George Winston Live in Concert: Music for Contemplative Solitude

Given my predilection for 20th century classical, ambient, and drone music I seldom have the opportunity to experience my favorite artists performing live as few visit the States, (or in many cases they stopped breathing many years ago). So when I learned that George Winston, legend and icon of Ackerman’s Windham Hill record label was offering a concert performance in my fair city I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

For the few of my readers yet unfamiliar with Winston’s beautiful music, on his website he describes his style as “rural folk piano.” Rateyourmusic.com tags him as Neoclassical New Age, Christmas Music, Modern Classical, and Jazz and employs descriptors including, “pastoral, peaceful, passionate,” and “bittersweet.”

Winston has two primary concert themes – a Summer Show and a Winter Show, each showcasing selections from his catalog related to those seasons. This week I had the pleasure of attending The Summer Show which was a treat as I’d previously gravitated toward his autumnal and wintery early recordings like his certified triple-platinum 1982 classic, December. This concert offered fresh, new content from one of my favorite pianists in an intimate live setting. And intimate it was, indeed! Only twenty or so rows of folding chairs were set up immediately in front of the stage and there were but two hundred in attendance and I was honored to be among them.

Initially I’d wondered if the experience would be a drowsy evening of so-called new age key-plinking, but it was nothing of the sort. Winston live would never be mistaken for a Steve Roach sleep concert – even at 70 and in his health condition Winston was lively, spirited, bursting with zestful energy, and his performances were dynamic and varied tremendously as he transformed from interpreting one musical period or performer to the next.

The performance featured not only standards from his early Windham Hill repertoire but also Winston’s own stylistic interpretations of Vince Guaraldi’s jazz, the classic stride-piano technique of numerous New Orleans R&B pianists like Henry Butler, James Booker, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and John Cleary, Hawaiian Slack Key solo guitar, (a unique fingerstyle tradition of the island), and Winston’s distinctive harmonica stylings as well.

For Christmas of 2013, Jay Gabler penned an incredibly thorough feature on Winston published by Classical MPR. The article summarizes the Winston concert experience so effectively that little more needs to be said so I will encourage my readers to visit his full original write-up. But a few of his key remarks really touch upon what I appreciated specifically about this concert experience so I’ll share a few excerpts.

One particularly captivating number was “Muted Dream,” from his latest 2017 effort, Spring Carousel – A Cancer Research Benefit, which sounded like a prepared piano composition. (George manipulates the strings inside the piano during the piece.) Gabler describes the technique thusly:

Winston acknowledged the influence of towering minimalist composer Steve Reich; in a Cage-ian flourish, Winston sometimes reaches inside the piano to mute the strings as he plays. Winston also shares the interest of minimalist composers — and, by extension, ambient musicians such as Brian Eno — in crossing the boundaries of genre to grab rhythmic ideas from jazz, from pop, and from international musical traditions.

And regarding the fascinating slack-key style:

Winston is a practitioner, fan, and preservationist of guitar music played in the Hawaiian slack-key tradition; with its open tuning and alternating-bass pattern, the slack-key style is just the kind of thing that might interest 20th-century musical adventurers from John Adams to Sonic Youth.

Of Winston’s harmonica playing, Gabler notes:

Harmonica is yet another of George Winston’s musical interests; he offered a sample of his technique at the Fitzgerald, and his approach is fascinating. As Winston plays, he effects rapid dynamic changes; he doesn’t sound like Larry Adler or Little Walter so much as he sounds like a Steve Reich tape loop in which a snippet of sound is played over and over again at different pitches and tempos, creating a hypnotic effect that can be disrupted by sudden stops, starts, and reversals.

But my favorite segment of the feature is Gabler’s summary of Winston’s characteristic and trademark sound:

Winston’s music sounds distinctly urban, with its smooth sonorities and delicate textures, but it evokes a sense of the rural and the vernacular in its sense of suspended time, of burbling placidity that flows like a brook rather than marching like a fugue.

Quite poetic! For those musicians among my readers curious about Winston’s choice in instruments, the Summer Show program included the following information:

Instruments:

Piano: George Winston plays Steinway pianos

Guitar: Martin D – 35 (1966) with a low 7th string added

Harmonica: combining Hohner Big Rivers with key of low D Cross Harp reed plates

Winston has released fourteen solo piano albums, as well as four benefit EPs and five soundtracks, and the concert inspired me to venture further beyond my familiarity with his early Windham classics to explore his complete catalog.

It was equally wonderful to experience him playing early staples like the hauntingly captivating and magical “Woods” from his very first Windham Hill release, Autumn (1980) and “Variations on the Kanon” (by Pachelbel) from December live, up close, and personal. He closed with a Doors cover, as featured on his album, Night Divides the Day – The Music of the Doors released in 2002, and for his encore concluded with a charming traditional fiddle tune, “Sandy River Belle.”

It was a concert to remember, and instantly became one of my favorite live music experiences. An RYM user described Winston’s music as that of “contemplative solitude” and it was precisely the medicinal music I needed at this transitional time in my life. Thank you, George.

Coming Soon to Innerspace: The Time Machine

While this week’s post is not necessarily musical, it is perhaps my most exciting post to date, and I’m confident that many of my readers will share in my exhilaration.

2016 has been a monumentally nostalgic year, likely due to my age and as a bit of reactionary escapism from the seemingly endless barrage of tragedies which have befallen us this year. More so than ever before, I’ve been transforming my home into a palace of beloved objets d’art and memories of wonderful moments from decades (or even centuries) past. My reading has been largely cultural criticism, political revolutionary texts, and music manifestoes from my favorite periods in history, and similarly, my cinematic explorations have been a journey through cult classics from the silver screen to the present.

