Pop Culture

New Age Pioneer Peter Davison Is Here to Help You Relax

Peter Davison who has recorded 43 albums and over 1500 film and television scores feels a certain responsibility to make...

Peter Davison, who has recorded 43 albums and over 1,500 film and television scores, feels “a certain responsibility to make music that will make things better.”Illustration by Michael Houtz; photographs by Getty Images
You’ve probably never heard of Peter Davison, but if you’ve ever been to a yoga studio or spa, you’ve almost certainly heard his music. His mind-bending body of work traces the history of New Age—and reveals why it has once again become the soundtrack to our lives.

The specter of New Age is all around us. You see it in the sweat-wicking fabric of our yoga shorts, the froth of our adaptogenic mushroom coffee, the graphics on our $80 artisanal streetwear t-shirts, the healing crystals that adorn our mantles. And you hear it: in the ambient pop of Caroline Polachek and the eerie electronica of Oneohtrix Point Never, the experimental composer behind the Safdie brothers’ film scores. Enya has been identified as an inspiration for everyone from Nicki Minaj to Grimes. 

While chatbots and image generators are racing to remodel the world in their artificial image, we humans are clinging to the pseudo-spirituality that was made mainstream by the hippies, persisted through the societal strife of the Reagan years, and was used like a psychological crutch through the digital age. In the 1980s and ’90s, as New Age music became a booming business for major record labels, there were ads for New Age CDs on television and entire radio stations devoted to the genre. But while Enya’s sales were skyrocketing, so too was an emergent maligning of the music, which was becoming synonymous with outdated hippie mysticism and banal yuppie taste. Though it never went away, for years the words “New Age” were utterly unserious. But now, thanks to some freakishly devoted archivists and rare music obsessives, a golden age of New Age has been rediscovered, and with it, some of the genre’s most brilliant early artists. 

And that is how I discovered a little known composer named Peter Davison. A friend sent me a link to his 1981 album Glide, which floored me, and scratched an itch I’ve long had for ethereal, looping instrumental music. I played it on repeat for months, falling down a rabbit hole of New Age music discovery. What I found was a surprisingly rich and fascinating subculture, one that subverted all my preconceived notions. It wasn’t all merely hippie-dippie nonsense and crass commercialism. As a genre, it contained an entire universe of charged imagery and ideas, one that shared an ethos with the fringe scenes that shaped my identity—the worlds of punk and hardcore, skateboarding and streetwear. And Davison wasn’t just a master practitioner; he was the through line for the genre’s entire fascinating history, from its folksy early days to its commercial boom, from its subsequent demise to the revitalization happening right now. 

Peter Davison at his home studio in Idyllwild, California.

Noah Johnson

If you’ve ever done yoga or been to a health food store or metaphysical supply shop or a day spa, you’ve probably heard Davison’s music. His songs have been streamed over 100 million times. He’s released 43 albums, with another one on the way this month, and has composed more than 1,500 scores for film and television, working for the History Channel, Bravo, A&E, PBS, Disney, and many others. 

One New Age music expert I spoke with, the record producer Douglas Mcgowan, argues that New Age, like hip-hop and heavy metal, is an important American folk art—they’re all “essentially defined by the underground, defined by the handmade person with no budget,” he says. And according to Nikos San, founder of The Fact of Being, an Austria-based ambient and New Age label that has rereleased Davison’s first two albums, Davison is one of its most important and pure practitioners. He’s a “top-notch professional musician and composer,” says San, who calls his music “a gate to a silent inner space, just for being here and now.” 

Despite the astounding prevalence and power of Peter Davison’s music, he’s kept a relatively low profile. Perhaps because New Age music has always been powered by a DIY ethos and independent channels of promotion and distribution, there simply hasn’t been much written about him, aside from what he’s self-published. I found bits and pieces on his (very primitive) website and brief Wikipedia page—he apparently lived at the edge of a forest in the California mountains, near the town of Idyllwild—but I couldn’t make much sense of his discography, and his incredibly prolific but entirely under-the-radar career. Who was this man I’d never heard of whose music I couldn’t escape? I thought I might pay him a visit.

