Forty Years in New Music

Having produced new music recordings for 40 years, I’ve seen some tectonic shifts in both the welcome expansion of the stylistic landscape of the music itself, as well as huge transformations in how new music is delivered to listeners.

Written By

Tom Steenland

Having produced new music recordings for 40 years, I’ve seen some tectonic shifts in both the welcome expansion of the stylistic landscape of the music itself, as well as huge transformations in how new music is delivered to listeners.

Scene #1:

Mid 1970s, a composition lesson at the University of Colorado. At that point, Terry Riley’s In C and Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain had been recorded. Philip Glass had composed Music in Similar Motion, Music with Changing Parts, and Music in Twelve Parts, performing such works with his ensemble at New York’s Whitney and Guggenheim museums. My professor opines (paraphrased): “Minimalism is just a fad. It’s been done before. Think of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th.” Poof! Minimalism dismissed. Of course, my oblivious professor was not alone. Minimalism was also severely castigated by Boulez, Carter (who compared it to fascism and Hitler’s speeches), and leading critics at The New York Times (kids nowadays just want to get stoned).

Scene #2

Mid 1970s, a composition lesson at the University of Colorado. Another professor, the inventive Cecil Effinger, mentions his idea that a record label could be a tax-exempt organization, just like symphonies, art museums, etc. This may seem obvious today, but back then no such general purpose label existed. There were just a few nonprofit labels, with built-in restrictions, such as the Louisville Orchestra’s First Edition Recordings (20th-century music by living composers), Composers Recordings, Inc. (contemporary classical music by American composers), and New World Records (American music). Effinger and a few others battled with the IRS for two years, and in 1976 Owl Recording, Inc. became the first broadly purposed tax-exempt label in the United States. With its exceptionally expansive mission of releasing recordings of “high artistic, educational or historical worth not otherwise available,” I sensed a great potential. Owl’s board of directors, seeing my enthusiasm, essentially let me take over running the label.

Owl Recording, Inc. originated as an attempt to save Owl Records, a small local label that was about to dissolve. As I familiarized myself with the existing catalog, I became captivated by the powerful, original musique concrète works from the relatively unknown Tod Dockstader, and I’ve been involved with his music ever since.

Over the next 15 years, I learned about producing, releasing, and promoting new music recordings, as well as how to successfully apply for grants. I worked with such composers as Vincent Persichetti, Morton Subotnick, and Iannis Xenakis. At one point, a talented, environmentally concerned composer from Alaska contacted me, with the result that I released one of the first recordings of John Luther Adams.

While I was proud of the LPs (yes, LPs) I was releasing, I also experienced some growing frustrations. Financial support was generally only available to composers with appropriate “credentials,” which meant being connected to the academic world, and such restrictions clearly limited the stylistic range heard on Owl’s releases.

In the 1980s, the new music world was changing. A vibrant “alternative downtown” scene was emerging in sharp contrast to the “official uptown” scene. Uptown meant The Juilliard School, Lincoln Center, Columbia University, and Pulitzer winners, while Downtown included La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca, Terry Riley, John Zorn, and many more, with performances in alternative, casual settings. In 1987 the highly influential Bang on a Can festival was founded.

Around 1990, several factors converged for me. First, the funding bias toward academic music virtually eliminated music from the promising Downtown scene for Owl. Secondly, CDs were becoming the dominant medium, which did not bode well for Owl’s mostly vinyl back catalog. Finally, Tod Dockstader’s LPs had sold out, and repressing them on vinyl didn’t make sense.

Suddenly, my next step seemed obvious: I’d start my own label, freeing me from Owl’s inherent restrictions in order to cover a wider range of new music that included the invigorating Downtown world, to have full control over design, liner notes, promotion, etc., and to make a fresh start by releasing CDs, not LPs. I’d begin by reissuing all of Tod Dockstader’s classic music on CD.

Tod Dockstader at Gotham 1960s

Tod Dockstader at Gotham in the 1960s

I contacted Tod, who was skeptical there would be any interest. In part, I was able to convince him because CDs present audio a lot more accurately than LPs, such as the deep bass that helps convey the elemental power of his music. For the first time, listeners could hear what Tod had heard in the studio. He agreed to move ahead and provide updated notes.

After forming Starkland in 1991, I released the first Dockstader Quatermass CD in 1992, and the second Apocalypse CD in 1993.

