Recently, a group of people armed with tote bags and wearing subdued clothes settled into the wooden pews of a Unitarian church in Brooklyn Heights to watch the final performance of a New Age musician named J. D. Emmanuel. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt in an unnatural blue and a leather safari hat, Emmanuel announced to nearly three hundred people who were in attendance that he wanted to share a story before starting. He explained his creative journey, from his earliest recording experiments in his Texas home to the present moment, when, at seventy years old, he stood as an unlikely legend of experimental music who has become a catalyst for the resurgence of New Age in the past decade.
Emmanuel spoke over a soundscape of chirping birds, running water, and rustling leaves—a field recording that he made in his backyard; the pews creaked restlessly as audience members strained to hear him. He jumped from subject to subject—the composer Terry Riley, tape loops, mindfulness, neuro-linguistic programming, and the activity that changed the course of his life as a teen: listening to music on his couch, while laying down with his eyes closed. The only accurate way to describe the sensation, Emmanuel told the room, was “time travel.”
A group of people armed with tote bags watched the New Age musician J. D. Emmanuel perform, at a Unitarian church in Brooklyn Heights.
Photograph by Cameron Kelly McLeod / Courtesy ISSUE Project Room
The sensation was so satisfying, as Emmanuel tells it, that he started to make music that could heighten that feeling. During the years 1979 to 1985, he made recordings in a bedroom converted into a home studio, filled with four analog synthesizers, a four-track reel-to-reel recorder, and an echo effects box. His sound was ethereal and murky—without horizon, words, or classical structures. He liked to layer his synthesizers, locking them together in contrasting cycles, creating a sense of surging movement. At the time, Emmanuel lived in Houston, home to ZZ Top. A hub of hard-rock and crude oil. Unable to draw inspiration from “cow country,” as he calls it, Emmanuel looked to the “kosmische musik” (or cosmic music) of Germany, made by groups such as Cluster and Tangerine Dream. He drew from Riley, America’s experimental guru, and discovering how to loop sounds by listening to the musician Achim Reichel. Though each of these musicians have been variously labelled as “New Age” or “experimental” or “ambient,” their common feature is a sense of spaciousness—music that carves out its own sonic refuge in a world where noise infiltrates most corners of our existence. “I give people a safe space to go, leave for a while, and come back,” Emmanuel said, before his performance that night. Sitting outside on the church steps, he spoke in an unhurried Texas accent, marked by squared-off vowels. His audience, he said, could “time travel, lose track of things, and come back feeling different.”
Emmannuel started out by releasing cassettes with names such as “Sound Paintings” and “Echoes From Ancient Caves.” Later, with money provided by his parents and family friends, he recorded two albums of music designed for “inner awareness”: “Rain Forest Music” and “Wizards,” released in 1981 and 1982, respectively. The cover of the “Wizards” album is a tightly framed black-and-white portrait of Emmanuel, in which he looks mystically bald and probably a little bit stoned. He calls “Wizards” his first “deep-trance electronic record.” It’s a sound cycle of fitful synthesizers making a dense but simple sonic tableau. Emmanuel was looking for enlightenment, and offering it to anyone who would listen, but inner awareness wasn’t an experience in high demand in ZZ Top country, and certainly not in the rock and reggae clubs across Houston. Sales for his LPs capped out in the low hundreds. “I couldn’t give them away,” Emmanuel likes to say. Nearly a decade later, in the mid nineties, he moved houses and abandoned his entire remaining back catalogue, still unsealed in cardboard boxes.
In 2005, Emmanuel received a phone call asking if he was “the J. D. Emmanuel” who made “Wizards.” On the other end of the line was a record collector and music journalist named Douglas Mcgowan, who’d found Emmanuel’s discarded discography in a Dallas bookstore. After listening to “Wizards,” Mcgowan immediately purchased fifty of Emmanuel’s albums (two editions of “Wizards” along with “Rain Forest Music”) and decided to track down its creator. Initially, Emmanuel wasn’t able to make sense of the request. “When I got that call, I went, ‘Huh?’ ” Besides discarding his own music, he’d long ago sold off the tools that he’d made it with, the analog synths and the tape machines, to partake in the more fulfilling personal project of building Web sites.
After twenty-five years of making music in a figurative vacuum, the call from Mcgowan would lead to Emmanuel finding, for the first time in his life, an audience. Word quickly spread among collectors of privately pressed albums about a gritty homemade recording made far outside the experimental and New Age circles. One of the collectors responsible for spreading the word was John Olson, a member of the cult noise group Wolf Eyes, who also runs the popular Instagram meme account @inzane_johnny. “It was the first time I’d heard a private-press synth record have such an emotional quality to it,” he said. “I just played it non-stop. It was amazing. It gets tagged as a New Age record, but it’s really not that at all. It’s more like a downer folk record. It had this John Fahey kind of essence to it. They both have a unique Texas take on private synth playing, but he [Emmanuel] has the same kind of solitary feeling without the religious dogma. He’s somebody comfortable with his own shadows.”
“Wizards” was reissued by a small experimental label, and sold out quickly. Emmanuel had never performed his music for an audience before (not counting two performances in 1982, one that he dismisses as a “catastrophe”), but soon he was being asked to play with small experimental acts passing through Texas. Larger experimental music festivals followed, and, in 2011, Emmanuel went on a nine-date tour of Europe. “A friend told me not too long ago that I’ve had a Rip Van Winkle moment,” Emmanuel said. “I had fallen asleep for decades and suddenly woke up again.” The revived interest in his work led to a second celestial wind and, and, in 2014, he released “Inter-Dimensional Time Traveling,” a shimmering, digitally composed album that Emmanuel considers to be the culmination of his life’s work. On his Web site, he filed the album under a new heading: “Time Traveler Music.”
The discovery of any artistic creation lost to history may be the closest a human will actually come to experiencing time travel in this life. At the time of Emmanuel’s discovery, New Age music wasn’t considered to be any kind of serious musical genre—not by record collectors, at least. Call it a cosmic occurrence, but Mcgowan thinks that Emmanuel’s mindful electronic compositions, which he sees as an example of a singular American artist, changed the popular consideration of a regularly lampooned genre. “It was a unique time in the re-popularization of New Age,” Mcgowan said of Emmanuel’s discovery, as we spoke on the phone recently. “It was this unintentional Johnny Appleseed moment.” In 2013, Mcgowan produced “I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America, 1950-1990,” a definitive collection of home-recorded New Age music that he hoped would reframe the musical style away from the usual quasi-spiritual tropes and instead as a quintessential American folk art. “When I saw how great the best New Age music was, I decided the thing to do was take it very seriously and make it clear that this was worthwhile, because it is nourishing music. It’s good for you,” he said. Shortly after the release of the compilations, evidence of a modern groundswell appeared. Pitchfork, the Times, and the Guardian each tried to make sense of kids in Bushwick and Los Angeles trading indie rock for pan-flutes and palo santo, especially as modern groups, such as Emeralds and Oneohtrix Point Never, began making music landing somewhere at the intersection of New Age and experimental electronic production. Other past pioneers like San Francisco’s Iasos and New York City’s Laraaji, a former street musician who famously collaborated with Brian Eno, began to perform again to sold-out audiences in churches, yoga studios, and avant-garde art spaces across the U.S. and Europe.
How did New Age end up carrying so much baggage in our musical memory? Its fall from grace, when it once soared, might be due to New Age’s status as one of the most heavily marketed musical genres, making it the equivalent of aural snake oil, to be sold on the yoga-conference circuit and in corporate supplement chains. It’s not often that an emerging style of music becomes indistinguishable from a wellness product—one with excessive claims promising listeners reduced anxiety, altered biorhythms, and the soothing of inflamed prostates.
The name most widely associated with the popularization of New Age is Steven Halpern, a San Francisco-based composer who began making Eastern-inspired music, starting in 1969. He’s called one of the “founding fathers” of New Age due in part to his album “Spectrum Suite,” from 1976, featuring a shimmering Rhodes electric piano on which he played “7 musical keynotes to resonate, activate and heal the 7 chakras.” The album became a cornerstone of mainstream New Age music, or the “relaxation” genre as Halpern branded it. In the following quarter century, the album went on to sell more than six million copies. But it’s not clear, looking back, if Halpern’s largely uncontested legacy was built on a divine musical sensibility or crypto-capitalist savvy and relentless self-promotion. A late-nineties marketing sheet for Halpern’s releases advised music retailers: “As long as there is stress, Steven Halpern will be selling more and more recordings.”
Beyond the musical differences between Emmanuel’s stark stylings and Halpern’s polished celestial approach was the crucial fact that Emmanuel refused to aggressively self-promote his music. “You don’t make music to make money. You make music because you’re moved to do it from your heart,” Emmanuel said. “I just cared about having fun, doing the music. I’m luckier than most.” I believed that Emmanuel was being sincere on this point, but there was a wistful air to his words. Who wouldn’t want acclaim, or even recognition, while producing such an immense creative output? Yet, the music Emmanuel had set out to make was, by its sheer existence, a means to an end—a musical treatment made with an audience of one in mind. The chasm between Emmanuel’s approach and Halpern’s is in many ways the story of New Age music in America, or beyond that, any outsider art with a more sanctioned form. Does this make Emmanuel’s music more authentic, or to keep with the parlance of the genre, more nourishing? Mcgowan thinks so. “He’s the ultimate New Age outlier, because he wasn’t a part of any marketing schemes to promote his music. He’s his own man, he’s not wearing a costume or playing a role” he said. “He’s a model of how you should experience the music. It should be a sustained part of a musical diet, not a way of life. It’s not a religious belief system, and it doesn’t have to be alienating to anyone. It can just be a part of who you are and something you live.”
Inside the church, Emmanuel played a sequence of slowly swelling notes on a trio of keyboards. The wobbling tones looped in a cycle, over which he added dusty smears of synth that tentatively traced a melody. For the next hour, sitting in isolating darkness in the sanctuary, we listened on as Emmanuel first layered, then deconstructed, and again layered soundscapes in continuous swells. The frequencies pumping across the space seemed to become one with the heavy, muggy air sitting in the room. If you haven’t taken the opportunity to sit in a dark room to listen to wordless music without any obvious form, the experience is a bit like having a personal score for your daydreams. Your mind tends to cart around in circles. For a moment of truly indeterminate length, I stared vacantly at wood cutout of a peace sign hanging askew from the church’s balcony. Contrary to the idea of New Age’s stated subliminal sloganeering, the ambience found in Emmanuel’s music was decidedly free of messages, as well as the usual cues of rock concerts that attempt to command an audience’s emotions. Sitting there as Emmanuel, whose body was mostly obscured by the heads in front of me, performed, I was aware that I was probably in the only place in the entire city that could offer me the edifying comforts of an intentional nothingness.
Emmanuel’s music insists—gently—on our seeing New Age music differently, as something far more secular, intimate, and functional—a tool for both personal survival and emotional pleasure. It’s understandable that mindfulness and wellness (and Marianne Williamson) have become near-universal trends in a new age that is both noisy, invasive, and indifferent. But, in a time where it also seems as if no one is working outside of social media’s all-seeing eye, it’s harder to imagine a musician like Emmanuel, working in peaceful obscurity. Why would an artist do this when a fervent audience or overnight success could be a Soundcloud upload away? The Internet has fundamentally reordered our concept of creativity, such that it seems impossible to conceive of music being made without access to a larger audience. Because Emmanuel’s music was made in unthinkable isolation, it feels transcendent, not just for its ethereal qualities but also for its quarantine from success and the crippling careerism that later infected New Age. Once the crate-digging of this era has reached its end, will we ever be graced with music made free of such ambitions? It seems about as plausible as actually transcending time and space in a Brooklyn church on a week night. But maybe that’s what New Age music, Emmanuel’s music, actually offers: a space where cynicism can’t be heard at all.