When my girlfriend and I broke up at the height of the pandemic, I was suddenly unable to listen to music. The sound of drums and vocals felt like I was staring directly into the sun. Even some of my favorite songs seemed like blaring noise to me, trying to carry me away to a life I no longer lived. During an assessment therapy session, I was diagnosed with a depressive episode. One typical symptom of depression is that things that used to give you pleasure suddenly no longer give you anything. For me, it was above all music that had suddenly lost its beauty and meaning. The shock was almost worse than the breakup itself.
Music had been the most important thing in my life. My best friend once said he could not understand how I could sit in an “sonic soup” 24 hours a day. I had never asked myself this question. Even at school, I was rarely seen without headphones. It was only logical that I later became a music journalist. That way, I was able to fully devote myself to music. The fact that music could no longer touch me felt as if I had lost myself. Anxiety and emotional numbness defined my days. I could lay for hours in my bedroom in total silence, hands folded over my heart like an embalmed mummy.
Over time, however, I found that there were quiet sounds that at least did not irritate me. I discovered artists like Aeoliah, Steven Halpern, Suzanne Doucet, and Liquid Mind through anti-anxiety playlists on Spotify, which the streaming service classified as “New Age”. Many tracks were little more than permeable veils wrapped around background noise. They carried none of that euphoric energy I used to look for in music. The sweet piano and billowing synth pads were more like acoustic security blankets than “acoustic furniture”. Their album covers depicted angels, or dolphins, or dolphins with angel wings drifting off into rainbow-colored universes. In the past, I would not have given such a conglomeration of clichés 30 seconds. But now, I listened to it for hours on end.
New Age is probably the last taboo for a music nerd like myself. No other genre is so widely scorned for its fuzzy sound aesthetics and outlandish esotericism. Not even a streak of sophisticated irony or the guilty-pleasure confession of “so bad it's good” seems to apply here. Brian Eno once said that the problem with New Age is that it no longer has a trace of evil in it. In his book about Enya, whom the pianist long only secretly admired, Chilly Gonzales compared the genre with “raw carrots”: Healthy, harmless, conservative, and good for you “in a way that Guns N’ Roses wasn’t.”
New Age is lounge music for heaven's gates, whitewashed smoothness polished to ethereal permeability. And in its unquestioned appropriation of “exotic“ and “indigenous“ elements, it is also deeply questionable from an identity-political perspective. “If you want to make music that relaxes people, you call it ambient. If you want to sell garbage to people with no taste at all, you call it New Age.” That is how American music curator and New Age expert Douglas McGowan describes the pop-cultural consensus on New Age that still holds true to this day.
And yet, I couldn't deny that this music had some sort of effect on me. It soothed me. It gave me hope that, one day, the pain would subside. That music had not been completely lost to me. Was it simply because of my longing for inner peace that I was suddenly willing to subject myself to musical sedation and spiritual promises?
I indiscriminately began to explore spiritual literature, from Helena Blavatsky to Eckart Tolle. Here, I came across many promises: The dissolution of the ego. A life in the light. The omnipresence of the divine. The end of separation. The realization that only the here and now exists, and that death is an illusion. A common thread that particularly appealed to me was the prospect that this pain I couldn't shake, this eternal burning in my chest, could be a portal to awakening. The American Pema Chödrön, who became a Buddhist nun after a traumatic breakup, had written an entire book about it. I discovered the title by accident while trying to self-medicate on Google: “When Everything Falls Apart”. But in the end, all these teachings were nothing more than mere words that became entangled in my logical mind. Only the immediacy of New Age music gave me an inkling that there might be a deeper truth behind them. What was music, anyway?
As a music journalist, I wrote about musicians and musical trends for years without even beginning to scratch this question. I described styles, compared artists, and categorized songs by pop culture without asking myself the fundamental question of why this formation of sound waves played such an important role in my life and the lives of so many people for whom I wrote. So were New Age artists perhaps right in their understanding of music as a spiritual tool from another sphere that could work wonders in each of us? Did they possess some kind of knowledge about music that allowed them to actually heal people – to heal me?
Still without any clue as to who I could sell an article about this stigmatized genre, I got in touch with Suzanne Doucet, a New Age artist who lives in California, about an interview. Her story impressed me right away. In the 1960s, the native of the German city of Tübingen was a teenie idol with a pixie cut. Back then she released several number one hits, like the German cover of the Ronettes song “Be my Baby”. She hosted music and children's shows alongside German showbiz stars like Hans Clarin and Ilya Richter, introducing newcomers like David Bowie to German audiences. Anyone with a TV in Germany, Austria or Switzerland knew her face.
At the end of the 1970s, Doucet, who by then sang her own “grown-up” chansons, decided to emigrate to the United States and devote herself entirely to this new type of spiritual instrumental music for which the term New Age had just begun to take root. In Los Angeles' hip Melrose district, she opened the world's first record store specializing exclusively in New Age. Customers included celebrities such as Prince and Sylvester Stallone. Doucet became one of the genre's most important gatekeepers. She networked and released artists on her label Isis, and she was even commissioned by Hollywood to design a New Age category for the Grammy Awards. What had she seen in this music that made her give up her career in Germany? After a short email exchange, we talked on Zoom.
