Foster Reed of New Albion Records
1. The Creation of New Albion
FRANK J. OTERI: Foster, I’d like to welcome you to New York City, and thank you for taking time to visit us here at the American Music Center.
FOSTER REED: My pleasure. Thank you.
FRANK J. OTERI: I’ve been a fan of New Albion Records for years and years, probably since the very first recordings came out… Ingram Marshall, Paul Dresher, Stephen Scott’s bowed piano…I was fascinated from day one. But for people who are not as familiar with the label, I guess I’d like to ask you some basic questions about the label. Why New Albion? Why that name?
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RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Paul Dresher: Night Songs
(from New Albion CD 053:
Dark Blue Circumstance)
FOSTER REED: Well, the name New Albion is what Sir Francis Drake named the coast of California that he discovered in Elizabethan times, and the sort of conceit we were working with was that the record label would find new and exotic and unusual music to bring to the world. And so we used the same name as Sir Francis Drake did in naming California. In fact, California already existed from the point of view of indigenous people, but from Elizabethan society it was new, you know, another unknown discovery. And so New Albion, in a sense, was about trying to find unknown discoveries for, the sort of Elizabethans of the modern era.
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] Since New Albion refers geographically to California, was the idea that this was a label devoted to California music, or was that just a coincidence?
FOSTER REED: Well, the idea of geography is more imaginary geography than California, New York, whatever. It was more the idea that it was devoted to new music, and since we happened to be in California that’s where our outlet came from. And it never was that it was about the so-called “California sound,” but since we were in California, that tends to be what we’re about.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right.
FOSTER REED: But in that era of the early 80′s, there was still the thrall of the revolution of minimalism against serialism. And so the people that I was involved in, with, were kind of coming out of that discussion or battle or whatever it happened to have been. And so there was this feeling that this was yet again another new music. There were kind of the rebels of the conservatory tradition, the dropouts from academia and people who were involved in a kind of experimentalism that I related to because it had for me a poetic reality to it and it wasn’t until later that I began to fill in the historical gaps and understand it was, you know, part of the maverick tradition of American music.
FRANK J. OTERI: So in the very beginning it really was local composers and you know, I’m thinking Dresher, who’s still based in San Francisco…
FOSTER REED: Uh huh.
FRANK J. OTERI: …and Ingram Marshall who was there then and who no longer is…
FOSTER REED: Right.
FRANK J. OTERI: …and somebody who’s gone on to become a household world in our music scene, John Adams. You put out the first John Adams recordings.
FOSTER REED: Well, not really. John had other recordings. There was a label that preceded New Albion, 1750 Arch, which was a very eclectic label. And among its activities was new music, both jazz and so-called classical new music, as well as a variety of other things. And the guy that ran that, Tom Buckner, since relocated to New York, and is not so involved in the record industry but he’s still very involved in performing and commissioning new works. So I was coming up in the wake of 1750 Arch. At that time Nonesuch had not been helmed by Bob Hurwitz and there was kind of a period where it wasn’t really active. And again at that time ECM New Series hadn’t yet gotten started. So there was a kind of vacuum in terms of new music labels at the time. Lovely Music was in existence in New York, Et Cetera in the Netherlands was in existence. But I didn’t know very much about them. Had I known then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have done anything like this. But there seemed to be nobody representing music that was being written from the context of the sort of Vietnam generation or beyond. So that’s where I started.
FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s take a step backward a second. What were you familiar with? What was your own musical background before New Albion?
FOSTER REED: Well, I’d had a band in high school that was kind of a, I don’t know what you’d call it, but it was an attempt to be sort of a folk rock, jug band sort of thing, and we made a record in 1968 for Vanguard over here on 23rd Street, which promptly got demolished both in the studio — like the producers tried to make us into something we weren’t — and also the cover was just abysmal, polka dots and…
FRANK J. OTERI: What was the name of the band?
FOSTER REED: The name of the band was called The Free Band and we wrote the songs and everything like that. We were a typical high school band, except that we made a record and the record was killed, you know, right as it was completed.
FRANK J. OTERI: So it never got released.
FOSTER REED: No. Then everyone in the band quit music, and then various ones of us sort of came back to it at later dates. And I came back to it later and hooked up with a friend of mine who was studying violin at a conservatory in San Francisco and we got some mandolins and began to teach ourselves the Bach D minor Double Concerto.
FRANK J. OTERI: On mandolins.
FOSTER REED: On mandolin, and neither of us read music. So we had to say, okay, if this is a C, then what is that?
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]
FOSTER REED: And then, anyway, it took about 6 months of doing nothing else but doing that, until we got to the end of the piece, and then we realized that we didn’t know how to play it. So then we had to figure out by listening to recordings the time values and dynamics and everything. Anyway, we spent a few years sort of doing nothing but trying to teach ourselves music on that level, and playing around in Italian and Russian in different bands and doing weddings and parties, the normal sort of, post-high school, adolescent, post-folky, whatever we were. In those years, I ran into Ingram Marshall through friends of my brother’s, I think, and kind of became involved in the new music world. And in college, I read Finnegans Wake and studied poetry, so I was interested in ideas of new art or things that were creative in a way that was somehow different. I was very much a product of my generation in that regard. So little by little, I got involved in performing and recording and I think in those days it’s the same as it is these days, if you go on tour, and you come back with as much money in your pocket as you left with, then you did very well. In those days it was twenty-five or fifty bucks and if you came home from a tour in Europe with twenty-five or fifty bucks, you were ahead of the game. So we played around a little bit. I guess there still are circuits that you could do. You know, you could tour from Vancouver down to San Diego, I’m sure in the East there are a variety of circuits…
FRANK J. OTERI: Vermont to D.C.
FOSTER REED: …We had two remarkable performances. One was in Amsterdam, at De Ijsbreker. There were only 25 people in the audience but they were all composers.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.
FOSTER REED: That was really interesting.
FRANK J. OTERI: And what sort of stuff were you playing?
FOSTER REED: We were playing Ingram’s Gradual Requiem, and whatever else he had going at the time. It’s kind of live electronics, tape with feedback, his particular world of sound and gambuh and layering. Then another performance we had, I think it was at Evergreen. We didn’t know it but the place was packed. And it was packed with people from some kind of home for either retarded people or emotionally disturbed people. But they were so into the music. It was as though they controlled us.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.
FOSTER REED: It was amazing. Usually as a performer you get up there and you try to take something across the stage to the audience at some level. Like if you’re an actor you try to project to the end of the hall. In this case they came and took it from us, and you know, we were just sort of passengers in that performance.
FRANK J. OTERI: So do you still perform?
FOSTER REED: No, I stopped, as I got involved in being a record label. I put the instrument down. I had children. I stopped hang-gliding. Things got put down and haven’t been picked up very often since then.
FRANK J. OTERI: Not even for fun?
FOSTER REED: Some, but not too much. Because there’s always a period of about two or three months where I have to go through, scraping off the rust and stuff like that. And then just when I start get back to working on the chops again, then, I drop it again. So… I regret it but I’ve let go of music. I’m a musician in recovery. [laughs]
FRANK J. OTERI: Now going back to that very first batch of New Albion recordings, I think it was the Ingram Marshall, the Dresher, Stephen Scott, John Adams Light Over Water and then you picked up Phrygian Gates, and Shaker Loops from 1750 Arch.
FOSTER REED: Right.