Tag: record producer

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.

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.

The Forgotten Man: Teo Macero and Bitches Brew

Miles Davis and Teo Macero standing together each wearing a white shirt and a tie; Miles is also playing trumpet
The gatefold LP cover for Bitches Brew which attempts to create a visual analog to the music on the album.

The complete LP gatefold for Bitches Brew featuring the art work of German painter Mati Klarwein which attempts to create a visual analog to the music on the album.

There is so much to hear in this music, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew album.

Each side comes to an end, but the music never seems to conclude. There’s only so much information that a physical recording medium can hold. But the durational restrictions of a vinyl LP were less important for Bitches Brew than the design and intention of Miles’s music making. The music on the album doesn’t conclude because it doesn’t formally resolve, and Miles didn’t want it to resolve.

That’s how Miles was playing with his quintet at the time, with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea at the electric piano, Dave Holland on bass, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. That band’s live sets were one continuous stream of music. They would start with a recognizable theme—often it was “Directions”—and follow with solos. But instead of returning to the head and reaching a final cadence, Miles would play a musical cue that would turn the band immediately to the next tune. The constant, roiling group interplay was as vital as the soloing, which itself was more a part of the texture than a showcase for one individual. Pace, pulse, and mood were always flowing and always malleable, and the music stopped only when the set came to an end.

Bitches Brew captures that experience. But the music that is closest to the live sets makes up less than half of the album: three of the four tracks on the second disk—“Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and “Sanctuary”—were central to the band’s repertoire. The rest of the music was new, played for the first time at the recording session and made with a concept new to not only jazz but to music across all genres.

The first disk is similar in sound but entirely different in method and teleology. In fact, it is music entirely without teleology. And Miles didn’t make it by himself; it was the product of a unique compositional collaboration between the trumpeter and his longtime, essential producer at Columbia Records, Teo Macero. That disk, with “Pharoah’s Dance” on the A side and “Bitches Brew” on the obverse, was played by Miles and the musicians in the studio, and then composed by Macero in a manner that was unprecedented and still, forty-five years later, has been barely explored by others.


Macero (October 30, 1925 – February 19, 2008) was by background a musician and a composer, but by training he was an audio engineer; at Columbia Records, he was an in-house composer, arranger, and producer. He worked with some of the great musicians of the 20th century, and shaped and directed essential jazz and pop albums by Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus (both of whom he signed to the label), Dave Brubeck (the Time Out album), Johnny Mathis, and Tony Bennett. He also produced an album of music by Alan Hovhaness, as well as the soundtrack to The Graduate and original cast recordings for many Broadway shows. As an independent producer in the 1970s and ’80s he worked with Herbie Hancock, Michel Legrand, Vernon Reid, The Lounge Lizards, Robert Palmer, and many other musicians.

As a musician and composer, he co-founded the Jazz Composer’s Workshop with Mingus and had a friendship with Edgard Varèse—there’s even a rumor that Macero helped Varèse prepare the tape for Poème électronique. While there’s no documentary evidence to confirm that, Macero paid his way through Juilliard by working as an engineer in the school’s recording studio, he had the skill and experience to make that a tantalizing possibility, and he did visit the composer and at least observe some of Varèse’s work on the piece.

Miles Davis and Teo Macero standing together each wearing a white shirt and a tie; Miles is also playing trumpet

A Columbia Records promotional photo of Miles Davis with Teo Macero

Macero’s most important work was with Miles Davis, with whom he worked intimately as a producer from 1959 (beginning perhaps with part of the Kind of Blue session, though that is unclear) through Davis’s retirement in 1975, and then with the first few comeback albums for Columbia. There’s no direct line connecting Macero’s own music and the realization of Bitches Brew and other albums. Macero was a professional but with little lasting distinction as a composer or performer. He played the saxophone in the manner of Warne Marsh, though nowhere near as well, and experimented with composition in the Third Stream style. (Miles called some of those efforts “sad,” and judging by the album Explorations, with Macero, Mingus, and accordionist Wally Cirillo, he was right.) There are also some solid but unremarkable film scores, and the exploratory One-Three Quarters for chamber group and two pianos, recorded on the New Music in Quarter-Tones album, part of David Behrman’s “Music in Our Time” series for Columbia. (And a passing thought for the downside of the end of the big labels: during the 1960s, Columbia issued albums by Davis, Mingus, Monk, Bob Dylan, Glenn Gould, Stravinsky, Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, Leonard Bernstein, Behrman’s series, etc., et al. There won’t be anything like that again.)

