Distinctive Sonic Qualities- 10 Years Of Another Timbre [2017-08-19]Sheffield based improvised and contemporary music label Another Timbre is now in its tenth year. And over this time itís slowly, fairly quietly, yet consistently released a slew of quality bound sonically experimental fare- going from creative & sub-bass lined improv, though to fragile & angular piano compositions, onto changeling-yet- creative chamber works, and beyond. Itís fair to say itís now one of the most respected labels in both improvised and contemporary fields- and with each new batch of releases from the label, itís building on its impressive sonic legacy. I tracked down Simon Reynell the label's owner & curator for an email discussion- discussing the labels ten-year existence, present releases & its future.
M[m]: Another Timbre is now in its tenth year - how did the label first come about, and whatís the relevance of the name & how did you select it?
Simon I started the label at a point when two things were happening in my life: (1) my children had started to leave home, so my headspace cleared enough for me to able to take on a new project, and (2) my job was getting me down. I was a sound recordist on TV documentaries, but I felt the quality of work was declining or being dumbed down Ė practically every documentary had to be a show, with a competition element or fronted by a celebrity etc. I used to get cross about this and grumbled all the time until my partner told me I had to do something new. Iíve always been a fan of experimental music and spend a good deal of my spare time listening to it, but Iím not a musician, so there was obviously no chance of making a living from music. I decided that Iíd carry on doing TV work, but to do much less than before, and spend the rest of my time running a CD label. Iím not rich, so the label has to break even, but I donít take any money from it in wages, so breaking even isnít impossible, even given the small size of the audience for experimental music. As TV work is still well-paid and Iím old enough to have paid off my mortgage, I only have to work a few days a month to pay the bills and can then focus on the music.
Simon I chose the name because at the time I set up the label (10 years ago) timbre was the aspect of music which interested me most; I was most excited by music that was seeking out new sounds, textures, and colors.
M[m]: You mention that youíre not a musician, but have you ever attempted to create your own sounds/compositions?
Simon Yes, at various times I have attempted this, but I donít feel I ever produced anything really interesting or original. When I was primarily interested in sound textures and timbres, it felt like a possibility, but now that Iíve become more interested in pitch and harmony, itís a non-starter as I just donít have the skills necessary to produce the kind of music I now like best.
M[m]:You worked for many years as a sound recordist TV documentaries - are there any docs you were involved in that you are particularly proud of?
Simon In the old days when the BBC, in particular, made a lot of good documentaries, I worked on a number of programs which I felt were good and enjoyed watching, but now I donít even own a TV and so never watch the things I work on, or anything else. Iím pretty jaundiced about TV and think that on balance the world would probably be a better place if nobody watched television. If I scraped around the bottom of my memory I could think of a few good programs I worked on, but Iíd really rather not have to think about it. Iím lucky in that I enjoyed the first decade or so working on documentaries, and I earned a decent amount of money for about 20 years, but in retrospect, it was really good for me that things in TV went downhill because Iíve found being involved with music far more fulfilling than television ever was.
M[m]: Still on the subject of you been a sound recordist - have you ever made any field recordings, sound art, or similar? And is this a genre you are interested in & listen to?
Simon In its pure form field recording isnít a genre that has ever interested me very much, so Iíve never really got into listening to field recording CDs, and I never tried making them myself. Where field recordings can become interesting to me is when they are worked on and combined with other things, becoming one layer in a musical composition. Michael Pisaro is particularly good at this, I think, and I love some of his pieces where field recordings are combined with other Ė often very simple Ė elements. His first ĎFields Have Earsí piece, for instance, or his ĎTransparent Citiesí project, where pure field recordings are combined with occasional sine tones. Itís a very minimal addition, but for me, the tones lift it for into being something much more interesting and satisfying than field recordings on their own tend to be. But thatís subjective, of course Ė as always!
M[m]: Over the labels ten-year existence how do you feel your output & focus has changed?
Simon Over the past five years, my primary focus as a listener has shifted a little away from timbre, and Iíve become much more interested in pitch: melody and harmony, for instance. I still like music best when it is experimental and trying out new things, but now I find that if a piece is only really working at a timbral level, then I can get a bit frustrated. Music that doesnít engage with pitches at all seems a little one-dimensional to me now. I donít really understand how or why that change in my tastes came about, but a shift has definitely occurred.
