Sound without barriers: recording contemporary music

James McCarthy Mon 23rd November 2015

Recording has transformed the way new music reaches new listeners, as James McCarthy discovers...

Fifty years ago, a young composer of promise would, if they were lucky, have a new work performed to an audience of a few hundred people, with the possibility that it might be repeated in the very dim future. Now we have Mr William Walton’s Façade issued on reasonably priced records for anyone, five thousand miles from London, to hear. People can keep abreast of modern music as they never could before.’ So wrote The Gramophone’s Ernest Newman in September 1930, neatly summing up the profound effect that recordings have had on the lives of composers. In short, they have liberated music from the concert hall.

As recording technology evolved through the first half of the 20th century, composers started to benefit from having their music recorded by the larger record labels, and the most exalted composers were given the opportunity to preserve their own personal interpretations on disc, among them Elgar, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky and Copland. Later, as an increasing number of smaller, independent recording companies appeared, a wider range of composers began to be represented. Companies such as Nonesuch, NMC and ECM built their considerable reputations on their commitment to new music, and now there are many more labels – such as Cantaloupe, Mode, Erased Tapes and NonClassical – which have dedicated and substantial followings. Today, vastly improved ‘home’ recording technologies and new routes to market, such as SoundCloud, Bandcamp and YouTube, have made it possible for a composer to write and record a piece in a morning and have it available for people to stream or download by the afternoon. No longer do composers require the endorsement of a large corporation to get their music recorded and released as they did 50 years ago; as a result, the diversity and quality of the recordings that listeners have at their fingertips has never been greater.

Perhaps the most commercially successful contemporary music recording of the past year was John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean on the boutique label Cantaloupe. According to Cantaloupe’s Label Manager Bill Murphy, sales of the recording in the US alone are nearing 10,000 units (CD and digital) since the album’s release on September 30, 2014. To put that into perspective, for the core classical music market, selling more than 5000 physical copies of a CD is generally considered a significant success, especially for an independent label. The recording’s cause was no doubt given a boost when Become Ocean won the Pulitzer Prize shortly before the album’s release, but still, the recording’s popularity is remarkable – particularly when you consider that it consists of a single track comprising 42 minutes of thoroughly modern orchestral music. Not exactly ‘bite-size’. As Gramophone’s Pwyll ap Siôn wrote in his November 2014 review: ‘If ever an orchestra sounded like an immense sonic object, slowly floating across a vast area, then this must be it.’

Adams is a modest and deeply thoughtful man; had he, I wondered, been prepared for the popularity of Become Ocean? ‘It has taken me completely by surprise,’ he told me on the phone from his home in New York. ‘But you know, often the composer is the last person to know. I don’t know what an audience is. I don’t think about an audience when I’m doing my work. I just think about the music and what the music wants, and I try to do whatever the music wants of me.’

Has the commercial success of Become Ocean changed the way he perceives his own music? Adams was typically frank: ‘I don’t feel any change in my attitude towards my work or towards the listeners of my work. I’m truly delighted that this piece in particular seems to have found so many people who appear to be touched by it. Will that ever happen again? I don’t know, and it’s not really my concern. I think I’m just old enough to not let the success distract me. I don’t mean to sound disingenuous; it’s wonderful, but I don’t think it’s likely to fundamentally change what I do or how I work. But I may now be able to pick and choose my projects more carefully. I may be able to do things that would have been more difficult before.’

John Luther Adams has hit upon a fundamental point. A recording has the potential to change a composer’s life in a more profound and dramatic way than a single live performance ever could. To find out more about the impact that a recording can have on a composer’s career, I spoke to the composer and founder of NMC Recordings, Colin Matthews. NMC was established in 1989 as a charitable organisation with a mission to record music by British composers who would otherwise be unlikely to appear on disc (or cassette – NMC originally stood for New Music Cassettes). Matthews is unequivocal: ‘For an emerging composer, a recording is undoubtedly something of a status symbol, although that phrase is a bit invidious.’ So does he believe that a recording can establish or further a composer’s career and help build a reputation? ‘From the start, we wanted to feature new and upcoming composers. Our Debut Discs series was the first big step in this direction, although it seems strange to think of established composers like Richard Causton and Sam Hayden, both in their 40s, as making a “debut”. I’m sure this series has contributed significantly to raising their profiles, and given a boost to their careers.’

Robert Hurwitz, President of Nonesuch – a record label that has built its modern reputation on recordings of works by John (Coolidge) Adams,Steve ReichHenryk Górecki and Philip Glass – was more reserved in his sense of the difference that a recording can make to a composer’s prospects. For Hurwitz, everything stems from the music itself: ‘The biggest impact comes from writing a great piece; a good recording of a great piece will have an impact on an emerging composer, but it’s all about the music. A great piece without a recording will still have a bigger impact than a good piece with a recording.’

