Born on October 4, 1953, in Zurich, Switzerland; son of Hans Vollenweider, an organist, pianist and composer; married Beata, a kindergarten teacher, 1971. Addresses: Record company--Sony Classical, c/o Sony Music, 550 Madison Ave., 31st Fl., New York City, NY 10022; Management--Impact Music, Zurich, Switzerland; Depth of Field, United States. Phone: (212) 833-8000 Fax: (212) 833-5780.

Swiss harpist Andreas Vollenweider was a pioneering force in the New Age or New Music movement, achieving fame throughout the world long before the genre became trendy. Prior to the late-1980s, such artists were usually produced by small, independent labels, their records overlooked by record stores and commercial radio. But through musicians such as Vollenweider, who transcended the need for alternative record sales when his albums simultaneously broached Billboard magazine's pop, jazz, and classical charts in 1986, the new, experimental style moved out of cultdom and into the mainstream. Nowadays, many of these musicians record for major labels, store outlets feature an exclusive "New Age" section, and pop radio stations rotate pieces by New Age performers on a more regular basis. Furthermore, Billboard magazine created a New Age album chart specifically for the style, and the Grammys added a new category for the emerging form. Vollenweider, in fact, won the first Grammy Award for New Age Music in 1987.

Often referred to as "audio Valium" or "yuppie elevator music," even by fans of New Age, the form--an improvisational combination of the pop, jazz, and classical styles--is mostly instrumental, mellow and melodic, and sometimes electronic. While Vollenweider employs many of the same elements as his peers, he extended the boundaries of New Age, drawing from world music in addition to jazz and classical and exploring musical territory never before of interest to his contemporaries. Moreover, Vollenweider was one of the first New Age artists to carve a significant identity through live performances and has been known to play up to 250 concerts per year, attracting not only fans of New Age, but those from the jazz and classical camps as well.

Although most known for his work on the electro-acoustic harp, a standard harp that Vollenweider modified to produce a wider range of sounds and a more percussive attack, he is adept at a variety of other instruments, including the piano, guitar, modern concert harp, Celtic harp, Chinese harp, Bavarian folk harp, baby koto, Chinese membrane flute, clay double flute, and more. Not one apt to follow prescribed rules, Vollenweider--with his curly reddish-brown hair, sparkling eyes, and whimsical smile--does, indeed, possess all the physical as well as intellectual hallmarks of an artist willing to test long-held notions about music.

Born on October 4, 1953, in Zurich, Switzerland, to a musical family, Vollenweider seemed destined for a career in the arts. His father, Hans Vollenweider, ranked among the most prominent organists, pianists, and composers in Europe and exposed his son to the classical and baroque styles at an early age. "I grew up in a family of musicians and painters and designers," he told the Detroit Free Press. "There was always creativity around me. I was never forced to do anything I didn't want to, but I'm sure that's where my interest comes from." Despite a childhood saturated with creative influences, Vollenweider nevertheless was slow in finding a specific focus for his energies. A Bohemian type who rarely attended school, Vollenweider drove his music teachers crazy because he refused to follow the sheet music they gave him to play. Instead, he gained proficiency through almost aimless trial and error and was, for the most part, a self-taught musician.

Discovered the Harp

After trying his hand at a variety of different instruments, including guitar, flute, and piano, Vollenweider, in 1975, discovered the harp. In the process of developing his own technique, he played the instrument for Poetry and Music, a group that mixed mood pieces and poetry recitations. They recorded three albums and toured frequently throughout Europe. During this time, Vollenweider also composed music for film, theater, and television productions, but his preference not to write music in dark tones to convey fear, danger, and violence resulted in scaring away many directors. By now, Vollenweider had created his own composing style for the harp: soft, spectral, and at times formless with accompaniment by percussion instruments, from drums and gongs to wind chimes and even tuned salad bowls, as well as guitar and woodwinds. His playing technique was also far removed from the ordinary. He bends and shapes his notes not by running his fingertips across the strings, but by plucking, hammering, or caressing them up and down.

