Expansive Poetry & Music Online Essay on Music

(A Poet's Guide to New Age Music)
William Gerard Harder


In his article "A Question's Environment," (EP&M Online, March 1998) C.P.M. Davis, searching for an expansive rebellion in music, finds evidence of one in a new fusion effort in jazz. He wonders: "Perhaps it is time for composers to walk away from the institutional avant garde and from the reactionary 'underground' and to plunge into the study of the art, its tradition, and how their own ears and those of audiences might connect that to our own time and to the future." In response to his request for other opinions I would like to describe a movement away from the avant garde that has been taking place quietly for twenty years. Although this style of music is more accurately described as new impressionism, it has been given the misleading label New Age. As a non-musician but someone who enjoys the subtlety of sounds in both music and poetry I believe that this musical style has an even greater resonance with the expansive movement in poetry. Both involve a subtle use of rhythm and an intricate blending of sounds. Both syncopate with a background of silence and express intimate emotions. Both involve a mastery of form and a creative outward push of those boundaries. Both are also in search of a more expansive audience. The more a musical explorer flips through the albums in the forgotten New Age aisle, the more he or she comes to realize that in our serendipitous culture where formal art has been relegated to the edge of acceptability , New Age music is thriving on this margin.

Listening for the first time, New Age music will sound faintly familiar. The subconscious may recognize it from a midnight radio program heard before falling off to sleep or from a mood enhancing film score which lent emotion to otherwise uninspired acting. We are so accustomed to high decibel sounds that we instinctively tend to ignore such gentle music. With its inconspicuous nature, New Age music does not fit neatly into the popular catalogue. It is distinct from jazz where rhythm leads the melody. In New Age music the tune usually provides its own momentum. It also differs from classical music which works towards an ensemble of sound with multiples of instruments. In contrast, New Age music works out the melody through individual instruments. Not every recording called "New Age" belongs in this category. In the same way that the "expansive" label sometimes serves as a miscellaneous shelf for poetry, the "New Age" bin has become a catch all for music ranging from world beat to atmospheric music.  Yet world beat dutifully follows a popular form without that innovative energy found in New Age music. Atmospheric music floats like blank verse, beyond all form. The true range of New Age music moves from a synthetic ambient sound at one end to sharp rhythms at the other. A large core of acoustic music serves as the gravitas to this  movement in the same way new formalist poetry serves as a central attraction to the expansive effort .

The ambient edge is electronic. It often involves a synthesizer which has the capacity  both to create a symphonic effect and follow the emotional vagaries of the composer. The tones morph, the keys shift. The effect is like a star ride ( a la Kubrick's 2001). What distinguishes this from atmospheric music is that it holds to a rhythm which sometimes rattles like a rocket and usually returns home safely. In contrast, atmospheric or mood music is like lying on a water bed, floating  around without going anywhere. Kitaro and Vangelis are two popular ambient voyagers. Further in from this expansive edge are a number of less whimsical musicians: :Mark Isham, David Arkenstone, Richard Souther, Winston Steward, Tim Story, James Reynolds and the groups Shadowfax, Tangerine Dream, Trapezoid and Zazen. They are doing creative work in this range. Although the quality is mixed there are some real gems to be found here.
At the other extreme of New Age music, rhythm and melody compete for the ear's attention. This works well for hard strumming guitarists like the late Michael Hedges (still very much alive through his music) and new flamenco artists. At this edge you will also find fusion pieces that come close to smooth jazz. A number of restless New Age musicians are moving in this direction in search of an audience. Coen Bais, Jan Hammer, Tocuato Mariano and Andy Narell are among those who do well here. I must admit I'm not comfortable with this mix. Jazz is more improvisational, New Age is intentional. Imagine Gioia revising Ginsberg. Purists on both sides ask: Why?  Fusion pieces, for the most part, sound a bit contrived. But from such collisions new movements eventually evolve.
The main body of New Age music is where the poets of the Expansive movement will find the most resonance with their work. It follows a pattern where individual acoustic instruments soar and float melodies like kites while being tugged by a soft grounding beat. Pianists with classical training and soft rock sensibilities flourish in this niche. George Winston, Michael Jones, Liz Story, Spencer Brewer, David Lanz, Michael Gittel, Jim Brickman, Jim Chappell, Peter Kater, Wayne Gratz are names that come immediately to mind. There are more. The problem is that they  saturate a limited market. While some of this work is just noodling, many excellently written and performed albums get tossed into "obsolete" bins where they can be redeemed cheaply. Although I enjoy a bargain, there is something unsettling about purchasing such beautiful music for three or four dollars a disc. To enhance and distinguish their work, many New Age pianists work with small ensembles which often include a violin, guitar, woodwind and percussion. A few have plugged in their pianos and added full orchestras, gaining popularity while coming close to losing the essential element of intimacy. Susan Ciani and Yanni are risk takers whose music still works. John Tesh is a popular pretender. His music is cheerily optimistic while ignoring  any existential angst. While New Age music, like Expansive poetry, is ultimately hopeful, it tries also to reach into those intimate corners of being and ease the ache of solitude. Tesh's music moves in the opposite emotional direction. That's fine. But just as a novice concertgoer should not mistake the Boston Pops for classical music, Tesh's music should not be naïvely misjudged as authentic New Age . Along with the music of Mannheim Steamroller and Enya it belongs a sentimental category  which can be labeled "New Age pop". The success of his work may tempt struggling New Age pianists to cross over the line. But that would not work any more than expansivist poets, envious of Amanda Bradley's success, trying to write poetry for greeting card companies. As painful as it is, artists must maintain their own emotional integrity to survive.