Interestingly, both Hurwitz and Matthews remarked upon the negative repercussions that a recording can have on a composer’s career. Surely a recording can only be a good thing? Apparently not. Hurwitz recalled Nonesuch’s recording of Górecki’s Third Symphony; recorded in 1991 and produced by Colin Matthews, this is still the biggest-selling recording of contemporary classical music ever made with more than one million copies purchased: ‘Our recording made Górecki more famous, and more affluent, but at the same time, after that success he did very little composing. It did not transform his career – in some ways it may have isolated him from the musical mainstream.’

Matthews adds a further note of caution: that a recording can actually supplant the need to perform the work live. ‘With the music of older-generation composers, I sometimes have the feeling that recordings can be a bit counter-productive – the reaction of musicians may be, “Oh, it’s been recorded so we don’t need to perform it”. This is frustrating. One of the things we aimed to do was to record pieces that, say, had a great reception at the Proms, but then seemed to disappear. Anthony Payne’s Times Arrow and Hugh Wood’s Symphony are good examples: wonderful pieces, but they haven’t exactly entered the repertoire, in spite of – or perhaps because of? – the recordings.’

In spite of these potential drawbacks, recording remains absolutely central to the lives of many composers, and John Luther Adams is no exception: ‘I prefer a recording session to a rehearsal; I prefer a mixing session to most performances,’ he said of his hands-on approach. ‘It’s a funny thing, but perhaps part of it is that I feel I have something to do – I’m actually useful.’ I wondered if the mixing and production of a recording was just an extension of his creative process, almost a re-composition of the live performance? ‘You’re consciously aware of creating this experience, this thing that is related to a live performance but that is something else in and of itself,’ he said. ‘Early on I made a conscious decision that I was going to commit myself to making recordings, that that was the single most important thing that I could do with my music. It is true that there are more live performances of my work now and I’m thrilled by that. But it’s also true that most people hear my music through recordings.’

'With such a large repertoire of masterpieces to choose from, why choose to record contemporary music?'

The silent partners in all of these conversations so far have been the performers. With such a large repertoire of masterpieces to choose from stretching back hundreds of years, why choose to record contemporary music? The conductor Nicholas Collon has made recordings for NMC and the Hallé’s own label, and, with his own Aurora Orchestra, has quickly built an impressive reputation for programming contemporary works in concert alongside a wide range of music. Consequently, Aurora has a large following, and this popularity hasn’t escaped the attention of Warner Classics, which last year signed Collon and Aurora for a three-album deal. I asked Collon how different it was to be recording for a major label, with its commercial pressures, as opposed to NMC. ‘The whole purpose of a label like NMC is to produce discs of a wide range of composers who are writing magnificent music that otherwise might not be recorded,’ he said, ‘and that is unique, I think. Everything about NMC is done in a very positive way, to try to access as many people as possible, but it is a fairly small corner of the market. Regarding the more commercially minded labels, of course it’s very hard to sell discs nowadays, so you have to keep that in mind. But I hope there’s an acceptance not so much of “running after audiences” but of just creating interesting products; in time, this could revitalise a small portion of the recording industry.’

Nonesuch has produced dozens of contemporary music recordings which have been extremely successful, commercially. But if you are planning to record new music, can you allow the potential commercial viability of the project to influence the planning process? As Hurwitz told me, ‘When it comes to modern music, commercial considerations have never been a factor. If there’s something great in front of us, we’ve always found the way. There is no obligation for a company to record new music unless they care deeply about it. We recorded Reich, Glass, Górecki and Andriessen because I loved what they were doing.’ Luckily for Hurwitz, it would seem that his taste in new music is shared by many thousands of people around the world.

But with vast improvements in home-recording technologies and the rapid growth of digital downloads and online streaming, are record labels still as important as they were 30 years ago? Colin Matthews believes labels still have a special allure for composers: ‘Obviously there’s a much greater potential now for disseminating and listening to music,’ he said, ‘but, as in the book world, where digital sales are currently in decline in relation to physical, there’s still a good demand for the physical CD – although downloads are of vital importance to us as well.’ He continued: ‘I think a label does offer status and I imagine few composers would prefer only to be available in some online form or other.’

Of course, streaming can be just as useful to labels as to independent composers and artists when it comes to circulating music. Hurwitz agrees, although the form of distribution doesn’t interest him as much as the music itself: ‘We get far more hung up these days on the selling and marketing than on the making of records,’ he said, ‘but you can go back 115 years to the beginnings of the record business and even then it could be boiled down to the same two things as it is today: finding the talent and making the record; and selling/marketing/distributing it. No one in the 1920s would have talked about the importance of the Sears catalogue or selling in furniture stores – these being two of the foremost ways records were sold in America back then – as being relevant to making records. Today we seem to be far more obsessed with all of the new distribution channels, rather than considering the more relevant question of whether the person with the talent is creating the kind of music a record company would want to be associated with.’

'YouTube, SoundCloud and Bandcamp play a significant role in getting one’s music noticed and heard – in finding an audience'

It doesn’t surprise me that someone who runs a successful record company would express this view, but there are nevertheless huge possibilities offered to all composers by current technology. For the many thousands of composers (myself included) who don’t have ongoing relationships with record labels, YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp and the like play a significant role in getting one’s music noticed and heard – in finding an audience. I’ve been fortunate to have the premiere performances of two of my oratorios recorded live at the Barbican in London, and these recordings (loaded up to SoundCloud) have been instrumental in spreading my music to listeners and potential future performers around the world, all without the involvement of a record label. Traditional recording companies are perfect for a small percentage of composers, but there is more music out there than can be catered for by these labels, and open-access platforms such as SoundCloud give this music an opportunity to be heard. The downside, of course, is that the composer needs to cover the costs of the recording itself. As a result, many contemporary music projects have been born through Kickstarter campaigns; recently, New York-based composer Missy Mazzoli raised $6000 on Kickstarter to fund the recording of her ‘Vespers for a New Dark Age’ album. 

It is also important to note that composers can make their music available on iTunes, Amazon and any number of streaming services such as Spotify without the support of record labels. Which isn’t to say that most composers wouldn’t appreciate the support, guidance and marketing heft of a record label, but, on the other hand, it has finally become possible to do everything yourself – from writing and recording, to mastering and mixing, to designing the packaging and ultimately distributing and promoting your recording.

Nicholas Collon’s diverse programming with his Aurora Orchestra resonates perfectly with a generation of listeners who are discovering their music in the largely genre-free online environment. And it is interesting that this eclectic way of listening is being reflected in albums being produced for a major label, as though contemporary music recording has come full circle. As Collon told me, ‘I personally love a really wide range of music, and that is the same for all of the musicians in Aurora. It is by its nature a young orchestra – we’re all of a similar generation, and these are players who, perhaps unlike players from, say, two generations ago, have been brought up playing Baroque music in a period style, they’ve been brought up being able to play contemporary music, and they are well versed in other genres of music. People are versatile these days. And that shows in the programming of our concerts, which, I hope people appreciate.’

Aurora’s Warner debut, ‘Road Trip’ (read the review), features John (Coolidge) Adams’s Chamber Symphony, Copland’s Appalachian Spring andIves’s ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’ (from Three Places in New England) alongside folksongs arranged by Nico Muhly; it works as a kind of narrative-driven concept album. As Collon said in reference to the Adams and Ives works, they are ‘quite challenging pieces to put on a disc, and it’s nice that there is stuff around them that will attract another audience – Appalachian Spring for example. So I think that, rather than ghettoising contemporary music into quite a challenging disc, we’ve created something that hopefully will surprise people when they listen to it.’

Presenting contemporary music in a richly varied programme in concert and on record resonates with the way listeners are tending increasingly to encounter new music online today. But, according to Hurwitz, a true love of contemporary music can only develop over a lifetime of dedicated listening. ‘A single event, or a single piece, only cracks open the door,’ he warned. ‘Someone may bump into things that excite them – it could be a record or a show – but becoming the future audience for new music calls for a lifetime involvement, and takes a sustained interest.’ He continued: ‘“Art isn’t easy” – a line from Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George: it was true in the era of Seurat and it is true today. Just because someone goes to a “club” or a composer uses “rock influences”, that doesn’t help create a permanent change in a listener’s commitment to new music. It is only meaningful if the music touches the listener deeply and then they begin their own personal journey to find the music that will move them for a lifetime.’

But perhaps this isn’t all that matters. Of course all composers want to find a devoted audience for their music, but surely the fact that new music is reaching new listeners – albeit transiently in some cases – is a positive thing? For John Luther Adams, the free-roaming way in which audiences are listening to recorded music today is a source of great encouragement for the future richness and diversity of contemporary music: ‘Listeners are far more open-minded, far more curious, far more intelligent than we sometimes give them credit for,’ he said. ‘I think this is especially true of younger listeners, who are voracious and omnivorous in their listening habits. They don’t really care what genre or style or name might be given to a piece of music. As Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it is good”. And I’m really heartened by that. With online streaming and online radio you’re getting these often seamless but extremely variegated mixes of all styles of music and it is a wonderful thing. I celebrate it.’

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Gramophone. Gramophone is the world's leading classical music magazine, to find out more about our various subscription packages, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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