Off the Record! A Hyper-History of American Independent New Music Record Labels

Off the Record! A Hyper-History of American Independent New Music Record Labels

Gary Todd‘s Los Angeles-based label Organ of Corti, part of his larger Cortical Foundation, has so far presented the music of only a handful of artists: Terry Riley, Hermann Nitsch, Derek Bailey and the Los Angeles Free Music Society. But each of these projects has presented some of the most unique and iconoclastic music to be heard today, and in the case of Riley, the work done by Cortical has been of unparalleled importance in filling in critical gaps and lost works in the composer’s body of work.

“The formation of Cortical Foundation hinges on experimental music of the 20th century with a particular emphasis on the artists that emerged in the 1960s,” says Todd. “Cortical Foundation was founded on the premise to restore recordings by catalytic artists of the ’60s such as Riley, Cardew and Bailey. Recordings that were never available or relatively unknown characterize most of the efforts.”

So far the output of the recording arm of the Cortical Foundation, Organ of Corti, has stuck a balance between composed music and improvisation. But this holds true to the label’s emphasis on the revolutionary music of the ’60s, in which distinctions between the composer’s intent and that of the performer were often routinely blurred.

A staunch non-idiomatic free improviser, British guitarist Derek Bailey has nonetheless created a consistent and instantly recognizable ouevre through his many recordings. Organ of Corti initiated its activities by releasing two CDs of Bailey’s music, one of which, Incus Taps (CD 10), contains the guitarist’s rarest recordings of all: a series of four open-reel tapes made to order in a short-lived subscription series originally released on Bailey’s Incus label. Todd made his first new recording of Bailey in December of 1998, with a historical reunion in the studio of the trio Joseph Holbrooke, one of the most important early free improvisation units in the U.K., comprised of Bailey, percussionist Tony Oxley, and bassist (now composer) Gavin Bryars, soon to be released on Corti.

Likewise, the music of the Los Angeles Free Music Society took no heed of any genre or category. Influenced by Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, and the newly arrived San Francisco group The Residents, the constituents of the LAFMS matched new music technique to punk rock attitude in the otherwise complacent L.A. music scene of the early ’70s. Such units as Smegma, Le Forte Four, the Doo-Dooettes, and Airway gleefully ushered in a musical apocalypse, garnering precious little attention at home or elsewhere, but now lionized by a subsequent generation. “The unearthing of the LAFMS recordings is experimental rock history at its most historical and hysterical — a completely bizarro and further-out counterpart to the L.A. punk scene,” stated Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, a leading expert in the history of art-damaged rock music offshoots. Matching the recklessness of the scene itself, Organ of Corti originally issued the music of the LAFMS in The Lowest Form of Music, a 10-CD box set and an 11-CD signed and numbered edition, later issuing a single CD sampler, Unboxed.

It is for the work done on behalf of Terry Riley, however, that Organ of Corti has gained its most widespread recognition. Todd has spent a period of years restoring the Riley tape archives and tracking down tapes long missing and presumed lost forever. From these activities has emerged a series of recordings granting exceptional insights into the early years of a composer only recently and gradually accepted into the pantheon of great American composers. The early work reveals how much Riley’s muse was beholden to jazz, psychedelic rock and tape manipulation, in addition to the widely-reported influence of Indian raga. It is one thing to read about such early influences, but another thing entirely to be able to actually hear, at long last, the development of one of America’s most important contemporary voices. Three discs of Riley’s early music have now been released (CDs 2, 3 & 4), with two more due soon and at least one further volume in the planning stages.

One further artist currently represented in the remarkably idiosyncratic Corti catalog is the German composer/philospher Hermann Nitsch. His Island Sinfonie of 1980 is currently available in a 4CD boxed set that won raves from reviewers late last year. Outstripping the scope of that piece, however, is a subsequent work, Nitsch’s magnum opus, the Orgies Mysterian Theater, a “happening” that takes place over the course of a full six days, recorded in August of last year for future release. The work incorporates some of the most compelling myths and parables of antiquity, as well as a hefty and terrifying component of graphic ritual (including the slaughter and disembowelment of three bulls). “The work is intended to arouse all of the senses,” says Todd. “And the music serves a vitally important role in creating a hypnotic mindset for the rest of the ritual to take place.”

From Off the Record! A Hyper-History of American Independent New Music Record Labels
by Steve Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.