The labelís output follows my taste very closely, so there has been a shift there too. When I started 80% of the music I put out was improvised and 20% composed; those ratios have inverted now, and most of what I have released in the past 5 years has been scored chamber music, though many of the scores still leave some freedom to the interpreters. I think Iím still drawn to pieces where each performance is unique, whether the music is written down or not. But none of this is absolute; weíre talking about a shift in emphasis as my subjective taste has moved on, not a total change of direction arising from a change of policy or ideology.
In terms of instrumentation, there has also been a slight shift, with less emphasis on electronics than when the label started, and more on conventional instruments. This obviously goes along with my greater interest in pitch and my slightly lesser interest in exploring new timbres.
M[m]: Tell us a little bit about your first introduction to more experimental music? And was there any one release that made a real impact on you?
Simon I grew up in a house where classical music was played almost all the time, so my teenage rebellion took the form of rejecting Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner, and listening to Webern, Stockhausen and Boulez instead. From about the age of 17 I started borrowing LPs from Bradford City Library and worked through all the experimental stuff they had. The single work that had the biggest impact on me was the 7 LP box set of Stockhausenís ĎFrom the Seven Daysí, which are a set of text scores which were pretty much improvised by the group of musicians Stockhausen was working with at that time. I copied the LPs onto reel-to-reel tape and played them again and again until I knew every last sound. I also discovered Derek Baileyís music through some Radio 3 broadcasts at about the same time, so free improvisation was there from the start too. Thatís over 40 years ago now, and Iíve stayed with those two strands (improv and contemporary classical) ever since as a listener. For a very long time I didnít really know anyone else who shared my tastes, so it remained a very private passion, just me lying on my bed in my room listening to LPs, and later CDs. There werenít many experimental music concerts in Sheffield, where I live, and when there was one I was often working away. So recordings have been really fundamental for me, and live music less so.
M[m]: You are often credited as recording many of the label's releases - tell us a little bit about how this began, and has the way you capture works changed?
Simon I was working as a TV sound recordist and had quite a lot of equipment, so it made sense to try to record the music once Iíd decided to start the label. Itís obviously cheaper than hiring someone else, so kept the costs as low as possible, which has always been necessary if the label is to break even.
Iíve had to learn a lot, and have found it both challenging and fulfilling, but I think Iíve become pretty good at it over the years. Iíve also had to work hard at editing and post-production mixing/mastering, and I have definitely improved in this area since the early days of the label. I get a lot of complimentary comments about the sound quality of Another Timbre discs, but part of me still feels that Iím blagging it because I have never had any formal training in music recording, but I seem to get by ok.
M[m]: I know this is going to be a difficult question to answer- but are you able to select ten of your favorite releases from Another Timbre back catalog?
Simon Itís difficult to choose ten absolute favorites, but below are some that I really like Ė though I should add that thereís a bias in play in my selection. I always get the most satisfaction from CDs which I myself have produced, recorded and edited; it feels like more of an achievement than just publishing a recording that someone else has sent to me in a finished form. So my list of ten is heavily weighted towards ones that I have been involved in from start to finish:
JŁrg Frey - ĎGrizzanaí,
Morton Feldman ĎTwo Pianosí,
Linda Catlin Smith - ĎDirt Roadí,
Laurence Crane - ĎChamber Worksí,
Angharad Davies & Tisha Mukarji - ĎFfansioní,
John Cage - ĎFour4í,
Magnus Granberg - ĎHow Deep is the Ocean, How High is the Sky?í,
Antoine Beuger - ĎCantor Quartetsí,
Isaiah Ceccarelli - ĎBowí,
JohnTilbury, John Lely & Dirar Kalash - ĎSeasideí
M[m]: Tell us a little bit about how you select what you are going to release?
Simon Now that the label has a reputation, I get sent loads of demos Ė more than I have time to listen to properly, Iím afraid. A lot of these submissions are good, but I only have time to release about 15 discs in any one year, so only a very small percentage of submissions make it through to release. About a third of the labelís releases are things sent to me by musicians that happen to fit in with my particular interests at that moment. But most of the CDs are projects that I myself initiate by contacting musicians or composers whose work I have heard and am really struck by. Itís very subjective and Ė as I said before Ė follows the evolution of my personal tastes very closely. I donít think of myself as someone who has any particular or special insights into developments in experimental music, or as any kind of trendsetter; I just focus on the music I like best at any given time.
