Deutsche Grammophon's Winter of Discontent

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:20

    I've been thinking recently about the 20th-century avant-garde's failure to make inroads into culture at large. As time goes on, it becomes ever more obvious that we're hooked on narrative and beats, and while there was a time when the two worlds flirted with each other on a regular basis (like the late 60s: the Beatles and Stockhausen; Pierre Henry and Spooky Tooth; Terry Riley and John Cale), pop left the difficulties in the dust a long time ago.

    In classical music as well, the experimental has struck out: it's increasingly rare to see adventurous programming in places like Carnegie Hall or at Lincoln Center. Instead, chancy composers can be found in pretty much the same places they always have been: Roulette, Merkin Hall, Tonic. Even Bang On A Can proved a loss-leader for Lincoln Center and was exiled back to the Henry Street Settlement.

    Contradictorily, labels and recordings of experimental works are flourishing like never before. At Other Music, obscure new recordings are bursting out of the already-packed experimental "Out" section. Though it's unclear exactly who's being targeted, "marketing" suddenly has become a significant factor in the presentation of these things.

    The bigger labels are getting into the act, too. Deutsche Grammophon has released a new line of "avant-garde" classics called the "20/21" series, with press releases speculating on a new market for such works. Included in the slick presskit is an interview with former label president Karsten Witt, who addresses the marketing of the avant-garde: "There are certain risks involved in presenting the music of our time. Even more than a new interpretation, the release of new repertoire is intended to create a new audience?one that we are working to win but can't yet be sure of."

    While DG is explicit about its marketing strategies, for several smaller labels the message is implicit: they learned from pop music and glossy magazines to simply create irresistible product. Back in the 60s, Dick Higgins employed a similar strategy with his radical Something Else? Press, gussying up the avant-garde so beautifully that libraries snapped up the product for their collections just because it looked so respectable. It was the ultimate wolf-in-sheep's-clothing strategy, which landed avant authors like Gertrude Stein and Emmett Williams in collections that normally would have nothing to do with them.

    By following suit, smaller labels seem to realize now that if difficult work is going to move at all, it's got to look great. Twas a time when tiny, strapped-for-cash labels did things the cheapest way possible and, as a result, much of the independently produced experimental vinyl of the 70s and 80s had that look: cheap. WFMU and WKCR experimental DJ Tony Coulter once told me that half of his massive record collection had black-and-white xeroxed covers. Now, though, it's no longer so easy to tell what camp any given record belongs to.

    The truth of the matter is that very few labels strictly ally themselves with one esthetic camp. Instead, the sort of idealistic didacticism that gave birth to the avant-garde in the first place has been supplanted with a broad eclecticism. Once again, Deutsche Grammophon is broadcasting what most smaller labels now take for granted: "The music of our time has many voices. The goal of the series is to provide listeners with a point of orientation by showcasing important work with exemplary interpretations by the leading artists of our time. In doing so, it actively challenges black-and-white distinctions between 'serious music' and 'popular music,' between 'world music' and 'new music' or between 'interpreted music' and 'improvised music,' aiming to keep the wide stylistic range of present-day composition?the various genres and, especially, the various geographical regions in which the music originated?firmly in view... It's precisely those border areas that are the most interesting."

    If there's one artist who?for 40 years now?has been working between genres, it's Mauricio Kagel. As a matter of fact, the above quote seems to define Kagel's agenda. Born in Argentina, but residing in Germany for many years, Kagel melds his various geographical influences; you're as likely to hear references to tangos as you are to Renaissance instruments in his compositions. He's done some great "world music" pieces: with Exotica (1970-'71), Kagel scored an entire orchestra to play instruments they'd never played before (the piece was written for a European orchestra playing non-European instruments). The result is a wildly out-of-control, yet precisely scored, composition. And his remarkable Blue's Blue (1978-'79) pits a group of improvisers against a scratchy old blues 78, blurring the bounds of rock, jazz and classical music.

