5 Questions with Sam Pluta of Carrier Records
Sam Pluta and Jeff Snyder started Carrier Records to promote their own music and the music of their friends. David Franzson joined the label a year later. This self and community promotion is not such a new concept, of course, and taken on its own, wouldn't necessarily mean compatibility with the other label owners, writers, record store owners, and curators featured in this issue. There is something that makes Sam and Carrier fit into the custodian of unheard music category in my mind, though, and I think it will become evident as you read through our conversation.
Sam is a passionate and intensely articulate proponent of the music he puts out. Carrier may feature a small cadre of composer and performers that are primarily based in one area (New York), but within that circle there is an almost unbelievable wealth of talent and creativity. With only a few exceptions, these are a group of musicians who are just now beginning to be recognized within New York, let alone internationally. They have defined voices musically and are pushing the boundaries of their instruments and what it means to make "classical" music. Without a label like Carrier it would take a group like Dan Peck's tuba drone metal trio The Gate or the stunning duo of Amy Cimini's viola and Katie Young's bassoon in Architeuthis Walks on Land years to reach a public that is in need of new ideas and fresh blood.
It's for this reason that I count Sam Pluta amongst the other custodians in this issue. Unheard music doesn't always mean music of the past, or even music of the recent present. It is equally valid for someone to passionately decry music they feel to be the future.
As always, I’m beginning and ending each conversation with the same questions for each of our highlights, in order to show the many directions different people’s passions can take them.
SOUND AMERICAN: First of all, can you give me a little background on you and your history with recordings? What was your first experience with music and how did it develop into the business of Carrier?
SAM PLUTA: I started music really late - basically, when I showed up at college I decided to take a piano class. I quickly and completely fell in love with music-making, and declared a major later that year. When I declared my major, my voice instructor, Leroy Kromm, told me that I couldn't be a pianist because I would have had to have started that at age 3. My choices were voice or composition, so I chose composition! My undergrad had a really small music department, and this provided me the opportunity to rise up from the bottom and become one of the most successful graduates of the department. I mean, I knew nothing about music, and was declaring it to be my undergraduate major. Had I been at a place like Oberlin and been surrounded by Peter Evans's, I would have likely given up right there, but luckily this was not the case.
Anyhow, sometime during my sophomore or junior year my department got a Pro Tools system. Nobody knew how to use the thing, including my teacher. He basically put it in a room and told me to figure it out. That room became my home until I was kicked out at graduation. I immediately started making electronic pieces, recording my friends' demo tapes, making film scores, and making music for theater productions. It was clear to me fairly soon after getting the lab running that I had found my instrument. Because of this I chose to go to the University of Texas at Austin for my masters degree and then on to Columbia for my doctorate. At both these places I established myself as one of the electronics guys and used this as my in for getting recognition as a composer and performer.
I made my first album in 2005 with Mike Vernusky, a wonderful collaborator of mine from the Austin days. Actually, Mike is the one that got me on the "collaboration" kick, which is a major part of running a label, running a new music group, and being an improviser. Our band was called Ready for Japan (we thought that the only place our music could be popular was in Japan), and I think that was the name of the disc too. I'm really proud of that music. We both went from making these epic musique concrète works to more noise/ambient/beat-based tracks of 5-7 minutes. Making that first disc was super difficult. There are so many details that you don't know about - mixing, mastering, artwork, duplication, press. But once you know how to do it, which honestly takes a couple of tries, then it is something you do, and it is something I have been doing since.
In my first couple of years at Columbia I began collaborating with Jeff Snyder. Jeff and I have an electronics duo called exclusiveOr, and at some point we decided to make an album using the Bucha 100/200. That was the first project we recorded together. Our next project was "The Language Of", an album of compositions by New York City composers, which Jeff and I recorded and mixed. Both of these projects were released on quiet design records, Mike Vernusky's label in Austin, TX. This was around 2007-8.