“Back then, I had traveled half the world. It was time for me to start the journey inward,” Doucet tells me from her home in the Hollywood Hills. Even as a child, she says, she was on a spiritual path. Her father, Friedrich-Wilhelm Doucet, was a student of Carl Gustav Jung and had written numerous books on dream interpretation and parapsychological phenomena. “He was a free spirit. We talked a lot about these things.”
There is an immediate sense of trust between us. Without further ado, I tell Doucet that her albums have calmed me in hours of despair and that there were times when the only thing I could listen to was New Age music. “I’m not surprised,” she replies. “The knowledge of the healing power of music is as old as mankind itself. Music harmonizes the body. But this truth has unfortunately been lost in the era of pop music.”
The return of spirituality to music, which eventually culminated in New Age in the mid-1970s, was a gradual process that began in the late 1960s with bands like the Beatles, she tells me. “To me, George Harrison is a New Age artist.” Whether a piece of music is New Age or not is primarily determined by spiritual attitude, she says. “New Age music doesn't have to be soothing. It can also be symphonic, full of drums or just the sound of a single flute.” When she hears music, she could sense fairly quickly whether it has a spiritual element to it or not, Doucet explains. The style is not the first thing that matters.
Her broad definition of New Age fascinates me. When I thought about it, music had always been the only proof of God that I was willing to accept. Music was the only thing that gave me a sense of transcendence. I experienced some of the most beautiful moments of my life on the train, bus, or airplane when I was able to watch the world pass behind the window with headphones on. Through songs, the world became more meaningful, more consequential. Music seemed to create a space that truly allowed the present moment to be experienced more clearly than normal.
My genuine interest in her life's work and influence on New Age music appears to flatter Suzanne Doucet. After moving to the United States, she had largely disappeared from the consciousness of German pop history. At the end of our conversation, the artist and gatekeeper invites me to California. This is where all the stars of the New Age scene live. She could put me in touch with its biggest names.
“It will be worth your while,” she explains firmly. At first, I agree only out of politeness. My usual clientele – music magazines and feuilletons – would not be brave enough to even touch New Age, especially since the “current big thing” was missing.
But perhaps the trip would offer me a chance to reconnect with my earlier life. I, too, had traveled half the world before the pandemic, lived in China for a time and filmed a TV documentary in Indonesia. And now, six months after my breakup, I still sometimes had to force myself to get up and eat. So I might as well take on this project, looking out through the airplane window, listening to New Age and immersing myself in that mysterious world right where it happens. This could mark the beginning of my own “journey inward,” to a place where sadness dissolves into serenity. My ex-girlfriend had surely forgotten about me.
As I arrive in Los Angeles at the end of May, I forgot a US adapter for the local power outlets and my credit card pin. Instead, I have the list of New Age contacts in my pocket Suzanne Doucet gave me. You cannot truly understand why the genre flourished in California until you are here. On Venice Beach, I watch bodybuilders parading, fortune-tellers fanning tarot cards stocked with meaning, self-proclaimed healers balancing chakras with pendulums, and crooked stalls overflowing with dream catchers and crystals: An American recipe for success in which spirituality, wellness and self-optimization blend smoothly into each other.
The hippies who grew old in California had tried to transfer the mind-expanding experiences of the psychedelic revolution to a less ecstatic, more settled phase of life. They came to terms with capitalism and its concept of status in the process. Meditation, yoga, hypnotherapy, chakra healing, floating sessions and self-awareness programs radiate from here out into the world as holistic big business.
In the 1980s, Americans spent an average of four billion dollars a year on New Age seminars alone. If something doesn’t have a price tag, people attach no value to it, the New Age pathfinder Gurdjieff supposedly said. Until the mid-1980s, New Age was a marketing term with a high sales potential, especially in the music industry. Big labels paid studio artists to hastily throw together music meant to be soothing.
New Age compilations with titles like, Positive Sounds and Silent Dreams, flooded the market. Small record companies like Windham Hill or Celestial Harmonies, which had emerged from the German Krautrock label Kuckuck, became million-dollar businesses within just a few years. Artists like Kitaro and Vangelis filled concert houses. Record store giants like Tower Records set up their own New Age departments. New Age Only, Suzanne Doucet's store, couldn't compete for long and had to close.
But New Age has not always been the sedating high-end soundtrack for white yuppies of the Reagan era. In the 70s, the genre was underground in the best sense. Spiritual seekers recorded tapes in their home studios and released them through their own distribution channels, which were often simply meditation circles, yoga studios, or health food stores.
In the early days, Suzanne Doucet had sold her meditation music out of the trunk of her car right here on Venice Beach. The golden years of New Age were a DIY affair. Their disregard for established structures was not all that dissimilar to the hardcore punk that had also flourished in California.
“The original impetus of New Age music was music to connect to your own divinity, music to connect to your higher self, to do yoga, to find inner peace, to enhance harmony,” genre pioneer Iasos once explained in an interview. In its former epicenter of California, New Age music has experienced a renaissance in the last five years. Labels like Leaving Records and collectors like the aforementioned Douglas McGowan have tried to make the genre respectable by highlighting the quality of early cassette releases.
