Champion of new age music Clifford White reveals his inspirations. Sally Frances listens intently…
The term New Age conjures up a variety of images: a bunch of stoned hippies sitting round playing acoustic guitars and trying to change the world, tepees silhouetted in the sunset, or perhaps it inspires visions of clean living, alcohol-free nettle wine makers striving for alternative methods of levitation? But these are the 1990s and the very label New Age with all its associated images is often a sure-fire repellent for lovers of music – classical, rock, dance, and most things in between. Worse still, it may even produce no reaction, being considered by many as neither here nor there. A string of sound-effects: water, summer breeze, bells – are these the ingredients that make up a New Age album?
Clifford White has been a perpetrator of this brand of music since his teenage years, when he experimented with sounds as a method of escapism. Although not a household name, White is acknowledged as being successful in the world of New Age artists and listeners. Having had his fingers burned by the music business early on, he responded defiantly by setting up his own record company in the mid ’80’s and has striven to discover new ways of soothing the soul ever since. Turning his ideas into concept albums, one in particular, Ascension, has proved to be a New Age bestseller. Nine years on, Clifford is still keen on the aural therapy principle. Arguing the case for New Age music, he tells us how he’s used this as a basis for his work…
“Once upon a time in Edgware – doesn’t sound very romantic, does it?” he laughs. So we start again…
“When I started out as a teenager, I didn’t have any idea how music was written. It was all beyond me. I was more interested in experimenting with sounds – intrigued by the certain moods they could create, like space effect sounds and waterfalls and all that. I used to sit for hours and stare out of the window and listen, which I found inspiring. I began the creative process with a few school friends, we would experiment with xylophones and Bontempi organs, cross the wires and play around with speaker cones,” he explains. “My ideal was to get into music for movies, but I just didn’t have the finance.”
Clifford began by using music as an escape from what he describes as harsh reality, drawing comfort from creating music that he felt was a bridge to happiness, travel and a world of exploration. He’s always seen his music as therapeutic – not just for listeners but also for himself.
“I was really miserable in my mid to late teens when it finally dawned on me that life wasn’t going to be ideal. The first tunes I started to write were sad, but once I got that unhappiness out of my system, my writing levelled out.”
Success came in the mid-80s after only a year of so of putting the material together when Clifford landed a deal with New World Records.
“New World was just getting big in the States, with a backwash coming over to the UK. New Age music was their speciality and there were already veterans of this style of music around, though they weren’t always given the same music label. Tangerine Dream were very big at the time, and their music was known as ambience.”
One of the stumbling blocks with New Age music is the marketing. With all its different titles – the non-specific names and merging styles – it can be quite difficult to bracket. Clifford muses:
“Well, wasn’t it Jean-Michel Jarre’s album, Oxygene, that was in the top 10 of five to six different charts – even the country charts? And when you talk about Mike Oldfield, you don’t talk about the style of his music. So it just shows that the barriers and dividing lines between styles are only what people themselves set down, limiting the music,” he decides. “The problem is, the modern-day pop industry only seems concerned with pursuing a particular genre of sound and finding a box to put it in. I’ve already been caught in that trap to an extent, I’m guilty of calling my own music New Age, but I don’t really write that kid of thing.”
It was through New World Records that White delivered his most successful album to date, Ascension, in 1985, which sold no less than 50,000 copies. Under the same label, Spring Fantasy was released in 1987. However, while there was plenty of musical harmony, Clifford’s experiences with New World and other record and management companies made for a distinctly discordant outcome.
“Exploitation is the name of the game in the music business. There are so many people involved in the actual business affairs that the money trickles down from one person to another somehow never quite reaching the artist. I learned the hard way with New World Records and others. And I found the independents were sometimes even worse than the majors. So I launched my own record company, 21st Century.
Another problem with New Age music is the lack of visual interest when playing live. Okay, so the Jean-Michel Jarres of this world are different, but a low-budget act doesn’t have the advantages of such an elaborate light show and visual effects to keep the attention. And when all that’s stripped away, what are you left with? One man hiding behind a wall of technology, turning round to play the occasional chord and press the odd button. What are Clifford’s thoughts on this?
