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

innova Records was founded in 1975 to document the activities of the Minnesota (now American) Composers Forum. Its success would quickly outstrip its local origins, and the label has become one of America’s most important sources for recordings of contemporary American music, with over three dozen titles in its catalog and as many as ten new recordings projected per year. Moreover, it has grown into a singular resource for assisting composers and performers in getting their art out before the public in a variety of innovative ways.

“It’s a label for people who need access to commercial production and distribution,” says label head Philip Blackburn. “It’s meant to aid people through the entire process: it’s as much a service to the artists, helping them to fulfill their vision out in the wide world of publishing, and to rescue them from having to do their own thing and then have it sit in their basement. So it’s really access to the marketing sphere, and at the same time we try to have a wide range of titles and maintain as high a standard of quality as we can.”

innova began as an adjunct to a recording assistance program offered by the Composers Forum, which included a loan fund earmarked for financing CD manufacture. “People who have a master tape ready to go but don’t have the money can apply to the program,” explains Blackburn, “and then have the money paid back through sales.”

Early releases from innova documented the music of several experimental composers from Minnesota. National and international names soon followed, especially when innova began issuing an annual compilation of works from the Sonic Circuits Electronic Music Festival. Blackburn further broadened the boundaries of the label when in 1994 he went to Vietnam and brought back field recordings he released on the acclaimed CD Stilling Time.

But nothing has put innova on the map in a bigger way than the remarkable series of autobiographical multimedia packages devoted to the American maverick composer Harry Partch, the Enclosure series. “It’s a 15 year labor of love, a lot of phone calls and some luck,” Blackburn states. “I am currently in possession of the whole Partch archive except for a few things which are in different locations. Some of the archival material has been fairly easy to have access to. It’s just been a snowball-effect project, starting small and having a few contacts, and then people began networking, we all got to know each other, and we find more lost material.” The Enclosure series has included a wealth of previously unavailable printed materials, recordings and video footage.

The point behind the Enclosure series ultimately was to let Partch speak in his own voice to those who love him, to those who don’t know him, and especially to those who’ve misunderstood him. “He’d been maligned so many times in public,” says Blackburn, “but no one really had the facts to go on. So it’s been this kind of multimedia biography to let people read the actual materials in as close to the original form as possible. I try to stay out of the editorial process as much as possible, and stay out of writing stories about Harry in favor of letting him present his own case.” This summer innova will complete the enclosure series with a reissue of Columbia’s long-unavailable recording of Partch’s major work Delusion of the Fury.

The diversity of Innova’s catalog can be gleaned by taking a quick look at some of the upcoming projects of which Blackburn is proudest. “One is a double CD of hörspiel, or “radio art,” if you like, by Erik Belgum, sort of in the Robert Ashley vein of compositional linguistics. We’re doing a CD right now of works by Bob Parede, who’s based in Iowa, a wonderful clarinetist and electroacoustic composer, called Forgetting and Remembering. We’re doing a CD featuring the American Celebration Duo from Sioux City, Iowa, a wonderful soprano and piano; they’ve got about 12 different composers, very beautiful art songs. There’s the Partch this summer, as well as Sonic Circuits 7. And we’re also doing the Mankato Pow Wow with a tribe down in Mankato, Minnesota that has recorded some of their songs for the first time ever. It’s all representative of the wide range of things that we like to do.”

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