Documenting the International Avant Garde: Earle Brown and the Time-Mainstream Contemporary Sound Series

Article excerpt

Upon Earle Brown's death in July 2002, newspapers such as the Boston Globe, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Independent of London memorialized Brown's contributions to contemporary music in lengthy obituaries. (1) These memorials note Brown's influence as a composer, his association with John Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, and David Tudor, and, in particular, his development of open, modular forms and alternative approaches to musical notation. Although the obituaries briefly mention Brown's work in the sound recording industry, his activities as record producer are overshadowed by the tributes paid to his achievements as a composer. As producer of the Contemporary Sound Series for the Time and Mainstream record companies from 1960 through 1973, however, Brown made notable recordings of avant-garde music, presenting new works by figures such as Cage, Luciano Berio, and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and introducing many listeners to the music of emerging experimental composers who would eventually attain greater attention. (2) Distinguished for its adventurous repertoire of various national and aesthetic origins, this series of eighteen long-playing discs reflects another dimension of Brown's contribution to twentieth-century music.

BROWN'S BEGINNINGS AS RECORD PRODUCER

Though as a record producer Brown drew on his studies in engineering, mathematics, and music, his first encounter with Cage in 1951 was particularly pivotal in guiding him toward work in the sound recording industry. While on tour, Cage presented a series of concerts in Denver, where Brown was living and working. In conversation at a party following one of the performances, Cage and Brown discovered a variety of shared interests in philosophy, art, and music. (3) At Cage's behest, Brown moved to New York in 1952 to collaborate with Cage, Tudor, and Louis and Bebe Barron in their experiments with electroacoustic music. (4) These efforts, supported monetarily by architect Paul Williams and known formally as the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape, involved the collecting, cataloging, and editing of recorded material to be used in new compositions. The five to six hundred sounds collected on tape served as source material for a handful of works, including Cage's Williams Mix, perhaps the most widely known piece to result from the project, and Brown's Octet I. (5)

Besides solidifying his association with Cage and providing a practical introduction to tape editing techniques, Brown's involvement in the Project for Music for Magnetic Tape supplied him with skills he could apply in other situations. In a 1975 interview, Brown explains: "as a result of working on the electronic music project between 1952 and 1954, I gained some experience using machines and tapes. So between 1955 and 1960 I supported myself as a recording engineer for Capitol Records." (6) In contrast to the avant-garde artistic climate cultivated by Cage, at Capitol Brown found himself recording and editing music more commercial in nature. Spanning an array of styles, Brown recalls "recording everyone from Count Basie to Nathan Milstein" at Capitol, which, in addition to being "a great experience for the ears," allowed him to build upon and refine his skills in the studio. (7)

THE TIME AND MAINSTREAM RECORD COMPANIES

After ending his term with Capitol in 1960, Brown began producing recordings for Time Records, a new company founded in 1959 by Bob Shad. (8) Shad, who produced jazz and rhythm-and-blues recordings for labels such as Savoy, National, Black and White, and Manor during the late 1940s, had launched and operated Sittin' In With, Jax, Jade, Shad, and other companies during the 1950s, and gained particular notoriety for recording Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Max Roach, Clifford Brown, and other jazz artists for Mercury Records' EmArcy division. With Time Records, Shad continued to produce new jazz recordings, but the label also covered a relatively broad musical spectrum of big band, blues, folk, rock, and show tunes, as well as the avant-garde ventures of the Contemporary Sound Series. …