It’s an image straight out of 19th-Century Romanticism. Yanni, gorgeously dressed in pristine white, dark hair swirling, at the center of a formally clad symphony orchestra. Behind the orchestra, soft-toned lights capture rough stone walls, and above everything, bathed in what seems to be the metaphoric light of millennia, is the classic image of the Parthenon.
This is New Age music?
What happened to the psycho-acoustic transformations, the crystal harmonies and spatial planetary rhythms?
Where are the electronic symphonies, the channeled chanting and the microtonal melodies?
New Age is in a New Phase.
Drawn into this New Phase are musical refugees from the worlds of jazz, folk, rock and classical, a far-reaching collection of techno-oriented electronic synthesists and ethnic-music fusionists, as well as a mostly entrepreneurial cadre devoted to music as healing art. This musical conglomeration seems a far cry from what began in the early ‘80s as a pleasant form of ambient mood music, mostly locatable in bookstores and boutiques dedicated to astrology, divination, philosophy, incense and crystals.
Yanni’s virtuosic performance at the Parthenon in Athens with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, taped last September for release as a video and laserdisc (the concert airs on PBS next month), is one of the most visible aspects of an increasingly catch-all musical category.
“When I started rehearsing with the orchestra,” the keyboardist recalls, “the musicians asked to see the music. I showed it to them and they said, ‘That’s not New Age.’ And I said, ‘I know. What would you call it?’ And one woman said, ‘Well, how about progressive classical?’ And I said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to sell anything with that name.’ ”
Which defines the New Age dilemma in a nutshell. No one seems delighted with the term, yet everyone acknowledges its importance as a kind of umbrella category.
“I think I’ve finally figured out that the main reason people don’t like the term New Age is because it’s the only musical category that isn’t a musical term,” adds David Lanz, a pianist whose persistent appearances at the top of the New Age charts attest to the salability of the romantic qualities in his music. “Jazz and rock and classical are pretty specifically musical. But when people say New Age , it brings up other images and philosophies that suggest other things to them. Like my mom, for one. She hates the term. ‘You’re not a New Age musician, are you, David?’ she says.”
Curiously, New Age often is defined by what it isn’t, rather than by what it is. It isn’t jazz, it isn’t folk, it isn’t rock, it isn’t classical. Yet elements and influences from all these more precisely defined arenas occasionally sneak into the music.
Until the arrival of New Age-associated vocalists such as Enya, Sheila Chandra and Clannad, the only consistent similarity between the rapidly emerging stylistic variations was that all were instrumental.
Tony Scott’s “Music for Zen Meditation,” released in 1964, is generally viewed as the New Age music progenitor, and much of the music that followed--led by breakthrough recordings on the Windham Hill label--followed similarly meditative patterns. But the addition of percussion and synthesized sounds--especially in the music of Vangelis, Andreas Vollenweider, Mannheim Steamroller and Tangerine Dream--began a continuing pattern of eclectic stylistic expansion, confusing some to the extent that the light-jazz and fusion formats of radio stations such as KTWV-FM, the Wave, are often mistakenly identified as New Age.
Even more bothersome to many current listeners are the lifestyle connotations that surround New Age music--the images of crystals, the fragrance of incense, the implications of transformational healing.
“In some of the venues I play in,” says musician-broadcaster John Tesh, “especially those that are distant from California, people seem to think that we’re going to go onstage and play instrumental music and start channeling or something.”
Like many of the top-level performers who have managed to transcend the category, Yanni would like to avoid the problem entirely.
“Look, the truth is that I don’t lose sleep over it,” he says. “Creative people--painters, writers, all artists--prefer to avoid categories. No one likes being pigeonholed, because that implies that your next project will be in the same vein. And I want the freedom to move forward or backward or laterally or any direction I choose.
“I understand the existence of labels in every aspect of life, because it helps us find things. I happen to have been placed in this New Age category, but I think almost anyone who takes my album home couldn’t care less if it’s called New Age or not.”
Still, there is no denying the value of the category to listeners who know precisely where to go in a record store to find product by Yanni, Tesh, Enya, Lanz, et al. According to Dieter Wilkinson, national buyer for the Musicland Group of more than 1,000 retail outlets, New Age music--having expanded well beyond the boutique market--is selling more than ever.
“It’s not comparable to jazz or classical, which average between 7% and 8% each of overall record sales, in terms of market share,” he explains, “but it is a significant category, and one which is now being driven especially well by the live performances of artists like Yanni, Kitaro, Tesh and Enya.”