Vollenweider also modified his instrument to suit his needs, constructing a damper to expedite more rhythmic playing and inventing a system which amplifies the harp with a small electronic pickup on each string. "The harp has a natural character," he explained to the Detroit Free Press. "To this character I've added mechanical alterations and electronics which enable me to achieve the full range of an orchestra, from the lowest notes to the highest.... Also, I make my own strings. The bass strings are made of silver-wound steel. They're very thick and sound very deep; I modified them electronically so they sound deeper still. Sometimes they are deeper than an electric guitar, and you can only pluck strings like that, but I wrap my thumb and middle finger with tape to protect me from the heavier gauge metal.... All this I've done invisibly, I hope. I don't think the sound should show how it's made. The electronic shouldn't have a life of its own."

Became a Star in Europe and America

Following his 1980 solo recording debut, A Form of Suite in XIII Parts, Vollenweider's spirited funk beats, exotic pan-cultural influences, and colorful harp improvisations swept across Europe. In mid-1981, Andreas Vollenweider & Friends performed their first concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival to great acclaim. In the fall of that year, after securing a major-label record contract with CBS Records, Vollenweider returned with Behind the Gardens--Behind the Wall--Under the Tree, and a new sound began to spread around the world. Vollenweider released his next album, Caverna Magica, in 1982. In Germany, it was named as the year's best pop album by the influential Audio magazine, winning out over Billy Joel's An Innocent Man and Michael Jackson's Thriller. And in 1983, Vollenweider, who spent much of that year producing an independent video documenting his commitment to environmental protection and world peace in addition to releasing the maxi single "Pace Verde," the theme for Greenpeace's pro-ecology movement, won the prestigious Edison Award in Amsterdam for his innovations in music. Both of his first two albums for CBS sold about one million copies each, primarily in Europe.

Although by now a superstar in Europe, Vollenweider was also gaining a following in the United States, due in part to a stepped-up promotional campaign initiated by his record label and an increase in press coverage. In 1984, with the release of White Winds, he appeared on the American charts for the first time and received a rousing reception during his first American tour the following year, selling out performances at such major auditoriums as Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles. The tour continued back home in Europe with equal success. In 1986, Vollenweider released for Sony Classics the acclaimed Down to the Moon, touring with his regular band in the United States, Canada, 13 European countries, Japan, and Australia in support of the album. Then in 1987, he became the first Swiss musician to win a Grammy Award and the first artist in Grammy history to earn an honor for New Age Music, which he received for Down to the Moon.

Maintained Artistic Integrity

In the wake of rising commercial success, Vollenweider managed to maintain his artistic integrity and vision. After the 1989 release of Dancing with the Lion, for which Vollenweider produced the videos for "Pearls and Tears" and the title track, the harpist returned in 1990 with Trilogy, a double album that united Behind the Gardens, Caverna Magica, White Winds, most of A Form of Suite in XIII Parts, and "Pace Verde." Also that year, the harpist released Dream Garden or Taumgarten, an album recorded with his father bearing the subtitle "Father and Son Improvise," in Vollenweider's native Switzerland. Likewise, the harpist's 1991 album Book of Roses, recorded with musicians from around the world and his close associates, presented Vollenweider for the first time as a multi-instrumentalist. Serving as a testament to his ability to expand his scope as a composer and musician while keeping his trademark sound intact, Book of Roses proved an ambitious undertaking. Thus, upon completion of the complex production, Vollenweider took some time off to gather energy for new projects.

In 1992, Vollenweider performed an outdoor concert in Moscow's Red Square to aid the children who fell victim to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Later that year, he received a World Music Award in Monaco, then entered the studio to record a new album. With Eolian Minstrel, released in 1993, the New Age harpist presented his first recording with songs in English. Blending Vollenweider's own voice and harp playing with that of American singer Eliza Gilkyson, the album featured a number of guest musicians, among them singer-songwriter Carly Simon. In November of that year, Vollenweider and several of his collaborators from Eolian Minstrel embarked on a tour of eastern and western Europe, then traveled to the United States early in 1994.

For the next several years, Vollenweider busied himself with activities other than the preparation of new material. After a return to the Montreux Jazz Festival, 15 years since his first performance there, he accepted an invitation from tenor Luciano Pavarotti to perform at the Pavarotti International Show in Modena, Italy, broadcast live in September of 1994 on RAI UNO and memorialized with the Pavarotti & Friends 2 live album, released in May of 1995. In October of that year, Vollenweider released the long-awaited double album Andreas Vollenweider & Friends--Live 1982-1994, featuring live performances of the harpist's early music through Eolian Minstrel.

