Narada Records and David Lanz
Along with Windham Hill, Narada Records is one of the most prominent record labels associated with the New Age genre. Narada Productions began in 1979 as a one-man mail-order distribution service and eventually developed into one of the most successful and critically acclaimed independent record companies releasing adult contemporary music. Narada Records was officially incepted in 1983 and released two piano solo recordings the same year: Michael Jones’ Pianoscapes and David Lanz’s Heartsounds and described the company as “a quality alternative to traditional musical options.” In all of the literature describing their specific brand messaging, Narada Records appeals on two different levels: first that they offer an accessible alternative to other genres, and secondly that their music is based in the realm of nature and demonstrates that “the arts, and music in particular, can contribute positively and meaningful to humanity’s goal of achieving a brighter, healthier, and more peaceful future.” Recognized twice by Billboard magazine as the No. 1 adult alternative-new age record company in North America, Narada touts itself as a distinct purveyor in the modern music landscape releasing music with buzzword associations such as: sophisticated, innovative, heartfelt, and progressive. Narada has never been shy about their quasi-activist stance and stand firm that the material they release is not as they put it “socially detrimental.” The following statement from their website demonstrates the reasons why they believe their releases are not only candidates for aesthetic appreciation but also contribute on a larger socially-conscious level:
Narada’s music exudes a quality of craftsmanship that touches the hearts and minds of listeners in a lasting fashion. Beyond helping people feel good, Narada also hopes its music can do good things. While music alone cannot change the world, Narada hopes that its unique musical perspective can add an artistic sensibility to the important issues that will influence the quality of our lives. We focus our efforts not only on music, but also ideas. The label feels that the arts, and music in particular, can contribute as significantly to our social dialogue as the scientific, economic, or political communities.
And they did put their money where their mouth was by consistently supporting various charitable causes through their record sales. The foreword notes of the Narada Wilderness Collection of piano solos makes mention of the intentions of the anthology as a musical celebration of cherished wilderness lands and also declares that a portion of the proceeds from the recording and book sales will help support three major wilderness defenders. This could be justifiably viewed as a marketing tactic that Narada and other New Age labels cleverly worked to their advantage. Per the definition in the New Age Encyclopedia, the genre of New Age Music is “a marketing slogan, not a musical category.” This definition seems to fit aptly here as the literature describing the goals of Narada as a record company continually appeals to humanistic endeavors, a love for the environment and nature, and the ability their music has to elevate the human spirit.
As Narada grew in popularity they continuously divided the label into sub-labels as a means of categorizing the wide array of artists recording under the label. In 1997, Narada was acquired by EMI and eventually the sub-labels were retired and Narada’s current New Age releases are under the Higher Octave label a branch of Blue Note records. It was at this point that David Lanz broke away from the label that had supported the early years of his career and made a move to Decca Records where his musical stylings shifted quite drastically. One cannot help but be a bit suspicious that the change of record labels was responsible for Lanz essentially returning to his jazz and rock and roll roots and turning away from the nature-oriented leanings that encompassed his recordings under the Narada label.
David Lanz is arguably one of the most prolific and long-standing figures associated with New Age solo piano music and his roots as a recording artist start at Narada Records in the early 1980s. His diverse career spans the past two decades and has featured many shifts in style and artistic output and the largely nature-based, humanistic approach to record marketing at Narada, certainly shaped the early years of his career. The Seattle native, born in 1950, spent his teenage years and twenties playing keyboards in various local rock and roll groups. In the 1980s while working at piano bars playing blues and jazz, Lanz describes how he stumbled onto a different path which led to his eventual breakout as a New Age artist:
My friend, Dr. Larry Iverson, was leading a seminar and wanted some music to illustrate the flow of energy through the centers of the body sometimes referred to as chakras. I was also interest in the healing qualities of music and its effect on body and soul, so I made a little tape of solo piano for the seminar and just about everyone who heard it, to my utter surprise, wanted a copy! There was no musical style quite like it in those days, and it certainly wasn’t called New Age. I used the music I composed for this seminar as the basis for my first solo album, Heartsounds.
The launching of Lanz’s 1984 album Heartsounds put both him and Narada Records onto the map of mainstream New Age music. Lanz’s oeuvre includes a wealth of both solo piano albums, including the landmark Cristifori’s Dream, which topped Billboard’s adult alternative/new age chart for a whopping 27 weeks straight, and three collaborations with rock guitarist Paul Speer. Aside from sound recordings, Hal Leonard has released more than a dozen songbooks of Lanz’s music and an instructional piano video. His concert tours are numerous over the years, but his performance venues usually air on the side of the intimate, unlike Yanni whose marketing machine has attempted to turn him into a rock star. Still actively recording and touring today, Lanz also hosts four-day retreats in Washington giving pianists and music-lovers alike the opportunity to spend one on one time with him in a remote setting exploring his music and allowing pianists to have private lessons with him.
