Author Archives: Will Robin

Music critic, musicology graduate student, and occasional saxophonist; @seatedovation

A Long Time Coming

Nonkeen

“We always met and played together without knowing exactly the purpose of what we would like to make out of it… It was just for the sake of playing together.”—Frederic Gmeiner

Two boys meet in elementary school, and discover a mutual love for tinkering with electronics. They play with old hi-fi equipment and tape recorders designed for children, and end up creating a radio program that documents the sounds and activities of their schoolmates. A third boy joins the pair, visiting from a city that—though only a three-hour drive away—represents an entirely different world. The trio remains close through their teenage years, transitioning from the recorded medium to playing together in a band. They reunite as adults and, despite the fact that they have found different career paths—with one of them skyrocketing to fame as a composer and producer—they continue making music. They meet regularly for jam sessions in humble rehearsal spaces, and occasionally leave a tape recorder running. Evoking that childhood fascination with technology, they occasionally upload the results to a computer and continue messing with it, overdubbing, processing. Perhaps unexpectedly, after years of playing together and remaining close friends, an album has emerged.

This is the story of Nonkeen, whose debut full-length, The Gambler, is out today on R&S. Nonkeen comprises Frederic Gmeiner, Sebastian Singwald, and Nils Frahm—the best-known member of the trio, a well-regarded composer and producer. They grew up in Cold War-era Germany of the 1980s: Gmeiner and Frahm were colleagues in a suburb of Hamburg in the West, and Singwald visited them on an exchange program from East Berlin in 1989. Even as Frahm’s musical career took off later in life, the old band kept meeting and playing. And now, after twenty-seven years of friendship and performing together outside the limelight, their side project is taking center stage.

Nonkeen

“This is also quite interesting, now, for us—what’s going to happen,” said Gmeiner in a recent Skype interview. Gmeiner and Singwald spoke to me from Berlin, where Nonkeen will perform at the arts space Radialsystem in April for two shows, which are already sold out. “We’ve stepped out from the hobby basement into the public, which is also really great and nice,” Gmeiner added, but noted that originally there was “not really a plan for what we were doing.” There might be something jarring about having a long-standing band with friends that, when it finally moves from the basement to the concert hall, already has massive platform due to the popularity of one of its members. But Gmeiner wasn’t terribly worried. “Until now it didn’t change so much,” he said with a laugh. “The only thing that changed is that we now have to talk about it.”

Neither Singwald nor Gmeiner could recall exactly what kind of music they made in those early, primary school years—“Nobody knows anymore so clearly, what we were interested in and working on at the age of seven,” Singwald told me—but their collaborations felt right. Once the Berlin Wall fell, the trio began meeting more regularly and formed a band as teenagers, which performed during the summers at a fairground owned by Singwald’s uncle. After a catastrophic incident—a nearby carousel malfunctioned and two of its passengers flew onto the stage, crashing into the band’s instruments—the group splintered. But they reconvened in Berlin in their twenties, and began making music once more.

Nonkeen

“We always had a rehearsal room together from that time on,” Gmeiner said. “Rehearsal spaces changed all the time, quite often—because sometimes we had to move out in the notice of a month. It was often very improvised stuff.” With Singwald on bass, Frahm on Rhodes and piano, and Gmeiner on drums, the band resembled, as Gmeiner called it, “a quite typical jazz trio.” They were informed by the 1970s fusion and prog of groups like Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and Soft Machine, evident on the spaced-out bliss of Gambler tracks such as “re: turn!” “We always met and played together without knowing exactly the purpose of what we would like to make out of it,” Gmeiner recalled. “It was just for the sake of playing together.”

