Label Report: Edition RZ

[Christian Vogl is La Folia’s European Editor. With Christian’s help, we soon hope to make dear old Laffo into a polyglot publication. More on that prospect in issues to come. As to Christian’s comments below, let’s just say that we here in the editorial aerie find aspects with which to disagree. Thus do we pat ourselves on our editorial backs for a willingness — nay, eagerness! — to publish material we find controversial. See Mike Silverton’s remarks at the end. Ed.]

Christian Vogl

[November 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:2.]

This is part one of a longer report on the Berlin label Edition RZ, whose history and strategy can only be understood in consideration of wider circumstances. I’ve divided the report in four parts: remarks on the current situation of modern music in the whole of the music industry; Edition RZ’s history and early releases already out of stock; the last in two parts, reviews of available RZ releases. I think that the quality of Edition RZ more than warrants a four-part essay.

Introduction: Foundational Remarks

1. Economy Cycles in the Music Industry

The music industry’s golden times are gone, at least temporarily. Of course, markets are still good enough to keep the big companies in a fairly decent shape, but most medium-to-small companies have been starving during the current decade, some unto death. It’s no longer practicable, as in the 80’s, to put a record on the market and then lean back and wait for platinum, not because of great management or great music, but rather because of the broad interest in compact discs with their reduced noise and long-playing qualities. After the demand for CD editions of earlier releases had been satisfied, soon arrived the hype promoting different versions of this same music: pop & rock bootlegs (which existed earlier but were quite expensive and limited to some hundreds of copies for hard-line fans and groupies); the short, stupid, but profitable MTV wave of ’unplugged’ recorded songs; and even bootlegs of classical music, including re-releases of historical recordings in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

There’s a time in every industry when sales decline and it’s no longer ’hip’ to collect products of a certain type. The seeming need for collecting different versions vanished in favor of diversification, the unplugged equaling out-of-fashion — you name it. The wave of historical recordings topped off three years ago. Today we see the trend towards larger collections (20th Century Pianists, ’Complete Composer X series, etc.) and of course, sharply falling prices.

What’s more, the next trend is here, and chances are that it will top off in the middle of the next year, declining slowly till the end of 2001, coming to a stop in 2002. This not just a guess. I base the prediction on an analysis of the trend which turns consumers towards contemporary composed and experimental music. I see the phenomenon connecting to the advent of the third millennium and the (much too) optimistic anticipations of technical and economical factors. The Western world looks forward to the near future, sales the same, at least in letter if not in spirit. (By the way: the Pop parallel to contemporary composed music, considered as an aspect of marketability, especially the current DJ culture with electro and noise elements — these are booming, too, foreshadowing, as always, trends in so-called ’serious’ music.)

Many of the larger record companies support at least one line of contemporary music. Even those companies specializing in historical recordings have marketed discs of 20th century compositions, often in cooperation with radio stations whose image with regard to a preparation for the future needs heavy polishing. Just for starters, we’ve DGG’s ’Wien Modern’ and the ’2000/20001’ series, releases of still living composers by the bargain label Naxos (the Boulez piano sonatas having sold about 30000 copies), EMI releases of Stockhausen and others, Sony’s preference for birthday editions (Boulez, Ligeti) and, last but not least, Xenakis’s music for choir on Hyperion. [Christian is discussing CDs no few of which never make it into the USA, alas. Ed.]

There’s one feature all of these lines have in common: big names. Indeed, the labels I’ve mentioned concentrate almost exclusively on a small number of publicly recognized and (without, on the labels’ part, too much knowledge about them) accepted composers like Boulez and Stockhausen; in other words, contemporary classics. (Image is all; quality, nothing.…) To satisfy the need for diversification, some unknown composers, preferably from the Far East (mainly Japan, for it’s open tendency to become the most modern and the most inventive nation on earth – image is all…), are taken into one series or the other, e.g., the DGG line ’Music for the 21st Century.’

So you don’t really get NEW music when you these discs, but rather old wine in new bottles. In general, these are recordings which do not differ essentially from those of the 70’s, which appeared (not accidentally) at just about the time of the major economical depression due to the oil crisis: the famous Hoerzu Edition of contemporary music by, yes, Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti…. (Hoerzu is a German TV magazine owned by a reactionary publisher.) In fact, there is one major difference compared with the releases of 25 years ago: the same composers did much better in the Sixties than they do today. The Train of the Future definitely passed these guys by, and neither the public nor the large music companies seem to recognize the fact.

