Off the Record! A Hyper-History of American Independent New Music Record Labels

Hundreds of composers and other artists around the world have been inspired by the music of John Cage. But Mode Records may be the only example of a record company that exists because of Cage’s influence. Brian Brandt, a graphic designer, happened to attend a simultaneous performance Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis and Winter Music. Inspired by what he’d heard, Brandt approached the composer after the performance to ask if anyone was planning to record it. “No,” Brandt remembers Cage saying with a touch of sadness, his emotions seemingly contradicting his widely reported indifference regarding recordings of his music. “Then I will do it,” proclaimed Brandt, and promptly set about founding a record company to do so.

Brandt had worked in the recording industry before, working in the special imports division of Polygram. But he certainly never envisioned himself as a label head prior to the flash of inspiration provided by Cage. Rather, Brandt made (and makes) his living as a graphic designer, which has also resulted in Mode establishing a singularly unified and attractive packaging style, something of a rarity among small independent labels.

The music of Cage forms the backbone of the Mode catalog, with 18 releases available to date, by such noted performers as David Tudor, the Arditti String Quartet, Stephen Drury, Michael Pugliese, Frances-Marie Uitti, Margaret Leng Tan and many others. The music available thus far includes the complete string quartets, the Freeman Etudes, a healthy sampling of the piano music (including the first recording of the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano actually recorded on the instrument suggested by the composer, a Steinway “O” model), a smattering of the orchestral music, and a handful of the large scale operatic works. Even the composer himself is featured on one release, the Roaratorio for voice, tape and Irish musicians. Brandt does in fact plan to record the complete works of Cage, a venture that should take years to complete.

Brandt’s interest does not end with Cage, however. He has recently begun series dedicated to the music of Cage’s “New York School” colleagues Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, with the same high level of performance and the same attention to quality and detail that have marked the Cage series. And Brandt is also setting his sites beyond American music, with definitive recordings of works by Xenakis and Berio and recent releases of music by Maxwell Davies, Skempton and Bussotti also adding breadth to the catalog.

Mode is currently finishing production on a CD of chamber music with the theremin, the early electronic instrument played by waving hands around antennae to control pitch and volume. For most people who are familiar with the sound of the theremin through B-sci-fi movie soundtracks or the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” this new CD offers a variety of surprises including a work by the great Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu. The repertoire is performed by no less an authority than Lydia Kavina, great niece of the instrument’s legendary inventor.

Mode is also at the forefront of new technologies becoming one of the first labels to embrace the DVD with its release of a collection of works by Roger Reynolds, a composer in whose work the spatial arrangement of sounds and musicians is a key element. The interactive DVD features video and true 5.1 surround sound recording, making it an exceptional home listening experience. The works on the disc make optimal use of the technology, and the disc includes video footage and interviews with the composer and performers. It’s an early example of the use to which these new technologies can be put… and it’s surely not the last.

From Off the Record! A Hyper-History of American Independent New Music Record Labels
by Steve Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox