I have a secret that's been tearing me apart: I own every album Enya has put out. Ahhhh, now that I've admitted it, I feel so much better. I hope that others, too, can come out and live true to themselves. You shouldn't have to justify your taste in music. And yet, most of society looks down on New Age as a freak of musical nature, that it's but the first step that leads eventually to crystals and weird health care choices, and will put them to sleep. I knew, though, since I was little that something was different about me.
I Blame My Parents
Simon & Garfunkel performed the soundtrack to my earliest memory, which is still a vivid one. I'm in the back of our blue Buick station wagon, cruising through west Texas. Scarborough Fair is playing on the radio. I see it clearly: desolate countryside, the road bending off to the left in a wide arc.
Are you going to Scarborough fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
The key here, I believe, is memory. This song was burned in early, it fires off pleasurable neurons whenever I hear it, kept me listening so that later in life, I grew to appreciate the story the lyrics tell. I have found that this song is frequently covered by both new age and folk artists, but it is just one of many great songs on the original album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, which includes Homeward Bound, The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy) and a mix of other good folk and sixties pop tunes.
Rock-and-Roll is the Root of all Sin
There are a number of Rock songs that were gateway drugs for me. Without realizing it, these songs were preparing my mind to accept New Age music through a combination of mood and the story telling. Don't get me wrong; this is still Rock & Roll.
The first is Nights in White Satin by The Moody Blues. I'm certain I didn't hear it when the album Days of Future Passed first came out in the late sixties, probably when it was re-leased in the seventies. I'm afraid to look up the lyrics for fear it might kill the spell. I fully understand that how I interpret songs frequently differs from the writer's intent or even how normal people understand them. Let's just accept the fact that the haunting tone fires many of the same neurons as Simon & Garfunkel. And, yes, I know there is no "k" in Nights, but I'd like to think there is. I was just a pre-teen at the time.
Then there is the greatest album in Rock history: Led Zeppelin IV. OK, greatest for teenaged boys of the 70s who played Dungeons & Dragons. The Battle of Evermore is a classic that was on the play list for most gaming sessions, but it was Stairway to Heaven that caught my imagination. Again with the haunting notes, this time an acoustic guitar, great drum into and an enthralling story. Who is this woman and why does she want to buy the stairway? (My imagination came forth only in gaming, I tended to be a literalist in everything else.)
But what sealed my fate was 2112 by Rush. Every song on this album is good, but it was side A with it's 20 minute opera that gives the album its name that is the kicker. The third movement — Discovery — with the acoustic guitar playing while a brook babbles in the background convinced me that music can be so much more than something to dance or sing to. Here I could put my headphones on, lay back and escape while I imagine what it would be like to lead a rebellion in a galactic empire. (Perhaps, also, this is where I get my fear of political priests.)
Everyone's Done It, and not Just in College
We're surrounded by New Age music without most people realizing it. It's frequently piped into public places and is background music for many commercials, but it's at its best on soundtracks. This is how most people discover it and become fans. When it's done well, it makes for an album worthy of everyone's collection. It's rare, though, for a soundtrack to qualify as New Age. Obviously, the pop track laden entries from movies like the Wedding Singer don't count, but a large number of others are no more than recycled classical music. Not that this makes for bad music, but familiarity with its context outside of the movie kills the mode for me.
The soundtrack from the Last of the Mohicans is a popular example of how well the New Age approach can work. This makes you feel like you're running through the woods with a rifled musket, chasing deer or evading enemies. The movie itself has an end-of-the-world feeling common to my favorite stories and the soundtrack helps establish that. I can understand, though, if some feel that there's a lack of depth to this album. There is a certain amount of sameness to the songs, but if you have seen the movie, the visuals that are evoked help make the listening experience a little richer.
Even better, though, is the soundtrack from the TV series Firefly. This album conveys a wider range of emotions in an equally wide range of styles. I think this is a particularly good example because it showcases this kind of music at its best: a little bit, um, New Age-y as well as just enough of something else (in this case, a wee hint of country music in line with the Western-ish genre of the TV show). OK, OK, I might be a bit biased here since this is also my all-time favorite TV show.
So, what about Enya? How did I come about to own every one of her albums? I can tell you that it's NOT because they're all good. In fact, there's a steep curve of diminishing returns for each successive album you get, to the point where the last one sounds like all of the previous. I strongly recommend that you do not follow my path, which I chalk up to an OCD-driven desire for completeness in certain areas [cut to camera angle showing Bill toeing a box with a full set of Revenge of the Sith minis out of sight].
Don't ignore her completely, though. I do recommend her album Watermark. I count this among my favorite of all albums. There are some seriously dark tones on a few of the tracks (from the title track Watermark on the sad end to Cursum Perficio on the slightly menacing) that you don't hear on her later stuff. Of course, this album also includes her insanely popular Oronoco Flow, which is a good song. I feel like you get a full journey with this album, something more than just background music.
