Foster Reed of New Albion Records
One of the original “indie-classical” labels, San Francisco-based New Albion Records defined the West Coast Sound and helped to launch the careers of John Adams, John Luther Adams, Ingram Marshall, Paul Dresher, Stephen Scott, Chen Yi, Sarah Cahill, David Tanenbaum, Margaret Lang Tan, and many others. New Albion’s founder Foster Reed explains the label’s philosophy.
May 10, 1999 from 12:00 – 2:00 p.m.
American Music Center
Foster Reed – head/founder of New Albion
Frank J. Oteri – Editor, NewMusicBox
Interview transcribed by Karyn Joaquino
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?
| [123 seconds]
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.
2. The CD Revolution
FRANK J. OTERI: The founding of New Albion happened right before the advent of CD, and you probably only had about maybe 7or 10 titles…
FOSTER REED: We went to number 8, I think, when we made our first CD. And then we made a few more LPs, and then the CD wave became apparent.
FRANK J. OTERI: I know that a lot of other labels at the time, a lot of smaller labels, were really hurt by the switch in format, especially fringe new music labels. But New Albion came into existence right before it so you didn’t have too much of a back catalog to transfer over so it wasn’t as difficult.
| [121 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Ingram Marshall: Gradual Requiem
(from New Albion CD 002:
FOSTER REED: No, the difficulty in those days was that it was an eight dollar pressing charge per CD. In the very early days of CD manufacturing, it was incredibly expensive and furthermore nobody knew if anybody would buy it simply because it was a new format. And there was this big argument about the sort of character of the sound of the CD because it was a new technology and people hadn’t learned how to work with it yet. It was a sort of brittle. I always wanted to put out the best that was available in terms of resources, production values and graphics. To me it didn’t really matter if it was 78’s, vinyl, CD, or whatever, because what you’re really talking about are the ideas behind the music, and the medium that it’s carried in is kind of irrelevant. Unfortunately, though, the CD transition was very risky and difficult financially. There wasn’t this instant boom sitting out there for new music on CD.
FRANK J. OTERI: The boom seems to be happening now with a lot of new music getting issued on CD labels. For a while, I remember bemoaning the advent of CD and thinking it was really eliminating a lot of new music, a lot of smaller labels couldn’t keep up with it. I remember here in New York we had New Music Distribution Service…
FOSTER REED: …Oh, I knew it well…
FRANK J. OTERI: …which was a remarkable way of getting music from very small labels out there to a lot of people. And they were killed by the change to CD.
FOSTER REED: Well, they were killed before that but, yeah, that was probably the last thing that happened to them, or nearly the last thing that happened to them.
FRANK J. OTERI: And they were stuck with all this vinyl, and there was suddenly no market, Tower and all the other major retailers didn’t want vinyl…
FOSTER REED: Well, one of the worst things about, well, there’s a number of horrible things about the CD. The container it comes in is absolutely abysmal. And then the graphics are so small, you’re really selling small boxes of soap, whereas the 12×12 format of vinyl was more like a poster in scale, so you could do more poster art than you can on a CD.
FRANK J. OTERI: I go into a record shop, look at vinyl LPs, read the liner notes on the back and say, “hey, I’ve got to hear this,” and then I buy it. But with CDs, the liner notes are inside the booklet, you can’t read them … In other words, the CD isn’t selling itself…
FOSTER REED: Right.
FRANK J. OTERI: The record was its own review, with the liner notes on the back. So how can you combat that?
FOSTER REED: Well, you don’t.
3. The Decline of Radio
FOSTER REED: When you look back on history it becomes so obvious but when you’re in the middle of it it’s kind of hard to sort out. We’re trying to sell art music into a record industry that’s inherently commercial. And so there’s something with the proposition of doing that. Nonesuch had some success with that, ECM had some success, but their success was more due to a kind of cult aspect of certain performers they had than anything else, I think. But nonetheless, I take my hat off to their success. I think they did a great job. After that, nobody had success. When you look back to that era, there were vacuums where success was possible. It occurred in the 70’s with the kind of youth and/or college market that ECM and Windham Hill were able to tap into that the record industry wasn’t covering. So in other words, there was a lot of radio available in the 70’s and maybe the early 80’s. And that radio could directly affect a student body, who could then go down to their university bookstore and find Windham Hill or a very few select labels. By the time I came along radio in the United States had gone. I would say about 98% is payola and commercially driven. Alternative radio in the college world was basically another form of commercial radio. And, so those sort of methods of getting the word out to people who were interested, were no longer there.
| [123 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Morton Feldman: Voice, Violin and Piano
(from New Albion CD 085:
FRANK J. OTERI: When you think of college radio, the repertoire that comes to mind most strongly throughout the country is alternative rock.
FOSTER REED: Right, well, that’s what it became.
FRANK J. OTERI: And in the past I remember, I guess in the late 70’s, early 80’s, public radio was a great outlet for playing new music.
FOSTER REED: There was public radio available. And now that’s almost gone, too.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now that’s almost completely gone.
FOSTER REED: You know, we used to have a radio station, KQED, which was actually the first station to broadcast our music, and it’s now a talk radio station, entirely…
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.
FOSTER REED: And, you know, it cuts to the traffic report, just like, you know, it has, sort of, intelligentsia talking heads, but every ten minutes it cuts to the traffic report!
FRANK J. OTERI: What stations now play New Albion?
FOSTER REED: There’s still KPFA, which is going through an incredible revolution. You probably have a Pacifica station here…
FRANK J. OTERI: WBAI.
FOSTER REED: Yeah, BAI. There’s this huge struggle between the autonomy of the board and the power of the listener body and the staff, and it’s just a bloody battle happening right now. But there’s a KPFA, there’s a university station KUSF and KAOW, another university station, and that’s it for San Francisco. The university stations are just very small, you know, post-midnight.
FRANK J. OTERI: I believe KDFC is now off the air as a classical station.
FOSTER REED: It could be. I haven’t checked. But KDFC and KKHI have been going through major changes and one of them, anyway, is part of a combine out of L.A., and I’m not quite sure…
FRANK J. OTERI: Right. KKHI just re-broadcasts the programs from KKGO in L.A.
FOSTER REED: They basically were trying to do repeaters across the West Coast. The whole classical conundrum is not being well met by any classical stations. From the one in Chicago on down, and it’s unfortunate because there is a listener, a listening body, and it’s rather large, but if they keep on playing Pachelbel’s Canon, they’ll never find it.
FRANK J. OTERI: Yet they claim that they’re bringing in larger audiences with that.
FOSTER REED: Well, I, you know, they may have a better audience in terms of their rating system. Take a station like WGBH in Boston.
