The Free Design – Kites Are Fun

Though this sounds like it was commissioned by an advertising agency on behalf of Big Kite, it is actually the title track from the debut of a 1960s family band. The work of the Dedrick siblings went largely unnoticed until it found a cult following decades later thanks to attention from artists like Cornelius and Pizzicato Five and others in Japan’s Shibuya-kei scene. The Free Design released eight albums with Project 3 before disbanding in 1972, with Kites Are Fun remaining their only appearance on pop charts. In the mid-70s they formed the core of the Star-Scape Singers, a vocal ensemble assembled by New Age Renaissance man Kenneth G. Mills. Mills is a fascinating character at the heart of the New Age movements of the mid-20th century. After a transcendental experience that convinced him he had a duty to speak “the Word” again, he agreed to speak to his inner experiences and spiritual feelings but only if others sought him out to do so. He described his speaking as

an impromptu performance under the impelling of divine ideas. It is a projection from another dimension or plane of consciousness, causing those prepared to hear to awaken to the higher or greater possibilities of living beyond the limits of three dimensions and translating what seems to be the ordinary into another level of consideration

You can hear/see the Star-Scape singers perform one of Mills’ original compositions here, which he composed in the hopes of being a song that the whole world could sing together to unify all people. Kites Are Fun was reissued by Corenlius’ label Trattoria in 1994 and then by Light in the Attic.

If this doesn’t appear in a Wes Anderson movie at some point I’ll be shocked.

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Jeremy Harris – Double Fidelity

Ages is the latest in the Echomancy II series from Gnome Life Records. The term echomancy is defined as “divination through music,” and even if I can’t be sure what spell Harris is conjuring here I certainly know that it has worked on me. As far as I can tell this is the first release from Harris, hopefully the first of many to come. This track was constructed using a multi-synth setup and field recordings fed through a series of delays and tape loops, though the sparse technical set up really belies the magic in this release. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact it combines was recordings done during both the vernal and autumnal equinox. Even though I had not tracked Gnome Life before coming across this release, I shouldn’t be surprised that they put out a top notch release like this considering they’ve re-issued a number of Robbie Basho records in the last couple years. As they mention in the write-up for this record, New Age can be thought of as a form of American folk music, even if it doesn’t sound anything like Pete Seeger or Leadbelly or even Robbie Basho. It’s hard for me to put my finger on how, but this type of music seems to amplify an American tradition of transcendental thought in a world consumed by cold electricity and Big Data detachment. Using complicated technical setups to achieve a sound that is so warm and inviting is no small task, and when executed this well it is difficult not to be caught dreaming of an electric City on a Hill.

Laraaji – Universe

Since I’ve alluded to him a couple times, the least I could do is devote a post to a New Age giant: Laraaji. Born Edward Larry Gordon in Philadelphia, PA, he was a student of violin, piano, trombone, and voice in his youth and originally pursued studies in music at Howard University. He moved to New York to become a stand-up comedian and it was while in the Big Apple that he began studying eastern Mysticism and the zither, which he found in a pawn shop. The term zither is derived from the Latin “cithara” (also the root word for guitar) is used to describe harp-like instruments consisting of many strings strung over a flat body with no neck, which separates it from more guitar-like string instruments. Though there are a few different varieties, it is unclear which type Laraaji found that fateful day in the pawn shop. Regardless, he took the instrument home and began experimenting with adding electronic amplification to the instrument. Legend has it that Brian Eno heard Laraaji busking in Washington Square Park and, recognizing a sonic comrade, insisted they work together. The result is the third installment of Eno’s Ambient series Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, which brought international attention to Laraaji’s unique instrument and sound. Thus began a long career of recording beautiful, contemplative music that continues to this day. Universe comes from a 1987 release on the great New Age label Audion Recordings.

In addition to his work as a musician, Laraaji began leading what he calls Laughter Meditation Workshops that tie together his stand-up roots with his music. In an interview over at Aquarium Drunkard he sums it up pretty nicely:

To laugh often is to keep the breath open and the energies of the body flowing. And then there’s communal laughter, the laughing of a community. Start with the family, the laughter of a family getting together for a meal or a holiday. There’s something about a giggling kind of joyous, smiling, lovableness that’s not necessarily fueled by jokes or humor, but just the joy of being in each other’s presence. Laughter is a sensation of communal bonding.