Sometimes, Frahm would turn on a tape recorder—the shabbiness of the spaces where they assembled meant they weren’t willing to shell out for more expensive gear—and capture the sonic environment. Much later, the trio would go back and listen to the music in Frahm’s studio, picking favorite passages, saving them to a computer, and adding effects. They would often hear things that sounded entirely unfamiliar, either because they forgot about their improvisations or because they made mistakes with the recording equipment and accidentally shifted the pitch of the machine. “It was more like discovering or digging in an archive, with some distance also over the years, which made it very intuitive,” Gmeiner said. That spontaneity is audible in the beautifully meditative rumbles of the track “capstan,” which forms a prelude to the minimalist, looping groove of “chasing god through palmyra.” Only about one percent of the tapes they made actually ended up in the studio to be edited. Treating them like field recordings, rather than as drafts for an album, led to a more collaborative approach. “No one could really claim that someone wrote a song, or someone would throw in an idea and say ‘Hey, that sounds already quite nice but let’s try to have it more like that,’” Gmeiner added. “Because we couldn’t redo it: we had to work with the stuff that was on tape.” But the music gradually jelled into a record: The Gambler.

Singwald compared rehearsals to a kind of glue that held the friendship together; what kept them returning to these informal spaces was less the promise of a developed album, and more the desire to immerse themselves in each others’ creativity. And, perhaps, nostalgia for those early years of tinkering in the final days of a divided Germany. “We are well aware, also, that it’s for us most important to keep that up somehow—this freedom—and not to plan too many things,” Gmeiner said. “Because for us, it’s a lot about energy when making music together. This intensiveness, and being in the moment. It shouldn’t sound too spiritual, but it’s more this way of making music where you don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, but you carefully have to listen to each other and basically be in the moment, and keep the thing going.”

Striking Out on His Own

Gabriel Kahane

“Having had that corporate experience, I just really wanted to go as far in the other direction as possible.”—Gabriel Kahane

Gabriel Kahane’s first album wasn’t released in 2008. Well, it was, but not really. “I was so young and naïve,” Kahane recalled recently over tea on a frigid day earlier this month. The tiny record label that the composer and singer-songwriter had signed with had set a street date for September 15, but inexplicably didn’t print any actual albums for five months. “For all intents and purposes, that record didn’t come out at all,” he recalled.

This time around, Kahane is taking matters into his own hands. On February 5 he will release The Fiction Issue, his fifth full-length album, for purchase on Bandcamp. When we met at a coffee shop in his Brooklyn neighborhood of Ditmas Park, he had just wrapped up a phone call with a fellow singer-songwriter, whom he had advised to avoid working with labels if possible. Kahane has learned a number of lessons about the industry since that first traumatic experience eight years ago, and is attempting to apply them all to this next phase in his career.

Gabriel Kahane

Though self-releasing is increasingly the norm these days, it’s a striking move for The Fiction Issue. For one thing, Kahane is backed here by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider who, despite their hip reputation and youthful vigor, are well-established denizens of the highly institutionalized classical music ecosystem, spending much of their time playing in the company of Yo-Yo Ma. And trekking out on his own is even more unusual for Kahane right now, given this record was, in fact, originally to be distributed by Sony Masterworks.

That recent transition, from Sony to self-release, is a complex tale of politics and artistry in an age in which the major labels continue to undergo convulsive change. But before delving in, first a bit about the music that Kahane is issuing next week. For the past decade, he has worked comfortably in the rock and classical spheres, alternating between performing in the grandeur of Carnegie Hall and the intimacy of Rockwood Music Hall. He’s written three-minute songs about breakups and fifty-minute orchestral works about the Great Depression. And he’s grouched about journalists who focus too much on genre-hopping and not enough on craft. A few years back, he worked with Brooklyn Rider and singer-songwriter Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) for a project at Carnegie, which became The Fiction Issue: a half-hour miniature drama, sung by Kahane and Worden and played by the string quartet. “Pop songs are spiritually related to short stories, as far as narrative economy is concerned,” he told me. This work is more like a two-character play (or, as the title alludes, a compilation of stories in the manner of The New Yorker’s annual magazine edition).

“If the main path of my creative life is as a songwriter, I feel like this is a slightly divergent, but not unrelated, body of work that expresses, in greater detail, certain aspects of what I do,” Kahane said of the new release. Come On All You Ghosts, the other vocal work on the record, sets three poems written by Matthew Zapruder that alternate affectingly between the transcendent and the ordinary. To fill out the full-length, Kahane composed Bradbury Studies, a craggily lyrical quartet that expands, in the manner of a nineteenth-century fantasia, on one of the best songs of his previous album, The Ambassador.

