The lights go down in New York’s Beacon Theatre and blue-white smoke curls up from the stage. As the mist rolls over the first seats—it looks like something from an early ’70s Led Zeppelin concert—the urban hip audience smiles in expectation. A narrow spotlight splits the fog, suddenly illuminating a tiny white-clad figure who’s poised to drive the audience wild with—a harp?
Yep, a harp, the ancient instrument that, in the popular imagination, is the first choice of angels and librarians with a sense of adventure. Now with a touch of pop sensibility and some electronic tinkering, impish, mop-topped Andreas Vollenweider, 31, has made the harp hip. His recent 39-city American tour drew full houses, and his first two LPs, Behind the Gardens…and Caverna Magica, climbed simultaneously onto Billboard’s Classical, Jazz and Pop listings. His third album, White Winds, now sits comfortably near the top of the jazz heap.
His gentle free-floating music is hard to categorize and so, appropriately, is Vollenweider (pronounced FOLE-en-veye-der), a quiet-spoken Zurich-based gnome given to musing about Eastern religions and ecology. He rarely plays solos(he’s philosophically opposed to them); his band is composed of five childhood friends who play everything from keyboards to horns, chimes and bongos. Their goal, he says, is to create “aural paintings,” dreamy atmospheric tableaus that leave his most dedicated fans grinning beatifically. “I want the listener to fall—up!—so that there is no intellectual power bothering his creativity,” says Vollenweider, whose work has been called “New Age music” and “Yuppie jazz.” “I take care that there is nothing that you can really pick out, no sounds you can define.”
He succeeds, at the very least, in making his music hard to duplicate. Album liner notes mention recorded animal and water sounds, synthesizers programmed “in the fields near Berne,” choral chores handled by a “moonvoice” and “snakevoice” and orchestrations by a “natural sound adventurer.” But if the theme is the great outdoors, the technique comes from the great indoors. “Of course nature is my source, the source,” says Andreas. “I use natural sounds and process them many times. But I use electronics subtly. I’ve always modified my surroundings to get them to a point where they suited me.” That goes for the fingernails on his right hand (long glistening fakes that are replaced every three weeks) as well as his customized electro-acoustic harp, which has 47 handmade strings and a special damper he plays with his knee to increase percussive and rhythmic possibilities. At times the instrument sounds like a guitar. “I just wanted a sound that wasn’t so limited, which the harp is in terms of expression,” he says of the instrument he took up about seven years ago. Thanks to his adjustments, he says, “I can shape the sound. I can explode on this harp.”
Hardly of explosive temperament himself, Vollenweider spent a bucolic childhood in the countryside near Zurich, where his father, Hans, is a renowned cathedral organist. His mother introduced Andreas to the earthier side of things with long treks in the country and to what he calls a “hand-knit, instinctual anthropomorphic way of thinking.” His natural rebelliousness was evident when, as a child, he would refuse to attend school and would improvise on a vast array of stringed and keyboard instruments rather than attend to his formal music studies. Romantically precocious, the 17-year-old Andreas walked into a theater for an afternoon concert one day and walked out with a pretty, dark-haired 16-year-old girl named Beata, who moved in with him shortly thereafter. Married 14 years ago, Andreas and Beata, now a kindergarten teacher, still live near Zurich in a country house where Beata tends the large garden.
After writing the music for a European movie thriller that “wasn’t very scary,” Vollenweider busied himself for the next eight years scoring nature films and TV shows and performing with an ensemble that combined recited verse with mood music. His “Vollenweider and Friends” concert began at the 1981 Montreux Jazz Festival and was an immediate hit in Europe.
And there Vollenweider might have continued plucking contentedly, almost unknown in the U.S., had not American singer Carly Simon fallen under his spell. While shopping in New York one day in 1983, she heard his music over a store’s sound system. Impressed, she called Vollenweider at home to compliment him on his work. “It was a very positive shock,” says Andreas. “She has some spiritual things in her music that are the same as mine. But maybe she is too shy to develop them.” The two met in person last year, and Simon’s musical contacts, along with Vollenweider’s growing word-of-mouth reputation, resulted in his U.S. concert debut in Manhattan last October. “When I first heard Andreas’ music, I knew I had discovered something that was going to change me in a wonderful way,” Simon has said.
On tour almost constantly since then, he’s currently taking his first break in months. Typically his free-floating plans include nothing more concrete than “taking a few deep breaths and just being, writing, playing, painting.” And fretting, about matters both spiritual and physical. “There are two races going on,” he says. “One is that we are running away from ourselves and can’t any longer; the other is that in my garden back home in nice cozy Switzerland my trees are dying from pollution.” Now that he has achieved a degree of fame, he hopes to use his influence and his music to support ecological issues—harping gently, as it were, on the problems of the day.