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Wide Open Spaces

Navigating the expansive music of George Winston

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There is much that remains to be said about artists who create emptiness. It’s a difficult thing to wrap your mind around—the idea of making nothing—which is probably why critics often fall short in their descriptions of the spare, expansive, demanding work that does it so well. But the fact is, the art of nothingness requires a truly unusual perspective, a unique bead, in order to make its merits shown. Take the poetry of William Carlos Williams. He was dismissed by many as a hollow mass-market poet, writing about nothing more than red wheelbarrows and chilled plums; but the way he parsed his words and broke his lines gave new power to the American language. Think of the artist Mark Rothko. His tediously even one-color canvases confused some viewers and angered others; but a few saw in his work a quiet, meditative space that they had never witnessed before. And imagine the paintings of Edward Hopper, like the lonesome diner scene in his famous “Nighthawks.” They look bleak, grotesque and depressing, until you shift your viewpoint into a kind of negative relief: His paintings aren’t about people so much as they are about the spaces between them. It’s all there in front you—that emptiness—in all its discarnate force. It’s just hard to spot. With the right kind of eyes, you can see it.

George Winston is a musician who has earned his rank alongside these artists as a true craftsman of absence. For nearly 30 years, his solo piano work has built him a reputation as one of America’s most slight, elegant and minimal musicians, a creator who not only makes music—he does that, beautifully—but also stakes out the silence between the chords.

Since the beginning, Winston has had an appreciation for wide open spaces. Having been raised on the rangelands of eastern Montana, he grew up surrounded by rich monotones—the tonal wind, the milky snow, the flatline horizon. It didn’t take long for these forces to converge in his work, taking the shape of new, unique sounds—the impressionistic tone-poems that launched his career. Begun in 1980, Winston’s series of fiercely minimal works—Autumn, Winter Into Spring and then December—vaulted him into the national spotlight and turned breathtaking sparseness into his signature.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that George Winston has now brought his talents to bear on the place that first shaped them. In his latest release, Plains, Winston pays tribute to his native land by rendering it with his trademark rarified sound. You can hear it in the windswept measures of “Before Barbed Wire” and even more hauntingly in the whispery title track, “Plains (Eastern Montana Blues).” But while Winston’s new album can be looked upon as a return home, it might also be right to think of it as a kind of departure. Because there are enough surprises here to suggest that Miles City’s favorite son is seeking new directions—from an instrumental cover of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” to renditions of Hawaiian folk songs. There are things here, it seems, to fill in the gaps that made George Winston famous. But surrounding them still are those silences that he taught us to hear.

George Winston plays a benefit concert for the Missoula Food Bank on Monday, May 22 at 7:30 p.m. in the Wilma Theatre. Tickets $15. Donations of non-perishable food are also encouraged. Call 728-2521.

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