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Defining music's `New Age' phenomenon. It gains new Grammy category; listeners like it, even if they aren't sure what it is

The fact that ``New Age music'' was a brand new category at last night's Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles is one more indication that the term no longer refers just to atmospheric music on cassettes advertised in the back of health food magazines. Nor can it any longer be dismissed as ``yuppie elevator music.'' Nevertheless there is still a good deal of confusion about what New Age music actually is. In interviews for this story, several New Age artists expressed reservations about the tag. In the music industry and among listeners, it is variously defined as serene, atmospheric instrumental mood music or as a mixture of classical, pop, and folk music. Some say it's acoustic improvised music, but there are plenty of records in the New Age bins at stores by artists who play electronic music and don't improvise at all.

Often people think of Windham Hill Records as the originator of New Age music, and it's true that the label popularized a kind of music that's now called New Age. But the label's founders, Will Ackerman and Anne Robinson, had no idea that they were laying the groundwork for a musical phenomenon. They were just recording ``music that we liked,'' says Ms. Robinson.

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What started at Windham Hill in 1978 as an unpretentious little cottage industry has become a huge marketing phenomenon. Everybody's jumping on the bandwagon - MCA Master Series, Narada, RCA/Novus, and Private Music, among others. In fact, the market has become so competitive that Billboard magazine recently noted that many of the labels are ``seeking ways to distinguish themselves from the pack in an attempt to maintain the mellow music's momentum.''

Under the New Age umbrella one finds such diverse artists as synthesist Wendy Carlos (``Switched-On Bach''), classical crossover pianist/composer Liz Story, and Swiss fusion harpist Andreas Vollenweider, not to mention Paul Winter, Terry Riley, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Tangerine Dream. It's a pretty broad jump from pianist George Winston to electronic composer Kitaro, yet both are classified as New Age.

How do the artists feel about the categorization?

Many of them take issue with the term. In an era where music is becoming more and more eclectic and difficult to categorize, many composers and musicians bristle at the idea of being lumped under any category, let alone one that has elicited some acrid criticism from ``serious'' musicians. Others dislike the idea of being too closely associated with a particular label, rather than being regarded as an individual artist.

Liz Story, a serious composer and pianist with heavy classical leanings who used to record for Windham Hill, left that label so that she wouldn't be pigeonholed as a ``Windham Hill artist.'' She says, ``I think the term New Age has come up because of what is going on today socially and culturally in the world. It's a devastating picture. That kind of thing can go on only so long and people start looking for another vision. So it makes sense that New Age would pop up at a time when four-year-olds are afraid of nuclear war.''

Although she says she's ``not an anti-spiritual person'' and is ``not trying to come out against New Age,'' she finds the philosophy behind some New Age music unrealistic: ``The problem is that we have a huge contrast between the picture of the world that most people have, and this light-minded New Age stuff. It lacks depth - it robs us of our sufferings. The idea of floating off into perfect consciousness and perfect balance... is too idealistic....''

Composer and percussionist Chip Davis, writer of the truckdriver song ``Convoy,'' is the creator of the rock/classical fusion group called Mannheim Steamroller and owner of American Gramaphone Records. He now finds his work classified as New Age. ``Everybody shies away from the name,'' he says, ``but I think it's probably the best thing that's happened to music that doesn't fit into the standard categories. The great thing is that it gives us a place to be in the retail stores. The down side is that quite often the term New Age is associated with `space' music that doesn't have a lot of structure, and my music is highly structured and classically oriented.

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``People are hungering after this music because the speed of the world is so busy - competition, jobs, everything. New Age music is a way to slow down and get away from that. It helps them visualize being somewhere away from their tense world and to cool out.''

Initially some New Age music was marketed as having a consciousness-raising or healing effect on listeners. Among some listeners that's still an important aspect. Davis says, ``I get strange letters that support that. People say my music helps them escape pain. I get two or three of these a week - have been for years.''

Much of the music lumped into the category today, however, has no philosophical underpinnings.

Robinson of Windham Hill says, ``I feel the term New Age should be applied to people who have specific spiritual pursuits that they are following in their work. We do not make any promises about what the music will do to enhance your being. We just offer it, and you can do whatever you want with it.''

Adds Ackerman, Robinson's partner, ``I don't think anybody knows what New Age means. And, for that reason alone, I'm suspicious of it. It definitely has the California-hot-tub connection - a lot of laying on of hands and purple auras. And that isn't me, so I don't particularly want to be associated with that.''

Like it or not, though, the name has stuck. New Age seems to be a convenient umbrella under which to place whatever is new and doesn't fit somewhere else. Perhaps it's a reflection of the times - a byproduct of a shrinking world in which musical styles are more eclectic than ever before.

Record producer Steve Backer, who once worked at Windham Hill and who now heads the RCA Novus label, which is devoted to both jazz and New Age music, sums up the trend this way:

``What I'm trying to do is break down the boundaries among contemporary instrumental music: jazz, `world music,' New Age music, and some classical elements. It's all moving together. Cultures are coming together. It's about diversity and quality.''

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