Every art form is full of creative people trying to figure out how to make a living while continuing to create. Aspiring writers get jobs with bookstores and publishers. Visual artists work security at museums.
For composer Philip Blackburn, it was a matter of figuring out what would keep him in contact with the new music milieu, the community of adventurous experimenters who take hidebound classical music traditions and forms, and twist them in all sorts of interesting directions.
"As soon as you're in the field of new music, you are part of a community," Blackburn said from his St. Paul home. "And how can you contribute? You can put out the music stands and put away the chairs after the show. Or you can make a recording of it.
"It started with cassettes under my mother's chair at school. When I was performing, I would have her press the record button — when she remembered."
Recording innovative music for posterity has become Blackburn's calling card. He kept creating environmental soundscapes that involved such instruments as "sewer pipe organ," but more musicians knew him as the guy who ran Innova Recordings, the label of the American Composers Forum.
He took over in 1991 and built Innova from a 10-disc catalog designed to showcase the winners of McKnight Composer Fellowships into a highly respected new music brand with 650 releases and a couple of Grammys by the time Blackburn left his post last year.
Now 58, the England-born composer is on to a new adventure — running Neuma Records. The label has been around since 1988, but Blackburn has been tasked with expanding its audience and catalog (available at neumarecords.org). Later this month the label is releasing one of his own works — "Justinian Intonations," a piece featuring vocalist Ryland Angel that grew from recordings inside a massive cistern beneath Istanbul.
We caught up with Blackburn for a conversation about opening ears to the unexpected.
Q: So you continue to be both a composer and a curator of music.
A: I've been doing the same thing since I was 16 years old. Curious about music, curious about musical ideas, and eager and hungry to discover what's out there and what I can contribute to. So I've been a musicologist, researching [composer] Harry Partch. I've been an ethnomusicologist, traveling around Vietnam and Cuba and other places. And I've been a composer, working in environmental sound art. And inventing musical instruments, my whole world of that being kicked off by seeing the Harry Partch instruments back in 1979.
Q: Does running a label leave you enough time to compose?
A: I'm lucky in that I've used all my musical experiences as examples of what not to do. There's a lot of music that I've come across that I've championed that I love dearly. And then I check it off my list and say, "Eh, that's been done before. What can I contribute that's slightly different? What is more myself?" So that cuts back on my overall output, I suppose. … My own compositions often take place in big public settings. So there's a limited amount of control I can do, on the day anyway. As long as I've asked permission of Homeland Security and the sewage department and the mayor of the town, then the rest is easy.
Q: You have an advantage over a lot of artists in that you're giving yourself an artistic education constantly by learning about all of this different music. So it's kind of like you've set up your own master's or doctoral program that's lasted for decades.
A: That's absolutely true. I've certainly found the path that has kept me in touch with people doing interesting things. They've become my ongoing teachers outside the classroom. I've had many great teachers inside the classroom, but the fact that I was able to meet the heroes of my youth and work with them side by side and to maintain contact with them and help them out in various ways, I realize how lucky I am and what a responsibility that is to share.
Q: How did Innova evolve over your almost 30 years there?
A: We discovered fairly early on that people had access to making master tapes but there was a barrier to getting distribution, to getting on a label, to getting marketing, to getting an audience beyond their own backyard. So we came up with this model — the Recording Assistance Program — which basically subsidized those costs. … The artists were responsible for the [production] costs, they kept all of the income, and we broke even whether we sold three copies or 3,000. So that gave us permission to do experimental things.
There was a really wide range of projects, all of which were high-quality, unique, exhibited a strong personal voice … and that we felt were just as important as anything by a major artist that you may have heard of. I'm proud of that chronicling of American experimental, classical, jazzy, unique original music.
Q: Innova won a couple of Grammys, yes?
A: It was last year and the year before. The Crossing won best choral performance [for Lansing McLoskey's "Zealot Canticles"] and then the classical producer of the year was Blanton Alspaugh. … That kind of external validation is nice when we get it, but we just shrug when we don't.
Q: Yet I think of you as a new music evangelist, trying to get this into people's ears.
A: Yes, well, some of my ancestors were missionaries, and if you take away all of their philosophy, maybe I have that kind of passion. I've certainly been lucky enough to stay in a field I've been constantly interested in. And I want to tell people about it. … As a composer, I'm just as happy creating opportunities for listening as I am ordering the notes in the first place.
Q: So, Neuma. How did this gig come up?
A: I got an e-mail from Jerry Tabor, who was running Neuma at the time, 18 months or so ago, saying he was unable to continue doing it. And did Innova want to take it under its wing? … It kind of fell by the wayside. Then, after about a year, my time at Innova was coming to an end.
So I thought: I'm working at home anyway. There's a pandemic on. And this could be a postmodern cottage industry for me, because I can do a lot of these things from a laptop anywhere in the world. The existing catalog up to that time was very much in line with my interests, especially from the younger years of my life. A lot of electro-acoustic music and familiar names like Xenakis and Varèse and Cage and Berio. Big names of a certain generation. And I thought: If I can honor those and keep it going but also [bring in] the modern equivalents, I think that sounds like a good fit.
Q: Talk about what you do in the position.
A: I wear many, many different hats, changing every five minutes. … It would normally take many different people to do the A&R [finding the artists], the repertoire, the mastering, the editing, the graphic design, the pre-press, the distribution, the financial and the legal end of things, and the marketing and promo. And now I can do all those things myself, or at least most of them.
Q: What are you most excited about among the things that you have coming up?
A: On the distant horizon is a Pamela Z album. She's this incredible artist I've been supporting since an electronic music festival I curated back in 1993. It's great to connect with artists and see them grow over time and still have those relationships intact.
Within the weather forecast, if you like, is the Afro-Yaqui Music Collective. This is a global eco-socialist post-jazz funk ensemble led by Ben Barson, who's the sax player who inherited Fred Ho's sax. … It doesn't sound like the weird kind of erudite experimental academic tradition you might think of. It sounds like: "Hey, this is really good funky something or other, and it has this kind of global mishmash going on." It's absolutely thrilling.
And there's a Harry Partch release, "The Bewitched," a 1955 composition that was performed in Berlin. … I came across that tape and said, "We have to release this," because it's exactly like being at a live performance with the Partch instruments at the height of their powers. So that's a thrill to be able to share that with the listening public.
Sometimes I feel like I'm on the "Antiques Roadshow." I've found these treasures and I have to tell the world about them.
Q: Taking on all these roles sounds exhausting to me. But it seems energizing to you.
A: Oh, absolutely. … It's enough for an artist to compose and create and record their work. No one would expect them to tell the world about it. I feel that's where I can fit in. To amplify their voice and get them better known so we can get this show on the road.
It's kind of bucking the trend. We hear about labels and distributors and other elements of the music industry collapsing along with the live events and touring and so forth. So, what mind-set do you need to run a label under these conditions? Well, I'm optimistic. There's good stuff there, and why not?
Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. • firstname.lastname@example.org