“ It's not going to get heard by magic, you're going to have to do a lot of hard work. ”
French filmmaker and writer Guy Debord's art probed how modernization and economic forces caused alienation in everyday life. Music composed in his honor was the impetus for an artist-run, independent record label: drummer-percussionist and composer Kevin Norton's Barking Hoop. It's dedicated to developing original and unique work outside established parameters, which Debord would applaud.
A longtime sideman for multi-reedist Anthony Braxton, Norton was invited to compose and perform at the 1998 Tri-Centric Festival in New York. With Debord as an inspiration, he wrote a suite featuring Braxton as the principal soloist backed by a larger ensemble. Norton recorded the premiere for documentation and to serve as a demo for potentially interested record labels. But the more he listened to the tape, the more he was convinced of the strength and uniqueness of the performances and wanted to release the live version. When labels rejected it or expressed only mild interest, Norton decided to act.
"It was just that the music, that particular piece especially, felt really strong and I thought, 'It's time to move forward', Norton says. With confidence in the work and a belief that the labels were wrong, he released For Guy Debord (In Nine Events) as the Barking Hoop debut in 1999.
It was a bold move for Norton, who was a well-regarded instrumentalist but had only two prior releases as leader-composer. And this was before the proliferation of artist-run labels during the last several years. "There's no way that you could do something like that and not be concerned about it being heard, Norton says. "It's not going to get heard by magic, you're going to have to do a lot of hard work.
Norton's instincts and effort were borne out with both critics and listeners taking overwhelmingly positive notice of For Guy Debord. Many of them were intrigued by the connection to the French artist. The CD continues to be a consistent seller and convinced Norton that he could reach an audience on his own, as well or better than by working through established labels.
Since then, Barking Hoop has released ten more CDs; like the first, many are from live concerts. This was done not only for economic considerations, but also because the performances were moving or particularly representative of the artists. "11 releases isn't a lot, but I think they're all good, unique records, Norton says. "They represent some strong moments for some of the players.
The catalogue reflects Norton's interests and evolution as a composer and bandleader. A trio project for two saxophones and percussion was captured on In Context/Out of Context (1999). Another disc, Ocean of Earth (2002), featured Norton with Tomas Ulrich's cello and Joëlle Léandre's bass and was predominately improvised, exploring textural range. The confluence of composition and improvisation was navigated on Time-Space Modulator (2003), with Norton's Bauhaus Quartet, while the recent Born in Brooklyn (2005) was a freely-improvised live performance with the collective Instinctual EyeFrode Gjerstad's reeds and Nick Stephens' bass joining Norton. Conversely, Play the Music of Anthony Braxton (2001) was an elegant duet between Norton and his wife, pianist Haewon Min, featuring subtle interpretations of several Braxton compositions not available elsewhere on CD.
Unlike some other artist-run labels, Barking Hoop has released music from other artists as well. Early on, Norton's colleagues were featured, including fellow Braxton-alum guitarist Kevin O'Neil with his debut Sous Rature and the Anthony Braxton Quartet's important 2-disc set 8 Standards (Wesleyan) 2001, which marked a shift in direction for the leader. Norton does not play on two more recent Barking Hoop CDs: Frozen Ropes (2004), from the String Trio of New York with guest saxophonist Oliver Lake; and Hybrids (2005), the debut from guitarist Billy Stein.
"I don't see a dichotomy between my projects and the other projects, he says. "I work just as hard for all of them. And that means Norton handles virtually everything, from audio mixing and production to lining up manufacturing facilities and ultimately packaging and mailing CDs for review and to customers. Though personally handling the minutiae takes time away from practicing and composing, Norton realizes it's become part of the creative process and of reaching listeners.
"I'm going to continue to go as if there's always going to be an audience for this music, he says, adding wryly "but I have to deal with reality too. Aware of slumping CD sales and the rise of digital downloading, Norton finds that many listeners still want to take CDs home from a concert and have the liner notes and art to accompany the music. He's worked with graphic designer Edward Ratliff to create a consistent visual identity for the label with original photography and uncluttered design elements.