K. Leimer – Very Tired

K. Leimer (aka Kerry Leimer) has been releasing ambient/experimental music since the late-1970s, primarily on his own label Palace of Lights. Very Tired closes out his 1983 release Music for Land and Water and is a good demonstration of his deliberate method of constructing sonic landscapes, primarily with synthesizers and tape loops. Music for Land and Water was originally composed not for commercial release but as part of a performance and installation series. Though I couldn’t find an audio clip of it available to share, the setup for the lead track “Art and Science” consisted of four tape systems playing loops of different lengths, which sounds like a real treat. Yet another example of the pioneering work that can be found in your local New Age bargain bin. Leimer made extensive use of loops in both his solo work and as part of the group Savant which featured Marc Barreca and other ambient artists. You can purchase physical releases from Palace of Sound here though it doesn’t look like Music for Land and Water is available on the site.

Hiroshi Yoshimura – Something Blue

Something Blue comes from Yoshimura’s 1986 release Soundscape 1:Surround. In addition to his commercial releases, Yoshimura was a prolific creator of soundscapes and installations for both the art museums and galleries and more utilitarian spaces like train stations. He was also at the forefront of computer music in general, forming a group called Anonyme in the early 70s which focused on exploring the blossoming intersection between computing and sound. Much of his material was self-released in Japan, which means tracking down physical copies may be a bit tough. There have been a number of contemporary artists featured on TOTD that share sonic ground with this (I’m thinking of Sabbatical and H. Takahashi). Finding these early pioneers of sound who paved the way for these current experimental/ambient artists sheds new light on an oft-maligned genre like new age, though a revival of interest in these artists by re-issue labels like Numero Group and Light in the Attic has done a lot to expose this stuff to a new audience like myself who were a few years from existing when this material was being released. Given the hefty price tag of some of the original physical editions on Discogs, I wouldn’t mind a re-issue of this release and his debut Music for Nine Post Cards from 1982.

Sylvan Grey – Rainpiece

Rainpiece comes from the first of Sylvan Grey’s two releases, Ice Flowers Melting, from Fortuna Records in 1981. Grey discovered the kantele while travelling in England, though the instrument is actually of Finnish origin. She trained for a while with the Finnish master Ulla Katajavuori, who herself was an active player from the 1930s through the 1990s. Grey released one more album for Fortuna in 1989 called Recurring Dream that is perhaps more well-known in New Age circles, both featuring original music for the kantele. Fortuna Records is a sister label to Celestial Harmonies, which over the years has put out material by Terry Riley and Popol Vuh along with many other new age and non-Western artists. Since the kantele in many ways resembles the zither, it may sound familiar to anybody who has listened to the work of Laraaji, who was a prominent name in ambient/new age music, although his was electrified where Grey’s instrument has a more acoustic feel to it. If you enjoyed Rainpiece there’s a song from Recurring Dream entitled Rainshadow that feels very much like a companion to Rainpiece despite being recorded almost a decade later. There wasn’t much in the way of biography for Sylvan Grey, but I’m tempted to think that great ambient stuff like this can speak for itself.

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Koistinen concert kantele with 38 stringsImage credit/more info: Wikipedia

Jordan De La Sierra – Music for Gymnastics

Jordan De La Sierra was a classically trained pianist who began his recording career with a double LP of hypnotizing long form ambient works in the minimalist style of Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and La Monte Young. It anticipates a lot of the work that would make Windham Hill a new age juggernaut, but his debut record, Gymnosphere: Song of the Rose, was released on a small label called Unity Records in 1978. Though it received little attention at the time, it has luckily been given the Numero treatment since then, and I would argue the world is a better place for it.

The original release came with a 16 page booklet which includes some original artwork, an essay by the artist called “The Tableau of Space” and a greeting from the artist (image from Discogs):

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Now who isn’t charmed by that kind of earnestness. It reminds me of the art of Gilbert Williams, who really embodies the sort of hypercolor utopia that I find so irresistible:
 
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In short, put on your peasant shirt and dangly earring, get out your crystal prayer bowl, and become a being of pure light.