NEW YORK -- These days many musicians dread the "new age" label, conjuring, as it does, visions of fern bars, hot tubs and Perrier. The music, often built on cyclical melodic patterns and supple, hypnotic rhythms, tends to be ambient, serene, meditative, pastoral, mellow -- or, if you don't like it, boring, annoying and cloying. And a lot of people don't like it, including many musicians whose work is unceremoniously lumped into the category. But Kitaro, the Japanese synthesist and composer who is regarded as a founding figure in the movement, suggests that the term is less limiting than misused.
"The whole question is really worth thinking about and should be more carefully considered," says Kitaro, whomakes his Washington debut tonight at the Warner Theatre as part of his first North American tour. "Just what the hell is new age? What does it mean? Because a certain kind of person or a certain age group or certain demographic category listens to that kind of music, is that what makes it new age music? Is it that you drive a certain kind of car or live a certain life style?
"I hope that new age music is something that helps us better understand the world we all live in, and somehow raises our awareness of what's going on around us," Kitaro adds, speaking through an interpreter. "In very broad terms, maybe that should be the definition. But if that's the definition, it can be any kind of music -- rock 'n' roll can be new age music. It seems to be a preoccupation more with the music industry to identify a certain kind of music with a certain kind of demographic. It's a problem because it can't be helped -- I'm going to be locked into this category. I can neither condemn it, resist it nor encourage it."
To some people, of course, Kitaro embodies new age. He's thin as a bamboo shoot, with waist-length black hair and a stylish goatee, and his mystical demeanor is reinforced by such things as albums titled "Astral Voyage" and "The Light of the Spirit," and his 200-year-old thatch-roof farmhouse at the base of the Japanese Alps. Of course, the house does have a 24-track recording studio and room for Kitaro's 40 synthesizers. Plus a pool table.
Kitaro, 33, even admits to an old passion for American rhythm and blues and a newer one for American football (he's upset about the current NFL strike). On his farm, where he raises horses, Kitaro also punts a lot -- hardly fitting for the serene image of a spiritual and musical guru, which is how he's perceived in some circles. Kitaro's a lot less willing to assume that mantle than the new age title.
"Even in Japan this image hounds me," he sighs. "People seek me out hoping to learn spiritual values. To try to live up to that image is impossible for me to do personally. That's not what I am. I think I'm a normal kind of person. I face things in life with an innocence, a straightforwardness, a centeredness, and I think that makes a difference about what kind of person I am.
"If people perceive the music as being spiritual, that's up to them. If I am somehow elevated to this position of guru and that affects my music, then the music wasn't real to start with."
In Japan, Kitaro's music is called "new science" -- "new age," he says, laughing, is the term used for music that young people dance to. He himself didn't play music until his senior year in high school, starting out as an electric guitarist playing rock 'n' roll. His family of farmers lived in what he once described as "bucolic isolation," and the two seemingly disparate elements -- technology and nature -- are the anchors of his music now.
In 1970, Masanori Takahashi -- Kitaro is a schoolboy nickname meaning "man of love and joy" -- switched from guitar to keyboards, and two years later went to Germany to study with synthesist Klaus Schulze, founder of the experimental group Tangerine Dream. Through Schulze, Kitaro became aware of that instrument's potential to create atmospheric, impressionistic "sound pictures," and he has pursued that perception ever since, through 18 albums that have sold tens of millions of copies around the world.
Like many musicians, Kitaro is not all that eager to analyze his music, which he feels is received rather than composed. He's more willing to talk about its effects, particularly in a world that has been so drastically retuned -- aurally and spiritually -- since the dawn of the industrial age.
"Faced with the noise and disharmony of the world, I suppose you could say my music has a therapeutic effect," he says. "Music provides a way of balancing that disharmony. It's like a breath of fresh air. If I can't go out to the country, I'll listen to some Kitaro. In that sense it might have a therapeutic value.
"But that is not exactly the purpose behind it," he points out. "I think it's even more basic than that. I hope that my music will influence people and get them thinking very basically about why is our society the way it is, why has it come to be this way and what can I do about it? If the music plays to that purpose, all the better."
Of course, there is that apparent contradiction between connection with the earth and the plugging-in of high-tech instruments.
"It would be false to say that if you took away all the trappings of modern technology, took away my synthesizers and my mixing console and magnetic tape recorder, then my music would not exist," Kitaro insists. "That's not true. Give me one instrument and Kitaro music will be there.
"The fact is we are here today with this technology around us and I make use of a lot of that technology. So then the question becomes: Where do we take it from here? Where does this technology lead us? The overriding concern, when all is said and done, is to leave for the next generation and successive generations something a little bit better than what we have now. If technology is used to that end, or at least with that end in sight, well, then it's all good."
Kitaro's emergence in Japan was gradual, spurred in great part by his sound-track work for a documentary on the opening of western trade, "Silk Road." A single program led to a series that ran for five years and produced eight sound-track albums. Kitaro also has toured extensively, becoming one of the few artists to play in both China and Taiwan (though Singapore wouldn't let him in because of his long hair).
His American following has so far tended to be cultish, though that's changed since he signed with Geffen Records, which has made many of his earlier albums widely available here for the first time. Usually, Kitaro records alone in his farmhouse studio, but for "The Light of the Spirit," his newest album, he went to San Francisco and used a 13-piece ensemble. Drummer Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, a longtime fan, coproduced.
For tonight's show, Kitaro will have a seven-man band. "In the studio I use sequencers and tapes and computers," he says, "but a live concert is real time and real time is the best. I can play everything, but on stage I cannot play many things, so I need other members."
Once a year, though, Kitaro performs alone at the base of Mount Fuji, playing a huge drum called the wadaika. The performance is a ritual prayer of thanks that lasts from sunset to sunrise. And though Kitaro sees it as "still a very private and personal event," it has achieved a certain notoriety, and people now come from all over the world to see and hear it (for the latter, they can be as much as two miles away). "I'd like to see it become a worldwide event, bringing people together at the same time," he suggests. "I doubt I'll see it in my lifetime, but it's worth pursuing."
Other things worth pursuing -- a more settled life and a greater American presence. Kitaro, who has a wife and a 3-year-old son, admits "recording and traveling make it hard for me to have a normal family life." As for the presence here, "nothing is definite, but I envision a time in the not-too-distant future when I'll lead a bicontinental existence," he says. "I would like eventually to establish my own studio and facilities here, much as I have in Japan. Exactly where, I don't know."
Whether that will change his music or his outlook is doubtful. There is, after all, a consistency of vision that is sort of "cosmos-politan." Along with the connectedness to and reverence for "the natural world," there's an obvious concern for spiritual consciousness.
"To call my music spiritual is not inaccurate," he says. "In fact, compared with a label like 'new age,' that certainly would be more descriptive. If the listener gleans a sort of surrogate experience from the music, that's fine, but I'm wary of saying my music supplants the experience. Music is too special to be that critically defined.