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Rock Slide

Are independent pop-music labels going classical?

By Marc Weidenbaum

Philip Glass’ most recent recording is not listed in the Schwann Opus catalog, the bible of classical new releases. The composition is called “Icct Hedral” and he cowrote it with Richard D. James, a young English synthesizer whiz who records under several pseudonyms, most prominently as Aphex Twin.

The pulsing, atmospheric “Icct Hedral” exemplifies what is called, in pop parlance, ambient techno music. It originally appeared on Aphex Twin’s album … I Care Because You Do (Warp/Sire/Elektra) as executed by James’ battery of electronics atop a patented Glass string setting. Glass’ full orchestration of the collaboration surfaced late this past summer on a U.K. import titled Donkey Rhubarb (Warp). His pulsing, atmospheric arrangement exemplifies what is called, in classical parlance, minimalism.

“Icct Hedral” is not Glass and James’ first association. Last year, Aphex Twin produced for Glass’ Point Music label a remix of The Sinking of the Titanic, composed by his fellow English electronics maven Gavin Bryars. Bryars, of course, is one of the primary influences on the music of Brian Eno, whose Obscure label first released Titanic in the ’70s and whose work from that time with pop singer David Bowie bore classical fruit recently as Glass’ Low Symphony.

The circle, as they say, is unbroken, even if Opus proves somewhat spotty in its coverage of the promiscuous music-making. The Summer ’95 Opus lists Glass’ Low, but neglects his work with Aphex Twin. Now, it is neither Opus‘ duty nor its editorial practice to map the full range of classical creativity. Most of the catalog is culled from record company-supplied submissions, not from the magazine’s data sleuthing. Which ultimately means that Glass is responsible for what among his work he chooses to categorize as classical. “Icct Hedral” did not make the cut.

But as we emerge from civic-minded Classical Music Month, the gaps in Opus do draw attention to the wide variety of music played out in the public arena, an arena too dynamic these days for active classical listeners to depend entirely on traditional sources of classical news. For every Philip Glass side project that threatens to give crossover a good name, there are a dozen exciting CDs released well under the radar.

Two records released this past summer serve to focus discussion on the involvement of rock labels — particularly independently distributed rock labels — in the musical activity. The records are Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, a new score to the 1927 F.W. Murnau film by 32-year-old composer Timothy Brock, and Rachel’s Handwriting, a disc of original compositions by a loose-knit collective that goes by the awkward moniker Rachel’s.

The Murnau score appeared on K Records, which is based in Olympia, Wash., and is best known, aside for one previous Brock score (Murnau’s Sunrise), for an idiosyncratic brand of self-produced, low-budget pop, including that of the label’s founder, Calvin Johnson. Brock has known Johnson since he was 18. Johnson’s current band is called the Dub Narcotic Sound System. Brock leads the Olympia Chamber Orchestra, which he conducts on the K releases. Johnson has explained the Brock anomalies in K’s catalog by saying the OCO is simply one facet of Olympia’s music scene which K chronicles.

Brock, who has a severe reading disability, is self-taught and holds no university degree. He began composing at age 13, and at age 19 was composer-in-residence of the University Chamber Orchestra at the University of Washington. Today he is composer-in-residence for the L.A.-based Film Preservation Archives, the source of his score commissions. (This fall, Opus will begin to list film scores, which already run in Spectrum, its non-classical sibling publication.) K will release Brock’s new Faust this month, and 20th Century Fox’s forthcoming Sunrise laserdisc will feature his music.

Rachel’s Handwriting appeared on Quarterstick Records, a Chicago-based record label whose catalog is exemplified by such bands as Mule and the Mekons — inventive acts, but ones working purely within the pop/rock idiom. Like Brock’s chamber score, Handwriting fits comfortably within a common definition of classical music (certainly more easily than much of Philip Glass’ extracurricular activities). Brock’s work is rich with romantic melodic swaths, punctuated by expressionistic angles; the sympathetic playing is a tribute to Brock’s close working relationship with his fellow Olympia residents in the OCO. The Rachel’s record is a small chamber effort, sad-toned in the manner of Kurt Weill, Astor Piazzolla and the string writing of John Lurie. It is built around a trio comprised of the group’s composers — Christian Frederickson (viola), Rachel Grimes (piano) and Jason B. Noble (bass) — plus guests ranging from vibraphone to clarinet.

Frederickson and Grimes are academically trained (she received her BA in composition in Louisville; he is currently at Juilliard). Whereas none of Brock’s OCO members participate in the Olympia rock scene, many of the additional players on Handwriting are members of “alternative” rock acts.

A graduate of several rock bands, Noble is the secret ingredient of Rachel’s (he plays electric guitar and manipulates tapes on two of the record’s tracks). And his ambiguous role in its music — musical omnivore, self-consciously untrained — is an emblem for the position of rock labels as an emerging influence in the classical field.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in Classical Pulse! magazine, October 1995.

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