The covers for the 1st two Starkland releases, both of which are devoted to reissues of music by Tod Dockstader

We didn’t know what the reaction would be. After all, we were re-releasing music that was about 25 years old, and technology had greatly advanced over those years. Neither Tod nor I anticipated the more than two dozen rave reviews and robust sales that resulted. One publication ranked Dockstader as an electronic music pioneer on par with Varèse, Stockhausen, and Subotnick. Another, The Wire, claimed that thanks to these recordings “Dockstader will be remembered as the innovative, visionary figure he undoubtedly was.” (Notice the past tense.)

Encouraged, I started to release a variety of new music CDs, typically devoted to a single composer, such as Paul Dresher, Phillip Bimstein, Charles Amirkhanian, and Guy Klucevsek. I somewhat obsessively took over all stages of each release: project development, graphic design, mastering, promotion, and sales. These initial releases were successes, receiving fine reviews in major publications and respectable sales.

A few of these recordings reveal what a small record label can accomplish.

Consider the story of Phillip Bimstein. While he had studied classical music at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, he initially emerged into the music world in the 1980s with his new wave band Phil ‘n’ the Blanks. After moving to Springdale, Utah, one day Phillip chatted with his neighbor, farmer Garland Hirschi, and asked why his cows mooed. Charmed by Garland’s answer and general storytelling, Phillip decided to create an aural portrait of this lifelong rancher by recording their conversations, using snippets of both Garland’s comments and those mooing cows, along with instrumental writing based on Garland’s speech patterns. Shortly thereafter, I met Phillip at a new music festival in Telluride, Colorado, and was delighted by his Garland Hirschi’s Cows piece. It turned out he had more music, and I released his first CD in 1996.

The CD was something of a hit. Airing the title piece often prompted dozens of calls to radio stations. Philip went on to receive grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet The Composer, and the American Composers Forum, and his music was performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, and London’s Royal Opera House. Later we did a follow-up CD, Larkin Gifford’s Harmonica, which also did well.

The cover for Philip Bimstein's Starkland CD Garland Hirschi's Cows which is a photo of a farmer with a pair of cows.

In 1998, I contemplated doing something special for the upcoming 2000 millennium. Around that time, I became aware of the behind-the-scenes development of a new DVD-Audio format, which, for the first time, would allow high-resolution surround sound to be played in the home. (Standard DVDs, then as now, offered surround sound, but only with less-than-CD quality sound.) Releasing a DVD-A seemed irresistible.

My interest in surround sound began in the mid-1970s, when the industry attempted to put quadraphonic sound onto vinyl LPs and I was connected to a small local company that developed the first digitally-controlled quadraphonic panning device. While both quad sound and the panning device disappeared, a seed had been planted.

But what would be the content of the Starkland DVD-A? The project grew more ambitious: I decided to commission short works from about a dozen composers whose music seemed likely to be enhanced by surround sound. My goal was it would be the first such recording of its kind, though I had no way of knowing if another label was also secretly planning something similar.

I tried to select composers who would use surround in diverse ways. An obvious starting point was composers who regularly worked with technology: Paul Dresher, Pauline Oliveros, Maggi Payne (who had previously composed quadraphonic works), Carl Stone (who had been using quadraphonic techniques in live performance), and Pamela Z.

Other composers were those who used space as part of their music: Ellen Fullman (whose Long String Instrument uses strings stretched over nearly 100 feet), Phil Kline (who used space as part of his massed boombox works), and Bruce Odland (who had created large-scale multimedia installations in public spaces). There were also composers whose music inherently feels spacious: Ingram Marshall (think of his works like Alcatraz and Fog Tropes) and Meredith Monk (with her obvious affinity for the use of space in many works).

Composers whose music was exceptionally dense or worked in polymetrics would benefit from the expanded surround soundfield: Paul Dolden (whose astonishingly layered works feature perhaps 400 individual parts and explore complex polyrhythmic and microtonal tuning relationships), and Lukas Ligeti (who has long worked with polymeters).

Finally, the outlier: Masami Akita (aka Merzbow). If his noise music assaults listeners with dense walls of sound, how much more effective might this be if we can be sonically pummeled from all directions? (Of course, I knew that many would not enjoy this piece, but I feel part of my job is to sometimes shake things up.)

The project consumed over two years of my life, and at times I thought I’d never make it. I was working on a format that did not yet exist, and no one had ever seen a DVD-A.

Released in 2000, Immersion was a major success, and remains Starkland’s biggest seller, for several reasons. First, there was extensive media coverage; Billboard devoted a full page to it. Secondly, Amazon prominently featured it as an outstanding exploration of this new format. Finally, people were hungry for material specifically created to take advantage of the new DVD-A format.

