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Bernard Stollman: ESP Disk's Sound Revolution

By Published: January 6, 2009
AAJ: Looking at the label's reissues and the new material, even though they are totally distinct, each one individually, even though they represent different time periods, even though each individual artist is pursing quite different trends. There does seem to be a common aesthetic or language in them. I am wondering if you have any thoughts on what it is that makes something feel avant-garde even if it's a Paul Bley reissue from thirty years ago or a cross breed of electronica, jazz, and everything else like Barnacled?

BS: I think it is almost impossible to verbalize or explain. In spoken language terms. It is totally intuitive. The label, its entire history essentially is something that has been tilted to my own personal perception. I have been the only A&R person for the label the entire history. I made all the choices only if I could answer the rhetorical question, do you have something to say? That's it. I can't even try to analyze what that means. It is all very subjective, very intuitive, and can't be analyzed very well.

AAJ: Let's go back to some of the technical challenges of running a label. You referred to some of them at the beginning. There is obviously a huge economic crisis. The recording industry has been hit hard. The huge impact of electronic distribution. You've been involved in the music business for a long time. How do you see the recording industry evolving?

BS: Personally I feel that as downloads become improved, now they are not great, the quality is not great, it is acceptable and this generation considers it the norm. The MP3 is not the be all and end all of sound. We know what sound can be. Kids of today do not fully appreciate analog sound and what its capabilities are. Yet we know there is a resurgence of interest in the LP. Now why is that? Maybe its aesthetic, the shape of the album, the size, the whole phenomena. I think more that they are able to coax from it frequencies and qualities of sound that you cannot get digitally. It's not the same thing. Where is it all going? I think more of the same. A vast expansion of digital means of listening, playing, distributing music. But at the same time, a resurgence, a return of appreciation to analog, to the LP.

AAJ: Do you think that is a transition as the digital medium struggles to capture the sound?

BS: It's got to improve, the quality of sound. It exists. We just haven't availed ourselves of it. You can transmit digitally superior sound. They just aren't doing it, aren't bothering. Kids don't ask for it at this point. There is such thing as Hi-Fidelity. We're interested in 5.1 which is quite amazing. If you listen to a recording that is done well in surround sound, which my colleague Bernard Fox is a wizard at, then it has phenomenal impact. It is an amazing experience.

AAJ: Let me ask another question about managing a label, particularly considering your highly personal approach. There is often expressed a basic tension or contradiction between artistic endeavor and commodification.

BS: There is absolutely no question about it. The notion that you can or should concentrate on music that has been reproduced electronically instead of live performance—they are not the same thing, for starters. Live performances are alive and well. People from the dawn of time have wanted to gather and share communally live sound. It is only during this last century that it became technically possible to capture that sound and reproduce it.

I think reliance on commodities is a personal thing. It is up to each individual whether they want those records to be their life in terms of music experience, or whether to go out and support the artist by attending performances. I think we just represent a small part of the picture. The dynamic of live performances experienced by the listener should be the ultimate goal if people can find time in their lives to do it. The records can be useful, just for my purposes, their just a way of inspiring people to say, 'That is interesting. And I've got something to say too." I am most pleased that over the past 43 years, since we started, that an entire two generations or more of creative musicians have been inspired by, stimulated, spurred by what they've heard on our records to do their own thing.

I don't see any larger purpose than that. I think music should be experienced as a live phenomenon. We've frozen a second of their life, but the artist continues performing, creating, changing. It is just a reflection of what is possible. No more than that. Again, not an entertainment medium. I don't think people should listen to these records. I think they should hear them, but as far as repeat listening? I don't know how often they should repeat listening. It is about being stimulated, turned on, and inspired. It is inspirational.

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