Mellow sounds of Windham Hill continue to woo listeners

IF you're a record buyer, chances are the words ``Windham Hill'' mean something to you. Windham Hill Records has been described as the recording phenomenon of the decade, and with good reason: What started out in 1978 as a glorified hobby for founders Will Ackerman and Anne Robinson has mushroomed into a megabucks recording industry. What's more, Windham Hill's stupendous growth is the direct result of the wild popularity of a kind of music that most major recording companies would probably sneer at: a quiet, mellow blend of folk and classical instrumental music, focusing largely on acoustic pianos and guitars. Detractors have called the music everything from ``musical wallpaper'' to ``wandering impressionism'' to ``palatable baby food for the '80s.'' But fans say it's a welcome relief from noisy rock and roll.

How did the Windham Hill phenomenon come about? Was it the result of a shrewd analysis of the musical tastes of the ``baby- boomers?'' Did Ackerman and Robinson dream up a clever publicity campaign to sell ``the Windham Hill sound?''

In a recent interview, Mr. Ackerman denied all of this:

``There was no concept about starting a phenomenon,'' he says. In fact, there was no idea of starting a record company at all. Ackerman, a guitarist, got tired of people asking him to make them tapes of his playing, so he decided to cut a record. He never realized at the time that he was planting the seeds for Windham Hill. His partner, Ms. Robinson, says, ``The philosophy was then, as it is now, that we wanted to make recordings of music that we liked, that we wanted to put on our own turntables at home.''

How do they explain the tremendous popularity of Windham Hill?

``I think it was simply because we stumbled onto a musical form that fell between the cracks and that nobody was paying any attention to,'' Ackerman says.

Adds Robinson, ``I just think a lot of people were feeling: `I work hard, I come home, I'm tired, I don't want to listen to rock and roll and get down and dance; I want something else.' I think Windham Hill appeals to people who are having children and who are getting a little more settled in their lives and in their careers. We happened to be in the right place at the right time.''

Despite the success of their venture, both Ackerman and Robinson are quick to state that their company has a much broader musical base than what has come to be known as ``the Windham Hill sound.'' In fact, they are in the process of trying to change that image, to let their listeners know that there is more available to them than the music of their Windham Hill favorites, such as George Winston, Alex DeGrassi, Liz Story, and Mark Isham.

Nevertheless, most people still associate Windham Hill with artists like DeGrassi and Winston, and not everyone likes the music. In fact, some people -- especially other musicians -- have strong reactions against it. One New York bass player described it as ``a variation of Muzak,'' and added, ``It's no crime for anybody to like any kind of music, but I think that Muzak-type music perpetuates mediocrity and trains people to want to have some background sound, without actually having to listen to it and think about it.''

Harold Danko, a pianist who has been on the New York scene since 1969 and has six albums under his own name, says, ``It's generic, non-entity music. If that's what they want out there, and that's all people are capable of feeling, I find it alarming.''

But Ackerman says, ``The letters we get are from people who are not satisfied with relegating this music to the background. I have produced George Winston and Alex DeGrassi; I know the emotional depth from which this music arises. I have seen it and felt it; it is genuine.''

And a Windham Hill listener defends the music:

``I don't think that Windham Hill is timeless art, but I do think sometimes it's nice to hear some pretty playing that doesn't distract your thought. It's like light opera; it's not like the heavy classics, but there is a place for it. The people who criticize George Winston are listening with a musician's ears, but some guy off the street isn't going to hear those fine points.''

Ackerman and Robinson plan to continue producing their most popular artists, but they have added two new labels -- Magenta, which is pure jazz, and Open Air, which is rock oriented and features some vocals. They've also done some videos and are looking into film projects.

``We need to become a more broad-based label if we intend to be in the music business for any period of time,'' says Ackerman, ``because, if we don't continue to evolve, people are going to get bored with us.''

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