8. The A & R Process
FRANK J. OTERI: So when you conceive of a recording being made, are the musicians in mind all the time, or a composer will say, well, here’s a piece, I’d like you to hear it. What is the process?
FOSTER REED: Well, it’s a varied process. For example, I’m thinking of a recording of Lou Harrison’s music right now and I’d like to work with Joan Jeanrenaud who used to play with the Kronos, and so I’m trying to assemble a group around her, but there are availability issues. And then I know that over here in New York, there’s a group with the Mark Morris Dance Company who also know the music very well. And so, you know, I’m trying to see, can I do it like that, or can I do it over here like this, or can I not do the project? To do a project like that is probably $10 or $15,000 and so it’s a matter of do I have the money, or if another project shows up in the meantime, do I spend the money, and forget about this project? It’s something I want to do, so many principal players I’ve talked to and they want to do it, but can we actually put it all together and make it happen? Sometimes projects like this… these ideas go on for years, where you’re trying to put the constellation of people together and have the money.
FRANK J. OTERI: And sometimes a performer may come to you — – I know that you’ve recorded a lot of pianists — that’s probably easier to record than other groups, because you don’t have to put the group together, you just have to make sure that the piano sounds right, which is tricky in of itself, but it’s a different issue. There have been a few orchestral recordings over the years, those are really the most expensive, the most difficult to pull off.
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RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Chen Yi: Ge Xu
(from New Albion CD 090:
The Music of Chen Yi)
FOSTER REED: Yeah, those are, in my mind, inappropriate things for me to do with the exception of the Chen Yi record. In retrospect, working with the Berkeley Symphony was not an appropriate thing to do.
FRANK J. OTERI: Because of the expenses?
FOSTER REED: Because of the expenses, because the repertoire was non-applicable to the orbit I’m really involved in. What I’m involved in, I think started in a certain level with Debussy and then it’s kind of the lyrical and/or inventive side of music and it just… So for me to get involved with somebody like Frank Martin is not correct. Or even Shostakovich is not really the orbit that I’m really interested in. Those are experiments to try to become more applicable or more, sort of, marketable, and every time I’ve tried to do that it’s the worst I’ve done.
FRANK J. OTERI: Did the Frank Martin recording do well at all?
FOSTER REED: No, that didn’t do anything. I mean, it has some great music on it. And the Shostakovich record did okay, but it’s really, those weren’t appropriate for New Albion to do on a variety of levels. Whereas the Chen Yi disc was appropriate. That, I regard as an orchestra experience, but it worked.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right. And you’ve certainly done large scale pieces — the John Luther Adams disc is chamber orchestra, and then there’s Sasha Matson’s disc, which is a large chamber ensemble
FOSTER REED: Not that large, but, yeah. That’s more of a small, chamber, well, not so small but not so large.
FRANK J. OTERI: Or then, Robert Kyr’s choral music, or Carson Kievman’s symphonies… that’s an orchestral record.
FOSTER REED: I was less involved with that. That was done in Poland. Yeah, it was an effort to open a door to other kinds of compositional sensibilities. I’ve come to realize that there are other labels that can do that better than I can, or as well, and that what I can do is the more singular, more incredible, more strange type of stuff. It’s what I’m better at doing.
FRANK J. OTERI: Certainly with your return to new releases this year, with Ellen Fullman’s disc, you’re certainly doing something singular. Here’s a composer who’s completely unlike any other composer writing music for 90-feet long strings.
FOSTER REED: It’s a very different aesthetic, a very different, you can even argue that it’s not composition in the sense of finding a pen and writing a note in this composition, but yet it has a certain power that is different.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s a wonderful disc.
FOSTER REED: And so it opens up, it makes the room, or the little, what Anthony Braxton calls the little box called jazz, it makes that little box called new music a little bit broader, a little more open.
FRANK J. OTERI: You mentioned Braxton just now, a name we might have missed in our freewheeling discussion here. You did 2 discs of Braxton’s music.
FOSTER REED: Actually, one is sort of orchestral!
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] Yeah, that’s right, and you also did a disc through Fred Rzewski with Steve Lacy, another legendary jazz figure. What is the role of jazz in this whole orbit?
FOSTER REED: Well, again, that’s another sort of area that I thought I’d be much more active in. I thought, starting New Albion, that I’d be doing rock and roll projects like the Soft Machine used to be in the late 60’s, and that I’d be doing, another 20 or 30% would be jazz-type projects, and then another smaller percentage would be classical-type stuff. And it ended up that I’m sort of now a classical new music label. And the reason is because nobody talks to each other. People don’t really understand that Steve Lacy is such an incredible player for a variety of reasons. And so I can almost not do those projects, even though I like them and would like to do them. I think the first record I did with Anthony is really the voice of the poet. It’s just an astounding, you know, it’s exactly the kind of record I like to make. Both of those records are really the voice of the poet, with the instrument, you know, on a mythic scale, playing things that only they can do.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, here’s a loaded question getting back to the record industry, you do a jazz record, or you do a rock record, and you’re New Albion, you have a certain association with your distributor, with your retailer. I remember being in Tower Records when they first opened in the early 80’s in New York, and Steve Reich and Meredith Monk were in the jazz section, because they were on ECM. They didn’t know. There was no classical buyer for ECM in the early 80’s because they hadn’t established themselves in that market yet. So you do this Braxton record, does it get in the jazz section of the store, or does it get in the classical section by default?
FOSTER REED: Braxton’s pretty much been ghettoized in the classical section, well, no, it depends on the store. The difficulty with Anthony and Steve is that their response to the music industry is to make any record that comes by. And so it’s very hard as a record company to compete against all the other records that are out there. And so, it makes it difficult to make the investment since you know that it’s going to sort of get lost.
FRANK J. OTERI: And as a buyer, it’s always confusing to know…
FOSTER REED: …which is which. Which one do you buy?
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. What’s the good recording? And maybe a buyer’s going to say, New Albion, once again, it’s the boutique idea, people associate New Albion with a certain sound world, or Blue Note with a certain sound world, and unfortunately we’re in this categorizing society.
FOSTER REED: The next record we’re coming out with is this Henry Cowell piano record, and it’s so interesting because Henry sits way back there, in front of Copland, in the imagination of American music. And there aren’t that many… he’s a guy that history hasn’t yet really found very well.
FRANK J. OTERI: That is such a ton of music: symphonies, the piano music. Everybody knows, if they know anything, they know the early inside the piano experiments and the cluster pieces. But he went on to do all these pieces based on Iranian music, on Indian music and African music, and also older forms, he wrote a Concerto Grosso. He was a really varied composer.
FOSTER REED: You think of Henry Cowell and then Harry Partch, I mean, those guys thought for themselves. There’s just no question about it. I didn’t get the impression that they were making… the problem with our world, is either you’re tailoring your creativity to commerce, and that’s fine, or you’re tailoring your art to the granting world, or the commissioning world, or academia, whatever you want to call it. And in order to get ahead, in order to survive economically, you have to do one or the other. And I don’t think that those guys did either, particularly.