Category: Articles

What recordings do you buy and why? What recordings have you listened to recently? Derek Bermel, Composer

Derek Bermel
Photo courtesy Derek Bermel

Last month I found some CD gems, among them Pittsburgh band Don Caballero‘s new album What Burns Never Returns (Touch and Go TG185CD) a minimalist rock album which takes King Crimson’s early 80’s stuff to the next level; the drummer Damon Che weaves some incredible polyrhythmic lines. Listening to the album reminded me of the whole band sleeping on my floor a few years ago during their midwest tour. I bought the young hip-hop group Blackstar‘s first album (Rawkus RWK 1158-2) and especially enjoyed one stellar track, “Thieves in the Night” based on a quote from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye; It’s worth buying the CD just for this lyric. I bought Bun-Ching Lam‘s The Child God opera on Tzadik (TZ 7031), and I’ve already listened to the piece five or six times. She has an uncanny sense of dramatic action in music; her earlier album on CRI also makes good listening. I found Morton Feldman‘s Coptic Light recorded by Michael Morgan and the Deutsched Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (CPO 999 189-2). I studied this score in detail several years ago, but hadn’t heard a recording until last year when I heard Michael Tilson Thomas’ recent version with the New World Symphony; I’m still not sure which one I like better, but I think that every American composer writing for orchestra should at least know the score.

I also picked up a copy of Bill EvansEloquence (Fantasy OJCCD-814-2) in a used record shop. I’ve been trying to find this one for years ever since I heard it on LP when I was 12; I love the first track “Gone With the Wind”. While I was in Prague I bought the latest album by the Czech violin / vocals / percussion duo of Iva Bittova & Pavel Fajt (Panton 81 0795-2). Pretty wacky stuff, very personal and theatrical. For some reason I bought a second copy of Claude Vivier‘s opera Kopernikus, which I had gotten in Toronto a few years ago at the Canadian Music Centre (Les Disques SRC, MVCD 1047). I can’t even count the number of times I’ve listened to this disc, as well as the newer disc of Vivier’s orchestral music, featuring the Schoenberg and Asko Ensembles conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw and soprano Susan Narucki (Philips 454-231-2). I’ve been enjoying a CD of Gerald Barry‘s orchestral works that I obtained from the Irish Music Centre in Dublin (Marco Polo 8.225006). Worth the work it takes to get it!

I must say that most of the best music comes to my house by mail, sent by friends and fellow composers. Among the CDs which I dug were Jonathan Hart Makwaia‘s unbelievable disc (WOW! Get it!), Susan Botti‘s new release on CRI, Steve Burke‘s juicy disc “Clockwise”, Alejandro Iglesias Rossi‘s CD of his newest electronic works, and Laura Caviani‘s jazz compositions on As One on the Innova label. Most of these are available from smaller labels or directly from the composers themselves.

What recordings do you buy and why? What recordings have you listened to recently?

Robert Hurwitz Robert Hurwitz
“I buy them to hear musician friends when they forget to send me a copy of their latest album…”
Laura Kuhn Laura Kuhn
“…I confess that what I’m listening to right now doesn’t really qualify as new American music…”
Aaron Jay Kernis Aaron Jay Kernis
“I’ve always felt it important to hear as much new music in concert and have it at home for future reference.”
Elliott Schwartz Elliott Schwartz
“I’ve also bought CDs that would have been virtually impossible to find in the states: discs on Scandinavian labels, with pieces such as Sinking Through a Dream Mirror by the Danish collage-quotation artist Karl Aage Rasmussen…”
Derek Bermel Derek Bermel
“I must say that most of the best music comes to my house by mail, sent by friends and fellow composers.”

American Music and the Future of the Recording Industry

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

For my entire adult life, I have been an uncontrollable record collector. The infinite variety of music available on recordings allows eager listeners an opportunity to hear just about anything. The sad reality of being unable to hear a large amount of American repertoire or new music of any national origin in the concert hall or on the radio is countered by the ecstatic joy of being able to hear anything you want if you’ve got it in your record collection. And recordings allow you to take music into your home and live with it, sometimes turning seemingly impenetrable music into “personal standard repertoire” through repeated listenings.

