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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Nonesuch Records at BAM: A September to Remember

by Michael Hill

Alarm Will Sound. Photo: Michael Ramus

BAM’s Next Wave Festival is a fitting home for this three-week celebration of Nonesuch Records’ 50th Anniversary. Like BAM and its Kings County home, the label had occupied an overlooked outer borough of the music industry, but it’s now where an increasingly wide range of artists and savvy listeners choose to reside. Nonesuch is a rare record company whose imprimatur alone makes an emerging performer or new project from an established artist worthy of a spin. Like leaping into the unknown at the Next Wave Festival—where many Nonesuch artists have performed over the last 32 years—one is bound to discover something challenging, revelatory, even downright life-altering.

From its start in 1964, Nonesuch had a counter-intuitive approach to the record business—“a label without labels.” Founder and Elektra Records head Jac Holzman envisioned Nonesuch as a vehicle to market classical recordings licensed from European sources to the same American audience buying classic literature in cheap, smartly presented paperbacks, which proved profitable. He brought in as label coordinator Brooklyn-born pianist Teresa Sterne, who left performing for the business side. Through Sterne’s vision, Nonesuch became a singular purveyor of adventurous classical, new, and world music, surpassing Holzman’s original plan. She brought a consistency of tone to all releases, demanding high standards of visual, as well as audio, presentation. That philosophy endures: contemporary Nonesuch CDs are as much art objects as album sleeves.

Caetano Veloso. Photo: Fernando Young
A landmark of Sterne’s tenure (ending in 1979) was a recording of composer George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, which soprano Dawn Upshaw revisits with pianist Gilbert Kalish and an ensemble assembled for this performance, on September 11. In 1967, Sterne established the Nonesuch Explorer Series, offering international indigenous music, often in a pure field-recording form, arguably the first attempt to seriously cultivate interest in world music among Western listeners. Thirty years later, Nonesuch expanded on this idea through its association with London-based World Circuit Records, introducing a new generation to the forgotten stars of Cuban music via the Buena Vista Social Club. Nonesuch’s commitment to world music is underscored by BAM appearances from Senegalese superstar Youssou NDOUR; kora master Toumani Diabaté, his son Sidiki Diabaté, and elegant Malian singer Rokia Traoré; and the legendary Brazilian Caetano Veloso.
Robert Hurwitz assumed leadership of Nonesuch in 1984, after running the American arm of ECM. He was tapped by then-Elektra Records chief Robert Krasnow, who had enough faith to take a hands-off approach to Nonesuch. “Talk to me in five years,” he instructed Hurwitz.

It took far less than five years for Hurwitz to position the label as a leader in new music and beyond, attracting John Adams, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich, along with Kronos Quartet, among others—artists whose relationships continue with Nonesuch and BAM. These artists are represented in this series, starting with the historic reunion of Minimalist legends Glass and Reich. Hurwitz’s efforts yielded commercial success and critical accolades, with albums by Kronos, Glass, and Reich selling more than 100,000 units each. Key Nonesuch releases became cultural phenomena, including the Gipsy Kings’ self-titled debut, Mystère des Voix Bulgares, and the first recording of Henryk Górecki’s elegiac Symphony No. 3, featuring a haunting performance by Upshaw. More recently, The Black Keys—and its own minimalist brand of stripped down blues-rock—became one of the label’s most surprising and inspired signings, topping charts without sacrificing vision. The pair joins the Nonesuch celebration with a concert at the nearby Barclays Center. Another duo, Tweedy—Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer—makes its BAM debut performing songs from the album Sukierae.

The series also showcases its contemporary roster, with such young artists as British singer Olivia Chaney and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. New York City-based orchestra Alarm Will Sound performs two programs: the work of Donnacha Dennehy, Tyondai Braxton, and Steve Reich, and another program by John Adams. The adventurousness of the label is reflected in unique collaborative events among its artists: jazz pianist Brad Mehldau explores classical, jazz, folk, and pop with mandolin genius Chris Thile; Kronos Quartet reimagines folk with singers Natalie Merchant, Sam Amidon, Chaney, and Rhiannon Giddens; iconoclastic singer-songwriters Devendra Banhart, Stephin Merritt, and Sam Beam (Iron and Wine) share a stage; and Laurie Anderson, a Next Wave stalwart, presents Landfall, an evening-length piece she composed for Kronos Quartet, which performs. Closing out the festival is Nonesuch’s newest signing, Robert Plant, who, with his label debut, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar, embodies the spirit of Nonesuch. This rock icon eludes labels with music that embraces the globe, the ancient and the modern—a breathtakingly fresh vision.

Nonesuch Records at BAM ultimately celebrates vision: the unique perspective of each of the label’s artists performing this month—and the dedication of the Nonesuch label, 50 years young and counting, to nurture it.

Michael Hill frequently writes about music. He also supervises the music for Showtime’s Nurse Jackie and Sundance Channel’s The Red Road.

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