I’m lying on the living-room floor. I’ve been like this for two hours, on my back, in the dark, headphones on. The record on the turntable is literally locked in its groove and producing a low-note drone that at times sounds like a whale’s moan or some sort of detuned, prepared trombone, if such a thing exists. The repetitive hum has put me into a sort of trance and for a while I forget that I’m stretched out on the carpet and it’s the middle of the night. I’m elsewhere, somewhere—some place, yet no place. At the risk of sounding like I’ve just taken a hit from a pipe, I think I’m having some sort of out-of-body experience.
If the lights were on and I were looking at the record’s sleeve I’d know my mind’s location: the Central Realm—Om—the centre of the earth, the locked groove at the centre of the record that loops ad infinitum so that the listener can access “the deepest innermost reaches of the collective unconsciousness and the Eternal Self.” In other words, this spinning piece of vinyl (Architecture of Utopia, by Prince Rama of Ayodhya in collaboration with painter Paul Laffoley) is also a portal to another time and place; a ticket to utopia.
“Sound is this weird threshold space: you can’t touch it or see it; it has no material and yet it occupies space,” says Taraka Larson, one-third of Brooklyn-via-Boston’s Prince Rama of Ayodhya (Prince Rama, for short). “When you listen to a record, you’re hearing sound from another time, and so it’s like you’re reliving the past, but in the present. So, in a sense you’re travelling through time and space, but to no ‘real’ place.”
This “no place” is what Larson, inspired by Boston painter and so-called “visionary artist” Laffoley, means by utopia. The album cover, a Laffoley painting from 1974 entitled Utopia: Time Cast as a Voyage, shows a circular shape with an endless, logarithmic spiral moving from the outside into a centre core, like the record itself. Through intense listening, the sound transcends its everyday form and becomes something more internal, like a topocosmic map for the mind. “It’s the idea that you’re mapping out your mind’s architecture, this utopic space that can only be reached when you’re in a certain frame of mind.” Of course, adds Larson, her tone light and humorous, “you can also just listen to it.”
New Age music, equally vilified by audiences and critics since the 1980s, emerged when jazz-fusion artists ran out of ideas and began releasing “therapeutic” music, which really just amounted to lame, synthesizer-based cassettes featuring Celtic rhythms and moon-based cover art. Between Entertainment Tonight’s John Tesh, the ultra-lite jazz wanks of the Pat Metheny Group and Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence period, and the entire Windham Hill roster, New Age developed a well-deserved bad name. But, as the old hippie mantra goes, “Be here now.” That was then and this is now, man.
“Paul and I often joke about this era,” says Larson, going off on a tangent about the devotion of bands such as Mahavishnu Orchestra to Indian mystic Sri Chinmoy, where everyone was so earnest and serious, forever meditating and “taking themselves just a bit too seriously: ‘Look at me, I’m meditating now.’” Narcissistic posturing and guru worshipping are antithetical to Prince Rama’s aesthetic, which is why, explains Larson, there are photos of the band floating above Giza and striking yoga poses around Egyptian pyramids.
Larson met Laffoley while she was attending the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, part of Tufts University in Boston. “My school had a work–study program, mostly lame jobs like working in the computer lab,” says Larson. Then she saw an off-campus job-listing for the Boston Visionary Cell, really just a name for Laffoley’s downtown studio. Larson’s internship included talking at length about black holes, time travel, UFOs, lucid dreaming, and other New Age or mystical topics, all of which are old hat for Laffoley, who’s been painting and writing about occult matters since the mid-1960s—largely on giant, six-by-six-foot oil paintings featuring symbols, images, charts, and lettering, all of which combine to form absorbingly complicated diagrams. It’s a lot to take in—or, as Laffoley told a Boston Globe reporter, “It’s not fast art.”
Before taking up painting full time, Laffoley trained and worked as an architect, working briefly for the Austrian-American architect and Duchamp collaborator, Frederick Kiesler, who fired Laffoley for damaging a sculpture. Laffoley then worked as a draftsman for the company that was designing floor plans for the World Trade Center towers—fired this time, he claims, for suggesting that the towers should connect via pedestrian walkways. Around the same time, Laffoley took a “job” watching television for Andy Warhol. (The Laffoley legend goes on and on; here is but a taste: in 1992, while undergoing a routine CAT scan, an inch-long metallic “implant” was discovered near the occipital lobe of his brain—planted, he believes, by aliens; and in 2001, after falling from a ladder, Laffoley had to have a leg amputated, which he replaced with a fully functional, prosthetic lion’s leg, designed and built by Stan Winston, the Hollywood special-effects guru behind Predator, Aliens, and Jurassic Park.)
