Cynics of all stripes have gotten quite a chuckle in recent months from the crossover pop success of Reflections of Passion, a collection of romantic instrumental songs by New Age composer/performer Yanni. The album's sales took off after publicity celebrating his dewy relationship with glamorous former Dynasty star Linda Evans. From the flavor of the couple's print and TV appearances, you'd expect the songs on Reflections of Passion most of which were handpicked by Evans from previous Yanni albums to have plenty of soaring, throbbing strings and vacuously intime piano moments, and it does not disappoint. What's surprising, though, is the degree to which this album represents a whole new breed of musical vacuity.
Like Kitaro and many other New Age artists, Yanni favors one-man-band synthesizers that can mimic the sound of a hundred-piece orchestra. He also shares New Age's aversion for sounds that might be construed as unpleasant. But Yanni is also, perhaps mainly, a pop composer, and not just any pop composer but one with classical credentials, at least of a sort. He has performed live versions of his music with real symphony orchestras. In Reflections of Passion, these various influences work against each other to create a style that's triply unique: It's at once the happy-face button on the flowing robes of New Age, the polyester pantsuit at the dance party of pop, and the velvet painting in the museum of the classics.
Yanni has said he objects to the New Age label, and it's not hard to see why. His temperament (''I'm Greek,'' he told Orange Coast Magazine, ''so I have hot blood running through me'') has little in common with such hard-core New Age avatars as the mist-enshrouded mountaintop-dweller Kitaro, whose work is said to have healing powers despite its frequently uncanny resemblance to boilerplate movie scores. Nor does hot-blooded Yanni seem to have much truck with the granola wing of New Age, whose pretty musings can be found in, say, the Narada label's ''Wilderness'' collection, which sounds like a Sierra Club calendar set to music. Yanni does, however, have a certain amount in common with his more famous countryman Vangelis, who put the New Age synthesizer sound into the mainstream with his Chariots of Fire theme, and who thereby inadvertently spawned a whole subgenre of synthesizer-based theme music for films and network sports events. Yanni has written music for both: TV movies like ABC's I Love You Perfect and sports shows like ABC's Wide World of Sports.
That formula sound upbeat, sonically spacious, lots of rhythmic momentum- crops up on his five previous albums, and it's what he does best. But since Yanni is by all accounts not a formula kind of guy, he's also written songs in which he emotes in various unappetizing ways. These, unfortunately, are the ones that have found their way onto Reflections of Passion.
Some of the more straightforward ballads aren't so bad: The mandatory impressionistic introduction is confined to just a minute or two of fumbling before Yanni cuts to the tune. But for the most part his music wanders all over the place. The opening track, ''After the Sunrise,'' is a case in point. It starts with a long, quiet low note, out of which rise angelic string arpeggios in a strangely oafish three-quarter time sort of a parody version of the time-suspending prelude to Das Rheingold, the first opera of Wagner's Ring cycle and builds to a cymbal-crashing climax in no time flat. But where Wagner used these portentous materials to preface a 15-hour epic covering the entire history of the world, Yanni just uses them to introduce a tinkling little piano ditty, which thunks aimlessly along till he decides it's time to soar again.
What you get, in the end, is not a series of connected themes but a string of incoherent ''feels,'' usually expressed by some sort of hackneyed orchestral riff (cymbal crescendos are very big). Even the cliches wouldn't be so bad if only he got them right; the most unsettling thing about this music is not the triteness or the gush but the sheer absence of good composition. Even within the New Age field itself, you don't need to look any further than, say, Andreas Vollenweider's White Winds album to find music that's technically polished and original. Yanni, on the other hand, just lets go with an uninhibited flow of formless melodies, clumsy transitions, and lame sound effects. This is romantic? Yanni and Linda first put this album together solely for what Yanni calls their ''private listening enjoyment.'' It should have stayed that way. F