Throughout his career as a solo artist, Lanz has never been shy about exposing and relishing in his rock and roll roots–which would seem to be fundamentally at odds with the general aesthetical direction of New Age music and the marketing schema at Narada. It is plausible to consider that perhaps in the case of Lanz, the label of New Age was in fact applied just as a marketing tool and not a musical category. As mentioned before, Lanz refers to his music in his self-penned biography on his website as “contemporary instrumental” music. I asked him how he felt about the New Age label being attached to his music and how he navigated in and around the term during the early years of his career:
…when it became the term used to define an entire genre of music, it was a bit disconcerting, especially for the music makers and their listeners, who had little or no exposure to so called New Age spirituality and lifestyle.
In the beginning, I was just fine with the term, as I was, and still am, a student of meditation/spirituality, and I am sure my attitudes and beliefs have woven their way into my composition….and in the beginning of my recording career I just used to make fun of the term on stage, telling the audience that I only played, ‘New and improved Age music.’ The humor seemed to help diffuse any of the uncomfortable feelings the audience may have had of this unknown New Age movement. Many, of course, were there only because they loved the music…but were not ready to join a cult.
His writings throughout his years with Narada, in both the liner notes to his recordings and introductory comments to his songbooks, have taken a distinct turn as his career progressed. Lanz’s first two albums in the 1980s, Heartsounds and Nightfall both featured music with titles exclusively related to nature, songs such as “Faces of the Forest,” “Star Gazer,” “Leaves on the Seine,” and “Sun Song.” With the 1988 release of Cristifori’s Dream, arguably Lanz’s breakthrough release into a wider mainstream audience, we see the first glimpse of his remaining love for rock and roll with the inclusion of his New Age-ified rendition of Procol Harem’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” to cap off the album. According to Lanz, the inclusion of this track on this early album was controversial with Narada:
I wanted my audience to know that I had a life before New Age music…hence the use of the cover version (on my breakthrough record, Cristifori’s Dream) of A Whiter Shade of Pale …which I felt not only bridged the gap between that Summer of Love period, but also had elements of classical structure and fit nicely on the New Age radio format of the time. However, the president of Narada was opposed to this ‘not fitting for a New Age artist’ he said. But his fellow Narada team voted him down…thank God!
Lanz’s rising popularity led to a cooperative effort with publishing giant Hal Leonard and the release of his first solo piano songbook in 1991. Perhaps Narada was already sensing the backlash against the genre as Lanz’s self-authored introductory notes, while always personal and seemingly genuine; tend to oversell the “newness” and “uniqueness” of the music while also trying to still conform to the “nature-minded” positivist aesthetics of his record label. He states clearly his views on music and his intentions of the possible affects imposed on his listeners:
I’ve always been intrigued by music’s limitless tones and colors. Some of my music has a gentle, pastel quality, and other pieces are much more extroverted and full of vivd colors. As a composer, there are times when I feel I am writing during a ‘water phase,’ and at times I’m in a ‘fire phase.’ Ultimately, my goal is to create entertainment that also provides enlightenment. …and I hope my music can light a fire under people to take these positive thoughts and put them to use not only in their personal lives, but in ways that can influence their communities and, at some point, the entire world. The hope of a brighter future is the message of my music, and I’m pleased to be able to share it with everyone who listens.
The first songbook release features various titles from his first three albums and notably absent is his arrangement of “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Whether or not this was a matter of paying high licensing fees for use of the song or Narada’s preference towards nature-themed music is still up for discussion. This first songbook has one feature worth mentioning that is unique to this time period in Lanz’s career. There are a number of locations within the songs that allow for free improvisation and expressive license for the pianist. Specifically in the song “Faces of the Forest,” there are two sections where a chordal pattern is given in the bass and then a direction overhead stating “improvise freely in A major, repeat as desired.” This freer approach will not occur in any of the later songbooks where the transcriptions of the recordings are written out in their entirety. This early affinity towards semi-improvisation may be linked to Sinnreich’s framework that configurable music should have elements of spontaneous performance as opposed to strictly being notated and repeated the same way upon each playing.
The albums from the early 1990s, Skyline Firedance and Return to the Heart mark a shift towards Lanz’s incorporation of a wider array of stylings. While the earlier recordings from the 1980s featured mostly subdued and tranquil selections, both of the above mentioned albums prominently display Lanz in his “fire-mode” with energetic and bombastic selections like “Vesuvius” and “Dark Horse.” While nature-themed titles are still present on most of the selections, the formal models of the pieces are more standard and far less prone to the improvisatory whim of the earlier selections from the first songbook.
