Thomas Steenland dreams of a world without mp3

The story behind Boulder-based label Starkland 

By Izzy Fincher Oct. 1

“New music always stood out to me. I gravitated toward it,” Thomas Steenland says.

After 43 years in new music, the appeal hasn’t faded for Steenland. With his Boulder-based label Starkland, he continues to release genre-defying, innovative new music for adventurous listeners.

Thomas Steenland

Steenland established himself in Colorado’s new music industry in the 1970s. After graduating from the University of Colorado, he took over Owl Recording, Inc., a new-music label founded in 1976. Owl, the brainchild of Steenland’s professor Cecil Effinger, was one of the United States’ first major non-profit labels, a revolutionary idea in the music industry. Freed from industry norms, Owl pursued their mission of releasing new music LPs of “high artistic, educational or historical worth not otherwise available” with Steenland at the helm. 

After 15 years at Owl, Steenland’s entrepreneurial spirit grew restless, as he saw Owl’s legacy fade when CDs began to eclipse LPs. He decided to revamp Owl’s mission to meet technological advancements. This led to the creation of his own label in 1991, based in Boulder, which released CDs exclusively. 

“I think a label can be based anywhere,” Steenland says. “But I was here in Boulder and had connections that evolved out of my experience with Owl. It was an easy transition from running that label to forming my own label.”

He decided to name his label Starkland, a play on his last name Steenland (which means “stone land” in Dutch).

“I have always loved the word stark, and I wanted it to indicate that it was edgy music,” Steenland says. “It wasn’t easy listening, new-age music.”

The word stark certainly embodied the label’s mission. Stark means utter and sheer, suggesting an absolute commitment to new music. Stark means severe, harsh and sharp, suggesting the tendency of new music to challenge expectations. Stark also means desolate and barren, perhaps a nod to unexplored musical territory and the sparsely populated landscape of the new music industry.

Original album of Dockstader’s Apocalypse

Starkland’s first release, a reissue of composer Tod Dockstader’s LPs on CD, sat at the intersection of unexplored musical and technological territory. The CD reissue presented the audio, especially the bass, with greater depth and authenticity than the original LPs released 25 years earlier. The reissue garnered attention and rave reviews from critics.

From there, Starkland grew, releasing music by cutting edge composers including Paul Dresher, Jay Cloidt and Guy Klucevsek. Later, Steenland experimented with new audio techniques, notably surround sound in the 2000 release Immersion, which featured 13 experimental electroacoustic commissions.

Nothing was too extreme for Starkland, not even Elliott Sharps’ 2015 album The Boreal, a turbulent auditory experiment.

“I can’t say I have rejected anything because it’s too extreme,” Steenland admits. “There would be other reasons. Elliott Sharp’s album is very challenging to listen to. You have to be in the right frame of mind. But he’s a big name, and that album got over 30 reviews. He has fans, but it’s not easy listening.”

In the digital music age, Steenland has been forced again to adapt to technological advancements, this time unwillingly, as CDs fade away like Owl’s LPs, eclipsed by mp3 and digital streaming services.

“The big change is how music is presented and sold to the public,” Steenland says. “I made the transition from LPs to CDs and now from CDs to digital, but the music is a constant. I really enjoyed CDs because the sound was significantly better than LPs. Now CDs are going away, and it’s becoming a digital world.”

Steenland is not a fan of this new “digital world.” Frustrated by low quality audio, he dismisses millennials’ listening habits.

“People are more interested in convenience than quality,” Steenland says. “On Spotify or SoundCloud, the quality is really low. It’s a very different experience for the listener. Spotify’s data rate is about one-seventh of what a CD is. They are throwing away six-sevenths of the music. That’s discouraging when you worked really hard to make a beautiful sounding master tape.”

In the future, he believes 5G wireless will eliminate the need for mp3 by expanding current limits on storage capacity and data rate.

“I think if 5G comes in, that is incredibly faster,” Steenland says. “It can stream high resolution video in real time. That would mean it can also stream high resolution audio. Hopefully then mp3 will go away, and we can go back to listening to CD or even better quality.”

Amidst the pandemic, he admits little has changed for Starkland, as the label focuses on chamber music releases. Musicians do their own recordings in home studios or in a socially-distanced studio setting. The only issue is promotion, such as Starkland’s recent release of Danielle Buonaiuto’s Marfa Songs, a “problem everyone faces” in the 2020 recording industry, he says.

“When COVID-19 came in, Danielle could not have a release party in New York City. That was really unfortunate. [A release party] gives critics more reason to pay attention to the album. It’s a problem. It’s disappointing, but what can you do?”

Instead in 2020, Steenland chooses to focus on what he can control. So he continues his 40-year mission of releasing new music and pursuing the highest-quality sound, meanwhile dreaming of a day when mp3 goes away.

