Off an entirely improvised record, here's the self-described "shaman-rock" stylings of East Forest. Textures, samples and vocals all knit together in a slow build. A great concept with great results.
“Behold the Darkness” is a New Age track by Medwyn Goodall, from his album “Comet.” I decided to listen to it because of my fondness for the darker side of New Age music, but upon hearing the track all the way through I think it's more of a cinematic piece. Soundtrack music is a lot like Classical music except that it's a bit more dramatic, verging on over-the-top depending on your personal tastes.
Some people really get into those sweeping, grandiose emotional flourishes. Other people see them as being kind of cheesy. It's a matter of subjective opinion, so I won't try to take a side, but I do like this piece. It has a lot of feeling, and you can hear the storytelling in it. Give it a listen, and let the music tell you the epic story of a movie you've never seen because it doesn't actually exist. I'm sure the movie you see in your own head won't be the same one I see in mine, but I'm equally sure that you will see one.
In this way, cinematic or soundtrack-style music bears a distinct resemblance to illustration art. Illustration art is one of my favorite kinds of art, and it also faces criticism sometimes for being too dramatic or grandiose. But a great illustration can evoke an entire story with a single well-chosen scene, and that's why it's always so fun to look at it- just like this track is fun to listen to.
Thus, the counter-culture known as the “New Age travelers”- people of non-gypsy ethnic origins who wander through the British Isles in caravans of RVs or other vehicles in order to travel from one music festival to another. They are, for the most part, what people would call “hippies,” but a lot of them do subscribe to the broad tenets of New Age spirituality.
New Age travelers used to be a much larger subculture, but back in the 80s the authorities started to crack down on them, and their numbers have dwindled. However reduced they may be, they are still out there, and the RV caravans of the United Kingdom are no longer exclusively Irish Travelers, Scottish Travelers, English Travelers or Romanichal Gypsies. Some of them are “New Age Travelers,” living the romance of the wandering life as they understand it.
Although I'm not particularly interested in their type of music or other aspects of their lifestyle, I have to admit to being somewhat intrigued by the idea of wandering around from place to place in an RV, footloose and fancy free, never staying in one place for all that long. You can admit it- you are too!
This piece is called “Darkest Before Dawn,” and I'd describe it as space music, although others have described it as dark ambient. I listened to this piece while meditating just last week, and found it to be very helpful for that purpose.
The reason for using meditation music, in my mind, is to drown out incidental sounds that might otherwise be distracting and break your concentration. Really good meditation music can also have the effect of triggering your subconscious mind, as changes in the soundscape tend to produce sudden changes in your field of consciousness. Of course, the benefit of this depends on what type of meditation you engage in, as some methods of meditation are aimed at stopping thought rather than playing with it.
I personally aim to play with consciousness in order to learn new things and have new insights as a result. My meditation is also focused on dreamwork. Both of these types of meditative practice can be benefited by listening to this type of music. Steve Roach's music does more than just help you silence all the superfluous noises. It also helps send your mind off in new directions and down unexpected paths and streams.
The music of AKLO tries to capture this quality, to serve as a soundtrack of sorts to Lovecraft's unbalanced mythology of forgotten Elder Gods and non-Euclidean cities and forbidden books that drive people crazy. It doesn't just sound spooky or melancholy; it sounds insane. You might just as well open the Necronomicon up and start chanting out loud as to try to use this stuff for meditation.
Of course, they don't actually suggest you try to use it for meditation. They recommend using it as background music when you're playing a Lovecraftian themed role-playing game, when you want to scare the eyeballs out of your neighbors' heads, or when you just think you've been a little too sane lately. I personally believe, though, that if you ever decide to open up the gates between worlds and personally experience the blasphemous insanity of the Lovecraftian gods, you would really want this music to be playing while you did it. Atmosphere is important, after all!
I've been profiling post rock bands for the past few weeks because I think post rock has a lot in common with New Age music, even though the audiences for the two genres are probably completely distinct. Both styles of music are largely instrumental, both use wandering rhythms with no set time signatures, both are seemingly structureless, both are highly introspective in nature and both tend to induce a calm and meditative frame of mind.
The two biggest differences, other than cultural, are these- post-rock uses rock instruments such as electric guitars and New Age music generally doesn't, and New Age music is almost always positive and optimistic in emotional tone. Post rock tends to explore a wider range of emotions and moods.
Personally, I think this is a good thing. To the extent that New Age music has a spiritual aspect to it, I question the depth of any spirituality that requires constant optimism and positivity in a world such as this one. By delving into emotions of sorrow, anger or fear as well as joy and beauty, post rock may actually play a more effective role as an aid to meditation than New Age music.
