Communication All the Time!
STELLAN SAGVIK OF nosag
TALKS TO MARTIN ANDERSON, Fanfare Magazine
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.
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."
"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."
"We passed 100 nosag CDs early in 2005. Our side label GASON (www.gason.se), 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."
"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."
"I have a technician I work intimately with—not in that way!—and there's my wife, so we are three."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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!"
"You've got a point there!"
"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."
"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."
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."
"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."
"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."
"That is because you didn't hear the original material. I worked so much with the sound to make it pass."
"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."
"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.