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You may access the full Starkland catalogs here.

Starkland’s new CD features music that is both accessible and deeply emotional

Boulder-based CD label releases acclaimed album of music by Martin Bresnick

By Peter Alexander

Pryaers cover“Prayers Remain Forever,” a new CD release from Boulder-based Starkland, is a wonderfully varied and deeply satisfying collection of six works by composer Martin Bresnick.

The six pieces on the album spring from very different sources: One was inspired by a personal experience, one by a painting by Goya, and three by literary sources. They are also diverse in instrumentation, ranging from solo violin and solo piano to a mixed quartet of violin, oboe, viola and cello. What they have in common is their expressivity. Bresnick, who teaches composition at Yale, is represented here by music that is personal, has an emotional depth, and is accessible to the listener.

Tom Steenland, who operates the Starkland CD label (which is under the umbrella of Spruceland Music, Inc., in case you were not already confused), is delighted to be issuing music that is easily appreciated. “I’m probably more excited about [new music today] than ever,” he says.

“In the mid-70s when I was studying composition, new music was pretty esoteric and not enjoyed much by the general public, but there’s been sort of a revolution since then. Music is more accessible, it’s exciting. People are interested in what composers are composing.

“It’s been a tremendous change I never would have envisioned.”

Tom Steenland

Tom Steenland

Steenland started the Starkland label in 1991 as a way of transferring music by Tod Dockstader from vinyl LPs to more up-to-date CDs. From that very first release, Steenland has seen the mission of his label to be the “promotion of alternative classical, experimental, and avant-garde music through the production of high-quality recordings.”

Composers in the Starkland catalogue include Jay Cloidt, Paul Dresher, Aaron Jay Kernis, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, John Zorn, and others. The label typically releases 3 or 4 recordings a year of about 1000 CDs each.

Martin Bresnick. Photo by Marc Ostow

Martin Bresnick. Photo by Marc Ostow

“Prayers Remain Forever” opens with “Going home – Vysoke, My Jerusalem” for oboe, violin, viola and cello. A mournful meditation on a visit to his ancestral home in Russia, where his immigrant grandparents had witnessed the murder of family members, this is a wonderful opening track that draws the listener in and prepares the emotional ground that Bresnick covers throughout the album. To my ears, this is the most deeply moving piece on the album, with the plaintive oboe weaving in and out of sustained strings, seeking but never quite finding repose.

“Ishi’s Song” for piano is based on a fragment of song recorded by Ishi, the last of California’s Yahi-Yani Indians, who died in 1916. The song fragment, sung by the pianist at the outset, is transformed into a bright, rhythmic minimalist sketch colored by pentatonic elements.

“Josephine The Singer” for solo violin is based on a Kafka story about a mouse who is—or fancies herself?—a great singer, although the fragmented, sketchy sounds from the violin do not suggest a singer of great lyrical qualities.

Francisco Goya: "Strange Devotion," Plate 66 of "Disasters of War"

Francisco Goya: “Strange Devotion,” Plate 66 of “Disasters of War”

“Strange Devotion” for piano was inspired by a Goya etching from “Disasters of War” in which peasants are kneeling before a cart of corpses drawn by a donkey. The plodding chords and the jingling of the donkey’s bells in the piano part both illustrate the image and convey the remorseless futility of war.

In “A Message From the Emperor,” two percussionists both recite and provide decoration for another short story by Kafka. Rattling marimba and xylophone capture the truly Kafka-esque tale of a messenger dispatched by a dying emperor with a critical message than can never be delivered.

The CDs final, title track, “Prayers Remain Forever” for cello and piano, takes its inspiration from a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever.” A virtuoso passage of accumulating momentum suddenly breaks down into a long, intense section that seems to illustrate the poem’s opening line, “Tombstones crumble.” The virtuosic, headlong rush into destruction ends the CD with a powerful image of finality.

I don’t listen to a lot of new CDs, but this strikes me as one of the best recordings of new music that I have heard in a long time. I am not alone in that evaluation: “Prayers Remain Forever” has been selected one of the best albums of new music in 2014 by Sequenza21, an important new music Web site; and received glowing reviews in the classical music publications Gramophone and Fanfare.

“Prayers Remain Forever”
StarkLogo04c2
Music of Martin Bresnick: Going Home – Vysoke, My Jerusalem; Ishi’s Song; Josephine the Singer; Strange Devotion; A Message from the Emperor; Prayers Remain Forever. Performers: Double Entendre (Christa Robinson, oboe; Caleb Burhans, violin; John Pickford Richards, viola; and Brian Snow, cello); Lisa Moore, piano; Sarita Kwok, violin; Michael Compitello and Ian Rosenblum, percussion and speakers; Ashley Bathgate, cello.

Starkland ST-221 (60:38)

Available from Amazon, Arkiv and iTunes.