Clara Warnaar Dissects A New Age for New Age

Left: A New Age for New Age Vol. 2 cover art, designed by Alex Tatusian
Right: Clara Warnaar

Clara Warnaar is ready to dust off the new age music genre. Since 2019, she’s been compiling submissions from numerous artists in an attempt to reexamine both the cultural history and problematic aspects of the genre, as well as the ways in which new age music can be made fresh. Curation is a new creative endeavor for her; she’s been seen in performance as a percussionist with new music ensembles like the International Contemporary Ensemble, the electronic/post-rock band Infinity Shred, and as an independent solo artist. But here, she forms collections of reinterpreted new age music that bring together works by numerous artists.

Her latest compilation — A New Age for New Age Vol. 2, the second in a series resembling the popular franchise Now That’s What I Call Music — was released on July 17 on Whatever’s Clever, and features works that run the gamut from quintessential interpretations to eccentric conglomerations of style and genre. I video chatted with Clara in advance of its release, where she told me a little bit more about the project: its beginnings in Omaha, her personal connections to new age music, and the broader implications of reexamining genre. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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VANESSA AGUE: Tell me about how you came up with A New Age for New Age.

CLARA WARNAAR: It was one of those ideas that was totally gradual. And then I was in Omaha a year ago working with Opera Omaha — with the International Contemporary Ensemble I’ve been in residency at Opera Omaha for the last three years. No offense, but I really didn’t like Omaha at first. You’re not from Omaha are you?

No! But I could understand that would be a really different pace.

Yea! It was, I don’t know, a little too bland for me. I’d ask locals what I should do, and they’re like, “I don’t know, you could go to the zoo.” They weren’t excited about their own city!

Oh my gosh yea when the zoo’s the best thing that’s tough!

I know, it was really tough! So anyways, the second year I was there I had a friend connect me with some local friends who were in a band there, and they made me like it, even kind of love it! They brought me to shows, and I discovered this cool bar. I remember being there, and that was the first time where I really mapped it out. I made a long list of pending artists that could be on it, and I was brainstorming with colleagues, just thinking really big, like “I’m gonna get Brian Eno to contribute!” I was just thinking of people, like “do you know this person? Do we have a mutual friend? Can I reach out to them?” I’ve never really curated anything and I’ve never put together a compilation, and I like the idea. It’s kind of like commissioning but more casual. [laughs] 

It’s a three-pronged thing where I wanna see what their background will deliver. Some people already had material, which was another really fun aspect of it — people being like, “I actually have a folder called new age stuff on my computer!” And then some people would be like, “cool I’m gonna write something fresh.” That was in April, and then the following December is when we put out the first volume.

So the second volume, is that left over people that didn’t make it onto the first? Or did you put out a whole new call?

It’s partially that, and then partially new artists. What was fun is that when I put out the first volume, I realized that as soon as I started promoting it, I was also promoting submissions. And that was exciting! I like the idea of putting something out and not it being just my project, but being open for anyone and everyone to submit to it. So as soon as Volume 1 was out, I had an overflow of submissions, which was cool. From people I don’t know also, which was cool. 

Oh that’s amazing!

Yea! So Volume 2 is a combination of artists I do know and artists I don’t know, some leftover submissions from Volume 1 and just some new entries.

My other question about the project is why new age music? What draws you to that genre?

I think there’s a superficial draw, and then there’s a deeper draw. I found that most contributing artists also feel the same way. For me, the superficial draw is that I actually feel like I’ve always been interested in new age music and new age culture. But, I’ve always been suspicious of it. I would be attracted to things on the surface. I would be attracted to aspects of it, and the introspective qualities of it, the meditative, sometimes the surreal, the connection to nature. Those are all things that were immediately attractive. 