FRANK J. OTERI: Uh huh.
FOSTER REED: They probably still have a passionate listenership. The one here, WNYC still has people who want to hear a certain host doing what they do. And when you go into places like Cincinnati, St. Louis, Denver, I don’t think they have the same committed listener body.
FRANK J. OTERI: Denver was the station that basically started the so-called notorious “Denver Report.” I don’t know how much you’ve heard about that.
FOSTER REED: I’ve sort of given up…
FRANK J. OTERI: This is the report where they said, “Well, we want to hold NPR news listeners with music and how do we do this? Well, we can’t play solo cello, we can’t play vocal, can’t play contemporary, can’t play…”
FOSTER REED: Oh yeah, I did hear about this.
FRANK J. OTERI: And you have to have program in modular units — they call it modal music, they completely destroyed the term “modal music,” which used to represent…
FOSTER REED: Something very different.
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] Modal music now means well, you have to have a certain tempo at a certain time of the day, you have to follow a certain type of piece with another type of piece. They’re very secretive about it all. I tried to access information about what they do as a Web link for our interview with Libby Larsen because she talked extensively about how the Denver report has changed radio. Nobody would give me information at all. It’s very proprietary; you have to pay to find out what it is. They have this company that’s charging public radio stations to get information which is essentially destroying their record collections and their playlists.
FOSTER REED: I no longer have the fight that I used to have to go and say, “Hey, wait a minute, listen to this.” I think that in their effort to be everything for everyone, they’re busy turning into nothing, and they know it, but they don’t have the courage to change, to try.
4. Is There a “New Albion Sound”?
FRANK J. OTERI: I’ve been attending the annual conference of the Association of Music Personnel in Public Radio for five years now and I still hear people saying: “We don’t know what classical music is, but we know what it sounds like.” And that’s a way that they can sort of define the genre – by what it “sounds” like. It’s tricky because classical music doesn’t have a specific sound. But I want to throw this back to New Albion for a second. Do the recordings on New Albion have a sound? Is there a New Albion sound?
FOSTER REED: Well, I’ll talk in the sense that I started with the sort of, first of all, you have to understand that California at-large and San Francisco in particular is the land of make-believe, sort of like where Disneyland is. And San Francisco, in terms of the arts, is where people have gone to invent themselves. Often, once they’ve invented themselves, they either go to Hollywood or to New York to sort of exert that invention but it is a place that has the tradition of people trying things, figuring things out, daring to be different, or daring to be themselves. And so, the first records that I started with were Ingram’s, Paul Dresher’s and Stephen Scott’s. And Stephen Scott’s music then was in its infancy of working around a piano with 10 players, and bowing and strumming and exciting the strings free of the keyboard. To me, it really represented, and still does, in many respects, the idea of invention, of saying, wow, here’s this instrument, I want to see what I can do doing this with it. And in those days, electronics hadn’t yet entered the FM area. It was still something that people actually did. In other words, you took your Moog or Buchla synthesizer and kind of goofed around with it and tried to control what happened to it. It had this chaotic and kind of wonderful aspect to it, which now has sort of been lost by how facile the electronic world has become, musically. And so, for me, I thought, well, here we are, and these are sort of, these guys, and I began to wonder two things. Well, one, these guys, we’re a product of history and we’re coming out of the Eurocentric tradition, although post-WWII, post-Vietnam, you know, we’re definitely no longer European, but we’re still kind of Eurocentric. So I started looking around for people that were, my idea was that there would be interesting art or new music occurring all over the world and that I would find examples from every culture I could find and create something that would really express what was happening.
FRANK J. OTERI: So the idea was not to specifically focus on American music, but to be an international…
FOSTER REED: Right.
FRANK J. OTERI: Even though, 100 recordings later, the majority of recordings are music by American composers.
FOSTER REED: That’s true. I mean, I think we are sort of, the gravity of geography, there are American composers and they tend to be West Coast composers. I would have loved to have been able to make the tour through South America and to find the really inventive composers, and then tour through the European continent. That would have been really a fun thing. But that kind of didn’t happen. Or it happened, but it turned out to be a very minor aspect of what I did.
FRANK J. OTERI: One of the composers who you’d essentially discovered and bolstered and maintained a catalog for is the Japanese composer, Somei Satoh, who was basically discovered through your recording Litania, one of New Albion’s earliest.
| [60 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Somei Satoh: Homa
(from New Albion CD 056:
Toward the Night)
FOSTER REED: Right. Number 8. Yeah, I thought I would run into the Someis of the world. And I wished I had found 10 or 12 more people that are as strange as he is in his way. And yet, somehow, I didn’t. When you’re running a company, there are pressures, or influences that are always at work, you don’t really know what they were until later. But that was part of the original idea, to find music that came from absolutely everywhere. I even went to Bolivia and made a recording, it was the 29th one, of a group of people who taught the economic refugees of Bolivians who came from the countryside to the city, and their task was to teach them, or their workshop was to teach them what their native or what their indigenous music was. And in the process of doing that, being very post-modern, intellectual people, they also started to create new music. I thought records like that would be found to be absolutely extraordinary. It came from so far away.
FRANK J. OTERI: I haven’t heard that recording.
FOSTER REED: It turned out to be very expensive to do and there was a kind of indifference in the critical world. In the early days the critical world found New Albion interesting. Since then, many labels have trafficked in the same kind of genre, area, and the critics, mostly around the New York Times, but the critic body-at-large, you know, has moved on to other interests. Even though we may be making records that are every bit as astounding or exotic and bizarre or compelling as we did in the early days, I think those records may be competing with many, many more, and the critics have started to move onward. But critically speaking, you know, there wasn’t much of a response to music from far away. And I’ve come to learn that critics tend to write best about what they know best, and they tend to know best about what’s happening in their own town, and they tend to write about, their world is not, most of their worlds is not a very large world. They have sort of areas that they focus on, and a critic in New York tends to focus on people who are of and about New York.
FRANK J. OTERI: You mentioned Nonesuch and ECM New Series having a cult following. There are certain labels out there with a consumer identity. There are people who will buy anything that’s on that label because they’ve come to know what they’re getting. In the classical world you have Deutsche Grammophon, which for years has connoted the highest quality for performances of standard repertoire, it’s the Mercedes Benz of classical music if you will. With jazz, you have a label like Blue Note, which had impeccably high standards in the 60’s…a really formidable history behind it, or in alternative rock, a label like SST, which had an extremely consistent array of important bands in the 1980s. Even if you didn’t know all the bands on that label, you’d be curious. People buy records on these labels because they are usually consistent, and people perceived that they have a consistent standard. And I do think of New Albion as one of those labels, it’s a boutique label, for lack of a better term.