“He’s got a defibrillator in his chest and he’s under the impression that if a cell phone goes off within a foot of him, the defibrillator will explode,” says Larson, who decided to collaborate with Laffoley after realizing that they shared the same beliefs regarding utopia.
Whether or not you believe in time travel or mysticism of any sort, there’s no denying that Architecture of Utopia, like the rest of Prince Rama’s recordings, is a trip for the ears—or, as the London Institute of Contemporary Art put it, “not of this planet.” High-pitched, murmuring vocals about “the dawn of astronomy” sound out against a backdrop of urban-primitive, tribe-like drumming, played by Taraka’s sister, Nimai, and sci-fi-sounding synthesizers and other electronics, by Michael Collins.
It’s a heady brew that crystallizes in parts with brilliant, sharp bells and vibes, hand percussion, chanting, and a few celestial proclamations—example: “On January 23, 1997, at 12:35 p.m. over New York City, a planetary Magen David [Star of David] formed. This was the first inscription Jesus made in the sand, signifying the Principle of Ordered Freedom.” That would be easy to scoff at if it weren’t such fun to listen to. Besides, in this case, the kitsch itself isn’t just for amusement or to fulfil the New Ager’s unquenchable taste for pyramids, crystals, and stars. Kitsch, writes Laffoley, offers a “conceptual non-form that, when penetrated, can serve as a portaling vehicle to utopic states of consciousness.” According to the liner notes, Laffoley views Elvis as the “hypostatic embodiment of the paroxysm of kitsch,” and believes Elvis has been “cryogenically frozen in Prince Edward Island, to be resurrected in 2127 in order to take on the life of his twin brother, Jesse, whom he lost at birth.”
“Kitsch can create a way to enter very serious things because it can shut down your critical faculties temporarily; you’re not taking things so seriously, and so you relax and you begin to really listen and imagine,” says Larson. “Just don’t take it too seriously.” Towards the end of Side A, when the needle is approaching the centre, the “black hole of kitsch,” there’s a fuzzy Elvis recording that plays, with the line “take my hand” repeating again and again, until a synthesizer slowly takes over and a robotic voice announces that it’s now 2127, Prince Edward Island. “We are approaching the event horizon,” chants the robotic voice. Just as things are spiralling into ridiculousness, another chant, the Sanskrit Om Mane Padme Hum, begins. We’ve broken the barrier and, for a brief moment, the spell is broken. It’s time to flip the record.
The first wave
In 1965, “cool jazz” clarinettist Tony Scott released an album inspired by a show he played inside a Hindu temple in Asia. Entitled Music for Zen Meditation, the completely improvised performance—with Scott playing his clarinet in the mood and style of a bamboo flute—is considered by many to be the first New Age record by a Western artist. This was, of course, the era of DIY enlightenment: Alan Watts’ Zen Buddhism paperbacks, yoga, Jesus freaks, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and other bearded gurus. The mantra “Be here now” permeated the counterculture, and with it came a grab bag of New Age beliefs related to meditation, astral projection, astrology, holistic health, vegetarianism, and virtually every other esotericism you can think of (or make money from).
But it wasn’t just the sitar-and-love-in crowd grasping at the stars. Some contemporary composers were similarly grasping, with Eastern-tinged accents and aesthetics. Diatonic scales, repetition, and drones crept into the minimal compositions of La Monte Young and Terry Riley. Not surprisingly, both composers counted Hindustani singer Pandit Pran Nath a major influence on their work, an inspiration most notable in Riley’s 1967 work A Rainbow in Curved Air, which mixes swirling, trance-like electronics with Indian-style tabla. Add to this the Riley-in-a-rainbow cover art and you’ve got a clear predecessor to what would eventually be labelled “New Age” in record stores. (Riley, like all good disciples, is still at it, too—releasing 2010’s Autodreamographical Tales, a record based on his dreams.)
Like Young and Riley, other minimalists were also embracing the futuristic, space-age sound of electronic music. And while NASA reached the moon in 1969, overseas there was one German, Karlheinz Stockhausen, who had already been circling the planets with his “space music,” including 1968’s Aus den sieben Tagen and Licht, a seven-opera cycle based on the mystic text The Urantia Book. Other German artists were also following the celestial suite, most notably Conrad Schnitzler and Klaus Schulze, as well as kosmische collectives including Popol Vuh, Cluster, and Ash Ra Tempel, all of whom were intertwining electronic music with cosmically themed, New Age writings and visual art. Meanwhile, the jazz world as well was going through a spiritual awakening, with free-jazz giants John and Alice Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Pharoah Sanders all pledging devotion to one god or another.
