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

Many classical music record labels, even those specializing in contemporary music, have been founded with the goal of presenting listeners with documents of music that deserve to be heard by more people than were able to attend a particular performance. Few, however, see the recording as an end in itself, as opposed to being something of a souvenir of said performance. In this respect, Joseph Celli‘s O.O. Discs label stands apart from most other labels vying for shelf space at your local record store. Rather, Celli wants each disc on his label to stand on its own as a fully-realized aesthetic experience. The label, in Celli’s words, exists “to create sound art for the home.”

Celli, a woodwind player especially well-known for his virtuosity with double reed instruments and a new music activist who had produced countless concerts and festivals, founded O.O. Discs just over five years ago. The intent, according to the label’s mission statement as printed in its catalog, is to present “a broad and diverse range of contemporary serious music of a non-commercial nature…. an eclectic stylistic range representative of the multiple aesthetic directions of American music at the end of the twentieth century.”

Celli had always had problems with the comparison of quality between live performances and recordings: “To me, an LP of a performance was much like a photograph of a sunset — you could get some idea of what it was like, but you lost the subtleties and the scope of the experience.” With the advent of the compact disc and the rapid increase in quality of home stereo systems and sound reproduction, combined with the diminution of possibilities for live performances of new music, Celli began to envision an alternative to the live performance paradigm.

“I began to see the compact disc as a new performance medium,” Celli says. And this determination made Celli consider how to turn the compact disc itself into a “sound art object,” in his words, instead of simply a vehicle for the conveyance of recorded sound.

To realize his goals, Celli decided that each CD on O.O. Discs would be the product of not just the recording artist or artists, but of the recording artist in conjunction with a graphic designer who would package the recording in stimulating artwork that resonated with the music on the disc, as well as a writer who would supply liner notes that were provocative and stimulating, not just an erudite rephrasing of the artist’s resume. The three parts of the equation — music, graphics, text — are meant to be complementary parts of the overall artistic experience, and the disc itself should be able to stand as an artistic statement not dependent upon live performance for reiteration.

This multifaceted approach to each O.O. Discs recording is echoed by a bracingly polystylistic catalog, in which the cross-culturral improvisations of Korean komungo player Jin Hi Kim (one of the label’s foremost artists) mingles with new music guitar technician Seth Josel and cellist Jeffrey Krieger, composer/performers David First and Arthur Jarvinen, ensembles such as Relâche and First Avenue, and even free improvisation iconoclast guitarist Derek Bailey alongside leading avant-jazz percussionist Gregg Bendian.

“I don’t like closed categories,” says Celli. “What is emblematic in contemporary American culture is the eclecticism of it. Often, listening habits are supposedly monosyllabic… if I enjoy the music of John Zorn I can’t also like Milton Babbitt. But I don’t see it that way. I want to hear improvisation and I want to hear musically that’s totally composed — both Zorn and [Morton] Feldman.” And the O.O. Discs catalog is able to cater to any listener whose ear is as open as Celli’s.

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