July 2014   OgreOgress fourth Hovhaness disc to offer another feast of premiere recordings

New disc premieres Hovhaness chamber works with percussion, cello and winds.

Few record labels that we're aware of, independent or otherwise, can claim the noble mission of focusing almost solely on bringing either forgotten or new classical music to the recorded medium for the first time, but that's just what Michigan-based OgreOgress has been doing since 1996. In early 2010 we reported on their third disc of Hovhaness recordings (which featured no fewer than 13 premiere recordings). Since then they've unearthed enough still-unrecorded Hovhaness material to fill a fourth disc, which will be their third to shine a light on the composer's lesser known chamber works.

Releasing only unknown or forgotten repertoire would be a nightmare business proposition for a conventional classical label, but there seems to be very little of the conventional about OgreOgress. Visitors to their modest one-page website are greeted simply with a wall of thumbnail images depicting all releases to date, each one a link to where the music can be sampled or purchased. Above that you can just make out their admirably succinct mission statement: "Important Music, Finally Available". But there is nothing modest about their accomplishments to date, for underneath those words they lay claim to "More first recordings of Cage, Feldman, Hovhaness and Schoenberg in the 21st century than any label". That's no mean feat for a self-financing and effectively not-for-profit independent label, and it doesn't mention all the other composers (dead, living, men and women) whose cause they've championed.

Like its predecessor, the fourth Hovhaness disc will comprise works spanning several decades. Three are for cello and piano, and several feature percussion and winds. Looking at the provisional track listing (see below) it's hard to believe we've had to wait decades for recordings of such major works as the 1966 Violin and Percussion Sextet, or the beautiful 1972 Cello Sonata.

It is usually only when compositions become available as recordings that they readily enter into the consciousness of the performers who can take them out into the world to be heard. In this respect, OgreOgress's work has been vital for Hovhaness and others. The label's co-founder and percussionist Glenn Freeman submitted to our curiosity and kindly answered a few questions about this upcoming release, as well as his label's ethos.

"Important Music, Finally Available" — that's a very succinct and admirable mission statement. Can you elaborate on it a bit?

Glenn Freeman: Elaboration is not required. Each person will have a slightly different idea of what our mission statement means and I've found it better to not clarify too much in the realm of art and music. The thought process itself is more important than a definitive answer or elaboration. Have I elaborated enough?

"Unavailable" or unrecorded music can rather easily be determined, but what criteria must be satisfied for the music to be "important" enough for an OgreOgress release?

Unrecorded or unavailable works by major composers, such as Hovhaness, are important to record because they allow the general public to understand the composers, and their works, in a wider context rather than by just associating their names with a few selected works ... and I always wonder "who selected those works?". There are obviously other areas of importance but our focus is always to provide a larger context ... a context that becomes more and more clear, based on the works and composers we choose to record.

You've recorded a lot of Cage, Feldman and of course Hovhaness - are these composers with whose music you have a particular affinity or was there just a lot of unrecorded work of theirs? Or maybe both?

It is hoped our activities encourage our listeners to consider the links between Cage, Feldman, Hovhaness and Schoenberg ... these composers have been chosen for very specific reasons and they are also responsible, in different ways, for much of the current art music we believe to be truly important, and therefore classical.


The Hovhaness releases
...so far

Shambala | Talin | Janabar

Listen to audio clips at:

 
Solos | Duos | Trios

Listen to audio clips at:

 
Violin | Viola and
Keyboard Works


Listen to audio clips at:

 

And did you choose one of these composers for your very first release?

Well actually we've also released, as benefit projects, five different sacred music CDs by Tibetan monks from several of the major Gelugpa (Dalai Lama's sect) monasteries-in-exile. Our first recording was produced on behalf of the Gyudmed monks, who needed to raise funds during their North American tour in 1996 ... their tour organizers encouraged us to produce such a recording for that purpose, and that request started the label.

To my mind one of the most important Hovhaness recordings put out in recent years is the Shambala Concerto with sitar and violin, I think 'important Hovhaness, finally available' absolutely rings true there! It must have been a memorable experience to do that piece — can you say something about the recording process?

Each recording requires a different process, and budget. The Shambala project was our most expensive and also one of our most complex projects. It was recorded in three different countries (solo sitar in the USA, solo violin in Canada, orchestra in Slovakia) and assembled later in post-production. The chance of it ever being performed live is highly unlikely due to the size of the orchestra and also finding a sitar player and violinist open to the type of freedom, improvisation, and chance (yes, Cage-ean chance) the work allows and encourages. A lot of Hovhaness's middle period music allows for a free and open layering process ... in large sections of these works the instruments do not line up exactly and this floating quality is sometimes misunderstood or not appreciated by certain performers and conductors who try to control everything. The 45-minute Shambala is a work that can equally offend or baffle many types of listeners and aesthetics ... including Indian and Western musicians equally ... it was very experimental for its time and maybe that experiment was not entirely successful ... but it was important!