Meanwhile, Vollenweider had assimilated a new group to specialize in improvisation. Beginning in 1995, the ensemble initiated a series of tours, stopping first in Poland to play in smaller courtyards and old castles, as well as at the Warsaw Palace of Congress, where Vollenweider sold out two shows. After a series of open-air concerts throughout Europe, Vollenweider and his group traveled to New York City, where they played two shows a day for a period of six days at the legendary Blue Note club, then performed for the first time ever in several Latin American countries. In February of 1996, the group performed with the RAI Orchestra at the San Remo Festival in Italy, broadcast live to millions of viewers throughout Europe, and a few months later, in April, Vollenweider performed his first concert with a symphony orchestra at Zurich's Tonhalle.

Helped Popularize World Music

In between these and various other concerts, Vollenweider began work on a new album. For Kryptos, released in 1997 in Europe and in 1998 in the United States, he employed more symphonic and cultural dimensions than ever before. An entirely instrumental release, it featured contributions from Japanese percussionists Kodo and Leonard Eto, African vocal ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Argentine bandoneon player Daniel Binelli, jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker, and symphony orchestras. Amid various tours in support of the album, Vollenweider found time to compose music for Wolkenstein, a symphonic mind movie first performed in 1998 at the Fraumünster Church in Zurich.

In late-1999, and in March of 2000 in the United States, Vollenweider released Cosmopoly, a collaborative, global endeavor that evolved after his many years touring through different countries and exploring the music of various cultures. Although not as composed and complex as Kryptos, Cosmopoly earned a warm reception from critics and fans alike, appealing to more than one musical genre, from world music to instrumental pop to classical music and jazz. Departing from his previous work, the album featured Vollenweider on a variety of instruments--Celtic harp, Chinese harp, Bavarian folk harp, baby koto, ocarina, 12-string guitar, clay double flute, and the modern concert harp--in addition to his own electrified instrument. Cosmopoly also featured an eclectic mix of guest artists, including vocalists Bobby McFerrin and Carly Simon, trombonist Ray Anderson, fiddler Mindy Jostyn, Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento, South African jazz pianist Abdulah Ibrahim, Spanish flutist Carlos Nunez, the Neopolitan Solis String Quartet, Chinese dulcimer player Pingxin Xu, Basque accordionist Kepa Junkera, and Armenian instrumentalist Djivan Gasparyan, along with keyboardist Christoph Stiefel and drummer Walter Keiser, both longtime associates.

by Laura Hightower

Andreas Vollenweider's Career

Member of Poetry and Music and composer of film and television scores, late-1970s; released solo debut, A Form of Suite in XIII Parts, 1980; released Caverna Magica, 1982; released White Winds, his first album to appear on American charts, 1984; released award-winning Down to the Moon, 1986; released Book of Roses, featuring Vollenweider as a multi-instrumentalist, 1991; released Eolian Minstrel, the harpist's first English-language album, 1992; performed at the Pavarotti International Show in Modena Italy, 1994; released the more complex and symphonic Kryptos, 1997; released world music album Cosmopoly, 1999.

Andreas Vollenweider's Awards

Pop Album of the Year award, Audio magazine for Caverna Magica, 1982; Grammy Award for Down to the Moon, 1987.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources

BooksPeriodicalsOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

almost 7 years ago

I'm really overwhelmed by the great wotk that this man has done, the journey that he has travelled thus far. Im an ordinary man who loves music back from 1989 when I was still growing up in a village (South Africa). I was fortunate to attend his life show yesterday (07 Oct. 2010) in Bloemfontein at MACUFE (Mangaung African Cultural Festival) South Africa, Oh what a good perfomance.The man is talented, I wish he can groom the youngsters so that he leaves something and his music continue to soothen our hearts. From Josias Toona - Seshego (Polokwane) Limpopo Province- South Africa

over 8 years ago

Can I get an e-mail address for Andreas. It seems we have common relatives about 6-7 generations ago.Just interested.