Yanni: Monumental Victory
The Greek-American composer talks about his recent ‘Dream Concert’ at the Great Pyramids in Egypt, and why he never has to worry about staying relevant
For a period of not less than two months in 1997, between February and April, the Indian newspapers had found an intriguing subject in a musician largely unknown to the country’s laypeople till then. Yanni, the Greek-American composer and the global ambassador of sor ts of instrumental music was to perform at the Taj Mahal in Agra for three consecutive nights starting March 20th.
This was no ordinary show. Not only was it the f irst time that a Western musician had been granted the permission to perform at the Taj, given the massive scale of the concert, the Indian Army had been involved in the production of the show as well. The stage and the seating of the concert were constructed on a sandbar in the middle of the Yamuna river which flows adjacent to the Taj and the army had helped in building pontoon bridges over the Yamuna as well as roads leading to them.
All these details and much more providÂed a constant fodder to the media. While the pre-event coverage ranged from detailed interviews to accounts of YanÂni’s growing reputation of performing at heritage places across the world ”” his 1993 show at the Acropolis, Greece had been a big success and now he was gearing up for a concert at the Forbidden City in China ”” the post-event reportage was best witnessed through the gazillion pictures of him and his orchestra against the magÂnificent backdrop of the Taj.
Since then, Yanni has gone on to play at the 16th-cenÂtury castle El Morro in Puerto Rico to the Kremlin and several other fascinating venÂues around the globe. So it didn’t come as a surprise that the composer set his eyes on the Great Pyramids of Giza for his latÂest shows.
Fittingly titled Dream Concert, the two sold-out shows held last month at the foot of the Sphinx and at the foreground of the imposing Pyramids were testament to Yanni’s unaltered popularity over the years. As Yanni and his 15-member orchestra unleashed a most overwhelmÂing bout of music, ecstatic Arab women in hijabs were heard shouting, ”˜I love you Yanni’ at the top of their lungs in the silences between the tracks, and one lady’s relentlessly loud request for “Nostalgia” [one of his most famous comÂposition from his 1986 album Keys to Imagination] was as endearing as it was exasperating for those seated around her. For an artist that has only performed instrumental music in his 35-year-long career [except once in 2009, when he experimented with voices], generating this sort of audience response is no mean feat. What made the concert even more exciting for the Egyptian audience was the video message by Yanni’s close friend and NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly, from the InternaÂtional Space Station. Commander Kelly’s greeting, “Good evening Yanni, Egypt, and the world,” was met with boisterous cheers from the crowd.
The Dream Concert will be broadcast on PBS in March next year and the live album and DVD will release in May.
In this exclusive interview with ROLLING STONE INDIA, Yanni talks about the Egypt concert, being an especially popular ar tist in strife-ridden countries and why he never has to worry about staying relevant.
How was your experience of performing in Egypt?
Being in Egypt for the very first time was amazing. I learned a lot and was overÂwhelmed by the spirit and love and kindÂness shown by the people of Egypt. Everyone made me feel at home and I actually ended up staying for several days after the concert to experience more of the life of Egypt. It was the realization of a dream that I have had for most of my adult life. Growing up in the region, I have always been aware of Egypt’s history, the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the Pharaohs. Nothing can compare to performÂing with the Great Pyramids and Sphinx providing the beauty of the land behind our stage. I will never forget this experience.
What are the biggest challenges in being a musician whose forte is instrumental music? You seem to have taken some serious risks as a musician to put your heart and soul into what you believed in.
I actually feel very fortunate that I am able to have a career as an instrumenÂtal composer and musician. My music is an honest reflection of my soul and is the result of all of the lessons and experiences and relationships that have gone into my life. With instrumental music, I have no limitations of words to express these emoÂtions. I have always believed that instruÂmental music is global and reaches everyÂone, anywhere in the world without the limitation of language. To me these were not risks, it was just who I am as an artist and I create to fulfill the drive that comes from inside me. I have always only hoped that if someone else can relate to my music and finds pleasure in it, then I am a lucky person.Â
Although your music has a universal appeal, it has been especially meaningful to your fans in countries that have seen strife at the domestic front, whether it is the Middle East, South America or India. Has it been a conscious effort on your part to show supÂport to these nations by performing there?
