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Small CD Labels Offer Diversity As Mass-Marketing Gains Ground


THE local record shop is changing. It has been decades since the demise of 78-rpm records. Now LPs are joining the march toward extinction. But not only has the technology of recorded sound been revolutionized; so has the marketing of music.

Most of the small record shops, owned and operated for decades by devotees of music, have vanished. In their place we have ``supermarkets'' of music and video - vast emporiums directed by absentee executives and manned by people who, on the whole, have neither much interest nor expertise in the things they sell.

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Like other mass products, records have become commercial objects with the shelf-life of a quart of milk.

All the news, however, isn't bad. Though the commercialism of popular culture at times eclipses less popular aspects of culture, not everything has been swept into one bland mainstream. Several hundred small companies are devoted to off-beat music, and they appear to be thriving.

One such company is Celestial Harmonies, which operates out of Tucson, Ariz.

Celestial actually is a mini-conglomerate consisting of the Munich company Kuckuck, the jazz-oriented label Black Sun, and the San Francisco based division called Fortuna. The combined forces of these labels are devoted to a type of highly atmospheric music usually tagged ``New Age,'' although Celestial Harmonies claims its catalog transcends categories.

The company's CD catalog includes artists as varied as flutist Paul Horn; Japanese koto artist Tomoko Sunazaki and shakuhachi master Masayuki Koga; Celtic harpist Patrick Ball; sythesists Steve Roach, Kevin Braheny, and Michael Stearns; pianist Cecil Lytle; German flutist/guitarist Deuter; Turkish musician Omar Faruk Tekbilek; and minimalist composer Terry Riley.

All these artists have a large, devoted following. But Celestial has had its greatest success with the music of an Asian composer named Kitaro, who has created almost a dozen hit albums.

Of quite a different temperament is a Manhattan-based record company called Bridge, whose catalog has a firm footing in 20th-century composers such as Charles Ives, Charles Wuorinen, George Crumb, and Elliott Carter.

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But it also includes classical recordings of special merit, like the late Jan DeGaetani's brilliant vocal performances of ``Les Nuits d'ete'' by Berlioz.

Guitarist David Starobin is represented on Bridge by several recordings, including the remarkable ``New Music with Guitar'' series.

But the most vivid among Bridge artists is composer Tod Machover, who has created a great deal of enthusiasm among young listeners. Using elements of jazz and classical music along with computer technology in highly inventive ways, Machover has composed and recorded several landmark works, including the award-winning opera ``Valis'' and the elegant suite of pieces called ``Flora.''

At yet another label, the San Francisco-based New Albion Records, the focus is on the work of living composers. The reception has been good.

A 1988 recording of experimental works by Japanese composer Somei Satoh won countless rave reviews and a citation as ``Best of the Year'' from the New York Times. The label's ``La Koro Sutro,'' by California composer Lou Harrison, ranks as is one of the most evocative recordings of the 1980s. And New Albion's recordings of minimalist composer John Adams have become bestsellers. Included on the CD are the Adams pieces ``Shaker Loops'' and ``Light Over Water.''

The founder of New Albion Records is Foster Reed, who spoke with the Monitor about his vision for the young company. ``In 1990,'' he says, ``the focus of our repertory is the poetic imagination in music of the post World War II era, drawn from the classical, new jazz, and other traditions. The record industry continues to be infested with slow sharks, dumb sharks, and nice sharks, and New Albion is learning to be a faster little fish.''

Asked why he committed himself to a difficult endeavor like running a small record company, Reed explains that New Albion began ``as an effort to help friends make records. When no one would sell them, that created a type of holy anger that eventually resulted in a company that is predicated on creating recordings of artistic merit in repertory centered on modern sensibilities.''

Mr. Reed believes that the role of successful alternative companies is largely predicated on the things the giant companies will not or cannot do. ``Even now,'' Reed explains, ``the industry is so limited in terms of what it offers consumers that there is a large vacuum that small, independent companies can operate in.''

Happily for music lovers, alternative record companies are managing to fill the vacuum with resounding music!

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