Gabriel Kahane

The Ambassador is at the center of the Sony Masterworks drama, and the past several years of Kahane’s musical life. When we met, he expressed deep gratitude to Sony for signing him and taking on a far-fetched pitch: a concept album focused on the city of Los Angeles, with each song telling the story of a specific building. “The fact that I was given the insane amount of money that I was given—in 2013, with no history of record sales—to make a carte blanche album, where the label didn’t hear it before going to mastering, is extraordinary,” he told me. But if the initial creative investment was strong, everything that came afterward was mired in difficulty. Fractures between art and commerce emerged, and Kahane found himself drowning in bureaucratic legalese as he tried to complete the record. “This is happening at a lot of big labels, where the business affairs people have a kind of stranglehold on the A&R people,” he said.

With its author’s strong profile in the orchestral world and his friends in indie rock—Sufjan Stevens played on Kahane’s first album—The Ambassador had the potential to land strongly in the classical and rock press. But Sony wasn’t able to garner the attention of major critics or market the album persuasively; it slipped by entirely unnoticed by Pitchfork. Sales were low but steady, mostly from word-of-mouth rather than the robust advertising campaign that one would expect from a major label. “The thing that was particularly frustrating was that they didn’t ultimately have the courage of their convictions when it came to sticking behind the record, even though it was slow out of the gate,” Kahane said. At the heart of the album is Empire Liquor Mart, a haunting account of the life and death of Latasha Harlins, an African-American girl shot in the days leading up to the Los Angeles riots. In a year of Black Lives Matter, it felt like the song could have landed as a significant part of the cultural conversation, but it was instead mostly overlooked.

And though there were a number of subsequent opportunities for album sales to reignite—The Ambassador was transformed into a live theatrical show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and received a strongly positive front-page review from the New York Times—Sony had already lost interest. “With something that was somewhat commercially viable, The Ambassador, their lack of commitment to that made it all the more clear that if I put out the Brooklyn Rider album with them, it would just be dead in the water,” Kahane said. He asked to be released from his contract and bought back the full rights to The Fiction Issue, and struck out on his own. “Having had that corporate experience, I just really wanted to go as far in the other direction as possible,” he explained.

Kahane isn’t bitter, and is appreciative of the risks that institutions have taken on his behalf. But he also has a much clearer sense of what can and cannot be achieved by the industry. “If I were talking to a young artist, I would say, in as much as it doesn’t make you tear your hair out from dealing with lots of logistical nonsense, do as much by yourself as you can,” he said. “Because it’s also really valuable to learn: learning how to book a tour, how to self-release an album, how to write a press release, so on and so forth. In the same way that if you work in any industry, and you work your way up from being the coffee boy to being the CEO, it will have been valuable that you did all of those tasks along the way. It’s humbling and grounding to walk to the post office and put twenty vinyl records in the mail.”

Brooklyn Rider by Sarah SmallBrooklyn Rider, photo by Sarah Small

For The Fiction Issue, Kahane is eager to navigate the experience unfettered by bureaucracy; he will briefly tour the album with Brooklyn Rider over the next week, aided somewhat by the institutional clout of a major string quartet. But his fan base is small enough that anyone who buys a physical copy of the album will receive a handwritten thank-you note. “I’m as grateful as the amount of time it takes me to write that note, that people are still willing to pay for music,” he said, “and perpetuate an industry that needs to exist, in some form, in order for us to persevere.”

A Joyful, Percussive Noise

So Percussion by Janette Beckmanphoto by Janette Beckman

“Any sound is acceptable to the composer of percussion music.” — John Cage

Sometime in the 1930s, John Cage had an intriguing conversation with experimental animator Oskar Fischinger. “He spoke to me about what he called the spirit inherent in materials and he claimed that a sound made from wood had a different spirit than one made from glass,” the composer later recalled. Inspired, Cage decided to test the theory. He gathered a few friends and tried drumming on tables and chairs, pots and pans. Not quite satisfied, they visited a junkyard and collected brake drums, pipes, steel rings, and blocks of wood. These excursions roughly solidified the instrumentation for Cage’s 1935 Quartet, a subtle etude in rhythm.

