New age music reached new levels of popularity in the 1980s, neatly coinciding with the popularity of home video. For the small upstart music labels saw their humble cassette releases move from specialty shops to legitimate record stores, now-affordable home video technology offered even more opportunities to market their albums to stressed young professionals. Before long, labels big and small were pumping out their own SOV home video releases that set gentle, twinkling new age albums against pleasant nature footage to produce what they attempted to sell as a more immersive relaxation experience. These videos promised to connect viewers with a more natural state, focusing on sweeping vistas and rolling seascapes, hushed woodlands and striking sunsets. The irony, of course,…
New Age "Ambivideos"
New age music reached new levels of popularity in the 1980s, neatly coinciding with the popularity of home video. For the small upstart music labels saw their humble cassette releases move from specialty shops to legitimate record stores, now-affordable home video technology offered even more opportunities to market their albums to stressed young professionals. Before long, labels big and small were pumping out their own SOV home video releases that set gentle, twinkling new age albums against pleasant nature footage to produce what they attempted to sell as a more immersive relaxation experience. These videos promised to connect viewers with a more natural state, focusing on sweeping vistas and rolling seascapes, hushed woodlands and striking sunsets. The irony, of course, is that this version of nature was heavily mediated by technology and packaged as a commercial product--just about as far away as an actual stroll in the woods as you could get.
These kinds of non-narrative nature videos weren't entirely unprecedented--the phenomenon’s roots can be traced back to explicitly psychedelic commercial VHS releases like ELECTRIC LIGHT VOYAGE (1979), which itself seems indebted to earlier avant-garde animation shorts that paired music and abstract images, including COLOR RHAPSODIE (1948) and 1952’s COME CLOSER, among many other examples. One of the first commercial VHS tapes to pair this approach with the growing new age music movement was Iasos' home video release CRYSTAL VISTA (1981). While this video tape presentation opted for abstract animation over nature footage, Iasos explained in interviews at the time that he believed VHS was the next frontier for new age music. Specifically, he claimed his music's ability to raise a listener's "vibrations" to certain cosmic frequencies could also be replicated by looking at specific colour patterns, a theory that can be traced back to established new age healing practice often known as “colour therapy” or "chromotherapy".
Diverging from the abstract imagery of CRYSTAL VISTA, but also looking to relax or transport viewers to higher realms, these "new age video albums" (sometimes marketed as "Ambivideos") also drew significant inspiration from the recent trend of theatrically-released experimental works like KOYAANISQATSI (1982) and the time-lapse photography IMAX short CHRONOS (1985). Intending to similarly impress audiences with highly realistic landscapes, this new breed of new age film was able to move past the trippy light and colour manipulations and focus on the beauty of natural space and settings, as complimented and enhanced by music from established (if still vaguely anonymous) new age artists such as Steve Halpern, Steve Roach, Tangerine Dream, Emerald Web and Deuter. In most cases, the profiled music was already available to purchase on cassette, and these subsequent VHS and LaserDisc releases offered an additional way to experience it.
Whether the video images were assembled from existing stock footage or (more often) shot on video by contracted videographers, they usually offer extremely literal interpretations of the music, visuals suggested by album titles and themes that were usually along the lines of "Sounds of the Sea", "Open Spaces" or "Temple in the Forest." Generally, the videos act as a living extension of the audio cassette's cover art, pulling viewers into the promise of an unspoiled, natural setting. As with the abstract animated works, movement is a key theme, as the camera swoops over landscapes or tracks the flight of birds, or gently drifts along at the head of a canoe. Sometimes the motion happens within the frame, capturing crashing waves and unfolding flowers. In other videos, a sense of action is achieved through careful editing that provides dynamic visual flourishes to accompany the rise and fall of the music featured.
That’s a somewhat different approach from other moodtapes at the time, as well as the CGI compilations such as THE MIND'S EYE: A COMPUTER ANIMATION ODYSSEY (1990) that soon followed. While the lines between these subgenres are blurry, the Ambivideos often feel more "open" and expansive than the CGI comps or earlier abstract releases, which usually only focused on creating motion within one steady frame, like a kaleidoscope. By comparison, the new age nature videos are far less rigid and unpredictable, as grass fields bend to unseen winds or water flows languidly down a creek, only suggesting possible patterns rather than imposing them. As well, these VHS releases often strongly emphasize the music over the filmed image, whereas the later CGI compilations, for example, were often strung-together student shorts with pre-recorded music added only afterwards.
Another helpful way to think of these releases is as a kind of long “album oriented” counterpart to the then-nascent phenomenon of Top 40 music videos. As opposed to MTV-ready clips that profiled airbrushed pop stars in slick 3-5 minute videos, these VHS tapes were long-form pieces meant to be consumed from beginning to end, with a distinct focus on the end product over the musicians. Notably, the only mainstream non-new age artist to really embrace these specific types of videos was Santana, whose LIGHTDANCE (1995) is like a slightly faster new age nature video with abstract Moodtape flourishes and a few music video clichés thrown in, like flocks of doves and slow motion flames.
Whether these video releases were procured as demonstration discs to show off expensive LaserDisc systems, used as background at insufferable '80s parties or purchased as genuine stress relief/sleep aids, they were popular enough to carve out a small niche in the mid-1980s. Many of the biggest new age labels eventually got involved in the home video game, including Valley of the Sun, Dan Gibson's Solitudes, Celestial Harmonies, Narada and Windham Hill. There's also a striking range of quality--some videos deftly match compositions from serious new age musicians with video field recordings by such experienced cinematographers such as David Fortney (an Emmy award winner whose nature footage has appeared in Hollywood films like TREE OF LIFE and THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS). Others, however, shamelessly repeat stock footage to a synthesizer stuck in demo mode (see: the Moodtapes series).
As the 1980s drew to a close, these types of videos began to be overshadowed by to the rise of more traditional music VHS releases from marketable new age personalities, including ENYA: MOONSHADOWS (1991) and YANNI: LIVE AT THE ACROPOLIS (1994)), as well as the aforementioned CGI compilations (which often featured the same musical artists). And while the spirit of these new age Ambivideos lives on with fireplace DVDs and YouTube videos called "Relaxing Autumn River Sounds and Nature Video - 9 Hours," their very specific moment in time has seemingly melted away, like time-laspe photography of a blanket of frost dissolving on a sunny spring morn.