Deep Listening and serendipity: a Taiga Records overview

When I was a teenage ruffian entering music school, I loved shred guitar more than just about anything. I had hopes for a life of long solos and longer hair, and I was pumped to learn commercial composition to write the next big hits. But sometime in that first week, I was a passenger in a car with a fellow student who was jamming Gorecki string quartets and Penderecki's "Threnody" as we drove around Denver. My small-town head was blown wide open, and I changed my major to classical comp the next day. Those couple of hours completely changed my life.

I'm roughly twice that age now, and I'm amazed and excited to report that I've been feeling the same kind of all-encompassing shift in my music listening, and my life in general, after opening a box of promo records last November from Taiga Records. I've been adjusting to the aftereffects of this music for months, and the time has come to write about it.

Like all epiphanies viewed in reverse, delineation isn't perfectly clear--I had already been into some non-pop music like Zorn and Ornette and the Residents well before I hit music school, for example, and in the case of Taiga records, I was already familiar with a couple of their releases and had been following the work of Tatsuya Nakatani for a while. But there's a spark, a serendipitous moment, that draws a line all the same, and everything is different. For me, this has all happened at a nearly perfect moment where it seems like there is a renaissance of "other musics" happening: the disciplines of delicate electronic composition, lowercase improv, eai, and field recording/manipulation are all experiencing some of their best periods ever, as experienced composers and performers release some of their best work and new folks are imparting waves of fresh ideas into their scenes. These musics have been part of my aural diet for some time, but this batch of records from Taiga has done something radical to me, and I feel like I'm listening to everything with a new set of ears.

The Taiga vibe
Taiga works slowly and carefully to deliver recordings that will stay with you forever. Focusing on thoughtful curation, founder Andrew Lange has only released 25 albums over the course of 6 years. The recordings are prepared for release with audiophile care, cut with a direct metal mastering technique and pressed to very heavy vinyl--these often go beyond the 180 gram "audiophile" standard all the way to 200 grams. Every record I've spun sounds phenomenal from a production standpoint, with very low noise and incredible high-end detail, a must for the kinds of program material highlighted by the label.

Beyond the music, the attention to design details on these releases is among the best I've ever seen from any label. Every release is treated with the kind of archival-level care that most labels reserve for special occasions. While I've always admired thoughtful presentation, these records go so beyond my usual knowledge of packaging ephemera that I've picked up a whole new vocabulary just to comprehend the consistent level of production quality involved with this catalog. The jackets are made of heavyweight, rich papers. Some are Stoughton tip-on jackets, wrapped in a variety of approaches: colored papers, textured papers, metallic inks, letterpress work, etc. Many are gatefolds, and many have slipcovers or belts as well. A lot feature "flooded pockets," where color enhancements have been added to the insides of the jackets--a subtle gesture, but it really adds to the aesthetic when you remove these substantial-feeling records from their packages to play them. And the records themselves look amazing--there are black vinyl editions of the releases, but many of them are also issued with colored or clear vinyl variations that resonate beautifully with their artwork. A couple of releases have etched D-sides, too. I can't really think of a production technique that hasn't been featured in a Taiga release. Beyond the music, connoisseurs of print/packaging/design work taken to the level of fine art will find much to love in this catalog.

Where appropriate, additional written/printed materials supplement these releases beautifully. Some releases contain printed scores, essays, or additional photo/art inserts. I don't think of these additions so much as "packaging," because they're much more directly related to creating a context for understanding the music they accompany, but here too you will find thoughtfully considered papers, inks, and printing techniques. When you pull out a Taiga record, you can feel confident that you have all of the resources you need to fully get into the music, with packaging created just as attentively as the sounds it contains.

This unflinching attention to the multimedia level of composition in each of these releases pays off. Although many musical genres find a home together in the Taiga stable, all of this music shares an aesthetic of immersion--that is, this is deeply contemplative music. These aren't records you put on before you clean your house. They demand your attention, they beg for long-term relationships. So this kind of packaging doesn't feel like a consumer goods "vinyl fetishist" kind of thing--it's something real and substantial, creating a full and present experience in the face of a heavily mediated digital age. Since you can plan on sitting with these recordings with your full awareness, the art and liner notes and design work are there to enrich and focus your experience on repeated listenings. I'm reminded of the "slow food" movement in culinary circles. This is a great foundation for a "slow music" movement.

The Music
I'd like to highlight a few of my favorite artists who are featured in the Taiga catalog, along with a few recordings I'd strongly recommend. But again, I feel like all of this music has been commingling in my ears, mind, and heart for a while, and if you're a person who wants to fall in love with creative, inspired music again and again, I don't think you'll go wrong starting anywhere in the Taiga roster. This is a perfect example of what a great label can do through careful curation and devotion to detail. Taiga is a label I can trust.

Pauline Oliveros
The last few years have been incredible for celebrating the work of composer and improviser Pauline Oliveros. Last year's 12-disc box set on Important Records documented much of her early tape and electronics works, and her newer recordings, both under her own name and as part of the Deep Listening Band, have been  flying off the shelves at both Important and Taiga. In fact, it looks as though only one of the releases featuring her is still available directly from Taiga. The Timeless Pulse Trio, featuring Oliveros joined by percussionists George Marsh and Jennifer Wilsey, is a wonderful double-LP, rich with drones and intertwined modulating rhythms. Even though most of Oliveros' playing in this group focuses on shifting clouds of dissonance, I've been really obsessed with non-equal temperament tuning systems for several years, and as this music progresses, there are frequent triumphant moments where overtones coalesce into beautiful walls of perfectly-tuned sound, supported by perfectly-placed percussion embellishments that leave me wanting to revisit this album immediately.

I also need to mention that I've been reading Oliveros' book "Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice" in the same timeframe as my newfound love affair with Taiga, and it too is contributing to my sense of "new ears." I've found myself in the Slow Walk more than a few times with Timeless Pulse and other records, and I'm excited to continue exploring the practice of Deep Listening, which feels like a valuable system for musicians and music lovers alike. I can't express my gratitude for this music and these practices. You can find out more about Deep Listening on the Deep Listening Institute website.

Tatsuya Nakatani
As mentioned above, I've been deeply affected by the work of Tatsuya Nakatani for almost a decade. While in some ways I think seeing him work his magic in person is the best way to experience his music, many of his recordings are powerful documents of his approach, too. Tragically, it looks like his "Fever Dream" Taiga album with the MAP trio has been out of print for some time. A real shame--this collaboration with guitarist Mary Halvorson and Reuben Radding on bass is a true gem, and one of my favorite records featuring any of the three. Fortunately, though, his recent "Nakatani Gong Orchestra" release is still available, and it's a great record. While Nakatani tours the country playing almost indescribable solo percussion sets, he's also been staging "Gong Orchestra" concerts over the past few years. Using local musicians (and sometimes non-musicians) who he quickly trains to bow his collection of gongs, Nakatani conducts a chamber ensemble of performers after a brief rehearsal, drawing out a surprising variety of metallic drones and even fortuitous melodies that astonish humbled audiences in a variety of acoustic spaces. This LP seamlessly combines passages of recordings made in six cities into two sides of uninterrupted gong worship. In person, these performances feel transcendent--on record, this album feels a little more haunted at times than at least some of the live shows, but it's a powerful experience, made all the more remarkable when you consider the humble palette of sound sources and the sometimes inexperienced collaborators involved in producing the music. It looks like it's still available in a clever "gong" colored vinyl edition as well, which is a perfect way to celebrate these sounds.

Rafel Toral
Taiga has been involved with electronic musician Rafael Toral's "Space Program" series from the beginning--indeed, the first trio of releases from the label lay out the foundation of the project. However, I find it interesting that this small-run label, whose releases mostly sell out, still has remaining copies available of all six Toral releases they've done. Lucky for you, dear readers, as you can still get into the Space Program on the ground floor.

I can see how these albums can be a difficult proposition to get into, as some of the sounds coming from these experimental instruments can be harsh and foreboding at times. But in conjunction, these records combine to reveal different attributes of a galaxy of sounds that come together in the the "orchestral environment" of the "Space" album itself. The overall "program" is hard to describe briefly, but in essence you get music that combines the sound exploration of new music/eai circles with the kinds of musically communicative interactions one finds in the work of jazz outsiders. "Space Solo" albums focus on individual instruments that contribute to the whole, and "Space Elements" albums feature a variety of collaborations that put these instruments through their paces in surprising contexts.

There are "blips" and "bloops" and gnarly distorted retrofuturistic electronic sounds that split the difference between Stockhausen and Merzbow at times, especially among the "Space Solo" efforts, but it's truly amazing how diverse these instruments can get in the "Space Elements" series. And the "Space" album itself is a total must-have, uniting the many musical threads behind the whole concept. It might take some time to wrap your head around the project, but I have found that it's totally worth the effort. There is nothing quite like these beautiful and strange records.

A few other recommendations
Kayo Dot has been one of my favorite bands since their first release on Tzadik almost a decade ago, and their deluxe vinyl release of "Coyote" on Taiga is gorgeous. While a lot of the folks who got into KD largely because of their earlier avant-metal affiliations might not have vibed on this record, I think it's a great album that continues to improve with each spin. Composer/bandleader Toby Driver transitioned from guitar to bass on this recording, and horns assume an increasingly dominant musical role. In some ways, it's both the "proggiest" and "gothiest" KD album to my ears, an unusual combination of styles, but Driver's increasingly mature compositional style makes it all work.

Composer and traveling field recording archivist Douglas Quin's album "Fathom" was particularly striking to me, too. Made of underwater recordings split between the Arctic and the Antarctic, these recordings transcend the whole notion of composition. This record sounds like nothing I've ever heard within terrestrial music, and frankly it's hard to believe these sounds are happening anywhere on our planet at all. If you want feel humbled by just how little of our own world we experience under ordinary circumstances, get a taste of "Fathom."

I'll close with a few photos of these amazing records. Thanks to Taiga for turning me all the way on for a second time in my life!

Heavy, clear vinyl and a red flooded pocket on Rafael Toral's "Space Solo 1":

The beautiful gong-colored vinyl of the Gong Orchestra LP:

Interaction of beautiful letterpressed textures on "Fathom":

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