The Skyline Firedance was released as a two-CD set, one disc with Lanz performing the works as solo pieces, and the other with orchestral backing to the same works. The release of these two albums and the accompanying songbook show a turn away from the aesthetic expectation that New Age music is only supposed to be soothing and relaxing. From a compositional standpoint and looking forward to the unfolding of his career as a composer an artist this may have been a concerted effort by Lanz to distance himself from those expectations and establish himself as a composer aligned more with the mainstream and less with the mystical New Age circles of synthesized mood music. The addition of the full orchestra along with the Skyline Firedance album was a marked diversion away from what other artists under the Narada label were doing and certainly a step away from expected norms within the New Age genre. As Lanz told me in an interview, the shift in style was also influenced by economic factors:
…I was becoming successful, and had access to larger recording budgets, which opened the door for larger production…like the 1991 Skyline Firedance recording (80 piece orchestra, drums, guitar, synth, kitchen sink!). The earlier work was done on a shoe-string budget…solo piano is as basic as you get. Or course, the beauty of solo piano really is the essence of the genre, and I was attempting to really pare down my playing and composing at first…but creative artists are always looking to expand the work, so I went for it and in the process, yes, I got the chance to expose a bit more of my Rock and Roll background.
At this juncture we start to see the use of Western classical music terminology (words like Prelude, Suite, Nocturne, etc.) sprinkled throughout his compositions. This coincides with Lanz’s face now featured prominently on album covers whereas his three earlier recordings made use of typical New Age lithographic nature photos for their cover art. Taking Lanz out of the realm of anonymity and giving a face to a name (and music) is a definite signal that Narada was no longer only interested in selling musical experience, but were interested in selling Lanz as an artist as well. However calculated a move this was can only be speculated on, and still in the liner notes to the Skyline Firedance orchestral disc, Lanz makes mention of his connection to nature, a correlation that easily links him back to the New Age category saying:
In much of my past work, I have drawn from my personal thoughts and feelings about relationships and about nature. By doing so, I hope I have encouraged listeners to experience their inner feelings and listen to their hearts. With the power of this orchestral interpretation of Skyline Firedance I am now urging people to act upon what they have learned. All of humanity and the beautiful planet we all share will face demanding challenges in the decades ahead, and we can all expect to experience tremendous changes as we progress through them.
While the music on this album and the following may be distancing itself from the free-flowing improvisatory slant of a great deal of music in the genre, the verbiage in the liner notes is still clearly in line with the activist, environmentally-aware stance supported and encouraged as part of Narada’s marketing plan. This is not to imply that Lanz himself does not personally conform to these ideals, but suspicion arises as one looks towards his musical releases in the following years which tend to more often than not, drift back towards his love for rock and roll.
Glimpses of his rock and roll glory days are present in Lanz’s collaborative album Bridge of Dreams with rock guitarist Paul Speer which features a cover of The Beatle’s “A Day in the Life.” Like the earlier release of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” on the Cristifori’s Dream release this is the only cover composition on the album. The liner notes here again strike a naturalistic chord exposing the humanistic Earth-loving narrative of the album as a whole:
Inspired by ancient storytelling and the writings of Joseph Campbell, Bridge of Dreams was born out of my search for a personal mythology. …The story is of a darkened world (the Dark Star) whose children learn about the power of music and song in their dreams. Heroically, the children transform their planet with their singing and bring it back into light.
The fourth songbook Sacred Road accompanied the album of the same title and was Lanz’s return to primarily solo piano compositions with nature-infused musical offerings. As a bonus, and in order to quiet the din of fan requests, Hal Leonard included Lanz’s sought-after arrangements of “A White Shade of Pale,” “Nights in White Satin,” and “Theme and Variations on Pachelbel’s Canon in D” even though these works were not part of the Sacred Road recording. The warm reception of these rock classics in a New Age context, as well as Lanz’s history with the genre, is again explored in his final release with Narada before they were sold to EMI. Songs from an English Garden paid homage to all of Lanz’s favorite British rockers and featured only one original composition. A good deal of musical growth is seen with the release of these arrangements as they are notably extended in form and length unlike many of Lanz’s earlier releases which tend to not run past the five-page mark. It is with this album that he seems most at home with the choice of material and his outstanding abilities as an arranger are appreciated over the entire album instead of just in a few tracks as was the case with the earlier albums that featured only one or two cover songs. There is a marked contrast in the quality of the material on the English Garden release, an aural marker that Lanz has found his niche, and that niche may be in direct conflict with the aims of Narada and New Age aesthetic which sought to offer a counterpart to rock and roll.