FOSTER REED: It clearly is.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s your unique vision, an aural vision…
FOSTER REED: It kind of is my aural vision. Having done it for 15 years, I sort of wished I had exerted more of my sensibility to it. But it’s basically, you know, a version of what came into the door as possibilities. There were moments, or individual projects that really were things that I was after, and I went out and got and then produced and everything like that. And there were many other projects that sort of came to me and for either good reasons or bad reasons I decided to make them.
FRANK J. OTERI: One of the things that I was curious about in looking through the catalog, the majority of the music is by American composers, and an even larger majority is new music, but there are also some projects that feature older music. On your roster you have the Ensemble Project Ars Nova (PAN).
FOSTER REED: That was very apparent to me. The first record that I made was Gradual Requiem. There are sort of bases of modern thought which go and appropriate or purloin things that precede it. There’s a theft of history constantly at work. From our very first records onward: Paul Dresher worked with hocket, Stephen Scott worked with hocket (an extreme idea of what hocket is), and then there was Lou Harrison’s world music influences and Renaissance and pre-Renaissance influences. And I said to myself, this is obviously, you know, modern music being made out of medieval sources. If ever early music comes to me and it sounds modern, to my ears, then… Most early music sounded kind of folky, and it was kind of, something I wasn’t able to grasp. I wasn’t astute in the right fashion. But Ensemble PAN was really able to bring the living moment to it for me, and so I got involved with them. And that was I guess, in the early days of the early music record industry movement. Early music’s been around for quite a while – and so we were able to have success, relative success, we were able to do more with those records.
FRANK J. OTERI: Those records sell better?
FOSTER REED: They did.
5. The Decline of the Record Industry
FOSTER REED: There was sort of a period of up to two years ago where you had one logic, or maybe it was three years ago, and then everything stopped. It just hit a brick wall. The music industry hit a brick wall. And we’re still in the period of collapse, where, so, records did well, but that same record maybe hasn’t sold in 3 years. So a record that would sell 500 or 800 copies a year, or a 1000 or 1500 copies a year, or whatever it was, or even 200 copies, just the whole momentum just hit a wall and crashed. And it’s happened to every label in every genre around the world.
FRANK J. OTERI: What do you think might be the cause of that?
FOSTER REED: Well, there are a lot of causes. There was the greed of the record industry, releasing over 30,000 new titles a year in the CD era. Most of those titles being absolute junk, in an industry that sort of didn’t have the infrastructure that could handle more than 10,000 new titles a year, or I don’t know what the exact number is but something like that. In other words, the infrastructure was overwhelmed by new things coming in, and so…
FRANK J. OTERI: And they gave up on back catalog.
FOSTER REED: It obviated back catalog because you always had new stuff coming in. And if you apply that on how the commercial thing is run, the new stuff coming in, little by little by little, becomes something that has to be promoted, endorsed and basically bought by the record industry — the distributor — to get into the stores at all, because there’s so much other new stuff that isn’t being promoted and bought to be put into the new stores. The new stores can’t possibly separate what’s what, so then rather than use the criterion of what’s good music they use the criterion of who’s going to pay more to get the stuff in the store.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right.
FOSTER REED: That pretty quickly cancels out people who don’t have the bucks.
FRANK J. OTERI: You’d have a release that would be out maybe three months and it was already back catalog. The major labels no longer cared about it, and things didn’t stay in print for very long.
FOSTER REED: I think our record for getting a return from the music industry was 6 weeks. You know, spat out in 6 weeks. But anyway, so there was that going on: the glut. The greed of the industry at large releasing back catalog of bad records, things that were bad to begin with, they were able to repackage as a CD and reissue. And then there a consolidation of the industry itself, where the chain phenomena, for some reason, grew, and as that grew, for example, Blockbuster or something like that, and as that grew, it made the independent store less and less viable, because who could compete with the Blockbuster chain. Although clever independents could compete with the Blockbuster chain because Blockbuster was so bad at what they were doing, they had a harder time competing with Circuit City, that was selling things at wholesale or below wholesale as a loss leader. Anyway, there was this whole context of the corporatization of retail, which put a lot of pressure on chains, and then the next, at that time, at some point, somebody realized, a place, a certain kind of chain, wasn’t working. That they were building these huge, chrome and florescent boxes and stuffing them full of every kind of record you could possibly imagine but nobody was buying them, people weren’t going in there. So they started shutting those boxes down. This was about 3 or 4 years ago. And as they shut those boxes down, the product started going backwards, they went back to the one-stop, back to the distributor and back to the label. And so for the past 3 or 4 years, most labels, and those that say they haven’t had this happen are either lying or they weren’t in the game, have had more records come back to them than they’ve been able to ship to the music industry.
FRANK J. OTERI: To the retail shops.
FOSTER REED: Yeah. In other words, if you sold, if that year you sold 100 records, figuratively speaking, you probably got back 250 records as a return.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. How do you deal with that glut?
FOSTER REED: You get as small as possible, and spend as little money as possible.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, you did something last year that is a radical thing in the record industry, after you released your 100th recording, you stopped.
FOSTER REED: Right.
FRANK J. OTERI: You said, we’re not going to issue anything for 1 year. And what happened in that year?
FOSTER REED: Well, we stopped that year. We made almost no money. We got better at selling to libraries and individuals and Internet stuff.
FRANK J. OTERI: So you were selling back catalog.
FOSTER REED: Yeah.
FRANK J. OTERI: And are all the titles in print since you started?
| [60 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Ingram Marshall: Entrada
(from New Albion CD 092:
FOSTER REED: Pretty much everything’s in print. We’re facing a number of issues for things that are going out of print and trying to figure out the correct way to deal with them. It became really pointless to put out a great record—I would consider both Ingram Marshall’s Evensongs and Daniel Lentz’s Apologetica to be great records—and have them go absolutely nowhere in the record industry. And so I said, if I can’t put out a great record—I know not every record’s great, but every other record’s at least very good, and occasionally you make a great record—and even though our records that aren’t of the very good variety are at least interesting on a lot of different levels—and I thought to myself, well, if I can’t do this, then I’m not going to do it. What’s the point in putting out a record that can’t circulate to the people who are interested. I’m confident that there is the smallest core audience for a good record in the world is 50 – 100,000 people. But the record industry doesn’t reach those people. It never did very well, there are sort of cult breakthroughs that do, but they don’t carry the rest of it with it, and there are occasional examples of records or groups that are able to go 150 or 200,000. And that’s great. But if I can’t reach the core audience through the record industry, and I tried to work the record industry, and the record industry itself is going through a collapse, then I have to ask myself, well, why am I doing this?