They also birthed the percussion quartet as an ensemble, now a mainstay of the new-music world. Perhaps the most spirited representative of this configuration is Sō Percussion. Cage wasn’t the originator of the percussion ensemble—credit is owed to maverick forefather Edgard Varèse, whose Ionisation brought bass drums, bongos, anvils, sirens, and a whip together onto the concert hall stage in 1931—but Cage is the spiritual mentor of the modern percussion setup, and one whose vision oversees Sō’s relentlessly expansive musicality. The group’s latest enterprise is Drumkit Quartets, an album of works by Glenn Kotche (better known for his presence as the drummer in Wilco), out February 26 on Cantaloupe.

So Percussion by Jeff Raglandphoto by Jeff Ragland

One might easily assume that, given their hirsute visages and hip repertoire, Sō is a newcomer to the scene. But it is, at this point, a veteran of the new-music world: the ensemble assembled back at Yale in 1999, where the original four members were students, and dedicated itself to the small but vital body of percussion works from luminaries such as Cage, Steve Reich, and Iannis Xenakis. Its crystalline 2005 recording of Reich’s Drumming, a breakthrough composition in the history of minimalism, placed the ensemble at the forefront of a new generation of virtuosos.

Since 2004, Sō has released eighteen albums, toured nationally and internationally, played gigs everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Big Ears Festival, worked with everyone from Buke & Gase to Gustavo Dudamel, taught at Bard and Princeton, and even founded its own summer institute. Its membership has shifted, though its technique remains intact. Only one of the founding members, Jason Treuting, remains with the group (he is also a composer, and has written his own mind-bending music for Sō). The ensemble has maintained a strong relationship to Cantaloupe Records, the house label of composer-collective Bang on a Can: Sō’s first major commission came courtesy of Bang co-founder David Lang, whose the so-called laws of nature forms the backbone of Sō’s first record. The work attempts to seek meaning from simple and abstract processes; in the final movement, flowerpots and teacups mete out delicate, refined, and somehow intensely poignant rhythmic patterns. 

Sō takes a broad approach to what the percussion medium might offer. Its records are just as often souped-up and amplified as they are daintily acoustic; its collaborators hail as often from the indie world as from the halls of the Ivy League composition department. Perhaps the ensemble’s most notable ongoing relationship is with Baltimore electropop duo Matmos. Matmos unlocks even more timbres for the endless sonic palette of the percussion quartet; on “Needles,” from the 2010 record Treasure State, the strumming of a cactus forms the backdrop for thumping, polyrhythmic electronica.

Still, perhaps the most captivating Sō music is written by the distinguished, university-grade quasi-mavericks with whom they have worked, including Martin Bresnick, Steve Mackey, and Paul Lansky. These albums harness the experimental ethos of the quartet, but also reach compellingly toward classicism; Lansky calls his 2005 Threads a cantata, riffing on the sacred vocal works of Bach. Its final movement, a chorale prelude, offers a carefully crafted shimmer that sounds equally Balinese and Baroque.

And then there’s neither ANVIL nor PULLEY, the trippy, computerized odyssey of another Princetonite, composer Dan Trueman. In the joyful noise of “Feedback,” a gigantic bass drum is transformed into a resonant body, becoming a molasses-like drone that is occasionally battered by percussive blasts. It eventually recedes into the backdrop of a tight, layered groove.

Despite his Wilco claim to fame, the work of Kotche is not all that far from these strange sonic universes. Well before hooking into the indie scene, he studied percussion at the University of Kentucky and played experimental improvisation in Chicago. Having already worked with the Kronos Quartet, Silk Road Ensemble, and Bang on a Can All-Stars, Kotche has also become a Cantaloupe mainstay: in 2014, he released companion albums Adventureland and Fantasy Land, comprising compositions for several ensembles, and recorded Pulitzer Prize winner John Luther Adams’ massive Ilimaq last fall. The Drumkit Quartets mark the next phase in Kotche’s development, as he moves from writing for other instrumental groups but playing drums himself, to writing for other drummers. The album is both deeply strange and deeply rock-inflected, drawing on a range of influences from futurism to haiku.

