New World Records maps the past and future of American music


New World Records maps the past and future of American music

By George Grella September 13, 2022

Early maps of North America show fascinating but confusing details, such as the Mississippi River hemmed in by mountain ranges somewhere in present-day Missouri and California as an island. Between the two are vast areas, empty except for provocative clues that some animals are present here; a giant lake is there. It took centuries of exploration to map the actual geography of the place.

Music in America looks like these maps, and the New world record label is perhaps its most important cartographer. The label has a unique origin: founded thanks to a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation with the initial mission of producing an anthology of 100 albums of American music. Completed in 1978, most sets were sent, free of charge, to educational and cultural institutions. Charged with preserving and promoting non-commercial music, the Top 100 Albums include collections of 19th-century songs; early country and rock’n’roll; Spanish-language music from New Mexico; traditional music from the islands of the Georgia Sea; Jazz; classical music of the 19th and 20th centuries; John Cage; and an album titled Come Josephine In My Flying Machine: Inventions and Subjects in Popular Songs 1910-1929. This small sampling of topics alludes to the breadth and depth of music on the label and how music America is an ever-expanding country; to map means to map the starting points that lead to an unknown country.

New World Records describes its focus as “dedicated to documenting American music that is largely ignored by commercial record labels. Like the university press, New World preserves the neglected treasures of the past and nurtures the creative future of American music. In an industry obsessed with millions of units sold and immediate profits, New World chooses artistic merit as the indicator of success. The places that New World maps and connects cover an extraordinary range of musical creations, from the most traditional to the most experimental, and everything in between (non-commercial). The label has a significant presence on Bandcamp which, like the card, is steadily growing as it adds each new release and gradually loads its back catalogue.

Cecile Taylor
Unit Cecil Taylor

Initial 100-album set features one of Cecil Taylor’s finest, with his great set of mid-’70s trumpeters Raphe Malikviolinist Ramsey Ameen, bassist Sironedrummer Ronald Shannon Jacksonand great collaborator of Taylor: alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons. The energy and power here is familiar, but the album is also a great representation of Taylor’s thought and artistry as a bandleader and composer. More than free, the music has a seductive formal structure, and Taylor nurtures all expression through her incredible pianism and expression.

various artists
Navajo Songs of the Canyon de Chelly

From the avant-garde of improvisation in New York to the old lands of the Southwest, American music means all of America. This album, produced and annotated by Cherokee ethnomusicologist Charlotte Heth, brings together some Navajo ceremonial and social songs and was partly recorded in the Canyon De Chelly in Arizona itself. Clean and intimate, the music points not only to deep historical roots, but also to a feeling of brotherhood and joy.

Tom Varner
The window above

New World may not be commercial, but that doesn’t mean it can’t sneak into a Bruce Springsteen song. His “With Every Wish” is here, as is Hank Williams’ track “Ramblin’ Man”, sung with relish by Thirsty Dave Hansen. The leader here is the supreme French horn player Tom Varner, who crafted beautiful new arrangements of country music and traditional songs, like a sultry version of “Stone Grinds All,” which dates back to the Revolutionary War. Violinist Mark Feldman is another star.

Momenta Quartet
Four string quartets

This album is an excellent example of New World’s raison d’être: Alvin Singleton is an exceptional black songwriter who has resolutely followed his own path, reluctant to ride the wave of fashion. His music brings many elements but always boils down to his own expressive desires, brought to life on this recent release by one of the leading contemporary string quartets. Singleton’s lyrical complexity and ability to communicate directly with the listener shines through, and this is one of 2022’s most treasured classical releases.

Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet

The short-lived and sorely missed Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet (Amy Denio, alto sax; Barbara Marino, baritone sax; Maya Johnson, soprano and tenor sax; Jessica Lurie, alto and tenor sax; plus drummer Pamela Barger) was created to honor jazz saxophonist and bandleader Billy Tipton, a trans man. The quartet is an ultra-sleek group that can swing, thrush, and lay funk with the best of them, and their ensemble sound on the saxophones is as good as it gets.

Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris
dust to dust

New World has assembled the now out of print Testament box set, which documented the art of “conduction” by Lawrence D. Morris: group improvisations guided, shaped and even composed in real time by a conductor using an array of hand gestures which Morris codified. Returning to his jazz days as a cornetist, Morris was also one of American music’s great melodists, and this unique album is a superb entry into his work. The music, played by a chamber ensemble, is a beautiful balance between composition and freedom and challenges, and goes beyond all received ideas about classical music and improvisation. One of the best albums in the New World catalog.

Laurie Anderson, Ruth Anderson, Johanna M. Beyer, Annea Lockwood, Megan Roberts
Women in Electronic Music – 1977

If it’s made in America, it’s on New World, including the pioneers of electronic music. There are several significant collections on the label, including this one, the first anthology of its kind, which brings together an astonishing range, which includes Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliverosand Laurie Anderson. The opening track is Johanna Beyer, superb composer largely ignored by the classical and academic world. “Music of the Spheres” is a classic of 20th-century electronic music, and annotator Charles Amirkhanian is right when he points out the album’s “exciting, open and free” range of thought.

Jules Eastman
Unjust discomfort

Speaking of overlooked composers, the current steady growth in interest in Julius Eastman’s music is attributable to this pioneering collection, released in 2005. Mostly forgotten, save for the friends and colleagues he left behind when he died tragically premature, Eastman’s music is central to understanding the Minimalist Revolution, one of this country’s great contributions to 20th-century music. It was not only the first commercial release of his work, but covers his finest and most important works. A discographic and musical reference.

Harry Partch
the bewitched

New World not only has its own stamp; he also kept and reissued albums of the Composer Recordings Inc. (SHOUT) label, founded in 1954 and ran out of money in 2003 (New World acquired the catalog in 2006). CRI was a collaborative venture that recorded the modern, avant-garde music of composers like Cage, Alvin Curran, Ben Johnsonolive trees and Harry Partch, whose legacy has a home in the New World. As part of a new digital reissue project, New World is releasing a new edition of its musical theater piece the bewitchedwith new illustrations and annotations and associated with a new piece they ordered Taylor Brook for microtonal guitar. No matter the niche, as long as it is American, nothing is ever omitted from the New World map.

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