Even before Macero started work as Miles’s producer, his critical ear and skill with the razor blade, splicing block, and tape were already established in jazz history. He produced Mingus’s Mingus Ah Um album, one of the greatest recordings in the history of the music, by editing the original tapes. The full master take of the opening track, “Better Git It in Your Soul,” has an extra chorus for Booker Ervin’s tenor sax solo. Ervin wanders around for the chorus, warming up, tossing out discontinuous ideas that never amount to anything interesting. Once the second chorus comes around, Ervin is in full swing and launches what is, at least on the LP release, a cooking solo, made hard-hitting by its concision. Macero lopped off the first chorus—and over a minute total—and is responsible for how tight and effective that track is.


The cover for George Grella's book about Bitches Brew which shows the LP cover in the top right corner.

Read more about Bitches Brew in George Grella’s book about the album for the 33 1/3 series.

At the Bitches Brew session, Miles had music for the band to play. Along with the music the core quintet had been playing, keyboardist Joe Zawinul brought in “Pharaoh’s Dance,” and Miles had some sort of sketch for “Bitches Brew.” That’s how he liked to work when he was experimenting. Beneath the public style, popular superstardom, and communicative playing, Miles was essentially an avant-garde/experimental musician. The musicians on the Kind of Blue album didn’t see what they were going to play until they arrived at the recording studio. By August 1969, the date of the Bitches Brew recordings, Miles was using the minimum of notated materials. He even cut out harmonies from Zawinul’s piece, leaving what he felt were the essentials: there is one chord, which at times is no more than a B pedal tone, and one spare, syncopated, repetitive theme that doesn’t first appear until almost 17 minutes into the 20-minute track.

But there’s no way to know when Miles first played that theme in the studio, in real time. The entire first disk of the album is a non-real time tape composition by Macero, and the material he had to work with was the recording session tapes. Miles and Macero kept the decks rolling while Miles had the band play various short passages, lay down different versions of the groove, and come together for extended stretches of ensemble playing that featured his own soloing, that of Shorter, and numerous conversations between bass clarinet player Bennie Maupin, guitarist John McLaughlin, and the keyboardists Corea, Zawinul, and Larry Young. The same is true for the 27-minute title track on the second side. The piece is even more substantial when you take into account that the track “John McLaughlin” on the first side of the second disk is a straight edit that came out of the recording of “Bitches Brew.” Miles and Macero had gone into the studio thinking that “Bitches Brew” (at the time not the title track, the initial intention was to call the album Listen to This) would be something of a four-part suite—e.g. they were thinking in terms of form. But the form in the studio, as played by the musicians, was nothing like the form that Macero gave the music in the editing process. The results were so far separated from the experience of the sessions that neither Maupin nor Zawinul realized what the record was when they first heard it after its release.

That Bitches Brew is so impressive is a testament not only to Miles’s great playing, his under-appreciated leadership and musical direction, but also to Macero’s compositional thinking. This was a new kind of music, using tools and idioms of musique concrète, aleatory, improvisation, jazz, rock, and funk, and creating new forms and structures around contemporary ideas about tonal harmony. Macero had all this material at hand in the form of feet of recording tape with instrumental passages. But how did those get spliced together into complete wholes?

Macero gave “Bitches Brew” a clear, simple form, guided by the original structural idea: a malevolently atmospheric fanfare leads into a bass vamp that continues for almost the duration of the side, interrupted only by returns of the fanfare. One of those repeats is a direct tape copy of the music heard at the start of the track; the other is a different, real-time stretch of the musicians playing the phrase. The track ends with another copy of the opening fanfare, which dissipates to nothing. The musicians didn’t play anything that created a sense of an ending, that wasn’t in the cards, so Macero’s edit brings the music to a place past which it doesn’t continue. Neither he nor Miles cared about any kind of formal conclusion.