FRANK J. OTERI: Right. But New Albion still continued to exist through all of that.
FOSTER REED: Yeah, we did. We just got as small as possible, spent as little money as possible, learned how, worked on individual sales as opposed to the chain of label, distributor, retail, and hoped and waited for the record industry to recover.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now when you say individual sales, people buying directly from you?
FOSTER REED: Yep.
| [91 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Daniel Lentz: In Chains
(from New Albion CD 097:
FRANK J. OTERI: How does that work? How do you get the word out?
FOSTER REED: We send our print catalog to somebody who requests it, or at this point we have about, I don’t know, 12 or 1500 people who visit our website every day. There’s probably between 5 and 20 orders a week that come out of that. It’s like a store.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. I want to talk about the Web a bit, because of all of the labels that are out there, New Albion is one of the most Web-savvy labels I’ve seen. You have a very well-done Web site, with lots of links, lots of really intelligent use of what the Web can be, bios of artists with catalogs, photos, and the site is very easy to navigate. When did you first decide that New Albion needed to be on the Web?
FOSTER REED: Four years ago, I think, we put up that site. And basically, we haven’t changed it in four years. In other words, the sort of thinking that went into it is four years old. And it’s a tribute to the people who worked on it the most, which were Eric Theise and Tom Welsh that we were able to put up something that didn’t need to be drastically revamped and it lasted for 4 whole years. That was sort of our big question. In this period of time, everything we do becomes immediately obsolete, so how do you step into this electronic realm, knowing that you’re going to be obsolete right away. And so, we figured out we wanted to be as simple and straightforward and inclusive as possible.
FRANK J. OTERI: But you clearly thought that the Web was the way to reach this 10,000 to 50,000 community of…
FOSTER REED: Well, the thing is, there is no way to reach them. It used to be that you could count on the New York Times to cover interesting things. And then the New York Times went through a kind of confidence problem and stopped carrying a lot of arts pagination. And now recently the New York Times is starting to realize that they maybe have a better circulation if they do a better job covering interesting things, and that’s good. But there was a long stretch there where there was nothing happening. And, so then you have magazines like Option and Wired. But there’s no way to find people. Radio is dead. Stores are rapidly dying… I have to backtrack and say one more thing. It used to be, for retail, if you had an interesting record, and you knew the person who worked in the store who was interested in this kind of music, whatever it was, and you gave them that interesting record, and he really liked it, you automatically were going to get sales of 10, 25, 50 copies out of that one store only.
FRANK J. OTERI: From in-store airplay?
FOSTER REED: You go into the store and you say, “Hi, Joe. Have you heard anything, you know, have you heard anything that’s very, sort of, long, slow and harmonic but not that kind of English, static stuff?” And then Joe’s like, “Here’s this Deep Listening record.” And all of a sudden people who didn’t know the Deep Listening thing would have bought it and played it in their homes, and it would build that way.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now why doesn’t that work anymore?
FOSTER REED: Because those people are no longer in the stores. ‘Cause the stores are run, they’re bought, the chain stores are bought by an individual buyer, whose job it is to deliver a quarterly bottom line, and they don’t know how to associate a quarterly bottom line to music that’s basically not commercial.
FRANK J. OTERI: So basically, the record fanatics who used to work at these stores are gone.
FOSTER REED: They never lasted very long in the corporate world. HMV was famous here for losing good record people. And the independent stores were basically being put out of business around the country. And so they lost this incredible resource of people who were committed to music and loved music and worked low-paying retail partly out of love. And so that individual’s vanished from the planet.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, do you think that pricing has anything to do with…
FOSTER REED: I think it does in the context of students. I think students relate to something that’s under $15. I think the tweed, pipe-smoking, classical professional relates to things that are over $15. So, you know, you’re sort of asking where your market is. When our price was over $15 we lost the students. And so, when our price was under $15, our student thing was larger.
FRANK J. OTERI: Did you lose the people who want the more expensive thing?
FOSTER REED: I never found those people. That was a big mistake I had. I always thought New Albion would relate to the classical music buyer, and I now think we have nothing to do with the classical music buyer. The tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking guy just wants to hear Pachelbel’s Canon. He might get up to Mahler, but he’s not really interested in things that are different. That type of person wants to be continually affirmed by having multiple copies of the same thing…
FRANK J. OTERI: Are people really buying multiple copies of the same thing?
FOSTER REED: They were. They were because of the format that the CD made. And then they stopped. So the CD allowed for the adult to refigure and replace his vinyl collection.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right.
FOSTER REED: And then to continue on with that at some point.
FRANK J. OTERI: To buy the same piece over and over again?
FOSTER REED: Well, there was some of that, I think. Because the record industry was busy cleaning out their back catalog.
FRANK J. OTERI: And telling you, oh, you have to have all these different interpretations of this piece.
FOSTER REED: And they were paying for the advertising in the magazines that were writing about it, you know. I also think that the CD was the first digital product you could have in your home, part of a “Brave New World” of technology. Now it’s just one of many and there are fewer people who listen to CDs as a musical event than there are people who plug CDs in to interact with their computer screens.
6. Music and the World Wide Web
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, the future of getting this music out there is these interactive formats and working with the World Wide Web.
FOSTER REED: I think as a mode of distribution, its time is arriving. What we’re seeing now in the industry is a shakedown. The market will at some point identify a carrier and when it does all intellectual property will be on the Web.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now will that be on some future form of MP3, maybe MP7, MP8?
FOSTER REED: Yeah, something like that
FRANK J. OTERI: You’ll visit a site online, put in a credit card number and it will download directly onto a hard drive. The record industry is terrified of this whole thing.
FOSTER REED: Well, they shouldn’t be. It’s going to be a big shot in the arm for the record industry.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, what happens with booklets and the tactile quality of a recording. I love the whole tactile aspect of recordings.
