May , 1985
By David Huff
Swiss Musician Let’s his Fingers Do the Talking
“I think that people are fed up with the music they are hearing today. There is a growing amount of people, almost a movement of people who have decided to look out for a quiet, somewhat unconscious source of entertainment.”
"I hope my answers will be okay," echoed a soft, European sound filtered through the air as the hotel door swung open. “I haven’t had a chance to drink some coffee this morning to wake me up."
At 9 A.M. sharp, I was surprised to even get a smile, let alone an apology, from the renowned New Age superstar. Then again, the musician probably hadn’t stopped smiling since his magical sold-out performance the evening before at Fair Park. It marked the second sold-out appearance in six months for the Swiss musician. What’s curious about Vollenweider is the fact he doesn’t enthrall people with his voice, but his unique choice of instrument – a custom made electric harp. Yeah, I said an electric harp.
Yes," nodded Vollenweider, "the harp is a very misunderstood instrument. At the same time, it has a mystical quality that makes it very special to the people who perform on it, and eventually to those who sit back and just listen to the music.
"There is a strong aura attached to the harp which no one can concretely pinpoint. It touches you as soon as you touch it. I truly believe it is connected to a part of ourselves that we ourselves don't have total control over, namely, the heart and soul.
“This process, my product, you cannot understand it with words. Words are connected to the head, and what I do comes from the heart. When I perform, you can let your imagination go and dream whatever you want to dream.”
Andreas Vollenweider is in the midst of a nationwide tour promoting his last album, White Winds. The record has helped establish the Swiss performer as a leader of the burgeoning new age movement. Released last fall, the recording has topped three different Billboard music charts.
"The music I play is very simple," insisted Vollenweider. "The way to approach it is to allow your mind to open up to the true beauty and joy the harp can create within you. Our music says basically, 'Feel good! Enjoy it!' You can't think too hard about this or you will lose its meaning entirely.
"You may think that my compositions lose their message with people because there are no words to go along with the music. It doesn't. I have received thousands of letters, very personal letters, some of them an inch thick, from people who describe what happens to them when they listen to my records. The music the harp creates leaves room within a person to imagine themselves anyway they wish. It conjures up images from the subconscious and allows one room to explore. It's quite a departure from the finished product you hear on your radio in this country.
“I want to create a cause and effect situation with my music I want to capture moods and the integral parts of a person's personality where the listener is challenged to create, or translate, what they are hearing into their own words.”
Vollenweider first came to the attention of music lovers in this country through the efforts of singer Carly Simon. She had literally fallen in love with the sounds emanating from musician’s fingertips.
"We felt very close the first time we ever talked," confided Vollenweider about his introduction to Simon via a transatlantic phone call she made to his home in Switzerland. "It was as if we had known each other from before somehow, but not in the real sense. We felt very close. She wanted to help me."
Help Simon did. Through her numerous musical contacts, Vollenweider suddenly found himself in another world outside his native country. The media latched onto the Simon connection, and then the music itself. Last fall, a nationwide interview on the syndicated show business program, Entertainment Tonight, last fall introduced the performer and his electric harp to American audiences. Afterwards, the harpist went on a short tour of this country's top cities to get his foot in the door. He’s kicked it wide open on his first full-scale North America trek that started last month.
"I don't put people or music into any category,” he said while sipping his coffee. “When I tour, I don’t make distinctions between Americans, Germans, Italians, etc. To me, my audience is one big happy family. I think you will find today that there is a growing amount of people who are fed up with the type of music that they hear today. There is a growing amount of people, almost a movement I’d say, of people who have decided to seek out a more serene, somewhat unconscious source of entertainment.
"People don't want to digest all the music that is thrown at them today. I am very aware of what is going on. Every kind of new thing eventually turns into an old thing. If that process happens to my music, then that is the day that I will stop playing. That’s when I’ll feel as though I can no longer contribute.
“What happens to an idea is what happens to a person. Music is a child. At first it is a fresh experience. But, eventually you get old and fat and you die. So does music – anyone’s music! Everything has a natural end, and the most important thing for a musician to do is before you get fat, create a new life."
Vollenweider’s eyes very much mirror his soul. His harp has become his mouthpiece, the music a surreal voice.
"This process, the overall product, you cannot understand it with words," insisted Vollenweider. "Language is connected to the head. What I create comes from the heart. The head has to be excluded and integrated later when you somehow drift away and find yourself thinking about something you did a long time ago.
"A lot of the music you hear today is directed to the head, but with this type of music, the harp, you can dream whatever you want to dream and it will make you happy while you're doing it."
In the commercially oriented way music is presented today, the Swiss-born musician is indeed rare. There are no rules that bind him, no boundaries he cannot cross. The musician attracts a cross-section of ages from young children to grandmothers, including `special people like punks to rock and rollers.’
"What I do with the harp that makes it so special,” explained Vollenweider, “is to capture moods and feelings of people that words could not describe. I want to capture the integral parts of a person's personality and then in turn, let them translate that back into their own words. I work with the imagination which is an incredible power, let me tell you.
"I've been doing this for ten years now. There have been times when I stopped believing in reality because I have been so caught up into the imagination. Playing the harp is like being in a movie. You are the director and you can develop any type of picture that your mind will let you. The music that I play with the harp awakens certain feelings, thoughts, desires and dreams that have been suppressed or perhaps abandoned somewhere in a person's mind."
Though the approach and choice of instrument are certainly unique, the lifestyle certainly is not. No matter what form of music one plays, the cities, the hotel rooms, the food, it all plays a part in the reality of life on the road that all musicians have to deal with.
"This business, the music, it costs me a lot in terms of being removed from the real world," reflected the harpist after a few seconds of thought. “Normal life is a family, which I have in Switzerland.
"This is not a real life. As a musician, you take on a certain responsibility and you have to be aware of it. At the same time, you have to consciously look at the process, look where you go with the dream, where do you drift. I don't want to find myself one day tired without recognizing there is more to life."
For nearly an hour, Vollenweider has been explaining the facts of musical life about an instrument that is as misunderstood almost as the people who choose to master it.
"Music was made to cross all barriers whether it’s social, political or anything," commented the musician. "A spoken word isn't necessary to get one's meaning across. When music was made for the first time, it was used as a bridge to things you can't touch. Sound isn’t something you can sell, just like you can’t buy spiritual things in a physical world.
"People can feel music that causes a physical reaction where it almost becomes a part of you. The sound you hear from any instrument is a physical process. Even though you can't touch it, you’re still able to experience the emotional element it creates. That’s why it has been with us for hundreds, thousands of years because it was regarded as sacred. Today it has become entertainment. Personally, I think that we have lost the real meaning of music entirely. For hundreds of years we have celebrated things that we can touch, sell and buy. Now things have gotten so far out of balance, we have got to get back into balance."
Perhaps that balance can be found in the sounds that come off this remarkable musician’s fingertips. It certainly has sparked an emotional connection that more and more people are discovering as they discover this unique form of music. Just ask Carly Simon.