In particular, I had a hunch he might have some wisdom to share for our age of anxiety. Relaxation, if the trillion-dollar Wellness and Mental Health Industrial Complex is to be believed, is incredibly difficult to achieve in 2023, and often comes only at tremendous effort and expense. A smoothie with the stress-fighting ingredient ashwagandha costs $17 at Erewhon. Therabody makes a $4,000 “zero gravity” lounge chair that vibrates and makes relaxation-inducing sounds. And for nearly $13 a month, the Headspace app offers a “healthier, happier, more well-rested life” through hours of guided meditations and audio experiences that help you sleep. As the app claims on its site, “Relaxation actually isn’t easy (and doesn’t come naturally) for many of us.”

The primary power that New Age music wields is the ability to help you relax. Most of all I sought out Davison to ask him a simple question: What does it take to make music that soothes your soul? Pop stars and rock bands can change the lives of millions of people, but what about an obscure New Age artist? What could he teach me about the healing power of music, and what it takes to write a song that makes you… inhale… exhale… alter your state of consciousness? 

Wedged into the wilderness of the San Jacinto Mountains, Idyllwild floats up in the clouds, just over a mile above sea level. In the desert below sits Palm Springs; a hundred miles to the west is Los Angeles. The center of town has one too many chainsawed tree-trunk animals for it to be misconstrued as some kind of hippie mountain village, and the high elevation and the rugged terrain seems to have kept the desert-festival stink of Coachella from wafting up the highway. There is not a trace of palo santo in the air.

Peter Davison lives with his wife, Iris, in an A-frame just outside the center of town on the edge of the San Jacinto Wilderness, not far from AstroCamp, a space-themed summer camp. When I arrived on a cold December morning, he met me in the driveway. He was wearing blue jeans and a fleece jacket. His frizzy white hair, both distinguished and disorderly, was the only indication that I was in the presence of a great composer. 

Thanks to big southwest-facing windows and a crackling fireplace, the Davisons’ home was bright and cozy. There were some crystals here and there, a few small porcelain fairies and elves on a window sill, but it wasn’t the gnomic hut in the woods that I had imagined. It was a little more ordinary. Peter Davison’s life, however, was not. We sat down at the table in their living room with coffee and muffins and he began to tell me about it.

Davison was born in Los Angeles in 1948 and raised in the Hollywood Hills. His father, a “card-carrying communist,” was the director of the People’s Educational Center, which Davison called the “L.A. Celebrities’ School of Marxism.” His parents, who were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, “lost everything” during the McCarthy Era, Davison told me. His babysitter was the singer Odetta Holmes, who sang Davison to sleep with the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and would later become known as one of the voices of the Civil Rights Movement. Davison’s parents had a good record collection that introduced him to important influences: Groucho Marx’s “Funniest Song in the World” and “The Firebird” by Stravinsky. 

Davison’s mother got him a recorder when he was four. Playing it came naturally. In kindergarten he started on the flute, and by third grade he was playing in the L.A. All City Jr. Orchestra. He started studying music theory in middle school, and by high school his class was reading the textbook that was being taught at Yale. Davison attended North Hollywood High School, which was full of the precociously gifted children of LA’s studio and orchestral musicians. The flute player who got the spot in the school’s orchestra was the daughter of Johnny Rotella, a woodwind legend and songwriter for Frank Sinatra.

After high school Davison dabbled in the rock, folk, and blues music that was taking over America in the mid-to-late 1960s. For a couple years he played with a blues band at the Ash Grove on Melrose, backing up touring artists like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, and Albert King. Long before he knew where music would eventually take him, Davison had a feeling that he wanted his compositions to be a force of positivity. There was too much sadness in the blues for him to play it every night. As he told me, “I realized the words that come out of your mouth are going to shape your life.” 

Partway through his studies at Los Angeles Valley College, Davison began to think more about the 20th-century composers he learned about in high school—Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Messiaen, and Varèse—and quit the blues band to focus on composing different music. Then he got a bad case of hepatitis. Bedridden for five months, he decided that he wanted to be “a composer of avant garde, cutting-edge new music.” 

