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

Guitarist David Starobin was by all accounts a successful artist in 1981, recording classical literature for Columbia [now Sony] and other major labels. But there were pieces near and dear to him, especially contemporary American pieces that had been written for him, for which he could find no recording outlet. He turned to his wife Becky to weigh the option of starting a label to record this music themselves. “I said that I thought if we didn’t,” Becky Starobin remembers, “ten years from that point we would be sorry that we hadn’t.”

And with that, Bridge Records was born, inaugurated with the first installment in a highly celebrated series of releases titled New Music with Guitar. But from the very beginning, the Starobins had it in mind to feature performances by other artists on the label as well. Happily, their sterling reputation in the new music community gave them an immediate bridge towards achieving that goal. “The second disc we did was Jan de Gaetani and Gilbert Kalish doing Charles Ives songs and George Crumb’s Apparition,” says Becky. “I know that Jan and Gil went with us on that, even though they’d been recording for Nonesuch, because of their faith in David as a musician and producer.” A recording of pianist Lambert Orkis in Richard Wernick’s Reflections of Dark Light followed, and the Starobins were on their way.

Since then, the hallmark of the Bridge label has not been upon recording exclusively new American music. The catalog is dotted with fine examples of offbeat music by Fauré, Brahms, Rodrigo and others. Becky states that the goal of the label is to present “the very best performances of the best music that we can find, regardless of nationality of composers or performers. As a commercial company, funding comes from a variety of sources, including some non-exclusionary grants. And all profits that come into the company are put back into the company for subsequent releases.

In 1995 Bridge Records signed an historic agreement to release to the public for the first time selected recordings from the Library of Congress Concert Archive. Suddenly the catalog was brimming with distinguished recordings of standard repertoire by artists such as the Budapest String Quartet and violinist Nathan Milstein. The agreement is set to continue for many years, and, in an important new development, the series is about to begin unearthing and restoring to the catalog the important pioneering recordings of Karl Krueger and the Royal Philharmonic, previously available on the Our Musical Past label. “The series was intended to record American orchestral repertoire that was not available,” say Becky. “We’re beginning the series with the tone poems of Edward MacDowell, which are glorious. The orchestra is as good as any orchestra you could hope to hear today. The next one will be William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony paired with Amy Beach’s Gaelic Symphony.” The Library of Congress series is also soon to diversify its offerings to include some folk and jazz recordings from the archive.

But it is as a promulgator of contemporary American music that Bridge has truly made its mark, with landmark recordings of the Ives Violin Sonatas, the complete piano music of Elliott Carter, and an exceptional 4 CD set of Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston, not to mention the more offbeat offerings of electronic composers Tod Machover and Paul Lansky. And particular attention has been paid to the music of George Crumb, a composer with close ties to the Starobins. Bridge issued Crumb’s Quest to great acclaim, and will follow it with a new work, Mundis Canis, a suite for guitar and percussion recorded with David Starobin and Crumb himself, to be paired with a set of songs written for Crumb’s wife and performed by his daughter with Crumb at the piano. And Bridge is just about to embark on a trip to Warsaw to record Crumb’s magnum opus, Starchild, this summer.

The relationship with Crumb points out one further thing that makes Bridge a special label. “With a lot of music you’ll find on Bridge,” says Becky, “the writing of it has been encouraged by us. For instance, on David’s Newdance [nominated for a Grammy Award last year], all 18 of the dances were written for him for this project. So in that respect, we’re not just putting the music out on disc for people to hear, we’re actually acting as a stimulus to get the pieces written. And I think that’s an important aspect to the company.”

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