The guitar, when placed in less aggressive hands than the new flamenco artists, also fits into this  core of New Age music. While there are not as many guitarists as pianists in this mid section they still suffer from lack of attention. The guitar does not deliver the melody as well as a grand piano whose rich whole tones make ordinary tunes sound as elegant as James Earl Jones reading the phone directory. Amplifying the guitar, as Paul Speer does, takes away from its purity. When it lacks a strong rhythm, the guitar requires a great dexterity on the fret board to maintain the tune. Without it,  the composition comes across as thin and boring. Guitarists who work in this slow tempo style include Will Ackerman, Alex DeGrassi, William Ellwood, Friedemann, Gabriel Lee and bass player Michael Manring.  Surviving as a solo guitarist at slow speed is difficult. Several guitarists work better in duets and small groups. Mike Marshall and Darol Anger on guitar and fiddle work together nicely as do the German guitarists Morscheck and Burgmann.  Here my own personal favorite is  Eric Tingstad whose work with oboist Nancy Rumbel meanders like a slow running stream with depth. The lyric quality of this music is both inspiring and daunting to someone like myself trying to write poetry using meter and form.

In this middle area of New Age music there are also a number of ensemble compositions where no particular instrument dominates. William Aura, Christopher Peacock , The Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and Nightnoise stand out. I actually cannot recall many groups that perform in this central zone. Most ensemble groups either lean towards the edge of jazz or that of electronic, ambient music. The Irish group Nightnoise is worth noting. Aside from saving civilization, the Irish may also have a claim to influencing the development of  new  age music. With a steadily skipping beat and weaving instrumentation the lyrical sound of Nightnoise makes this theory sound plausible. This group preceded the explosion of Celtic music in the New Age aisle. While some of these Celtic CDs are quite legitimate, others are counterfeit New Age because they follow a traditional rather than a new formal style. Nightnoise is as genuine as Seamus Heaney. Listen to them a few times and you will be able to separate the true New Agers from the imitators.

To round out this brief tour some attention should be paid to the new flamenco guitarists who, following  the Celtic flood, may be the next wave to wash over the New Age terrain. Again, one has to watch out for pretenders who lack innovative energy and classical flamenco guitarists whose music sounds a little too sentimental in the contemporary culture. But in the same way that Latin American poets never lost the romantic spirit to which new formalist poetry is returning, nuevo flamenco has refined this spirit into an expressive passion. Oscar Lopez, Ottmar Liebert and Jesse Cook are the better known artists among this group. All three are excellent guitarists. Lopez works his innovations straight out of the flamenco tradition. Cook has developed a "rumba flamenco" beat which is exciting. Liebert is brilliant when he wants to be but seems to be moving into more exploratory forms which are not as crisp. In a category by himself is Michael Hedges who would play lead and rhythm on the same guitar at the same time. His hands attacked the guitar like two sparrows fighting for the same branch. He often played with a driving rock rhythm. The uniqueness of his style flew over many musical barriers but he always came home to the New Age nest. He was tragically killed in an auto accident earlier this year.

