The concept of New Age music conjures up a lot of stereotypes, the most common of which is the granola-munching yuppie or long-haired harmonic-convergence type listening to glorified elevator music and having a spiritual experience as a result.
Until a couple of years ago or so, the stereotype was more truth than fiction. But New Age has steadily evolved from its cult status to mainstream acceptance, thanks largely to artists who are pushing the bounds of New Age toward more structured melodies and less of the aimless wandering.At the forefront on the "new" New Age movement are established artists like David Lanz and newcomers like Larry Cansler. Both inject new life into a stagnant musical style.
David Lanz is first and foremost a pianist. "It is," he said, "the most divinely inspired instrument on the planet."
Little wonder the piano is the dominant feature on Lanz's latest release, "Cristofori's Dream" (Cristofori was a 17th century harpsichord builder whose inventions became the forerunner of the modern piano).
The seven songs on "Cristofori's Dream" (Narada Lotus) are audio delights. In addition to the piano centerpiece, the tapestry includes the oboe, English horn, acoustic and electric bass, synthesizer, harp and a healthy dose of stringed instruments.
Gratefully, none of the seven arrangements has the fatal "meandering" flaw common to much New Age music. The compositions are crisp, the melodies enjoyable and song structure comprehensible to even the most novice listener.
By far, the album's best cut is the cover of Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale." Keeping with the spirit of the original, Procol Harum's Matthew Fisher was commissioned to recreate his distinctive organ passage on "Cristofori's Dream."
By employing both contemporary influences and traditional orchestrations, Lanz succeeds where others of the same genre fail: He blends the simple and the complex in the same audio package.
Lanz's creativity has resulted in a surge of popularity. Last month, Billboard Magazine began listing a New Age music chart, and "Cristofori's Dream" debuted at No. 1.
Said Lanz, "I've been involved with synthesizers since 1976, but I always come back to the piano, my first love, because of its simplicity and its purity. It offers an incredible dynamic range on one, comparatively simple machine. It's a work of art."
Which is how best to describe "Cristofori's Dream": artistic.
Lanz's previous works include "Heartsounds," "Nightfall," "Solstice," "Woodlands," "Natural States" and "Desert Visions," the latter two of which rank among the best-selling titles in New Age music.
While Larry Cansler is not as well known as Lanz, he also is turning a lot of heads with his debut solo album "Pacific Dreams."
Actually, Cansler is no novice. He was a member of Kenny Rogers' First Edition. He co-wrote Michael Martin Murphy's hit single "Wildfire." He has been musical director on a number of television and film scores. And he has written music for more than 700 commercials.
His career has encompassed pop, rock, jazz, fusion, folk, country and classical music. Now there is "Pacific Dreams" (Voss Records), a purely New Age album that weaves a spell of oceanic sounds and audio images.
Cansler shares Lanz's attitude towards New Age music. "With a lot of New Age music, you can hear the entire piece in the first 20 seconds. It's just repetition," he said. "I get bored after nine bars. And I think the listener does, too."
Cansler believes in strong melodies, as well as unpredictability. "Just when you think I'm going in one direction I go in another, and I still maintain a thread of continuity, even when I'm changing colors."
In recording the album himself, Cansler took a recorder to the beach to capture the sounds of waves crashing on the shore and the screech of seagulls. "In fact, I discovered that birds have a built-in metronome," he said.
Those natural sounds provide the backdrop for the musical arrangements that encompass jazz, fusion and New Age sounds.
Most of the time on "Pacific Dreams" it works. Sometimes it doesn't. But it's still a strong contender for best debut by a New Age artist.