Anti-austerity: an innova records round-up

Pre-preamble (13 January 2011)

Since writing this post, innova have produced a neat publicity video that kindly uses some of its words. Check it out, pass it on:


As I look at this pile of CDs, I can’t help thinking that even in these times of austerity and recession, at least one sector of the American creative industries can’t be doing too badly, if productivity and diversity are anything to go by.

The above picture is of the review CDs I’ve been sent recently from innova records. I’ve reviewed innova releases many times in the past, and I’ve often enjoyed what they do. Most of the names and music they promote are virtually unknown in the UK, so it’s difficult to filter before listening; and there are often unexpected discoveries to be made. Faced with the reviewing challenge above, however, I’m going to have to take a different approach. Rather than discuss CDs one by one, I’d like to take the opportunity presented by all this new music to take the pulse of off-the-radar American music. Please forgive me if I skip over anything in the posts that follow (this is the first in a series of at least three); there’s so much here that it’s impossible for one person’s taste to address all of it properly.

The record label as living archive: single composer releases

Innova, it seems to me, do two things exceptionally well. One is to source and promote innovative, unusual and sometimes nutty musicians who fall through the cracks of the standardised, genre-obsessed music business: whether they be Pat Muchmore or John Morton.

The other is to produce a recorded archive of American music, a sort of counterpart to New World’s Recorded Anthology of American Music, but going to places even further from the commercial mainstream. The Enclosures series of Harry Partch recordings and films is a notable example, but this work continues in the Music from Stanford series (now in four volumes) and individual releases like Ultra Violette, an overview of the music of Andrew Violette. This latter is a typically well-documented example: two CDs of music, the second an enhanced CD-ROM with notes, biographies and bonus MP3s.

The two realms overlap, of course: documenting new music as it happens is a sort of archiving-in-advance. (Innova’s compilation and archiving of the past will be covered in a future post.) This raises certain issues: the impulse to put on record anything that might be of future interest is attracted to novelty as much as it is to quality. Occasional innova releases make me question how much emphasis is placed on the latter over the former: MC Maguire’s Trash of Civilisations, for example, is notable for its exhilarating, hyper-realistic density of intertextual samples, which are used within rigorously composed structures, but overall I found it one-dimensional and ideologically jarring.

One aspect of this ouput are the CDs dedicated to single composers. They range from the lyrical romanticism of Judith Shatin to the electroacoustic and microtonal journeys of Jeremy Haladyna’s Mayan Cycle to the straight-up modernism of Ushio Torikai.

Torikai has been on the European and North American concert music scene since the late 1970s, and her output includes commissions from Ensemble Modern and the Kronos Quartet. Rest (innova 722) is more ‘modern classical’ than most innova releases, and the results wouldn’t sound out of place on a European label like Kairos or Métier.  Nevertheless, the music is hampered by an over-cautious approach that limits the range of Torikai’s own compositional voice. She clearly admires much in the postwar music of Babbitt, Berio and Boulez, but – and this is especially true of music written 50 years after their first great experiments – it’s frustrating to hear that influence as a formulaic style and not as an invitation to adventure.

Somewhere between the ‘anecdotal music’ of Luc Ferrari and the ‘Mouseketier’ of Mark Applebaum sits Christopher Campbell’s Sound the All Clear: a music of strings and pinging metal tines, presented with an almost documentary vividness. There’s something very ‘uncomposed’ in feeling here, yet without the intense concentration of improvisation either. It’s a beautifully relaxed, almost accidental vibe, like having great musicians on a teabreak in your workshop.

Michael Ellison’s Elif is composed for the great Hafiz Kâni Karaca and an ensemble of neys, bass clarinet, violin and cello. It sounds to me like the most distinctive piece of the three here: a lot of the ensemble music is essentially a bed for Karaca’s magnificent voice, but the whole has real spiritual intensity. The flute solo Invocation (played by Helen Bledsoe) would be the second most distinctive piece, which is interesting because the sleevenotes tell me that it was influenced by the Turkish ney. Ellison’s String Quartet no.2 is a slower burner. Ones first impression is that it drifts rather close to Bartók, but this is only really true in sporadic moments: in the first movement these are dispersed by introspective pauses, false starts, etc. A halting, tentative approach to form that is very un-Bartókian and quite deceptive.