FOSTER REED: Well, you can still go out to a store and buy one! However, one thing I’m thinking of is putting out these MP3 files and also making the booklet downloadable. It’s not the same quality as a CD manufacturer or a printer which we pay top dollar to get. But they’ll have the basic product. They can burn their own CD. They can give it away as a present. I think that’s what’s coming. I think it’s almost here. And I think that all intellectual property is going to be traded this way. But I also think there will still be stores. People will still want to go in and browse. At first, New Albion sat out sound, because it wasn’t very good and it took a long time to load. Since what we’re really about is sound and the art of sound, the poetics of sound, the art of composition, it didn’t seem appropriate to step into sound as it was being moved around the World Wide Web, because it just wasn’t very good, it was like lo-fi to the extreme. Now, my feeling is that it’s appropriate to do, recognizing that it’s not as good, but assuming that it’ll probably be as good within a measurable period of time. What I want to do is put up a 2 or 3 minute sample of a certain record, and to make the entire record available to somebody who wants to send us a credit card number, and then they can download the record, as well as the graphics. And then basically they bought the record. It’s no different than if they went to a store.
| [121 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Stephen Scott: Rainbows
(from New Albion CD 004:
New Music for Bowed Piano)
FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of the music industry’s fear of MP3 and its eventual better-sounding descendents, you’re then competing with the record shop, with the distributor, with the chain…
FOSTER REED: I may be competing with it, but they never did a very good job of finding my 50,000 people. So I’m not actually competing with them. If those people who wanted to buy interesting things were going into stores and looking for interesting things because the store had interesting things in them, then this wouldn’t be much of an issue. But since, for the past I don’t know how long, stores have become increasingly focused on quarterly profit. A corporate model basically has no room for somebody like me who’s not involved in the paradigm of what success is. And so, basically, the music industry’s always been putting me out of business.
FRANK J. OTERI: I always find it interesting when sales figures come in for new music recordings, and there’ll be a huge blip in New York, in Los Angeles, in San Francisco. And they’ll say: “Well, that’s where the new music community is; there isn’t an interest in the rest of the country.” This is simply not true when you see the huge amount of activity. But what is true is when you look at the record shops, the biggest cities have the alternative record shops. Here in New York we have places like Other Music and Downtown Music Gallery. In San Francisco and Berkeley, you have Amoeba. You have stores that cater to specialized tastes, whereas in most of the cities in the country you don’t have that.
FOSTER REED: That’s true. And there are various mail-order operations that have sort of come and gone. Some are still around. But it’s as though the 2 coasts don’t really know that the middle of the country exists, whereas, in fact, the middle of the country does exist. So the record industry has never been able to get what’s interesting to interested people. So back to the Web. The fact is, the only people who are participating, the 1200 people who visit our website every day happen to have computers. They happen to have wanted to find out who John Cage was, or whatever crosslink happened, they stumbled into our Web site, and they either stayed and looked at a few pages, or left, or whatever. But somehow we’re connected to this thing where actually 1200 people every single day happen by the little virtual store-shop called New Albion Records. That didn’t used to happen.
FRANK J. OTERI: In terms of your Web site?
FOSTER REED: No, in terms of our consciousness in the world. You know, the other way to have done that would have been to take a print ad out for $800 or $900 or $1,000 and have it sit in a magazine and then an individual would pick up the magazine, and turn pages, and then see your company identity. It’s the only other way.
FRANK J. OTERI: But then, what magazine? The nice thing about the Web, you potentially can be in anyone’s home who has a computer. The question is how do they find you on the Web if they don’t know you’re already there.
FOSTER REED: That’s one of the questions. The next question’s going to be, it’s going to rapidly turn into who controls the sort of window, porthole of how you’re represented. That’s where you’re going to see, I think, I suspect you’re going to see the big, broadcast and majors, that’s where their battle is going to be. You have to think of it like a supermarket. When you step into a supermarket, what does your eye see? Who’s paying for what your eye sees? You didn’t see Tom’s Toothpaste up there right away back when it began.
FRANK J. OTERI: The nice thing about the Web as opposed to other media is that it still is at the point where it’s democratic, it’s controlled by anybody who can put together a Web site and put their information out there.
FOSTER REED: In the sense that the information’s out there.
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s not like radio, which is very streamlined or television, which is even worse.
FOSTER REED: It’s becoming, I can’t imagine that democracy will prevail over the hierarchy of information. In other words, if it’s true that a place like Amazon.com gave favorable pagination, call it, from companies who were paying for it, over companies that weren’t paying for it, then you’re looking at an example of the medium being controlled. And so, that’s kind of easy to imagine on the value of what is a page. But if you apply that in the third dimension, or the virtual dimension of the value of how easy the information can actually get to you, what does it have to pass through before it reaches your computer screen? It’s still very democratic but I’ll bet you that it turns into something that the broadcast companies are going to try desperately to control.
FRANK J. OTERI: Already a lot of the radio stations have Web radio, and this has become a big bone of contention now with the passing of the Digital Millennium Act in Congress last year. All of the performance rights organizations and the recording organizations, like ASCAP, BMI, RIAA are all saying, gee, there’s all this music being put out here, which is essentially being put out without any royalties being paid. There’s a lot of piracy going on. And there’s a big scramble to figure out what to do about that. A lot of stations have taken a wait and see attitude. WNYC in New York has not broadcasted music yet on the Web because they don’t want to wind up being sued by these organizations although a lot of other stations are just doing it anyway.
FOSTER REED: It’s interesting because the people who are leading this are sort of de facto the anarchists, because they weren’t invited to the party to begin with. I must say, we have a very good distributor with Koch, and the industry’s recovering in some sense of the word, but in the 15 years that I’ve been doing this, I never felt like I was invited to the music industry. I never thought that the stuff I do was taken seriously, and I always thought that I had to pay for everything I got. So, and maybe you could say that New Albion is one of the established labels of its kind in the world, but I feel like a total outsider. And so, the people who are doing this, the reason why they are rebels is because there is nothing available; they weren’t invited to the party. Everybody feels the same way. If the music industry isn’t going to work with me and I can do something else, then I’ll do something else.
FRANK J. OTERI: And essentially that’s what we felt here at the American Music Center in creating the Web magazine. There was no outlet for new music. There was no outlet for American composers. And we felt it was really important to create a media venue so people can know about the new recordings coming out on your label and other labels with a similar mindset — labels like CRI, or Mode, New World, or Bridge or any of a number of labels that are devoted to new music that are not getting attention in the New York Times or in the recordings magazines where by and large the focus is either pop or mainstream classical.
FOSTER REED: I think that, you know, that’s a necessary thing to do. We were talking earlier about why the New Albion Web site mentions all the other records that somebody’s made and crosslinks to every organization we can imagine…
FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, I was going to bring that up…
FOSTER REED: I think that the reason is because if what you do is good, or as good as you can do, then people will be interested in it. And the way they will find you is because they’re already interested in something that’s parallel. If they’re saying, well, you know, I want to find Paul Lansky, who’s over at Bridge, but we did a record with him, so you start, and you happen to be at New Albion, and you say, oh, he’s over at Bridge and you go over to Bridge and you find what you’re looking for, you feel better about New Albion.
