Art & New Age: Golden Records

Recent rereleases from new-age music's 1970s and '80s heyday speak to current social anxieties

BY Nathaniel Budzinski in Features | 16 FEB 17

The astrophysicist Carl Sagan was an avid science-fiction reader and marijuana smoker. Getting high while reading, listening to music or looking at art had a profound effect on Sagan’s thinking and work. Writing anonymously in the 1969 book Marihuana Reconsidered, he explained: ‘The cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before.’ And similarly with music: ‘For the first time, I have been able to hear the separate parts of a three-part harmony and the richness of the counterpoint.’

Sagan became a household name in the US when, in 1980, his seminal TV programme, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (made with Ann Druyan and Steven Soter) was screened by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and has since been seen by a global audience in the hundreds of millions, as well as spawning a remake in 2014 (hosted by the equally approachable Neil deGrasse Tyson).

Design for a lithograph based on the cover of The Voyager Golden Record, 1977, gold metallic ink on archival paper, 30 x 30 cm. Courtesy: LAD Design for Ozma Records

Ostensibly, the 13-part PBS production was about science history: the struggle of sceptical method to clear the mystical fogs obscuring the truth of our universe. But, made during the height of the cold-war nuclear arms race and the beginnings of environmental awareness, Cosmos also vibrated with Sagan’s existential anxiety for humankind and its folly of self-destruction. The most remarkable quality of Cosmos is its cheesy new-age feel, made compelling by its apocalyptic context. With ‘spaceships of the mind’ blue-screened behind a turtle-neck-sweater-clad Sagan as he travels through glimmering animated nebulae, accompanied by a Vangelis synthesiser soundtrack, Cosmos channelled the burgeoning post-hippie, pre-yuppie vibes of the time – all distilled through the presenter’s humanist rationalism and softly spoken warnings against nuclear weapons and ecological disaster.

In recent years, there’s been a growing interest in this vaporous new-age culture of the 1970s and ’80s. Artists including Tony Oursler, Lea Porsager, Jennifer Tee and Suzanne Treister, among others, have a sustained interest in broadly occultural practices in society, especially in how those ideas are constantly reinvented. Musicians such as Emeralds’s Mark McGuire and Dolphins into the Future play with the new age aesthetic in their music, while record labels like RVNG Intl. and Light in the Attic release collections and collaborations between artists who would never claim to be new age in the spiritual sense, but ar interested in its varying aesthetic forms and the seemingly endless tangential connections it provides. This Cosmos regeneration could also be a response to the historical echoes that reverberate through our current era of post-truth uncertainty. Indeed, whether simple coincidence or synchronicity, two new album releases have returned us to Sagan’s 1970s and ’80s context: a time when the world also felt as if on a knife’s edge, its mass media saturated by hollow, cynical terror.

The first of these is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign to produce a deluxe, vinyl, 40th-anniversary edition of the original Golden Record that was included onboard the two 1977 Voyager space probes. Selected by a committee chaired by Sagan, Golden Record was a compilation of images, sounds and music that attempted to sum up Earth life for any space-faring alien civilizations the probes might meet during their voyage. With its sounds of tractor engines, crying babies, wind and laughter, whale- and bird-song, sections of Golden Record can feel like a BBC sound library recording. The musical component anticipates the marketing of ‘world music’ in the early 1980s – including everything from J.S. Bach and Chuck Berry to Javanese gamelan, Japanese shakuhachi and Azerbaijani bagpipes. 

Ashra, New Age of Earth, 1976, album cover. Courtesy: Isadora Records/Universal Music Group

Timothy Daly of Amoeba Music and Boing Boing editor David Pescovitz, who organized the anniversary three-LP boxset and accompanying booklet with designer Lawrence Azerrad (under the Ozma Records imprint), described the context of the project to me: ‘The more time we spend in virtual mediated experiences, the greater the desire is for beautiful, tangible artefacts, the physicality of the original that’s now 13 billion miles from Earth.’ Daly continues: ‘It’s about slow culture, a throwback to another time […] The songs were supposed to represent us as an entire people, but it’s also uncanny how it reflects our tastes now, from world music to electronic musicians like Laurie Spiegel.’ Pescovitz adds: ‘The committee worked hard to make it not about their own taste. It was as much about discovery as anything else.’

In response to the idea of Sagan as a new age cultural figure, Pescovitz replies: ‘I would not categorize Sagan as new age, or aligned with new age, but certainly there are psychedelic undertones in conceptualizing the vastness of space. What Sagan did with Golden Record, Cosmos and his books and lectures was to spark our imagination and wonder at the universe, and to turn people on to the magic of science.’ It’s relevant to note that Pescovitz has an ongoing relationship with the Institute for the Future, a think tank that advises businesses and organizations on forecasting, started by the RAND Corporation in the late 1960s – in its own way, an investment in a new age, accentuating Sagan’s positivism.

Despite the common cliché of new-age aesthetics as soft synthesizers and patchouli oil in weekend meditation retreats, there are other sides. It’s also Sun Ra and the liberating power of free jazz and outer space. It’s drug evangelist Terence McKenna and raves. It’s Karlheinz Stockhausen and The Urantia Book (1955), as well as murderous, suicidal UFO and solar cults. It’s catastrophist theories such as those of psychoanalyst Immanuel Velikovsky, who believed that our psyches are fractured by numerous collisions of planets in our solar system. The new age is as much represented by the noise of heavenly spheres colliding as it is by soothing, ambient whale song and pan pipes.

I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America, 1950-1990, 2013, album cover. Courtesy: Light in the Attic Records, Seattle; design: Gilbert Williams

Light in the Attic has tried to trace these complex and sometimes unsettling undertones through two releases: I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age in America 1950–1990 (2013) and (The Microcosm): Visionary Music of Continental Europe, 1970–1986 (2016). I Am the Center collects a wide range of music that could be loosely described by its use value: relaxational, meditational, mindful. More traditional compositions, by the likes of the mystic guru GI Gurdjieff, share space with a later musical new age founding father (not to mention eager marketeer of the genre) Steven Halpern and his chakra-attuned ‘anti frantic’ music. Laraaji – whose work formed part of Brian Eno’s early ‘ambient’ record releases – provides connections to yoga and sound-healing practices. (The Microcosm) tries to tune into a more occultural wavelength with additions such as Bernard Xolotl’s whirling ritual music or Popol Vuh’s restless cultural hybridizations of sacred music – replacing the utilitarian and leisure-focused music of the new age for a more serious-minded, historically rooted and anti-materialist European vision.

Reading through producer Douglas Mcgowan’s robust liner notes, it’s immediately evident that from the self-described ‘ambient mood space music’ of Ariel Kalma to the Kosmische modular synth pulsations of Manuel Göttsching and Ash Ra Tempel, the artists included in (The Microcosm) refuse the new age categorization. Even the supposed originator of this specialist genre, the mysterious Vangelis, would no doubt reject the term – if he ever spoke in anything but enigmatic riddles. Yet, such music is imbued with the spirit of a specific time: a slippery, indefinable one that haunts our supposedly scientific and rational era.

Nathaniel Budzinski is a writer and producer.