Windham Hill’s Solstice Concert Preserves the Spirit of an Iconic Label

Lily O'Brien on December 15, 2019
Will Ackerman, Barbara Higbie, Todd Boston, and Mia Pixley

As the days grow shorter and darker in December in the Northern Hemisphere, moods can become gloomy, in spite of — and sometimes due to — the expectations of joy in the holiday season. The winter solstice, the shortest day and the longest night of the year is the grand finale. Frequently a time of introspection and contemplation, this celestial event has been celebrated since ancient times by cultures all over the world, often with music.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the first recording of a musical solstice celebration by a collection of artists on the Windham Hill label. A winter concert tour has been a tradition for many years, and this year, Windham Hill’s Solstice Celebration concert will take place on Friday, Dec. 20 at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley. The concert will feature Windham Hill founder, acoustic guitarist Will Ackerman, Bay Area pianist, composer, and fiddler, Barbara Higbie, composer, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Todd Boston, and up and coming Bay Area genre-bending cellist Mia Pixley.

These solstice concerts are highly anticipated events, which in many ways is surprising, given that the label’s heyday was back in the ’80s. “The solstice concerts keep going because those albums sold about eight million copies and they were a big part of peoples’ lives,” said Higbie by telephone. A Grammy-nominated and Bammy Award-winning performer, she was the first woman to be signed to the Windham Hill label. “We have played a big venue in the Bay Area every year since 2011, and sold out every single year,” she declared.

Windham Hill founder Will Ackerman

Ackerman founded Windham Hill in 1976 on a shoestring, and built it up into a company that was doing $40 million a year. He eventually sold it in the early 90s to BMG. It was acquired later by Sony and “buried” according to Higbie. Characterized by mostly acoustic musicians who blended instruments and styles to create beautiful-sounding, melodic soundscapes, it became an immensely popular entire genre unto itself. Along with Ackerman, the label included acclaimed artists such as pianist George Winston (whose 1982 album December sold more than a million copies), guitarists Alex de Grassi and Michael Hedges, Higbie and her group Montreux, pianists Liz Story and Jim Brickman, and violinist Darol Anger. “We had fun blurring the lines,” said Higbie, defining the music as a blend that included classical, jazz, and folk that was created and performed by “serious instrumentalists who really value emotive melody as an important part of the music.”

The popularity of this unique musical style led to a new Grammy category called “New Age” in 1987, a label that carried for many, a negative connotation implying woo-woo meditation and hippie trance music.

Barbara Higbie

“We always hated being called “new age,” because the movement we were a part of was acoustic instrumental music,” said Higbie. “We got shoved into the new-age category, but we were never meditation music. Montreux had way more to do with the Punch Brothers than it did with new age music. That category was kind of the bane of our existence,” she exclaimed.

The evolving ethos of the baby boomer generation in the ’70s and ’80s, however, which was captivated by music that was fresh, live, and unaltered by technology, was a moment in time to be treasured. Compared to the Auto-tuned, highly produced, perfect-pitch, uber-commercial sound of many popular music idols today, this style of music was more about the emotional experience — the chill that goes through your body when you are deeply moved by the simplicity of a gorgeous sonic moment. The fact that many of Windham Hill’s artists’ albums sold millions of copies during those years is a testament to the legitimacy of a genre created by a group of talented, innovative musicians who were genuinely exploring new ways to express themselves.

Todd Boston

Much of the music was groundbreaking, and in some cases, mind-blowing. Take a listen to innovative guitarist Michael Hedges (tragically killed in a car crash at age 42 in 1997), who practically reinvented acoustic fingerstyle guitar music with his explosive plucking and picking on both ends of the guitar and on the harp guitar. Barbara Higbie and Daryl Anger are on fire both technically and emotionally on the title track of their 1986 album Tideline (composed by Higbie), a gorgeous, lightning-fast jazzy-cum-classical duet that defies genre. It was enormously popular, and was anything but easy listening, hot-tub music.

The concert will feature a blend of holiday traditions, including Christmas and Hanukkah, and seasonal pieces related to snow performed by the group in various configurations. There will also be original, non-holiday compositions by individual artists that will range from high energy to quiet and reflective.

Mia Pixley

Though the majority of their audience members are in their 60s and older, Higbie said they often draw several generations of families. “A lot of people have been inspired by what we did,” said Higbie. “Music is an important part of the holidays, and there’s a warmth and emotionality to this kind of music,” she added. “It touches a chord.”