FRANK J. OTERI: And there’s also a sense of community…
FOSTER REED: Yeah, there is a community.
FRANK J. OTERI: …which is really, really nice, and one of the things that I think killed the mainstream classical record industry is that there’s no community. You have all of these majors, no one knows what the other is doing, and you have all this duplication of repertoire. And when Nonesuch had the big hit with Gorecki’s Third Symphony, what happened? Everybody recorded Gorecki’s Third Symphony. Did any of them sell? No! Because people bought their recording of Gorecki’s Third Symphony.
FOSTER REED: I think that’s completely true.
FRANK J. OTERI: But you don’t duplicate repertoire. The record of Lansky that you have is not the same repertoire that’s on Bridge, and they compliment each other. Someone would want to own both the Bridge recordings and your recording.
FOSTER REED: Ultimately, I’d rather have Bridge carry Paul Lansky and sort of straighten out what their orbit is, what New World’s orbit is, what New Albion’s is, but we all sort of stumble through this and it’ll probably be done at a later date. There’s another thing about the Web and the idea of the virtual reality…A number of our records are about to go out of print. And so we have to ask ourselves if we can afford to invest $700 in manufacturing and print to bring in another 500 copies. Given the record industry and given what the record is, etc, economically, you can’t always justify that. There’s no way you can say this record’s going to earn itself back, and you would pay the mechanical, the accounting, you know, there’s a lot of accounting in the record industry…
FRANK J. OTERI: Is it a loaded question to ask what’s going out of print?
FOSTER REED: I couldn’t easily tell you because I don’t have the figures in front of me, but there are a number of records that are at that state. But then, if you put them on in the virtual reality, there’s no product. They’re not out of print. They just exist.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right. That was essentially our thought when we were putting this thing together. Doing a Web magazine versus doing a print magazine. When you do a print magazine, you’re forced to deal with distribution networks, you have to make sure you get your product at stores and have to print up an exact number of copies. Whereas, if you’re on the Web, you’ve done it, anyone can access it all over the world, it’s instantaneous worldwide distribution, provided someone has the machinery to download your site. Or, in your case, to download discs.
FOSTER REED: We haven’t posted the discs yet but it’s definitely something that I’ve convinced myself that I want to do.
FRANK J. OTERI: Getting back to this issue of New Albion’s site mentioning all these other labels, all these other links, do you find that the other labels are mentioning you and that it works both ways?
FOSTER REED: I haven’t actually paid attention. I’m gonna go back and pay attention. We paid a lot of attention when we put it together, and then, sort of in the thrall of the collapse of the record industry, our attention shifted away from it and now we’re going to kind of get back into it and sort of see what’s what.
7. New Albion’s Roster Of Composers and Performers
FRANK J. OTERI: I want to talk a bit about a number of the artists who have been on the label over the years which taps into what we were saying about having the links to other sites, to other record companies. In essence you’re promoting all of these composers. When a Paul Lansky has discs on Bridge and also has a disc with you, well, it’s beyond the New Albion disc, it’s about promoting Paul Lansky. Certainly there are composers who I would say were discovered by New Albion, we talked about Somei Satoh a bit before, and Ingram Marshall and Paul Dresher and Stephen Scott to some extent. But there are a number of other composers, too. I referenced John Adams earlier in our discussion. His first record originally came from 1750 Arch but then you re-released it and recorded another disc as well. John Adams is now the most widely played composer in America and I would posit, were it not for those New Albion recordings, people might not know who he was today.
FOSTER REED: Oh, I don’t think so. I think, it’s clear to me, actually the first record of his was Light Over Water and then he did the 1750 Arch thing. It was just a coincidence that John and Ingram were good friends, and I was doing this, but at that point, already, John’s talents were being vied for by ECM and Nonesuch. John already had an asterisk next to his name in 1984.
FRANK J. OTERI: But your recording came out before that, no?
FOSTER REED: No, that’s when I started…
FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, so then it was the, so the 1750 Arch record was really what did it.
FOSTER REED: Yeah, I would say, well…
FRANK J. OTERI: Adams was also on a record Brian Eno produced on Obscure…
FOSTER REED: Yeah, John’s career had already started. He was still basically being a teacher at a conservatory and not a famous world-traveling composer/conductor, but he’d already made the move. Those dynamics were already in motion by the time I put out his record, and they would have happened regardless of my involvement with him. I think.
FRANK J. OTERI: Okay, let’s take some other composers. Let’s take someone like John Luther Adams. You put out a wonderful recording.
FOSTER REED: The other John Adams. In fact, there’s another Stephen Scott who’s a jazz pianist, and I’m thinking I could just go with the Adams and the Scotts.
FRANK J. OTERI: I discovered a third John Adams over the weekend: a Celtic fiddle player who plays with this group Red Shift. [laughs] The curse of having a common name.
FOSTER REED: Anyway, the way it came to me was that I had certain interests and then I asked myself, well, who are the guys that came before this generation, and then I found Morton Feldman, Lou Harrison and John Cage. I would include Harry Partch and a number of other people. Even though you’re aware of a person, you can’t necessarily put together what it is to make something that you’ve convinced yourself is a good record. I was looking for non-Eurocentric music. But as soon as I identified that I wanted non-Eurocentric music, Yvar Mikhashoff showed up with Stockhausen, which to me seemed like the epitome of serialism and I said, why do I want to do this? And I guess, and I said to myself, well, I’ll do this because I don’t want to do it, because it’s gotta be, if that’s the genuine example of what it is then I shouldn’t say no to it. And it turns out that I really liked that record of Stockhausen’s Mantra. It sounds much more pointillistic and impressionistic, more interesting than intellectual, which is not how I originally thought it would sound.
| [151 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Lou Harrison: Kunsonoro kaj Gloro
(from New Albion CD 015:
La Koro Sutro)
FRANK J. OTERI: It’s funny. Though it’s not a work that many people know, it’s almost become standard repertoire as far as recordings go ’cause there are at least 5 different recordings of it! Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth put out a recording of it on his label Ecstatic Peace just about a year or two ago, there’s one on Wergo and another on Accord. And then there’s the original Deutsche Grammophon recording which unfortunately is long out of print.
FOSTER REED: With the Kontarskys… For us, Yvar’s is an interesting record because it seems very obscure but it’s always sold. It’s a very good selling record.
FRANK J. OTERI: Mantra sells?! Wow. Well, it’s very hard to get Stockhausen now in this country, just about anything, because he took the rights…
FOSTER REED: I particularly take my hat off to what he did. He did not like what was going down with Deutsche Grammophon at all, and was able to recapture the rights, and runs this little mail-order service. This is an example of an artist who took control of his destiny.