The split with Narada after the release of the English Garden album may have been timely and advantageous for Lanz who signed with Decca and started to explore, and re-explore the musical styles that he was brought up on, namely jazz, blues, and rock. Lanz’s maturity as a composer and artist continues to deepen and although this may be due in large part to simply the passage of time, one may still question whether his time at Narada, and firmly placed in the New Age category may have stifled or at least greatly steered his musical endeavors in a direction that didn’t utilize his greatest strengths.
If we consider Halpern’s initial five criteria for determining and recognizing real New Age music (recall these are consonance, unpredictable melodies, lack of expected progressions/cadences, lack of pulsing rhythm, no harsh/shrill instruments, open textures) then we could never fairly call Lanz a New Age composer. While consonance and a favoring of major keys is present in much of his music, the remaining four criteria do not fit his overall output on any level. When we also consider his affinity and strengths as an arranger of rock and roll classics the labeling also comes into question. It is therefore not surprising that the words “New Age” are absent on Lanz’s current website as he now, like Yanni, associates himself with the adult contemporary music category. It is impossible and overly-speculative, and largely unnecessary to definitively claim that the label of “New Age artist” hurt, hindered, or helped Lanz’s career, but as evidenced in his discography, the aesthetic expectations laid out via the marketing of the New Age category to some extent shaped his compositional output.
Concluding Thoughts and Future Questions
I have always found myself defending the term New Age when asked about Lanz’s music and have always half-resented the term being attached to music. My feelings are shared, as stated in one of the first critical discussions of the genre by Leslie Berman who relates her experience with New Age music which moved from antipathy to ambivalence stating that she would have “listened to the music with greater objectivity if it were labeled anything else.” Whether or not you like the term or deem it appropriate (especially in the case of Lanz) there is longevity to this music not only for listeners but especially in the realm of music education. An angle worth more exploration in the future is certainly the educational value of New Age music, which in my mind fills an important gap between standard Classical literature and popular sheet music. Intermediate level repertoire, of which most New Age music falls squarely into this category, is in my experience severely lacking in quality material. The New Age genre provides opportunity for students to explore elements of framed-improvisation and continue to develop technical and interpretive skills. The New Age genre label has negated the level of legitimacy that should be afforded to this music which is often snubbed by piano instructors as less worthy than traditional Classical music. Music that is categorized under the New Age label is in most cases prohibited from being used for State mandated proficiency tests in piano, and teacher organizations that I have come into contact with often look down (sometimes silently and sometimes in a more outspoken manner) on teachers who allow their students to work on this repertoire. This is of course the same treatment most music that is deemed popular has been treated by pedagogues but this treatment in relation to New Age piano music seems unfounded on many levels because there are in fact many technical and artistic advantages to be gained from this repertoire.
Other areas of possible future study would include the link of New Age music to music therapy and yogic philosophy, a deeper look into the possible connection between Schafer’s sonic environmentalism and the rise of the genre, and the consideration of this music under the framework of an emerging multidisciplinary field in academia known as Critical Information Studies. These are just a few of the possible seemingly wide-open areas worthy of further exploration as to how New Age music is created, received, consumed, and aesthetically judged by listeners.
 From the late 1990s onwards, the term New Age is replaced more often by the term “adult contemporary music.”
 David Lanz, personal interview via email, May 1, 2011.
 David Lanz, personal interview via email, May 1, 2011.
 David Lanz, Solos for New Age Piano, Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Publishing, 1991.
 This arrangement was finally transcribed and release in Lanz’s Sacred Road songbook released in 1996 even though the song was not part of the sound recording bearing the same title. Other popular songs that fans had requested were eventually released in Lanz’s final songbook under the Narada label called “By Request.”
 I am speaking of Lanz’s songbooks while still under the Narada label.
 Lanz, personal interview via email, May 1, 2011.
 David Lanz, Skyline Firedance: The Orchestral Works, liner notes.
 David Lanz, Bridge of Dreams, liner notes.
 In all of the literature I have come across, arrangements and improvisations using Pachelbel’s Canon in D as a framework indicate that this is a standard item in New Age repertoire.
 A discussion of Yanni and the so-called “Yanni phenomenon” does not fit within the scope of this project but is certainly worthy of discussion in relation to the New Age genre.
 Berman, 257.
 Sinnreich, 4. Siva Vaidhyanathan is credited with coining the term. Scholars in this field are concerned with “the ways in which culture and information are regulated, and thus the relationships among regulation and commerce, creativity, science, technology, politics and other human affairs. See: Siva Vaidhyanathan, “Afterword: Critical Information Studies. A Bibliographic Manifesto,” Cultural Studies 20, nos. 2-3 (2006): 292-315.