But Macero did more than just put the tapes into some kind of shape. At about ten and a half minutes in, Miles, soloing, spits out a strong, short, rhythmic phrase, and Macero used a series of edits to repeat and extended the phrase, using a fragment of it recursively, making Miles sound like he is obsessively circling a musical idea, turning it in space, before he dismisses it and moves on. It’s quite a moment, musically rich and conceptually mysterious, one musician turning another musician’s improvisation, after the fact, into a composition. With the goal of creating an album that sounds like the band playing live, but which also displays deliberate, ex post facto compositional decisions, what kind of terms exist for this type of music making? Alchemy is the word.

Although “Pharaoh’s Dance” is the most heavily edited track on the entire album, a tour de force of critical listening and tape composition. “Pharaoh’s” opening is a sequence of edits, all short, that build an ABCBCABC structure. This was done entirely with the razor blade—in real time, the band was playing a vamp, punctuated by Holland playing a rising, arpeggiated B chord. The circularity of the playing, after Macero took it apart and reassembled it, produces music that has the unique, uncanny combination of a repetitive drone set inside a linear timeline. The intro leads into the meat of the performance, group interplay and solos, and the bulk of the track maintains the complexity of music made without the conception of linear time—without a structural or formal need to move from one bar or chord to the next—arranged into the linear sequence that tape splicing physically demands.

The track is both free form and concrete, improvised and composed, and there are brilliant edits that anchor musical events and create the unequalled and mysterious force of the record. At about eight minutes in, an edit cuts out a vamp that is losing energy and returns the opening material. Or something like it, but hauntingly different—the band is continuing the phrases from the start of the track, but they are somewhere farther along, in real time, though not in the album/listening time. The close listener remembers the music, yet the sensation of the music is extracted directly from the past and inserted into the present, dislocating the listener from the stream of time. If sonata form returns music transmuted by the experience of intervening time, the changes that time wrings on Bitches Brew do not come from the musicians, they take place entirely inside the listener’s mind. (The editing on the second disk is much lighter and directed towards getting the best out of the performances. “Voodoo” is a straight take. The edit on “Sanctuary” splices together two different takes to make an extended reverie on Wayne Shorter’s harmonically and emotionally ambivalent tune.)

This short stretch of music manages to both extend the duration of the piece while also seeming to go back to a moment in time that has long passed. Macero’s technical skill means the music keeps flowing, and his compositional thinking produces an effect that is unlike anything else in music, recorded or live. It also challenges, again, how we think about and describe the compositional process and its results. Macero wasn’t making a tape piece, any kind of pastiche or collage, he was producing an album by another musician. But Miles wanted to make part of the album in this manner, to play raw material and have his musical partner turn it into something that never existed in the studio. It’s a record of a band playing music that was never heard in real time. It’s a concept that, through praxis, plays with time in deeply mysterious ways. And it’s a complete artistic statement that, through its process, discards form, while managing to sound organic and logical. There is no one answer to what Bitches Brew is, but one truth about the album is that it is Teo Macero’s greatest composition.

Teo and Miles standing in front of the Columbia Records recording at night

Teo and Miles in front of the Columbia Records recording studios in 1971. (Creative Commons)


George Grella, Jr. is the author of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew for the 33 1/3 Series of books. He is the Music Editor at the Brooklyn Rail, publishes the Big City Blog, and writes for the New York Classical Review, the American Record Guide, and Music & Literature.

Remembering İlhan Mimaroğlu (1926-2012)

Composer, musicologist, record producer, and genre bending pioneer İlhan Mimaroğlu (1926-2012) died last month after a long illness. Composer Bob Gluck was one of the last people to do an extensive interview with him, so we asked him to describe this one-of-a-kind music maker for us in memoriam.—FJO

“Since my early age I was interested in what was going on in the world in terms of music, new music. New music, that’s what interests me, new music. It was my principle: you have to start with what’s going on today and then, gradually, go back to the past, where it came from. Rather than start in the past and going forward, you should know what’s going on today in the world […laughter…], [and then learn] where did it come from. That was my view.”—Ilhan Mimaroğlu, interview by Bob Gluck, January 3, 2006

Serious but funny, irreverent but thoughtful, categorical but reflective, politically engaged yet a pessimist—or was he a realist? I found myself silently testing each of these seeming contradictions when I met Ilhan Mimaroğlu in 2006. I found in him a nobility, a deep seriousness, interrupted periodically by bursts of laughter. From time to time, he responded to a question by removing a book from the shelf and reading aloud, quoting from his own published words.

