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Yanni Chrysomallis was born on November 14, 1954, in Kalamata, Greece. After having spent quite a bit of time swimming during his teenage years, he broke the national freestyle record as a member of the Greek National Swimming Team at the age of 14. It was also while growing up that he began playing music. He explains, “When I was growing up in Greece, my parents really enjoyed classical music, so I listened to a lot of it. I have a lot of musical influences: all the classics, like Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Stravinsky, Debussy…” “These people had the ability to communicate without one word. That just appealed to me. I’m doing this for the same reason — for music, not words. Words operate in a different area of the brain. The entire message is in the sounds and rhythm and melody.” His parents were musically-inclined as well. “My mother sings beautifully. My dad played the guitar and sang…They were both in the arts.” And both were low-tech. “We didn’t have a turntable in our house. Instead of listening to the music, we made it ourselves.”
At the age of 18, Yanni came to the U.S. to attend the University of Minnesota. In 1976, after spending 3 and a half years in college, he graduated with a major in psychology, but quickly dropped this as a career path. He bought a suit, took a job as an employment counselor, and walked out after lunch on his first day. Instead, he went back to his love of music, and at the age of 21, took up keyboards. Around this time, he joined a Minneapolis-based rock band called Chameleon. In his late 20’s, the band released an all-synthesizer album.
He eventually moved to Hollywood with drummer Charlie Adams, who he met in Chameleon, and started recording his own compositions for the Private Music label. In 1986 he released “Keys to Imagination.”
Being self-taught, he does not read or write the traditional language of music — he uses a unique form of musical shorthand which he invented as a child and still uses today: “I started playing music when I was six. I’d go to a movie theatre sometimes and I liked the music and knew that I’d like to hear it again. But where I was growing up in Greece I couldn’t just go out and buy the soundtrack. So I’d go to the piano and try to play it, but I’d forget it and then have to go back to see the movie again,” he laughs. “I couldn’t read music — I was completely self-taught — but I do have perfect pitch, which is a very powerful tool if you’re a creative entity as I am. So I would write down the chords in my own form of notation and then when I went back to the piano I’d know what the notes were.” “And that’s how I developed perfect pitch — out of necessity — and that’s why I learned how to play the piano — out of necessity — because I was hearing music in my mind and I wanted to play it.”
The process of hearing the music first in his mind and then translating it for the ear is an integral part of his creative expression when composing. “The process of destruction begins,” Yanni explains, “when I take what I have composed in my mind and try to record it so that everyone can hear it. Over the years, I’ve become a better translator and look to capture performance rather than perfection.” And how does his music get put on paper? “Whenever I have a piece of music that I want to be written down I take a keyboard and I record a part, the cello line for instance, and I give it to an orchestrator who arranges it for the instrument and writes it out.”
Besides not reading or writing music, Yanni creates his own sounds: “I erase all the factory presets of all the keyboards I’ve ever owned — that’s the first thing I do.”
He prefers the term “instrumental” rather than “New Age” for his music —- “It’s [“new age”] a loaded term with a lot of baggage. I’m concerned that for people who have never heard my music, the term might attribute qualities that aren’t there. To apply it [“new age”] to music, you bring the baggage of what is implied, visions of people sitting on mountaintops and chanting. If I had to call my music something, it would be contemporary instrumental, but I simply write music. I don’t try to fit in some category.”
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