, and that's what really matters.

Some of the most hateful music out there, whether it's over-produced pop or uber-patriotic C&W, is designed to coerce people to feel approved sentiments, but, like most things that use clichés instead of real feelings to convey their message, are in the end deadening rather than enlivening. That includes bad music in almost every genre.


Indeed the record store bins are unpredictable. I've seen good music in there as well as bad. Bach and Arvo Pärt are far better to listen to than something boring and deadening, I think.


I agree with you on those points. I think we're on the same page again. I hope you find the inspiration you seek.

As for my music, there are some samples on my blog, here, but your best bet to hear a range of my own music is to go to iTunes and search in the Podcast Directory for my occasional podcast, "Black Dragon Road Journal." I post things there periodically, although I almost never get any feedback about them. Also, there's the Music page on my main website, Just click on the link at the top of this blog page.

11:33 AM  

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