I interviewed Mimaroğlu in the evening on January 3, 2006. Gungor, his wife, met me at the door and offered me tea before bringing me into her husband’s study. The composer was seated comfortably in an easy chair in that dimly lit room. Surrounded by books in Turkish and English, the room was filled with hazy smoke. Breathing was not easy for me, but neither was it for Mimaroğlu, as he chain-smoked through our two hours together.  We joined together in coughs and wheezes.

Ilhan Mimaroğlu

Snapshot of Ilhan Mimaroğlu taken by the author during their interview in 2006.

I remembered my first awareness of Mimaroğlu, his recording with Freddie Hubbard, Sing a Song of Songmy: Threnody for Sharon Tate. I responded to that work because it combined so many of the seemingly conflicting aesthetic worlds that I loved. The music startled me because I never heard so many of them present in the very same piece. Is it a narrative work with semantic meaning? Is it a tonal work for strings? Is it a construction of electronic sounds? An angular post-bop jazz tune, with an asymmetrical rhythmic riff, yet lyrical trumpet solo line?  The answer to all these questions is resoundingly yes! Somehow, Mimaroğlu‘s answer to all these possibilities was “yes,” reconciled within a single work.

I knew another side of his work from listening to radio shows that Mimaroğlu produced for the Pacifica radio station WBAI. He crafted them at home, only stopping by the station to drop off the tapes. The shows represented, no surprise, an eclectic mix of music.

This reconciling of seeming irreconcilable possibilities tells us much about Ilhan Mimaroğlu.

Some Ilhan Mimaroğlu Aphorisms

“Take an ‘o’ out of ‘good’ and its ‘God’. Add a ‘d’ to ‘evil’ and its ‘devil’. To recognize ‘God’ and ‘evil’ and ‘good’ and ‘devil’, one must be a proofreader.”

“We composers worry so much about posterity that we fail to notice what’s happening to our posterior.”

“Calling a judge ‘justice’ is like calling an artist ‘masterpiece.’”

“You know, there really are many under-appreciate composers. But being under-appreciated doesn’t make someone special! The world is full of them!”

The musical world of the late 1960s and ’70s New York might be categorized as the art of parallel play. Serial composers, largely uptown at Columbia, had little truck with minimalists and other eclectic composers who were largely downtown. Art music and popular music rarely intersected. Composers/performers and producers rarely inhabited the same worlds, never mind the same bodies.

Somehow Ilhan Mimaroğlu embodied each of these, all at the same time. He was an engaged composer and informal teacher, uptown at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Mimaroğlu, in fact, came to New York to study musicology at Columbia in order to further his journalistic interests. But, having read about, sought out, and then heard electronic music recordings in Turkey, he discovered the Columbia-Princeton studio.

Also during his time at Columbia, Mimaroğlu’s studied privately with Edgard Varèse. “Most of the time, I used to talk to him over the telephone,” he remembered. “One day, he asked me, ‘What do you want to do in New York? What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘I want to study with you!’ He said, ‘All right, let’s start!’ […laughs…] So, I would go to his place, something like every week. It was very interesting. I used to write a few things and he would take what I wrote and he’d start adding notes to it.”

The compositions Mimaroğlu completed during his years at Columbia were intuitive in formal approach. He was more sympathetic to Pierre Schaeffer than to the serialists, noting that “particularly the idea that electronic music and cinema were in a parallel, the same thing basically. One is for the eye, the other for the ear. It is the same idea for me and for Pierre Schaeffer.”

In contrast, of Milton Babbitt he said, “I may not be too fond of his music, but I must admit it’s important. It’s beautifully crafted. It’s not always a great pleasure to listen to, but he’s an important composer, yes.”

