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Jun 19, 2009

With the first big names Bob Hurwitz brought to the label, Nonesuch took center stage in New Music.

By John McAlley

The label that made its bones selling classical music is still very much in the business of classical music. As virtuoso pianists go, they don’t get better than Richard Goode, who just a month ago released his performance of the complete Beethoven sonatas.
Still, if one thing above all else has defined Nonesuch in the past two decades, it is its embrace of “new music,” the admittedly goofy appellation used to describe the unwaveringly serious work of American masters and Nonesuch label-mates Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams. The entrancing, progressive music each of them makes, of course, owes a debt to the classical canon. So, too, does a formative ethos at Nonesuch.
“You know,” says Bob Hurwitz, “there’s a famous line of Stravinsky’s when someone accused him of borrowing from Mozart when he wrote The Rake’s Progress. Stravinsky said, ‘I did not borrow, I stole.’ I remember reading that and thinking, it’s alright, it’s okay to steal.”
Among the things that Hurwitz lifted and put to use at Nonesuch were lessons and even talent from the record companies he had worked for. A master/student relationship with ECM Records founder Manfred Eicher not only helped tune Hurwitz’s ear to that label’s fierce jazz experimentalists, such as Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbareck and Pat Metheny, it provided the introduction to Reich, whose Music for 18 Musicians remains one of ECM’s most enduring releases.
David Byrne and Laurie Anderson were both doing envelop-pushing work at Warner Bros. in the days when Hurwitz was knocking around its suites. And as a devotee of Columbia Records, where he got his first industry job as a writer of artist bios, Hurwitz couldn’t have missed Philip Glass, who was putting the art and music worlds into a continuous spin with his landmark Columbia releases Koyaanisqatsi (1981) and Glassworks (1982).

“What Incredible Fortune I Had”

Even if his first roster moves at Nonesuch reflect a certain, well, stealing of ideas and aesthetics, Hurwitz considers himself and his label lucky.
“I couldn’t believe what incredible fortune I had at that moment,” he says, “that we could sign these guys [Reich, Glass, Adams] to contracts…I always felt there was something kind of wonderful about the fact that the first successes that Nonesuch had—certainly since I came here—were with modern music. It would be as if a book publisher said, ‘You know, we’ve built our foundation on [artistically challenging, but difficult to sell art like] late-19th-century poetry.’”
Perhaps the most fascinating dimension of “new music” within the Nonesuch universe (other than the fact that it is, by and large, made by old guys) is that it represents some of the most long-lasting relationships the label has with its artists. Reich, Glass, Adams, the San Francisco-based musical alchemists Kronos Quartet and dissonant Dutch composer Louis Andriessen have all been making beautiful noise at Nonesuch for years.
It’s exactly how Hurwitz wants it. “I got an email yesterday from John Adams, because he saw the packaging for Doctor Atomic Symphony, which is the latest recording of his that we’re putting out…I was reflecting on the fact that John and I have gone over this process 17 or 18 times in the past 25 years, and every single time we took it seriously…So at the end of the day, you have this body of work. And it has this deep satisfaction.”  

Not Your Average String Quartet

Kronos Quartet gives chamber music a 21st-century makeover.
More than 30 years ago, the young violinist David Harrington heard George Crumb’s Black Angels on the radio. At the time, he was trying to figure out what to do with his music, and the piece changed his life.
Crumb’s work was a highly adventurous commentary on the Vietnam War, featuring bowed water glasses, spoken-word passages and electronic effects—a bravura work of musical diversity that inspired Harrington to start the Kronos Quartet and continues to inspire the aesthetic behind it.
The quartet—whose current lineup is Harrington (first violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola) and Jeffrey Zeigler (cello)—has so far released more than 40 recordings, resplendent with the works of not only the best contemporary composers (including Nonesuch’s Adams, Glass, Reich), but also jazz greats (Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk) and an eclectic mix of pop, rock, avant-garde and world-music figures (John Zorn, Bollywood master R.D. Burman, Jimi Hendrix, Azeri vocalist Alim Qasimov).
As John Rockwell wrote in the New York Times, “they transcend polemics by playing everything well or better, equally at home in knotty complexity and seraphic simplicity.”
The quartet’s eclectic taste has garnered praise from nearly every sector of the music industry, but it’s not just the audiophiles that are listening. To their credit, they have engaged in attention-grabbing collaborations with artists in different media, including choreographers Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor, who have set pieces to their work. Kronos’s stark and brash classical interpretations have also been featured in films, including Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, 21 Grams and Heat.
“One of the reasons I play quartet pieces is I feel the nature of its sound is so much akin to the eternal sound I’ve always heard for as long as I can remember,” Harrington once told Goblin magazine. “It’s almost the sound of my own heart beating and even deeper than the mind somehow.”

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