For our second issue of NewMusicBox, we decided to focus on the record industry and its ongoing importance as a tool in the dissemination of new American music. I had a lengthy discussion with Foster Reed, founder and head of New Albion Records, about the state of the record business and the future. Sprinkled throughout our discussion are 10 RealAudio sound snippets spanning the entire history of New Albion ranging from the very first disc, Ingram Marshall’s Gradual Requiem, to recent recordings by Terry Riley and Daniel Lentz.

We invite you to debate with us about the size of the potential audience for recordings of new music and the best way to reach them. For our second “hyper-history,” Steve Smith has assembled a crash course in American independent record labels specializing in new music. He has spoken with the executive producers of 18 labels across the United States. (For the record, pun intended, he’s no relation to Ken Smith, author of our first “hyper-history“.) We asked Robert Hurwitz, President of Nonesuch Records, Laura Kuhn, Direcor of the John Cage Trust, and composers Aaron Jay Kernis, Elliott Schwartz and Derek Bermel to talk about why they buy recordings and share with us some of their recent finds. This month’s SoundTracks features details about over 40 new CDs featuring American music to further peak curiosity.

Beyond the world of recordings, there are over 200 listings for June and July in our national calendar of American music performances so there are also lots of opportunities to get away from your stereo system as summer approaches. American music continues to be in the news with important award announcements from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Composer Alliance and ASCAP. There are also important changes happening at Meet The Composer, the American Symphony Orchestra League and the Canadian Music Centre.

NewMusicBox wants to continue the crusade of vanguard record companies which have exposed listeners to overwhelming diversity of new American music. We hope to bring information about this music into your home on another level, hopefully offering the same joy of discovery that only comes with tracking down a great record!

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

Steve Smith
photo by Andrew Kochera

New music has always had a tough time finding a home to call its own. Faced with a lack of performances by mainstream classical performing groups, as we learned here last month, many composers and other devotees of the avant-garde took it upon themselves to found their own ensembles to promulgate their own music and that of their peers.

Small wonder, then, that the same should hold true in the world of new music on records. Faced with balancing the budgets in an ever more demanding marketplace, major labels have historically stayed far away from the new, instead offering up recording after recording of the tried and true warhorses that have been presented since the dawn of the recording industry. As in the example of the live performance arena, where the most popular and least challenging music is programmed to keep the subscribers placated and happy, the recording industry has frequently chosen the path of least resistance, recording popular classics that moved records off shelves in stores and into homes.

It’s a flawed model, to be sure, and in recent years the classical recording industry has felt an upheaval as the tried and true has begun to fail. Suddenly one more recording of The Four Seasons or the Beethoven Fifth Symphony is not moving the numbers of units demanded by the corporate owners of the major labels. Small wonder that the classical recording industry is in a crisis of sorts. And, from time to time, new music is briefly seen as a possible alternative at the majors. A label such as Catalyst or Point Music will spin off from a major such as RCA or Philips, enjoy a brief period of vogue, and then fade away into insignificance or even obsolescence, when new music, despite a few flash-in-the-pan success stories (such as Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 on Nonesuch), is revealed not to be the key to garnering a larger market share for classical music.

It’s a hard, unpleasant and unpopular pill to swallow: new music generally does not sell in major label figures, and it is the rare major label (Columbia Masterworks under Goddard Lieberson, Nonesuch under Teresa Stearne) that is actually prepared to deal with avant-garde music in a knowledgeable and thoughtful manner. But it would seem to be a matter of simple logic… it always takes time for a vanguard artform to earn the appreciation of a larger audience. The dilemma in which new music finds itself, then, is how to viably record contemporary works for posterity and for the small but enthusiastic audience that exists here and now.

Enter the indies. With lower overhead and not beholden to unsympathetic corporate owners, the independent record label is the natural home for new music. What’s more, virtually every independant label in the business of recording contemporary music has come into the business for one reason only: the founder or founders of the label sincerely appreciate and love new music, and want to play a role in its promotion and ultimately its success.