In graduate school at California State University, Northridge, he got heavy into the atonal music of Berg and Webern and Schoenberg and others. The pinnacle of his work in the avant-garde was “Polyphemus,” a fourteen-and-a-half minute piece of music inspired by The Odyssey and performed once in 1973 by the California State University, Northridge Symphony Orchestra. At one point, Davison played the recording for me. It sounded like a theater full of musicians doing battle. There was nothing remotely New Age-y about it. 

As he was composing this highly sophisticated form of classical music, the Vietnam War was taking a devastating toll, and Davison had peace on the mind. Even before he graduated, in 1975, he began to question the nature of the music he was making. “Avant-garde music, it sounds kind of ugly,” Davison said. “There’s very little color. It’s just kind of all brown. I just had it with writing atonal, arrhythmic music that nobody wants to hear.” He felt “a certain responsibility,” he added, “to make music that would make things better. I want to make music that is more healing and soothing and uplifting and relaxing and pleasant to listen to and easier to understand.”

Davison playing the suling in Bali, 1979.

By 1976, New Age music was a burgeoning genre, especially in California. Davison was living in a converted chicken coop with his four-track recorder and Serge Modular synthesizer. There he made three pieces of music. He didn’t set out to make a New Age album, he told me. “It felt like it was music that was in the atmosphere,” he said, “that was waiting to be harvested.” 

Those three tracks formed the bulk of Davison’s first album, which he released in 1980. But there was a problem: He had no idea how to bring that music to an audience. So he cracked open the phone book and found Pyramid Distributors, a Santa Monica–based wholesaler that primarily dealt in, yes, decorative pyramids (an important component of the New Age lifestyle at the time) and convinced the owner to add music to his offerings. Davison called the album Music on the Way, because, he told me, “I just had this feeling that this is the start of something big. You know what I mean? This is something that’s going to be with me for the rest of my life.” He added: “With all modesty, it really is classic New Age music.”

Around that time, Davison traveled to Bali. “I had plenty of magic mushroom omelets there,” he recalled. “It was just eggs, onions, and psilocybin mushrooms, beautifully cooked. And I remember the first time, I mean, it was so gentle, I seriously became one with a palm tree.” Davison listened to a lot of the 20th-century French composer Olivier Messiaen, whose music was influenced by Balinese and Javanese music. “The Balinese and Javanese music, it takes you into where creativity comes from,” Davison said. “And that’s what I like with my music. I feel like I’ve been able to do some of that.”

Davison followed Music on the Way with five other albums, all of which he released on his own label, Avocado Records, named for the tree that grew in the yard of the Santa Monica house where he started the label in 1979. Glide, released in 1981, is still my favorite of these important early works. The music is soft—synths, harp, violin, guitar, flute, distant vocals—but more sci-fi soundtrack than crystal shop, with a wandering, experimental vibe to it. It’s not challenging. It’s smooth and easy. It sounds nice. And it’s that way by design. “Floating” is how Davison describes it. 

The six albums Davison released between 1980 and 1985 are all classics of the genre, but they aren’t exactly typical of it. “It’s so much more melodically complex,” said Mcgowan, whose seminal New Age compilation, I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America 1950-1990, includes a track by Davison. “It’s compositionally more complex. It’s much more richly arranged. There are more ingredients. There’s more cross-cultural influences coming into play. And awareness of jazz and classical and world music.” 

While most New Age music is about textures—think birdsong, babbling brooks, wind chimes, rainstick—Davison’s is about melody. And creating melodies that are both relaxing as well as rich and complex is incredibly challenging. “To tell you the truth,” Davison told me, “it takes a lot of energy to make relaxing music.”

Original pressings of his early records are hard to find, and for years collectors and archivists paid top dollar for what copies remain. They have all since been reissued and are available to stream. Of the forty-plus albums Davison has listed on Apple Music, a cluster of them, curiously, are branded with a logo for Gaiam, the yoga equipment brand. Others have straightforward, artless names, like his seven Adagio albums, among them Music for HealingMusic for Meditation, and Music for Massage. One, titled Comfort, has an album cover that features two empty Adirondack chairs at the end of a dock looking out over the water at a sunset. Released between 1997 and 2008, they have the good-for-you corporate design aesthetic of something you’d pick up at Whole Foods. 