A delightful surprise happened via Amazon: Immersion was often the #1 bestselling DVD-A during its first year there. The other initial DVD-A releases were decidedly unimaginative. The major classical labels issued standard repertoire, and the pop labels tended to reissue rock classics that were not originally conceived for surround. The bizarre result was that avant-garde music was outselling Fleetwood Mac, Metallica, Deep Purple, Steely Dan, the Doors, Neil Young, and the Beethoven symphonies.

One of the biggest honors Immersion received was when New York’s Whitney Museum selected Meredith Monk’s work, Eclipse Variations, as part of their 2002 Biennial. Along with others, Meredith’s piece was presented in a specially designed “surround sound” installation room.

And to my great shock while attending the gala opening night, I discovered that the score of Meredith’s I had commissioned had been used as the cover art for the Biennial’s catalog.

The cover for the 2002 Whitney Biennial catalog which features an excerpt of a musical score by Meredith Monk

After the success of Immersion, I developed a follow-up project: commissioning a major 60-min. work from Phil Kline, whose piece The Housatonic at Henry Street from the Immersion DVD-A I loved. The result, Around the World in a Daze (released in 2009), is likely the largest work ever commissioned for a hi-res surround sound recording.

Phil Kline and Tom Steenland both wearing sunglasses and standing on opposite sides of a traffic pole on a city street corner.

Phil Kline and Tom Steenland at the corner of Henry and Rutgers streets in lower Manhattan, where “The Housatonic at Henry Street” was recorded.(Photo by Aleba Gartner)

Phil’s use of surround is dazzling. We hear hypersampled Wagner, a mournfully multi-tracked “wailing wall,” a buildup to a massive climax of hundreds of thousands of “falling pennies” that dramatically explores the psychoacoustic possibilities of surround sound, a Bach prelude eerily processed into a Zurich train station, and a concluding work that places listeners inside multiple layers of a field recording of 15,000 chattering, African gray parrots.

My enthusiasm for this double-DVD led me to design a uniquely shaped package, unappreciated by some who value a precisely aligned DVD collection.

The oversized cover for Phil Kline's Around the World in a Daze which looks like a boombox.

How the packaging for Phil Kline's Around the World in a Daze looks when it is opened up: two DVDs nested next to each other.

People sometimes ask how I select the music for Starkland. There’s no simple answer. I suppose I look for music that is distinctive, that has something to say, that conveys something special is going on, even if I can’t quite define it. While I don’t shy away from music that seems simple and readily accessible, like Phillip Bimstein’s cow piece, I also have embraced challenging, not-background-for-your-next-dinner-party music which sounds and feels imaginatively different.

An example is Elliott Sharp’s The Boreal CD (2015). For the title piece commissioned by the JACK Quartet, he developed unique bows, substituting ballchain and metal springs for the traditional horsehairs. The results are otherworldly textures unlike anything I’ve ever heard from a string quartet. Other works reveal a sophisticated intelligence that produce music which is captivating in ways that I initially couldn’t define but felt oddly special. Later, I saw the scores reveal his repeating musical cells that constantly shift their patterns. I learned his organizing principles can be based on fractal geometry, chaos theory, Fibonacci numbers, and bio-genetic concepts. Yet the key point is all this underlying complexity can audible sensed; something elusively distinctive is going on.

Several years ago, I noticed most of the composers on Starkland were approximately my age and established. However, I think part of Starkland’s role is to release music from younger, emerging composers who are not so well known. To remedy this, I thought of the outstanding International Contemporary Ensemble, which at that time had already premiered over 500 works, generally by younger composers. I contacted founder Claire Chase about having Starkland issue a CD of ICE performing emerging composers, and she thought this was a terrific idea.

Released February 2016, this On the Nature of Thingness CD has seven works from Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis, both members of ICE.

The title piece is the cornerstone of the CD, and Nathan’s settings of the text are richly evocative. At one point, we hear the soprano Tony Arnold accompanied by a chorus of jaw harps, and in the “Vowels” movement, Tony mesmerizingly intones the text on a just single pitch. Nathan’s other two works, one for solo piano and the other for bassoon and live digital processing, are also convincingly fresh and captivating.

Phyllis Chen imaginatively creates colorful timbres by unconventional methods, employing toy pianos, tuning forks, music boxes, metallic bowls, and tuning rods extracted from toy pianos, all of which results in a magically conjured world of exotic textures.