People enjoy music for different reasons. Some people want to be soothed and some people want to be charged up. Some people love complexity and sophistication; some are more into the raw power. Many people are only able to appreciate one specific type of music. They aren't really music fans as such, they're jazz fans or classical fans or rock fans.
Personally, I find that different types of music speak to me in different moods. I like punk rock when I want a jolt of pure energy, traditional Celtic music when I want to immerse myself in a culture with soul, EBM or futurepop when I'm feeling a little philosophical, crazy avant-garde art-rock like Laibach or Devil Doll when I'm feeling crazy and artsy, and meditative music like New Age or post-rock when I'm meditating or relaxing.
“Mono” has the ability to speak to more than one mood at once, because it isn't just soothing like “Enya” or just sweeping and epic like a lot of heavy rock bands. It combines the epic quality of great rock with the meditative beauty of New Age music. You could say that it's the equivalent of New Age music for lifelong rock fans.
Iceland's “Sigur Ros” have been described as a post-rock band, and they do make use of some rock instruments such as the electric guitar (played with a cello bow!). However, their music would be likely to appeal to any fan of New Age music, due to its contemplative and transcendent qualities and the profoundly calming effect it has on the listener.
I've seen them perform twice now, and both occasions were among the most emotionally moving and ineffably beautiful musical experiences of my entire life. I didn't buy any albums of theirs for a long time, simply because I couldn't imagine any recording capturing the depth of what I had experienced in their live show. It's been so long since I've seen them perform, though, that I have now reconsidered, because I just want to hear that amazing music again.
When you hear a Sigur Ros song, the words are usually not in Icelandic or English, but in “Vonlenska,” a sort of unlanguage of meaningless syllables. These syllables are not improvised as in “scatting,” they are actual lyrics in the sense that each song uses specific patterns of Vonlenska syllables. That might seem a little avant garde, but set aside the strangeness of the concept and just listen. Sigur Ros makes music that almost seems to come from another world, perhaps the world of the Icelandic elves. Before you chuckle at that, just have a listen. Iceland is a very special place, and Sigur Ros is a very special band.
It's probably the “relaxing spirituality” aspect that causes Gregorian Chant to be associated with New Age music, but the two genres have another point in common as well. That's the use of a “free time” structure, where the music does not have a definable time signature. Time signatures probably had their origins in work music. For instance, rowers on a galley would sing to coordinate their rowing actions. Most music before the Renaissance, though, was in free time, and most types of “world music” are as well. New Age music probably borrowed the use of free time from two sources- free jazz, and world music. But the use of free time in Gregorian Chant still gives it a similar “feel” to New age music. Many people also find it very suitable for use while meditating, as long as they aren't worried about the explicitly Catholic nature of the chants themselves!
According to the website for Bliss Music:
“We have taken one of the most ancient and proven eastern secrets to meditation (Shaktipat) and turned it into a powerful sound technology.
So when you listen to the meditation music, you can actually feel the peace washing through you, enabling you to experience states of meditation you may not have been able to attain in decades of practice.”
This is a fairly typical marriage of New Age music with New Age thought, but despite the genuine beauty of much New Age music, it suffers from one of the central weaknesses of New Age thought. That weakness is “spiritual materialism.”
What is spiritual materialism? It is the mistake of equating genuine spiritual enlightenment with one of its commonly-misunderstood side effects, which is a state of bliss, joy or peace. In serious meditation traditions, the moment in which the ego falls away is often accompanied by blissful or ecstatic feelings, but it is crucial to understand that those feelings are merely incidental. Enlightenment is not an emotional state. If we mistake an emotional state for genuine enlightenment, no matter how wonderful that emotional state is, we can only make ourselves more unhappy in the long run. Why is that?
Think about some of the other things that can give you feelings of joy or bliss- sex, for example, or drugs, or personal success. There's nothing “unspiritual” about enjoying sex, but the bliss it gives you is temporary. So if you crave that bliss and start to grasp for it, chasing after sex at every opportunity, the misery you'll create for yourself in the long run will be far more intense and lasting than the brief periods of bliss.
Sex is by no means unique in this way. Anything and everything that gives us bliss works exactly like that. All of the great spiritual traditions teach that the way to spiritual enlightenment lies in getting out of the destructive cycle of chasing after bliss and creating suffering instead.
So, if we just equate meditation with the ecstatic and blissful feelings that sometimes arise when we make a spiritual breakthrough, then we defeat the point of having made that breakthrough. Meditative bliss becomes something to grasp, something to chase after just like sex or drugs. When the bliss of the meditation fades, you'll feel even worse because you can't regain it.
There is no such thing as a “technology of enlightenment” and there never will be. The most beautiful CD in the world cannot give you any understanding you don't come to on your own, and in seeking enlightenment for the bliss it causes, you may make yourself even more unhappy.