ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION - August 2003
on the Avant-Garde Map
Though his impending move to the Great Lakes region will likely stir no more than a ripple across the city where he's lived for a decade, Jeff Hunt is packing up an era. The music producer and graphic designer, who founded the elegantly arcane Table of the Elements record label in 1993, put Atlanta on a map most people didn't know existed. There wasn't much else like his enterprise when Hunt, a new arrival from San Francisco, set up shop in Atlanta after meeting some kindred spirits who helped make a summer visit last a lot longer. The idea of a tiny record label, devoted to neglected composers rooted in 1960s minimalism and more current tangents of art rock and guitar-based expressionism, had not been much explored. Certainly not in the realm of independent, out-of-pocket, homegrown record companies. "It's a tremendous creative outlet for me," says Hunt, who wanted to apply the do-it-yourself principle of punk rock to recording (or recovering) the kind of music that was more often fostered by academia or grant- dispensing foundations. "I had a unique perspective on how a label might be run and the sorts of music that might be put under one roof and contextualized. I would never have the control I wanted over it unless I did it on my own."
And Hunt, now in his mid-30s, went about exploring it in smart, risky, unusual ways. He put out a limited-edition series 7-inch vinyl singles, featuring solo guitar pieces by underground icons such as Derek Bailey and then-unknowns such as Jim O'Rourke (now of Sonic Youth). He herded the legendary 1970s German freak-rock band Faust through a chaotic U.S. reunion tour - complete with sheep, chain saws and fireworks. Along with former business partner Kris Johnson, Hunt staged mini-festivals in Chicago and Atlanta that were Lollapaloozas of left-field musical culture, bringing together stray exponents of art, noise and cranky individualism.
This was all a good deal before events such as the All Tomorrow's Parties festival, an eclectic musical marathon staged in London and Los Angeles and curated by the likes of "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening. Though Table of the Elements' recent CD releases are, as ever, easily found at funky, independent record shops, they're also available at www.amazon.com and are sometimes stocked at retail chains. This was scarcely the case a decade ago, when the niche was narrow.
"No one knew about this music anywhere much, except 'a few record collectors,' Johnson says, recalling the 1993 Manganese Festival, staged at the Tula Foundation gallery complex the same April weekend as Freaknik. "And we were going to do this whole thing in Atlanta. We were totally naive. It was pretty amazing to be sitting in your living room drinking PBR and have someone with these ideas of his. It was a huge vision."
That vision focused on fascinating characters. There was, for example, John Fahey, the avatar of raw American guitar forms, who recorded two albums for Table of the Elements during a late-career resurgence that ended with his premature death in 2001. There is, especially, Tony Conrad, an overlooked figure from the early 1960s whose "dirty" minimalist string pieces hugely influenced the Velvet Underground, who in turn influenced much of rock 'n' roll. Conrad has now staked his claim on musical history, thanks to the label's persistence in championing his cause.
While all this bubbled under Atlanta's radar, the label won loud appreciation elsewhere.
"If you look at the label's catalog now, there is very little chaff," says Tony Herrington, publisher of The Wire, a British monthly whose motto is "Adventures in Modern Music." "It's like an unofficial archive of some of the most significant outsider music to have emerged over the last 40 years, from all points on the compass."
Critic Kyle Gann, reviewing Table of the Elements' recent three-CD retrospective of guitarist Rhys Chatham in The New York Times, praised the label for "rescuing the underworld of '70s and '80s music from cassette-recorded oblivion."
Chalk it up to restless curiosity and a taste, Hunt says, for "quixotic adventure." As he explains, "I got to a point when I was a teenager when I realized that all of the music I had been exposed to was just a tiny, tiny fraction of what music really was. There's an immense terrain of music, and no one's going to bring it to you. It's boundless. There's a historian and an archivist and documentarian in me."
When Hunt began the company, whose conceptual ploy ties each release to a specific element on the periodic table, the lanky Texas native never expected to mark its lOth anniversary. "I always figured that when I run out of elements, I get to quit," he says, talking on a recent afternoon while consulting with movers at his soon-to-be-former loft near the Carter Center. "It's finite. But I didn't realize how long it would take to be finite."
