Andreas Vollenweider's last album, "Behind the Gardens . . . ," sold 60,000 copies in America -- not bad for an ethereal collection of tunes played on electro-acoustic harp by a Swiss musician who may be a cult figure in Europe but is virtually unknown here. (His second American concert is scheduled for Thursday at the Wax Museum.)
The sales figures aren't bad at all, particularly when you consider that 10,000 of those copies were sold in a single location, New York's Rizzoli Bookstore, where each time it was played, people would rush to the counter to buy it. "It really has a magnetic and magical effect when we play it in the store," says the store's record manager.
Which is precisely what Vollenweider has in mind. Although his music has an entrancing, rhythmic vitality, it is more about dreamlike texture and cinemascopic imagination, an invitation to turn off your mind, relax and float downscreen. It is introspective, meditative and elusive, just this side of mystical, which Vollenweider, 30, attributes to his eclectic raising. His father is a well-known organist and "my mother had a self-made, anthropocentric way of educating me," he explains.
"One of the most important things in my life as a young boy was always to look behind things -- I was always curious. And today I am addicted to the mechanics of what's behind things. We can never learn about each other if we don't accept that there is something hidden that we can't see. We should know more and more about our hidden wishes and thoughts so that we can control them, so that we are not always helpless."
And music, Vollenweider believes, has traditionally proven itself a valuable tool. "In all cultures, in all religious and spiritual techniques, music has been an important medium to build a bridge between the sleepwalking unconsciousness of our everyday and the consciousness of knowing what one wants." Which may be why Vollenweider's music, particularly his song "Pace Verde," has become the theme of Europe's Greenpeace movement.
"War is one of the most perverted expressions of uncontrolled, hidden things inside ourselves," he says, "so if we want to exclude it from our lives, we have to know where it comes from inside ourselves. I would have problems being connected to any other movement, but Greenpeace is not crazy people wanting something impossible -- there is no special age or class.These people all have the same desire, and want something which is 100 percent their right -- they want a future."
Vollenweider's own future seems quite bright, considering that he only made his debut in 1981. In Europe, his two albums have sold more than a million copies and his rare concerts are instant sellouts. He's also helped redefine the rather staid image affixed to the harp. "I didn't choose it," Vollenweider tries to explain, "at least not consciously. I was always looking for a certain instrument. I started on piano, played wind instruments and string instruments, but it was always a little unsatisfying for me."
Until he let the harp play him, so to speak. "I had tried other instruments, and the Irish harp was just one of the others, but it immediately attracted me the way none of the others ever did. I sat down -- I remember exactly when it was -- and started playing rhythmically and started to sweat while I was playing, which had never happened really before. It began to move and dance with me. I knew it was my instrument."
Despite his father's background, Vollenweider never received formal training on any of the instruments he picked up. "It was a child's way of playing -- I could learn by playing. That's influenced the way I play it today, kind of a wild style." Or innocent, he admits.
He's also rethought the harp as a contemporary instrument. This has meant not only a mild electronic refinement (each of the 47 strings is miked, while a damper cuts the tonal decay and transforms the harp into a more percussive instrument), but an unorthodox approach to playing that is not simply plucking, but also tapping and caressing to provide a wide variety of sounds. Little wonder, then, that Vollenweider is being championed by the likes of pastoral pianist George Winston and singer Carly Simon. Simon presented his American debut in New York last week.
Before embarking on his solo career, Vollenweider spent six years in a Swiss music collective called Words and Poetry. He also wrote more than 50 scores for films and television, an experience connected to his current esthetic. "My interest is to use music to serve another medium, one of fantasy and imagination. So it's always kind of a film music that I'm doing.
"A beautiful sound, that's all I'm interested in."
Vollenweider will be joined at the Wax Museum by his quartet, including Pedro Haldemman on percussion (or "rhythmanatomic acousticolors," as the records say), drummer Walter Kaiser, reed player Budi Siebert and synthesizer player Kristoff Spiefel.