McGowan, who curated the well-received compilation, I Am The Center, for the reissue label, Light In The Attic, even spoke of “American folklore” in connection with New Age, which cannot be ignored if one wants to understand the pop culture of the 20th-century. A small group of connoisseurs launched blogs, events, and radio shows with names like New Atlantis, Crystal Vibrations, and Sound Of The Dawn. Reissues and documentaries were dedicated to pioneers like Iasos, Laraaji or Suzanne Ciani.
At the same time, a young generation of artists such as Green-House, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith or Dolphins Into The Future began to hone their own interpretation of New Age, giving the genre a more complex dynamic and a technological update. Just as it was about to die down again, the pandemic gave further impetus to the New Age wave.
To alleviate depression and anxiety and fill the lack of therapy spots everywhere, a number of mindfulness apps have turned to soothing music alongside guided meditations and stories that are supposed to help you sleep. For the two biggest providers, Calm and Headspace, the budget was not only big enough to license albums of veteran new-age artists like Liquid Mind and Suzanne Doucet, but also to sign contemporary artists for exclusive ambient tracks.
The Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire recorded a 45-minute track for Headspace titled “Age of Anxiety,” inspired by Alan Watts. Artists like Moby and Alanis Morissette are releasing entire albums exclusively on the meditation app Calm, which also has its own New Age section. Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming services also offer constantly updated “Deep Focus” and “Ambient Relaxation” playlists in which New Age, solo piano and Hollywood soundscapes coexist. So clearly I was not the only one trying to cure, or at least stabilize myself with music over the past two years. Perhaps I was on the right track to something greater, a new longing for inner peace and spirituality expressed in soft sound clouds: A New Age of the New Age.
The first artist I visited in California also found his way to New Age for mental health. Chuck Wild, who produces calming music under the name Liquid Mind, greets me in his villa in Long Beach. The 75-year-old's premises look like a time capsule of the early 1990s. The floor is covered with beige carpet that swallows every step. Electronic devices, including a fax machine, have the color of yellowed eggshells.
For a moment, I feel taken back to those long afternoons after school spent watching American TV shows. Wild himself strikes me as a cross between Andy Warhol and William Tanner, the family father from the TV series ALF: Lanky physique, thin glasses, and a voice so harmless and gentle that my interview anxiety immediately vanishes into thin air. I ask him about the panic attacks that, according to his website, inspired him to compose his gentle music.
“It was more terrifying than anything I had ever experienced. I couldn't leave the house for weeks,” Wild recalls without a trace of bitterness. His trauma was many years ago. Until the mid-1980s, the trained pianist had been a highly popular pop keyboardist. His band, Missing Persons – four New Wave hipsters with toupee hairstyles – was one of the first groups to be played on heavy rotation in the early days of music channel MTV. Their song “Walking in LA” made them so famous, at least on the American West Coast, that Chuck Wild was able to live in the fast lane for a few years.
“Because I was in Missing Persons, everybody wanted to work with me. The phone never stopped ringing.” Wild composed hits such as Jennifer Rush's “You're My One And Only,” which went to number one on the German charts, and soundtracks for film and television, such as the cyberpunk classic Max Headroom. He was so busy, he says, that his mind and body could not respond adequately to the tragedies that were unfolding in his life. At the height of the AIDS crisis, he lost 60 of his closest friends and lovers to the disease. “60!” he repeats, and for the first time, his voice sounds fierce rather than detached. “Instead of grieving, I worked up to 20 hours a day and poured a double cappuccino every half hour. It was madness.”
One day, during a morning conference at the entertainment company Lorimar-Telepictures, Wild's heart began to race violently. He hyperventilated, stiffening in panic. “I couldn't understand what was happening to me. I had been in the Navy as a young man, in a war zone, in Vietnam! But I never felt this kind of fear before.” A colleague, who was sure he was having a heart attack, raced Wild to the emergency in his Porsche. There he received a full checkup. But neither ECG nor ultrasound could confirm the suspicion.
“The doctor said, 'You are physically fine. What you experience is anxiety.’ Then he held two pieces of paper up and said, 'You have a choice – This is a prescription for the anti-depressant Xanax and these are instructions for meditation,’” Wild recalls. “I took the Xanax. But only for one day. I felt like a zombie! The next day, I started meditating. And I still do to this day.”
His therapist at the time suggested the idea of composing his own meditative music. “She said, 'Compose music that sounds like how you'd like to feel,’” Wild said. “I liked Music For Airports by Brian Eno. That was reasonably close to the silence I sought, but still too busy.” Wild stretched Eno's ambient music to the extreme. He wanted to make this style even “slower, more soothing, more boring,” he says.
“In the process, I broke all the rules I had learned as a pianist, especially the idea that silence between notes is golden if you use it right. You won't find moments of total silence in Liquid Mind's music. The synth pads blend into each other without pause. Even though my music sounds incredibly quiet when you first hear it, I'm obsessed with the idea of avoiding silence at all costs when I'm composing.”
The tracks of his albums reflect the path of his personal recovery: “Slow World,” “Balance,” “Meditation,” “Serenity,” “Spirit,” “Deep Sleep,” or “Mindfulness.” Despite such New Age vocabulary, I'm almost disappointed at how out of touch with the divine the man behind Liquid Mind seems to be. His explanations sound grounded, humble, and pragmatic. This is no way for a mystic to speak, no way for an esoteric.
