by Mike Watson - Ambient Music Guide
Don Robertson enjoyed substantial sales success in the early days of new age music in the USA. He's a lifelong musician and multi-instrumentalist adept at many styles, as well as a passionate music educator and a voluminous writer on music history and culture.
Robertson writes lucidity about the history of Western music, from medieval and baroque music right through to modern electronica. His own concept of "positive music" - which he says returned to Western music when the brutal Serialist school was usurped my the American minimalists, progressive pop and new age - is especially interesting because it shines a clear light on where his own music comes from.
In his book Music Through The Centuries he writes:
"Although anyone can make a CD and call it "new age" music, there still has been a very active thrust on the part of musicians to create music that is harmonious, stripped of the discordant elements - the stress - that characterized so much of the music of the 20th Century. I feel that minimalism and new age music are the two currents of 20th century music that provide the lead-in for the 21st. The minimalists, even though they moved from atonality back to tonal roots, for the most part had not completely cleaned their music of the discord, the stress. This is true for some of the neo-romantic composers also. It was the early new age composers, like Iasos and Paul Horn, who moved out of the murky depths of stress, that really grasped the reality of positive music, as well as some of the very fine Celtic musicians, and some of the inspired native American composers and musicians. The correct understanding of music as a healing force is the actual - as opposed to commercial - heart of new age music.
In a 2004 interview he also said:
"The term positive doesn't just apply to happy music. Sad music is positive too, if you think about it. Sadness, happiness, joy, love, peace, these are all positive emotions, and positive music conveys these emotions. Negative music, however, is music that coveys negative emotions, such as hatred and anger."
Now, while Robertson's music may be stripped of stress, it's far from being bereft of substance or dynamics; a crucial distinction that elevates his classic ambient and synthesiser recordings well above the earwash that usually gets labeled new age. Although he would later abandon new age when the opportunists and money men moved in, it was a genre to which he initially felt a powerful attraction, a natural home where he could combine his spiritual inclinations, musical curiosity and - like fellow new age traveler Hari Deuter - his tremendous command of melody.
New age classics
His signature ambient albums date from the early to mid 1980's, a time when new age was still a cottage industry and the domain of genuinely independent DIY musicians. During most of this period he lived in California's San Francisco Bay area - a new age Mecca of sorts - and from this base found an audience on the West Coast with help from local ambient radio programs like Music From The Hearts Of Space and Musical Starstreams.
Although in the late 1960's he released a curious experimental album for zither and other instruments called Dawn (1969), he spent most of the 1970's not recording music but studying it, specifically classical music. Then with encouragement from pioneering new age music distributor Ethan Edgecomb, Robertson returned to recording in 1979 and released Celestial Ascent the following year, the first in a sequence of what would become some of new age music's most enduring albums (current availability issues aside). On two long tracks - one in a major key and the other in a minor - he plays an 80-string zither and improvises rich, elaborate melodies over single chords. The music sighs and surges beautifully, from almost whisper-quiet to dense walls of sound where the secondary tones start to sound like ghostly vocal chanting.
Then Robertson discovered synthesiser music - hearing Vangelis, Klaus Schulze and Ashra for the first time - and the inspiration just poured out of him. Holed up in his bedroom with a piano and recently acquired Minimoog synth and Roland string machine he composed and recorded Resurrection and - a few years later - Spring, two albums of wide-eyed, melodious wonder. The music on these records mimics neither the old-school synth masters nor the better talents on the Californian new age scene of the time. Instead Robertson takes a much more personal route, fusing elements of classical and pop with ethereal ambient sound. From the happy electro-waltz of "Dance" to contemplative drone pieces like "Ships" and "Journey Into The Infinite", it's stunningly pretty music grounded by superb musicianship and a sophisticated understanding of harmonic progression. Around this time he also provided piano and zither improvisations on Aeoliah's exquisite new age album Inner Sanctum (1981).
Falling in between these two releases is the album Starmusic recorded in 1982, another masterwork. It's a more overt exercise in cosmic spacemusic, this time performed on the just-released Synclavia II digital synthesiser. Robertson's inspiration was the Bay area radio program Music From The Hearts Of Space and in fact the album is co-produced by that programs's host Stephen Hill. It's long, droned-based tracks are intricate, melodic and awe-inspiring. There's sometimes an organ-like quality to the chords that gives the album the sacred flavour of Renaissance church music. Although Starmusic was released on Robertson's own label DBR, in many ways it's a pointer to the core sound that Hearts Of Space Records was founded on, the pioneering label that Stephen Hill himself would launch a few years later.
By 1984, Robertson was tiring of the Bay area's new age scene. He returned to Colorado but for a while traveled regularly to California and continued to make music in the styles he'd been creating on the West coast. Celestial Voyager is the best of these - recorded mostly in 1986 but not actually finished and released until 2008. Some tracks echo the intricate patterns heard on Resurrection and Spring, while others like the Eno-esque "Le Calme Et l'Océan" are more minimal and feel slower, their breathing chords stretched out over longer distances.
End of an Era
By the end of the 1980's, the West Coast's original new age music scene had largely being replaced by a world-wide business model that trafficked in bland, safe easily listening instrumental pop, jazz and light classical. Meanwhile the music sections of new age bookshops and markets were soon dominated by spiritless "relaxation" muzak. Robertson, in his own words "disgusted and disillusioned", left the scene altogether.
Since then his focus has mainly been on music education and the study and composition of classical recordings in the "positive music" mode that he's been championing since the 1960's. However he has still found time to record the occasional new age/ambient album. Aum from 2009 is a fine example, a deeply meditative work featuring gorgeous suspended strings, reverberating piano notes, floating chorales and long, arcing clouds of synthetic sound.
There's more albums in Don Robertson's discography if you want to dig deeper, as well as a number of books and a large archive of his articles, all on his website at www.donrobertsonmusic.com. Some of the albums listed above have still not been re-released in CD or digital form, something that will hopefully be rectified soon so that a new generation might discover this master of melody.
About the author
Mike Watson (Mike G), founder of Ambient Music Guide
lives in Sidney, Australia and has been been playing and writing about ambient and related music since his university days in the late 1980's.