Setting a Path for Irritable Hedgehog
This post is the second in (what I hope will become) a long series of posts telling the stories behind my albums. The complete series archive can be found here: The Stories of Irritable Hedgehog.
There must have been a point where David McIntire asked me if I wanted to start a record label with him, but for the life of me I can’t remember that taking place. I can recall several conversations we had concerning the logistics of our endeavor, but the initial question eludes me. I’m still debating what to make of that. 🙂
There are many aspects of starting a label that I could write about, but we continue to reevaluate many of those choices. Instead, at the risk of writing a less narrative-driven post, I’d like to focus on just a few decisions we made that have become essential to Irritable Hedgehog’s identity. My next post will get back to more stories with my quest to become a human metronome.
We had already decided to record An Hour for Piano, but with surprising foresight (hubris?) we also had thoughts beyond this first album. So assuming it wasn’t a complete disaster, we needed to figure out what we wanted our label to look like. The answer, it turned out, was pretty simple: Cold Blue.
We were both fans of the music produced by Cold Blue, but there were two things that stood out to us about their modus operandi: a well-defined musical aesthetic and single-composer (and often single-composition) albums. The consistency of aesthetic meant that if you enjoyed one album on the label, the chances were good you’d like just about any of their albums. Obviously this increases the likelihood of repeat customers, but also helps them avoid getting lost in the “digital hurricane” of content overabundance.
Cold Blue is also dedicated to single-composition albums and produce a number of EPs. It is more difficult to make such albums economically viable (production costs remain similar to full albums but the selling price is much lower), but the result is really wonderful. By releasing EPs, they make a clear statement that there is not a minute of filler on any of their albums; it becomes impossible to imagine anyone at Cold Blue saying, “We need X minutes to fill out this album. What should we add?”
Of my ten albums, only one features more than two compositions (assuming we count a set of pieces as one composition, e.g. The Time Curve Preludes), and I believe that has been to our artistic and monetary benefit. Many albums of new music include several different composers, which can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, there are more people connected to the final product who in turn may promote it, thereby increasing the odds that people will find something on the album that they like. On the other hand, if someone encounters an album featuring several composers they don’t know, it makes a purchase riskier. Granted, there are more than a few ways to offer previews/streaming, but unless I really trust the performer/ensemble, I tend to avoid multi-composer albums.
Which brings me to my next point, which is that including several composers on an album shifts the focus from the composers to the performer/ensemble. This can be a real problem if you are not an established artist. Dennis Johnson: November was the first album I recorded where the composer was obscure, but even then I had the advantage of the compelling narrative of a well-known musicologist resurrecting one of the first major minimalist compositions. With albums 8-10, I recorded music by less well-known composers, and there has been a noticeable difference in interest even as I have made a bit of a name for myself.
Finally, with every album that Irritable Hedgehog has released, we have asked ourselves if it somehow contributed to the totality of recorded music. There are obvious cases where we have given the premiere recording of a work, but there have been many instances over the years where a potential project didn’t pass that litmus test. In this particular case, An Hour for Piano had already been recorded by the incredible pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski, so it was a decision we did not take lightly.
There is the obvious difference in our interpretations—where Rzewski has a sharp, incessant approach, I have a more relaxed touch. The other major difference is that Rzewski’s recording is only 54 minutes long (it was originally recorded for vinyl in 1974), and we wanted to produce a recording that came in at 60 minutes exactly, as Tom Johnson intended. The six minute difference doesn’t seem like much on paper, but it becomes stark when the two are compared back to back.
So it was settled. After we figured out a few small details such as where to find an excellent piano/space for recording, an audio engineer, vendor for production, distribution model, et. al., I was was ready to throw my hat into the ring. The only thing left to do was to one-up a well-known, virtuoso pianist by learning to play An Hour for Piano in exactly one hour. Every damn time.