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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 it’s 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.  It’s fair to say it’s now one of the most respected labels in both improvised and contemporary fields- and with each new batch of releases from the label, it’s 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 what’s 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 – 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. I’ve always been a fan of experimental music and spend a good deal of my spare time listening to it, but I’m not a musician, so there was obviously no chance of making a living from music. I decided that I’d carry on doing TV work, but to do much less than before, and spend the rest of my time running a CD label. I’m not rich, so the label has to break even, but I don’t take any money from it in wages, so breaking even isn’t impossible, even given the small size of the audience for experimental music. As TV work is still well-paid and I’m 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 you’re 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 don’t 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 I’ve become more interested in pitch and harmony, it’s a non-starter as I just don’t 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 don’t even own a TV and so never watch the things I work on, or anything else. I’m 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 I’d really rather not have to think about it. I’m 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 I’ve 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 isn’t a genre that has ever interested me very much, so I’ve 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 – often very simple – elements. His first ‘Fields Have Ears’ piece, for instance, or his ‘Transparent Cities’ project, where pure field recordings are combined with occasional sine tones. It’s 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 that’s subjective, of course – 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 I’ve 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 doesn’t engage with pitches at all seems a little one-dimensional to me now. I don’t really understand how or why that change in my tastes came about, but a shift has definitely occurred. 
The label’s 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 I’m still drawn to pieces where each performance is unique, whether the music is written down or not. But none of this is absolute; we’re 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 Stockhausen’s ‘From the Seven Days’, 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 Bailey’s music through some Radio 3 broadcasts at about the same time, so free improvisation was there from the start too. That’s over 40 years ago now, and I’ve stayed with those two strands (improv and contemporary classical) ever since as a listener. For a very long time I didn’t 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 weren’t 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 I’d decided to start the label. It’s 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.
I’ve had to learn a lot, and have found it both challenging and fulfilling, but I think I’ve become pretty good at it over the years. I’ve 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 I’m 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 It’s difficult to choose ten absolute favorites, but below are some that I really like – though I should add that there’s 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:
Jürg Frey - ‘Grizzana’,
Morton Feldman ‘Two Pianos’,
Linda Catlin Smith - ‘Dirt Road’,
Laurence Crane - ‘Chamber Works’,
Angharad Davies & Tisha Mukarji - ‘Ffansion’,
John Cage - ‘Four4’,
Magnus Granberg - ‘How Deep is the Ocean, How High is the Sky?’,
Antoine Beuger - ‘Cantor Quartets’,
Isaiah Ceccarelli - ‘Bow’,
JohnTilbury, John Lely & Dirar Kalash - ‘Seaside’

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 – more than I have time to listen to properly, I’m 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 label’s 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. It’s very subjective and – as I said before – follows the evolution of my personal tastes very closely. I don’t 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]: Who’s behind the label?  And who does what?
Simon It’s 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 – 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 I’m 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 I’m 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 – now grown up – who has designed most of the label’s covers. When I started I didn’t 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 I’m simply not. They designed the template that we now use for all the label’s releases, which has helped improve the cover designs a lot.


M[m]: How did the label’s 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 didn’t 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 – 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 label’s CD’s 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 he’s 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 can’t come up with anything suitable, then there are a few artists who like the label’s 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 CD’s - what made you decide on this being the label’s release format? And have you ever considered release vinyl or DVD releases?
Simon Although they have become unfashionable in many circles, I still like CD’s as a format; they carry a decent length of music, don’t scratch easily and retain a clean sound however much you play them. When I started buying music in the 1970’s 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 didn’t fit the kind of quiet music I like. So it was a huge relief when CD’s emerged in the early 90’s and suddenly I could hear the music that I had loved afresh and clear again. So I loved CD’s and still do. I think it’s sad that vinyl has become trendy and that most young people don’t use CDs. I think vinyl is bulky, expensive, inconvenient and not as good technically. So no, I’ve never been tempted to try other formats for Another Timbre, though I do sell downloads to people who really don’t want the physical object anymore.
I’m 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 won’t have any way of playing CDs anymore. But I hope that it’ll be possible to carry on with the CD format for a little while yet.

M[m]: recently you’ve released a fair few releases by Canadian composers- what do you think is so compelling, interesting & distinctive about these composers’ works?
Simon Yes, we’ve just released the first 5 of what will eventually be 10 portrait CDs called the Canadian Composers Series. I didn’t 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 ‘Canadian’ about their music. Once I’d 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 what’s interesting about the composers, I think, is precise that they don’t constitute a Canadian ‘school’ and are in fact stylistically quite diverse, each having their own individual voice. So if there is a common factor, it’s a certain stubborn individuality – which is a quality you can find in a lot of my favorite musicians, from Derek Bailey to John Cage to Jürg 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 label’s 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 hasn’t made any money, but I don’t regret it because I think it did help to increase the profile of the individual composers. There’s an excellent essay by Nick Storring, who is another Canadian composer, but also a music journalist, and he is able to set the composers’ work in context in a way that I couldn’t. Plus one of the composers in the series – 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 can’t 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 label’s website, but the CDs themselves are normally minimal in design and are presented pretty barely, as if to say ‘here’s the music; you can like it or leave it; we aren’t going to try to justify its existence, or convince you that you ought to like it if you don’t’.


M[m]:You recently did a small season of shows at Café 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 – though we also included some pieces by Jürg Frey, who’s Swiss, but then his music is so beautiful that it’s 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.
I’ve organized other concerts at Cafe Oto before, and it always seems to work well, but if I’m honest I don’t enjoy organizing concerts as much as recording sessions, so it isn’t 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 – Jürg Frey and Magnus Granberg – 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 Jürg 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 year’s Huddersfield Festival in November, and then we’ll 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 it’s great that the Huddersfield Festival have backed the project.


M[m]: What have you got lined-up for the next year release wise?
Simon We’ve got some excellent things coming up for the later in 2017 – a double CD of music by John Cage, yet more Jürg Frey, a new piece by Olivia Block – 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 I’ve 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, I’ll 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 it’s given me a taste to do more. I’ve always been left wing, but what with working and bringing up kids, I haven’t been politically active for ages. But the left’s on a bit of an upswing at the moment, so it’s possible that I might give over some of the time I have been spending on the label to political work. That would mean that I’d have to do a bit less with music than I have in recent years, but things could change, so we’ll 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
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