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A new-age musician who has the audacity to call the music boring? Unlike most in new-age pianist David Lanz's chosen genre, he seems to have a sense of humor. He even gives indications of refusing to take the music's touchy, feely trip seriously. In a recent concert, he introduced one of his more well-known tunes with, "This is my semiclassical, pseudo-new-age, yuppie piano solo version."
Lanz says he needs the laughter to respond to the legion of critics who attack the music. But he also agrees with some of the criticism. As an insider, he can be one of the music's harshest critics. Lanz's new double CD Skyline Firedance is an unusual package that features a single group of songs done orchestrally on the first disc and with just a solo piano on the second. It has met a mixed reception with new-age radio programmers, most of whom won't touch the orchestral side.
"My friends in radio listen to the record," Lanz says in a recent interview, "and say, `Man, this is awesome, but we can't play it, it's too big.' They won't take the chance.
"Somewhere along the line, new-age radio decided that this and this works, and they started cutting everything else out. I call most of what's left `safe sax' or `fuzak.'
"What they've given us is a very homogeneous flow. Which is really nice if you're going to get a massage. Or if you just want your music in the background like wallpaper. I listen to new-age radio and it becomes kind of faceless. You can't really tell one song or artist from another. It gets a little boring."
Apparently, Lanz has decided it's time to forget about being mellow and raise his voice.
"I started making new-age music in 1983. Now, here it is 1991 and the stuff that we used to do acoustically is all being done with just a couple studio musicians and a computer," he says. "The new stuff sounds really good, but the soul has been sucked out of it."
Lanz has made lots of noise with Skyline Firedance. Critics have marveled at the variety that Lanz has wrung from both styles. But many of his new-age fans aren't exactly ecstatic.
"We thought something new would be a nice transition," he says, "especially for the people who are used to the softer music that I've done."
Lanz, for his part, finds no humor in how a single violin crescendo could scatter his new-age audience.
You couldn't tell from his background that Lanz would wind up sounding like a rebel. Initially impressed by classical composers like Beethoven and Chopin, Lanz moved on to rock 'n' roll in junior high. As high school turned to college, Lanz began listening to jazz pianists like McCoy Tyner and Dave Brubeck.
Inspired by seeing pianist Keith Jarrett--the unwitting father of new-age--when he came to Seattle in the late Sixties, Lanz even took a stab at playing freeform jazz. The young pianist was astounded by Jarrett's style, and admits, "I was emulating him from the very beginning, or trying to, anyway."
Mixing all this into a discernible style proved too much for Lanz. His musical career was not working out. He felt directionless. It forced him to stop and take stock.
"I found that my real talent was in writing very simple hooks, coming up with simple melodic pieces," Lanz says. "I also decided that I really wasn't writing from the heart. Out of my meditations and introspection I was led to do something different."
That something is what Lanz now half-jokingly refers to as "Zen pop music."
"`Zen pop' is a term I threw out one day in an interview and it stuck," he says. "It's a meditational term referring to being behind the veil. If you listen to the left hand in my music, you'll find it's based around an Eastern drone sound that comes from one or two notes. At the same time, the right hand is playing a catchy pop melody. Kind of an East-meets-West sound. Separately, it's nothing really new at all. But together it's a different way of playing music."
Despite his barbs at new-age music, Lanz does buy into a lot of the standard emotional and intellectual trappings of a new-age career. He talks of the piano in terms of its connection to our left-right brain relationship and refers to his writing as having passed from "the water phase" into "the fire phase." Onstage, he uses 3-D lasers to create whales, eagles and an earthrise as seen from the moon. He even praises the tepid keyboard trinity of George Winston, Steve Halpern, and Kitaro.
One of the exploding genre's biggest stars, Lanz has made six albums for the Minneapolis-based Narada label. The record before Skyline Firedance, 1989's Cristofori's Dream was the closest thing to a hit that new-age has ever had. It stayed on the Billboard New Age chart for over 100 weeks.
It was on Cristofori's Dream that Lanz began dabbling with pop tunes. Procol Harum's archetypal Sixties hit "A Whiter Shade of Pale" was given the new-age treatment on that record. Original Procol Harum member Matthew Fischer even came aboard to re-create the organ solo that made the song so distinctive. On Skyline Firedance, Lanz does orchestral and solo versions of the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." Lanz thinks that including pop tunes is a perfectly natural development.