Signal to Noise
Spring 2004

Highly Recommended: Table of the Elements

by Bill Meyer

It's pretty common these days for jazz, classical, and rock musicians to take the same stage at the same time. Dance music producers jockey for their places in a lineage that stretches back half a century to the lab-bred sounds of musique concrete. Vintage bluegrass anthologies nestle against Teutonic electronics in well-appointed record collections. You could probably brick your hated rival into a wall using the jewel boxes of Keiji Haino records released in the USA without duplicating titles. When Jeff Hunt, an Atlantan art and music enthusiast, formed Table Of The Elements in 1993 things were different; the stylistic interconnectedness that's taken in stride today was both rare and radical. While it's never accurate to give all credit for a cultural change to a single record label, Table Of The Elements can fairly claim to have tossed some of the first stones that started the landslide towards current anti-hierarchical art music trends.

The earliest Table Of The Elements releases include Nightmare Alley, a set of jagged, fuzz-toned harp improvisations by Zeena Parkins; I Said, This Is The Son Of Nihilism, Haino's first US release; and a series of records that presented guitar innovators like Derek Bailey, KK Null, and Loren Connors (then known as Loren Mazzacane) on 7" vinyl singles. Says Hunt, "The Guitar series was a very deliberate move: we wanted to put a group of composers, improvisers and avant-rock artists on a level context - and all on the ultimate pop music format, just to keep it interesting.

The early records' presentation combined stark text and spare, striking images (or no images at all - the guitar singles had glossy white sleeves), and bright metallic inking that was as bold as the music, which touched on minimalism, improvisation, and the outer limits of rock. TOTE's discography has established links between these previously disparate camps, and in the process has helped to pave the way for an underground rock audience to embrace the full range of the avant-garde.

"I liked various strains of music that were perceived, much more then than now, as being mutually exclusive," explains Hunt. "So, especially in the beginning, it was about getting around the barriers separating New Music or post-classical, art music, or whatever else you want to call it on one hand and rock in all its impolite variations on the other.

"You also have to recall the times," he continues. "We were still in the immediate aftermath of the NEA 4, and funding for the arts in general and New Music in particular was evaporating. For a lot of the composers from the 60s and 70s, grants and non-profits had provided their only outlet for releasing records. So, when Kris Johnson (who worked with TOTE from 1994-99) and I came along, we had a general notion to apply the do-it-yourself model to the arts. It was generational perspective as much as anything: I'm in my 30s now, so my formative teenage record-nerd years were the 1980s, and that sort of DIY, punk rock model was the only approach I knew. Kris came from more of a jazz background, and had enough experience working in the arts to make the whole thing even out. As it turns out, with the proliferation of CDs, a younger audience was being exposed to an enormous amount of new and unusual music, and was becoming increasingly sophisticated and receptive, so our timing was right."

Susan Archie, a graphic designer who has helped conceive and execute some of the label's boldest packages, puts it more succinctly: "I can testify to the fact that Jeff brought Tony Conrad to the college kids out in Bumfuck, Georgia. That's impressive."

The label began its association with Conrad, a violinist, filmmaker, and pioneering minimalist, on its third release, a reissue of his 1972 recording with Faust, Outside The Dream Syndicate. The label subsequently gave him his own imprint, Audio Artkive, and drew on his connections and personal tape library to exhume the work of his contemporaries from the 1960s NYC arts scene, John Cale and film-maker Jack Smith, as well as their successors like composer Rhys Chatham. It also issued his earliest solo piece, "Four Violins," and a wealth of 90s recordings, in the process rewriting the history of minimal music. Hunt describes the reaction he had when Conrad first mailed him a tape of his 1964 composition "Four Violins," a piece that contradicted the then-widely held notion that La Monte Young had invented the raw minimalist sound that John Cale subsequently imported into rock and roll via the Velvet Underground: "It was like finding the Dead Sea scrolls or the Rosetta Stone on your doorstep with the morning paper. Hearing "Four Violins" really put the whole thing with La Monte Young in a very bright, unambiguous light." At the time Young held a guru-like position as a founding father of minimalism while Conrad and Cale, who during the early '60s had participated with him in an ensemble variously known as The Theater Of Eternal Music or The Dream Syndicate, were barely footnotes. Their early music was unheard, save on murky bootleg cassettes, until Table Of The Elements released a rough half-hour slab of it in 2000 as Day Of Niagara: Inside The Dream Syndicate. Hunt continues, "It was clear that Tony had accomplished something extraordinary in the early 1960s, and that this was not just a matter of some subjective disagreement between Tony and La Monte. Play 'Four Violins"' and you're listening to an American voice as singular and unique as that of Johnny Cash or Sun Ra or Charles Ives."

