New Sounds for New Age Music
Windham Hill Records Branches Out as Its Founder, Will Ackerman, Chooses a Different Path
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99
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In Vermont, Ackerman works on three or four projects simultaneously. He clears land on his 600-acre estate outside Brattleboro, where he lives with his second wife, artist Michaela Harlow. In the state-of-the-art recording studio he constructed plank by plank, he produces music and daydreams about surfing. He purchased the first 12-acre parcel in 1982 and has been buying up contiguous land ever since, building a compound for living, working and music making while traveling the world. "It's all about my search for a home," he says.
Now approaching 50, with the easygoing mannerisms of a Californian and a certain manic intensity sharing space in his soul, he is still working his way through the psychological mechanics of how to live a life. An orphan who was born to unknown parents in November 1949, Ackerman came to the United States from what was then West Germany at age nine. His adoptive father, Robert W. Ackerman, was an English literature professor at Stanford. As a teenager, Will was sent to a Massachusetts prep school and worked at the Windham Hill Inn, a bed-and-breakfast located a short drive away from the Townshend Dam Diner.
"That became home to me," Ackerman says. He's speaking metaphorically--he never lived at the Inn--but his existence since has been marked by a search for that same comfort and serenity. He enrolled at Stanford at 16, then dropped out a few credits short of graduation to enter an apprenticeship with a Norwegian boatbuilder-turned general contractor. He later named his record company after the inn so it, too, might seem like home. For Ackerman, who can't even read notes on a music staff, Windham Hill was about creating music that listeners would ultimately react to with great emotion. In the studio, he positioned microphones closer to instruments than they'd ever been before--actually inside pianos, for example--so performers could be heard striking the keys, shifting pedals, even breathing.
"I wanted that intimacy," he says. "The illusion, if it is an illusion, is that I was sitting there and you were sitting there and I was playing for you. I didn't want a concert, but an emotional attachment." Although a few early Windham Hill tracks included vocals, Ackerman gravitated to instrumental music. Such music worked passively on a listener at first--the dreaded background music--but ultimately demanded more attention and interaction than songs with lyrics. It's the difference, in a sense, between a self-help book and a novel.
"Listeners have incredibly intense relationships with this music," he says. "That may be because it doesn't trap you in the literal." That music, from artists such as Winston, guitarist and pianist Michael Hedges, and Ackerman himself, ultimately came to define the Windham Hill sound. That the music had a certain commonality to it was less the result of any grand marketing strategy than the fact that Ackerman was the sole creative filter at the company. He was finding new acts, sifting through tapes that had come in over the transom, nurturing artists. He found himself doing more of that than making music, one reason he decided to sell the company.
When he divested himself of all his Windham Hill equity, not wanting to have "one foot in and one foot out," he signed a three-year commitment not to compete with Windham Hill and looked forward to days of contemplation: chopping wood, adding rooms to his house, making his own music. That lasted a matter of weeks. "What I love is producing music," he says, "and I missed it much more than I ever thought I would." Ackerman waited out the length of his agreement by creating Gang of Seven, a CD label devoted to spoken-word recordings. He has since sold it, but the projects he did with Spalding Gray, Andrei Codrescu, Tom Bodett and others remain close to his heart. As soon as he was legally able, however, he returned to music and started Imaginary Road with Dawn Atkinson, who had been the principal producer at Windham Hill.
He signed the label to a joint venture with Polygram Classics and Jazz, mostly because of the presence of Chris Roberts, its president, who happened to have worked at a record store in Portland, Oregon, when Ackerman was peddling his music along the West Coast from a Volkswagen bus. (A merger earlier this year turned Polygram into Universal Classics Group. Roberts is now the chairman of Universal's U.S. division and, internationally, president of Universal Classics and Jazz.) He hadn't seen Roberts in the quarter-century since, but he felt comfortable working with a familiar face. "He really knows my history," Ackerman says, "and that's very important to me."
The music is less pastoral, more percussive, than his Windham Hill releases. Sitting in his studio, Ackerman choreographs each track in his mind. In the same way that he can build a new room on his house without blueprints, he can envision what he wants the music to sound like. He's after cleanliness of lines, just as in his own architecture. "I want to feel the presence in the room of everybody who's playing," he says. "I want to be able to point to exactly where I think they are." The music and the carpentry feed on each other.
While an assistant sets up the cut he wants to mix, Ackerman takes a moment to walk out the front door and around the back of his studio, where he has a workshop a level below. There, he takes an unfinished plank of wood and feeds it into a lathe. "Incredible, isn't it?" he says. "It starts off like this and comes out as smooth as that." Then he heads back upstairs to do the same for one of the cuts on Preston Reed's next release. The record business has become more corporate, and Ackerman has become less so. "What I want to do is be able to experiment wildly," he says.
He punches a CD called songs from einstein's violin by a little-known singer-songwriter named Frank Tedesso into his machine and implores a visitor to listen hard. Tedesso's from Chicago, Ackerman says, "but the record was described by someone as the first-ever use of a Martian accent. I'm as proud of it as anything I've ever done in my life." The music starts, and Tedesso's singular mix of Caribbean inflections and Irish intonation fill the room. "Margaret went all the way with Vincent," Tedesso sings. "They went to a ballgame for their honeymoon.
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