New Age music and the taxpayer
New Age music used to be easy to avoid; you just steered clear of restaurants or shops with healing crystals in the window. Not any more. The glassy-eyed torpor of New Age music is spreading everywhere. It has already become the lingua franca of television theme tunes and film scores, and ambient musicians such as Brian Eno and William Orbit have lent to those throbbing basses and “spacy” chords the trendiness which, these days, passes for intellectual distinction.
Encouraged by the vogue for “cross-over” and the injunction to “break down barriers,” New Age music is spreading its emotional and intellectual anaesthesia into the concert hall. Not to be left out of this exciting trend, the Arts Council of England’s Contemporary Music Network is using taxpayers’ money to tour one of its chief exponents to every corner of the land.
This marks a sad decline for what, back in 1972, started life as a brave enterprise to promote music which was genuinely new. Its then director, Annette Moreau, toured all kinds of musicians we had barely heard of: the Steve Reich Ensemble, the Composers’ quartet, Lol Coxhill. True, the concerts were earnest affairs. The only spot of colourful presentation was Peter Maxwell Davies’s floral shirt, fully worthy of the Bee Gees, which he wore when conducting The Fires of London in his own Mirror of Whitening Light. But that was a different era, when presentation was neither here nor there, and what counted was the music. These concerts were invitations to grapple with a different aesthetic, worked out in the severe medium of structured sound-a medium which gives no quarter to amateurism.
Compare that to this season’s attractions, where the music, and the act of listening which judges its quality, are buried under every conceivable distraction-story-telling, circus, light-shows, dance, poetry, live DJs. The language in which the Network advertises these shows has a modish, slack quality, which communicates nothing beyond the hip credentials of the author. Drum FM, for example, is described as “…sonic theatre. The knife is a tongue, the anaesthetic an ambient sound.” It continues: “Your nurse comes at night smelling of mango. The visuals blend waking and dreaming thoughts.”
The Network defends its programme by pointing out that it’s doing what the Network always did-reflecting current trends in music. Right now, the trend is towards precisely these crossovers. This might hold…