Have you finalised the Hovhaness program for the next disc?

We try to not plan too far in advance and always view our current project as possibly our last. But, we're busy at work and hope to release the following program (subject to change slightly) on DVD Audio possibly in early 2016.

  • Sonata for cello and piano (Op. 255) [1932/72]
  • The Sea Angel for piano and narrator [1933]
  • Suite No. 1 for piano (Op. 9b) [1936]
  • Divertimento for 4 clarinets (Op. 61) [1947]
  • Haiku for the Full Moon for alto recorder and piano [1954]
  • Overture to The Burning House for flute and 4 percussion (Op. 185a) [1959]
  • Suite for cello and piano (Op. 193a) [196?]
  • Dance of Black-Haired Mountain Storm for flute and 3 percussion (Op. 183a) [1962]
  • Mysterious Horse Before the Gate for trombone and 5 percussion (Op. 205) [1963]
  • Sextet for violin and 5 percussion (Op. 108) [1966]
  • Fantasy No. IV for 2 trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba (Op. 70d) [1967]
  • Fantasy No. V for 2 trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba (Op. 70e) [1967]
  • Canzona and Fugue for 2 trumpets, horn, trombone and tuba (Op. 72) [1967]
  • 7 Love Songs of Saris for violin and piano (Op. 252c) [1972?]
  • Fantasy for cello and piano (Op. 277b) [1974]

Performers, in alphabetical order will be Christina Fong, violin; Glenn Freeman, timpani and percussion; GR Brass; GVSU Percussion Ensemble; Joel Schekman, bass clarinet; John Varineau, clarinet; Michael Kornacki, clarinet; Nancy Steltmann, cello; Paul Hersey, piano; Robert Ward, trombone; Sandra Freeman, narrator; Susanna Borsch, recorder; Suzanna Dennis Bratton, clarinet; Tianli Yuan, flute.

You've embraced repertoire, whether by established or emerging composers, which most independent classical labels, let alone the majors, wouldn't touch! What is your sense, if any, of who your typical listener is?

It is hard to pin down what I believe is a very diverse audience purchasing our recordings. Perhaps they are mostly musically educated and very global, in terms of their worldview? Or, perhaps most of them are nuts?

Despite specialising in rather esoteric repertoire, OgreOgress thankfully manages to keep going. Is there a carefully managed online marketing strategy, and are bigger labels failing to embrace available technologies to their full potential?

We are lucky to break even on most of our projects, even after 10 years. However, every release is carefully budgeted and priced in such a way as to eventually make a small profit ... even if that takes 20 years! We always embrace the music first, not the money. The bigger labels fail because they embrace the money first. The quality of the recordings, and the repertoire we choose to record, markets itself. Marketing can add a huge amount of expense to a project and we've found it makes almost no difference in terms of sales. So, we focus on making great recordings and great music ... as great art becomes 'classical' over time it needs very little marketing.

I know of at least one Hovhaness CD recording funded entirely by a grant — what's the current situation with regard to arts grants to fund recordings of unknown music?

We were recently awarded a small grant by Northwestern University Library's John Cage Collection. It will help us to cover the costs associated with the manuscripts we need for an upcoming Morton Feldman release. But, this is an exception. Although we've tried several times we've never received any grants or funding helping us to cover the cost of making a recording. Our somewhat unique approach to making recordings, along with our choice of repertoire, is not highly regarded by most of the very conservative, and academic, organizations choosing to provide such grants. And, we are so busy making recordings we usually do not have time to apply.

Rather than go the SACD route, OgreOgress was an early adopter of the audio DVD, which was met with surprise and even hostility by some reviewers. What do you say to your critics?

How many people own a DVD player? How many people own an SACD player? Is higher resolution and longer playback preferable to lower resolution and shorter playback?

And what about customer feedback on the performances and choices of repertoire you put out?

We're happy to read comments, both positive and negative, and we'll sometimes revise our approach based on such comments. But, to be honest, after a recording is released we have no control over people's opinions and are too busy working on the next project to worry much about what people think in regard to past projects. Sometimes I much prefer the recordings no one else likes over those everyone raves about, but sometimes I agree with the general consensus ... so, to be influenced one way or another is of no use. We just keep making recordings...

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