But while some artists were embracing mysticism as a source of inspiration, consulting occult texts and using kitschy symbolism as mere mood enhancers and sound cues, others, such as John Cage, were actually applying occultism to composition. As early as 1951, Cage began consulting the I Ching, or Book of Changes, as a way of adding an element of chance to his music. Cage would propose questions, toss the I Ching’s coins, and then compose, based on what was revealed. The result, as he put it in a 1975 interview, was to liberate sound itself from the composer’s grip by “imitating nature in its manner of operation.” Toss the coins, find your direction.
For Cage, the I Ching was a mere random-chance generator. Whether or not he actually believed in the coins’ abilities beyond being a compositional tool, is neither here or there: they worked for him. For others, including composer and pianist Elodie Lauten, the meanings are not only key to composition, there’s also nothing random about them. “I use the I Ching in a totally opposite way from John Cage,” says Lauten. “He uses it for chance and I use it for organization.” For example, eight configurations of six yin or yang lines produce sixty-four possible configurations, which in turn create a “sequence of chance” that Lauten uses to compose.
“It’s a representation of the universe,” says Lauten, her French accent (she was born in Paris, daughter to jazz drummer Errol Parker) still evident after having lived and worked for most of the last thirty years in downtown New York, where she studied under La Monte Young and was a fixture in that city’s now-legendary late-1970s–early-’80s music-and-art scene (she’s currently working on a record of Arthur Russell’s music). Lauten’s twelve-part Tronik Involutions, for example, was based almost entirely on I Ching readings, which helped set key signatures, tempo, and where the movements should go.
“I use [the I Ching] as an underscore,” explains Lauten. “It’s the foundation, the subtext, the macro level. It sets up the tonal centre, and then at the micro level, the score is open for improvisation and my emotional response while playing.” In other words, Lauten’s work, like Indian classical music, which she studied, allows for improvising within a particular mode, what she terms Universal Mode Improvisation: the creation of new modes combining classical key structures and other non-Western modal structures—based on I Ching readings, among other celestial tools—while still allowing for open-ended, free improvisation.
“In the Vedic tradition, all the chakras are connected to a tone, a colour, and so on,” says Lauten. As for the Earth Tone, Lauten believes music in tune with the natural cycles of the environment “might actually solve some of the struggles we have on earth.” On that note, replying to a question about what the natural tone of New York City might be, Lauten responds: “It would be a low-frequency, rumble type of noise.”
This year, the Unseen Worlds label released a two-CD set of Lauten recordings. Called Piano Works Revisited, the collection offers compositions from as far back as 1983, including a solo piano piece from 1991, Variations on the Orange Cycle, which Chamber Music America listed in its “100 Best Works of the 20th Century.” The piece, Lauten believes, resonates well with listeners, partly because it’s quite simple, but also because it’s based on what she calls an “Earth Tone,” or the sound of the planet’s vibrations based on a yearly cycle: C# at 136.1 hertz. “It’s actually too low to hear, so I raised it up a few octaves.”
Piano Works Revisited is typical of much of Lauten’s work in that it shifts—sometimes within a single track—from tonal to bitonal to atonal and is often performed in nonstandard tunings. Across the two discs, the album shifts from the minimalist solo piano pieces to the sprawling, grandiose sound of Sonate Modale, recorded live in ’85 at Toronto’s Music Gallery. To these add tape collage and a lo-fi electronic sound, and you’re left with a sprawling, diversified collection as complex as Lauten herself. “I studied the I Ching daily for many years; I had an Indian guru; I travelled to New Mexico and got into Native American astrology; I studied Zen . . .”
Are you for real?
In late spring this year, world-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking made two statements that nobody could have predicted: first, that time travel is possible; and second, that aliens not only exist, but should be avoided. “I used to avoid talking about [these things] for fear of being labelled a crank,” he told reporters.
Expressing an interest in New Age music can equally alienate a person, causing them either to be taken too seriously (“Have you played this for your guru?”) or not seriously enough (“Should we smoke first?”). It’s as if music, or any art really, that takes up mysticism either as an aesthetic form or starting point can only be appreciated if you’re a believer. And in a sense, that’s true. It does require a temporary suspension of cynicism—just like any fantastical piece of art. “You’re not going to enjoy it if you can’t relax and allow yourself to get into the spirit of it all,” says Larson. The payoff? The new New Age isn’t just alive and well, having long ago shed its jazz-lite stylings in favour of more rigorous composition or adventurous improvisation, but it is also prevalent, with New Agers producing some of the best sound art today.
