The winner of the inaugural Grammy for Best New Age Recording is a slap bass neon fairytale, with bells.
In an attempt to better understand what makes New Age Music New Age Music, I’m going to study ever album that ever won the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.
I’m calling this project the New Age Grammy Challenge: Healing Assessments of Musicians Perceived as Awful, or NAGCHAMPA for short.
Or maybe I’ll just refer to it as my New Age Grammy Challenge Thing.
The Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording was introduced in 1987. The first ever award went to Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider for his 1986 album Down to the Moon. It’s a totally tropical deep dive into a muggy fairy realm. It’s the only album I can think of that could soundtrack both a magical fantasy adventure and a gritty ’80s cop drama. It sounds otherworldly, but it also sounds like pastel shirts in a neon mall.
If all the winners are this interesting, this is going to be a very fun challenge indeed.
Andreas Vollenweider is one of the musicians quoted by journalist Steven Rea in his sneering look at the inaugural New Age Grammy category. Steven dislikes New Age music, and his article is peppered with quotes from musicians, DJs, and promoters who share his contempt. He must have been disappointed when, rather than expressing embarrassment for being labelled as “New Age”, Andreas instead expressed disdain for labels in general:
I don’t have any intention to label my music. The listeners are able to decide for themselves whether they like it or not, or what the music means to them. . . . It’s ridiculous to give a name to anything that is timeless.
Steven predicted that “the winner of the [New Age] Grammy is likely to accept his award with a bag over his head.” I’ve not been able to find any images or videos of Andreas accepting the award. Was he honoured? Humbled? Mortified? Unfortunately, I have detected a vague distaste for the whole New Age thing on Andreas’s website.
This blog post is essentially a list of Andreas’s many, many achievements. Apparently, TIME Magazine once referred to Andreas as “The King of New Age”. This, says Andreas’s website, “was not entirely to the benefit of AV’s broad view of life and the particularly diverse audience (from Classical to Jazz, Rock to World, Hip-Hop and even Rap).”
I’m not exactly sure what that means. But Steven would probably take it as vindication.
But I was able to find this video from Andreas’s Grammy Tour:
So even if he was slightly miffed with the New Age classification, he didn’t immediately go into hiding once he was announced as the winner. That he toured to mark his win surely suggests that he wasn’t too offended.
Andreas pioneered new sounds and techniques for the harp. According to his website bio, his style of playing was unprecedented. His left hand plucks a bass line, like he’s playing a piano. His right hand strums, like he’s playing guitar. He developed a way of recording and processing his sound that he claims had never been tried before – an electro-acoustic approach to the harp.
I’ve no idea whether his style and his sound is as innovative as he claims. I don’t move in harp circles. But one of the things that immediately occurred to me when listening to Down to the Moon was that his harp doesn’t sound like a harp at all. It’s crisp and digital, and it truly does sound like a cross between an electric piano and a synthesized guitar. It doesn’t sound as nice as a properly-recorded real harp. But for the style of music he’s playing, it really works.
Down to the Moon opens with its title track. Andreas begins tentatively, with some gentle crystalline synths. But within minutes he’s thrown everything against the wall: string synths! Bells! Panpipes! And of course, that distinctive digital harp sound. We’re immediately cast into a world of glittering high fantasy. But for a song that contains such an earnest panpipe solo, it’s surprisingly tasteful. Some of the melodies before the end of this opening track are reminiscent of certain John Williams scores. It’s like Andreas is saying, welcome to my world. And it’s quite a wonderful place to be.
Moon Dance is the first of a few tracks with a tropical feel to it. Steam Forest has a murky, seductive vibe. These two tracks together made me yearn for a cocktail, preferably served in a coconut. I could picture Andreas raising his coconut in greeting, in his wood-fired hot tub in the middle of a moonlit jungle.
Water Moon is regal, like the fanfare from the court of the fairy king. You’ll have to set your cocktail down as you genuflect before your ethereal liege. But as soon as you bend the knee, Andreas pulls the lush red rug from under you. Night Fire Dance hits you with unexpected funk. With the yammering robot rhythm, this track wouldn’t sound out of place on James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual. But when Andreas lays down his mad future funk, he means it.
Quiet Observer is a touching tone poem about an owl. But there’s barely enough time to contemplate the bird’s solemn majesty before Andreas throws you another curveball. Silver Wheel brings back the tropical funk with a vengeance – this time with slap bass and steel drums! This one has the same anything-goes vibrancy as the music from a blue sky Sonic the Hedgehog level.
