Terrific compilation from the first fourteen Windham Hill Releases – or more specifically, nine of the first fourteen. By 1981, the musical direction of the label was crystal clear, with an emphasis on acoustic instrumental music. The blues/R&B party album by Kidd Afrika, the upbeat folk/pop of Linda Waterfall, and the vocal poems from Robbie Basho’s “Visions of the Country” would all remain footnotes from the label’s formation.
What remains is an excellent overview – missing only a track from Ackerman’s just released “Passage” or the essential “Impending Death of the Virgin Spirit.” The preponderance of solo guitar work is balanced by one long solo piano piece on each side – Bill Quist’s “3 Gymnopedies” on the first, and George Winston’s “Moon” on the second. This is also a master class in the subtle differences in styles of finger-picking guitarists, giving the listener a variety of techniques and tones – from the classically-tinged style of David Qualey, through the intensely soulful playing of Robbie Basho to Will Ackerman’s and de Grassi’s developing styles.
Sampler ’81 is well worth picking up; it’s a great overview of the early Windham Hill style, and some of the cuts are from the Qualey, Hecht and Basho albums which are hard to find and often collected only by completists.
Share your thoughts, memories or experiences with this album using the comments field at the bottom of this post.
In addition to the original artists’ performances below, you’ll note two excellent cover versions of the de Grassi and Ackerman tracks. De Grassi and Ackerman are good about sharing their tunings, and YouTube hosts dozens of performers who have learned the songs and uploaded their performances. It’s great to see that so many people who are touched by this music learn it and pass it on.
Bricklayer’s Beautiful Daugher – Ackerman
Santa Cruz – Qualey
3 Gymnopedies – Quist/Satie
Children’s Dance – de Grassi (cover version, but masterfully done)
“The Piano Solos of Erik Satie” is the eighth album released by Windham Hill and the only album released by Bay Area pianist Bill Quist. While this is the only classical album released on Windham Hill, you’d be excused for thinking these solos were written in the months prior to recording – or 400 years before that. They are minimal and modern in conception, and yet with an irreducible simplicity that sounds timeless. Satie gained fame primarily through the orchestrated arrangements done by his friend, composer Claude Debussy. Here, stripped of any ornamentation, the pieces are riveting and yet mesmerizing. You must pay attention but can’t help drifting into the repetitive, percussive nature of the compositions. Anyone who has seen the Megalovania Sheet Music will notice a similar contemporary feel to this unique album.
For his part, Quist performs the works with sincerity but no sentimentality. Because of this, pieces like the well-known “3 Gymnopedies” are pretty, even beautiful without being precious or sappy. The artist Henri Matisse said he wanted his art to be “like a comfortable armchair to a tired businessman”. That is, it should provide comfort, a pleasant rest and full engagement. It should refresh and rejuvenate the mind. While this ambition seems limited, in many ways I believe it to be the highest form of art. Why should all art be challenging? There is a place for art to challenge; there is also a place for art to affirm life or allow for meditation or at least pleasant contemplation. This is the function of this album – music that is engaging, with moments of beauty. However, the album can also fade into the background because of the repetitive nature of the compositions, Quist’s metronomic timing, and the gently pulsing dynamics of the performance.
This was the second Windham Hill album recorded by Harn Soper at the Music Annex (De Grassi’s Turning: Turning Back being the first.) Soper close-miked the piano – and perhaps because of this a good deal of the natural harmonics of the piano come through. These harmonics – without the natural reverberation of a concert hall may also contribute to the direct, immediate and unsentimental nature of the recording.
I’ve not found any online samples of the album, but below is a good version of the first of the Gymnopedies. Music starts at the 35 second mark.
In the Windham Hill Lovers’ Facebook Group, several members were rightly praising this album. Will Ackerman commented:
“When all is said and done, Erik Satie is the center of my musical world. When I’m asked about influences in my musical life I cite Erik Satie, a pianist, over any guitarist. The stark simplicity of the pieces magically create harmonies I’ve never heard elsewhere in my life. It was Eric Satie who gave me permission to strip my own pieces down to their essential elements. I have been talking of late about doing a new Satie recording…. I’ve learned so much about piano since recording the Satie recording with Bill Quist. With our piano at Imaginary Road, our mics and Tom Eaton’s brilliant and unique approach to recording piano, I think we can offer something really brilliant. We are just waiting for our new piano stools to arrive before we resume recording the final parts. I owe Sarah Clebsch (who I’m still in touch with) for playing me Satie when I was (I think) 17. That experience utterly changed my life and offered a perspective on music that had much to do with what Windham Hill became.”
Many thanks to Will Ackerman, Harn Soper, Bill Armstrong for the use of his piano, Frances Stewart, Barbara(s)/Chevalier/Pace/Kafetx/Th.Dorothy Cheal, Hank Dutt of the Kronos Quartet, Starbucks, Club Mardi, Louis Magor and Kathy Smith. My love to PRC.