Before his career as a musician, Wild says, he studied economics. When he gets up in the morning, he does not settle down on a meditation pillow. He instead sits down at the computer to juggle bonds and stocks as a day trader. As for the healing and calming powers of his music, he prefers to place his trust in scientific studies rather than higher powers.
“There are studies, for example from Japan, which show that children in the womb can't hear high frequencies, only the lower tonal scales. I intentionally reduce the high frequencies in my music to achieve a similar effect. Also, pacing plays a big role. My melodies develop so slowly that you have to calm down to hear them.”
Wild has cleared a spot in front of the computer on which he carefully layers his soundscapes, where he can lay his head if his own music leaves him too sleepy. He is usually unable to work on it for more than 40 minutes at a time without dozing off, he says. “Music can help you slow down your negative thoughts and help you calm down – I call it stinking thinking.”
I tell him that his softly floating tracks also kept my head above water when it was heavy with self-doubt and anxiety. “Now I've got goosebumps,” Wild replies, smiling mildly at me. “When I'm sitting here composing this music, I tend to forget that there are people out there that it helps in some way.” I ask him if he would describe his music as spiritual. It was a last-ditch attempt at coaxing some secret out of him. “Yes, definitely. To me, spirituality is a connection of all the good things that exist in the world. It can be a smile from a stranger. A kind word to a friend in time of need. I try to bring as much positivity into my life as possible.”
The conversation with Chuck Wild made me realize that the healing powers of the elusive New Age genre can indeed be proven. But where does the healing spiritual effect begin, and where does it turn into random esoteric nonsense? Why had New Age music comforted me more than the sonically similar ambient designs of artists like Brian Eno and William Basinski? Does this music need a mystical aura to achieve its full effect?
Oddly enough, Aeoliah, the musician with the worst, cheesiest New Age artwork, was the one who touched me the most during my depression. Ay-oh-lee-ya, as his name is pronounced, is pure New Age concentrate. His swelling and subsiding soundscapes envelop you like fluffy-soft avalanches. His self-painted artwork depicts pastel cloudy paradises, Buddhas wreathed in aureoles and dolphins leaping toward harp-playing angels.
The sound of his music instilled shame in me – as if I was caught doing something wrong. The last time I had felt this way was when I first discovered The Prodigy at the age of 14 and was unsure whether it was okay that a metal head like me suddenly liked techno.
The more I listened to his music, the more Aeoliah turned from the forbidden fruit to a fascinating mystery. Supposedly, the musician who communicates with the angels lived in Germany before he emigrated with his family to the United States. However, there are hardly any specifics on the Net. But I managed to find out this much: Along with Iasos, Constace Demby and Steven Halpern, Aeoliah is considered the co-inventor of New Age music. His album Angel Love, released in 1984, made him famous far beyond the New Age epicenter of California.
At the end of the 1980s, he became something like the poster boy of the movement: Rosy cheeks, blond curls and a smile usually only Bodhisattvas had on their lips. The death researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, later mocked as a New Age disciple, was one of his admirers and used his music in her hospice work. Donald Trump's wife Marla said on an American breakfast television show in 1993 that their first daughter was born to Aeoliah's album Angel Love For Children.
There were times when even airlines like Continental and KLM included his soothing sounds on their in-flight programs. No one embodied the mystical aura and commercialization of New Age music as perfectly as Aeoliah. Yet the now 72-year-old had actually aspired to become a visual artist. In 1979, while he was painting, he was overcome by a vision that launched him into synesthetic spheres.
On his website musicforhealthyliving.com, he describes how “light, color and sound were somehow intrinsically connected as pure universal energies.” The painting beneath his brush suddenly became audible. On Aeoliah's debut album Inner Sanctum, which was released two years later, the self-taught artist tried to translate the “divine intelligence” that had revealed itself during this vision into music.
For a long time, Jonathan Fairchild – Aeoliah's real name – did not responded to my e-mails. As a final attempt at contacting him, I left a comment under a photo on his Instagram account that shows him on a Mexican beach wearing Gucci glasses and designer swim trunks, his hands raised to the sky like a priest. I write that I am a great admirer of his art, that I will soon visit his hometown of Sedona and that I would be incredibly grateful if he could tell me about his musical and spiritual practice. His reply comes less than an hour later:
“That is perfect that you're in Sedona. I'm sure we'll have a lot to share.“
Two days later, I reach Sedona, the desert town framed by spectacular rust-red rock formations. The Arizona town is the American Mecca for all things New Age. As in late New Age music, spirituality and commerce blend here in a mind-numbing way. Entire storefronts specialize in crystals, dream catchers and tarot cards. Standard offers also include UFO night hikes (“Sightings guaranteed”), photographs depicting the aura (“You may like to add: Aura Clearing”) and psychic readings of various orientations (“Change Your DNA!”). Just about everything seems to be haphazardly thrown together here. The white middle class plays shaman. Healers leave their business cards with things on them like: “Venus Contactee”, “Blue Flame Elohim” or “Galactic Council Ambassador”.