After that run of mass-marketed mood music, in 2010 Davison began to self-publish albums again for the first time in a quarter century. On the cover of one release, an album titled Future, Present, Past, there is another golden sun setting—or rising—over misty water. But laid over that image is a truly deranged piece of typography: The album’s title is rendered in electric blue with a solar yellow outline, written in a distorted, embossed script that tapers from future to past. It’s the kind of earnest, naive design genius that you only find deep in niche cultures, where DIY is not just an aesthetic but a business model. Nothing about this design is intended to sell a product. It signals a punk-like commitment to the community for which it’s made, a display of deep artistic integrity, and a healthy skepticism toward any kind of commercial agenda. 

Davison has always had complete control over his self-released music, from designing covers to choosing his distribution partner. His visual style reminds me of the show flyers and mixtape cover art that drew me to underground rap and hardcore in the 1990s. Davison’s sensibility also summons the artistic spirit found within skateboarding and, at its best, streetwear, which I can only describe as a “fuck it” approach that prizes authenticity and nonconformity above slickness and professionalism.

Davison creates all of these designs himself using Photoshop. “My basic concept is visual art to portray the music and concept of the album,” he says. “I would say that my general aesthetic is nature, peace, and human growth potential, in the art work—and the music.”   

Davison designs all of his album art himself using Photoshop.

New Age music was born out of a purpose: to heal, relax, soothe, or otherwise change your state of mind. That functionality set the music apart from other genres, making it seem to some less like an art and more like a tool. It’s also what made New Age susceptible to all kinds of derision and ridicule. 

“People into New Age were perceived as being stuck in the past, ironically enough,” Mcgowan said. “They were not savvy practitioners of the dark arts of messaging and branding and self-promotion, and they allowed themselves to be cordoned into a narrative of fuzzy-headed woo-woo nonsense.” He admits the critics had a point. “In many if not most cases,” he added, “that assessment was accurate.”

In 1975 Steven Halpern released the first version of Spectrum Suite, which may be the most influential New Age album of all time. The original version included seven tracks, all played on an electric piano, that were composed to activate and heal the seven chakras, and, in Halpern’s words, “tune into higher vibrations and inner peace.” A gorgeous piece of music, Spectrum Suite may well have led to the kind of health and healing that Halpern sought to induce. The simplicity of the music and the persuasiveness of Halpern’s message—he would later claim on his website that Spectrum Suite “balances the chakras and assists optimal health and healing by stimulating each vital energy center with the corresponding sound frequencies”—created a boom among aspiring musicians and healers, many of whom did not have the chops that Halpern did. “Spectrum Suite inspired a lot of people who were maybe marginally talented to get into the genre,” Mcgowan said, “because they could make recordings that were not complicated or difficult to produce. So a lot of punters got into it.” 

Those punters are largely the reason why New Age has been so easily mocked and derided. Most of the music is, in fact, quite bad. Nonetheless, “Woo-woo nonsense” would become big business for artists like Enya and Yanni especially. Yuppies needed innocuous music for their new CD players, and an aura of faux enlightenment for their condos. New Age morphed to meet the moment. Stripped of the polarizing spiritual stuff, it became mood music, something to make you feel good after an honest day in the office tower. It was a lozenge. 

Artists like Peter Davison are rare. While he did enjoy some notable success in the’80s with the release of his first few albums, he never experienced anything remotely close to mainstream notability. It’s no coincidence that Peter Davison’s last album for Avocado Records was released in 1985. According to Mcgowan, that’s right about when New Age music’s ties to the counterculture were completely severed. 

In 1987, KMET—a beloved Los Angeles rock radio station that had been broadcasting since 1968, airing live concerts from Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie, a late-night heavy metal show that played Slayer and Anthrax, and the cult novelty radio legend Dr. Demento—went off the air. The station was replaced by KTWV, The Wave, which played “New Adult Contemporary”—a blend of smooth jazz, soft pop, and New Age music. “It’s music that stirs people below the neck,” the station’s general manager, Howard Bloom, told The Los Angeles Times in 1987. “When people listen to the radio, they’re looking for a particular mood—a centered mood that creates an almost magical kind of flow.” KTWV execs told the LA Times reporter that the format switch was the result of “extensive research, which revealed ‘an enormous public acceptance’ for New Age programming.”