Browsing Sō’s Bandcamp page, you might not necessarily realize that they are, in real life, four guys who primarily play live concerts that feature a slew of mostly acoustic instruments (albeit unusual ones). You could mistake them for weirdo club DJs, making beats that are a little too tricky to dance to but catchy nonetheless. The music, at times, suggests a coolness possibly at odds with Cage’s absorption of Fischinger’s spiritual vision; a more subtly experimental path is offered by Wandelweiser composer Michael Pisaro in his work with percussionist Greg Stuart. Despite the ensemble’s expansive purview, there is room to grow—for instance, there are few female composers in Sō’s recorded output, although they are currently working with My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden.

So Percussion by Janette Beckmanphoto by Janette Beckman

But there is surely no better use of the many objects found in the aisles of Home Depot than Sō’s repertoire. “Any sound is acceptable to the composer of percussion music,” Cage wrote in his 1937 manifesto, “The Future of Music: Credo.” It is a charge that the quartet has celebrated in earnest.

Tagging the Metropolis

What does it mean to listen to a city? Will Robin dives into a random sampling of recent releases from Baltimore at the end of a year of unrest.

Beach House by Shawn Brackbillphoto by Shawn Brackbill

Baltimore’s Beach House had an impressive 2015, releasing two acclaimed albums on Subpop in the span of only two months. Tranquil, tightly constructed, and full of intriguing contradictions, the August album Depression Cherry featured the mournful, distorted instrumentals of “Beyond Love,” over which Victoria Legrand cooly intones an ecstatic paean to violent lust: ‘I’m gonna tear off all the petals of the rose that’s in your mouth:

And “Elegy to the Void,” from October’s Thank Your Lucky Stars, somehow sounds simultaneously like a fist-pumping anthem and a distant daydream:

In honor of my upcoming visit to Baltimore for a few days in January for what looks to be a vibrant New Music Gathering, I decided to explore the sonic landscape of the city, via the Internet, to see what musical riches beyond the household name of Beach House the city has to offer. The discover feature on the Bandcamp homepage (and in the app) allows fans to filter by city, and also genre, format, and by window of time. Search by “all” and you discover that places are messy, porous entities full of a multitude of musics that sometimes overlap, and sometimes don’t. Among recent releases from Baltimore, you can get just about every kind of sound. There’s Jason Crumer’s eerie process music, off the intriguing experimental label No Rent Records:

The somber, subtle lo-fi of slugqueen:

The fascinating sounds of Nina Pop, a new electronic label run by deeply eclectic producer Schwarz (check out Vice’s take):

And then, released just a few days ago, the radical collages of The Soft Pink Truth, an album of web-based compositions from Drew Daniel, one half of the ever-captivating Matmos:

To hear all of these sounds is to belie any notion of a unified metropolitan soundscape. As a former denizen of North Carolina’s so-called “Triangle”—comprised of Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh, and the surrounding area—and attendee of a slice of its richly diverse music scenes, I’m very familiar with the perils of outsiders poking through local artistic wares. (It’s easy enough to distinguish; look for the music critic using the phrase “Raleigh-Durham.”) And as a recent transplant to Brooklyn, I’m already pretty cognizant of what it means to have the name of your home become an international brand for culture, not to mention commerce. So I’d rather not speculate as to what Baltimore might sound like.

I did, though, look to the coverage of Baltimore’s vital alt-weekly, City Paper, to help guide my ears a bit. In June, reporter Baynard Woods wrote about his year of listening to only local music, an idealistic experiment that he found both deeply tiring and deeply rewarding. He mentioned Natural Velvet, a searing act that I’ve found captivating as of late:

Natural Velvet

And City Paper also drew my ears to the lyrical, uncooked country of Zane Campbell, whose fascinating story they wonderfully told last year:

