There's a problem in new pretty piano music. I call it the "new age" problem. The thing is, we've been Jim Brickman-d, David Lanz-d, Yanni-d, and now we can't hear Keith Jarrett the same way anymore. We are all familiar with the warm sounds of new age piano music; it's been a weird but persistent classification. On the surface, Jarrett's Köln Concert, the albums of George Winston, and contemporary postminimal piano music by Peter Garland or William Duckworth sound similar, but the genre underpinnings, and associated politics, are vastly different in each case. The worlds of jazz, pop, and classical, respectively, have merged together into this zone where superficial similarities are in danger of overriding the differences in intent between these disparate musicians.
I'm not going to sit here and rip on George Winston or even Yanni. That would be cheap and facile, and no matter what I think about their music, it's similar enough to Garland's, at least in terms of the primary units being warm consonant piano chords, that my argument would rest on thin ice. If you look even slightly deeper, though, there are simple enough ways to differentiate this music. I'll focus on the jazz and classical sides, not since I think they're inherently superior, but because I know them better. Listen to Jarrett's voicings, his energy at the keyboard, his creative texturing. As for postminimal piano music, I point to Kyle Gann's definition: a preference for minimalism's repeating figures, loosened to allow for changing textures and--here's the key--an atmosphere that is, in Gann's words, more "subtle and mysterious" than that of traditional minimalism.
The harmonies, strictly speaking, are not terribly more complex in Garland's A Song or "Blue" Gene Tyranny's Song No. 1, From The Driver's Son, Take Two than in the music of your favorite new age pianist. But there is something in the atmosphere of these pieces that betrays a careful composer's hand. The Wikipedia page for new age music describes it as "intended to create inspiration, relaxation, and positive feelings." I take no issue with that aim, in theory at least; John Cage famously put a similar idea a bit more eloquently when he stated the purpose of music to be "to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences." This is not a simple statement, of course. But while postminimal piano music can have this same generically relaxing effect on the surface, there is also a cultivated undercurrent of mystery in Garland's unremitting chordal patterns and Tyranny's magnetically resonating piano strings that any examination beyond the most cursory listening will quickly discern. It is a subtle but immensely rewarding quality that makes me, for one, continually return to this music.
Isn't it fascinating, also, that Tyranny himself describes his music as "avant-garde," as pretty and unthreatening as it is to the ear? Another reminder that this classification is primarily political, not aesthetic. This is a statement meant to indicate not what his music sounds like, but where it comes from.