M[m]: Whoís behind the label? And who does what?
Simon Itís virtually all me. I find the administrative side of running the label really boring, so skimp on it as much as I can get away with, and focus most of my time and energy on the bits that I like Ė recording and editing. I currently have a huge backlog of financial book-keeping, and I wish I could afford to employ someone to take on that work, as well as the publicity and promotion side of things, which Iím also not very good at. But unfortunately the label will never make enough money for me to employ someone to do the boring bits, so I have to do it all myself.
Simon Musicians and composers are generally happy to put in a lot of time helping on the finer details of the editing, and Iím very grateful for that - and I would have made several bad mistakes without their guidance. The other people whose contributions I should acknowledge are two of my children Ė now grown up Ė who has designed most of the labelís covers. When I started I didnít think that design mattered; I thought it should all be about the music, but after a few years I had to admit that I was wrong and that the visual appearance of the CDs matters. One of my sons and one of my daughters went to the Glasgow School of Art, and are visual people in a way that Iím simply not. They designed the template that we now use for all the labelís releases, which has helped improve the cover designs a lot.
M[m]: How did the labelís now house style packaging of stark white gate-fold come about? Also, You mention your son & daughter been involved with the cover designs - do they select the images used, as they are often most fitting to the music?
Simon I mentioned before that when I started the label I felt that the music was all that mattered and didnít care about the cover designs at all. I assumed that most of the people who bought experimental music would think the same. But I was wrong, and after a couple of years, I realized that a lot of people did want covers that looked good and complemented the music. My son Ė who is a designer - did most of the technical work preparing the covers for the printers, but he too was very critical of the look of most of the covers on the early discs. So around the time that we changed from using plastic jewel cases to card covers I asked him to produce a basic template that would make the labelís CDís look both more stylish and more coherent. So he was responsible for designing the current look of the label that we have used for the past five years. Nowadays heís too busy with his own work to help out, but his sister is at the Glasgow School of Art and she has taken on the technical work preparing the covers for the printers. But I still ask the musicians concerned with each release to come up with a cover image that fits into the basic design template. Sadly I have no budget to come up with rights payments, so it has to be something out of copyright or self-generated. If the musicians canít come up with anything suitable, then there are a few artists who like the labelís music and are happy for us to use their artwork on the covers.
M[m]: All the releases on the label thus far have been CDís - what made you decide on this being the labelís release format? And have you ever considered release vinyl or DVD releases?
Simon Although they have become unfashionable in many circles, I still like CDís as a format; they carry a decent length of music, donít scratch easily and retain a clean sound however much you play them. When I started buying music in the 1970ís vinyl was the only format around, and I associate it with scratches and a general wooliness of sound which comes after multiple playings. When cassettes came in they were even more hissy, which just didnít fit the kind of quiet music I like. So it was a huge relief when CDís emerged in the early 90ís and suddenly I could hear the music that I had loved afresh and clear again. So I loved CDís and still do. I think itís sad that vinyl has become trendy and that most young people donít use CDs. I think vinyl is bulky, expensive, inconvenient and not as good technically. So no, Iíve never been tempted to try other formats for Another Timbre, though I do sell downloads to people who really donít want the physical object anymore.
Iím now 61, so probably will only keep on running the label for another 5 years or so. By that time it may well not be economically feasible to run a CD label as most people simply wonít have any way of playing CDs anymore. But I hope that itíll be possible to carry on with the CD format for a little while yet.
M[m]: recently youíve released a fair few releases by Canadian composers- what do you think is so compelling, interesting & distinctive about these composersí works?
Simon Yes, weíve just released the first 5 of what will eventually be 10 portrait CDs called the Canadian Composers Series. I didnít set out with the idea of doing a Canadian series, but a couple of years ago found myself talking to 3 or 4 composers who happened to live in or originate from Canada. It struck me that it could be interesting to release their music together rather than individually, which would pose the question as to whether there was anything specifically ĎCanadianí about their music. Once Iíd decided that I did some research and discovered more excellent composers in various corners of Canada, so the whole thing has snowballed into a large series of 10 discs. But whatís interesting about the composers, I think, is precise that they donít constitute a Canadian Ďschoolí and are in fact stylistically quite diverse, each having their own individual voice. So if there is a common factor, itís a certain stubborn individuality Ė which is a quality you can find in a lot of my favorite musicians, from Derek Bailey to John Cage to JŁrg Frey through to Canadians such as Linda Catlin Smith, Cassandra Miller, and Martin Arnold.
