Polyphonic Lives: Composers Working Behind the Scenes in the Music Industry

One of my favorite musician jokes involves the blind rabbit and the blind serpent that collide on the jungle floor. Neither knows what kind of animal they are. The serpent wraps himself around the rabbit, and makes a guess. “Hmm, you’re all furry, you’ve got bushy tail and long ears. I’ll bet you’re a rabbit!” Elated to learn his identity at last, the rabbit gropes the serpent. “Hmm,” says the rabbit, “this is difficult. You’re bald, you’re slimy, and you have no ears. Aha! I know! You work in the record business!”

Be careful who you tell that joke to, for more composers than you’d imagine have helped shape the industry from the days of 78s through the latest downloading software.

It’s all too easy to take for granted the overwhelming abundance of American concert music available on records today. That wasn’t quite the case in the 1920s and early 1930s. The catalogs, to be sure, listed light vocal chestnuts by salon moderns like Chadwick, Nevin, and Parker. Piano fans could find encore-type fare by Horatio Parker and Fannie Dillon played by Josef Hofmann, and Leopold Godowsky in Macdowell. Both Olga Samaroff and Myra Hess recorded Griffes’ “The White Peacock.” On the orchestral front, Willem Mengelberg led the New York Philharmonic in Ernest Schelling‘s A Victory Ball for the Victor label. George Gershwin, of course, was an early example of what we label “crossover” product today and a best seller.

In the main, however, as American concert music came into its own, major labels clearly weren’t ready to embrace that faction of composers representing modernists, futurists, experimenters, and the avant-garde. Enter the composer/pianist Henry Cowell. In 1927 he founded the New Music Quarterly subscription publication to make available otherwise unobtainable scores by emerging young composers such as Henry Brant, Carlos Chávez, Ruth Crawford, Lou Harrison, Wallingford Riegger, Dane Rudhyar, and Stefan Wolpe, as well as elder statesmen like Ruggles and Ives. Similarly, Cowell started New Music Quarterly Recordings with the intention of documenting new American music for which big labels saw no commercial potential. Subscribers received four records per year. Non-subscribers could purchase single discs through the Gramophone Shop in New York, a venue specializing in rare, esoteric items and hard-to-find imports. More often than not, the composers were involved in these recordings either as performers or in a supervisory capacity. Financial and personal factors figured into New Music Quarterly Recordings’ gradual demise in the early 1940s, yet its legacy of important recorded premiers remain prime candidates for reissue.

Cowell’s record industry experience, of course, takes a back seat to his standing as a composer. The opposite holds true regarding one of the recording industry’s most significant and innovative personalities. Goddard Lieberson trained as a composer, studying at the University of Washington and the Eastman School of Music. Lieberson benefited from the government’s WPA relief program during the Depression, gaining orchestral performances under its auspices. In 1939, at the age of 28, he had more than 100 compositions to his credit. That same year he took a job with Columbia Records classical Masterworks division. By the time he became the company’s president in 1956, his shrewd business sense and forward-thinking artistic vision revolutionized the business. He earmarked funds for Peter Goldmark to develop the long-playing record and essentially invented the original Broadway cast album as we know it. He poured the latter’s profits into building up what we’d now call the label’s “deep” catalog, launching the Modern American Music Series and committing to record nearly all of Stravinsky’s music in composer-led performances. Given his position, it would have been a cinch for Lieberson to at least make the label’s artists aware of his compositions.

Other producers who worked at the label in its CBS Masterworks and Sony Classical manifestations boasted formidable composing credentials. Thomas Frost studied with Hindemith at Yale, but didn’t pursue a composing career. During the late 1960s composer/performer/media artist David Behrman produced the label’s “Music of Our Time” series, offering works by Cage, Pousseur, Reich, Riley, Nancarrow, Oliveros, and other contemporary figures. Before turning his attention exclusively to composing, Richard Einhorn worked at CBS producing records with the New York Philharmonic, Jean-Pierre Rampal, and Isaac Stern. Two of his productions, Glenn Gould‘s 1981 Bach Goldberg Variations and Yo-Yo Ma‘s first recording of the Bach Cello Suites won Grammy Awards. Conversely, Teo Macero first came to Columbia in the mid-1950s as a jazz composer with avant-garde leanings, only to gain fame as Miles Davis‘s producer. The situation is not unlike how George Martin‘s work with the Beatles obscures his superb pop arrangements and original filmscores.

