VA: I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America 1950-1990
Two details in the title of this encompassing compilation immediately catch one's eye: that its musical focus, obviously, is New Age, and that its material extends across four decades. As it turns out, said details ultimately are less germane when the collection often transcends the titular genre and achieves such a remarkable degree of cohesiveness, despite the temporal scope and diversity of the artists involved. Probably the first thing one should do when coming to the release is set aside whatever preconceptions one has about New Age, as I Am The Center is often anything but the kind of elevator music typically associated with the term. What's presented is a 133-minute treasure trove of twenty tracks by Laraaji, Iasos, Judith Tripp, Alice Damon, and others. While some are psychedelic in tone, others are earthbound, and many pieces, as one would expect given the 1950-1990 timeframe, are analog creations that evidence a handcrafted humanity.
As if to distance itself from the usual associations that dog the New Age term, the collection begins with an acoustic piano setting (“The Struggle of The Magicians Part Three,” credited to Thomas de Hartmann and G.I. Gurdjieff) whose wistful melancholy puts immediate distance between it and the genre as often defined. Still, there are some pieces that, in terms of instrumentation at least, do suggest some natural connection to the New Age style; it would be disingenuous to deny the New Age character of the twittering birds and twinkling keyboards in Michael Stearns' “As The Earth Kissed The Moon,” for example. One also could draw a straight line from the genre to the harp playing in Gail Laughton's “Pompeii 76 A.D.” but doing so might gloss over how pretty and entrancing the piece is. With shimmering keyboard patterns evoking the image of a serene paradise, Steven Halpern's “Seventh Chakra Keynote B (violet)” is even more emblematic of New Age as conventionally defined, yet once again one's resistance is challenged by the sheer prettiness of the setting.
One of the ways I Am the Center keeps the listener engaged is by including pieces of contrasting duration, such that while there are long meditations—four push past the ten-minute mark, with Larkin's “Two Souls Dance” the longest at thirteen minutes—there are many short pieces, too, with the shortest, Nesta Kerin Crain's “Gongs in the Rain” weighing in at a svelte two minutes. Another thing that makes for stimulating listening are the repeated changes in instrumentation, with certain pieces limiting their respective palettes to single instruments: harp in “Pompeii 76 A.D.,” electric guitars in Wilburn Burchette's “Witch's Will,” organ in Daniel Emmanuel's “Arabian Fantasy,” flutes in Joanna Brouk's “Lifting Off,” and so on. While many of the pieces are acoustic in nature, some incorporate electronics, too. Peter Davison's 1981 piece “Glide V,” for instance, presents a mesmerizing display featuring mallet instrument playing (marimba, vibes) by John Magnussen and synthesizer and flute by Davison himself.
Certain pieces do stand out, including the dozen minutes of swirling harp entrancement contributed by Joel Andrews (“Seraphic Borealis”) and the somewhat Frippertronics-styled exercise (“Lunar Eclipse”) from Mark Banning. “Blue Spirals” receives a distinguishing boost from the classical violin playing Daniel Kobialka (who was for many years a violinist in the San Francisco Symphony) adds to the piece's meditative ambient-drone backdrop. One of the collection's most-recognizable names belongs to zither player Laraaji Nanananda (Edward Larry Gordon), who Brian Eno infamously discovered playing for spare change in Manhattan's Washington Square Park and who is here represented by an excerpt of “Unicorns In Paradise.”
Many of the artists have discographies that span decades. The American composer Constance Demby, whose “Om Mani Padme Hum” appears on the release, issued her first album, Skies Above Skies, in 1978 and her most recent, Ambrosial Waves - Healing Waters, in 2011. Jonathan Fairchild's Aeoliah discography is likewise huge, with releases extending from 1984 to 2013, many of them on the Dutch label Oreade Music. So even though the release centers on the 1950-1990 period, it doesn't mean that the composers in question aren't still actively producing. On a final note, Light In The Attic, to its credit, spared no effort or expense in the presentation of the release, with both the two-CD set and the three-LP package accompanied by booklets rich in background information on the artists involved.