Yanni be good?
Inspirational musician returns Friday
Newhouse News Service
November 18, 2004
Sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll ... and Yanni?
Yes, Yanni – that otherworldly vision in white, he of the dashing black mane and mustache, creator of lush keyboard symphonies and the de facto soundtrack to the Olympics, source of inspiration and comfort to millions of devoted fans around the globe.
It was not always so. As his frank 2003 autobiography, "Yanni in Words," makes clear, he was a much different character in his younger, wilder days, one who reveled in very earthly pursuits.
"I wanted the book to be as honest as possible," Yanni, who makes a return visit to the Spokane Arena on Friday, said in a phone interview. "And I think we succeeded at that."
Indeed. "Yanni in Words" details how he lost his virginity at 14 in a Greek brothel. How he spent several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s as the keyboardist in a Minneapolis-based rock band prone to ZZ Top covers. How one-night stands were a way of life on the road. How he picked up a cocaine habit and free-based.
But the overriding theme of "Yanni in Words" is his outsized ambition and single-minded pursuit of his goals.
That determination enabled young Yianni Chryssomallis, a boy from the small Greek fishing village of Kalamata, to become a Greek national swimming champion even though he had no coach and trained in the ocean, not a pool.
It prodded him to move to America at 18, a half a world away, and earn a psychology degree from the University of Minnesota, even though he barely spoke English.
It allowed him to quit drugs cold turkey, he writes, after he realized "this is not why I came to America. This was not what I wanted out of life. This was not why my father and mother sold their home, so I could sit around and do coke."
To some, the 49-year-old Yanni is "Yawnee," the sonic equivalent of Novacaine. But to his legions of fans, he is the supremely gifted creator of inspirational music that speaks directly to emotions, without the benefit of lyrics.
He has sold more than 18 million albums worldwide. His "Live at the Acropolis" video is among the best-selling music videos of all time, at 6 million copies and counting. He has raised enormous sums for PBS, a mutually beneficial arrangement that introduced his music to a wide audience.
His career focus eventually took a toll on his personal life. A nine-year relationship with actress Linda Evans disintegrated largely because of his workaholic ways.
In 1998, after the relationship ended and Yanni had completed yet another ambitious world tour, he stopped dead. He embarked on an open-ended hiatus "to see if I could live without being Yanni," he said. He didn't touch the keyboards for an entire year.
"It was a big lesson," he said. "I went home to Greece with my mother and father and stayed in a little fishing village. My life went from doing 3,000 miles a minute for 20 years down to standing still. It took a few months for major repairs."
He revisited countries in Asia that he had toured, but this time as a tourist. He "loaded up" on new experiences and "did other things other than my career," he said.
Finally he went back to work.
"Slowly the piano started to look good to me again," he said. "Music was beginning to come out again. It started pushing – it's a very powerful force. I've been indoctrinated with this stuff since I was 6 years old. It's a way of living. It's a very strong voice inside of me."
When he says that "music gives meaning to my life," he is speaking literally.
"When I spend a week or two in the studio day in and day out, I'm not hungry, and I lose sleep and I don't really care," he said. "I go to bed, sleep for two hours, and all of a sudden a song comes to my mind and I'm more than happy to get out of bed and go right back into the studio."
His most recent album, last year's "Ethnicity," was written and recorded in the studio he built in his home on the Florida coast. It represents a departure from previous projects, which tended to be completely instrumental and dominated by his keyboards. "For All Seasons," the opening track on "Ethnicity," served notice that the album contained more percussive elements, more exotic rhythms and more voices. Middle Eastern, Far Eastern and African influences and instruments find a place in the arrangements, a legacy of the travels during his hiatus.
Yanni is not one to noodle on a keyboard, waiting for inspiration to strike. Fully formed compositions leap into his head.
"When it's time to seriously compose for an album, I don't need to play the piano," he said. "I quietly hear the song. I have perfect pitch, so the song plays in my mind. When you're inspired, it's effortless. When the idea is there, it comes out all together."
He does not read music, but has developed his own shorthand notation using numbers, symbols and Greek letters.
"I don't need to read music, especially now with the musicians that I work with," he said. "They're so great at what they do. By having perfect pitch, I can hear everything I need to hear. Once somebody plays something, I know exactly what they played. I don't need to read a piece of paper to tell me what I heard."
He records rough versions of instrumental parts in his studio, then employs transcribers and copyists to write down the parts for the other musicians. That computers have made this process more efficient greatly pleases the workaholic in him.
"Even if I could (transcribe) music, I wouldn't want to be the one who does it," he said. "It's very tedious to write for all the instruments in an orchestra. I'd rather keep moving and have somebody else do it."
Yanni is not fond of the "New Age" label.
"New Age is not a musical term but a philosophical point of view," he writes. He prefers to refer to his craft as contemporary instrumental music, a description that allows him the creative freedom he has always insisted upon.
"I wanted creativity without strings attached," he said. "I took special care not to be influenced. It's not easy, and you can't (create) in a vacuum. But I don't want to be influenced by criticism or encouragement.
"If people like what I do, it doesn't mean that I have to keep doing that forever. And if I do something that people don't like, it doesn't mean that I'll never do it again.
"I am very fortunate to have an audience that enjoys what I do, because I am uncompromising. I just do music the way I like it. That makes it very dangerous; just because you like something doesn't mean that anyone else will. So I consider myself lucky that I get to have a career and still do pieces of music exactly the way I want."