Harley Gaber’s I Saw my Mother Ascending Mount Fuji is an unbroken hour for electronics, violin and alto flute. It is a sort of an amalgam of two, much earlier, solos, Michi for violin and Chimyaku for alto flute. Both these pieces date from 1973 – a different world – and Gaber’s sleevenotes tell in great detail his processes of digitally reshaping and reconceiving the noisy tape masters from 1970s performances by Linda Cummisky and David Gilbert into the piece presented here. What is striking is how contemporary – almost ordinarily so – these pieces sound now. The originals are radically sparse and minimal: long notes punctuated by extensive pauses, a high intensity focus on minute shadings of timbre and pitch. The radical sonic edge of these earlier pieces has been smoothed out by an ambient electronic background of hisses and echoes, but the immensely slow pace remains. In fact, by using the electronic part to cover over passages of silence in the original recordings (which were in any case obliterated by tape hiss) Gaber has further slowed that pace: where before there was at least a clear articulation of on and off, sound and silence, now there is an ever-shifting continuum of sound, a promise of surge and development that is never fulfilled. Despite their minimalism, those earlier pieces had a strongly defined structural articulation. In I Saw my Mother Gaber has subsumed even that into the background: what at first sounds like 100 other 21st-century ambient albums is haunted by a more utopian, idealistic radicalism, a memory of something lost or a discovery of something new?

Continue reading Part 2 here.


9 thoughts on “Anti-austerity: an innova records round-up

  1. I am an Innova addict. I got to this state starting with the streams at live365.
    I think that Philip does the best job around of bringing new composers and musicians to the public.

    I got to your site from a link on one of Innova’s FB posts.

  2. Or you could do the British version:

    And there are a number of others internationally that pretend to be commercial labels but aren’t actual viable companies w/o the financial support of the independent producers who actually fund the discs (usually composers or their employers). Who actually funds the _recordings_ of these works? Making recordings is massively expensive (players, conductors, microphones, cables, stands, computers, software, engineers, editors, mastering, etc., etc., etc.), and that’s above and beyond the costs listed by either Metier or innova (I’ll only name names for the companies who actually print their costs in the open, but there are many more who don’t publicize the costs for releases on their label — one other famous, quite slick new music label charges €6,000 per disc).

    It’s worth asking where this money comes from. As far as I can tell, in the best case scenario the money comes from a foundation of one sort or another — and, as someone who loves CDs, long may this sort of funding continue. But in the normal scenario, the money mostly comes from institutions (primarily universities) that use the prestige of a ‘commercial’ release to prop up other external funding sources (grants, state funding, etc.). There are situations of genuine synergy (to use an absolutely ridiculous term) in which there are really useful partnerships that fairly/reasonably share the costs of performing, recording, and distributing work in a balanced way. But often it seems these structures are set up to play off of the perceived ‘prestige’ of a release on a ‘label’, with composers or performers willing to pay a premium to have their work appear on a label with a certain cache, which helps solidify their professional role at their own institution (in the US, it helps them get tenure; in England, it helps them become Reader or Professor) … sometimes self-funded, sometimes funded by their institution (to, say, generate a better RAE/REF ranking). It is — ehem — perhaps one of the reasons you’ve not heard of many (most) of the composers on innova’s label. It’s true of course that the label maintains a certain editorial control of the content, but the business model is clearly predicated on external funding, so presumably the proposed budget is a crucial part of each application.

    The whole setup is bogus. What’s amazing to me is how ingrained the assumptions are. The same of course is true for the music publishing industry — where the money comes from, and where it goes, and what the implications are for success in the field (what other institutions it props up, what assumptions it confirms, which aesthetics it unintentionally supports) — but that’s for another day.

    Perhaps the important bit in this case is that these CDs ended up on The Rambler’s doorstep — rather against type, I’d think — which seems to support innova’s argument. These are CDs from composers that, as Tim says, “are virtually unknown in the UK”, and innova’s $5k+ per disc package includes a PR approach that’s worth ‘at least double’ its asking cost, so … perhaps it worked. Or maybe these are just a bunch of CDs by the people who could afford to produce them or worked at places willing to foot the bill.

    1. Thanks Aaron – most of that detail is news to me (at least, the parts that aren’t explicitly related to university funding for new music releases), I just simply hadn’t investigated. I always assumed that innova, eg, was basically supported by the American Composers Forum.

      Your description resembles academic publishing, in which a lot of books get written and produced not quite at the author’s expense but on the assumption that the prestige of a book is worth enough to the author for them to forgo any sensible royalties arrangement.

      Of course this sort of self-funded publication is as old as the hills. I don’t expect there’s any obvious way around it.

      Innova CDs aren’t that far against type of what I get sent: the balance is shifting, but innova were I think the first label to send me anything and have done so pretty consistently over the years, which I suppose says something about their online acumen.

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