But Enya doesn't have to be your entry into this world.
Loreena McKennitt, like Enya, is one of those rare artists who ply these waters to have achieved popular fame. Mummers' Dance did catch my ear in the late 90s and led me to her album The Book of Secrets. Unlike Enya, though, Loreena tells more of story with her music. You feel like you're on a Night Ride Across the Caucasus and wonder what truly will come of The Highwayman. She does this with an eclectic approach to style: She'll use Celtic, Spanish and a variety of other Mediterranean influences in varying decrees. She can make you feel like you're relaxing in your tent with the cool night-time desert breeze ruffling the flaps or searching for the landlord's black-eyed daughter.
There are a fair number of artists that straddle the margins between New Age and other genres as Loreena does. Use this borderland as a staging ground for forays into uncharted musical territory. My personal journey followed many such paths. Through both Enya and Loreena, I discovered other music. I learned that Celtic music is not something you need hear only around St. Patrick's day while imbibing large quantities of beer. I was exposed to music from the Middle Ages, the chants and canticles deep. I made forays into South Asia and the Far East. I came back home and listened to former Rock-and-Rollers dive into these waters
Enya got her start in the band Clannad with several family members. They're not a bad mix of Celtic and Pop, but I prefer The Chieftains. While they are more folksy, their work with other artists provides for a greater variety. Tears of Stone has them pairing up with the likes of Sinéad O'Connor and Bonnie Raitt. Even better is their pairing with Ry Cooder on San Patricio, which is a collection of songs about the Irish solders who deserted the American army and fought for Mexico in 1846. If you want to go out on another Celtic limb, give the Afro Celt Soundsystem a try. Their fusion sounds works well and provides for lively music. Their first album, Volume 1: Sound Magic gives you a good feel for their music.
Oddly enough, Gregorian chants became popular in the early nineties. The band Enigma got some mainstream airtime with their hit Principles of Lust from their album MCMXC A.D., which fused the chant style with ambient tones and hip-hop beats. Even the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos got some airtime. They're all men with similar voices, so the album feels like one long, but enjoyable song. My personal favorite, though, is A Feather on the Breath of God, composed by Hildegard von Bingen in 12th Century. For both albums allow me to close my eyes and enter the comforting darkness of a Gothic cathedral, and that's all I'm really looking for here.
My love of Medieval religious music brought me to Chant: Spirit in Sound, a collection assembled by Robert Gass from around the world, literally circling the globe. I like all of the tracks, but Om Namah Shivaya by Krishna Das, an American who performs Yogic chants, caught my ear with this classical Indian mantra set to music. Further exploration led me to Sheila Chandra, who perfectly mixes a traditional South Asian sound into a modern tempo for the best of both worlds. Her Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, from the album Roots and Wings, transports me to another world.
Serendipity played a role in my musical journey. While playing a chant CD at work, my cube neighbor said I surely must be familiar with Dead Can Dance. I wondered how I could not have picked up on this Duo. They changed my musical world. Brendan Perry is a musical genius, able to play many instruments and is quite lively in concert. Lisa Gerrard is more reserved, but has an amazing voice. You may know her from the movie soundtracks she's done, like that for Gladiator. Their sound is a mix of Medieval and Celtic influences. As with all bands mentioned here, only more so, my imagination is fueled by their work. I suggest Toward the Within, a live performance that covers the range of their sound.
However you go about your personal journey, you must do so with an open mind. A willingness to listen to something that appears to not be something of interest may lead to discoveries that open your musical horizons.
Here's a variety of tools to help you on your journey, as well as follow along with mine.
- This is a movie version of IMDB. Probably one of the worst website designs I've encountered, but the content is extremely valuable. Many other music related sites license their content, so you might as well go to the source.
- I'm not an audio-snob, so I have no problems with material downloaded from iTunes. I find their prices reasonable, but even better are the suggestions offered up for related music.
- When I can't find something on iTunes, it's usually here. This is another great site for providing suggestions.
- There are entries for artists, albums and even some songs. This is a great place for learning the background to the music.
- Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme by Simon and Garfunkel
- Days of Future Passed by The Moody Blues
- Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin
- 2112 by Rush
- Last of the Mohicans by Trevor Jones and Randy Edleman
- Firefly by Greg Edmonson
- Watermark by Enya
- The Book of Secrets by Loreena McKennitt
- Tears of Stone by The Chieftains
- San Patricio by The Chieftains and Ry Cooder
- Volume 1: Sound Magic by Afro Celt Sound System
- A Feather on the Breath of God composed by Hildegard von Bingen
- Chant: Spirit in Sound compiled by Robert Gass, performed by many.
- Roots and Wings by Sheila Chandra
- Gladiator by Lisa Gerrard (among others)
- Toward the Within by Dead Can Dance