For its annual 2009 report on the best fifty recordings of the year, U.K. music magazine The Wire ranked Broadcast & the Focus Group’s Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age as the year’s most ambitious, sonically satisfying recording. Sounding at first like a slightly warped psychedelic record, the album seamlessly smears nursery-school songs with harpsichord and flute, before fusing electronics and guitar (the list goes on) in what eventually, over the album’s brief forty-eight minutes, amounts to something vaguely dreamlike. Exemplary of a genre often referred to as hauntology, it’s both disquieting and delightful, the aural equivalent of a child finding a mirror in a dusty attic chest and seeing someone else in the reflection.
Hauntology is only the tip of the witch’s cap. There’s also hypnagogic pop, another Wire-ism, which although not necessarily New Age, still seems to embody a ghostlike, or otherworldly, or half-remembered state of mind triggered by sound ranging through dubstep, noise, and the hazy, no-place sound assemblages of James Ferraro. Then there’s the music of Belgium’s wonderfully named Dolphins Into the Future, the brainchild of Lieven Martens. On the just-released The Music of Belief, Martens inverts what at first sounds like a well-worn, slightly warped Solitudes recording, rocking the boat, as it were, by speeding up and slowing down the looping electronics swirling amidst subaquatic chatter, creating an off-kilter effect. What begins as a trip to the beach slowly dives into alien shores.
The mass-marketed, glossy trend that sprouted in the 1970s and reached commercial fruition as the New Age genre of the mid-1980s was all about relaxation and “getting back to normal.” Today’s New Age mentality, though, is all about travelling into unknown territory. Now the act of listening isn’t so much about feeling better, but feeling stranger, “like you’ve been teleported somewhere else,” says New Age exponent Justin Wright, “so long as you’re patient enough to allow the music to take possession of you. You can’t rush it.” Working under the name Expo 70, Wright performs largely improvised and effect-laden drones on guitar and electronics, slowly building loops and raising the volume and employing alternate tunings “until the room is full of sound,” he says enthusiastically over the phone from Kansas City, where he performs and also runs his label Sonic Meditations. “Because of the immense sound from the amps and the repetition, it’s like I’m engulfed in the sound—like I’m floating in space.”
It’s easy to drift away while listening to Expo 70’s music, whether at a live show, where the volume itself creates a threshold space; or on a recording such as Sonic Messenger, which begins with a snail’s-pace guitar line that slowly builds, sounding even heavier in the quiet parts. As with all Expo 70 albums, the graphic design, done by Wright himself, is similar to much of what space-rock artists of the 1970s did, with images of planets and song titles (example: “Temple of the Shadow”) straight out of a sci-fi novel or Omni magazine.
Last fall, Expo 70 and Prince Rama toured together, creating live shows that featured both meditative and otherworldly sound, combined with fog machines, candles, chanting, and werewolf summoning. And while Wright certainly wants to believe in some of the themes and feelings he evokes—after all, who doesn’t want to believe in time travel and channelling—he knows the difference between aesthetics and reality. “I don’t think I’m a guru and I don’t actually believe in flying saucers.” What matters, he says, isn’t belief; “it’s letting sound take you someplace else, wherever that may be.”
This, then, is the key difference between the old New Age and the new New Age; instead of gurus and cult leaders, the new New Ager uses sound itself as the transcendental portal. Rather than turning to specific beliefs or religious practices, the imagery evoked is general. “I think most people have mystical thoughts,” says Wright. “That’s all I’m tapping into; it’s about getting you into a frame of mind where your mind is free to roam.”
There is danger, warns Larson, about drifting too far into the aesthetic without also paying heed to the real, lived experience of mysticism. “Bands can Google images of mandalas and pyramids and crystals to use as cover art, but unless there’s something bigger beyond a surface, aesthetic appreciation, the images lose their aura and remain as kitsch,” says Larson.
For Larson, whose parents are both Hare Krishnas, appreciating and creating New Age music is about tuning into sound itself. “Songwriting isn’t so much an act of creating new patterns or sound but an act of tapping into pre-existing echoes,” she says. “It’s about cultivating a devotion to this internalized sonic temple, of which I am a mere worshipper of echoes.”

AudioTronik Involutions - Encounter (1994). Composed and performed by Elodie Lauten. Image: Justin Wright of Expo 70. Image designed by: Justin Wright and Lucinda Wallace.