FRANK J. OTERI: Much like Prince. There are others who have done that in the pop world.
FOSTER REED: Ani DiFranco.
FRANK J. OTERI: Robert Fripp has also done that with Discipline Global Mobile, and it really is, in some ways, the future, I was reading an interview, I think the rap group Public Enemy is doing that as well and the majors are furious. This is a huge phenomenon. I don’t see artists running away from New Albion, though, because you’re not really like the record industry.
FOSTER REED: No, we’re not. And, you know, the question is, who can do what better? It’s probably true that a record company can do certain things that, it can and will do certain things that an individual can’t and won’t do. Especially if they’re a creative individual, because I learned very quickly, as soon as the record was made, the composer was gone, on to the next project, and there I was sitting there with a thousand pieces of vinyl, and nobody to tell me what to do with it, you know. So, organizations that try to mine the store, more or less, there’s a need for that.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, one of the things that you’ve done is developed certain artists and developed certain catalog, there are certain composers, they’re not one-off projects.
FOSTER REED: Preferably, I would do at least 2 records with a certain individual. Because if they’re good, and you really want to know what their sort of voice, or persona is in music, 2 records should begin to express that. And so, I would always rather do 2 records. Some records came out, were just such absolute disasters economically, I can’t think of it. Other records perhaps I didn’t care for, or there was a personality conflict and I just don’t want to deal with the person anymore.
FRANK J. OTERI: Right. But I think of certain composers like somebody like Daniel Lentz or like Ingram Marshall, whom you’ve really built up catalogs for, and someone who has bought the previous record, you put out the new one and they’ll buy that, because they identify with New Albion and with that composer. Getting back to some of the older generation composers, take a figure like Terry Riley. Here’s somebody who was a star, essentially the first public minimalist. And he was with Columbia Masterworks, the top of the line, which is now part of Sony, the biggest of all the corporations. And he’s somebody who the majors forgot about, and New Albion maintains recordings by him and continues to put out recordings of his music. And the stuff he’s doing now is just as exciting as the stuff he was doing then, if not more so.
FOSTER REED: Well, you have to look at a guy like that and realize he’s not very interested in fame and fortune. And when you look at the people who are famous, you have to wonder, you have to think, well, perhaps they are interested in fame and fortune. In this country, if you don’t promote yourself in a certain way, you tend to be passed over. That’s just the way it is. The world, our culture doesn’t judge something because it’s good or not good, on some level it does, but it also judges it by how hard it’s marketed. And if you’re not… Somebody gets all the commissions. Now in order for somebody to get the commissions, it’s because they think that you’re marketable, and will improve their sort of commissioning identity, or somebody’s writing the grants to get you those commissions. And if you’re someone like Terry Riley who’s not interested in that kind of world, then you tend to get looked over, seems to me.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, take someone like Lou Harrison. Lou Harrison is someone who was looked over for years and now he’s being embraced by everyone everywhere.
FOSTER REED: Lou’s had a variety of champions, like Betty Freeman who kept him alive when he was trimming poodles, and etc. I find people like Lou and Morton Feldman and John Cage, and Harry Partch in particular, extremely heroic. In order to be who they were and imagine the music they were imagining, they had to really be comfortable with themselves alone, in a private, very intense fashion. John certainly was a master of notoriety and able to work the system on his behalf, a genuine trickster of the highest sort, but he was also a composer, an inventor and a writer and an artist. To me those guys, that sort of level of heroism is so much higher than the kind of art market world that we currently live in.
FRANK J. OTERI: What’s so tragic about Cage and Feldman, is for years, there were no recordings when they were alive of their music, there’d be live performances but not really recordings. And now that both of them are dead their recordings are skyrocketing. Everybody seems to be recording this music.
FOSTER REED: Classical music has always been necrophiliac at heart. You kind of have to wait until you die before you get elected, on some level. On another level, you know, in John’s case, the fixing of music wasn’t really what his music was about. In Morton’s case, he was just ignored. He was a difficult individual. He wrote music that was intentionally turns it back on generation.
FRANK J. OTERI: But his music works so much better on recordings than it does live, because there are so many extraneous sounds when you have a live concert. His music is so quiet, it’s really best appreciated late at night, listening at home alone.
FOSTER REED: With a bottle of whiskey.
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]
FOSTER REED: It’s true, his music really does well in that context. But I always think of his music of having been taken too seriously. If you were to write a piece that was supposed to last for 6 hours, I don’t think you could actually ask the players or the audience to pay attention for 6 hours. It becomes something else.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, he himself didn’t… There’s a famous story of a rehearsal of the Second String Quartet with the Kronos Quartet and Feldman fell asleep during the rehearsal and David Harrington woke him up because his cigarette was about to burn his lip.
FOSTER REED: Yeah. There are a lot of funny Morton Feldman stories. I guess, one of my favorites, I got it from Yvar, somebody wrote to him and asked how he wanted a certain piece played. He wrote back and said, “You play my music very beautifully, just play it a little quieter and a little more slowly.”
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]
FOSTER REED: My understanding of that generation occurred, or that aesthetic of kind of music somewhere between Feldman and Cage. I was sleeping outside in the woods in northern New York, and the dawn was coming up and there was this gradual sound, this huge crescendo right when the sun came up, and then it all stopped. It occurred to me that those people were really interested in opening music to that kind of chance, where everything had a voice, and all the voices were relative, and they all had their own rhythm, taken together, it was the equivalent, you know, something that was like that, on a natural order. But anyway, I’m kind of digressing, but I found, looking at those guys, that they were very courageous individuals. And then you have people that history just sort of passes by, like Silvestre Revueltas, who is not such an experimentalist, but took the ideas of the time, and you know, applied them to his life. He was genuinely an international character and he used those ideas. I find that really interesting.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, certainly a number of the older composers who you’ve recorded are people who the performers you’ve been associated with have come to you with.
FOSTER REED: Right. Absolutely.
FRANK J. OTERI: The Cuarteto Latinoamericano, in the case of Revueltas, or you’ve mentioned Yvar before in the case of Stockhausen, and certainly Margaret Leng Tan for Somei Satoh and Cage, to some extent.
FOSTER REED: You do work with who you have around. It’s more fun to work with better musicians, by far, but they’re not, you know, you sort of get what you get. Sometimes you get better musicians, sometimes you don’t.
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.
| [123 seconds]
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.