Carrier was actually Jeff's idea. Right before I became Technical Director of Wet Ink Ensemble, Jeff had that position. He left it because he didn't want to be running the tech stuff for the ensemble anymore, but he wanted to be involved in other ways. One way he wanted to do this was by running this label that would release music from the scene we found ourselves in, and he asked me to help him run it. At the same time, we both found ourselves recording and mixing a lot of chamber music. I come from a musique concrète background, which lends itself more to mixing, and Jeff comes from a recording background. These have been invaluable skills for the success of Carrier. One of the most defining qualities of the albums on Carrier is their "in your face" quality, which is usually not a part of chamber music (though certainly is a part of the improvised tradition that is equally important to what we do). This has a lot to do with how we record and mix. It also has a lot to do with our mastering engineer, Chris Ariza. He certainly deserves a bunch of the credit for what the music on our label sounds like.
David Franzson joined us a year or so after we started. David has been a great addition to the team. Oddly enough, just like Jeff and I, he is also an electronics improviser. He hasn't done that in a couple of years, but I've seen him play. He was really good. Anyhow, he has kind of run the tech stuff for the label, working on the website and such. He has also brought us some composers we just wouldn't otherwise know about, like Guðmundur Steinn Gunnarsson. So, I guess my point is that running this label is the combination of multiple specific skill-sets that multiple people are able to execute. We all contribute different things to the machine of Carrier Records. It helps that we all come from tech backgrounds. You wouldn't think that html coding would be an important part of making music, but it totally is. I do more of that than making sounds sometimes.
SA: I think Carrier is one of two labels that I'm featuring that is musician run and releases the recordings of the people that run it (the other being Al Margolis' Pogus). I'm fascinated by Carrier and Pogus because this is not the typical model. There seem to be labels that release other people's music for whatever reason, be it financial, personal, a sense of justice, and musician labels that tend to release primarily the music of the owner. Al said that his label started out of a desire to capture and put out the music of certain composers before they died (hopefully I'm not misquoting here) and it sounds like Carrier started partially out of a desire to have an outlet for your own music, but also to present the scene you're surrounded by in a specific, "in-your-face" light and give some people you're close to as friends and collaborators a chance to have their music heard. Is that a correct assumption? Is that where the passion to produce things comes from?
SP: Yes, I mean, there has to be some kind of selfishness involved in any such endeavor. Its just too much work to not have some kind of personal investment in the limited returns. When we started Carrier we wanted to release the music from the scenes we were involved in. There was no New York label at the time that was going to be gung-ho about releasing a Wet Ink album never mind a Glissando bin Laden disc. The closest things were European labels like hathut and Kairos. But not only would those labels not be interested in what we were doing, we also weren't necessarily interested on being on European labels. hathut is actually a good model for what we do. They release concert music and improv, just like we wanted to, but their scene is markedly different, and I don't even think we would consider approaching them with one of our projects. Furthermore, there was the idea that we wanted to release music of our generation of musicians, and there didn't seem to any place for composers our age specifically interested in what we were doing.
Jeff and I are both composers and both improvisers and we wanted to release music from both those scenes. Furthermore, from a compositional standpoint, we have far more to do with the improv scene in New York than we do with other composed music. I always find it funny when I apply for a grant for Wet Ink or for myself or whatever, and think about the people I am up against. My music has more to do with Dolly Parton and Merzbow than it does with most of the people that might apply for the same grant as I do. The only thing we have in common is that we somehow write "chamber music." But this has nothing to do with aesthetic and everything to do with instrumentation. So, in the end I have nothing against what the traditional "chamber music" labels were putting out, I just didn't feel closely related to it in a way that I wanted my music to be on such a label.
From an improv standpoint, we have far more to do with the composed music of Alex Mincek than we do of the "jazz" scene (this of course depends on whether you consider Braxton or Richard Teitelbaum to be jazz or not, which is a much bigger question). In the end, I think our composed and improvised music is basically coming from the same place, and we didn't see a label at the time that inhabited that space. So we wanted to make a place for all this music to exist, where people could see that this music was coming from "one" aesthetic, even though some of it was composed and some of it was improvised (and even though it might sound completely different).