After just half a day, I had already overdosed on this. This nonsense was hardly worth looking into, or was it? I look at it as a camp and kitsch spectacle, which works well at first. Outside the New Age Superstore, I listen with fascination to a woman in her 60s who explains in a bubblegum accent that she just met all the lovers of her past lives during a séance – “so many I can't count them all.”
If there is a place in the world to celebrate spiritual orgies, it is probably Sedona. Officially, only about 11,000 people live in the town, which was founded in 1902 as a Mormon settlement. However, every year, around three million tourists make the pilgrimage here – many in search of healing and enlightenment. It all began in the 1970s, when Page Bryant, a local medium, declared several places located high up to be so-called vortex zones, including Native American shrines. In these zones, electromagnetic energy fields penetrating from the earth are supposed to compress to such an extent that spontaneous healing and experiences of spiritual awakening occur, as the Sedona’s Vortex Guidebook explains, which I purchased in the New Age Superstore. The booklet's preface includes a quote from Jack Kerouac:
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
During a globally-synchronized mass meditation that went down in the alternative New Age history books as the Harmonic Convergence, more than 5,000 people gathered at the bell-shaped Bell Rock Vortex on August 16, 1987, to usher in a better age of peace. Colorado-based mystic Joseph Argüelles, who had calculated the date using the Mayan calendar, explained that UFO sightings could also be expected. Instead of extraterrestrial beings, celebrities like Shirley MacLaine, John Denver, Timothy Leary and Yes vocalist, Jon Anderson joined the happening. That night, “Om” could be heard rising into the sky from thousands of mouths, the mantra that, according to the Hindu scriptures of the Upanishads, is closest to the primordial sound of the universe.
Even today, music is an important carrier in Sedona for connecting with the universe or, optionally, the “higher self”. The bulletin boards of New Age stores offer countless sound healing therapies and sound baths. “The use of sounds, mantras, singing bowls, chanting and drums as an instrument for healing is thousands of years old,” a local healer says, touting her services. “My sounds flow through the cellular structures of your body and give you an energetic upgrade.”
On a hot, dry Sunday afternoon, I make my way to Aeoliah's address in Cottonwood, a small town with 10,000 people near Sedona, where, Henry Miller's muse June spent her final years. Behind a wrought-iron gate, which I can only pass by entering a numerical code, beige bungalows line up in confusing symmetry. The only sign that told me that I have finally reached my destination was two small angel statues outside the house entrance. I take a deep breath, press the bell, and the door opens.
“Good day. Come in, come in!”
Aeoliah greets me, giggling in German. After taking my shoes off, I enter the estate, which looks as if the New Age principle has manifested itself in the shape of a terraced house. Quartz, selenite and amethyst crystals scattered throughout the room create the impression of a celestial stalactite cave. Plastic flowers, pink lotus, red roses, white orchids shine in bulbous Chinese vases. Golden Buddhas, angels, holy images and singing bowls are grouped on a room-sized house altar, as if following some mysterious logic. A gong dangles from the ceiling. Ruffled golden curtains hang from the windows. Behind them, the view opens onto the terrace, at the end of which a small Marian fountain splashes out into the desert heat. The Madonna seems to watch over the rust-red, rocky plains stretching far beyond the horizon behind her.
If any place has felt like a supernatural vortex so far, it is this one. Aeoliah has put on one of his albums in the background. I instantly feel relaxed and uplifted enough to share my story with him. At the peak of the pandemic, a breakup had taken all the joy out of my life. I could no longer listen to music “...except yours,” I confess as we sit across from each other on sprawling white couches. Aeoliah smiles, delighted and somewhat enraptured. “Oh really?” he bursts out with exaggerated American surprise. “That's so trippy!!!”
He then tells me in charmingly stilted German that his first album was made not only under the impact of a vision, but also under the weight of a divorce. “I was going through a breakup with my wife at the time. It was incredibly painful. We had a young daughter together. Then one day, I heard the voice of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of grace. She said: You will make an album about compassion and forgiveness. You will transform your pain and use it to help others.”
The rest is history and he never had to worry about money ever again, Aeoliah said. To this day, he attributes healing powers to his compositions. His albums have subtitles like Music for Zen Enlightenment, Anchoring Your Light Body or Activating Your Chakras Through The Light Rays.
“Music has also helped myself to understand my emotions and process pain,” he adds. Spirituality and pragmatism go hand in hand in his work. Otherwise, his music would probably never have sold so well. During the pandemic, his streaming numbers spiked again, says Aeoliah. “I made an additional $100,000 on average. But, of course, I'm also paying more in taxes.”
He tells all this in a voice so gentle that it is already soothing music in itself. At the same time, he looks like an aged top athlete in his blue muscle shirt. His posture is upright, his chest taut. The curls are still blond, the smile distinct. He played the violin and piano as a child, he tells me, beaming and talkative, as if no one had asked in a long time. “Classical music is in my blood, you know, from a past life... I love Bach and Mozart.”
Then he leads me into his studio, which he has set up next to his bedroom. Apart from the obligatory crystals, holy images and angel figurines, the décor is spartan. A Kronos keyboard and an aging PC are the only instruments in the room. He shows me his latest track, which he arranged with Logic. “An angelic piece, very ambient, very dreamy.” What sounds rather simple, seems quite complex on the screen. Around 30 tracks have been arranged into a mosaic. “People have no idea how much effort goes into panning alone.”