Even with a new series of releases - 14 single-sided vinyl LPs dubbed "The Lanthanides" (named for a row of rare-earth metals) and a companion series, "The Actinides" (named for a row of radioactive elements) - he still has a dozen or so elements to burn. (Though scientists disagree about just how many elements belong on the table, Hunt is content with the "classic" sum of 109.)
"I don't think he's satisfied with any aspect of his life unless he's trying something new," says Hunt's friend Gerry Weber, legal director for the Georgia office of the American Civil Liberties Union. "He always has to go where no man has gone before." That spirit is part of what is leading Hunt out of Atlanta. He's following his girlfriend north to Wisconsin, where she's attending graduate school, and where he intends to continue projects for the label.
It also led him to transform his current living space, in a rehabbed industrial building, into a gallery of enthusiasms. Collections of charts, globes, rocks, minerals and unusual antiquestorage systems share the loft with three indoor ponds, a stuffed coyote and Hunt's cat, named for Italian composer Luigi Nono. Strands of lights, which might belong on a Christmas tree, blink from the rafters. Oops, there's a harmonium. It's easy to forget that the space also doubles as a warehouse for Hunt's CD and vinyl catalog, though many of the label's releases are officially out of print.
As to why he chose Atlanta as a base, rather than the more obvious cultural magnets such as New York, the source of much of the label's focus, Hunt laughs. "I can barely afford to live in Georgia," he says, noting that his apartment, known to frequent dinner guests as The Esplanade, is going co-op. Since his releases typically sell fewer than 3,000 copies and are designed as costly-to-produce art objects, he often lives by his wits and the support of investors, or partnerships with distributors.
"Besides, why would I want to move to New York?" he says. "It doesn't have sacred harp singings, or drive-ins, or barbecue. And I can walk out my door onto an abandoned railroad track and see nothing but kudzu for a mile in either direction, and at dusk I can watch the bats and the fireflies chase each other."
That appreciation for the fundamental nature of the South has prompted a new project, the biggest yet for a label that doesn't blink at putting out triple-disc sets featuring French-born Buddhist electronic composer Eliane Radigue or improvisatory rock band San Agustin. "Sweet Morning, Infinite Day: The Living Tradition of the Sacred Harp, Volumes 1-3," due out next spring, will be a 10-CD, one-DVD box set compiling live recordings of this year's National Sacred Harp Singing Convention in Birmingham and another sacred harp singing in Holly Springs, Georgia, where archivist Alan Lomax once recorded.
"It's just one of those things that immediately grabbed me," says Hunt, eager to draw parallels between the form of shaped note singing - with its deep roots in Southern tradition, its religious fervor and the massively amplified drones that Conrad began playing with minimalist composer LaMonte Young and Velvet Underground founder John Cale on New York's Lower East Side in 1962. "They're both raw, loud, ecstatic and concerned with the democratization of sound and the power of the individual voice."
No one can fault Hunt for a lack of determination. "He likes to push those boundaries," says Susan Archie, who first worked as an assistant to Hunt in designing the label's unique CD packages, which employ uncommon touches such as metallic inks and make extraordinary use of white (or "negative") space. The influence was felt nationally this year, when Archie won a Grammy Award for her work on the extravagant "Screaming and Hollering the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton" box set. It was released by the Revenant label, founded by Fahey, which took a lot of its visual inspiration from Hunt's art direction for Table of the Elements. One of Archie's next jobs is the sacred harp project, which will come in a handcrafted cedar box.
The collection, no doubt, will help ease Hunt's longing for railroad tracks overrun with kudzu. "The irony is not lost on me that I've been in the South for 10 years, devoting myself to music that comes out of New York, and now that I'm leaving, I've undertaken this enormous documentation of rural Southern culture," he says as he contemplates the quixotic task of relocating "10,000 pounds" of personal property to the far, far side of the Mason-Dixon Line. "It kind of brings everything full circle."