Interview with founder of nosag records

Communication All the Time!

  There comes a time in the lives of many recording companies when the catalogue is big enough to make the leap from a presence in the domestic market to international representation and distribution.

The Swedish label nosag is now in that position and is about to appear in a music store near you.

Stellan Sagvik

On the 'phone to Stellan Sagvik, the founder of the label (and therefore, I guess, the "Sag" of nosag) I began, of course, at the beginning: How did nosag start?

"I was working in the folk-music genre, in a group called RAA. We had recorded an LP in the '70s, and I was planning to re-issue this thing. But the company that had the rights didn't want to do it, so then I started the company myself. It was just by coincidence."

  • And what flavor of musician is/was Sagvik?

    "It was what you would call today 'world music'—from all continents except the Antarctic—so I played everything, almost. All the woodwinds, fiddles, and things like that. Like the Incredible String Band. That was the era, and it was great fun. But then I became rather good at production, and I was singing in choirs, so the choir people asked me to do recordings for them. One thing led to another. It started rolling in '89, so it's been going for more than fifteen years to today."

  • How many CDs has Nosag now brought out?

    "We passed 100 nosag CDs early in 2005. Our side label GASON (, carrying jazz, folk and other more ethnic music, has released 25 titles. And we've done some CDs for other companies too, without our label, so we've produced rather many in these past years."

  • Sagvik is also active as a freelance recording engineer, then?

    "Yes, that's what you make money from! Selling CDs isn't very much, but if you can do the whole thing—and we do the whole thing, from recording up to the design of the covers—you can get some benefit from it."

  • Sagvik says "we" — how many people are on the staff?

    "I have a technician I work intimately with—not in that way!—and there's my wife, so we are three."

  • Stellan had sent me a range of his discs so that I could see before I rang him what sort of things he did. They struck me as covering a fairly eclectic range of music:

  • Music by Sagvik himself, his Missa Maria Magdalena (CD017) and
  • Four Films Forchestra (sic, if in my translation; CDC011),
  • a song-cycle, The Andrée Expedition, by Dominick Argento (CD021),
  • orchestral music by Dag Wirén ("Gyckeldans" CD041),
  • Bengt Forsberg playing Schubert (CD025)
  • Palestrina and Byrd from the Hägersten Motet Choir (CD006),
  • chamber music by the teenage composer-prodigy Johannes V Möller (CD015),

    and much more. Was there a thread linking all this?

    "The only thing that is a kind of aim is some kind of Swedish connection: It can be Swedish musicians, Swedish composers, Swedish groups, etc. And some contemporary connection as well, so it's now mainly living musicians—they can play Schubert, OK, but they are active, and probably rather young as well. So that is the main aim: To work today, in contemporary musical life."

  • How has nosag built up its range of artists — have people come to them, has it been a series of chance contacts, etc.?

    "It's like with everybody else. We take some initiatives ourselves. For example, I plan to do a recording with a trio of flutes; that comes from hearing them playing at the weekend and I thought: 'Wouldn't it be nice to do a collection?' There are so many pieces from the turn of the century and also much more modern music for duo or trio of flutes of different sizes. And we also plan to commission some music from colleagues. As you know, I'm a composer, so I have good connections with Swedish composers, and therefore there is much collaboration there. So we can take this kind of initiative. And at the other end someone can come and say: 'Hey, can you help us to record and issue this.' So it works both ways, 50/50."

  • Since he has brought the subject up, let's discuss Sagvik's own music—I had been meaning to ask him about it in any case. Its range of expression seems almost as eclectic as his catalog.

    "Yes, of course! [loud laugh] I'm a musician, I'm not doing experiments. So I want to have some kind of dialog with the listener and with the musician. I always claim that it's better to work with a musician and with a musician's technique than against it, because mostly you get a better result if you have a mutual understanding that this is something you want to do together, and not to abuse the musicians or the audience. That doesn't mean that I can write both rough and bad chords, so to speak, but it's better to want to have a dialog than just to provoke."

  • The stylistic means he embraces for this dialog are catholic indeed: Some of the pieces swing from a conservative, tonal idiom to a bold and radical expressionism within a startlingly short space of time.

    "Well, when I write, it's meant to be music. It's not meant to be experimental or avant-garde or something like that. It's just to make some kind of communication all the time."

  • That's true: Despite the stylistic generosity, the music manages to be very direct ("I hope so!") — an audience coming to Sagvik's music for the first time won't have to sit down with a philosophical treatise before they can understand it.

    "D'you know, I'm allergic to it when you have to read four or five pages before you listen to a one-minute piece. It's so stupid—then you should be a writer instead. If it's so damn important to write all this text about the music, why don't you let the music be the music, and the text the text. Why do you have to eat both? I cannot digest that. Also, when people go to concerts with only my music, they can always be sure that they don't have to listen to only one type of music. They get a varied program even if it's only one composer. I try to work in a communicative way all the time. And it's the same in the CD business. I try to make CDs which, well, maybe they're not all 100% masterpieces, but they all have something that makes them dear to me, at least, and I hope it will be to some other listener as well."

  • I wondered where Stellan had trained.

    "In Stockholm, at the Musikhögskolan [Royal College of Music]. I studied composing there, though I was never skilled enough as an instrumentalist to attend any other courses in instruments; as part of the composition education, we had piano, we had score-reading, we did conducting and things like that, of course, but not as specialized as the instrumental courses."

  • And he progressed from there into the group he mentioned earlier?

