Nee Hao Magazine’s exclusive interview with world famous composer, producer and instrumentalist, Yanni. He is performing his first UK show in 19 years on Wednesday 23rd April 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall – as part of his 2013 – 2014 World Tour, “World Without Borders”.
Yanni popularised the combination of synthesisers with full scale symphony orchestra and is known as the World’s “True Global Artist”. He was the first Westerner to hold a concert inside the Forbidden City, Beijing, and has since gained a massive following in China and amongst overseas Chinese.
You are well known as a talented pianist, composer and producer. At what age did you start getting involved with music?
My first introduction to music came at a very young age. I grew up with my family in Kalamata, Greece and we had a very close family but lived a modest lifestyle. One great item that we did have in our home was a piano.
My parents never forced me to play the piano and as a little boy, around 4 or 5 years old. I would be able to play on it in any manner that I liked. This was a great way to be introduced to music because the piano for me was fun. It wasn’t about lessons or practicing but only something that I enjoyed. Eventually, as I spent more time with the piano I wanted to remember songs that I heard on the radio. We did not have albums or CDs so I would mimic them on the piano. This is how I learned to play and to develop a written form to recall my music.
Your sound is unique, when listening to your concerts, there are jazz, classical, soft rock, and world music elements. What genre would you say your music belongs to?
Thank you. Your question is the answer. I never believed that my music fits into any genre or category. It is simply music and it encompasses a wide variety of cultural and musical style influences.
I do not like labels for art and in particular my music so I have never found a genre that fits.
You are very famous for producing spectacular concerts at historic monuments, how did you come up with this concept and why?
My first event like this was 20 years ago at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. It was a dream of mine to perform there and it was a very big risk. I had very little support from my record label and most of my close colleagues and friends were telling me that the risk of losing so much money to produce a show like this would ruin me. But I had this dream inside and I was not considering how this would affect my career. Thankfully, this first project proved to be the event that would lead my career to its current path and it has opened doors for me to be doing these extraordinary events around the world, which is something that I plan to continue doing.
One of the spectacular concerts was in China’s Forbidden City. How did you feel performing there?
My experience within China at the Forbidden City was one of the highlights of my life. We did the concert at a time when Western musicians were not really performing at all in China. I am not certain, but I believe it was the first Western concert ever to be held at the Forbidden City. We had a lot of preparation and a lot of new culture to become aware of and it was a fascinating experience just getting everything ready to do the concert. All the people that we worked with in China were wonderful and very supportive. Then when the concert came it was magical. The audience was so much more enthusiastic and appreciative of the concerts than I could ever have imagined. It was the start of what has become a very important and emotional relationship between myself and China.
You have many fans in China among the 2 million people you have played in front of worldwide. How do the Chinese react to your concerts?
I’ve been to China several times now and have performed over 20 concerts in many cities. I can tell you that the Chinese audiences have been wonderful. There is a lot of Asian influence in my music and this seems to resonate with the audiences and all of our concerts have been wonderful experiences for our orchestra and the people who attend the shows. Also that the Chinese audience cheer as loud as anywhere in the world.
You use musicians and instruments from other cultures. Have you used Chinese musicians and instruments in your songs before?
I have used Chinese instruments many times. I have a song that I composed called “Nightingale” and in that song we use a Chinese flute. I was doing that for over 15 years.
Last year I was fortunate enough to have been invited to be the first Western performer on the CCTV New Year’s Eve Gala. During that performance I wrote a unique medley for the the Chinese audience and actually recorded a song and performed it with the Chinese Zither. A very talented Zither player by the name of Chang Jing joined me on stage for that performance.
You have reached No. 1 in Billboard’s “Top New Age Album” category with over 14 albums and had 2 Grammy nominations. What is the secret to your success?
Perhaps the most important thing that I do for this “success” is that I never think about it. When I compose or perform music, I am doing just that because that is what is inside my soul. I never think about how people will like or dislike my music, I just compose and perform the music that makes sense to me, the music that is inside of me. Luckily, it seems that there are a lot of other people that share a similar appreciation and I will be eternally grateful for that because it has allowed me to continue to work in a profession that is my passion.
What and who are your musical influences?
That is a very long and diverse list. I have so many influences with my music that are very powerful in how they shaped me as a composer and musician. I have derived a lot of influence from the classical composers such as Chopin and Mozart and I feel that this has influenced many of my piano songs. In a very similar fashion, I have been influenced by regional music that I was exposed to as child, such as Asian, Latin, Middle Eastern and then later in my teens by Rock and Roll from America and the UK. These influences have been wonderful in that they allow me to perform music that is piano based to music that is electronic and rock.
Can you give any advice or tips to any young Chinese musicians who want to perform on the big stage?
Simply to follow your dreams and passion. Music is a great pursuit, even if you do not have a professional career in music. Music will be a friend for life and for me it has become a shoulder to cry on and is always there for me. This aspect of music makes it worth pursuing, regardless of how much success you have with music.
You are well known for your charitable activities, away from music what other projects are you currently participating in?
I have been involved recently in a few wonderful projects. Two years ago when I was in China I was invited to adopt a baby Panda. I went to the Giant Panda Research and Breeding Facility in Chengdu to learn about the work they do and I was fortunate enough to have adopted a baby Panda. I met the Panda and was asked to choose the gender and give it a name. I chose a female and named her Santorini. Santorini in Greek means “peace” and it is also one of the most beautiful islands in the world, so I believer this little Panda will be the “beautiful Panda of peace”. Later in the year I was able to extend this relationship to a program with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and we were able to work together to raise money to help with Panda research in China. I still continue to this day with my relationship with the Chengdu Facility and the WWF.
How do you prepare before a concert and what do you do to relax?
I have a pretty strict routine to prepare for concerts. I wake up late in the morning and then I go to the gym to exercise. Then I eat something small and get ready to leave for the venue. Once we arrive at the venue I speak with the crew and the musicians and discuss the show and check in with everyone, then we do a sound check rehearsal for 30 minutes to and hour. After the sound check I go to my dressing room and relax quietly and think about the show and absorb the energy of where we are playing.
Every country is different and every audience is unique. I also run through the concert on a keyboard in my dressing room. The concert is over 2 hours in length and I play everything from memory so it requires me to be very focused and relaxed. I never eat before a show. About 20 minutes before the show I get dressed and go to the stage 5 minutes before the start of the show. Then the butterflies happen and I get the adrenalin rush just before I walk on the stage, I have been doing it this way for decades.
The Chinese in the UK are really excited about your special date at the Royal Albert Hall in April 2014. Do you have anything to say to your Chinese fans who will be coming to see you in concert?
Well this is a very important concert for me. It has been almost 20 years since I performed at the Royal Albert Hall and I am excited to be back. I can tell you that having Chinese fans in the audience gives me a great feeling and inspiration to have a great show. Thank you for your support, I love performing to you.