Remaining flexible has led me down unexpected paths. One example is the exceptionally gifted accordionist Guy Klucevsek. Many years ago, attending his concert in Boulder left me deeply moved and impressed. I introduced myself afterwards and we’ve stayed friends since. (I must admit, when I founded Starkland, I did not expect to release accordion music.)

It’s not hard to be seduced by Guy’s world, which encompasses a cornucopia of styles and approaches. Aside from his technical chops, he’s one of those performers where everything sounds innately musical. Guy’s arrangements are charmingly eccentric. Witness what he does with Burt Bacharach tunes, from his soft, high, ethereal rendition of One Less Bell To Answer, to his wittily worded version of Bacharach’s first hit, The Blob (penned for the fun horror film with the same title).

Then there are the impressively diverse compositions Guy has commissioned. For example, Aaron Jay Kernis wrote a big, powerful piece, Hymn, for Guy, inspired by Aaron’s concerns with the world’s wars and sufferings, coupled with his visits to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Aaron considers the work to have “a central position in my oeuvre.” On the other hand, we have Fred Frith’s humorous, theatrical The Disinformation Polka.

Guy also performs music that is straightforwardly beautiful, without being cloying or clichéd, from Carl Finch’s Prairie Dogs to Guy’s own The Asphalt Orchid (in memory of Astor Piazzolla).

Given this wealth of material, it’s not surprising I’ve now issued four Klucevsek recordings. In September 2016, I released Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy, which presents one gorgeous piece after another. The magic that happens when Guy plays with the wonderful violinist Todd Reynolds is one of those rarities that keeps me going. Here they perform Moose Mouth Mirror at the CD’s release concert at New York’s Spectrum:

Starkland’s most recent release brings me full circle, back to Tod Dockstader and our initial two CDs. The enthusiastic reception of those CDs greatly encouraged him to continue composing. One result was his 3-CD Aerial project (released by Sub Rosa in the mid 2000s). Another result is that, when he died in 2015, he left behind a vast archive of around 4,200 sound files on his computer. With the diligent help of archivist Justin H Brierley, I reduced these to the 15 tracks that appear on Tod Dockstader: From the Archives.

The cover for the latest Starkland CD release, Tod Dockstader From The Archives.

Tod’s music has long seemed original and powerful to me. While determining why any music works is ultimately unanswerable, two factors can help explain the appeal of his music. First, most of the sounds are real-world (i.e., concrète), and therefore have an inherent distinctiveness that is missing in pure electronic sounds. From what I know, he never used a synthesizer. I recall the story from his early composing days, when Bob Moog invited Tod to Bob’s home to demonstrate his new synthesizers. Tod went, listened, pondered, and left – synth-less. Sterile synthesizer sounds lacked the richness of Tod’s concrète palette, and of course the keyboard itself was an anathema to him. The second reason is that Tod worked by instinct, rather than filling out a preconceived formal structure. In his case, being an autodidact instead of having formally studying composition clearly worked to his advantage. I recall Tod describing his process of generating lots of material on tape, and then taking a razor blade to excise the material that didn’t work. He reported that, sometimes, everything simply disappeared under The Blade. Ruthless self-editing was clearly a strength.

Tod also had a spot-on sense of shaping materials: when to move away from a rhythm he’d set up, when to introduce new material, when to return to earlier material in a section, how densely layered a section should be, and how to satisfyingly end a piece.

Released November 18, 2016, the music on this new CD ranges from the powerfully pulsating Super Choral, to the lulling rhythms of First Target, to Anat Loop’s spasmodic juxtapositions, shifting from electric arcing to a xylophone trapped in a hurricane. We also hear driving unnatural machines, organ clusters, meandering buzzes, a slowed-down animal roar, violent whooshes, some ominous German, and garbled, underwater murkiness. The CD ends with a shocking coda, music unlike anything else in Tod’s repertoire.

What is the future for record labels? The simple answer is: I don’t know. The first step is to note what value labels can offer. Some of the recordings I’ve described above suggest the benefits labels can provide.

A typical Starkland CD serves to document and preserve the compositions with high quality recordings approved by the composers and their notes on the music, along with the widespread dispersion of the release and permanent availability from the label. (Starkland has never had a recording go out-of-print.) And in a case like the Dockstader CDs, the updated notes written for the CD became the definitive commentary on the music; he never prepared notes for concerts (because there weren’t any), and he never set up a website.

