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

Arguably no other label in the history of recording has done more to further the cause of American composers and American music than Composers Recordings, Inc., or CRI. A citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1987 perhaps said it best: “Composers Recording, Inc. has recorded more American music and for a longer period of time than any other record company in the world. Without this unique musical resource our musical life would be much the poorer.”

CRI was founded in 1954 by composers Otto Luening and Douglas Moore, both of Columbia University, and arts administrator Oliver Daniel, formerly of BMI. The founders started the company on a showstring budget, with $5000 left over from the demise of the American Recording Society and a further $10,000 from the American Composers Alliance. “Not much money to run a record company, perhaps,” Luening said at the time, “but we managed to get it off the ground. The significant part about all this is the continuity factor. The idea just would not die, so apparently there is a need.”

That seems somewhat of an understatement, in retrospect. Literally hundreds of American composers have had their first recordings released on CRI, a serious boon for recognition and career development for several generations of American artists. Style has never been a determining issue in deciding what music to release on the label, which has led to a catalog as diverse as the American culture itself. The mainstream American symphonic tradition is represented alongside various maverick traditions and academic approaches, electronic music, and music for virtuosic extended techniques. And CRI’s unique policy of keeping all of its recordings in print, even to the point of creating special order cassettes on demand when normal stocks of a recording are depleted, further accentuates the label’s fierce dedication to the promulgation and promotion of American music.

As a non-profit corporation, CRI is administered by a Board of Trustees, which for many years consisted exclusively of composers. Such noted figures as Jack Beeson, William Bergsma, Henry Cowell, Mario Davidovsky, Robert Ward and Charles Wuorinen have participated in the board. In recent years the board’s membership has expanded to include leaders from the business and arts communities, as well. Since the label’s inception, the editorial decisions have been made by an anonymous committee of composers of various styles and backgrounds — some who have recordings on the label, some who do not – who review and approve new projects to be recorded.

While always of unquestionable importance, CRI has never seemed more vital than in the 1990s. The arrival of current executive director Joseph Ridings Dalton, formerly of CBS Masterworks, has marked a new day for the label, as Dalton has proceeded to launch a number of recording series that have taken CRI in bold new directions. The first of these series, Emergency Music, focuses on “emerging” composers whose post-minimalist work is influenced by rock and other popular music forms. eXchange/Music at the Crossroads has presented music of American composers whose cultural heritage — Latin American, African-American, Chinese, Jewish, to name but a few examples — has had a deep impact on their musical voices. The series of releases Gay American Composers and Lesbian American Composers has explored the role of sexuality in composition, through new recordings and music from the archive.

And Dalton’s recording industry acumen has allowed him to approach the CRI catalog in new and effective ways. The Harry Partch Collection, a 4 volume series of releases of works originally self-issued by the composer on the Gate 5 label, has the right to be considered a definitive introduction to that composer’s unique world. And Dalton has begun to reissue some of the greatest music from the vast CRI LP master library in the American Masters series. The series presents some of America’s greatest composers, often performing or conducting their own works. Such an effort to rescue these composers and works from neglect points up one more facet of the CRI mission: to confirm the continuity of American music as a living, breathing, ongoing tradition.

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