Unlike Tesh, Yanni is concerned that the label New Age may mislead listeners unfamiliar with his music.
“ New Age implies a more subdued, more relaxed music than what I do,” he says. “My music can be very rhythmic, very energetic, even very ethnic. So in that sense, the label could be a detriment. But I think I’m finally getting past it. And I hope that the Parthenon video--and the album, which will be released on Tuesday--will give me some exposure over and above the New Age labeling.”
Yanni, 39, has been a solid performer in the genre since the mid-'80s; his nine albums have sold 5.3 million copies in all. When “Live at the Acropolis” is released, Private Music, Yanni’s record label, expects that it will hit gold status immediately. Based on the fact that his “Reflections of Passion” hit 1.8 million and “Dare to Dream” is past 800,000 in sales, this seems to be a realistic appraisal.
His prominence increased dramatically several years ago when he made talk-show appearances with actress Linda Evans to discuss their continuing romance.
The musician--born Yanni Chryssomallis in Kalamata, in the southern part of Greece--came to this country at the age of 18 to study psychology at the University of Minnesota. After earning a bachelor’s degree, however, he became a member, co-writer and producer of the popular rock band Chameleon, before beginning his solo recording career in 1984 with the album “Optimystique.”
“I don’t think anyone was even using the term New Age at that time,” he recalls. “But the one thing that appears to have changed since the term came into use is the fact that the industry seems to be more open to instrumental music. For a long time, there was a connotation that instrumental music would not sell at all. But a few of us have managed to be successful enough to get a second look, even though, for the most part,we’re viewed as a hard sell. But it doesn’t make any difference to me, because instrumental music is what I do, and it’s what I will continue to do.”
Tesh’s high visibility as a host of “Entertainment Tonight” has paralleled his prominence as a composer of music for sporting events, with Emmy Awards for his themes for the Pan American Games in 1983, the Tour de France bicycle race in 1987 and the World Track and Field Championships in 1991. Like Yanni, Tesh believes in the power of instrumental music but is quick to note its potential hazards.
“Look, there are plenty of charlatans around in the instrumental venue,” he says, “people who put out an album of synthesizer music that winds up being something that you might want to be massaged to.”
When the music is “happening,” and especially during live performances, Tesh sees a fascinating impact.
“The thing that I’ve discovered,” he says, “is that when you get a fan--and they can be anybody between the ages of 18 and 65--they’re usually your fan for life. It’s not like that with pop music. Bam! One hit, the band is gone, and it’s over. The fans we end up getting are much more loyal.”
One of the important differences, Tesh believes, relates to the primary difference between vocal and instrumental music.
“An instrumental song has to have the same musical elements that a vocal has to have to be successful,” he says. “But once you hear a vocal song--something about one lover missing another lover--that’s what the song is about, regardless of what the melody is. But an instrumental piece of music, with an attractive melody, that’s put together well, can mean all sorts of different things to different people, at different times. That’s why when my wife, Connie (Sellecca, the actress), listens to my tune ‘Winter Song,’ she gets depressed; and when my mother hears it, she wants to go out running.”
Lanz, who started out in the business with a Steely Dan-type ensemble before turning to moody piano works, takes a somewhat different tack. Stressing the importance of “pop sensibilities,” he tries to bring structure and content to his music in an effort to avoid the “mindless noodling” of some New Age music.
“My main goal as an artist is to communicate, and to me, communication means putting yourself out there,” Lanz says. “So the intellectually detached, therapeutic-style music is not really what I do. I’m much more inclined to take the music out to the audience, and see what kind of reactions I can get. The important thing to me is just kind of hearing my inner self saying, ‘Hey, try this; it feels good.’ ”
Performers like Yanni, Kitaro (who did the music score for Oliver Stone’s recent film “Heaven and Earth”), Lanz and Tesh have managed to stretch the New Age envelope in ways that have been appropriate to their own distinctive styles. Lesser-known artists continue to range across the wide spectrum of styles embraced by the category.
“Authentic New Age music,” says Steven Halpern, who was recording transformationally oriented works long before New Age became a commercial phenomenon, “must continue to do what it’s supposed to do: heal and reach out on an internal level.”