One classic film has always remained close to my heart – the 1960 film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. My father shared the film with me via a VHS copy he taped from a broadcast on AMC in the 1980s. I was captured by the regal Victorian style of the time traveler’s home. I quickly adopted red velvet draperies, antique wood furniture, and fringe-shaded oil lamps for my own personal style, and have been refining that decor for 20 years.

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In 2012 a rosewood Denon DP-60L vintage turntable became my pièce de résistance. 

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And in 2013, the film resurfaced in my life when I purchased a 1971 painting by a local artist celebrating the movie. It had been acquired directly by a reseller and comic collector when it was painted but was never owned or displayed until my discovery of the piece forty years later. And as luck would have it, there was an ornate decorative Victorian style frame its exact size sitting a few feet away in the same shop. I didn’t hesitate for a moment and took them both home.

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So when nostalgia crept back into my mind this winter, I went back to that fateful film and the fantastic journey of the time traveler. I began scouring eBay, Amazon, and other marketplaces for a brilliant piece of official merchandise to celebrate the film in my own home. I quickly discovered that there is actually very little in the way of official merch for this magnificent film. A seller on Amazon offers a low-res bootleg print of the theatrical poster, but a genuine copy will set you back $600 and there is nothing offered in between.

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But it was off the beaten path that I found the greatest treasure any Time Machine devotee could ask for. While there are two independently-engineered advanced model kits available in the $200 dollar range, both are far beyond my level of ability to assemble and paint. However, on a humble website named timemachinemodels.com, a gentleman designs and handcrafts several working models of the Machine with varying levels of complexity. His latest design is absolutely breathtaking, and he offered to build one for me once he’s settled into his new home.

The latest model, based on the design of the full-scale Machine has a solid walnut base, brass rails and ornaments, and velvet seat cushions. The dish is turned with a new style motor that is built into the hub of the dish and eliminates the need for an external bearing wheel, providing a smoother and quieter operation. The control lever which activates the motor and lights is removable and comes in its own tiny display box.

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And better still – The Invention is available in The Tantalus Box from the film to truly showcase the piece properly.

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Here is The Time Machine in action. (All images and video are property of TimeMachineModels.com.)

The project is estimated to take twelve weeks to craft from start to finish and will be a splendid tribute to the memory of my late father’s initiating me into the world of science fiction all those years ago.

But wait! I do have a musical connection to close this feature after all! In anticipation of the project, I’ve ordered an original pressing of the dramatic score to The Time Machine!

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[EDIT – UPDATE!] The original film poster inspired me to design a monochrome t-shirt of the graphic. My custom tee arrived recently in the post –

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These are indeed exciting times. Happy new year everyone.

Published in: on December 30, 2016 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Experimental Music Haul 2.0

I’ve started volunteering at the Bop Shop and they let me browse the special collections section (items for sale on the website) and I’ve found some remarkable LPs.

The first item I picked up was Morton Subotnick’s The Wild Bull.  I asked, “so is it true that I can pick up just about any release on the Nonesuch label and know that it will be fantastic?”

Moments later, I had my answer.  I found a double LP boxed set titled, The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music by Beaver and Krauss.  It was composed on one of the first Moog synthesizers built by Bob Moog and includes a syllabus to guide the listener through a collection of sound concepts and the language of electronic music which was altogether new to the world when the record was released.

One of the 20th century music experts working in the shop smiled and told me that the Guide was an essential starting point for my early electronic library and that had the album been produced in a more limited run, it would be considered a holy grail.

Click on the back cover shot for a high-resolution photo and check out the track listing for a better idea of what this collection offers.

Next I asked if by chance the store had a copy of George Harrison’s noise record, Electronic Sound.

Sure enough, in the special collections area there were not one but three copies!  The first was $25 but had needle wear and audible surface noise.  The $40 copy was a Japanese import in NM condition and it played magnificently.  I opted for the second disc and after researching the recording I learned that Krauss actually composed and performed an entire side of the album but was never credited on the release.

The final treasure came when I inquired about a collection of experimental releases from the French label, Prospective 21e Siècle from the 60s and 70s.  I was surprised to hear that the owner of the shop recalled the label and remembered seeing a few discs come into the store at one time or another.  We searched through the “to-be-filed” shelves and to my absolute surprise found FOUR of the label’s releases tucked away on the top shelf!  Most were $50 apiece and in excellent condition.  After quickly sampling these discs I picked out three and added them to my pile.

I plan to rip these rare albums to FLAC just as soon as the McIntosh pre-amp and power amp arrive.

Prospective 21e Siècle – Boucourechliuv

Prospective 21e Siècle – Clavencin 2.0

Prospective 21e Siècle – Ohana

I made two additional discoveries this week as well.  The Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble has released two albums, each in the area of New Music.

The first was a performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.  It was an excellent performance of the classic piece, but the second release is what really grabbed me.

In C Remixed is a 21st century re-imagining of Terry Riley’s groundbreaking minimalist composition.

Below is a sample – Jad Abumrad’s mix

And the other discovery was the work of Pauline Oliveros.  I began exploring her tape music from the 50s and 60s but was most impressed with her work with The Deep Listening Band during the 1990s.  The album, Ready Made Boomerang was recorded in a two million gallon cistern which has a reverberation time of 45 seconds!

I’m hoping for a vinyl re-issue of this release.

I’ll be heading back to the Bop Shop this Saturday so stay tuned for more!