A brief history of Meet the Composer recordings

[Meet the Composer Residency]

Do a Google search for “Meet the Composer” and the top result should lead you to a podcast introducing curious listeners to modern classical music. Five years ago, that same search would have led you to the site for a grant program of the same name.

The Meet the Composer Residency paired composers with orchestras for a year-long partnership and a one-album recording contract. In 2011, the program merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA.

I didn’t learn about this merger till I tried researching a pair of albums I bought on a whim back in 1990.

Nonesuch Records partnered with Meet the Composer in the late 80s, right at the time I started getting curious about modern classical music. The first album Nonesuch released under the Meet the Composer imprint was Harmonielehre by John Adams. The last albums Nonesuch released in the series — the ones I own — were collections of works by Tobias Picker and Joan Tower.

In my chase for all things Nonesuch, I fell down a rabbit hole of research to find the other albums released in the series. Given the esoteric specificity of the topic, information was scattered. I got so far into the weeds, Google at one point stopped serving search results to me because it thought I was attacking it. (I was searching for barcodes. I did learn a valuable lesson about check bit numbers, though.)

After two weeks of scouring library databases and web searches for Nonesuch catalog numbers, I filled in those holes. The Discogs page on Meet the Composer contains the fruits of my labor, as does the Wikipedia entry about the Nonesuch discography.

So what did I find out? Over the course of five years, Nonesuch released 10 albums in the series. The advent of the compact disc bisected the releases — the first four were issued on vinyl and cassette, the last six on CD. Only John Adams went on to sign with the label, and Harmonielehre is still in its catalog.

Here, then, are the Meet the Composer albums released on Nonesuch:

  • John Adams, Harmonielehre, 1985, 79115
  • John Harbison, Ulysses Bow / Samuel Chapter, 1986, 79129
  • Joseph Schwantner, A Sudden Rainbow / Sparrows / Distant Runes and Incantations, 1987, 79143
  • Stephen Paulus: Symphony in Three Movements; Libby Larsen: Symphony: Water Music, 1987, 79147
  • Charles Wuorinen, The Golden Dance / Piano Concerto No. 3, 1988, 79185
  • William Kraft, Contextures II: The Final Beast / Interplay / Of Ceremonies, Pageants And Celebrations, 1989, 79229
  • Christopher Rouse, Symphony No. 1 / Phantasma, 1989, 79230
  • Alvin Singleton, Shadows / After Fallen Crumbs / A Yellow Rose Petal, 1989, 79231
  • Joan Tower, Silver Ladders / Island Prelude / Music For Cello And Orchestra / Sequoia, 1990, 79245
  • Tobias Picker, Symphony No. 2 / String Quartet No. 1, 79246

Probably the most prestigious Meet the Composer release was a recording of Symphony No. 1 by John Corigliano. The work, inspired by the AIDS quilt, won a Grammy Award for Best New Composition. Meet the Composer’s arrangement with Nonesuch expired by then, and the album was released by sister label Erato.

At that point, I lost track of Meet the Composer and wouldn’t think about the organization till recently.

On the whole, the works in this series are really appealing. American modern composers don’t seem to get bogged down in abstractions the way European composers might. Yes, the works produced by these composers won’t be mistaken for Jean Sibelius or even Leonard Bernstein. But there’s a melodic sense threading through these pieces that American composers are more willing to exercise.

The Nonesuch pressings of these albums have been out of print for a long time, but around 2004, the First Edition label reissued a number of them. Only the Paulus/Larsen and Schwantner albums remain unavailable. The Schwantner release didn’t even make it onto CD.

Although Meet the Composer, the residency, surrendered its name, it left behind valuable recordings that I hope remain out in the world.

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In pursuit of Nonesuch Records

[Nonesuch Records]

Vinyl collectors tend to specialize. I have a particular weakness for anything on Nonesuch Records from 1985 till the rise of the CD, which is about 1990.

Why these dates? Robert Hurwitz, the president of the label, began his tenure in 1984. He overhauled the label’s roster, bringing in Steve Reich, John Adams, Philip Glass and Kronos Quartet.

The label was most famous at the time for championing modern classical music by the likes of Elliott Carter and John Cage, and Hurwitz started to refashion the label gradually.

Downtown New York jazz artists such as Bill Frisell, Wayne Horvitz and John Zorn came aboard. The Explorer Series paved the way for Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares.

And this transformation happened at the most vulnerable time in my life — adolescence.

If my allowance could have accommodated it, I would have bought every Nonesuch recording on the market at the time. Till then, I snatched up every Kronos Quartet recording I could. I overplayed Adams’ The Chairman Dances and Zorn’s Naked City. Robin Holcomb’s self-titled debut was the soundtrack to my high school graduation.

As of this writing, there are 152 items from Nonesuch in my collection. It outstrips the next ranked label, EMI, by 48 percent.

Would my loyalty to the Nonesuch brand be as strong if I discovered the label later or earlier in life? I think I’d arrive at the same place eventually.

My discovery of Nonesuch also happened at a time when I was not sufficiently funded to pursue it. So a lot of albums slipped through my fingers.

Whenever I flip through used bins of vinyl or CDs, I watch out for Nonesuch titles from the latter half of the 1980s. Before the minimalists and Kronos dominated in the roster, the label put out modern music by American composers.

Adams inaugurated the Meet the Composers series, which would release works by John Harbison, William Kraft, Stephen Paulus, Libby Larsen, Joan Tower, Tobias Picker and Joseph Schwantner. Stephen Albert, George Perle, Ingram Marshall and Scott Johnson released albums as well.

Browse the Nonesuch web site today, and you might run into some of these old titles. But they’re de-emphasized, almost treated as footnotes in the label’s march to be an eclectic curate. The Albert album hasn’t been made available as a digital release. Nor the only album recorded by Ani and Ida Kavafian.

So it’s these un-reissued albums that catch my eye. I have my fill of Reich, Adams and Kronos. Now I want to hear what else I missed during that influential time.

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