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Bernard Stollman: ESP Disk's Sound Revolution

By Published: January 6, 2009
You find it in painting. You find it in other arts as well. A new crowd comes up, they do have fresh ideas, but they borrow heavily from their predecessors. And they come in and they become the new mainstream. That is happening now. Although [some] have decried the death of the music, 'there is nothing new happening. People are just trying to maintain old traditions.'

Nothing could be further from the truth. As far as I can perceive. There is a current generation that represents the world as it is today and their music is just as inspiring, influential, innovative, and interesting as any other era I have lived through. Imagination, inspiration have not left the world. The new musicians, the new composers, in their own way, have as much to contribute, are just as original as they were 30, 40, 50 years ago. They have a lot to tell us. A lot to say. Of course, you'll see glimmers from earlier. (laughs) You'll recognize that they are playing music. Which means they are playing notes! Sounds! But they have their own perspective that comes from their own experiences. If we are open to it, it can be extremely rewarding and inspiring.

AAJ: I've found the new ESP roster inspiring in that way and also for the sheer diversity. Everything from Jugendstil to Barnacled.

BS: There you are. And it's not the whole picture. I don't mean to suggest that there aren't innumerable other strains, and trends, and streams of art and inspiration and ideas in music. We happen to have fallen on certain ones and brought them to the fore. I never thought ESP could act in a role of documenting a time or an era. It seems to me to enormous an undertaking. Even the artists you pick, you are just capturing a few moments of their creative life. They go on to produce immense amounts of other music and ideas. What can a label really do and what should it attempt to do? Realistically speaking all you can do is just sample the currents. Sample the stream and bring it to the public's attention and get the artist more recognition.

AAJ: How do you choose new artists from amongst this huge diversity?

BS: I now have a cottiers of people around me that are themselves enormously gifted musicians. It just so happens that my current staff are themselves practitioners, members of this movement, if you will, this community. So it is circles inside of circles inside of circles. I mean, how did I ever get the label off in the sixties with my profoundly limited exposure to and understanding of what was going in modern music? How could I do that? How was it possible? It was simple. Musicians, unlike painters, do not tend to be isolated. They are involved in dialogues. They are playing with other musicians. They sharpen their knives, I guess, on each other. (laughs). They are playing, dialogues, exchanges. They are continuously honing their craft and improving their music. In that sense, they find each other. They find friends of friends of friends. It's like a pool and there are ripples in that pool. A single rock falls and these pools interact, these waves of energy interact. It's a huge community, a global community that is making music—not playing music—making music. They are exploring, experimenting, finding truth. And they are speaking beauty. That is my mantra. Truth and beauty. That's what I take it to be my reference to what they are trying to accomplish.

To what degree are they succeeding? That is a very subjective matter. You can't really say. It is how you respond to it. It is a feeling. That is all it is. I'm using myself as a channeler. Someone who perhaps can hear something. My hearing is my work. I listen. I'm a listener. There are no mistakes. If you are involved in that community, they are always challenging each other. Out of all this emerges a kind of consensus and I listen to that consensus and it is brought to me and if I agree the music gets put out. Today, I don't go out to clubs or sit with stacks of demos. Impossible! So I draw from the work of my colleagues, these young musicians of whom I speak. They are guiding me. That's the whole thing. Alchemy occurs.

AAJ: One of the common threads here is that your approach goes back to the motto of the label. "The artist alone decides." It's very, very personal.

BS: You bet it is. It is very personal and private. Strange. We all share a common aesthetic and common ethic. It is a matter of spirit. The word I never hear around me is the word entertainment. These are not entertainers. They are thinkers. They are philosophers, and they are working toward some kind of higher—it is a language that is not explainable. I couldn't explain it to you no matter how long I tried.

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