Record collectors know John Pfeiffer as the producer of landmark RCA Victor recordings by legendary icons like Toscanini, Heifetz, Horowitz, Landowska, Reiner, Rubinstein, and Kapell. But did you know of his experiments with recording technology and electronic music? He even made a disc for RCA in 1968, Electronomusic. Pfeiffer shrugged it off when I interviewed him in 1994 (two years before he died), and I regret that I didn’t bring my long-out-of-print vinyl copy for him to autograph!

On the other hand, another early electronic music pioneer, Ilhan Mimaroglu, masterfully juggled his composer, writer, radio program producer, photographer, and record label founder hats. He worked as both producer and engineer at Atlantic Records, eventually forming his own Finnadar label in the early 1970s, first with an album of his own electronic music. Mimaroglu continued producing new music releases, plus discs showcasing pianists and pianist/composers like Sorrel Hays, Frederic Rzewski, Idil Biret, and Meral Guneyman.

Not every composer, of course, is privy to major label contacts from the inside, so to speak. Cowell’s New Music Quarterly example paved the way for the American Recording Society and, more significantly, CRI (founded in 1954 as a non-profit corporation). During the label’s nearly half-century existence (New World now administers their vast catalog), its editorial agenda was determined by an anonymous committee of composers whose styles and backgrounds covered American music’s ever-widening gamut.

The majority of composers who started record labels, however, did so as an outlet primarily for their own work, like Mary Lou Williams‘ Mary Records, Cecil Taylor‘s Unit Core, Gate 5 (Harry Partch), Strange Music (Patrick Grant), and Soundspells (Meyer Kupferman). Michael Torke has released six discs on his new Ecstatic label, so far all reissued from earlier, out-of-print recordings.

John Zorn started Tzadik records in order to keep his recordings in print and to give voice to other innovators who fall in between the industry’s cracks. Today, more than 250 releases later, his prolific performing and composing schedule has not been slowed down one iota. The Orange Mountain Music label developed in the course of archiving hundreds of hours of master recordings Philip Glass has produced over the past three decades. Eventually the label plans to issue recordings by other artists that have collaborated with or have been associated with Glass. Other composer-founded labels like Max Schubel’s Opus One (vinyl mavens adore their day-glo, ultra-violet light friendly album covers!), Derek Bailey‘s Incus, and Joseph Celli‘s OO Discs, and the American Composers Forum‘s innova (run by composer Philip Blackburn), venture beyond original work to embrace a wide variety of new and experimental composed and improvised music alike.

One concern that comes to mind is if the demands of running a label cut into one’s creative energy or eat up hours that might have been spent composing. Cantaloupe Records, a Bang on a Can project, was launched by the group’s three founding composers David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon, yet it’s administered and run by others. John Zorn runs Tzadik with a staff of two or three, and no office to speak of.

Another question pertains to composers who either can’t afford to or haven’t considered starting a label, like me. How do you get people to hear your music? My answer is simple: I give it away, or, more accurately, offer it for trade. There’s a large community of music lovers who regularly participate in legal, on-line trading of live concert recordings. Ever since the Grateful Dead created a special taper’s section in 1984, hundreds of other musical groups have followed their lead, allowing fans to plug in, so to speak, with the provision that they don’t profit financially from their efforts. In other words, you can trade, but you can’t sell. With the advent of cheap CD burners and blank discs, trading is easier and more addictive than ever. I first got into this hobby to satisfy my live Grateful Dead soundboard cravings. Soon I was awash in trades, and getting to know dozens of artists I’d otherwise never hear. It occurred to me that I should post my own concerts on my trade list. As a result, numerous trading partners have asked to hear my stuff. I happily comply, knowing how these things proliferate, catch on, and hopefully expand my audience. I’ve broached the topic with other composers and new music performers, and they love the idea as much as I do. It’s perfectly legal. Want to set something up? Visit www.phishhook.com/lists/jdistler2.

From Polyphonic Lives: Composers Working Behind the Scenes in the Music Industry
by Jed Distler
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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