“Up till now, I’ve been doing solo concerts at New Age festivals. It was just me onstage with my keyboards, sampler, and effects! But now I’m not doing that any more. That kind of music’s really not very interesting or exciting live. There’s not much going on; I mean we’re talking about stuff that’s very ambient…”
It’s at this point that Mr White drops his bombshell. I’ve been duped – he’s completely changed his tack and made what sounds like a heavy metal departure.
“…So I’ve formed a band called Hard Drive. It’s very different from anything I’ve done up to now – jazz/rock. I’m never content to stay in one place, when I’ve done something once I want to move on to something different. So I thought ‘what’s the most dramatic change I can make?’ I felt that that would be a move towards rock.
“The Hard Drive line-up is Peter Downes on guitar and Brian Wilshire on vies and percussion. I invested in an AX1 neck keyboard, because really I’m a frustrated guitarist.”
Hard Drive made their debut appearance at the EMMA (Electronic Music and Musicians Association) Festival in September, where six live tracks were recorded and subsequently released under 21st Century Music. Clifford still seems uncertain, though, whether to redirect the music to a different listening genre and how far he should compromise what he first set out to achieve. Although Hard Drive are much more up-tempo, they still have a distinctive New Age feel, with the odd raunchy guitar solo thrown in. A definite mishmash of influences lies therein…
“The outcome of the Hard Drive project is something much more visually dynamic, as well as rhythmic. The trouble is, as soon as you start deviating from your accepted normal path, people start to mistrust you, whereas it’s nice to be able to move across to other styles. That’s why I’m making attempts to branch out to different market, it’s only fair to my existing listeners. For instance, it’s a bit silly doing a full-blown dramatic orchestral score, when Mrs Tarot Card Reader of Bushey Lane will say it’s too scary for her, or putting jazz chords and rhythms in to the listener of ambient music,” he explains. “Hard Drive’s all about venting aggression, but I couldn’t have introduced that into the New Age material, because I didn’t want to hurt any of the listeners.”
Many might construe Clifford’s musical outlook as a vehicle to awaken dormant emotions – a concept deep in the philosophy of New Age. The other side of the coin being heavy metal and rap which, with their expression of the aggressive and violent side of human nature, seem ironically to have a far grater mass following Clifford adds his thoughts…
“I think people are entitled to listen to anything they want. Do violent songs make violent people? It must be true, surely. It’s been proven that when a person is constantly exposed to a particular kid of stimulus, they either get a deadened effect or they become addicted to the stimulus and need more of it. That must apply to music too. I mean, after going to see one of two Arnold Schwarzenegger movies some people feel like going out and shooting everybody. There’s less likelihood of there being a violent outbreak from a load of space-out hippies who are just chilling out to some ambient music!”
While certainly having no plans to start a rap act, Clifford intends to continue his ambience ambition – just speeding up the whole thing a little.
“Whereas we used to do mind-and-body festivals, we now jump around much too much for that! We received an encouraging reaction to our Hard Drive debut show at the EMMA gig; people were asking when we were releasing the next album, so we’re working on that now and are currently preparing for a 1995 tour and album release.”
Nature’s Symphony (21st Century Music, 1994)
Containing multi-layered textures, Nature’s Symphony took two years to write and complete. Clifford’s first attempt at symphonic material, the album is written in four movements and is full of Latin rhythms. Nature’s Symphony doesn’t contain conventional songwriting hooklines; instead it changes direction, never bound by any one particular theme. It is described idealistically by Clifford as”…depicting voyages, either of the mind or of the real world, or both”.
Aqua (21st Century Music, 1994)
Aqua is Clifford at home with ambience. It offers a procession of waterfalls, rivers and ocean sounds. Sister album to Nature’s Symphony, and recorded simultaneously, Aqua took only two months to complete. The album’s ambient and aquatic overtones, guitars, voices, and tropical rhythms have proved a popular formula with listeners of New Age/Ambient music. Aqua was the best-selling title of 1994 for Clifford’s record company, 21st Century.
Hard Drive Live (21st Century Music, 1994)
Is too much ambience too much of a good thing? Having completed Nature’s Symphony and Aqua, Clifford took a turn and formed electronic jazz/funk outfit Hard Drive with fellow musicians Peter Downes and Brian Wilshere. The Hard Drive sound is obviously much more up-tempo and lively, containing imaginative rhythms and steering away from the New Age feel, though Clifford’s ambient keyboard playing is still the underlying theme.