I have been surprised by how many people have shared this connection with my music. A few years ago, I met a man from Sudan who had come to a conÂcert in Qatar to share with me how the people in Sudan used my music to deal with their own conflicts in Sudan. This happens in many other instances as peoÂple have shared with me. I never intentionÂally set out to compose music for this purÂpose. As I mentioned earlier, I am sharing emotions and meanings that come from within me with my music and it touchÂes me deeply that some people find that my music helps to give them peace and strength during difficult times.
People have been consuming your music knowingly or unknowingly for decades now, whether it is part of a sporting event theme or something else. How does it feel to be an ambassador of sorts of instrumental music?
I have always been inspired by many different composers, especially, the clasÂsical when I was young. Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, among others. I hope I do a good job of being an ambassador of inÂstrumental music. I never really think too much about how I should be presenting myself but I do appreciate that instrumenÂtal music has a very special place in muÂsic”¦I really enjoy when people can deÂrive their own unique connection with music rather than telling them what to feel.
How was your concert in Bangalore last year?
Wonderful. I have now been to India three separate times for concerts. I love the peoÂple in India and feel that we have a great conÂnection with music. There is a very vibrant energy in Bangalore, I remember it being a city that had such a strong upbeat spirit and our concert was a lot of fun.
Any Indian artists and musical instruments that you really like and would like to include in your music?
I have always been inspired by Indian music. When I was in India last year I actually got the chance to interact and learn from some Indian masters and it was a great experiÂence for me. I always take what I learn and apply it to my own music and I am sure that in time India has had a profound affect in the music I compose.
How close-knit is your entire music crew/orÂchestra. Who have been your longest-standÂing companions?
This current group of what I feel are the best musicians in the world have been toÂgether for the past 10 years. Some have been with me much longer. Charlie Adams, our drummer, has been with me since our early twenties when we played in a rock band in Minnesota in the Eighties! We are a very close group of people. We support each other professionally and perÂsonally, and we have all become close friends. We have 11 different nationalities representÂed on stage and each person brings their own unique perspective, culture and experience to the stage and we learn from each other conÂstantly.
As an artist, how difficult or easy it is for you to reinvent yourself with each passing year, especially in terms of excessive social media exposure these days. Do you ever have to struggle with ensuring that you and your music stay relevant?
The social media aspect is new to me and I am loving it! Having the opportunity to interact with fans directly has been incredible inspiring and informative. I am not sure if it has helped me create music but it has really developed my understanding of how my music interacts with people all over the world. This technology is very powerful and an incredÂibly helpful tool for me as an artist. I don’t think about how to stay relevant at all, I just keep creating and performing music and hope that people will connect and enjoy what I love doing.
Tell us a little more about the musical shorthand you developed for yourself as a kid.
It came out of the old saying, ”˜NecesÂsity is the mother of invention.’ I was not formally educated in music and did not know how to read or write music… and needed a way to remember it so that I could play it later with the piano. I created a notation that would help me remember the music I was creating and eventually it became the manner in which I could write and recall everything. I still use it today and have a colleague who works with me to tranÂscribe it to traditional music sheets for the musicians.
With your 2011 album ”˜Truth of Touch’, you returned to instrumental music after having experimented with voices before that. Did you feel at home with that comeback? Are we going to hear voices in your albums soon?
I have really focused on instrumental music on the new album. There are some vocal stylings and a few songs with lyrics but it is predominantly instrumental. The human voice is an incredibly expressive musical instrument and I do enjoy using it in support of the other instruments. But yes, it does feel good being back with new instrumental compositions