Zane Campbell

Indie artists from Baltimore who reach national acclaim often emphasize a pride of place in what the city offers, a different ethos from cutthroat New York; as Beach House’s Victoria Legrand told Pitchfork, “You don’t have to compare yourself with other people in Baltimore. That’s worth a lot more than ambition.” Animal Collective, perhaps the city’s most famous band, debuted its forthcoming album as a broadcast at Baltimore-Washington International Airport just a couple of weeks ago. But as local musician Jana Hunter crucially pointed out earlier this year in a Pitchfork editorial, the very things that have allowed an indie scene to thrive—cheap rent, a sense of community—are predicated on the ongoing structural inequalities that have continued to displace Baltimore’s majority-black population. “Our liberties come at the cost of theirs,” she writes of the gentrification of the city. Hunter interviews producer and rapper Abdu Ali, who cogently describes the ramifications of these issues; he also spoke to City Paper about moving back to Baltimore earlier this year.

Abdu Ali by Lee Andrew
photo by Lee Andrew

The artistic disconnect between Baltimore’s indie scene, which has received significant national attention, and the city’s musicians of color speaks to larger societal disparities—ones that propelled Baltimore to become synonymous with the name Freddie Gray this year. All of the top headlines on the City Paper website are related to Gray, as the trial of the police officer who killed him is underway; there is an entire “Freddie Gray” vertical on the Baltimore Sun’s homepage, alongside “Breaking”, “Sports,” and “Maryland” news. During and following the spring uprising, in which the mainstream media fixated more often on broken windows than broken bodies, Baltimore artists released music of solidarity. A track from Damond Blue’s album BLESSONZ opens with a British newscaster describing how “the life of so many African-American men continues to be a fight for survival,” and is followed by a plaintive lament—“Oh, Baltimore/Ain’t it hard”—that launches into lucid rap:

Damond Blue

The hard-core act Old Lines issued “Midnight in Baltimore,” a screed that also raised money for the legal defense of protesters arrested in the spring:

And the day that Freddie Gray died, local composer Judah Adashi was in Washington, D.C. for the premiere of his choral work Rise, which tells the story of civil rights from the 1960s to the present day. He released a recording of one of its movements, the haunting “Invocation,” in honor of Gray. It represents an elegy for the struggles of the past, and how they remain less historical than tragically contemporary:

In August, City Paper put together a colloquy of thoughts from local musicians about inequality; it is a fascinating and depressing read, but a vital one for disabusing us of the notion that the politics of music can be disentangled from the politics of race, class, gender, and the city. As I listened to the music of many Baltimore artists, I was struck by producer Matic808’s description of a concert he attended, in which the racial divisions between music audiences were palpable: “We separate ourselves a lot even in situations where we can intermingle and better learn about each other. Be it enjoying each other’s music at a show, or eating with each other at lunch, or sitting together on the bus. We don’t know each other and really don’t care to want to know. I feel once people realize how alike we are, connect, and accept, a lot of bullshit would cease to exist. Unfortunately I think it’s so simple, it’s rocket science: Bottom line is we’re comfortable. Get uncomfortable.”

Creating a Wide Platform

Andrew McIntosh, Populist Records

“I think what we’re shooting for is that things have a strong individual voice, but not necessarily that they fit a particular style” — Andrew McIntosh

Last month I arrived about half an hour early to Roulette, an experimental music venue in Brooklyn, for the New York debut of the Los Angeles-based music collective wild Up. Standing outside the venue was the ensemble’s indefatigable conductor, Christopher Rountree, along with a few of their performers. They were burning sage. A representative from Roulette stepped out and told them to quit it—they didn’t want to give any potential audience members an asthma attack. It was a quintessential, almost-too-clichéd moment where West Coast hippy-dippy clashes with East Coast neuroses. The concert included everything from a delicate piano concerto by composer Andrew McIntosh, to a monstrously noisy work by Nicholas Deyoe in which a bassoonist employs a power drill, to a deft arrangement of a song by the Misfits in which musician Maggie Hasspacher played bass while coolly intoning “I ain’t no goddamned son of a bitch,” a refrain then taken up by the entire orchestra as a warm chorale. Toward the end of the concert, Rountree told the audience about the attempted sage ritual that most of them missed, admitting “We got really admonished for that.” The next day, the New York Times reviewer declared, “On behalf of my fellow New Yorkers, I hope this was the ensemble’s first visit of many.”

wild Up, Populist Records

For those who haven’t had the chance to properly take in the cleansing rituals of wild Up or its colleagues in Los Angeles, the sounds of this loose and creative scene of musicians have been captured by the small label Populist Records. Today, Populist releases the latest emission from its cadre of SoCal composers and performers: Conditional Tension, featuring violinist Andrew Tholl, drummer Corey Fogel, and bassist Devin Hoff. It marks a step forward for the label—this is Populist’s first album of entirely improvised music. It’s also an emblematic example of the label’s wide-ranging artistry—the three improvisers are all members of indie songwriter Julia Holter’s band on her latest album.

