What's not subjective is how, in the mid-'70s, Chip Davis was able to capture the imagination of a huge audience with his unique creation, Mannheim Steamroller. While helping define the genre of New Age, he gained a mainstream audience by staying away from many of the style's cliches: the droning bass, the annoying formless tune, the brain-numbing repetitive musical figure. To many, Davis' music is a reminder of a basic aesthetic need we have lurking beneath any veneer of sophistication -- a need for melody, for simplicity and unashamed beauty and tradition in a world of complex structures.
Davis' background is, like his music, fascinatingly eclectic. He started off as a symphonic bassoon player, touring with groups such as the famed Norman Luboff Choir, while composing and tinkering with electronic music on the side. He had stints as a dinner theater conductor and commercial jingle writer, and was even named Country Music Writer of the Year in 1976. But at night he worked on a concept he called "18th Century Classical Rock," combining the structure and melody of classical music with contemporary rhythms, and mixing harpsichords with synthesizers.
Rejected by record companies because his style couldn't be categorized and he didn't have a band, he started his own record company and created Mannheim Steamroller, named after the 18th-century Mannheim "Crescendo" orchestra famous for building intensity with layers of sound. The intent of the music was to "flatten" the listener -- hence the "steamroller."
Told that Christmas albums were not big sellers and got little radio play, he released Mannheim Steamroller Christmas in 1984 and sold over 5 million copies. The album, which ranged from sentimental to funky while appealing to the hidden child in everyone, forced the industry to re-examine the genre. According to Mannheim Steamroller, the sentimental doesn't have to be trite or superficial.
Talking recently on the phone from his tour bus, the friendly and sincere Davis seems continually astonished at his mega-success. "I don't know how I've done it," he says simply. "I was able to bottle it for a while, so that now it's lightening in a bottle. All I know is that I intend to do more of it. The popularity seems to be related to being honest with my feelings -- following my nose. I've tried to maintain my own musical integrity with the style and presentation. I want to expose things to people, instead of jumping to the quick commercial fix."
Davis feels that his classical grounding is pivotal to his music. A third-generation classical musician, in his home he plays a harpsichord built by his father. He is a strong believer in the structural purity of classical music -- if it doesn't work in black and white, on a piano, it doesn't work. His colleagues onstage are classically-trained as well. "Our musicians can play a Mozart concerto for you," Davis says with pride.
Mannheim Steam-roller has just released its eighth Fresh Aire album. "It's about infinity -- infinity in mathematics and infinity in relation to the ancient Egyptian idea of an afterlife," says Davis. "It was conceived originally for DVD surround sound format, which is a technological breakthrough. I've become infatuated with DVD, and I conceived the album with a storyline and pictures simultaneously. This is breakthrough technology. No other record company is doing this -- they only think of DVD in terms of video. DVD is an art form unto itself. There's a panache to it."
While less intimate than a home stereo system, Davis doesn't mind playing huge arenas such as Philips, where the group performs this week. "It amazes people how warm and friendly we make it look and feel. When we play in the arena format, I convert it into an actual Christmas atmosphere," says Davis. "When people arrive they're greeted by Christmas characters and we have a choir singing carols in the hallways. Inside, the arena is lit with theatrical lighting instead of mercury vapor. We have a 6000-square-foot Christmas village with an electric train and 12 marching soldiers. The first half of the program we'll play some fan favorites, with videos. The second half is all Christmas music."
Mannheim Steamroller perform at Philips Arena, Thurs., Dec. 7, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $20.50-$72, available through Ticketmaster.
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