    Because of Kagel's open-mindedness and foresight, lovers of the avant-garde regard him in the same way electronica fans regard Brian Eno. Both have been not so much inventors of their respective genres, but rather shrewd manipulators of the conventional frameworks surrounding them. In a statement accompanying his new "20/21" release, Kagel says: "We are constantly struck by the inherent modernity of the past, even in all those things which technically speaking should not be part of modernity. Modernity is probably a concept that should in any case be under continual scrutiny. Perhaps pre- and post-modernism will turn out to be freely interchangeable."

    Kagel's new DG disc is called 1898 though the title cut isn't actually new, but a reissue of a long out-of-print 1973 DG vinyl. It's classic Kagel: Choruses of children sing out of tune amidst gangs of homemade instruments, dashed with conventional instruments played unconventionally. It moves in and out of focus, in and out of chaos and order, questioning along the way the commercial musical apparatus that supports and distributes it, alternately stroking and biting the hand that feeds it?in a classic avant-garde approach, Kagel fucks with the patron. DG originally commissioned 1898 to celebrate the label's 75th anniversary; DG's execs were no doubt alarmed at what they were presented with. However, at the time, DG had a great stable of avant artists releasing a slew of difficult discs, including Stockhausen, Globokar and, of course, Kagel. The higher-ups must have scratched their chins in wonderment.

    Soon thereafter, DG stopped producing their "Avant Garde" series and stuck to the conservatism of the "Yellow Label." (Karsten Witt: "DG has had a long history of releasing contemporary music, but this has always shared a slightly uneasy relationship with the Yellow Label.") It's funny that DG should even choose to rerelease the 1898. It's great to have it back in print, though?the sheer quality of the music is extraordinary. 1898 is coupled with an equally savvy Kagel piece, Music for Renaissance Instruments (1965-'66). In it, he made a bunch of Renaissance instruments sound like anything but their quaint selves: they scream, whine and sing in dissonant, jarring modernist choruses.

    I wish I could say that the rest of DG's "20/21" series practiced what the company preaches. Don't get me wrong?it's an absolutely stunning series?but it strikes me that DG's intention with "20/21" is not so much to embrace new attitudes, but to canonize and fortify what will be seen as the standard 20th-century repertoire in years to come. They do a decent job at it, but don't expect to come here to find the latest in cutting-edge music. Herr Witt will be the first one to admit that things are messy out there: "Today's market is flooded with product of every imaginable sort. So much is being produced nowadays that virtually everything is available on CD... We want to offer listeners a point of orientation in a situation in which it has, for many, become almost impossible to keep the overall picture in view."

    Unfortunately, that point of orientation includes no women composers, and for all the label's claims of geographical diversity, there's only one non-Western in the bunch: Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu (it's a real stretch to term Takemitsu a "world music" composer). And outside of some show-tune references, there's no "popular music" to be found. What we're left with is a slew of great discs from a bunch of old and dead white guys. Highlights include the first complete recording of Luciano Berio's Sequenzas, a killer live version of Messiaen's great opera Saint François d'Assise and a recording of Pierre Boulez's magnificent Répons paired with the hallucinogenic electronically altered clarinet solo, Dialogue de l'ombre double. As many Boulez recordings that I own?and the number is substantial?this has quickly grown to be my favorite. The rest of the series is more conventional and seems to cover all the potential audience bases (including releases by Elliot Carter, Arvo Part, Andre Previn and Gidon Kremer) with the hopes that no matter where the future audience dollars fall, DG'll have product to cover it.

    I could sit here and fantasize about younger composers I'd include in the "20/21" series or how I'd expand DG's vision to include some legit "world music," "popular music" or "improvised music," but the task's already been tackled by Germany's Winter & Winter label, which takes DG's high-minded agenda and actually throws it into action. In their three years of existence, they've released a staggering variety of discs that completely disregard genre. Instead, there's always a neat little twist to what they do that usually puts the kibosh on the idea of tidy labels.