When you look at the music that Carrier has put out, I believe you can see a group of musicians who are pushing the bounds of new music, performing at the highest possible level, and creating recordings that though often diy and low budget, are meticulously put together and sound great. There is no coincidence that we have surrounded our own albums (meaning those made by the people running the label) with albums by composers, performers, and improvisers who we see as not only the best of our generation, but also those who have a close affinity for what we are doing. In everything I personally do as a musician, you can see this kind of thinking at work. In our last conversation I talked about having a "collaboration" mentality. I truly believe that you can only be as good as those who you work with. If you surround yourself with people you believe in, and then give everything you can to that relationship, then you can become a great artist. The European model has always been the opposite. They have the Wagnerian mentality that persists somewhat to this day. In the USA we have the New York School, the AACM, and Musica Elettronica Viva. Sure, there are egos, but really we have groups that were far more influential and interesting as groups than as individuals. For me, I have Wet Ink Ensemble, Carrier Records, Rocket Science, the Walden School, etc.
This is how I see Carrier as well. If I want to be viewed a certain way as a musician, then I have to surround myself with the musicians that I most respect and care about. Luckily I have also found that these people have turned out to have similar personal values as I do, and are often great friends. When these things line up, you can create a situation where you get to make music with your heroes/friends, and there can be nothing better in the world than this. So, to make a long story short, the goal of Carrier is to create a community with a power stronger than their individual selves in getting their word out into the world, and to create an interest in what we are doing as artists so that we can continue making our art and sharing it with the world.
SA: I find this whole thing fascinating, especially the idea of creating a community within the people working on the label and the performers/composers that Carrier is featuring. Do you feel like the goal of Carrier is equally to create a community amongst a set of listeners, perhaps those that may be coming from the worlds of Merzbow/Dolly Parton or Alberto Posadas/James Dillon? Is there a "spread the word and gather your troops" feeling at all to what you're doing with the label?
SP: First of all, I love the idea of a Merzbow/Dolly Parton community. I mean, I listen to both of these artists regularly, so it makes me wonder how many other people might be like me in this. I guess as an electronic "noise" (I really hate this term) musician, Merzbow is one of my heroes. From a performance/production standpoint, there is very little that challenges early 70's Dolly. So, I guess it makes sense: good music is good music, and this is one of our points with Carrier.
When I talk to my favorite musicians, I find that musicians are music lovers, and their love for music tends to transcend the traditional categories of style that have been imposed by commercial media. We all grew up in this horrible commercial world that is basically designed to manipulate the emotions of teenagers and take their money. We were told that classical music was boring, if you were into indy rock then you couldn't be into country music, and music by Phish or the Grateful Dead was about drugs. None of this is true, yet I assume that most of us believed this until sometime during college, and many of us are still dealing with this baggage.
As adults you might think that we would be totally over this kind of classification and compartmentalization, but we aren't. The press is still separated into "classical" and "jazz" - Ben Ratliff covers Jazz and Pop, while Anthony Tommasini covers classical music. So, who covers the music that we make? You can see this is very confusing for the Times, and I'm only using them as an example. It seems to be a problem for all the press. But we have had Anthony Braxtons, Richard Barretts, and Otomo Yoshihides for a long time now, and through the persistence of the musical community (and not the press), these people have become known as the polymaths that they are.
I am not saying that we started Carrier to overcome these boundaries for the greater society, but we certainly are trying to do this for ourselves. I don't see why somebody who likes the Peter Evans/Nate Wooley disc wouldn't like the Wet Ink Ensemble disc, and vice-versa. The people making this music are interested in what each other are doing, have a large amount of respect for each other as artists, and quite frankly the sonic language of the music is coming from the same place. Furthermore, both of these groups have audiences. In many cases the audiences might be the same. However, if we introduce just a couple new music nerds to distorted trumpet improv and just a couple of trumpet geeks to some insane notated music, then we have achieved our goal of getting music to a wider audience - and we will have done this by pointing out similarities between musicians, not by separating them into categories. This is not to say that Carrier does not have an aesthetic. We clearly do - its just doesn't have anything to do with whether a music is written down or not.
SA: Do you consider what you do at Carrier to be a business, a passion, or a moral imperative?
SP: We have all decided to dedicate our lives to this music. If this is the case, wouldn't we want people to hear it?