'Folk piano' by way of John Cage: George Winston defies musical stereotypes

George Winston's 1982 album "December"
George Winston's 1982 album "December"
Windham Hill

George Winston describes his best-known music as "rural folk piano." That always struck me as odd, since a Steinway grand is not a rural folk instrument; when pianos do crop up in rural folk settings, it's fairly rare that they're used to play spacious and urbane original compositions influenced by minimalism and jazz. So why "folk"?

"It's folk piano — that's the only way I can describe it," said a superfan who traveled all the way from Atlanta to hear Winston play at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on December 22. This fan sitting in front of me described Winston as a true original with an inimitable style that Winston has devised to create his impressionistic music that's often inspired by nature.

"On the page, the music doesn't look difficult to play," explained a young pianist whose fingers could be seen playing silently along on her lap as Winston performed, "but no one can play it like he does."

On his website, Winston says that he prefers the "rural folk piano" label because his music "is melodic and not complicated in its approach, like folk guitar picking and folk songs, and has a rural sensibility."

I first became aware of Winston the way most people did: through his recordings for the Windham Hill label. Founded in 1976 by guitarist and composer William Ackerman, Windham Hill became a fad among 80s yuppies who gravitated to the label's unique sound and iconic modern packaging. (The label is now owned by Sony, which continues to distribute some of the label's past releases but no longer issues new Windham Hill recordings.) Winston was among the label's classic roster of artists who played music that became known (and mocked) as "new age" music — though that was never an appellation that Winston embraced.

Whether the kind of music heard on Winston's albums Autumn (1980), Winter Into Spring (1982), December (1982), and Summer (1991) is "folk," "new age," or something else, Winston and most of his listeners agree that it's certainly not "classical." Most of the selections on those albums are original compositions, played on an instrument that's central to the classical repertoire — but Winston's rarely heard on classical stations, and is shelved in classical bins only in the kind of stores where books are filed under a sign reading "authors."

Winston came to the keyboard through popular music: born in 1949, he grew up with rock 'n' roll. Before he played piano, he played organ — inspired, a program note explains, by the likes of the Doors and Booker T. His inspiration to switch to piano came from jazz recordings by "Fats" Waller and other legends of stride piano. His earliest solo piano recordings, released in 1972 as Ballads and Blues, came squarely from those pop, jazz, and blues traditions.

By the end of the decade, Winston had discovered the "folk" sound that made him a contemporary-instrumental superstar. By the 80s, "new age" music had become both a phenomenon and a joke; though the spare acoustic aesthetic of Windham Hill stood apart from the cheesy swooping synths of, say, Yanni, the Windham Hill artists shared the emerging genre's interest in ambient, minimalist instrumental music that foregrounded texture and mood.

New age music was, and remains, a laughingstock for the kind of classical music fans who prize intellectual rigor and formal innovation, but new age music is a branch on a family tree that can be traced back through Philip Glass and Terry Riley to John Cage, Erik Satie, and beyond.

Winston emphasizes his roots in pop and jazz, stating forthrightly that "I have never played any European classical music, and I don't have any classical influence." Yet, while he's not a classical musician, it's nonetheless clear that Winston is not walled off from contemporary classical music.

At the Fitzgerald, 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. 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.

Few musicians have embraced the "ambient" label the way that Eno has, but ambience has been an important concern of composers from the beginning of recorded musical history. Composers like Handel and Haydn wrote music that they could only hope future generations would appreciate, since they knew they couldn't expect very close attention from many of their original courtly listeners, who demanded pleasant sounds that were new — but not too new. Winston's music inspired by the seasons of course brings Vivaldi to mind, and Classical MPR's "music for living" tagline acknowledges the fact that there's no shame in using Bach and Mozart as dinner music.

Ironically, it may be his acute ear for ambience that makes Winston feel so un-folk-like — Woody Guthrie didn't write dinner music. Folk music is generally considered to be music for singing and dancing, not for contemplating nature. Winston knows how to play dance music, and does — he sometimes plays "solo piano dances" as evening-long concerts — but his music also invites consideration of the other meanings of "folk." 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.

Folk music as a device for suspending time is a central theme (in my interpretation) of the Coen Brothers' new film Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie about the New York folk scene of the early 60s. That film includes a brief glimpse of Bob Dylan, whose innovations included using both inhalation and exhalation, in rapid alternation, to achieve a rough, exciting effect on harmonica. The harmonica is considered one of the quintessential folk instruments, but it was invented in Beethoven's Vienna and has been extensively used in the classical music world.

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.

Is this folk music? Rhythm and blues? Ambient? Jazz? New age? Even — in a sense — classical? Love him or hate him, George Winston is the kind of artist who demonstrates what fertile ground there is to be trod in the vast open spaces among musical genres.

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