    Take Uri Caine's Wagner e Venezia, where Caine and his ensemble (a couple of violins, an accordion, bass, cello and piano) took to the streets of Venice and played Wagner. But they don't play Wagner the way Germans like to hear it played; instead, the small ensemble turns Wagnerian bombast into delicate little chamber pieces, akin to Mozart. The best piece on the disc is the group's take on Der Ritt der Walkürem, which reduces the Wagnerian anthem into an hilariously chugging accordion-driven version of The Nutcracker Suite. But there's more to it than just screwing with the genre. Back in the late 19th century, when the big boys of opera were slugging it out, the Italians hated Wagnerian chutzpah and Wagner, in turn, hated the florid Italians. The irony of bringing Wagner to Venice and then turning his agenda on its ear is a super-sly move. Today the point is moot: The Italian audience cheers wildly after Der Ritt's "grand finale" as the whole affair ends up sounding like a bouncing tarantella or swinging tango. The disc, like many of Winter & Winter's, is filled with the warm atmosphere in which it was recorded.

    Atmosphere counts for everything on another Winter & Winter release, Noches de Buenos Aires, on which a run-of-the-mill tango band is recorded in a small club complete with the sound of glasses clicking and ambient chatter. The band is nothing to write home about, but the whole enterprise functions like an audio film of an event. It's a new and somewhat odd way of listening to music: instead of focusing exclusively on the music, you find yourself listening as much to the atmosphere. The experience is similar to looking at the negative shapes of a painting; it's the space between the spaces that fascinates here.

    One finds everything from Bach cello suites to Fred Frith discs in the rest of the catalogue. When I asked about his across-the-board program, label boss Stefan Winter told me that "categories exist for stores and distributors, not musicians." He added that most of the musicians he records with play all sorts of music. And he's right: The ace accordionist Teodoro Anzellotti, who's done a wonderful Winter & Winter disc of Erik Satie's music transcribed for accordion, also shows up on DG's "20/21" Berio Sequenzas disc, mastering the insanely virtuosic "Sequenza XIII for accordion Chanson." Anzellotti has singlehandedly brought the squeezebox into the concert hall and is generally acknowledged as a master of the instrument?everyone from Stockhausen to Kagel has scribbled pieces for him to play.

    I asked Winter about DG's "20/21" series and where his label stood in relation to the recording industry giant. He replied that while he doesn't doubt that DG is interested in new music, he questions their motives: "I feel that there's a certain marketing strategy going on to make DG a label for new music. I don't really believe that there is somebody inside DG who is truly dedicated to this music and who, from their heart, wants to bring this music to an audience. The problem is that they must show sales results but they will not get the time nor the money from the label to do it properly. In such an atmosphere, it's impossible to do something that is truly innovative." Indeed, Winter feels that if DG's "20/21" "test" of new music is not commercially successful, you'll never hear that sort of thing from them again.

    However, Winter reminds me of the context: It's Germany, and in German musical culture categories tend to mean a lot. Winter explained that there are two categories of music in German radio: "serious music" and "entertainment music," and that the price tag for "serious music" far exceeds that for "entertainment music." Winter seems to be on a one-man crusade to destroy categories. He's worked closely with the genre-busting Kagel and admires the composer's open-mindedness, but admits he's hard-pressed to identify any younger Kagel proteges working in Germany today, a situation he attributes to the financial dealings of the classical music world, where staying within genres is lucrative. Winter's Kagel disc, Solowerke für akkordeon und klavier, is a typically mixed-up Kagel affair, with accordion transcriptions of organ works and conceptually based solo piano works. Winter's quick to point out that one of Kagel's great pleasures is to sit in St. Mark's Square in Venice and hear the sounds of three orchestras from three different coffeehouses intermingle. For Kagel, as well as for Winter, writing serious music has everything to do with entertainment.

    Plans for the future include 48 different variations of Bach's Goldberg Variations for 48 different ensembles and a set of five CDs documenting the music of Havana through the eyes of an Italian writer. Reflecting the current craze for eclecticism, the Havana discs are to include everything from Cuban children's choirs to late 19th-century piano music to Havana street musicians playing carnival music.

    Winter & Winter's CDs can be found at Tower Records, or e-mail them at

    Deutsche Grammophon's "20/21" series is available through their website: