The sad state of the record industry usually comes with talk of pop superstars and the difference between going gold instead of platinum. But the effects are systemic, and it's perhaps harder than ever for new music composers to record and release their inherently unorthodox work. John Mayrose—composer and guitarist for Durham new music ensemble pulsoptional—says "new 'concert' music, historically the least selling genre," is among the hardest hit.
After all, the audience for such music is inherently limited— "Although not the intention, the result is usually composers promoting to other composers," says Mayrose—and much of the technically precise and difficult performances of these theory-heavy pieces can be largely esoteric. No one's rushing to take risks on releasing modern composition, especially since the demise of one of the genre's most important labels, Composers Recordings Inc.
"The loss of CRI was a major blow to composers and new music fans alike," says pulsoptional's bassoonist and alto sax player Todd Hershberger. "I'd imagine that they had the best distribution and press of any new music label before they went down."
So, these days, trained musicians and academics—much like punks in the schoolyard—are having to find their own way. pulsoptional is a new piece of a recent resurgence—at least in terms of the neo-classical tradition—of maverick minds like John Zorn with his Tzadik label and the Bang on a Can ensemble with their Canteloupe imprint providing their own outlets for their own music.
"There certainly is a more DIY approach being fostered, even in academia," says percussionist Thom Limbert. "I have always found it odd that more composers don't perform."
Everyone in pulsoptional performs, and most of them compose. Guitarist marc faris says the group's "egalitarian essence" is what separates it from most groups and what gives it the fortitude to make things happen on their own.
This attitude "can also mean that we don't necessarily fit into the tidy little boxes that seem to be out there for certain opportunities ... especially grants," says Hershbeger. That's OK, though. "I wouldn't say that I mind too terribly if we are a bit of a square peg." —Chris Toenes
pulsoptional will celebrate its release party on Friday, April 6, at Broad Street Café, with opening free-improvising trio Ghaphery-Bivins-Davis, heavy-drone collective The Hem of His Garment [Full disclosure: Music Editor Grayson Currin performs in this band.], and films provided by Skip Elsheimer of A/V Geeks. Show starts at 8 p.m.