That same year, the Grammys began handing out a New Age music award, and in 1988, Billboard added a New Age Albums chart to its ranking system. By 1990 New Age music was generating $70 million annually in sales, according to one estimate. Enya, who released five studio albums from 1986 and 2000, has sold more than 75 million records worldwide over the course of her career. Yanni’s 1994 album Live at the Acropolis sold over 7 million copies; the concert film has been seen by half a billion people. 

Ultimately, the very forces that powered the development of New Age music led to its demise. The early practitioners were no match for capitalism, and the entire genre was swallowed up by the music industry’s marketing machine. New Age would never achieve what rap or heavy metal did. While Billboard still maintains a New Age Albums chart, you’re not likely to hear any of it on the radio. We now have podcasts and apps to help us relax and heal. And we’ve never had so many options at our disposal for altering and controlling our moods. 

So where does that leave New Age? Belittled for decades as background music or hippie Muzak, the genre has recently been rehabilitated by experts like Mcgowan. “It’s the soundtrack of getting older,” Mcgowan said, “a post-psychedelic experience.” New Age music was, in a sense, inevitable. The Beatles had introduced Western masses to Eastern spirituality and it was taking hold in the form of trendy yoga and meditation practices. A new form of music was needed for this new lifestyle.

Many try to explain New Age by describing the way it sounds. But there is no real aesthetic or tonal through line. Nature sounds, harps, chimes, soft, looping orchestras—there are recurring motifs, but none of them define the genre. “The core of New Age, if I had to identify it in a word,” McGowan says, “is intention. It’s the intention to improve things in some way. The idea that music has a transformative power.”

New Age music, he continues, has “this potential to add to the collective unconsciousness a feeling of peace and good will.” If everyone could find a few additional moments of peace in their day, what would it do for the world? What would it do for us all as individuals? Mcgowan does not mince words. “This is about a state of mind,” he said. “A secular attempt to save your soul.” Last I checked, you cannot buy that at Erewhon.

Peter Davison was proud to be included on I Am The Center (he also found it interesting when an obscure Austrian record label requested to reissue his early music), but until Mcgowan got in touch with him, he hadn’t been aware of any renewed interest in his work from decades ago, or in New Age as a genre. Davison, meanwhile, is firmly pointed toward the future, already plotting out his releases for 2024.

The same cultural currents that have brought about the New Age revival have restored interest in ambient and other forms of experimental instrumental music. Aphex Twin, the famously prolific, genre-agnostic electronic music producer, will embark on a rare tour this summer. Skrillex has returned to popular consciousness and gone on a run of massive shows with another legendary electronic musician, Four Tet, and emergent producer Fred Again.., who just released an album with Brian Eno. Eno himself once made looping, instrumental New Age music, before swearing off the genre long ago in favor of chillier, more artful forms, like minimalism, where other geniuses like Philip Glass and Terry Riley hang out. Eno’s latest solo release, 2022’s FOREVERANDEVERNOMORE, is an exploration of his feelings about the climate crisis and our “precarious future” on Earth. It isn’t a New Age album per se, but Eno takes a very New Age approach to inciting feelings that can lead to change.

The multi-genre electronic music composer Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Never, whose scores for the Safdie brothers’ films, particularly Uncut Gems, sound like sinister masterpieces from the New Age vault, has an interesting theory about the genre’s enchanting power. “New Age music is interesting because it failed,” he told GQ in 2020. “In the ’60s it was the counterculture, in the ’70s it was displaced, in the ’80s it re-emerges as easy listening. I’ve always been interested in that stuff, and I still am.” 

