Constance Demby’s “Novus Magnificat” and the Limits of 80s New Age Music

Like a divine, unearthly presence descended from the heavens, bearing pastel-drenched album covers and titles like Angelic Music and The Sky of Mind, the New Age section had appeared out of nowhere at my local record store. It was the late 80s—that most shallow and greedy of ages—and some enlightened consciousness had seen humanity’s pain and said, “Thou shalt have solace in the form of music. I hope you like synthesized harp patches.”

I was 10 years old and predisposed to looking toward music as a form of escape, and this new section promised escape on an epic scale. Not only were its album covers filled with sweeping landscapes both natural and fantastic, but most of its titles, like Sacred Space Music and The Velocity of Love, not to mention the name of the genre’s flagship radio show, Music from the Hearts of Space, implied a spiritual experience. Listening would be a cinematic experience as well as an intimate, emotional one. The promise of both escape and spiritual ecstasy wafted throughout the genre like patchouli.

I eagerly began to explore and quickly learned that most New Age music doesn’t delivers on its promises. For every gem like Michael Stearns’s Planetary Unfolding or Ray Lynch’s Deep Breakfast, there were 20 albums made by session musicians drenching themselves in faux-spirituality and tinkling on digital synth presets. Finding the occasional stand-out was enough to keep me going, at least until the mid-90s when Yanni’s Live at the Acropolis went platinum. At that point, I gave up altogether. 

Constance Demby - Novus Magnificat: Through the Stargate – Valley  Entertainment

As a youth, gazing upon the purple and teal of the New Age section’s covers, one album stood out above all others as the ultimate expression of the genre’s promise: Constance Demby’s Novus Magnificat: Through the Stargate. Its cover alone, featuring a starfield in something like warpdrive reaching into a blazing light portal, conveys the epicness of an 80s science fiction film while its all-caps Latin title gives it an exalted spiritual touch. But it’s the subtitle that really packs a punch: this isn’t just space music, this is a portal. A portal through a fucking stargate

Novus Magnificat’s liner notes also up the stakes, referring to it as “a Magnificat and Exaltate for digital orchestra, choral voices, and special electronic images,” and having “its roots in the Western sacred music tradition, and its themes in the timeless archetypes of the transformative journey.”

As the genre has become rediscovered in recent years, with genuine masterpieces getting unearthed and reissued with astonishing regularity, I frequently dig through the genre looking for my own lost gems. In spite of being awed by Novus Magnificat’s cover and curious about its content as a kid, I never heard it. I don’t know why. My ability to explore the genre as a youth was reliant on my small allowance, the supply at my local CD store, and my dad’s occasional disappointed forays into the genre, so the opportunity to listen to it may simply have never presented itself. Yet I also wonder now if I avoided it. Perhaps I had known, even during the early, optimistic period of my explorations, that there was just no way in hell that Novus Magnificat would deliver.

But Demby’s album was apparently powerful to a lot of people. In fact the album was in large part responsible for the New Age section’s appearance at my local record store at all. Novus Magnificat was a huge hit in 1986—with 200,000 copies sold—and helped propel its label, Hearts of Space, into the limelight. Thanks to the success of it and Deep Breakfast, the following year a New Age category was added to the Grammy awards. For better or worse, Novus Magnificat was a seminal album, albeit for a genre that has since become the butt of jokes. Could it be one of the genre’s few gems? After all, Deep Breakfast was a massive seller as well. But then so was Live at the Acropolis

On a rainy Wednesday, in the very unspiritual environment of my office, I was reminded of Demby’s album while browsing Spotify. Even as an adult, the cover showing up on my iPhone brought back some latent hope—a flicker of optimism that Demby’s album might be the ecstatic spiritual escape I had wanted when I was younger.

It becomes clear from the first note of a sampled bell and somber electronic choir that Demby is going to try her damndest to establish an atmosphere of mysticism—and it works, at least initially. It’s a far cry from the disappointment of other New Age artists’ albums of the time like David Arkenstone’s The Valley in the Clouds, whose title and cover seem to offer some kind of implied grandeur but ends up, with its fake bongos and tinny electric pianos, sounding more like incidental music from a late 80s soap opera. Here, Demby’s cover and hypergrandiose title isn’t just marketing; she seems to mean it. There will be no beats or bass lines to ground you—she’s going to take some chances in her quest to, well, open a musical stargate. 

It’s at three minutes in that the trouble starts. After establishing the mood, it is largely broken with the entrance of a whirring, machine-like parody of a violin and cello. More minutes pass, and the limits of early-80s technology are on full display as clunky sampled bassoons, harps, string sections, and pianos start piling up in hollow, rapidly-looped, tinny swells. Demby created the album almost entirely on an Emulator II, one of the earliest affordable samplers, and though it had its charms, it’s incapable of playing a string sample that doesn’t sound like an auto-tuned food processor. 

So why did Demby opt for imitations? She doesn’t seem to be a technofile interested in showing off the latest toy; her previous album, Sacred Space Music, implied the same basic mood yet it was almost entirely recorded on a hammer duclimer—and to beautiful effect. The cost of hiring musicians could have been prohibitive, though it seems like some supernatural force could have solved that problem given that Demby claims on her website that Novus Magnificat was created “through” her. Yet while Novus Magnificat would have been improved with real instruments rather than imitations of them, the music itself, like on so many New Age albums, meanders utterly. “Since I worked out the music in Novus in small sections that would later be cut and pasted together,” she writes on her website, “I never had the opportunity to hear or have the complete picture of the journey we were to go on until the mix was done seven months later.” Her blind faith in the power of her in-the-moment riffing causes much of the album to be a hodge-podge of random, highly-romantic, reverb-drenched flourishes over a bed of sampled choirs—none of which blend together or evolve in any meaningful way. 

But then in Part II, something interesting happens: the album comes alive. Beginning with a complex analog synth arpeggio that rises and falls fluidly, it’s soon joined by other instruments in an epic and energetic Baroque-esque passage that’s hard not to get swept up in. This section isn’t a pale imitation of Bach; it’s musically complex, rich with counterpoint, and actually feels inspired. It’s also interesting to note that this passage leans heavily on purely synthesized sounds. At least from a technological standpoint, it seems like the most honest section. It plays to a synthesizer’s strengths: making electronically-generated tones sequenced to precision. Though accompanied by the typical cast of fake choirs, fake strings, and fake woodwinds, the passage uses the warm and lively synth line to provide the section’s foundation to great effect. Had she used a fake flute (or whatever) for the same line, the section would have been seriously compromised. Coming almost out of nowhere, the section is one of the more inspired in the New Age genre. The triumph is short lived, however, and six minutes later the album retreats back into aimless Ambien territory. 

Demby’s goal with Novus Magnificat was to create (in no particular order): a portal through a stargate, a transformative journey, “contemporary classical space music,” a dedication to the “Infinite One,”  and “music conjured by the future.” And further, she states that its creation was in some abstract way divinely inspired. In the harsh light of 2020 its technological limitations are glaring, but more than that, it falls into the trap so many New Age albums did: promising ecstasy on a grand scale and falling short. 

Yet there were a couple of minutes where the album penetrated the fog of my high expectations. It was the section where Demby seemed not to be randomly channeling some force through free, aimless improv; it was the section that seemed the most pre-conceived, the most reliant on complexity, and the most indebted to a more rigid musical genre that existed 300 years previously. The passage still didn’t join me with the infinite one or make me rapt with spiritual ecstasy, but it did capture my attention. It made me briefly pause, briefly escape. The stargate may not have opened, but at least it blinked.

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