Masterpieces often require explanation, in-depth knowledge and patience for us to really “get it.” Few are like 8-String Religion (1993) by composer/cellist David Darling and sound engineer/producer Mickey Houlihan. Here, the listener only has to press play and its undeniable brilliance will manifest itself. To me, 8-String Religion is an album that wakes me up, that inspires me throughout the day and gently prepares me for the night. This music is so welcoming and soothing, making it a good choice for anyone, even those unfamiliar with New Age or meditation music.
David Darling (1941-2021) was a Grammy award–winning cellist, composer, teacher, and collaborator. Darling’s recordings and achievements are many from his time with the Paul Winter Consort in 1970’s and to his later recordings for the ECM, Hearts of Space, Wind Over The Earth and Curve Blue labels. Darling’s Prayer for Compassion, was the winner of the 2010 Grammy for Best New Age Album. See his complete discography here.
In April 2023, Ocean Dreaming Ocean was released. Hans Christian and David Darling had never met in person, but as master cellists and composers, they have a lot in common. When Hans Christian was offered to work on some of David’s unfinished pieces, he said yes immediately. In my review, I wrote that: “Ocean Dreaming Ocean is an album for deep reflection. It is a tranquil and blue soundscape that absorbs the listener. Each piece has a natural flow, going from perfectly still to wavy and turbulent. Ocean Dreaming Ocean is, in short, a dream come true.”
Michael Houlihan aka Mickey is a producer and sound engineer. He worked on albums by The Paul Winter Consort, Michael Jones, Peter Kater, Ron Miles and more. He produced David’s Grammy winning album Prayer for Compassion. Mickey works as a teacher at Naropa University and is the founder of the record label Wind Over The Earth, now Curve Blue.
8-String Religion was recorded over more than 10 years. “I invited David to Colorado where I live to begin what we were calling Water Music in June of 1982,” says Michael Houlihan. “The idea was for him to improvise in the studio while listening to the many different sounds of water that I had recorded. I had arranged them in a bit of a cycle with snow melt from the high mountains becoming trickles, streams and rivers on the way to oceans. Emotionally, I was playing with life cycle as well from birth, taking form and growing individually before rejoining the whole and then incarnating again. That is a lot of words and music doesn’t follow the mind in such ways but we were using the sounds and metaphors of water to give us entry into a deeper expression of the human condition and possibilities of transcendence.”
“In November of 1984, David heard from astronaut Joseph Allen that they were playing our music on the space Shuttle as it was orbiting the earth. Joe was David’s brother in-law and David had given him a cassette of our Water Music, work in progress. David was elated and while still in that experience, received a call from Germany that his dear friend and collaborator, Colin Wolcott had died in a crash of the tour bus he was on.”
“We persisted for some 11 years while always thinking we were almost finished,” continues Mickey. “During the time there were many real life changes among them was David going through a divorce and my wife and I welcoming a child. It seemed that each time we got together to record we found there was more or different music wanting to be included. We did other albums together during that time such as Amber with Michael Jones and The Tao of Cello. I continued working with Paul Winter and Jean Houston among others but as time and money allowed we continued on our own musical journey.”
8-String Religion was released on 10 August, 1993.
As the morning arrives and the sun rises, Soft Light is there to help us along. It is in every way a genuine masterpiece, a homage to life and art. First the piano gently wakes us up, then the cello fills in and quickly becomes the center of attention. It is that kind of melodies David did so well. It is close, intimate and captivating with a delightful hint of improvisation. Soft Light is five and a half minutes long, but where that time goes while listening, I do not know. A word of warning, though: Soft Light, and 8-String Religion in general, is not something that you should listen to when you are in a hurry. You will miss your appointment for sure.
At this stage, the sun is blocked by Clouds. It is a terrific contrast to Soft Light. The dark colors in the beginning are quickly replaced by a gentle yet playful atmosphere. David’s vocalization and rhythmic cello plucking guide us along. Soaring through the skies feels magical.
The voyage continues on Sweet River. It features Houlihan’s recordings of songbirds and water from a wilderness canyon. Sounds of nature often come through as generic, but that is not really true. The quality and skill involved varies a lot. The intro to Sweet River is one of my all-time favorites. It is so tender and mild. When the piano and cello play, it is an imitation of the water and songbirds. The melody flows along gently, assisted by electric guitar, light percussion and David’s reassuring voice. If I had to choose one track to show what this album is all about, I would choose Sweet River:
8-String Religion is a very well-balanced release. Minor Blue is a thoughtful and deeply poetic piece. It is impossible not to be moved by the passionate and dynamic melody. The recording too is not just great; it is amazing! Notice the reverb, especially on the gentler segments. After such an incredible display of artistry and talent, the easy-going Only One Wish sounds heavenly.
On the rhythmic title track, David shows incredible technique and composing skills. It is all about finding that ultimate expression of the cello and sharing it with the world. In other words; his lifelong quest. The recording of the waves and birds in the fade-out – which is also the fade-in for the next track – is magnificent!
Sojourn takes the album in a new direction. The keyboard sounds phenomenal. It is a perfect backdrop to David’s playful musical explorations. I like how he cut in here and there, making the soundscape much more interesting. I’m also impressed by the mixing and the wonderful sounds of the ocean. Remember is the name of the reassuring album closer. David’s vocalization has the effect of a lullaby and the toned-down cello feels meditative. Remember summarizes the essence of 8-String Religion and urges us not to forget about everything we have learned while listening. At this stage, I always look for the reply button.
In conclusion: “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece,” John Ruskin said. Such was, in my opinion, the case with the works of David Darling. He loved his craft and had more skill than most. 8-String Religion is not Darling’s most famous release, but it has always been a fan-favorite. It gets intimate from the very first listen. It radiates life. Another factor is how it seems to welcome the listener like an old friend, both in the morning, during the day and in the evening. The reply value is incredible. It is a jewel.
Using sounds of nature tastefully can be challenging, but on 8-String Religion is done to perfection. It has been an inspiration to a generation of New Age music artists. Notice how it is an integrated part of the music, instead of being overpowering. Mickey Houlihan’s nature recordings sound just as fresh today as they in 1993.
Listening to 8-String Religion in 2023, it is tempting to ask why this magnificent album hasn’t had an even bigger impact on music and society. Of course, the album did well in terms of sales and David released many other prominent releases in this period. He released albums with artists such as Peter Kater, Ketil Bjørnstad and Terje Rypdal. But more importantly, 8-String Religion has a soft-spoken quality. This album doesn’t require your undivided attention, it blends in and comforts the listener. In other words; It is very easy to miss. But do yourself a favor and give it the attention it deserves.
8-String Religion is an album worth worshipping.
For more information and music samples, visit daviddarling.com.