Innova round-up 2: Performer showcases

The first post in this series on innova’s recent output threw up some interesting comments on the way that releases on innova (and many other labels like them) are funded. That is, through up-front payments by the artists releasing the recording. That in turn opens up a debate on the role of editorial control on the part of the label, but it’s not one that I’m going to enter into just yet.

Instead, having covered some of the recent single-composer releases on innova, I’d like to look at some of the performer showcases. I’m speculating here, but I imagine that different motivations lie behind a group proposing an album to innova than a composer. For the composer the main benefit of commercial release (beyond the usual) may be prestige: an all-important line on a CV. For a group it is genuinely a chance to have their voice heard, create some buzz and perhaps win some gigs or a future recording opportunity. Does the actual content of the recording matter more in that case?

Beta Collide are a flute/trumpet/piano/percussion quartet who play works by Rzewski, Erickson, Kyr, Silvestrov and Vitiello, as well as an arrangement of Ligeti (Mysteries of the Macabre) and an arrangement/remix of Radiohead’s ‘Nude’. Zeitgeist are a percussion, wind and piano quartet who sandwich Ivo Medek in between works by Anthony Gatto, Jerome Kitzke, Kathy Jackanich and Ethan Wickman. Likewise, saxophonist Timothy McAllister programmes Philippe Hurel alongside North Americans like Daniel Asia and Caleb Burhans.

From a European perspective, there’s quirky fun to be had spotting the continental names that make it onto innova CDs, even more in guessing what process got them there. There’s no sense of canon-formation or conventional stylistic allegiance, at least: what connections there are transcend the usual academic box-making.

McAllister is a good player, but his repertory choices on Glint are too samey: passages in the pieces by Wanamaker and Etezady not only sound like each other, they both reminded me of the same third piece (a short thing by Wim Mertens called Songes; too small to have been an influence, but a distracting association nevertheless). Many of the pieces deal in running semiquavers and a generally polite tone. Although he is billed as a spectralist pioneer, Hurel’s music lacks the aesthetic and political radicalism of Dufourt, Grisey or Murail; however, Opcit stretches this album’s horizon with overtones, keyslaps and a form that disintegrates unexpectedly in its centre. The piece still has its limitations, but it is intriguing to hear the continuities of a work like this, which claims its ancestry in the European avant garde, alongside the more conservative works by the American composers represented here.

Several of the tracks on Zeitgeist’s album In Bone-Coloured Light strike a post-minimal balance between the fragile and non-self-absorbed, and Andriessen-like assertiveness. Personally I prefer the former – it’s 2010: it’s more daring and more interesting not to imitate rock bands (I have the same reaction to Zack Browning’s Venus Notorious, a single-composer collection of “high-energy rock-inspired music”) – but there’s plenty of strangeness too, especially in Medek’s Into the Same River. Hints here of an emerging post-post-minimalism, one that critiques the brash amplification and driving rhythms of the 1990s and early 2000s? The title piece by Jerome Kitzke takes another line, unrolling long, romantic melodies that support a subtly gradated transformation of instrumentation and arrangement.

Beta Collide’s psst … psst! is probably the most interesting collection, though. Most of the tracks are curious objects. And I mean objects rather than pieces of music: they seem to sit somehow apart from their surroundings (I often find this with Rzewski’s music, and Christopher Fox has a similar knack). That’s partly the playing, which, especially in the duet of Rzewski’s Nanosonata no.7 and Mollitude, is almost supernaturally crisp (flautist Molly Barth is formerly of eighth blackbird, and brings their discipline to her direction). And the Radiohead remix? It’s more of a new music karaoke arrangement, with acoustic instruments playing along with Thom Yorke’s voice, but it has its own uncanniness and is definitely one to surprise any ‘head fans among your friends. Here’s a promo video of Beta Collide performing their arrangement of Mysteries of the Macabre:

http://player.vimeo.com/video/15113848

And, lastly, something of a performer/composer crossover: Panauromni by Psychoangelo. Psychoangelo are the trumpet, computer, guitar and small objects duo of Glen Whitehead and Michael Theodore, both professors at University of Colorado, Boulder. The music is rich in electronically generated noise:  occasional trumpet notes are exploded into hazes of sound, as if Miles Davis had really pushed the sonic experiment of Bitches Brew into the purely spectral-sensual erasure of his instrument. A gorgeous, affecting and not at all academic record that nevertheless rewards close attention.

