IF YOU FALL ASLEEP, YOU DON’T LIKE MUSIC: AN EVENING WITH YANNI
P. Scott Cunningham
On March 10, 1990, my mother was in the stands at the Polo Club of Boca Raton for the semifinals of the Virginia Slims of Florida Women’s Tennis Tournament. Sitting directly behind her was the New Age composer Yanni and his girlfriend at the time, Dynasty actress Linda Evans. Jennifer Capriati was making her professional tennis debut at age thirteen. I was on the court, too: an eleven year old ball boy who was convinced that at some point in the match, in the process of asking for a tennis ball, Capriati was going to fall in love with me. Somewhere in the parking lot was my mother’s white 1989 Toyota Cressida, the name derived from a Trojan woman who defects to the side of the Greeks. When I think of the car, I immediately think of Yanni’s Chameleon Days, the album she played over and over. For the ninth straight month, the unemployment rate in America was 5.3 percent.
Yanni is the musician most emblematic of America in the 1990s. He speaks to that time more than Nirvana or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who both catered to an inchoate sense of rebellion; more than Biggie or Tupac, who had more impact on the 2000s than they did the ’90s; more than Pavement or the Pixies, whose resonance will always be limited to a certain kind of intellectual rock fan. A Greek immigrant who claims to be self-taught, Yanni began playing in rock bands while at the University of Minnesota, then moved to Los Angeles, became friends with fellow New Age musician John Tesh, and was soon self-producing albums of instrumental music bursting with unbridled optimism. Beginning with 1986’s Keys to Imagination, he released an album a year, culminating with 1990’s Reflections of Passion, which went double-platinum. Unlike Tesh, whose NBA TV theme “Roundball Rock” hides a playful wink behind its exuberance, Yanni has never produced anything tongue-in-cheek.
On April 21, 2012, as Greece continued to rebel against E.U.-imposed austerity measures, I went to “An Evening with Yanni” at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Like Greece itself, Yanni has gotten a haircut since the ’90s, but he hasn’t trimmed as much as he should. Similarly, the presentation of Yanni’s music hasn’t changed much since the 1994 PBS smash hit “Yanni: Live at the Acropolis.” On the stage, there was the multi-tiered synthesizer proscenium from which Yanni plays facing the audience; there were the classical musicians facing outwards like a rock band; there was Charlie Adams’s drum set encased in a sound-dampening plastic chamber; there were the vocalists who emerge mid-note from behind the curtains; and there was the grand piano on which Yanni plays his slow songs and engages in good-natured banter with the audience. What was different, I assume, was how routinely hecklers interrupted this banter with comments like “Yanni for President!” and “Gyros!” The heckling marked the passage of time in a way that was impossible for Yanni himself to do. “An Evening with Yanni” is designed to be complete romantic escape, and his banter is a crucial part of the show’s uninterrupted decadence. (Before the show, a husband was overheard telling his wife, “If you fall asleep, you don’t like music.”) And you don’t orchestrate harp solos during which the harp is held, Hendrix-like, above the player’s head unless you are fully committed to the illusion of sublimity. When he talked, Yanni talked about his panda bear, Santorini, given to him by the Chinese government. He talked about his dead mother, about love being the most powerful force, and, in one especially rehearsed moment near the end, about astronauts looking back at earth and being unable to distinguish between the borders of nations. (If there’s a better summary of the ’90s-driven optimism of the European Union, I haven’t heard it.) Yanni also said that we were there for a party. Because he keeps a home just outside Miami, he said he felt like he was in his own living room, playing music for his friends, to which one of his nameless friends logically responded, taking full advantage of the acoustics of the hall, “Party at Yanni’s house tonight!”
In 1990, the United States and Greece were as related as Jennifer Capriati and her ball boys. Now, with joblessness in Europe rising and Greece’s debt still north of 100 billion euros, Americans are paying attention. Jennifer Capriati, 36, is retired. In a 2007 article in The Daily News, she spoke candidly for the first time about her depression. “It’s like you’re being taken over by a demon,” she said. “It feels like the end of the world…you think, ‘I want to be off this planet right now.’” Or at Yanni’s house.