That said, although there are perhaps notable commonalities, no two labels share exactly the same story. Many of them are founded by composers and performers themselves, including Bridge, Capstone, Avant and Tzadik, innova, North/South and even the venerable CRI. Others, like Lovely Music and Monroe Street, were formed by people who are very closely connected to a whole group of experimental composers and performers. In a few cases, such as that of O.O. Discs, the products of the label are seen not merely as adjuncts to live performances but as new artforms in and of themselves. Some labels, such as New Albion, Mode and Organ of Corti, were founded by new music enthusiasts previously not directly involved in the recording industry. In the case of New World Records, what started out as an overly enthusiastic one-time series of 100 albums turned into an ongoing enterprise now in its third decade. Some labels, on the other hand, like Einstein, Pogus and Starkland, release so few recordings that their very existence runs counter to the machinations of the record business. Still others, such as Albany Records, Newport and Koch International Classics, include new music as just one facet among its many activities.

But ultimately, what unites all of the labels profiled in this issue of NewMusicBox, as well as the countless others not included here for reasons of space and time, is that for every one of them, the presentation of new music on record is a labor of love that more than repays the difficulties and hardships entailed in doing so.

What recordings do you buy and why? What recordings have you listened to recently? Robert Hurwitz, President, Nonesuch Records

I buy records for at least five reasons: professionally (I want to hear people I haven’t heard before, or I want to hear recordings that people I trust are talking about); I buy them for my children (records they want and records I think they might like); I buy them to hear musician friends when they forget to send me a copy of their latest album;  I buy records that I simply want to hear because I still love listening to music; and I buy CDs of LPs I haven’t replaced (because I don’t listen to my old LPs, so unless I replace them, those discs are lost forever).

What recordings do you buy and why? What recordings have you listened to recently? Laura Kuhn, Director, John Cage Trust

Laura Kuhn
Photo by Betty Freeman

NewMusicBox is terrific, but I confess that what I’m listening to right now doesn’t really qualify as new American music: both CDs available of Dulce Pontes, entitled Caminhos and Lagrimas, and both extraordinarily beautiful.  American audiences may only be familiar with her work from the film “Primal Fear” (Ed Norton, Richard Gere, et al.), where one cut was featured.  She recently is also featured on one cut on a CD with Andrea Bocelli, one of the many current darlings of the opera world, but it’s too much Bocelli and not enough Pontes.  She’s a long-standing and very much revered artist in Lisbon, and for good reason.  Both CDs are available but not easy to find: Eur/Portugal #850101 for “Caminhos” and Eur/Portugal #3003 for “Lagrimas.”

I’m also listening to Mikel Rouse‘s yet unreleased American Dream, the materials for which (eight or so “retro-songs”) form the basis of his in-progress opera (the third in the trilogy) The End of Cinematics (which, coincidentally, is up in a workshop version at St. Anne’s this weekend). Really, really, really wonderful work.

What makes you attend a music event? Matthew Sigman

Former editor of Symphony magazine
Currently an executive with R.R. Donnelley & Sons, a board member of the Chicago Civic Orchestra and of the American Music Center

For several years, while I was on the editorial staff of Symphony magazine, it was my honor and anguish to edit the late great Ralph Black, a man whose wit and wisdom and kindness and love for music was matched only by his stalwart procrastination and indecipherable scrawl.  Ralph knew the human heart and pocketbook pretty well, and when it came to the challenges of getting a body into the concert hall he knew every trick in the manager’s book.  Yet one of my favorite Black “notes” pertained not to the symphony, but to the opera. “Nobody ever goes to the opera the first time,” he used to say, “they are taken.”  Well, that’s still somewhat how it is for me and new music.  Unless I know the composer’s work, or I’m a friend of the composer’s, or a friend of a friend, or I’ve been invited by the composer’s publisher or mother or lawyer, or I’ve heard a snippet of something on the radio, or the work is on a program with a work (contemporary or otherwise) that I love. . . Then usually I find myself in a seat in a concert hall at the behest of someone else who has good taste and an extra ticket.  Here’s how it usually works:

Matthew: Hey Fran, I’m going to be in your neighborhood tomorrow afternoon.
Fran Richard: Yeah, meet me at O’Neals around 6:00.  We’ll get a drink.
Matthew: Sounds great.
Fran:  Oh, and there’s a performance of so-and-so’s oboe quintet at Merkin at 7:30.  You wanna go?
Matthew: Sure.

And thus am I taken.