The final part of this extended review will look at some of innova’s recently released archival collections and summarise what I – as an outsider who encounters this whole musical world almost exclusively through his letterbox – makes of it all.

4 thoughts on “Innova round-up 2: Performer showcases

  1. This is a really interesting subject (I just read the comments on the previous post). I don’t think it really matters where the money comes from to pay for the Innova’s services, but it surely does matter that Innova have editorial control.

    But are we really expected to believe that they exercise that control on the basis of artistic quality, or at least on the basis of a qualitative judgement of some kind? What if some tone-deaf cretin comes along with their $6k, will Innova take the money eagerly and pump out any old rubbish? If not, what if said cretin offers $10k? $100k? Is this in fact some kind of vanity publishing house after all?

    I hope not – I think that if Innova can exercise quality control effectively then they might build a reputation as a purveyor of good records. This in turn would lead to increased sales and increased media coverage as people like you, Tim, choose to review Innova recordings because you know their previous stuff has been worth your time. It might even allow them to charge more for their services.

    There are plenty of reasons to be pleased that people are exploring interesting new ways of releasing recordings (and I for one much prefer the CD format to the MP3). I have written a fair bit on this subject (it featured in my PhD thesis!) and I have put my money where my mouth is, contributing to a “micropatronage” scheme to raise money for recordings by the US group Existential Pilot, for example.

    Probably the hardest thing for a new composer or group is to get some kind of credibility – the kind of thing that convinces the general public that the composer/group is any good. The problem with new music in this regard is that it is new, so we need something to go on other than the music itself. Having a credible record label or publisher is a good start (as is having a few hundred micropatrons listed in your CD’s booklet) – and maybe Innova can provide this credible start (for a price!) – but ultimately these artists will want to rely on their own reputation, which of course they have to seek to build up somehow. That’s the hard part!

  2. We enjoy this discussion around the innova office, and I won’t address every detail, but rest assured we get many submissions from people with funds ready to go and they get rejected at the same rate as everyone else. We are not a vanity label. One of our concerns is that the music we put out is a good marriage for our database of media friends and resources; if it doesn’t hit the sweet spot of our catalog history and interests we could not in all conscience take the artists’ hard earned money. If they are likely to earn it back, then yahtzee. One well known artist just plonked down her money (the first time she had done so for any of her many recordings) and, after a few months when sales income had come in, we cut her a check for 100% of the proceeds; far more than she had made from her previous deals…

    Our business model is as friendly as we can make it; the income from our endowment keeps costs lower than otherwise to the artist; they get more bang for the buck than if they hired every service separately. When we can generate grant income we do so and release albums at no cost to the artists (who still get to keep all income from sales!). We did 50 titles in the last few years this way funded by the NEA and the NY State Music Fund. As long as we make 24 releases a year we break even; often we do more but that’s because we believe in those projects, we don’t earn any bonuses, just work harder.

    If we have prestige by now it is not primarily what we trade on; we just try to release great work by artists know or unknown and plead their case to the world. We believe every release is worthy of your attention, whether it features Reich, Riley, Partch, Brant, or Joe the Plumber’s nephew. Our model (whereby we take no income from sales) allows us to stay in business and take artistic risks when needed; what artist wouldn’t want their label to have some assurance of stability?

  3. “One of our concerns is that the music we put out is a good marriage for our database of media friends and resources; if it doesn’t hit the sweet spot of our catalog history and interests we could not in all conscience take the artists’ hard earned money.”

    It’s interesting the way you put that, Philip. It sounds as though the parameters of judgment are based on what you think your database of media friends (including people like me, I guess) would be into. So in a way it’s a process of sub-contracting that editorial control to tastemakers outside innova, rather than innova acting as firsthand gatekeepers (in the way that a more traditional publisher might).

    Is that about right? It’s an interesting social network-y model if it is.

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