Composer Michael Hoppe’s highly praised recording “The Yearning,” featuring flutist Tim Wheater, stresses a more external perspective. “When I worked with Vangelis,” says former record producer Hoppe, “his sales were always relatively healthy. But until his music was successfully visualized by (the soundtrack for the film) ‘Chariots of Fire,’ he didn’t really have a large audience.”
Hoppe--who will perform “The Yearning” with Wheater on Monday night at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills--brought a visualization to his own music by basing the work on pictures of Hollywood celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Mary Pickford and Marion Davies, taken by his noted photographer grandfather, E. O. Hoppe. “I decided,” he says, “that if I couldn’t get my music into a film, I could at least have my grandfather’s photographs as a visualization.” Hoppe has included some of these photos in the album liner notes.
Lloyd Barde, president of Backroads Music, a primary source for New Age recordings, is happy to stretch the rubric even further, to include a far-ranging collection of musical styles.
“I’m not opposed to the term New Age ,” he says. “I think it’s the best term that’s available to umbrella all this music. But for me, it has to include mouth music, techno-tribal, ethnic fusion, all kinds of hybrids and so forth, as well as more familiar New Age regulars such as Steve Roach, Jonn Serrie, Ray Lynch and dozens of others.”
Barde provides an example of an emerging new trend that reaches well beyond traditional New Age definitions.
“We’re getting a lot of response lately on something called ‘ambient house music,’ ” he says. “It’s music that has grown out of the techno-rave parties, at which there is a chill-out room to get away from the incessant pounding of the rave music. In the chill-out rooms, they play space music with a dance beat. It kind of grew out of Brian Eno, but there are a lot of groups from England with names like Higher Intelligence Agency, Young American Primitive, etc. It’s dance music with nature sounds and a lot of space-music elements.
“There are very few domestic releases so far, although Caroline Records has two compilations called ‘Excursions in Ambiance,’ with a bunch of groups you haven’t heard of yet, but you might start to hear soon. Enigma and Deep Forest are some of the groups that have started to have some chart success and some recognition with this music.”
Barde has no problem including ambient house music in his Northern California-based Heartbeats Music catalogue, which provides more than 45,000 potential customers with recordings ranging from (in addition to the bigger names) Michael Stearns and Coyote Oldman to Mars Lasar and Eliza Gilkyson.
“It may not be Steven Halpern,” he says with a laugh, “but to me, it’s all part of New Age music. I mean, take a look at jazz. There’s a word that has no controversy; it’s completely accepted. But check out the jazz bin and tell me how Ornette Coleman and Joe Sample, or Michael Franks, have anything to do with each other. But it’s all jazz.”
Steven Hill, another veteran New Age producer and radio personality, has a slightly different view: “I think that every distinctively different genre forces you to listen in a different way. You don’t listen to jazz the same way you listen to space music. Jazz asks for a response based on an appreciation and awareness of the genre’s history. Obviously space music and New Age music were originally intended to create an ambience that can range from totally insipid to very, very profound.”
Hill’s Hearts of Space radio service, heard on local public radio stations KUSC in Los Angeles, KCPB in Thousand Oaks and KFAC in Santa Barbara on Sunday nights at 11, has long been one of the primary media outlets for the changing sounds of New Age music.
“I think the way you can sum it up right now,” he says, “is that New Age is being freely cross-pollinated by everybody. It may be that a neutral term like contemporary instrumental --rather than New Age --is about all you can hope for as a more descriptive label. But, even so, it too will eventually become a dumping-ground category.”
The bottom line, according to Hill, is that New Age music may have become so diversified, so all-inclusive and so eclectic, that whatever cachet it originally possessed has been dissipated by the effort to identify everything that isn’t jazz, rock or classical within the category. But there is one saving grace.
“As a style or a fad, New Age may well be over,” Hill says. “As a genre, in fact, it may actually be cutting back to its core audience. What it has done in the last decade, however, is to open the doors for a huge range of musical styles--most of it recorded by small labels. And the good news is that independent music of all kinds--labels, the whole melange of individual styles--has never been better.”
In his own way, Yanni agrees.
“Whatever label you want to attach to what I do, the great value of the New Age identification is that it has made it possible for me to never lose my freedom with my music,” he says. “Everything I’ve ever written has been totally without regard to sales value. And I was fortunate in the sense that when I started out, my record company allowed me to be that way.
“Fortunately, at this point, it’s too late for somebody to manipulate me to do things any differently. And I guard that freedom carefully, because creativity and making music are the most important parts of my life.”