REMEMBER the ``new age'' music explosion a few years ago? The music was described as the perfect antidote to rock-and-roll, with its simple, soothing harmonies and peaceful feeling. It seemed to pop up out of nowhere, mostly on a record label called Windham Hill, with pianist George Winston heading up the cast. The records arrived by the hundreds, with new labels appearing to accommodate the interest in a genre its detractors have called ``elevator'' or ``wallpaper'' music, even ``Pablum for baby boomers.'' But now that new age has settled in under the larger ``adult contemporary'' heading in the record stores, how is it doing - and where is it headed?
I discussed these questions with Terry Wood, director of communications for Narada, a leading new-age label; Michael Hedges, guitarist on the Windham Hill label; and Lisa Altman of Nu-View, a subsidiary of London Records. All agreed that new-age music seems to have found a place in the sun and is now beginning to broaden and diversify.
``The artists are going to pursue their own artistic niches, rather than look for that market niche,'' Mr. Wood said. ``They're trying to come up with the music that is the most meaningful to them, the type of expression they've always felt most comfortable with.''
Mr. Hedges believes that the ``new age'' label itself can be limiting to musicians and that some are using it as a security blanket. ``I think a lot of new-age musicians continue to wallow in that genre because it's been popular,'' said Hedges. ``Not that it's going down now, but I think it's entering its classical period.''
By ``classical,'' Hedges is talking about the point when a style of music gains enough popularity for major labels to pick it up or for new labels to be created around it. He mentioned Private Music, Narada, and RCA Novus as examples. But he believes there is a danger that the music will become a formula.
``I get demo tapes all the time from people who are trying to sound like George Winston, or like [Windham Hill guitarist and label founder] Will Ackerman, and a lot of people get deals because they are sounding like this,'' said Hedges, who has been called the ``bad boy'' of new-age music and who plays other styles of music.
Hedges admits he's unalterably opposed to marketing research.
``I don't even want to hear about it,'' he said. ``That's approaching music from the other end. ... To me, it should come from the inspiration of the composer. If you hand out a questionnaire to the upwardly mobile market to find out what kind of music they like, and then hire people to write music for them, it can't help not being inspired.''
Nevertheless, most record companies do use market research. One of these, London Records, introduced a catalog last year called Nu-View, which features classically influenced music, light classical works, and new interpretations of standards, such as ``The Electric V'' - an electronic version of Vivaldi's ``Four Seasons'' by German composer and conductor Thomas Wilbrandt.
The label's first release, ``Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill,'' by the young German cabaret singer, was a big seller and had a long stint on Billboard magazine's ``crossover classics'' chart.
``We noticed a trend among baby boomers, a maturing audience of people who are burned out on rock-and-roll and don't find that they're getting enough depth with some of the new-age music,'' said Nu-View's Ms. Altman, speaking in the lingo Hedges deplores.
From the research, London discovered that one out of three buyers of pop records between the ages of 19 and 46 was interested in classical music but didn't know where to begin. ``So we took it upon ourselves to reach out to these folks and give them a comfortable place to start,'' said Altman.
The Nu-View idea was to assemble a collection of new interpretations of classical music that would be more accessible to the targeted buyers. The difference between Nu-View and new age, according to Altman, is that with Nu-View ``you have to listen to it - it's not there just to be in the background.''
But defenders of new-age music say you have a choice: It can be just background, but it has enough appeal so that you can listen to it attentively. And Narada's Mr. Wood thinks the allure of new age goes beyond the music itself.
``We listened to pop music in the '60s because we believed we were eventually going to overthrow all the ignorance and the disharmony that was gripping our world, and wind up in some sort of peace, love, and joy mentality.
``Then popular music took a nosedive into hedonism and other negative trends and became self-indulgent. While people found that to be temporarily satisfying, over the long range we've seen the fruits of those things. We're all groping for some more socially responsible way of living. I think new age is complementary to that search, because to me new age is a more responsible music.''
I asked Woods what he meant by ``more responsible.''
``This music has had an impact on the way I see my own behavior - I'd like to be more reflective. ... I'm not saying ... that I walk off in a trance when I hear it, but it does give one pause to think, `Wow, if only this block, this town, this whole country were on the same wavelength....''
But even though Woods sees new-age music as a universal force for change, the fact is that the audience is limited by age (mostly baby boomers), race (mostly white), and class (mostly middle and up). Consider, for example, this definition of new-age music offered by composer-producer Steve Halpern in Patti Jean Birosik's book ``The New Age Music Guide'': ``Perhaps the most striking aspect of new-age music is its use of rhythm - or, more accurately, its lack of it.''
This characteristic alienates vast numbers of listeners for whom rhythm is the thing - not just African-Americans and Latinos but people of all origins. The basic problem with new-age music, however, remains one of definition. Everything from musical mantras to slick jazz fusion has been lumped under the heading. Now ``new age'' embraces so many different styles that one wonders if the words mean anything at all.
Is new age moving more in the direction of classical music? That could be, if Nu-View has made a correct assessment of the baby-boomer listeners. But new-age music also includes electronic and computer music, nature sounds, folk music, jazz and fusion, meditation music, Native American music, pop, ``health music,'' ``space music,'' and vocals. Only time will tell which, if any, of these strains has wide appeal and staying power.