An Interview with all that dust
The word immersive is over-used. But listening to new recordings of Milton Babbitt’s “Philomel” is a disorientating, vertiginous experience. The listener finds themselves plunged, instantly, into an all-encompassing sound world in which bloops and gurgles of electronic sound appear to come from all possible angles, anchored by the central node of Juliet Fraser’s soaring solo voice.
Along with a cut of Luigi Nono’s “La Fabbrica Illuminata” sung by Loré Lixemberg, it’s one of a pair of digital-only releases from the new label all that dust, recorded using binaural microphones. “Both of those pieces were originally for solo singer and four channel surround, so the audience member is right in the middle of this 3D experience,” says Newton Armstrong, who engineered, mixed, and mastered the releases. “With binaural microphones, you can actually create this 3D impression in headphones. This has never been done before. So that’s why we say that these are for headphone listening. Please don’t play them on your loudspeakers.”
Along with Mark Knoop, who produced the recordings, Armstrong and Fraser are the founders of all that dust, which is based in London and focused on contemporary music. Artist run (Armstrong, Fraser, and Knoop are all performers or composers themselves, with an extensive catalogue of their own recordings), and with an initial burst of funding coming via Kickstarter campaign, all that dust is a determinedly grassroots venture, deeply embedded in the community its recordings represent.
The plan is to release a small batch of carefully curated releases, once a year, across both digital and physical formats. Alongside the digital-only Nono and Babbit, their first crop also includes CD releases of “For John Cage” by Morton Feldman, performed by Knoop and violinist Aisha Orazbayeva; Matthew Shlomowitz’s “Avant Muzak” performed by Norwegian ensemble Asamisimasa; and solo cellist Séverine Ballon’s debut playing her own compositions, “Inconnaissance.” In each case, these are new recordings, produced in-house by the label’s founders with an emphasis on the highest possible quality.
That attention to detail is evident across the initial batch of releases. “For John Cage” has a clarity and physical presence absent in previous recordings. “Inconnaissance” offers up a heady susurrus of gritty and grainy string textures, all brought to the surface with extraordinary clarity. Avant-Muzak sounds as effervescent as the varied popular styles it draws on for material. It’s an achievement all the greater considering how busy all three of the label’s founders are doing other things. I was fortunate to catch up with all three of them recently over ice-cold lemonade in a North London cafe, on one of London’s hottest ever days .
VAN: How do you three know each other in the first place?
Mark Knoop: Newton and I have known each other for 25 years. We met in Melbourne’s burgeoning new music scene in the early ‘90s. I had come from Hobart and I think Newton had written a piece for LIBRA Contemporary Ensemble. That piece with all the click tracks…
Newton Armstrong: Which will remain unnamed…
Knoop: Not that it was a bad piece…
Armstrong: There was a meltdown at one of the performances….So we knew each other then, but we lost touch for a good decade or so because we were living in different parts of the world. Mark moved here around about the same time I moved to the U.S. And then I moved here and we got in touch again and actually we started working together a lot.
Juliet Fraser: I was set up with Mark by Matthew Shlomowitz. We first worked together in 2011, with Plus-Minus Ensemble. Basically, I got sucked into the Australian mafia, courtesy of Matthew, and have been there ever since, really.
Knoop: The token non-Australian!
Fraser: Mark and I have been performing together as a duo since 2013. And Newton and I did various things together, the biggest of which was Feldman’s “Three Voices.”
So in a way both Feldman and Shlomowitz, whose music is featured on this first batch of CDs, are part of the story of how you came together as a group. What was it that prompted the idea of setting up a label yourselves?
Fraser: Newton and I were in the Scilly Isles. We were chewing over the issues and joys of trying to make recordings with other record labels and ended up saying, “I feel like we could do this and make a better deal for the artist.” Having been on the other side of it—all of us—with various labels, one of the main frustrations is the time lag. Because normally you have to make the recording before you call the label. So how you pay for that is a big issue. You have to persuade a label to take it on. Then there’s inevitably a delay of nine to 18 months before they actually release it. It can be a full two years before something actually comes out, which, for working artists, is just so slow. You never feel like you’re actually presenting the work that you’re doing at that point.
Armstrong: There are also often frustrations with choices about mixing and mastering—especially if that is something that you already do, and it’s been handed off to a label that has their own in-house engineer and then it comes back and you listen to that master and break out in a cold sweat.
When you started, did you have a clear idea of what you wanted the identity of the label to be?
Knoop: I think we had a feeling but it’s always hard to articulate that. We know what the label isn’t. There are probably types of music that we wouldn’t put out. But I think there’s quite a lot of music that we would like to release. And one of the challenges with each batch is trying to find something that’s balanced. If you just record Feldman, then you easily become one of those labels. And we wanted to be clear that we weren’t just being…that. We want to cover classics. We want to cover contemporary repertoire. We want to cover a bit of semi-improvised music. We don’t want to exclude by genre.
Armstrong: And with the classics, the idea is that we’re only going to do them if we really feel like they’re contributing something new. With the Babbitt and the Nono in particular, there are approaches that we’ve taken there that weren’t previously possible.
Fraser: We felt there was really room for a fresh look at that—a cleaner look, actually, because so much has evolved since the original recordings. And to start adding a bit to the performance history, to give them new life.
Armstrong: There was an aspect of going back and really spending a lot of time cleaning up and remastering the tape parts, taking out the ground hum, putting on some pre-echo. Still trying to retain a fairly analogue sound but with a much cleaner overall mix. All this detail starts to pop out.
What about the name of the label, all that dust. Where does that come from?
Fraser: It was a private joke that was a working title when we were flirting with the idea of having a label. And then it stuck.
Knoop: It doesn’t really mean anything.
It makes me think of dust on the surface of a vinyl record for instance. If you’re talking about some of these older pieces that might not have been recorded for half a century, the previous media they could be found on might itself have been quite dusty, and you’re sweeping that all away.
Fraser: Everybody thinks it’s something different, which I really like. It makes me think of the things at the edges, which is a nice image for contemporary classical music. It’s somehow where we are—at the margins.
Armstrong: Someone was asking me the other week if it was buying into this idea of ruins that runs through a lot of contemporary German music. There’s the famous [Helmut] Lachenmann piece, “Staub” [“Dust”]…it’s not by the way!
Fraser: Somebody asked me if it was a play on All That Jazz…
What is the function of a record label in an age when any artist can put their own recordings directly onto Bandcamp or Soundcloud?
Knoop: I suppose it does come back to that sense of curating something, showing people something that they might not think of—Matthew Shlomowitz, Feldman and Séverine sitting together. They inform each other. We like to see the links between those musics. If they come to it through one of those, then hopefully they might discover the others.
Armstrong: Often with record labels, you see a fairly loose wider culture emerge around it too. And that becomes part of a label’s identity. There’s this constellation of activity that exists around them and you come to know the artists through that. It’s part of what makes the scene. And I think that we’re probably doing the same thing. Having Shlomowitz alongside Feldman—there’s something in that. It’s not just a statement. It’s generative somehow.
Fraser: I do think there’s a difference for the artist as well between putting something up on Bandcamp and having it out on a label. If I put something up on Bandcamp, nothing’s going to happen. But, for me, the impact of my “Three Voices” releases on Hat Hut was huge! There’s something about being on a record label, being supported by an entity other than the artist, that undoubtedly makes a big difference for the artist.
Knoop: There is still the validation there.
Is that also partly why you decided to do actual physical media—because it adds a certain legitimacy?
Fraser: Yes, I think so. It just makes it a bit more real. ¶