Classical: Crossing frontiers

Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Henryk Gorecki - all are part of the Nonesuch stable. Edward Seckerson meets the man behind America's most idealistic record label
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Robert Hurwitz, President of Nonesuch Records, doesn't trade in soundbites any more than he does "commercial" records. But he has a few of both. Philip Glass called Nonesuch "the record label of the 21st century". Now there's one for the press-kit folders. Guitarist Bill Frisell was quoted as saying: "Gee, I can't believe I'm on the same label as Richard Goode!" And who knows how the Gypsy Kings reacted upon discovering that their hottest competitor in the million-plus sales stakes was none other than Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony. But then Nonesuch is full of surprises. Always has been. One hundred per cent non-conformist. A record label whose ambitions lie in creating trends, not cloning them, whose dictum is, and always will be, that you can't like what you don't hear. In my dictionary, the word "nonesuch" is defined as "a matchless person or thing". Nonpareil. It's an old word, an archaic word. An idealistic word. And Nonesuch, the label, is nothing if not idealistic.

Right now it's going up in the world. From the 18th to the 23rd floor of 75, Rockefeller Plaza, New York. The swanky new offices come as part of the label's absorption into the mighty Time-Warner group. Hurwitz's small, close-knit team call it "the desert" on account of the acres of beige carpeting. They are unaccustomed to the space. Instead of yelling, they now send E-mail. But the higher floor has also signified higher sales, higher profits, higher profile, higher credibility. Who says art and commerce don't mix? Since 1983, the Nonesuch payroll has risen from three to 10, but sales have increased twentyfold. Is this the template for the record industry of the future? Fewer records, greater diversity, development - a more personal, a more specialised relationship between artists and repertoire? Hurwitz would have it no other way. He was fortunate, he believes, with his mentors and role models - Goddard Lieberson at Columbia, Manfred Eicher at ECM (where he was previously US label chief), and Bob Krasnow at Elektra, the folk-based label which first spawned Nonesuch (Joshua Rifkin in Scott Joplin, Teresa Stratas in Kurt Weill, the music of George Crumb and Charles Wuorinen - such was the shape of things to come). "These men," says Hurwitz, "preached a creed which basically said that if you trust your own instincts, your own ears, and your own passions, the public, ideally, will follow..."

To the four corners of their record store, Nonesuch projects cross all known frontiers. One Nonesuch release is a potential bridge to the next. On fathoming Les Mysteres Des Voix Bulgares (as in how does a Bulgarian women's choir clock up sales well in excess of a quarter of a million to date?), you might make that small leap of faith to the million aforementioned "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" by Gorecki, or try mixing in the urban vernacular of John Adams or Steve Reich, or bridge the gap between pop classics and jazz with Don Bryon's Bug Music (currently riding high in the Billboard jazz charts), or follow Dawn Upshaw from Barber and Stravinsky to Rodgers and Hart. Then again, those Gershwin Piano Rolls might just tempt you to Strike up the Band. And who knows where the Kronos Quartet may lead. You don't find Nonesuch records, they seem to find you.

Hurwitz has been label director now since 1985. And he can still dream. He started as he meant to go on: recording what he liked. And there were others out there who liked it, too. For him it was always a case of knowing what satisfied his love, his need, for music. He clearly remembers, in his early twenties, writing the liner notes for the first recording of Elliott Carter's Third String Quartet. He spent an inordinate amount of time dissecting, understanding the score as best he could, only to find, once his task was completed, that he never wanted to hear it again. And that was a turning-point for him. A few years later he encountered John Adams's Harmonium, and while it didn't at all conform to the accepted notion of how "new music" should sound (meaning that it wasn't hung up on sounding new), "it had that quality of originality", says Hurwitz, "that you look for in all great music, whatever form it takes. It couldn't have been written in any time but our own, and yet the language was not unfamiliar. Besides, I liked it."

Adams - a symbol of all that is most immediate and appealing about the Hurwitz philosophy - has since become one of Nonesuch's "house" composers. From Nixon in China all the way to El Dorado, the records tell a story. The same might be said of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, Henryk Gorecki. All have, at one time or another, signed first-refusal contracts with Nonesuch. Indeed, of its many identities, minimalism may well turn out to be the Nonesuch label's most enduring legacy. Hurwitz doesn't have a problem with that. You can challenge him on the grounds that minimalism has to some extent encouraged a whole generation of passive listeners, you can browbeat him into admitting that the most celebrated of the fold (no prizes for guessing who) has signally failed to meet the long-term challenge of his "new deal". But the fact remains that a whole wave of composers came from all over to unite in wiping the proverbial slate clean, to rediscover rhythm, melody, harmony - to promote inclusivity. And Hurwitz is happy to have been part of that.