With two extended tracks, Conditional Tension captures a thicket of tense free improvisation, murmuring and relentless. There is a sense of searching to the music, a sonic questing that brings together many of the artists on Populist. Each of the label’s albums feels like a complete musical experience, but also an attempt to grasp something beyond the confines of the recorded environment. 

Andrew Tholl
Andrew Tholl

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with Andrew McIntosh—who, with Andrew Tholl, co-manages Populist—in Los Angeles’ Arts District. We sat at a picnic table in the parking lot of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, where McIntosh had been preparing for his role in the premiere of the opera Hopscotch, a mind-bogglingly complex production that takes place in cars driving around the city. “It seemed like there was a need for that kind of a platform in L.A.,” McIntosh told me about the origins of Populist. “A lot of the labels in the United States for new music are based in New York, and a lot of infrastructure for recording new music is in New York. It seemed like there was a lot of great stuff going on in L.A., and it didn’t really have a platform.” Since 2012, Populist has issued ten albums of radical music of impressive breadth, and it recently began releasing in vinyl. Listeners can wallow in the quizzical spaciousness of bassist and composer Scott Worthington:

Scott Worthington
Scott Worthington

Or, listeners can be jolted by the taut and in-your-face trombone of Matt Barbier. On a new 10” record, he plays two short works by Nicholas Deyoe and Clint McCallum titled— respectively and appropriately—“Face Splitter” and “Bowel Resection”:

I asked McIntosh about the artistic identity of Populist, and the composer wasn’t quite sure. “It’s a little bit all over the map, it’s still growing and forming,” he noted. The one clearly unifying factor is that the musicians have strong roots in southern California. “Some of the work could fall into kind of an experimental camp, some of it maybe couldn’t. And, yeah: again, it’s still growing,” he added.

What seems to unite the disparate voices on the label is a willingness to engage single-mindedly with music in a multitude of practices: from performing intensely intricate notated music and embracing free improvisation, to investigating performance art and reconceiving classic punk songs. “I think what we’re shooting for is that things have a strong individual voice, but not necessarily that they fit a particular style,” McIntosh said. Though wild Up represents the largest-scale undertaking on Populist’s roster, there are also a number of other quirky ensembles, such as gnarwallaby, which performs new music alongside forgotten classics of the 20th century avant-garde.

gnarwhallaby
gnarwhallaby

And lately I’ve also been captivated by the album “Five Conversations About Two Things,” in which the Inoo/Kallay Duo tear through works for piano and percussion that are at once spaced-out and clashingly dissonant:

Along with a New York debut, another sign of welcome growth among these affiliated California musicians is wild Up’s most recent album, released not on Populist but on the Icelandic label Bedroom Community. The ensemble crowd-funded a visit to Reykjavík to record with producer Valgeir Sigurðsson; aided by the voices of the women’s choir Graduale Nobili—better known for its work on Björk’s Biophilia—wild Up performs the alluring and ethereal music of its percussionist and vocalist Jodie Landau.

“I don’t have a particular agenda about the label. It seems like something that’s worthwhile to do,” McIntosh said. “We keep doing it, even though it’s a lot of work—and doesn’t make any money.” What’s next for Populist? Back in 2010, artist Chris Kallmyer created an installation in the desert near Death Valley in which he salvaged a couple hundred bottles from mining dumps and hung them on a wire fence; McIntosh and Kallmyer then recorded the sound of the bottles shimmering the wind. Kallmyer asked Julia Holter and the experimental group Lucky Dragons to respond to the field recording, and the intriguing result will be out early next year.