2. Global Players among Small Labels

At first glance, the situation might appear to adversely affect small labels concentrating on contemporary composed or improvised music, such as Mode Records in USA, hatArt in Switzerland, Accord in France, Edition RZ in Germany. If large companies issue discs of contemporary stuff, these will almost necessarily outweigh any comparable releases by smaller labels, considering the majors’ advertising and professional production backing. If consumers have already bought an armload of discs of contemporary music in response to signs of the times, they usually don’t want to take the effort to look for yet more ’exotic’ music in the same field.

But, as always, the situation is not all that grim for the minors. There is at least one real difference between the minors’ long-term releases and the majors’ short-term activity: the small labels usually know what they’re doing. [We couldn’t agree more. Ed.] Small labels take the inside view, driven as they are by a real passion for this kind of art, whereas the majors generally rely on the advise of professionals who rarely know anything about contemporary music — otherwise they wouldn’t have become the publicly well-reputed professionals they are! No kidding, I mean it. I’ve professionals in mind trained in the analysis of the Wiener Schule and Stravinsky and who stopped developing their analytical tools with Darmstadt 1954, early enough to let Cage enter the European stage but not their ivory tower’s construct of modern music; professionals who consider either Boulez or Stockhausen the greatest composer of our time — not of the Fifties, mind you, but of OUR time! — professionals who love to promote their knowledge and demands.

What does such advice produce, particularly with regard to students trained by students of Boulez and Stockhausen? You probably won’t ever hear the names of Iancu Dumitrescu, Jani Christou, Ricardo Mandolini, Gottfried Michael Koenig or Jose Luis de Delas, and seldom the names of Helmut Lachenmann, Matthias Spahlinger or of the Nouva Consonanza group. Not because these attach to the very young, etc., but because their music just doesn’t fit into concepts developed along the lines of classical instruction, as a category in which, for example, Boulez’s music fits quite well. The German music theoretician Heinz-Klaus Metzger once noted the strength and tight construction in Boulez’s Pieces for String Quartet when compared with Beethoven’s late string quartets and concluded that they seem to be great compositions in a reactionary spirit but rather lousy when judged by contemporary standards.

So we finally come to the distinctions of small labels like Edition RZ. These can be summarized as a striving toward new concepts of music, concepts which are more adequate to the contemporary situation in the arts and in society than those of the academies. A good small label is continually in search of hidden treasures, by which I don’t intend to suggest only releases of the music of sub-celebrity composers. Sometimes it’s the particular collection which makes the difference, or the attention paid different versions of one composition, or maybe just a remarkable recording, such as Scherchen’s rehearsal of Beethoven’s sixth symphony.

More about this in the next issue.

[Christian’s complaint about major label concentration on celebrity names is well made and certainly well taken. And yet I wonder whether matters really need to be otherwise. Why do battle with Boulez and Stockhausen, for example, both of whom are, in my opinion, major figures in 20th-century music? Still. Fact is, I rather regret DG’s having allowed several important Stockhausen items to fall from catalog grace. As Christian is in the midst of demonstrating, small labels do the better job of bringing before the public the work of lesser-knowns and unknowns. I think our critical energies are put to better use in calling attention to the predominance of simplistic (read: listener friendly) new music on disc, particularly on the “classical” side of events. Say what you will about Boulez and Stockhausen, neither can be accused of glitzy superficiality, a quality that saturates the scene. In a word, kitsch. Perhaps even camp. A touch more Torke, anyone?

It’s interesting in light of Christian’s incisive remarks concerning the record business in general to note EMI’s sponsorship of a composer I admire but whom I suspect Christian does not: The Englishman Thomas Adès. Given the venerable British label’s track record, one would not have predicted this relationship. What most amazes me is the continuity. EMI in the past has taken a rather slapdash and ill-considered attitude toward its responsibilities to new music. The question, or course, remains: how long will EMI keep these splendid Adès releases in print? Christian’s point about shelf-life is not to be ignored. Anyway, this is stimulating stuff, and I look forward to more from my young German friend. Mike Silverton.]