He works here five to six hours a day, Aeoliah says. On his studio wall hangs the painting that once inspired him to create music. It depicts a divinely illuminated harp that seems to balance out a rainbow-colored universe. Aeoliah gave it the title, Music Of The Spheres, topos as old as human consciousness, as musicologist Hans Keyser writes in his book Akróasis: The Theory of World Harmonics.
As early as the 6th century B.C., Pythagoras spoke of a harmony of spheres inaudible to the human ear, created by the rotational movements of celestial bodies and the transparent spheres that support them – cosmic singing bowls, if you will. The Jewish scholar Philon of Alexandria, who lived during Jesus' lifetime, explained that, if people could hear the harmony of the heavens, they would forget to eat or drink. Johannes Kepler, who was truly enraptured by the sounds of the spheres, proved in his book, Harmonice Mundi, written in 1619, that musical harmonies could indeed be derived from planetary motions.
Recent scientific research confirms that space is not the “epitome of silence,” as was previously assumed. Instead, it is permeated by gravitational waves that can be acoustically translated. In 2019, scientists at MIT Boston were able to translate them into sound for the first time. Merging galaxy clusters and black holes have since become comprehensible as sound pockets. On Earth, they are recorded using laser interferometers, L-shaped tunnels ranging between three and four kilometers. But you don't need apparatus to open yourself to the vibrations of the cosmos, Aeoliah says. Rather, one must “open the spiritual ears” to experience its spiritual reality.
“Music is like a tuning fork that resonates a frequency within you. Its purpose is to heal, to inspire, and to open our hearts to the beauty and infinity of divine love that permeates life in all dimensions.” What the artist then chooses to do with those inner vibrations is a matter of intention, Aeoliah says. “Do you make music for money or because you're following a certain spirit? The intention of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, for example, was to bring peace to the world. For me, the intention is love, healing and harmony. The spiritual part in my music is the essence.”
He has long since outgrown the small “New-Age-Box,”says Aeoliah. “I am more than that. Right now, he is focusing on “World Fusion,” electronic music with “Oriental and Asian” elements to dance to. He has also recorded a trance techno album in the style of DJ Tiesto. He now also has his own line of “fragrance elixirs,” each of which comes with a matching crystal. For instance, there is ANGEL LOVE (L'innocence), a “heavenly blend of neroli, rose, amber, peach, gardenia and ylang ylang inspired by Archangel Raphael, grounded in an infusion of Arabian oud, basil, Egyptian amber and patchouli.”
I get to smell it briefly. As a parting gift, Aeoliah hands me a stack of CDs and says: “I'd love to play a concert with Yanni and Vangelis. Preferably in Dubai, with a big light show. Wouldn't that be hot?“” In the car on the way to the motel, I listen to Aeoliah's techno album Entranced, and inevitably step on the gas pedal.
The next day, I booked a sound therapy at the Sedona Creative Life Center, a New Age cultural center built in the 1980s just outside the center of town. The premises have the charm of an abandoned cult compound. The gray-brown carpeting is faded, and the rooms look low-ceilinged and deserted. Half-used Kleenex dispensers litter the tables in the main hall. Apparently, people are still crying over existential issues here. The courtyard is lined with statues that look as if Giacometti had tried to imitate Disney princesses: Slender, wide-eyed and busty, the patina-covered bronzes wish to remind us of world peace and the concord of the people of this world.
The sound session entitled Fresh Ears, is advertised on Facebook with the following words: “Reach new levels of consciousness with scientifically-developed sound meditations and interactive exercises.” It is led by Dr. Ishtaya, a long-haired, fuzzy-bearded musicologist in his 40s, who welcomes me cross-legged in a pagoda surrounded by a sprawling cactus garden. I'm joined by five other participants.
After Ishtaya is collecting the participation fee of 25 dollars each, he asks us to form a circle in the center of the rotunda. Like a spiritual roll call, we all stand there awaiting instructions. First, we hum, “Om,” with our eyes closed. Then Ishtaya wants us to walk in a circle in the pagoda and “be very aware of our steps.” Once it “feels right,” we are to stop and find a partner for the first sound exercise. My counterpart is called Kumara, named after a seer from Indian mythology. She is around 70 and wears a floral dress and a platinum blonde dyed Hollywood diva hairstyle. At the beginning of the session, she introduced herself to us as a singer and sound healer. Her business card, which she had handed to Ishtaya, depicted her in the style of a tarot card prophetess with a shepherd's crook.
The doctor then tells us to look into each other's eyes and make the first sound that comes to mind. The other person then joins in the same “vibration,”imitating the sound. Kumara intones a high-pitched squeal which I cannot possibly imitate. In the Bee-Gees register, my voice changes to a croak. She smiles. When it is my turn, I make a noise rolling up on a vibrating R. To my surprise, Kumara masters the primal German sound with verve and vigor. For about ten minutes, we continue to take turns: WOOOOSH! AAAAH! PARFFF! RAAAAAA! LALALA! Just as we finally run out of ideas, Ishtaya asks us to tell each other “something” about ourselves and to pay attention to whether our “energy frequency” has aligned.
Kumara tells me that she contacts the ancestors of the indigenous people at a river near her house in the evenings. “I ask them to teach me their songs, so we can sing them together in gratitude to Mother Earth.” “Do they usually allow it?”, I ask. Kumara's slightly watery blue eyes focus on me. “Yes, they usually do. And then it washes over me, and I'm singing in a language I never learned.”
The remainder of the sound session involves collective humming and a guided meditation by Dr. Ishtaya. With our eyes closed, we sit at the outer edge of the pagoda and listen to his hypnotic words: “My voice is only sound... Allow yourself to disconnect my voice from the meaning of my words and perceive only the sound... Pay attention to what is happening in your body now: With which vibrations does it respond?... Just let it happen.” The critical part of my mind sneers: How can I follow Ishtaya's instructions on the one hand and at the same time perceive his voice as pure sound? The buzzwords that run like a thread through his meditations are as powerful as they are fuzzy: Consciousness, Stillness, Higher Self, Ego, Energy. Each of them is a pillar of the New Age world view. But what do they actually mean? Something different for each participant, I presume.
During the follow-up discussion, one woman says that she “arrived completely in the present” during the chanting. Another declares that they got lost in endlessly repeating patterns. Ishtaya smiles wisely, “Were they fractals?” The woman thinks for a second and replies uncertainly. “More like DNA. With loops.” Kumara explains that she noticed my “animalistic side” during the sound exercise. “He looked like a small animal, but I can't think of which one right now.”
I felt one thing above all: resignation. Everyone is doing their own thing here, hoping that something curative will come out of it. And Ishtaya responds to everyone equally. Nothing is wrong here, but nothing is definite or eternal either. I had come here in search of healing, in search of relief from my pain. Because I loved music so much, I thought I could use it to find something that would last, a sense of inner peace and stability that would never abandon me. But after this session, I am once again struck by cynicism and doubt.
“We have done important work today. We have entered new realms of consciousness and shared our energy with one another,” Ishtaya says in a most gentle voice. “We are so blessed – each in our own way.” I do not feel blessed. I am upset, sad, introverted. Ishtaya notices my absent look and asks how I felt as the “music journalist from Germany.” I answer: “When we meditated with closed eyes, a strong feeling came over me: I felt the need to surrender once and for all.”
To surrender – another one of those New Age terms that can mean everything and nothing. Ishtaya smiles knowingly. “The heart is an instrument, you know… Real music happens once the ego gets out of the way.”
The next day, I head back to Los Angeles. After the sobering experience in Sedona, I no longer know what I am even doing here. My journey seems to have come to an end. I had enough of this city, where madness was always brewing beneath the smooth surface. I also had enough of the eternal obsession with self-optimization that this society seemed to have so deeply internalized, no matter how spiritual and free-minded it pretended to be.
In this world, you are only allowed to fail if you emerge as a better, more successful, more content person. That was also the message of many New Age books I had read: you have to live through the pain, then it will purify you, pave the way to a more contented, authentic life. And one day you will think back on your unhappiness and be grateful for it. But when would that day come? I still missed my ex-girlfriend. And I hated myself for it. Because that too was a message from spiritual authors, from Eckart Tolle to Pema Chödrön: You have to find your happiness within. To seek it on the outside, or even in another person, is a guaranteed recipe for unhappiness. Was I unhappy because I missed her or because I blamed myself for missing her? In the end, where was the difference? I was unhappy. There was no denying it, no numbing it, no suppressing it.
Before my flight back, I had one more interview scheduled. It would be the first New-Age conversation with a peer: Matthew David McQueen (aka Matthewdavid), the musician and founder of the indie label Leaving Records has been paving the way for a young New Age scene in Los Angeles since 2016. In numerous online articles, he euphorically declared that he wanted to redefine the genre by “experimenting with the style and expanding it into the present.” He said New Age awakens something “ancient” in him, that there is a spirituality in this music that leads him directly “back to the source.”
Pictures show him playing the flute on a hillside wearing sandals and a flower-embroidered caftan. For some obscure reason, despite his hippie outfit and unctuous aura, he did not appear silly, but hip: an impresario and pop-cultural high priest who had unlocked the secret of how to turn the ostracized New Age genre cool again. We were obviously fascinated by the same things: the healing power of music, the relativity of reality, and the enigma of consciousness. Perhaps he could help me reconcile the contradictory feelings that my exposure to New Age had triggered.
When I first meet McQueen in the evening before one of his gigs in LA's run-down downtown district, I do not recognize him. His hair is short and neatly parted. His matchstick legs are tucked into skinny jeans, and he is wearing a fleece jacket with a geometric pattern that reminds me of my mother's winter outfits from the early 1990s. He is just finishing a giant portion of sushi when I join him at a counter-height table outside the club.
On closer inspection, he is still an ethereal figure, despite his lack of New Age insignia. Everything about him seems slender, almost fragile, from his fingers to the frame of his glasses. Yet he speaks confidently and quickly, with lots of “fucks” and “mans”. The only thing he avoids, as best he can, is eye contact.