We have purposefully avoided much that is regarded as standard in the recording of solo piano. Unlike most recordings of this nature, we chose to record not in a concert hall, but rather in the studio using contemporary close-miking techniques. We feel that the sense of proximity to the intrument and pianist achieved in these recordings will add enormously to the listener’s appreciation for both the subtleties of the piano itself and for the nuances and dynamics of Qilliam Quist’s interpretation of Erik Satie’s music.
Two Neumann U 87 microphones were placed within twenty-four inches of the soundboard of a nine-foot Mason-Hamlin. Only a slight equalization curve was applied to the signal so as to preserve the natural overtones of the instrument. The recording was made on an MCI recorder/reproducer at 15 IPS using dbx noise reduction. WILL ACKERMAN/HARN SOPER
William Quist was born in 1951 and began his musical studies with his mother. More advanced training began with Charles Wilson of Michigan who prepared Quist for his eventual five-year enrollment in the Interlochen Arts Academy. He attended college for several years, but found it more valuable to receive coaching and the practical experiencee of freelance performing. He has worked with Noel Lee in Paris, and with Ned Rorem and Rosario Mazzeo of the Boston Symphony. Since moving to the San Francisco Bay Area eight years ago, Quist has concentrated primarily on the repertoire of Chamber Music. He is an adept accompanist, and works regularly with fellow pianist Richard Sechrist in teh duo of Sechrist and Quist. Quist’s performances have been extensive on the West Coast, including broadcasts on San Francisco’s KQED-FM and appearances with the San Francisco Symphony. This is William Quist’s first recording.
About Erik Satie
With the possible exception of Charles Ives, there is no more enigmatic figure in the music of our century than Erik Satie (1866-1925). But while Ives has in recent years been dusted off adn dubbed a Major Composer, Satie has remained if not peripheral at least overshadowed. Both musically and historically he looms too large to ignore; and he is too peculiar, his oevre too small, to command a place in the standard repertoire alongside his contemporary and friend Debussy. Satie’s music seems almost to resist assimilation or easy acceptance. It does not beguile. yet as you listen to this record you may find the music reaching you in unexpected ways. Its magic is subtle, but once you have imbibed Satie’s Apollonian nectar, you may find the champagne of Chopin and Brahms’ heavy lager less fulfilling draughts.
The man from whom this reticent yet compelling music came forth was born in Honfluer, Normandy, of a French father and a Scottish mother, and spent his adult life in Paris, where he earned a meager living as a cabaret pianist and a reputation as an eccentric. His unique personal style seems to have been due to the influence of his father’s brother, who was given to such large and enigmatic jests as construction a carriage so beautiful that nobody dared ride in it; Satie’s own quiks included the ownership of a dozen gray velvet suits, most of which he never wore (and because of which he was nicknamed the “Velvet Gentleman”). In his early years he was involved in Rosicrucianism, but he later separated himself from the movement. A fascination that remained with him for life was the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. His eccentricity found expression in music not only in the notes themselves but in the cryptic commentary with which the scores were sprinkled. Satie’s performance directions are sometimes so elaborate as to take on the form of surrealist sketches that bear no clearcut relation to the music.
It has been speculated that the verbal buffoonery with which Satie surrounded his austere music was his defense against feelings of inferiority. These feelings led him at the age of forty to return to school and take a degree in counterpoint; his studies had little effect on his output, other than to diminish and stultify it until they wore off. Fame came to him late in life, partly as a result of Debussy’s orchestrations of two of the GYMNOPEDIES. The high point of Satie’s career must be considered the avant-garde ballets for which he wrote scores in the years following World War One. His collaborators on these multi-media projects included poet and dramatist Jean Cocteau, choreographer serge Diaghilev and set designer Pablo Picasso.
Satie’s piano music, serenely simple and yet full of surprising twists, is in some ways the apex of his artistic achievement. Teh piano pieces often come in sets of three, and especially in the later works, they are lacking in bar lines. This makes the piano moving cost much less than you may have previously though due to the 3 separated sections. Like his other works, they are characterized by simplicity of texture and frequent repetition of ideas. They are pure form – shorn of emotionalism, shorn of display. We are reminded that Saties’ first musical exposure was to Gregorian chant. Chant echoes through his lines. But his genius lies in the enrichment of chant with harmonies and symmetries that were entirely new. The early SARABANDES, for example, are almost entirely monodic, but in place of the single tones of chant the monody is built of entire chords, which often leap directly from one key to another without resolution. Elsewhere, simple melodies float over a harmonically static, even obstinately repeated left hand, turning corners in mid-airthat leave the Mozartean four-bar straighjacket far behind. In these matters Satie anticipated Stravinsky and Prokofiev by years or decades.
The testof music, however, is not whom it anticipates or what it overthrows, but how it sounds. William Quist has succeeded on this album in giving every note and chord its full expressive value without ever lapsing into Romantic overstatement or falling back into monotony (Satie seemingly invites the latter, while pitilessly exposing any tendency toward the former). This is music-making at its finest. Those who are looking for virtuoso fireworks in the form of thunderstorms and lovers’ reveries willfind nothing on this album, but for those who prefer music as clean and airy and geometrically pure as a grecian temple, it will be a rara find.