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

From its beginnings in the early 1980s, Newport Classic has been a provocative and eclectic record label, releasing a bit of everything from Bach and Beethoven to Feldman and Cage, debuting such offbeat pieces as the “Concerto for Orchestra, Chainsaw and Cow,” and pulling such dramatic stunts as releasing a recording from the Newport Music Festival the day after it was recorded.

All of these things point up the creativity and flair for the dramatic that have marked the career of label head Larry Kraman, who initially moved from New York to Providence, Rhode Island to work for a failing record company called Sine Qua Non. “Things weren’t going too well there in terms of their survival,” he relates, “so, being a producer and a recording engineer, I gathered up some friends and some money and started up my own company, out of desperation, basically, simply because I was unemployable and I was in Rhode Island, where there weren’t a great many opportunities for musicians.”

Kraman started Newport Classic by recording the keyboardist Anthony Newman in all manner of standard early keyboard repertoire. “It was the beginning of the compact disc, so it was kind of exciting to be able to go out and start making all-digital recordings. With Tony we did practically everything you could do on a keyboard.”

Faced with both debt and opportunity, in the mid ’90s Kraman sold approximately 150 of his catalog titles to Sony and became a vice president of international product development for the mega-corporation. This position lasted only 17 months, at which point his boss was fired and Kraman, too, was let go, even as Sony kept the titles they had purchased. This left him with a catalog of some 50 or 60 titles, and Kraman has built that number back up to close to 90 titles in the current Newport catalog.

There are two primary sources for new projects at Newport, Kraman himself and John Ostendorf. “John is a very talented singer who occasionally brought projects to me,” Kraman explains, “and he started really doing a lot of the producing and A&R work for the company. He basically ensconced himself as the vocal producer and started doing a huge number of operas and vocal recordings. So he is the one who is responsible for the great bulk of the catalog in terms of the modern American operas that we have done, and also the operettas. I do sort of the stranger stuff, the stuff on the fringes: for example, the klezmer Nutcracker album from last fall which has been quite a success.”

Early in the company’s history it released recordings of important music by such experimental composers as John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown, but Kraman is no longer involved in that area of the repertoire. “It’s not a change in personal taste — with any luck my personal taste has very little to do with the way I run my business. It has to do with the market, and my particular take on the market is that atonal music isn’t going to work anymore. The lovely thing about it is that so many composers who were out of favor and who were considered to be old-fashioned and uncool are now coming back so strong. And we started that fairly early on, doing Otto Luening and David Amram, doing a lot of Ned Rorem and Menotti, and if you listen to these things with a fresh ear, they’re good. They’re nice to listen to; you listen to them more than once.”

Kraman has continued to champion music in this vein, including a recent recording of Menotti’s Help, Help, The Globolinks (CD 85633), and is preparing to release recordings of Nicolas Flagello’s children’s opera The Pied Piper of Hamlen and a large work for orchestra and chorus by Rorem, The Sun. Nor has Newport completely abandoned the music of our time, as can be seen in its championing of David Soldier. “I’m convinced that David Soldier is one of the great contemporary composers of our time, and we put out a number of his recordings. We’ve got two in the current catalog, The Apotheosis of John Brown (CD 85549) and Mark Twain’s War Prayer (CD 85589). I think he’s extraordinary. It’s just very hard to sell this kind of music, that’s all.” Newport has also recently released the first recording of Henry Mollicone’s opera on Native American themes to a text by Sheldon Harnick, Coyote Tales (CD 85629), and will follow with the first recording of a Puerto Rican opera, Roberto Sierra’s The Silver Messenger.

And Kraman points to the series of American operettas on Newport as being a particularly valuable series. “It seems with the operettas that almost every one of them has never been recorded before, such as Victor Herbert’s Eileen (CD 85615). All of those are sort of new discoveries and they’re so friendly, and some of them have songs that you know, but you’ve never known their original context.”

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