But then the deeper thing is that every time I was attracted to one of those things, I feel like I’d often have to hit up against this contradictory wall of like, “oh I think that’s really cool but also really corny,” or “I think that’s really cool but also the guy in the cover of this Indian meditation is this old white guy with a big beard, and does he even know what he’s doing? Or is it just really derivative?” It’s filled with all these contradictions, and I felt like it hasn’t been examined fresh much. I read a couple of articles about people who were into that reexamining of it, but it just hasn’t really had a chance to to have that. So that was where that came from.

Do you feel like the composers on the compilation are writing directly to either confront some of those problematic aspects of new age, or to reexamine new age in today’s context and culture?

Yea! It’s funny because I try not to hit the artist over the head with my feelings about it, and just ask,  “what does new age music mean to you?” so I can’t always speak for whether they’re examining the same contradictions. I think most of them do, at least those who are my friends do. We have these conversations. For some of them, I honestly think it’s just this childish, pure interest, like, “I’ve always thought this was corny and I’m just so excited to dive in and do it, I just want my chance to try out this corny genre.” And some of them do collage-y type stuff, where they take one aspect of it, like nature sounds, and they do nature sounds. I think that they all have their own approach, and it makes for an interesting variety. 

I’m assuming then that you didn’t set instrumentation or anything when you reached out to these composers?

No instrumentation, actually, the only guidelines that I give are that anything goes! Please, please do anything you want. I usually give a few examples to be silly, I’ll be like, “you can do a metal cover of an Enya song.” [laughs] I always use that because I just wanna demonstrate how willing I am to go outside of boundaries. Some of the contributing artists are composers, some of the contributing artists are coming from an electronic music background. There’s a folk song on the next volume that’s really nice. It’s Richard Aufrichtig, and it’s a project of his called “Bub,” a duo. For him, it’s centered on the idea of a nature walk, so the whole track is a field recording of him going on a walk and being on the water, but then on top of it is this lo-fi folk tune that’s like really gentle and sweet. You would never think it’s new age music, but I like that that’s where his brain went.

Yea, because it’s taking those new age-y elements and blending them into a different genre.

Yea exactly!

So you’re allowing people a lot of creative freedom!

Absolutely, I think that the more they stretch the cooler it will be. I realize that maybe there could be a little bit of a disconnect with listeners, where they’re just like, “what am I listening to?” if every song switches genres, but that’s the whole point. It’s an examination of genre, so I want them to stretch. I think one of the things that’s maybe weird for some artists is that they might feel conflicted between wanting to do something totally wild and stretch it to the borders of their imagination, or wanting to do something new age-y. But both are valid.

In the creation of the pieces themselves, do the artists record them, are you recording them? How are you putting it all together?

It’s 100 percent submission-based, so I basically just reach out for interest and ask people who already reached out for interest. I have a pool of people, and I give them the deadline for submissions and then that’s when the fun starts for me. For a few weeks I get all these Google Drive folders of people’s weird new age tracks and every time I’m always blown away. Then I make the selections, and I tell everyone else who doesn’t make it onto the compilation that I’m putting them back in a pool that I will draw from in future volumes. The selection process is not so much choosing the ones I like most, I select it to make a nice album flow. I select about 10 songs that have a good flow. I’ll master it and bring it all together and that’s the process. 

You have such a vast wealth of experience performing. How is it to switch into this curatorial role for one of your creative projects? Do you enjoy it?

It’s so good! I really love it. I think I’ve always wanted to, I was just looking for the right opportunity and this one somehow became the one, as silly as it is. I really love it. It’s both more and less work than my performing work, that’s the surprising thing. It’s still a lot of work, and I’m always wondering how I’m putting so much of my time into this thing that is not profitable yet. But at the same time, it’s just so fun and it feels like such an interesting thing. Even though my performance work can be super collaborative, I feel like there’s something about this sort of process that’s a different kind of collaboration. It’s just so rewarding to make this community where whatever the artists offer to it, we’re all connected to this interesting thing. It’s nice to see it run itself, even though I do have to work. 