M[m]: Still on the subject of Canadian composers- you recently released what I believe is the labelís first book, featuring interviews/ write-ups about various Canadian composers. Tell us a little bit about how this book came about? And are there plans for other books in the pipeline?
Simon Yes, having embarked on the Canadian Composers Series, I thought it would be good to underpin it with a written publication that made explicit that underlying question as to whether these various diverse composers did, in fact, have anything in common. So the book was born. It was a lot of work, and certainly hasnít made any money, but I donít regret it because I think it did help to increase the profile of the individual composers. Thereís an excellent essay by Nick Storring, who is another Canadian composer, but also a music journalist, and he is able to set the composersí work in context in a way that I couldnít. Plus one of the composers in the series Ė Lance Austin Olsen - is also a visual artist, and he allowed us to use some of his stunning abstract paintings to illustrate the booklet, so it looks really good too.
But it was a bit of a one-off situation, and I canít imagine doing another book in a hurry. In fact, the design of the CDs is generally very minimal, with only the smallest amount of text on the covers. We do have information about every disc we release on a web page on the labelís website, but the CDs themselves are normally minimal in design and are presented pretty barely, as if to say Ďhereís the music; you can like it or leave it; we arenít going to try to justify its existence, or convince you that you ought to like it if you donítí.
M[m]:You recently did a small season of shows at Cafť Oto- how did these go, and is there anything else similar in the pipeline?
Simon The three evenings at Cafe Oto went very well. It was a kind of retrospective launch of the Canadian Series CDs Ė though we also included some pieces by JŁrg Frey, whoís Swiss, but then his music is so beautiful that itís always a good idea to program something by him! Audiences at Cafe Oto are always good, both in terms of numbers and in the quiet concentration which they give the music. We were lucky enough to get some grant money which enabled some of the composers to come over for the concerts, so Marc Sabat, Chiyoko Szlavnics and Isiah Ceccarelli were all there in person, which was great.
Iíve organized other concerts at Cafe Oto before, and it always seems to work well, but if Iím honest I donít enjoy organizing concerts as much as recording sessions, so it isnít a regular thing. However, there is one big event coming up at the end of the year as part of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Last year I commissioned two of my favorite composers Ė JŁrg Frey and Magnus Granberg Ė to write new works loosely based on two fragments of early music, one by the Renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem, and the other by William Byrd. From this common starting point, Magnus and JŁrg worked independently and have each produced very different pieces for an ensemble of 10 musicians, but both compositions are still haunted by the original music from which they began. The works will be premiered on the final day of this yearís Huddersfield Festival in November, and then weíll record them immediately afterwards, so a CD with both pieces should be out sometime in 2018. That concert will be a big event for the label, and itís great that the Huddersfield Festival have backed the project.
M[m]: What have you got lined-up for the next year release wise?
Simon Weíve got some excellent things coming up for the later in 2017 Ė a double CD of music by John Cage, yet more JŁrg Frey, a new piece by Olivia Block Ė and the second batch of Canadian Series discs will be out in early 2018. After that, there are just one or two things in the pipeline, but Iíve tried to hold off committing to very much because I feel that I need to keep my options open and have a good listen to what will be around and fresh in 2018. At that point, Iíll see precisely where my tastes have migrated, and move in whatever direction that is.
Another factor is that I might also try to find time in my life to do a bit more political campaigning. For the two weeks leading up to the recent election, I dropped the label entirely and campaigned voluntarily for the Labour Party. I really enjoyed it, and itís given me a taste to do more. Iíve always been left wing, but what with working and bringing up kids, I havenít been politically active for ages. But the leftís on a bit of an upswing at the moment, so itís possible that I might give over some of the time I have been spending on the label to political work. That would mean that Iíd have to do a bit less with music than I have in recent years, but things could change, so weíll see how that pans out in due course.
Thanks to Simon for his time & efforts with the interview. The labels site can be found here- where you can buy releases direct, check out samples, and get a overview of the labels 100 plus releases. Roger Batty