Drown in Pale Light mixes warming bass notes with Andreas’s lilting harp to create a sound that might well have healing properties. It has a similar feel to Silver Morning, Lanois’s unbearably beautiful solo guitar track from Eno’s Apollo album. Unfortunately it’s followed by what I think to be the album’s only misstep: The Secret, The Candle and Love is a seductive New Age jam for lovers. For me, it’s far too reminiscent of the 16-bit Midi cover of A Whole New World from Aladdin on the Mega Drive.
Hush-Patience at Bamboo Forest is a long title for a track that’s simply 16 seconds of a bamboo orchestra tuning up. It’s there to clear the musky aftershave scent from the air, and set the stage for Three Silver Ladies Dance. This is by far the most ’80s sounding song here. Andreas brings back the slap bass and adds a keening guitar. I thought of a bright orange sunset in LA or Miami, reflected in the sunglasses worn by a pair of maverick cops in leisure suits fresh from busting this week’s drug ring. A song for bright red sports cars and gold medallions nested in proudly-displayed chest hair. Magnificent.
After all those cocktails and all that excitement, La Lune Et L’Enfant arrives just in time to wind things down. It slows the pace, like a music box gradually running out of juice, before we get a reprise of the same crystalline synths that opened the album. And that’s your lot!
Why was this album was chosen as the inaugural Grammy winner for the freshly-minted New Age Recording Category? I don’t know. Nor do I feel any closer to understanding what makes New Age music New Age Music. But I had a tremendous time listening to Down to the Moon. It made me feel genuinely happy. Maybe that’s what New Age music is? Music that aims to make you feel better, and succeeds.
Other Nominations for the 1987 Grammy Award for Best New Age Recording
Rendez-Vous is a typically melodramatic synth opus by French wizard Jean-Michel Jarre. It’s a bombastic sci-fi trip, occasionally coming close to Ultraprog territory. Fourth Rendez-Vous could soundtrack an optimistic corporate marketing video. You can almost hear the clipped vocals intoning concepts over the top: Commerce. Solutions. Progress. Teamwork.
Fifth Rendez-Vous is a bit more like it: Crystal tones with distant video game carnival sounds, like glimpses from a dream. The closing Last Rendez-Vous lays an unexpected yet very welcome sad sax over an irregular heartbeat rhythm for that poignant Blade Runner feel. It’s brilliant. But is it New Age?
Canyon is a sublime worship of rocky nature by American saxophonist Paul Winter. It seems that Paul is known for recording while travelling through wilderness areas. Over the course of his career, he’s recorded on “rafts, mules, dog sleds, horses, kayaks, sailboats, steamers, tug-boats, and Land Rovers.”
Most, if not all, of Canyon sounds like it was recorded live in the midst of a vast expanse of space. There’s birdsong, a bit of vocals, and some songs have an ensemble feel with acoustic guitar and minimal percussion. But long stretches are still and silent, and some of the playing is so hushed it’s barely there. This is the sound of nature unobserved and left to its own devices. It’s deeply calm and profoundly moving. I think I liked this even more than Andreas’s Down to the Moon. Paul was robbed of the 1987 New Age Grammy! ROBBED!
Finally, two separate Windham Hill Records compilations were nominated: A Winter Solstice and the 1986 Windham Hill Sampler. I wasn’t familiar with this label before I embarked on this odyssey. With its distinctive and consistent approach to album covers and an emphasis on thoughtful instrumental music, I feel like it might be America’s answer to Germany’s ECM Records. The Windham Hill output seems a lot gentler, though. ECM music feels like it’s designed to challenge as much as it’s designed to console and comfort. I don’t get the same impression from Windham Hill. This is music for dreamers in need of some soul-stirring.
Neither of the nominated compilations are on Spotify, but both are on YouTube. The comments are lovely, full of people reflecting on how this music healed them and helped them through tough times. A trucker talks about how the music enabled him to appreciate the wonder of the views glimpsed through his windshield on long and lonely drives. The Winter Solstice album was designed for winter listening, and one woman talks about how the collection helped her understand the beauty and vitality of winter for the very first time.
There are some astounding tracks across the two collections. I’ve embedded my favourite one above: Welcoming by Michael Manring. I’ve seldom heard music that sounds so friendly. It’s a simple arrangement of guitar, sax and piano, but it perfectly conjures the feeling of stepping out of the cold into your favourite bar to receive a warm reception from your best friends. It radiates wholesomeness. Again: Is New Age music simply music that aims to make you feel better, and succeeds?
NEXT TIME ON NAGCHAMPA – Yusef Lateef!