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

The multifarious downtown New York composer John Zorn founded his two labels, the Japanese-based Avant and the American imprint Tzadik, in 1992 and 1995 respectively. He funds both labels with his non-profit corporation Hips Road, and gives a set recording budget to each artist he selects for inclusion. Both Avant and Tzadik were designed to present both Zorn’s own musical projects and those of his colleagues, collaborators and peers. And the music he chooses to release on both labels speaks as much to his own personal aesthetic as to those of the composers represented.

Avant, the first of the two labels to appear, began with a series of releases by Zorn’s all-star avant-rock band Naked City. Soon, however, he established the “Composers Series,” which he would use to present the compositions of a variety of artists, mostly from the downtown New York scene, but some from beyond that particular scene as well. Early issues in the series ranged from the polystylistic keyboard-led music of Anthony Coleman on Disco by Night to the percussive, Native American-influenced minimalism of Peter Garland on Nana and Victorio. The modern chamber music of Lee Hyla (In Double Light) sits side by side with the dense, sampler-created “plunderphonics” of John Oswald (Plexure). David Soldier created one of his most compelling works for the label, the homoerotic song cycle Smut, based on Catullus and dedicated to Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz.

In 1995, Zorn created the domestic imprint Tzadik, and it was with the birth of this label that the Composers Series was actually named, to set it apart from the other series presented by the label, which included Radical Jewish Culture and New Japan. Considered separately, the various Tzadik series might seem wildly disparate, but taken as a whole, the label offers a composite portrait of the various facets that make up Zorn’s own art. Tellingly, he is the only composer represented in all of the various sub-series on the label.

The Tzadik Composers Series has proven even more diverse than the earlier (and still extant) series on Avant. Here one can find the dark electroacoustic music of Californian composer Chris Brown (Lava) sitting next to the Euro-minimalism of Arnold Dreyblatt (Animal Magnetism), a singular work of musique concrete by the young Chicagoan Jim O’Rourke (Terminal Pharmacy) close to the Zen jazz of Wadada Leo Smith (Tao-Nija). Zorn has also chosen to release music by his historical forebears on the Tzadik label, both living (Alvin Curran’s Animal Behavior and Theme Park, Luc Ferrari’s Cellule 75) and deceased (Harry Partch’s 17 Lyrics of Li Po).

Both Avant and Tzadik are marked by the utmost care given to artistic presentation and packaging, wedded to a cavalier approach to promotion: artists are free to promote their own recordings, but the labels themselves do not stoop to servicing critics and begging for reviews. Rather, the music is meant to speak for itself, clearly and distinctly. As Zorn stated himself in the Tzadik label’s mission statement, the labels are “dedicated to releasing the best in avant-garde and experimental music, presenting a worldwide community of contemporary musician-composers who find it difficult to release their music through more conventional channels. Tzadik [and Avant] believes most of all in the integrity of its artists. What you hear… is the artist’s vision undiluted.”

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

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