(Hint: press the “play” button above to listen while you read!)
“I know Manfred Eicher” [the founder of ECM Records], said a friend over coffee as I was describing to him my debut album a few months before it was released, “Maybe I can introduce you, you can send it to him and he can release it on ECM.” As I inquired about the inner workings of releasing on such a prestigious label, my friend replied with excitement “What do you mean? You get nothing — but you get to be on ECM Records!!”
And in that very moment, my little record label, Kapustnik Records, was born. Why would I give away my record, the one I just recorded in my bedroom studio, to a label, even one I revered greatly, for nothing? There was no reason that my 20-something brain would accept — it was a practical, logical conclusion. A teenage dream of being featured in the new release stacks at Tower Records was wiped off my forehead in an instant — a few months later, Tower Records closed for business.
To be honest, I was reluctant to release an album in the first place as by 2006 CD sales were dropping sharply in favor of online downloads and I was quite happily uploading new music to MySpace. This was the era of the iPod, the end of physical media and the beginning of individualized playlists. “I have seen the future, and it is called Shuffle,” declared Alex Ross in The New Yorker in 2004.
Nevertheless, my fiancée pushed me to release an album — it would be a “calling card”, she said, something to talk about.
I assembled a compilation from music composed and recorded as demos for student filmmakers — almost all of it featuring with my viola multitracked to create an ensemble, as I owned no other decent synths, samples or instruments. One track had a guest — the wonderful accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman, whom I met earlier through composer Osvaldo Golijov — Michael recorded his parts from his home studio. Angel Orensanz, the Spanish artist whom I knew from the neighborhood (that year we lived in the East Village), and in whose reconstructed gothic synagogue / art studio / event space we’d marry a year later, allowed me to use three of his photographs for the cover, while Serdar Ilhan, the founder of the music club Drom, did the graphic design and helped me with CD duplication. Alex Kharlamov, a composer whom I met through a film-scoring mailing list, was kind enough to mix all of the tracks. Jane Nechayevsky, whose student animation project “Dinner at Marvin’s” I scored, came up with the Kapustnik Records logo.
Fifteen years ago this summer, I reluctantly set on a path of releasing records independently — and while the practice of buying albums has waned, the idea of organizing projects by album has remained very sound.
“You should send it to critics — send it to the Times”, someone said — I was skeptical about that, too. Who would review an independently-released album of multitrack viola music? It was “inconceivable” at the time, almost certainly a joke — yet I was surprised when Steve Smith (at Time Out NY), Anastasia Tsioulcas (at Billboard), and Allan Kozinn (at the New York Times) lent my homemade album some validation, or when John Schaefer played a track on his legendary “New Sounds” program, or when David Schulman interviewed me for his series “Musicians in Their Own Words” on NPR’s All Things Considered.
I was even more surprised when my friends in the Enso and Brooklyn Rider quartets reached out about arrangements of the music — only the melodies were written down prior to recording — and when filmmakers and choreographers began to approach me about licensing these tracks or to commission new works.
My then-practical decision to release independently has meant freedom — freedom to release anything, anytime, in whichever way. (My fourth album, “Melting River“, was a Bandcamp exclusive for three years –– it was spontaneously released on the eve of Hurricane Sandy hitting New York, I was hoping it might comfort someone through the storm.) Independence has meant freedom to license — to anyone, anywhere, for any money (and sometimes no money). It has meant making decisions, finding the funding and places to record, mix, master, graphic design, print, ship, shlep — and it has given me many opportunities to learn and build.
This summer, as I put finishing touches on my eleventh album — hopefully coming this fall — I am feeling very grateful to everyone above, especially to my wife, Inna Barmash, who pushed me to release my first album despite it feeling unnecessary, unprofitable, and maybe even a little ridiculous. “Any classical musician will tell you the viola is the Rodney Dangerfield of musical instruments — no respect!”, one of the reviews said — and yet, this little album found respect and an audience. MySpace and the iPod Shuffle are no longer in circulation, but the music released that summer continues to endure and bring joy, and that encouragement still empowers me to create further, in the same informal, homemade, tinkering way.
Thank you all for reading, listening, and for being there.
July 10 2021
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