“I have a complicated relationship with New Age,” he says right off the bat. “To be honest, I'm just on my way out of that world. There aren't many people who know about it yet. But maybe it's time to communicate that more openly.”
McQueen then recounts his New Age story, which is very similar to my own. When he went through a “very difficult breakup, a dark time,” a friend recommended Michael Stearns' 1981 cosmic ambient classic Planetary Unfolding. “I can tell you in all honesty that this music saved my life. It triggered something in me, changed something. It healed me. And because it worked such wonders, I wanted more of it, to learn more about it.”
McQueen began to collect New-Age tapes and re-released them on his label, which had been largely synonymous with avant-garde pop. He signed neo-New Age artists like Green House and Francesca Heart. He also included his own music, which until then had been close to instrumental hip-hop, transformed increasingly into New Age, from the genre's esoteric titles to the artwork modeled after early New Age MCs. It was also during this time that he met his wife, musician Diva Dompé, who, under the alias Yialmelic Frequencies, processed her early childhood UFO visions into trippy ambient music.
“We both suffer from various chronic illnesses,” McQueen says. “Through our exploration of New Age, we discovered more and more alternative health practices and healers, some of whom we worked with. In the end, unfortunately, a lot of it turned out to be more harmful than helpful.” He does not want to go into specifics, but it quickly becomes clear that McQueen has had unpleasant experiences in the New Age world.
“We've experienced questionable hocus-pocus,” he confirms. “There were moments when it felt like a cult, and I also have some friends who actually disappeared into that world.” McQueen adds that I shouldn't get him wrong. The music still means a lot to him. It is just a shame that “all this lifestyle” is attached to it. “I try to separate the music from all the rest today. There's so much exciting DIY psychedelic outsider art in this field. I'm still looking for old New Age tapes. But I don't want my own art and label to be primarily about that genre anymore.”
McQueen now sees himself in a state of transition. His next album still has “soothing qualities,” but there are also “grooves and experiments.” “It is about mushrooms, specifically what mycelium networks might sound like if you could hear them. It is pleasant and unpleasant, alien and ambient at the same time.” His music still celebrates the wonder of life but does not exclude its disturbing, darker sides. As if the universe wanted to remind us of these dark sides, two homeless people suddenly started fighting at the intersection across the street. The club's security guard runs across the street to intervene, but a dog that belonged to one of them attacked him.
“Oh snap,” McQueen says tonelessly, and turns his attention back to our conversation. “You know, I'm glad to have moved away from this New Age cosmos. It feels as if a weight has been taken off my shoulders. I was young, naive, and on a spiritual search. It's so easy to get manipulated and soak up all kinds of ideas. And then one day you wake up and realize you're just seriously getting into crystal healing.”
McQueen's words confirmed my feeling of slowly waking up from a dream. Letting go of a hope. And like him, I too had strayed onto spiritual paths in my search for healing and ended up with New Age. I also sought to find meaning in my pain. Transcend it with the help of music. In fact, as I now realized, I wanted to find nothing less than God. That was the real reason why I embarked on this journey. I also turned this search into a form of self-improvement. I wanted to return healed and enlightened, a shimmering phoenix rising from the ashes, just like Aeoliah might have painted it. Instead, I had given up. And in this feeling that had crystallized in me during the sound therapy, there was suddenly an incredible sense of relief. There was nothing left to find. And actually, I hadn't lost anything either.
I still listened to the soothing music of New Age, but it had become just one of many genres I picked depending on my mood (where did this intuition for “the right music of the moment” come from?). In the car, I had chosen the Beach Boys as a soundtrack to match the Californian scenery, Yacht Rock by Hall & Oates (the song, “She's Gone,” hit me right in the heart), Stoner Rock for the desert, and in between a playlist of metal songs I enjoyed as a teenager.
Back in the day, I was the only Satanist in my town, hair dyed black and an upside-down cross around my neck. In fact, even that had already been a spiritual quest docked to music. My mother, who wouldn't let me go to school wearing skull T-shirts, once said that maybe this morbid music was just an adolescent way to come to terms with my own mortality: Heavy Metal as a helpless attempt to embrace death and all the pain it brings long before it actually occurs. An Ars Moriendi of Rock 'N' Roll, so to speak. It now makes sense to me.
Perhaps I had something similar in mind with New Age. Inside my music critic bubble, the genre was more or less what the most insipid, bloody grind-core was to my parents: the only thing that could still shock them. A former colleague from Rolling Stone Magazine posted a comment about my trip on Facebook, saying “Put garlic around your neck when you visit the freaks.”
For me, music had always been a matter of coolness: There was music that really moved you, that hit you right in the heart, and you had no idea why. And there was music that perhaps didn't move you quite as much, but you listened to it because it was the consensus. I had been pushing that consensus all my life, but just to a certain point. New Age was well beyond that point. From a critic’s perspective, there were many reasons to detest this type of music. But here, too, I was ready to give up for good. That was my position: I still had no idea what music was. Like the human consciousness, it can only be approached with poetic metaphors or scientific terms at most – but it can only be grasped as a subjective experience. And there it still felt like something sacred to me. Be it black metal, Avant-Garde or New Age.
This is a translation and different version of an article, which was originally published in German in Positionen issue #132.