I’ve had a little bit of a struggle recently, especially with social media. When you’re an independent artist you have to put so much into promotion and convincing other people to be interested in what you’re doing, and that in itself can be pretty taxing. So it’s nice to feel like people are already interested in the thing, to have other people wanting to be part of the project. That gives me a lot of fuel to put back into the unpaid hours. [laughs]

Sometimes the passion projects, though, are some of the most inspiring things you have going on.

It’s true! Totally is, this is definitely one. It’s a hobby even though it’s still really fun.

Clara Warnaar in performance. Photo by Joey Tobin

You’ve talked a lot about creative freedom and the excitement about getting a lot of people involved in this project, but if you had to pick your one overarching goal for it, what would it be?

I think it’s basically to give people an enjoyable listening experience while confronting a contradiction. I’m a big fan of trying to sit with contradictions. It’s really hard for me, actually, it’s something that I work on a lot, but somehow creatively it’s a piece of cake and it’s actually usually where my inspiration comes from. Again, superficially, I think they’re fun albums and it’s a fun process to listen to and to write the music. But I think on a deeper level, there’s a lot of room for observation and reexamination. 

For future goals, there’s room for critique. I think that there’s some problematic aspects of what I’m doing, and I’m willing to go there. We’re reexamining a genre that is rife with cultural appropriation, but at the same time, we’re still here, just younger than the OG new age artists, writing more new age music. It’s like, are you addressing the issues? Because, as I said, I’m not forcing artists to confront the same thing that I’m confronting. I think there’s room for discussion there, and I think that being willing to go there is just gonna make it more fruitful.

Yea, that’s really important. Inviting conversations about cultural appropriation is so important for all of what we do in the broader new music, ambient sphere, because a lot of the music does come on the backs of early globalization when people didn’t realize that, say, using a didgeridoo is culturally appropriative. That sort of thing. So I think it’s really exciting that you are inviting that critique.

Yea! And because we had to postpone this release, I’ve had more time to think about it. I’ve been thinking about hosting, and I don’t know how effective it would be, but hosting a panel discussion about this issue along with the release. People are doing that a lot right now. It’s one of the weird, positive side effects of being in Zoom world. Anyone and everyone can just start a panel discussion about whatever, and people will sit in and watch and it’s kind of interesting. So we’ll see, I just have to do a little bit more brainstorming about how to source the right people to talk about it and how to invite those conversations. But it seems like a cool direction to go in and since it’s on my mind that means it’s something that should be addressed.*

Totally. And you’re right though that it’s also perfect for Zoom land!

I know, isn’t it?

It really is! When this all first started I had so much fun attending the Zoom panels and streams. I’ve fallen off, but I have this feeling that the longer that we’re in limbo, I’m gonna come back to it. I’m gonna need it again.

Yea! I came back to it this week, I kind of fell off. I think at first it felt like a survival instinct, it was like, “we must connect or we’ll die,” like everyone was panic Zooming. I think we’re over that and now. I think it’s a little bit more of joy Zooming, where someone’s like, “I’m hosting this conversation and anyone can sit in.” You don’t have to take the subway to a venue and you don’t have to ask questions, you can literally just watch and learn and listen. There’s something actually pretty easy and cool about that. I’ve been seeing a lot of very serious discussions obviously, and this one, it’s not not serious, but I also think it would be fun to brainstorm with other artists about what new age music means to you, what the problems are with it, and what we can do moving forward.

I think that’s really great! I know there’s always conversation about accessibility with Zoom, whether or not it is or isn’t accessible, but having things online does feel really nice as open source material for people to find, and those conversations to be part of your project in general, like a living document.

Yea totally, I would love to hear more voices! I mean, that’s parallel to the music contributions. I wanna hear more diverse voices giving their takes on new age music, and I also wanna hear people’s voices conversationally about the project. So, that’ll be the next step.

*Note: This interview occurred prior to the album’s release on July 17, which was accompanied by a Facebook Live performance. You can watch it here.

A New Age for New Age Vol. 2 is out now on Whatever’s Clever. If you’d like to be part of a future volume, Warnaar is always interested in hearing new submissions.

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