Desert Music and The Composers

During the 1970’s, there would emerge a new genre of music that could promote tranquility, help heal the sick and wounded, touch the soul, transcend space, bridge time, connect cultures and evoke the majestic. 

It came to be called “New Age” music.  Or “Fourth World” music, “Spacemusic,” “World” music, “Alternative” music, or “Contemporary Instrumental” music.  Today, the genre resists easy definition and categorization.  If the musicians “have anything in common at all,” said Linda Kohanov in the All Music Guide Internet site, “it’s their ability and intention to defy categorization.”  It makes you think of the old tale about Louie Armstrong.  Asked to explain the meaning of his music, he replied, in that wonderful gravelly voice, “If you have to ask, I can’t tell you.”  Here, I’ll call the genre “New Age” music for lack of a more satisfying term.

The Purpose

New Age music rewards the listener with an experience that is “both personal and ‘holistic, an awareness of individual emotional response as well as the quality of the enveloping ambience being created.  This music is experienced primarily as a continuum of spatial imagery and emotion, rather than as thematic musical relationships, compositional ideas, or performance values.”

One type of New Age music, reflecting “an aesthetic that aims to induce a sense of inner calm. Sometimes called “soundscape,” yields a kind of mystic imagery of panoramic landscapes such as the mountain ranges and canyonlands of the Southwest. 

The Roots and the Instruments

At the highest and richest levels of the New Age genre, you may hear disparate musical threads woven into a unified whole by gifted artists who may have drawn, for instance, from the magic songs and drumbeats of a Puebloan ceremonial chamber, the Gregorian chants of medieval Europe, the bluegrass styles of the Tennessee stage, the tinkling Tibetan bells of the Himalayas, the powerful performances of the world’s great orchestras, the winds of a monsoon rainstorm, or, simply, the imaginative corners of creative minds.  You may hear the world’s oldest of musical forms integrated with the most modern of electronic musical effects.  You may discover in New Age music a vision of the sweeping landscapes of the Southwest or of towering mountain ranges of Asia. 

While New Age music broaches a long span of human history and a multiplicity of world cultures, you will also find that it embodies musical instruments as diverse as the flute and the sitar, the bagpipe and the Tibetan bowl drum, the harmonica and the didgeridoo, the drum and the lyre, the thongaphone and the electric piano, the claypot drum and the clarinet, the rattle and the electronic synthesizer.  If the chords of a guitar underwrote country and western music, the melancholic sounds of the Native American flute defined New Age music.

The Composers and Musicians

The genius of those composers and musicians who have a real gift for what we’re calling the New Age genre lies in their ability to knit widely differing traditions and instrumental sounds into coherent musical textures that inspire the feelings of serenity, wellness, mysticism, infinity, timelessness, human interconnectedness and awe among their listeners.  They uncover and awaken the spirituality of our species. 

Several Well Known Performers of Desert Music

Several of the top names (whose recordings can be purchased through ’s Desert Store) include John Huling and Robert Mirabal.

English composer and musician Nicholas Gunn, trained at the Royal School of Music in Rochester, England, immigrated to Southern California, making the desert Southwest his adoptive home.  A master of the flute, he incorporated Native American percussion instruments and rhythms into one of his best-known recordings, Passion in My Heart.  He enlisted top cellists, violinists, guitarists and vocalists to create notable albums such as The Sacred Fire and The Music of the Grand Canyon, both of which attained top ten rankings on Billboard.  He speaks of his love for the Southwest in Return to the Grand Canyon and The Great Southwest. 

John Huling excels in crafting soundscapes of the Southwest.  Often recording within the canyon walls, arid grasslands and prehistoric ruins of the spirit landregion, he calls on the plaintive notes of his Native American flute, the chords of quiet guitars and pianos, and pulsing beat of drums, and the voices of nature’s creatures to create albums such as Ancestral Waters, In the Land of Dreams, Spiritlands and Mesa Sunrise.  Reviewers have called his music “gentle and pastoral,” “beautiful and inspirational” and “a restful world of peace and tranquility.”

Multitalented Robert Mirabal is not only a master Native American flutist, but is also a composer, a writer, a painter, a craftsman, a storyteller and an actor.  A Puebloan from the ancient community of Taos, in northern New Mexico, Mirabal recorded half a dozen noteworthy flute albums, for instance, Music From a Painted Cave dvd, Taos Tales and Warrior Magician.  “The say the flute chooses you, and it certainly changed my life,” he said in an article, “Robert Mirabal: Singing the Truth,” by j. poet, music editor for Indian Artists magazine.  Feeling that he had “taken the flute as far as it could go,” Mirabal moved into other genres of popular music, “albeit with a strong Native slant.”  He has drawn from the rhythms of West Africa, Haiti, Aboriginal Australia and the Celts in creating his more recent music.  “If you live a traditional [Puebloan] life, you see things differently, spiritually and musically,” he told j. poet.  Mirabal has won a National Endowment for the Arts award, a New York Dance and Performer’s “Bessie” award, and two Native American Music Songwriter of the Year awards. 

By Jay Sharp

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