View from the West: New Music on Record



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

That the worth of record labels specializing in experimental music is invaluable would be difficult to argue against. While live performances may be the best way to experience music, recordings, which may be heard through such media as radio and the Internet, in addition to home, automobile and portable audio gear, make new music available to far more listeners than live performances possibly can. Laurie Anderson, the Philip Glass Ensemble and the Kronos Quartet may perform in Portland, Cleveland and Minneapolis, but people who live in Durango, Juneau or Billings may never have the chance to hear any live contemporary music.

With the downfall of such new music distribution and media such as New Music Distribution Service and Ear Magazine which helped to centralize and unify the contemporary music community, or at least a faction thereof, and the decline of public radio as a medium for non-mainstream musics, as it gives way to all news and talk formats, the independents have become ever important. While the Internet has helped, for many it is still too haphazard and sprawling to navigate thoroughly and effectively.

Though major labels such as Nonesuch, ECM or Deutsche Grammophon offer the work of important composers, they tend to support a relatively small stable of composers who have demonstrated the ability to generate significant sales. Thus, it has fallen on the independents which devote themselves to contemporary music to shoulder the burden of making a broad array of new and important music available.

The viability of the independents varies and labels come and go. 1750 Arch, Obscure, Mainstream, Opus One, and CP2 may not longer be with us, but their legacy remains. Of special note and import among these was Brian Eno‘s Obscure Records. While Obscure released fewer than a dozen albums during its short life in the mid-to-late 1970s, its significance is at least two-fold. Eno, with an uncanny, Diaghilev-like sense of what is important, timely and compelling in music, produced the first or at least very early commercial recordings by the likes of John Adams, Harold Budd, Gavin Bryars, and Michael Nyman, among others. Also, because of his profile as a rock musician and record producer, as well as his reputation as being on the experimental fringe of the rock intelligentsia, Obscure Records appealed not only to the new music lover, but also to a cross-over rock audience, signaling a revitalization, even popularization of a least a segment of contemporary music. Only a few composers such as Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley had made such in-roads with a popular audience prior to this.

Today there are many labels, large and small, American and European, that specialize in contemporary music: Hat Art, Wergo, and New Tone from Europe, and OO Discs, XI, New World in the United States among a host of others. Composers Recordings Inc. or CRI was, for many years, a kind of vanity press allowing composers or performing artists and ensembles to fund and produce their recording under the CRI imprint. Under the leadership and vision of Jody Dalton in the 1990s, CRI took a more experimental turn, reissuing important releases by Harry Partch, Cage and Henry Cowell, as well as producing new series, such as Emergency Music, with a nod to Obscure Records, which “represents a new vein of life for CRI—young artists working in non-academic styles, often drawing on minimalism and popular music,” and the eXchange series which offers up work by composers whose style incorporates music from multiple Non-European cultures and heritages.

Among the American labels, Lovely Music Ltd. is one of the oldest, releasing recordings by mostly New York based composers including composers associated with the Once Festival and the Sonic Arts Union, including Robert Ashley (Ashley’s wife, Mimi Johnson, manages the label), David Behrman, Alvin Lucier, and Gordon Mumma. Ashley’s Mills College connection is also manifest in recordings by “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Paul Dresher, Maggi Payne, Paul DeMarinis and David Rosenboom. While Lovely tends towards experimental ‘classical’ music, one also finds work by Leroy Jenkins, Roger Reynolds, Roscoe Mitchell and Fast Forward, giving the label a degree of breadth as well as depth.

New Albion Records has flourished since its initial releases by then little known composers Ingram Marshall, Paul Dresher and Stephen Scott in 1984. The emphasis was clearly on American and mostly West Coast minimalist composers. Other early releases included those by Daniel Lentz, John Adams, and Stuart Dempster. Before long, label owner Foster Reed was introduced to the music of the Japanese composer Somei Satoh as well as Lou Harrison, which opened the door to Cage, Feldman, Hovhaness and beyond. Today, New Albion’s catalog ranges from Astor Piazzolla to Earle Brown, Silvestre Revueltas to Ruth Crawford, Maurice Ravel to Anthony Braxton, not to mention Stockhausen, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Norwegian folk music and early music performed by the Ensemble PAN. With well over one hundred releases in their catalogue, most of them still in print, New Albion remains one of the most successful and vibrant independent new music labels.

