Did any music of lasting worth come out of the early ’80s ‘New Age’ boom?
Mark Isham’s brief but inspired Windham Hill catalogue still cuts the mustard.
The trumpeter/keyboardist/composer’s Vapor Drawings, released 35 years ago this weekend, was a remarkably assured, fully-formed debut album, recorded when he was part of Van Morrison’s band and also enjoying a varied session career.
I distinctly remember hearing a track from it in the mid-1980s on a short-lived ‘new age’ BBC radio show whose name escapes me. And weirdly, Isham mixed the album 100 yards from my childhood home during spring 1983 at John Kongos’s Tapestry Studios.
Synths are Vapor Drawings’ main ingredient but Isham uses them in subtly original ways, using sequencers to build Steve Reich-inspired ‘systems’ or – one of his trademarks – getting them to hang in the air like sky lanterns.
The music defies categorisation, mostly hovering in the hinterland between ambient, minimalism, electronica and jazz (he even throws in a quote from Sonny Rollins’ ‘Oleo’ on ‘Raffles In Rio’).
But there’s always the human element courtesy of his superb trumpet and piano playing. Erik Satie is also an apparent inspiration, and possibly what David Sylvian picked up on when he invited Isham into the studio to record Brilliant Trees later in 1983.
It’s no surprise Isham has become one of the most in-demand soundtrack composers of the last 30 years – ‘On The Threshold Of Liberty’ (named after a Magritte painting), ‘Men Before The Mirror’ and ‘Sympathy And Acknowledgement’ are epic and rousing.
’83 proved to be a bit of an annus mirabilis for Isham, hooking up with Sylvian and also working with Gil Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Vapor Drawings is the first and best of his solo albums.
DVD commentaries come and go, but among the best I’ve heard is for ‘Sideways’, Alexander Payne’s classic 2004 movie starring Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church.
One scene, set at at the fictitious Frass Canyon winery, opens on the shot of a pale, very sincere acoustic guitarist playing a ‘tender’ ballad. On the commentary, Haden Church mutters: ‘Very Windham Hill-ish’, eliciting a chuckle from Giamatti.
You get the feeling that the term ‘Windham Hill’ is a code for something not entirely positive…
For a brief period in my teens, a cassette copy of An Invitation To Windham Hill was always near the family hi-fi.
It has since become one of those weird, unclassifiable albums that I can’t shake. Why is that? What is this kind of music really about once you subtract the nostalgia?
The Windham Hill label was founded in 1976 by Californian guitarist William Ackerman, who initially used the imprint to sell his own music out of a Palo Alto garage. Just down the road, Steve Jobs was establishing his Apple empire, and guess what: he was a big fan of Windham Hill, as Ackerman later recounted in an interview:
‘Steve fell in love with the aesthetic. All the Apple computers (played) Windham Hill music when you turned them on. It was such an exciting time. Anything seemed possible. People were making dreams come true, and I did feel part of that.’
Early on, the label emphasised solo acoustic instruments, eliciting a ‘back to nature’ vibe. Later, electronic music, contemporary bluegrass, smooth Latin/jazz and Celtic sounds were eased into the mix.
The stark, ‘natural’ style of their album covers was apparently influenced by ECM, as was some of the musical ethos; Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and the acoustic guitar work of Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny were certainly important to Windham Hill.
Also, in the same way that Jarrett’s album proved a huge sales breakthrough for ECM, a similar thing happened to Windham Hill – George Winston’s Autumn unexpectedly sold over a million copies and changed the label from a modest, regional imprint to nationally-known entity (and Autumn was the first of his seasonal-themed recordings!).
The whole Windham Hill package, both musically and visually, is very ‘white’, very ‘corporate’, very ‘Thirtysomething’. It contributed massively to the mid-’80s popularity of New Age music (and the eventual backlash against it). It also has a lot in common with the Minimalist movement (including geography).
But Ian MacDonald has written persuasively about the infantilising effects of this stuff in his brilliant ‘The People’s Music’:
‘Something happens to people who listen to too much minimalism. They begin to smile facetiously, display a genially indiscriminate omni-tolerance and put their feet on your furniture. Some start wearing dungarees and playing with frisbees’!
There is definitely that element to An Invitation To Windham Hill, but it does also highlight the work of two genuinely excellent artists: Mark Isham and Michael Hedges. Isham has been a first-call soundtrack composer for 30 years now but his 1983 debut album Vapour Drawings is an ambient/electronic classic (more on that to come).
Hedges, who died in 1997, blew guitarists’ minds with the release of his debut album Aerial Boundaries. Thetitle track manages to be both an amazing technical feat (it’s a solo piece for drastically detuned guitar sometimes featuring up to four intertwining melodies, achieved with a mixture of picking, tapping and hammer-ons) and also a substantial composition in its own right.
The other solo guitar tracks by Alex De Grassi and Ackerman are weirdly memorable, as are the solo piano pieces. In fact, the whole album is, and it might make a nice soundtrack to your wine-tasting evening or campfire gathering. Or it might not…
A1 George Winston ‘Thanksgiving’ (3:07),
A2 Alex De Grassi ‘Western’ (4:04),
A3 Mark Isham ‘Love Theme’ (From ‘Mrs. Soffel’) (4:11),
A4 William Ackerman ‘Visiting’ (6:07),
A5 Mark Isham ‘In The Blue Distance’ (4:07),
B1 Shadowfax ‘Angel’s Flight’ (4:00),
B2 Scott Cossu ‘Ohana’ (5:03),
B3 Michael Hedges ‘Aerial Boundaries’ (4:39),
B4 William Ackerman ‘The Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daughter’ (3:50)
B5 George Winston ‘Longing/Love’ (5:11)