Naxos of America's long tail continues to grow. Earlier this month, the classical music behemoth, headquartered in Franklin, began distribution of Cantaloupe Music, a feisty independent label out of Brooklyn that's known for its recordings of adventurous new music.
Naxos, the country's largest distributor of independent classical music, was already working with nearly 100 other labels, promoting, marketing and distributing discs from such notable indie companies as Chandos and Warner Classics. In fact, Naxos even distributes Compass Records, Nashville's independent jazz and bluegrass label.
Now, Naxos' new deal will make it the digital clearinghouse for some of the most important alternative classical music of the past quarter century.
That's because Cantaloupe Music is the house label of Bang on a Can, the multifaceted, New York City-based classical music organization founded in 1987 by composers Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang.
It's virtually impossible to overstate the importance of this group to the contemporary alt-classical scene. Of course, there was plenty of contemporary music in New York City prior to Bang on a Can. Hardcore modernists such as Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen were writing dissonant, abstruse works that were often groundbreaking — but that were also easier to admire than love. Composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass, meanwhile, developed significant cult followings for their minimalist musings.
Bang on a Can composers and performers, however, injected something new into New York's cultural life.
There was a welcome lack of academic formalism and pretension in much of their work. Far from writing faculty-lounge music — namely, music that Ph.D.'s write primarily for the consumption of other Ph.D.'s — Bang on a Can composers wrote music that seemed like a fair representation of their generation's egalitarian, multicultural world. Their music was often an eclectic blend of contemporary classical, avant-garde jazz, world music and rock. Their concerts, moreover, introduced a jeans-and-T-shirt informality that was a refreshing change from the stuffiness of the mainstream classical concert hall.
"Bang on a Can basically made the alt-classical music scene fashionable," says Sean Hickey, a New York City-based composer who also serves as Naxos' national sales and business development manager.
Hickey says Naxos has had its business eye on Cantaloupe Music for some time. That's not surprising. Bang on a Can's label represents some of the most exciting alt-classical performers and ensembles in the world, including the 20-member band Alarm Will Sound, Britain's 14-piece group Icebreaker and the American foursome Ethel, which, aptly enough, describes itself as "the fiercest string quartet this side of hell."
Many of New York's most adventurous composers, including Bang on a Can founders Wolfe, Gordon and Lang as well as Arnold Dreyblatt, R. Luke Dubois and Phil Kline, also record on Cantaloupe.
"Bang on a Can and Cantaloupe have done a great job in shaping New York's music culture," says Hickey. "We think Naxos has the tools and resources to help them break out of New York City to find a larger following in the American heartland."
That sounds simply symphonic to the ears of Wolfe. Early on, Wolfe and other Bang on a Can artists flirted with the major labels, recording with such industry giants as Sony Classical. That went down like a bad date.
"We'd go to business meetings with major labels, and all they wanted to talk about was how many units they would sell," says Wolfe. "It's not about units, it's about music."
Those experiences prompted Wolfe, Gordon, Lang and Bang on a Can managing director Kenny Savelson to found Cantaloupe in 2001.
Naxos not only shares Wolfe's philosophy but has also turned it into a successful business model. In an age when most of the record industry seems to be downsizing, Naxos is actually making money. The company credits its so-called "long tail" strategy — selling only a few units of each title in an enormous catalog — for its success.
Over the next year, Naxos will certainly have a lot of music to distribute, courtesy of the Cantaloupe deal. The company will distribute Cantaloupe's entire back catalog, nearly 50 discs that include the Bang on a Can All-Stars performing such seminal works as Terry Riley's In C and Louis Andriessen's Gigantic Dancing Human Machine. It will also release new Cantaloupe recordings featuring the music of Wolfe, Lang, Bang on the Can All-Stars, Toby Twining and others.
The first new Cantaloupe recording, just released, is the percussion quartet So Percussion's rendition of Paul Lansky's Threads. Lansky is probably best known for his influence on Radiohead, who have sampled some of his music. Threads is a 30-minute, 10-movement cantata that leaves no percussion sound or emotion unexplored. So Percussion performs it with raucous virtuosity.
Nashville's classical music community has already suffered its first cold-weather casualty. Blair String Quartet violinist Christian Teal recently slipped, fell and injured his shoulder, forcing him to cancel two concerts. His recital with pianist Jennifer McGuire, originally scheduled for Jan. 30, will now take place next season. His Feb. 18 concert with the Blair String Quartet has been tentatively rescheduled for April 20. Stay (ahem) tuned for further details.
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