Dabblers in New Age music usually have to take the financial risk and purchase an album without knowing how the artist sounds. New Age labels such as "Windham Hill," "Narada," "Higher Octave,"  and "Mirimar" offer samplers to introduce the music of various musicians. Like Rebel Angels for Expansive poets, it helps. Yet to truly appreciate the artistry of New Age music it is good to listen to an artist's entire album. For those new to the New Age scene I recommend the following albums:

Cristofori's Dream:  this work by pianist David Lanz  touches the heart of New Age music. The title composition is an excellent example of how this style of music works out of a quiet core. The other compositions also maintain this syncopation between sound and silence. There is a nice variation of mild rhythms throughout the album. Lanz' interpretation of  "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is as exquisite an expression of emotional reserve as can be found in New Age music. Having Matthew Fisher, the original organist for Procal Harum, come in with understated organ chords at the songs climactic moment adds the winning touch. This album is a classic of New Age music.

Legends:   this album by Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel is part two of that classic New Age moment which took place on the Narada label ten years ago. Eric holds the rhythm with the guitar while Nancy's oboe soars and dives effortlessly. They are creative in their variations and are excellent practitioners of form. They also are unafraid of silence. Their  composition "The Eyes of Amelia" with David Lanz on piano is as near perfection as New Age music gets.

The White Horse Sessions:  this studio concert by Nightnoise is a perfect example of the Celtic-New Age connection. The tempo is sprightly. Flute and violin sail like gulls along the cliffs of Donegal. The guitar trots and gallops along the shoreline while the piano either sprays or pounds like the surf, depending on the mood of the piece. Nightnoise does break one of the canons of New Age music by adding vocals. But given the integrity of their Celtic style they are absolved of any error. The only drawback to this album is in providing a microphone for the small audience's applause. With the wonders of digital technology  it sounds like rustling cellophane.

Gravity:  this album by Jesse Cook is described on the cover by the artist as "Rumba Flamenco World Beat Jazz Pop." Its emotional intensity, innovative style and intricate variations qualify it as New Age. It is new flamenco guitar at its finest. Jesse' fingerwork makes the melodies hop and dance from the fretboard. The rhythm drives the music along at various tempos. The percussionists  add layers of rhythm. In quieter pieces he works the melody off the beat in a way which adds emotional depth. His fast paced compositions like "Brio" would have a ninety year old nun tapping her toes.

Like an emcee at a charity ball I made the dangerous decision to name names, knowing that I would miss several excellent artists. But one of the frustrations for New Age artists, particularly on the east coast, is the lack of attention to their work. New Age music receives so little air play that there are very few ways to learn about these musicians. John Schaefer was helpful in the early days of his public radio program New Sounds . Now on his program New Age is lost in a cackle of eclectic sounds. Hearts of Space is more ambient than acoustic. Ray White put together an excellent mix on a local jazz station with a program called New Age, New York. It was canceled several years ago because of lack of sponsors.

That New Age music has not caught on is a little puzzling. As with expansive poetry, I suspect this has less to do with rejection than with unfamiliarity. Popular culture is tuned to sentimentality. Our artistic culture is still tuned to the frequency of the institutional avant garde. They simply cannot hear what is taking place in New Age music. Perhaps it is inherent in the subtle formality of this music not to be too widely celebrated. Yet if any audience should be attentive to the quiet creativity of this style it is the group of poets innovating forms in the Expansive movement. In their preface to Rebel Angels Mark Jarman and David Mason make this observation about the poets their anthology draws strong attention toward:

This description is as readily applied to the New Age musicians.  With their intentional variation of form and their intimate sense of solitude, New Age music and Expansive poetry have a strong sympathy of styles. Even their counterpoint suggest a compliment.  Whereas New Age music is virtually voiceless,  Expansive poetry lacks a melodic range. Where each form falls silent the other rises in song. They meet in the medium of sound. Suzanne Noguere captures this syncopation and lyrical blend in her poem "Ear Training for Poets" (first printed in Pivot)  which begins:
  The muse whispers in that 'quiet room.' Musicians, poets and artists must attune their ear to its sound. I encourage poets in the Expansive movement to listen attentively to New Age music. In it you will hear the echoes of your own work.

                                    William Gerard Harder


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