9. Upcoming Releases, Free Time, Final Thoughts
FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve got a Cowell recording coming out, I know you’ve got a Terry Riley solo guitar album…
FOSTER REED: It’s solo guitar, guitar duet, guitar/percussion, and guitar/violin. It’s this collection of pieces that Terry’s working on for the guitar and accompaniment. And so we’re doing, the collection is based on the letters of the Spanish alphabet and so we’re doing a few of the letters.
FRANK J. OTERI: So you’re not doing the whole cycle?
FOSTER REED: The whole thing would probably be about 5 or 6 CD’s.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.
FOSTER REED: It’s being written. This is a project that will take him probably 10 or 15 years to accomplish. So we’re doing some of what’s been written.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. So this is a piece, I think the Assad Brothers did a piece of that?
| [156 seconds]
RealAudio sound clip
Excerpt from Terry Riley: Underworld Arising
(from New Albion CD 087:
FOSTER REED: Yeah, they did the duet. And now we have Terry’s son, who’s a really great player, and David Tanenbaum. David Tanenbaum’s the principal performer and then in this piece Terry’s son plays with him, Gyan.
FRANK J. OTERI: When is that coming out?
FOSTER REED: We hope to have it out in the fall, September, October.
FRANK J. OTERI: And the Cowell disc is coming out?
FOSTER REED: The Cowell disc is coming out end of June.
FRANK J. OTERI: Terrific. I’m looking forward to hearing it.
FOSTER REED: I had all these prejudices about Cowell, but this disc really made me redefine things. This is such a wonderful record.
FRANK J. OTERI: Wow. And it’s all solo piano. Is this with Sarah Cahill<?
FOSTER REED: It’s Sarah, it’s Chris Brown, Joseph Kubera, and Sorrel Hays.
FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, so it’s 4 different pianists?
FOSTER REED: Yeah, it’s from the festival that Sarah did a few years ago in Berkeley back when all those festivals were happening. And I kind of was dragging my feet and saying, I don’t know, because I went to some of the festival, and could see the piano banging and you know, sort of the ultramodernism of Cowell. But then when you sat and started to go through this — this happened with Anthony Braxton, too — I said, wait a minute, here’s the “Haunted Irish Drunken Poet King.” I’d never heard that before. And then there’re these other personas that are in Cowell’s music that I’d never really appreciated.
FRANK J. OTERI: I love Cowell’s music. I’m looking forward to the disc. Any other recordings coming out?
FOSTER REED: Yeah, I’m putting out, interestingly enough, a collection of Ladino love songs that’s arranged by Eitan Steinberg and his wife from Ladino heritage, and it’s sort of the theory that if a beautiful record comes to you and you’re a record company, every now and then you have to make them. And this is an absolutely beautiful record, so I said, okay, I’ll make this record even though it’s not new music, but it does sort of speak to forgotten cultures, existing in the, somehow haven’t gone away.
FRANK J. OTERI: When is that coming out?
FOSTER REED: I don’t know. Probably in the fall.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now to take it into a larger area beyond New Albion, other than all of the stuff that comes to you for potential listening for New Albion and the things that you put together, what recordings do you listen to on your own time, and what do you buy?
FOSTER REED: Well, I don’t buy anything anymore. And I have teenagers, so we listen to a lot of punk rock and that sort of stuff. Now I have a car, I drive a Citroen that doesn’t have a radio in it. It’s like, I don’t, it’s funny, but I almost don’t listen to music. I like all music. I like Merle Haggard. I like everything. But since… I knew a guy who was a great sailor and then he worked for a boat company here in the city, and doesn’t sail anymore, because, or recreationally, because that’s what he does for a living now. And somehow, you know, when I drive my wife’s car and listen to the radio I sort of hear pop music, it still sounds like pop music, it’s really funny, because I haven’t listened to it for so long. And then my kids’ music is just loud, really loud.
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]
FOSTER REED: Although there was one great song in the whole thing, Rage Against the Machine was this band, and they had this one song called “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me” and it just gets louder, and that’s the only lyric. Man, if I was 15, that was hot. Kind of like Jim Morrison. So I don’t really listen to music recreationally at this point.
FRANK J. OTERI: So what do you do in your spare time?
FOSTER REED: Drive kids.
FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs]
FOSTER REED: I drive kids, and when I can get away, fly, fish, play soccer, that kind of stuff. But I don’t, I don’t have intellectual spare time, particularly. I write.
FRANK J. OTERI: Fiction, or?
FOSTER REED: Thoughts. My thoughts. More like poetry than fiction.
FRANK J. OTERI: I’d love to see that sometime.
FOSTER REED: Yeah, they don’t get around too much. I write to please myself, and I don’t pursue things to completion.
FRANK J. OTERI: To bring everything full circle, my very last question for you is, you talked about this amorphous audience, this 10,000 to 50,000 which I guess we’re both part of.
FOSTER REED: Yeah, it’s so clear.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, how do we find them? Where are they? What is the answer? Is it the Internet?
FOSTER REED: The Internet’s not going to be the answer. But the Internet’s probably after radio in 1945 the Internet’s probably the next thing that helps us go and look and define and have a dialog with an audience. So I think the audience is comprised, if you think of all the new music events, from like the Kitchen level events to the Lincoln Center events to the concerts in the park and how Dave Douglas relates to, you know, Margaret Lang Tan, and how all that stuff fits together, in New York alone, you’re looking at 5,000 people probably, as audience. If you look at how they were able to capitalize on the sort of yuppie audience, the BAM in the 80’s, that was a specific accident in time, but that was a very upscale audience going to modern performances. And so, how do you actually, your task is one thing, because you’re informational, but my task is bad because I have to make them part with their money. In a way I envy, all you have to do, I think, is be current and interesting, and tie into Harvey Lichtenstein’s kind of audience list, and on a virtual level, however that’s done, and just keep on working that. I mean, we put up our website 4 years ago I think we had 100 visitors a day. I think that’s cumulative. It will grow as more and more people come to it.
FRANK J. OTERI: Now you don’t really have things that change on the Web site, so people may come back who haven’t looked at everything…
FOSTER REED: We have to get our Web site so it’s more evolving. A newsletter, a posting of reviews, a calendar of performances, you know, it’s basically a newsletter. Same thing that you’re doing. First of all, it should be very easy to tie into the library world. The library world’s already Web literate, entirely. I mean, they were Web literate before the World Wide Web – they just happened to be an academic form of sharing information, so you tie into that, and that’s going to, your Web site, under library stations, will access your Web site, I think you’re on the right track.
FRANK J. OTERI: Thank you, and it was a pleasure having you here today, talking about music and the industry. I think the future holds some really fantastic possibilities.
FOSTER REED: As long as we’re in it, yeah. But whether we’re in it or not, it will be interesting.