What makes you attend a music event? Dean Stein

Dean Stein
Photo © Peter Schaaf

Executive Director, Chamber Music America

I’ve always been a bit of a history buff — not so much academically as romantically. For example, I love the theater and try to see the off-off, off and Broadway productions that crowd a typical New York season – experimental works, revivals, classics, “star” vehicles. When I’m at the theater, I feel that I’m part of a vast continuum of emotions. Lately, I’ve been thinking about hearing live, new music concerts in a similar way.

Music written now is also part of a continuum, only the “medium” is different. Beckett’s spare plays challenge audiences (and actors) as the works of Morton Feldman challenge listeners and performers. Writing music, like writing plays, has been happening for centuries. The history buff in me wants to hear what writers and composers have to say about my own time.

What makes you attend a music event?

What makes you attend a music event?
George Steel George Steel
“Free drinks: A concert is a celebration. It should feel like one…”
Eugene V. Carr Eugene V. Carr
“Whenever I go to a modern dance performance I’m usually thrilled by the air of expectation…”
Dean Stein Dean Stein
“…The history buff in me wants to hear what writers and composers have to say about my own time.”
Jessica Lustig Jessica Lustig
“The adventure comes when I’m not sure what the music will sound like…”

Taking Charge of American Music

Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Melissa Richard

In 1939, six American composers joined forces to create the American Music Center, the first-ever information center devoted to the promulgation of new music. For many years, the American Music Center served as the only repository of scores and recordings of a diverse array of repertoire. This effort proved to be a lightning rod and served as a model for music information centers in more than 40 countries around the world. Now, sixty years later, the American Music Center is embarking on a new journey with the launch of NewMusicBox, the first-ever web magazine devoted to new American music.

Each month, NewMusicBox will feature an interview with one or more prominent figures in American Music in which a variety of topics will be discussed and debated at In The First Person. You will be able to join in the debate as well at In The Second Person. Detailed background on a theme topical to whomever has been interviewed will appear at In The Third Person in what I like to call “hyper-history” form. Instead of a linear narrative, there will be a single quickread page filled with a hopscotch network of links allowing you to determine for yourself how much detail you want. And opinions from a variety of movers and shakers within the music industry will be gathered at Hymn & Fuguing Tune to which you can add as well if there’s something you want to say.

For this first issue, we decided to have a roundtable discussion with the three directors of Bang On A Can, one of the most innovative and successful new music ventures of our time. We were joined by the American Music Center’s Executive Director Richard Kessler, and we were also joined by Fran Richard, Vice President of the Symphonic and Concert Music Department at ASCAP. She even provided us with a comfortable room at ASCAP where everybody was able to talk leisurely about everything from the future of the orchestra to the New Jersey Nets. Now, we invite you to debate with us about attracting audiences for new music.

For our first “hyper-history,” Ken Smith has plunged into the complex network of composer-led new music ensembles throughout the United States, tracing the roots back to the pioneering days of the Copland-Sessions concerts of the 1920s. He has spoken with the directors of 22 of today’s leading ensembles. Sprinkled throughout his journey are some exclusive RealAudio sound snippets of recent concerts from several of these groups including a musical setting of the senate testimony of Monica Lewinsky!

We asked George Steel, Artistic Director of Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, Dean Stein, Executive Director of Chamber Music America, Eugene V. Carr, President of the website CultureFinder, and Jessica Lustig, President of 21st Century Music Management to tell us what makes them attend a new music event. We’d love to know your opinion as well.

There has been a great deal of new American music in the news recently. Melinda Wagner has been awarded the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and NewMusicBox has obtained an exclusive RealAudio sound sample. A special citation was given to 81-year-old composer icon Lou Harrison at the Gay and Lesbian American Music Awards. Nine American composers were awarded Guggenheim Fellowships and 76 American composers were featured at the 1999 SCI Conference. May is also the month of the American Music Center’s Annual Meeting and Award Ceremony which this year honors Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, Harvey Lichtenstein, Ellis Freedman, Mel Powell (in memoriam), and the California EAR Unit.

We have also assembled a national calendar of performances of American music and a list of 1999 recordings featuring music by American composers. There are over 250 performances listed for May and June and almost 60 new CDs, and I’m sure we missed something! If so, please let us know.

Putting together this debut issue of NewMusicBox has confirmed for me what an exciting time this is for American music. I hope you will share in this excitement and visit us frequently.

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