New Age is the most sensible category for the music of Kitaro, the Japanese-born composer who uses a battery of modern and ancient instruments -- including synthesizers, guitars and a Taiko drum dating back a millennium -- to create soaring melodies and lush soundscapes.
His albums, including collaborations with Yes singer Jon Anderson and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, and the soundtrack for Oliver Stone's "Heaven and Earth," have notched sales of more than 12 million copies worldwide. "Best of Kitaro, Volume 2," a recently released second installment of favorite tracks, offers evidence of the enduring appeal of Kitaro's exotic blend.
Kitaro's earliest musical inspirations, though, were worlds apart from the glassy, sometimes glossy textures of contemporary New Age, a genre that includes the likes of Yanni, Andreas Vollenweider and John Tesh. He taught himself to play guitar while in high school, under the informal tutelage of R&B and soul records.
"When I started my career, I used to work in club bands, and we performed (songs by) Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave," he says, in partly broken English, by telephone from a tour stop in Las Vegas. "That era was really a big inspiration to me."
He then played progressive rock with the Far East Family Band, and during a 1972 trip to Europe met Klaus Schulze, the synthesizer player with innovative German electronic group Kraftwerk. Kitaro, already enamored with the charms of the Moog synthesizer, in 1978 released his debut solo album, "Astral Voyage," and rapidly gained a cult following.
Two decades after his first concert, a sold-out show at a 700-seat theater in Tokyo, Kitaro is beginning to come full circle, blending old and new passions to the delight of fans on several continents. "Lady of Dreams," for instance, from a collaboration with Anderson heard on the hits disc, sounds like a lost Yes track, and other pieces hint at influences beyond New Age.
"My music is becoming (something) in between native sounds and the classical sounds, and motifs with a rock feeling," he explains. "There are three different kinds of elements. I don't know what we should call it. How can we call it? I need to think about that some more."
New Age or not, Kitaro's music has consistently managed to strike a chord with a variety of listeners, beginning with his popular soundtracks for "Silk Road," an early '80s Japanese television documentary that has been seen internationally. Over the years, he's attracted Grammy attention, with nominations for 1987's "The Light of the Spirit" (with Hart), 1990's "Kojiki," 1991's "Live in America," 1992's "Dream" (with Anderson), 1994's "Mandala," 1995's "An Enchanted Evening" and last year's "Gaia."
Kitaro, who had previously scored several Japanese movies, took home a Golden Globe for 1993's "Heaven and Earth," the making of which amounted to a film-music internship. He spent more than a year on the soundtrack, writing, arranging and playing a variety of keyboards and Japanese and Chinese instruments.
"That was my first experience with a Hollywood movie," he says. "We (Kitaro and Stone) traveled together to Vietnam. He's a really tough director. He is really understanding of the music. I'd like to do more different kinds of movies. One war film -- it's enough. I'd love to do more science-fiction movies."
Sci-fi comes to the stage during Kitaro's new tour, via a specially designed theremin, rigged with MIDI technology. That's a variation on the instrument responsible for the squiggly high-pitched sounds heard in '50s sci-fi movies. He also employs something called the Waterphone, and a Kitar, with 100 strings, as well as traditional instruments from several countries.
Those instruments likely will be heard on "Thinking of You," Kitaro's next album, due for release by September. As usual, he played many of the instruments, and this time was joined only by a guitarist and a flutist.
"I composed the theme song Feb. 14," he says. "It's about thinking of my wife and my family, and also I'm thinking about all the listeners. It's a little different than my other music, a little more romantic."
He's awaiting publication of "Kitaro's World," a collection of nature photographs he shot in the vicinity of his 180-acre spread in Ward, Colo., near Boulder, a community situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet. The photos make explicit his music's implicit connection with themes related to the environment.
Also in the works are a DVD release including concert footage and glimpses of his life at home, production work on other CDs, and additional film work.
"I like to just keep going, to compose the music and to create the sounds that I hear," he says. "I'm going to produce another one of my friends' albums. There are so many things to do."