That inclusive comparison clues you to another key TOTE alliance. Along the way, many individuals have contributed to the label. A short and incomplete list includes Jim O'Rourke, who played on, produced, and engineered many mid-90s releases; Kristina Johnson, whose non-profit arts organizational experience proved essential when the label held two ambitious festivals, Manganese in Atlanta in 1994 and Yttrium (the festivals, like each record, were named for an element in the periodic table) in Chicago in 1996; and Archie, who helped realize the label's elegant visual style. But it was Revenant Records founders Dean Blackwood and John Fahey who brought TOTE's bridging of primitivism, minimalism, and radicalism to a new level. Says Blackwood, "I hooked up with Jeff because I was drawn in by the completely arcane nature of TOTE and its absurd catalog numbering scheme, 'negative space' design identity, and obvious wholesale disregard for pedestrian notions like budgets and commercial viability. I liked some of the music, too. But mostly I thought the label was mysterious and therefore cool as shit." Fahey recorded two albums for TOTE, including Womblife, a set of collages that stands apart from anything else in his body of work. Table Of The Elements has issued vinyl versions of Revenant's ambitious Captain Beefheart and Dock Boggs sets, and Hunt and Archie designed Revenant's award-winning packaging.

From the shimmering, metal-inked sleeve of Gate's The Monolake, which consigned song titles to an obi, to encasing the Charley Patton retrospective Screamin' And Hollerin' the Blues within a massive, clothbound replica of a 78-rpm album, this design team has always spat in the eye of practicality. It is, says Archie, "a non-issue. This is art, the package as fetish object. All of the labels I work for believe this - the package and collateral are as important as the music itself." Adds Hunt, "I agree - with Susan: Since when is art supposed to be practical? These are people making conceptually daring works, and she and I try to maintain that spirit through the packaging. Initially, I wanted to see how much convention I could peel away - band photos, thank-you lists, padded credits - and still have packaging that was both compelling and complementary to its content. However, when I do work with text, I rarely get cute. Susan and I have always disliked the deliberately illegible typography that was faddish in the early 90s. Talk of 'semiotics' aside, that style of murky layout sends a clear message: What we're printing isn't worth reading. With materials, anything goes, but I'm conservative when it comes to typography. Some of the audio content may not be readily accessible, but if there's text present, it's intended to facilitate a dialog and you ought to be able to read it without crossing your eyes six different ways. In the last several years, most TOTE releases have definitely taken a swing away from the oblique, expressionistic style of the mid-90s, since we're now focused almost exclusively on career retrospectives and comprehensive packages - including recent boxed sets by Tony Conrad, Rhys Chatham, John Cale and Eliane Radigue, and forthcoming ones by Conrad, Arnold Dreyblatt and Remko Scha which contain all sorts of essays and various texts."

Next up for the label are reissues of back catalog items packaged as hardcover books; a Sacred Harp singing collection that is a sort of companion to Dust-to-Digital's recent Goodbye, Babylon set; and a double DVD of Leif Inge's Nine Beet Stretch, which digitally stretches Beethoven's 9th Symphony to a length of 24 hours. And in a move that echoes the Guitar series, Table Of The Elements used its tenth birthday to inaugurate Lanthanides, a series of single-sided vinyl-only releases that sport gorgeous silk-screened images on colored vinyl. These records touch on different aspects of TOTE's mission and history. John Fahey's Hard Time Empty Bottle Blues (1-4) is a set of stone-faced blues musings drawn from the guitarist's set at the Yttrium festival in 1996. Laurie Spiegel's Harmonices Mundi unearths a bit of previously inaudible electronic music history. The piece was included on a record placed in the Voyager spacecraft that was launched towards the stars in 1977, but until now it hasn't been available to ordinary humans. And Rafael Toral's Harmonic Series offers a glimpse into the next phase of the Portuguese sound-shaper's work. The gorgeous, layered dronescape is his first piece of music to use a computer. Lanthanides will be followed by Actinides, another vinyl-only series for which TOTE regulars and some newcomers will perform compositions by New Music oldsters like Earl Brown, John Cage, and Lois Vierk. And while the label hasn't held a concert festival since Yttrium, Hunt is interested in bringing about another first. "There has been plenty of discussion of a third festival which would be a stateside premiere of Rhys Chatham's orchestra for 100 guitars, but there definitely needs to be a venue or sponsor involved to bear some of the initial expense."