Cold Blue is a Southern California label which was also active in the early 1980s and had a similar, but even more regional or insular focus. Founded by composer Jim Fox, Cold Blue features mostly West Coast composers, many of whom have a connection with the California Institute of the Arts, and Barney Childs and the University of Redlands. The label’s initial releases in 1981 and 1982 were records by Childs, Read Miller, Rick Cox, Daniel Lentz, Michael Jon Fink, Peter Garland and Chas Smith. All were friends and associates of Fox and with the exception of Childs and Lentz, all were baby boomers. There was a strong minimalist bent in Cold Blue releases, though of a distinctly second generation and West Coast orientation that was cool and idiosyncratic: Fink’s quiescent and spartan pianos, Smith’s pedal steel guitars, Cox’s electric guitars and Lentz’s cascading delay system. These records were distinctive in their 10-inch LP format which was popular at the time as the record industry tapped into the collectible market (along with colored vinyl and picture discs). Fox found the 10-inch format, with its 12 to 14 minutes per side limitation, “a nice, inexpensive way to introduce listeners to the music.” Two full-length, 12-inch LPs followed in 1984: a tone poem for piano by Lentz and an anthology, with Fox’s own work for the first time, as well as contributions by the Cold Blue stable of composers, plus Harold Budd and Eugene Bowen, James Tenney, Ingram Marshall, Michael Byron and John Kuhlman. This was followed by silence, as Cold Blue appeared to succumb to the advent of CDs which were, initially, both expensive and a risky proposition for tiny independents.

In 2000, to the astonishment and delight of those who treasured the old Cold Blue recordings, Fox decided to revive the label after some 15 years of inactivity. In addition to releasing his own first full-length album, Fox again invited his old colleagues to join the fray. The first batch of CDs were by Michael Byron, himself absent from the new music scene for many, many years, Chas Smith, this time performing on a magnificent collection of acoustic and electric instruments of his own design and construction, in addition to his trusty pedal steel guitar, and Fox, featuring electronic compositions. Following soon thereafter were albums by Michael Jon Fink and clarinetist Marty Walker, featuring works by Cold Blue composers. Current plans are for six to eight releases a year including forthcoming releases by Rick Cox and another by Smith.

Some labels take on imposing challenges. Mode Records has undertaken extensive series devoted to Cage and Scelsi, while Alga Marghen of Italy has released a series of sound poetry recordings on both LP and CD featuring many of the founding pioneers of the genre including Henri Chopin, Bernard Heidsieck, Sten Hanson, Åke Hodell and others.

The Cortical Foundation has carved out a niche for itself, releasing obscure and rare recordings on the organ of Corti label by the La Monte Young/Terry Riley/Fluxus axis of composers and artists, including a series of recordings by Riley offering previously unreleased or otherwise very rare recordings, Charlemagne Palestine, as well as Cornelius Cardew and the Scratch Orchestra.

Recently, a few labels have produced very limited editions and often very expensive CDs and even vinyl LP, presenting the recording as a kind of collectible art multiple, catering the collectors’ market and musical esoterica. The Cortical Foundation has limited edition LP sets by Hermann Nitsch, Intersystems and the Nihilist Spasm Band. Slowscan from the Netherlands, another recently resurrected label, has released LPs in very limited editions by Fluxus and related artists, including Philip Corner (300 copies on blue vinyl), Emmett Williams and Ay-O (120 copies on red vinyl), Robert Filliou (80 copies), Allan Kaprow (150 copies), Ben Vautier (80 copies), and Joe Jones (150 copies). By virtue of the very small number of each release, these Slowscan recordings are, appropriately enough, virtual art objects which are nearly conceptual; one might argue that the records are to be collected rather than heard. After all, it was Fluxus artist Henry Flynt who coined the term “concept art.”

These represent just a smattering of the new music labels that help keep new music alive, dynamic and available to those who seek it out. Many of these labels maintain their own Web sites on which CDs can be purchased. While others can be ordered through mail order retailers specializing in new music such as: Wayside Music, Forced Exposure, and Sonic Tiger.