So, yes, there is an element of the personal crusader in his directorship of the label. He is tireless in his pursuit of the things he believes in - though not, he hopes, in any autocratic sense. He hopes the label isn't too centred on him and his. Could that be a slight defensiveness creeping into his tone? Does he ever record what he personally doesn't like? "Well, let me turn that around and say that I love the classical repertoire with a passion, I love the Mahler symphonies with a passion - but it would make no sense whatsoever to record them..." But what if you recognise a talent but cannot override your personal dislike? "Well. I completely recognise that Mendelssohn is a great composer, but I have no great interest in him..." So if Mendelssohn were brought to you today, you'd say, "thank you, but no..."? "Well..." Truth time, Bob. "I think in order to plan the long-term strategy of a label like ours, there has to be some form of identification with what one is doing. I don't think a record company - especially today - should do something just because they think it's important. My interest is to push ahead over a five- or 10- or 15-year period. And if we are talking about a composer - and composers are really the central characters of this label - then I have, deep down, to believe in them. Yes, it is personal. It is a shared experience. On the basis of Floyd Collins, I'm prepared to take a risk with Adam Guettel..."

Adam Guettel is Richard Rodgers' grandson. Floyd Collins is a musical - or ballad folk opera - about a Kentucky cave explorer. Playwrights' Horizons developed it for production off-Broadway (many distinguished projects, including work by Stephen Sondheim, have taken this route), where it briefly conquered and closed. In response to a tip-off from a trusted friend at the National Endowment for the Arts, Hurwitz (who insists he can be obedient when he receives a call this enthusiastic) saw the show - and wept. Nonesuch recorded it the day after it closed - heaven forbid they should cash in on a success - and the cast album (released in the UK on Monday) could well influence - may even decide - the show's future, and that of its young composer. To Hurwitz, of course, such considerations would anyway take precedence over any sales that might be garnered from the theatre lobby.

So he is as good as his word. Nonesuch really is an interventionist label, taking initiative, promoting interest, shaping tastes. And Floyd Collins is just the latest of its many good causes: a poignant and poetic little masterpiece which harnesses the American country vernacular (all those aspiring, scat-like melismas) and takes it places where it's never been before. Guettel cites specific inspiration from Ravel and Doc Watson. So read this and act up on it. Because Hurwitz is already banking on Guettel's future. He's joined the ranks of Nonesuch people. And that's a good place to be.

Nonesuch people. Look down the roster - Dawn Upshaw, Gidon Kremer, Richard Goode, Don Byron, Bill Frisell, Mandy Patinkin - "they're all," says Hurwitz, "of a certain character, there's a creative imperative in everything they do." And he, Hurwitz. is there to facilitate what they do, to nurture and, when and if appropriate, to cross-fertilise their talents. So, for instance, when he began planning a major new movie music series (and, true to form, the first batch of releases, arriving in the UK in July, promises interesting choices: Leonard Rosenman, Georges Delerue, Alex North, Toru Takemitsu), he made capital of John Adams's enthusiasm for the genre by inviting him to conduct. Isn't that how Dawn Upshaw came to rediscover her Broadway roots? "I Wish It So", she sang, and her wish was Hurwitz's command.

"The identity and success of the label," says Hurwitz, "has everything to do with the compact I have with my artists and composers. It's their life, their career, their record, and the final decision - unless it's economically impossible - is always theirs. I ask only for honesty, for fair and frank discussions before the records are released. I want no regrets, no recriminations afterwards. I usually have high expectations, and they are usually exceeded."

His thoughts go back to the record industry pioneers, to those who built their Valhallas around enthusiasm and belief. Times have changed, of course, times are tougher. "There's so much fear in the industry right now: fear of commercial failure, fear of losing this or that star name, of dropping behind in the competition, of missing out on the latest trend. But I do have this huge and abiding faith that there are enough interested people out there - even if it's 1 per cent of a billion - to support change, to bring about change. Records need to be an event again." Do I hear disagreement?.

'Floyd Collins' is released on Monday, Nonesuch 7559 794 342