In Mimaroğlu’s 1965 electronic work for tape Agony, one hears within this construction of abstract sounds clearly discernable musical gestures and phrases. A three-pulse figure becomes a leitmotif, engaging in call and response. What is most striking is the accessibility of the music, despite the unfamiliarity of the sounds, the lack of pitched materials or conventional musical syntax. If anything, the music is like a conversation, and in the final minutes a delightful one at that.

At Columbia-Princeton, Mimaroğlu became an accidental teacher, recalling that “since [Studio director Vladimir] Ussachevsky was a busy person, he would say to me, at the very last minute during an electronic music class: ‘You go teach this class!’ He would just leave and I would take over. This happened a couple of times.”

But Mimaroğlu may have been aesthetically more at home downtown, during a time when there was little cross-fertilization. He befriended two young composers who were active in Mort Subotnick’s Buchla and tape studio on Bleecker Street in the Village. Charlemagne Palestine and Ingram Marshall (who was Mimaroğlu’s fellow musicology student at Columbia) were by day salesmen at Record Hunter on Fifth Avenue and 43nd Street. Palestine recalls that Mimaroğlu was a regular customer whose music he liked. He was “very nice to us. His music had a dramatic tinge to it; it wasn’t so dry. And he also wasn’t a dry professor type of guy. In those old days when the Nonesuch records came out, Silver Apples [of the Moon by Morton Subotnick] came out, and also a piece by him. They were more light, sort of accessible electronic pieces. They weren’t all that serialism. I do remember that. At the time I appreciated it because I was beginning to overdose on all that heavy profundity.”

I’ve wondered about his mixture of seriousness and humor; his disinterest in authority, and, maybe, his sadness.

Mimaroğlu’s jokester side could be disarming. For instance, he had come to admire the music of fellow countryman Bülent Arel, a future important figure at Columbia-Princeton, before either came to New York. “I remember playing a trick on him. I sat at the piano and started banging the keys [Mimaroğlu makes “busy” sounds with his mouth] and recorded it. I said, “Bülent, I want to play you something. It’s a new piece by Stockhausen.” So I played it. With great seriousness, he starts examining it, analyzing it. […laughs…] When I told him what I did, he got very angry.”

But then, there’s a sense of absolute dedication not only to musical expression, but in a larger sense to justice. I asked Mimaroğlu where he gained the sense of moral outrage represented throughout his writings and musical works. He told me that he was raised during an era of serious moral questioning and danger, but within an environment where critical thinking was encouraged:

I guess I grew up in a country where you are allowed to think about such matters. Turkey, the Turkey of Ataturk, was a totally new country. We used to see signs here: ‘“How happy is the person who says ‘I am a Turk’,” for instance. And indeed as I grew up and found out what was going on in other countries of the world, [it became clear] that this was a truly exceptional country, no question about that! Particularly the [World War II] war years…. So, came 1939, and we were all scared that Turkey would be invaded by the Nazis. Thankfully it wasn’t. It came very close. We came to the center of Anatolia, because [we thought that] they were going to come. Then we returned again to Istanbul. Finally in 1945, I remember the day when the Nazis were vanquished and there were celebrations in the street. So, those were important years for me.

Mimaroğlu emerged from this experience having learned a cautionary tale, a profound and large one for a teenager. His father had died when he was still a baby. His mother no doubt felt an additional sense of weight when thinking about the future career of this musically focused child. She supported his interests, provided they remained just an interest. As a result, Mimaroğlu embarked on training for a professional career, as a lawyer, a choice made quite casually, a story he tells with some humor:

My mother wanted me to be an architect, like my father. Since I didn’t know what else to do, I said, “All right, let’s go to that school where they teach architecture.” The people at the school said, “You’ll have to pass an examination to enter.” What is the examination? They put a vase on top of the table and they said [to] draw it, which I did and I failed […laughter…]. What’s that got to do with architecture? So, what do we do with this child? At that time, my mother and stepfather were in Ankara and the only university where you can enter without an examination was the law school. So they said, “Why don’t you enter the law school?” And I said, “Why not?” And I did. And that was the story. Well, I finished it. I have a law diploma that I am keeping […laughter…] somewhere.

