The small group of men take their places on stage amid a vast arsenal of drums, gongs, chimes, bells, synthesizers, computers, amplifiers, wind instruments -- and the harp. Andreas Vollenweider, dressed entirely in white, a mass of blondish curls covering his head, draws his fingers across the strings of the harp. The others join in, and the music begins. Who can describe this music?
It is at once otherworldly and down-to-earth; childlike and sophisticated; primordial and progressive. It's trancelike, swingy, military. It's a movie soundtrack, a Latin dance tune, a jazz improvisation.
Then again it's the Beatles, or it's Oriental, or African polyrhythms -- an amazing palette of colors, sounds, and textures that, despite their wild diversity, never sound like a hodgepodge.
And the element that draws it all together is Vollenweider's harp.
``I think that music, painting, writing, or any of these artistic ways of expression is a gift,'' said Vollenweider in a recent interview, ``. . .a tool to create a vision in a very detailed way so that we can experience its reality, its concrete character.''
Since 1984 the young Swiss harpist and composer -- already well known in Europe -- has become madly popular in the United States. His first tour was a sellout; his albums have been hard to keep in stores.
John Brancotti, manager of Rizzoli's record store in Manhattan, sold 15,000 of Vollenweider's albums simply by playing them while people browsed.
Says Noah Adams, host of National Public Radio's ``All Things Considered,'' which uses Vollenweider's music as its theme, ``The switchboard lights up every time we play it.''
How did Vollenweider happen to choose the harp?
``I found the harp the way I play it -- by instinct. I passed by a place where there was one, and then after I had tried out so many other instruments before it, it was just natural. It's like you know many people, but you can't say you love all of them the same way you do one person when you meet.''
Speaking of his music, he says, ``My approach to the music is the same as it is of the listener. I hear every note for the first time. Most of it is improvised, or comes out of improvisation; so for this reason I cannot limit it to be my own personal music. It represents a feeling of life, a special way of looking at this world and at ourselves . . . .''
``I do believe and I know as a fact that there is a dimension of equality and of brother- and sisterhood in this world. It's not easy to get there, but I know it as a fact, because I've received thousands of letters from all over the world, and when I read a letter from Hamburg, New York, Alaska, they talk about the same things. They are expressing their experiences with this music, and they are absolutely the same. There is a dimension where we are all built upon the same seeds . . . .''
To Vollenweider, music is just one way of effecting change in the world. ``This growing number of people, all with the same feeling, together, are a potential for world peace. The peace movement has to be fed by the tool of the art to playfully work out the vision until it becomes reality.''
How does he define this vision?
`` . . . To live in a world where human beings can finally understand themselves as being part of nature instead of seeing nature as an enemy.''
Vollenweider spends much of his time traveling with his band: Pedro Haldemann (synthesizers), Walter Keiser (drums), Buedi Siebert (flutes), Christoph Stiefel (keyboards), and John Otis (percussion). They will be touring the US through the end of October.