Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
In a 1972 portrait, composer John Cage, whose music was one of the animating spirits of the New Albion label.
In a 1972 portrait, composer John Cage, whose music was one of the animating spirits of the New Albion label. Erich Auerbach/Getty Images
Earlier this month the pioneering contemporary music label New Albion shut its doors after 25 indispensible years. Although in retrospect it seems obvious — the label hasn't offered a new release since 2008 — the announcement from Foster Reed, the label's founder and creative visionary, was still shocking. All of New Albion's remaining physical stock is being shipped off to its artists, while some (though apparently, only a few) of its releases are available through a digital storefront.
According to the goodbye note that Reed posted on the label's website, "the actual infrastructure that New Albion was created in, one that resembled an independent record label, no longer exists and has yet to be replaced in the new order, so we are moving on." In an insightful and frank interview Reed recently gave to the San Francisco Chronicle's Joshua Kosman about New Albion's economics, "At a certain point it seemed like an existential act to be making records and throwing them out the window, if there was no market to sell them into."
I'll always be grateful to New Albion, whose output I first discovered at my college radio station, just in the period in the 1990s when the label was at its most prolific. That little, mysterious spiral-and-triangle logo was something of a lodestar for someone like me, who was just coming into my own as a listener. Listening to their records was like a pathway into a different world. I already loved new music, but the stuff that New Albion put out — almost to an album — seemed to breathe with a Zen-like calm missing in the dense, dark clusters of sounds I was hearing day in and out in New York, back when there was still a chasm between the new music of the West and East Coasts.
I'm pretty sure that the first John Adams I ever heard was on New Albion's Shaker Loops/Light Over Water recording, and for sure the label was responsible for my initial encounter with Ingram Marshall's otherworldly Fog Tropes. Their recording of Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel is an absolute classic, and my first hearing of Terri Riley's In C — an experience for which I'll be forever grateful — was courtesy of the 25th anniversary live recording they released.
The list of New Albion amazements goes on and on, and includes many fine recordings of music by John Cage, Lou Harrison (including the memorable La Koro Sutro, a setting of the Buddhist Heart Sutra in Esperanto), Pauline Oliveros and Kyle Gann, not to mention all sorts of albums with pianists Margaret Leng Tan and Sarah Cahill and vocalist Joan La Barbara – and the early music group Ensemble PAN, who made some really terrific recordings, including discs of music by Guillaume de Machaut and 15th-century Cypriot music. And even those early music recordings seemed to possess a very peculiarly and particularly Californian mystery. Maybe part of that was simple packaging — including the label's airy visuals and its enigmatic logo — but every release felt special, a secret sonic missive that drifted in from a faraway land.
Reed knew his kindred spirits well. In his goodbye note, he wrote: "Our audience has always been artists, musicians, composers, dancers and all those who like to stare out of the windows of perception." Thanks, New Albion, for the porthole you provided.