The musical young adult decided instead to become a journalist, landing a job with the Associated Press. One thing led to another and he was selected to receive a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study music journalism at Columbia University.

Mimaroğlu’s sense of commitment to people translated into his concern for young composers. Eric Chasalow, then a student at Columbia-Princeton during Mimaroğlu’s time, is one example. Chasalow, now the Irving Fine Professor of Music at Brandeis University, recalls, “While I did not know him well—Ussachevsky introduced us in about 1979—he programmed my music on his radio program on several occasions. He was a refreshingly no-nonsense guy with no patience for anything but the music. He was very generous to me. He was eager to hear what each generation coming into the Electronic Music Center was doing, and when he heard something he respected, he would support it however he could.”

Arguably, Ilhan Mimaroğlu’s most substantial impact was as a jazz record producer at Atlantic Records. One might not expect a Columbia-Princeton composer to engage with jazz. At Atlantic, Mimaroğlu produced some of the most important recordings of the 1960s, including works by Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. This was an interest that began early in life. He cultivated it with persistence and, ironically, through a form of intrigue:

I was into jazz all the time growing up. I had a group of friends who were also interested. We used to listen to recordings. I used to play the clarinet. I used to give concerts myself, with this friend or that friend, a guitarist, whatever—it was a jazz group primarily that I was into. At school that’s what I was doing. I used to go to the [school’s] radio station and I started playing records. It was my pleasure. And then one day, the discipline board was in session. I was playing jazz records again. They sent someone, made me turn off the radio and gave me a punishment. […laughs…] That I told to my mother and she went to the director of the school and said, “Is it a bad thing that the child plays music to his friends? Does he interfere with his classes? Why are you doing this?” On that day, they permitted me again to play music on the sound system, but the punishment remained in my [academic] records. And mother didn’t tell me [until] after I finished school, so I didn’t get spoiled [from] what she did to protect me.

Ilhan Mimaroğlu became a record producer, he explained to me, “just to earn some money…. When I came here on a Rockefeller Fellowship, I had heard about Ahmed Ertegun [and] Nesuhi Ertegun, and I went to visit their offices. I remember Nesuhi taking me to a nightclub to hear Errol Garner. That’s one of the memories, yes… They were jazz experts. So they said go ahead and do jazz, do whatever you want.” After a time, Mimaroglu expressed interest in producing recordings with less commercial potential. “I just wanted to do some recordings and release some that wouldn’t sell. […laughs…]. So, [my label] Finnadar was born. They were happy to let me do it.” The label became an offprint of Atlantic Records. The Ertegun brothers were supportive and told him that they would keep paying, as long as he didn’t spend too much money. “And I knew how not to spend much money!” said Mimaroğlu. The array of Finnadar recordings would include works by Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Frederic Rzewski, John Cage, Mimaroğlu’s own work, and that of many others.

Open-minded yet sometimes quite sure of himself, warm and sometimes cantankerous, Ilhan Mimaroğlu was at his core complex and mysterious. His life was one of musical multiplicities. While living in the United States, he and his wife maintained strong ties with their homeland. Throughout his life, Mimaroğlu continued to write and publish in Turkish. While the music of this eclectic composer remains little known, he produced iconic records and created works of depth and breadth. Hopefully the passage of time will help motivate greater interest in the music of this truly fascinating man. Surely over time, stories will continue to emerge about his kindness and commitment to students and colleagues.


Please note: The following audio files—recorded during Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006, interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu—are unedited and unprocessed and are occasionally less than optimal. They are presented here due to their historic importance.

Part One of Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006 interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu.
Part Two of Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006 interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu

Part Three of Bob Gluck’s January 3, 2006 interview with Ilhan Mimaroğlu


Bob Gluck is a pianist, music historian, and educator. He is associate professor at The University at Albany and the author of You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (University of Chicago Press, 2012). His latest recording, Textures and Pulsations, a series of piano and electronics duets with Aruan Ortiz, will be released this fall on Ictus Records.