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.
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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.