    "It was more or less parallel. This was 30 years ago and my memory is already starting to go rather numb! I think it was in the start of the '70s that all of these things happened. And I raised a family rather early, so I was very much into that as well, with small children, working double-time at the same time as you were at College and you played as a musician, and I also worked in theaters at night. So it was very much a melting pot during that period. You coped with everything; you were able to do anything. I don't know how, but you could. Now I can hardly get out of bed before ten o'clock!"

  • Well, if an exchange of e-mails in the wee sma' hours is anything to go by, it's because he is not in bed before two or three.

    "You've got a point there!"

  • Back to nosag, and its appearance before an American audience. Which has he has now found a distributor to service the North American market?

    "Albany is helping us in the States and Canada, and I think it is starting to work rather well. At the beginning they tried with just a couple of titles, but now they try to cover more and more of our catalog, so I think most of it is now available in the States."

  • And with what initial reaction from the trade?

    "Better than I expected, really; we had better sales figures than I thought they would be at the start. We had some of our productions which are probably rather interesting for an American audience—the CD of music by Dag Wirén, for example, and also these productions by [Semmy] Stahlhammer, the violinist, were very well received, so I hope they can be like a kind of arrow into the market, so people get interested in more from this company."

  • The Wirén disc offers three orchestral pieces (the Romantic Suite, the Flute Concertino, and a previously unperformed ballet score)—and also doubles, most imaginatively, as a CD-ROM of the complete nosag catalog, complete with extracts from their other CDs, details of the musicians and composers, and more; in effect, it's a miniature version of the nosag website ( And the Semmy Stahlhammer "productions" he refers to are four CDs, in two double albums,
    of turn-of-the-century Swedish music for violin and piano by composers like Alfvén, Aulin, Järnefelt, Stenhammar, Peterson-Berger, and Rosenberg. So is it the more traditional music that people respond to first?

    "What's very obvious in Europe, and I think maybe the United States as well, is that people are looking more for mood and inspiration and relaxation, if you speak of the broader public, because the speed of time is so disturbing, so they are looking for some kind of music that calms them down, like some medicine or drug. That's why the most sold of our productions are those that I would almost consider as muzak. I don't know why, but it's like that, and if you look at those cheap shops, petrol stations, and places like that, all the music that they have is that kind of music. It's depressing in a way, but it can also be a bridge to people when they've passed that, to be interested in something else. That's when we try to offer some alternatives. We also have this muzak kind of stuff, but try to keep it at a quality level not only as it's produced, so that it's done with some kind of musical skill and some feeling and some heart, because that's important even if it's just relaxation music."

  • Some of nosag's discs, by contrast, are just about as far from muzak as you could get—the seventy-minute suite Dialogues pour piano seul by Staffan Björklund (CD044), for example, which sounds on occasion like Scriabin edited by Sorabji.

    "He is a special musician, this Björklund. He's a church musician, organist, you know. To put it roughly, the Composers' Union in Sweden has been looking down on church musicians because they are 'only' organists—this kind of attitude: If only they could write some real music, something avant-garde... Well, of course they can, although they write hymns, choral arrangements, that sort of thing. But I have always claimed that these musicians work all the time with music, in their craft, in the church, etc., so they have very sharp tools. If they have some ideas, if anybody has the skill to put them into music, it's those musicians. And Staffan has been very much misused in Swedish musical society. Now, in the last two years maybe, he has been considered as 'somebody'—and the man is over fifty years old. It's rough music, it's odd music, but I think he has very much talent and very much to say, because everything he does comes from inside, without any speculation; he doesn't put a finger up to check the wind or anything—he just does his thing."

  • It is very passionate music.

    "Oh yes. He is a very timid man, but in his music, especially his piano music, you feel a volcano. I like it very much. Unfortunately, the two CDs we released with him we did not record ourselves; we took master-tapes that others had recorded. If we had done it, the recordings would have been much better quality. But we thought that the music was the important thing here, not the quality of the sound. The next CD with him will be better technically."

  • Well, it didn't sound too bad to me.

    "That is because you didn't hear the original material. I worked so much with the sound to make it pass."

  • What can Stellan Sagvik tell me of his plans for future releases?

    "We will continue the same line of working with contemporary, active, Swedish musicians. But we will try to make cleaner lines—for example, one choral line, one documentary line, one chamber-music line. The orchestral recordings seem to be more and more odd, because they've become more and more expensive, so we'll probably focus on the chamber-music side and the choral-music side, because those are our two main aims. The choral thing is very, very big in Sweden. We have many, many choirs and a big market for that material -- one of our earliest CDs, Lyrically [CD007], from about four or five years back, still sells every month in Sweden (and that is a little market) -- although between the best selling periods of 500-600 and as low as twenty totally. I consider that remarkable. But we are a small company, and if we pass three figures, we have a party that month! I think all music has its audience, and most CDs tend to make ends meet; it's just a matter of time."

  • The record business resounds with tales of gloom these days; one record-company chief told me the other day that sales on the release of a CD were as good as they ever were, but that the back-catalog is completely dead—stores simply don't re-order.

    "He's got a point there, because you have so many new issues coming all the time, so many new productions, that you have neither space nor capacity to hold in your mind what is and, especially, what was. We try to keep everything in stock — I learned that from Robert von Bahr [of BIS]. If you want to survive as a company at all, you cannot say: 'No, we're out of that and it won't come again.' That is a very bad attitude towards the audience, because this CD is new to this listener now; it doesn't matter if it was made ten years ago.
    And you have to give the audience what they want."

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    nosag records
    gustav adolfsv 41A
    se-141 32 huddinge - sweden
    phone +46 8 5592 3392

    These pages were constructed by Mattias Franzén, Stockholm, 1997