No Change of Harp

The more Andreas Vollenweider swears he's doing something different, the more it sounds the same.

"I'm entirely dedicated to the flow," says Andreas Vollenweider. "I believe that everything constantly changes and flows, and nothing stays the same. That should be part of the musical experience for everybody. At least for me it is."
That's debatable. The flow on Kryptos, the latest album by the mellowest harpist in all of Switzerland, frequently dwindles to an ersatz trickle that's little different from the one Vollenweider's been following since the late Seventies. Despite weighty titles such as "Trigion," which is subdivided into three sections with equally pretentious handles ("East of Time," "Missa Obscura" and "South of Time"), the CD has the feel of staid, pastoral Muzak. (Imagine Kenny G tooting over merrily dancing harp notes and you'll be on the right track.) Instead of admitting that he's a purveyor of bland aural wallpaper made expressly for new-agers, though, Vollenweider goes so far as to claim that his compositions don't even belong in the new-age pigeonhole.

"Any category that's used would not really fit what I'm doing," he insists. "It's more of a cosmo-political movement best represented in the term 'world music,' which means something different everywhere you go. Maybe it will become the term that suits it best. But I prefer to keep things open, because what I'm doing is supposed to flow. It comes from the flow, and it's supposed to transmit the flow to the audience. I would love to see the music helping people to flow rather than be stiff and keep them somewhere, tied to something.

"The term 'calmness' is quite dangerous, because 'calm' sounds to me like a passive situation where you don't want to do anything," he continues. "That's a wonderful situation, and everybody should have these moments every day, even if it's just a minute or two where everything empties itself...But I don't think the music is necessarily the right environment to reach this goal. I want to go on an exciting journey with the listeners. I don't want to stand still or sit still or lay on the couch."

So is Vollenweider intent on challenging his admirers? Actually, no. "I'm not looking for an adventure where I have to be afraid or fear something," he says. "I want to be on a journey that opens doors for ideas, thoughts and emotions--that's what I want to do. It's a more active approach I'm having toward the music and the message in the music. It's more of a wake-up call than a sleeping pill."

Enough folks agree with this assessment to have made Vollenweider one of the most enduring stars in the new-age galaxy. Six years after his last U.S. tour, this son of a popular European organist remains a name brand, in part because he hasn't allowed electronics to overwhelm his compositions, as have far too many of his peers. "Whenever there is a chance, I always prefer an acoustic sound event," he says with a typically dramatic edge. "It's like a painter: If you don't have a chance to express something with watercolor, then you might take a pencil or a Sharpie to add an extra kick, even though that's not the medium you're mostly working with. You feel free in finding the right tool to express what is necessary. But if you can express it with watercolors, then you would, of course, choose a watercolor."

Vollenweider's palette includes an assortment of harps, keyboards, flutes, ocarinas, saxophones and exotic percussion devices--and he acknowledges that he's not an expert on all of them. "I play instruments sometimes, and I don't think I have to play them really well. I don't want to master the instrument. I only really need it because I have this sound in mind when I compose and I can't find anyone producing it, or it's too complicated to get somebody just for that one line. That's when I pick up an instrument I've not played before--just to try to create what I envision." At the same time, however, Vollenweider frequently invites performers from widely disparate backgrounds to join him in his Zurich studio. "I have to be extremely flexible," he notes, "because I'm aware of the world as a global thing, as a round ball. And I need--I depend--on the connection to the outside. It would be too narrow in this little narrow spot where I am, in between these rocks."

Despite contributions from other players, Kryptos's clarion call sounds oddly familiar, and with good reason: Several musical themes and transitions on it are quoted nearly verbatim from older Vollenweider recordings. But what those who dismiss him as a maker of vacuous twaddle might see as proof of artistic limitations is regarded by true believers to be a welcome return to past glories. And by refusing to desert his fan base, Vollenweider keeps the cycle of reciprocity going.

"It gives a certain economic independence," he says. "It allows you to go crazy and go wild with your ideas and invite people from other parts of the planet to just join for a session--and then use their music or not. But I've tried to see that economic growth as a signal of responsibility to develop the music and to keep it clean from influences such as motives that are purely economic motives--from the record company or other people, or even myself. Fortunately, it's not part of my nature to be motivated by the economic side. I don't really care so much, but I have the privilege of not having to care so much, so I don't have to be really successful to be happy. I can use the resources that have been given to me by the listenership to keep the music alive and develop it in the spirit of how it started and in the spirit of what I think it should be. And the core audience will always answer positively to that."

Indeed they will--because Kryptos contains virtually nothing that's genuinely new. Yet that doesn't seem to be of much concern to this harp-plucking sprite. After all, he's just going with the flow.

Andreas Vollenweider. 7 p.m. Wednesday, October 28, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $22.50/$25, 303-329-6353 or 1-800-517-

 
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