CDs can significantly advance the careers of composers and performing ensembles. Starkland’s two Bimstein CDs helped him attain widespread exposure, receive numerous grants and commissions, and end up with performances at venues like Carnegie Hall and wonderful reviews in publications like The New York Times. Because of our track record (pun intended), the media is likely to pay attention to the 100-150 promo CDs we send out. We also help draw attention to new releases by having liner notes written by established figures such as John Adams, Laurie Anderson, Claire Chase, Kyle Gann, Allan Kozinn, David Lang, Meredith Monk, Bill Morrison, Pauline Oliveros, and John Schaefer.

Labels can generate new works by commissioning composers (possibly with visual artists) to create content exclusively for a new release. I’m proud to have commissioned over two hours of surround-sound music that premiered on two first-of-their-kind releases.

Finally, labels can help the listening public discover new music they might otherwise miss. How do listeners decide what to buy (and hopefully not steal)? The astute critic George Grella recently answered this question, writing: “That is precisely where record labels matter, have always mattered, and matter now more than ever… The process of gathering critical opinion from friends, critics, and one’s own ears begins with the label, the most important gatekeeper.”

For all these reasons, labels have value, and that makes me think they will continue to exist in some way. The two key questions for the future then become:

  • How will labels deliver music?
  • How will new music recordings be financed?

Today’s au courant prediction for future delivery is streaming will rule and CDs will disappear. Not everyone agrees. Many like physical objects, held in their treasured collections. My guess is that in the foreseeable future, we will continue to see CDs released by major artists, those who value a CD’s high quality sound and documentation, those who want to sell something at their concerts, and those who want to be taken seriously by the major media. Today, there are likely “more labels than ever,” as Grella recently wrote. Starkland currently receives more project submissions than at any point over the last 25 years. Of course, streaming will continue to play a valuable role in discovery. But while we have extensive digital distribution by Naxos, the starting point for all projects is still a physical CD and we haven’t yet done a digital-only release.

It’s hard to predict what we will end up with farther down the road. The public accepts the crappy sound of mp3 and earbuds because of the convenience. This may change. Mp3 thrives because of the limitations of data transmission and storage. With rapid advances of technology along with clever encoding (such as the nascent MQA codec and the Mastered for iTunes format), we may well end up with high quality digital delivery and storage. If it’s well organized, that could change everything.

Future financing will be a challenge. Unless you’re Philip Glass, sales of new music recordings won’t cover the production and promotional expenses. There will still be some grants available, and the emergence of crowdfunding is a healthy approach that I think will grow.

We have to admit the major labels missed the boat on the digital revolution, and tech companies like Apple, YouTube, and Amazon have taken over music distribution. But in my opinion they don’t care about the music like labels do. It’s just another way to get people to buy their products and visit their websites. Standalones like Spotify are different since they only sell music, but they currently lose millions and have no viable business model. What these giants all have in common is the power to pay smaller labels virtually nothing.

Reality check: when someone streams a Starkland track, we typically receive about $0.0043.

Despite this dismal situation, I think composers and musicians will continue to see value in professionally produced recordings, and will find a way to make that happen.

Finally, let’s return to the most important part of this “business” – the music itself. Today, the new music world is healthier than it’s ever been over the last 40 years, a truly unexpected and exciting state of affairs. Today’s audiences meaningfully connect to a lot of new music, a sharp contrast to yesteryear’s dry, academic music that alienated so many listeners. Universities cover a broad range of styles and are far less insular than decades ago. Old school dichotomies such as Uptown vs. Downtown have mostly disappeared. There’s no “official” style for composing. There are outstanding ensembles devoted to new music, and there’s a substantial audience. Music can be heard, more readily than ever, around the world.

Over the years, the once irrelevant and exclusionary Pulitzer Prize changed direction (e.g., David Lang’s award), and the historically conservative Grawemeyer Award has presented its 2017 composition award to the 37-year old Andrew Norman for his nontraditional, rambunctious Play. Props to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which not only commissioned and performed the work, but also recorded it on its own label, which greatly increased the work’s prominent stature and widespread acclaim. (Alex Ross remarks he has “listened to Play at least a dozen times.”)

I feel lucky to have participated in this evolving world over the last 40 years, and look forward to more in the future.

Tom Steenland

Thomas Steenland is the founder and Executive Director of Starkland. “A new music force for 40 years” (Sequenza21), he has released dozens of albums, presenting world premiere recordings of over 160 works by more than 80 composers. Tom studied physics at Johns Hopkins, music theory at Goucher College, composition at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and recording engineering at the University of Colorado at Denver. He lives in Boulder.