Perhaps the most high-profile New Age artist to reemerge in the last few years is Laraaji, the multi-instrumentalist mystic, laughter meditation practitioner, and early Brian Eno collaborator who has been releasing his own unique music since 1978. When Soul Jazz Records reissued Laraaji’s early, private press recording Celestial Vibration in 2010, the label went to great lengths to avoid using the term New Age, instead calling him “a worldwide ambient artist.” Earlier this year, when Numero Group released a four-LP compilation of Laraaji’s early work, Segue to Infinity, the label bravely called him what he truly is: “New age’s most fabled artist.” In 2021 the buzzy English label Wales Bonner released a capsule collection paying tribute to Laraaji, which, the brand said, was intended to channel the “gift of luminosity, bliss and healing” in his music.

The New Age multi-instrumentalist Laraaji at a Grace Wales Bonner show in London, 2019.Darren Gerrish / WireImage

New Age rehabilitation stories have run in The New YorkerThe New York TimesNPR, and The Guardian, so the narrative isn’t exactly new. But it certainly got a major signal boost during the pandemic, when being home-bound meant experimenting with new ways to soundtrack the quiet moments of our lives. Spotify’s Ambient Essentials playlist includes tracks from Aphex Twin and Brian Eno, along with Laraaji and acclaimed New Age artist Iasos. 

In 2020, the improvisational vocalist Julianna Barwick (also featured on that Spotify playlist) released three extended tracks from her most recent album on the Calm app for meditation and sleep, which was then said to be adding 100,000 new users per day. Just as the pandemic brought her typically busy and lucrative touring schedule to a halt, the app sparked a new opportunity: a sudden mass interest in mental health practices and appropriately soothing music to go with them. “There’s this kind of chuckle factor,” Barwick told me, “where it’s like, ‘do you lose coolness points for one of your songs getting millions of plays because it’s in a yoga playlist?’ Or doing an extended track for the Calm app because it’s the pandemic and you’re hustling to get some cash in any way because your tour got canceled for the second time? I think of it that way.” 

Barwick’s gloriously beautiful, looping electronic tracks feel like they’re in conversation with historic New Age music, and album titles like 2020’s Healing Is A Miracle make the connection seem even more acute. (The New York Times once called her “the new Enya.”) But while New Age seeks to induce a definable state in its audience, Barwick says her music is pure emotion and self expression: “For me, there’s no intentionality in my music making. I’m not thinking about where it’s going or how it’s going to affect who.” 

The celebrated ambient composer Tim Hecker put a sharper point on it in a recent interview with The New York Times. “What is the function of music?” he asked. “Is it to serve as a background for a WeWork, efficiency world, for someone who just wants to code? Or is it for driving down a foggy road at night, wanting that experience amplified?”

Davison spends just about every day in a small studio behind his home making music. He smokes a pipe while he works, and when he gave me a tour of the space, toward the end of our afternoon together, the smell of tobacco was intense. By the door hung his Wall of Fame, a floor-to-ceiling display for all of the CDs he’s ever released. “I really got into the discipline,” he said. “That’s what I do. I wake up, I eat breakfast, and I go write music. Or the other guy says, ‘I wake up, I eat breakfast, and I go milk the cows.’ It’s the same thing.” 

What New Age offers is, at the very least, a bit of peace, and the possibility of something—whether emotional or spiritual—that will make your life a little better. Peter Davison’s music may be far more sophisticated than your average wind chime in the breeze, but the experience it brings listeners is just as familiar. I asked Davison what it was that made a piece of music relaxing. What was the alchemy of melody and tempo and tone and whatever else that takes us there? 

Davison thought for a while. He removed a wooden board on his desk that covers a keyboard and started to search his computer for the right sound from a library that appeared to contain millions. 

“I believe that in music there are certain things that are simply relaxing,” he said. “For instance, here…”

Then he placed both hands on the keyboard, closed his eyes, and played a few seconds of music. His hands hardly moved, and somehow it was like he used his whole body to play. Maybe any competent pianist could have played what Davison just played, but I’m not sure how many could have played it like him. The sound filled the room, then lingered, and we sat in silence for a few moments. I felt my shoulders lower away from my ears just a bit.

“Relaxing like that,” he said, finally. “That just sounds beautiful.”

Noah Johnson is GQ’s global style director. 

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