Cold Blue Music is an American record company which was founded in the Eighties by Jim Fox, and whose main goal is to explore the multifaceted world of contemporary music. Fox characterizes most of his releases as “sensual” music, i.e. music which is subtle, refined, direct, and a bit mysterious. As with Innova Recordings, Kathodik paid attention to the label’s activity, mainly by reviewing its challenging and intriguing releases. Cold Blue Music was recognized by many new-music critics as a label with a unique focus (particularly West Coast minimalism and post-minimalism), although such a characterization has been questioned by Fox himself, as you can read below. After having listened to, and reviewed, several Cold Blue’s CDs, I thought – along with Filippo Focosi – that it was time to have our usual “digital talk” with Could Blue Music’s founder and artistic director, the composer Jim Fox, in order to let him speak about the label, from its beginnings up to its future projects. Here it is what he told us:
Here you can find the Italian Translation
How did the idea of founding Cold Blue Music come about in the 1980s?
Dating back to when I was a teenager in the late 1960s, I have been aware of record labels, particularly those that at that time specialized in new music (ESP, Mainstream,Time, Nonesuch, Odyssey, Advance, Saturn, Impulse!, Actuel, Shandar, Delmark, and many, many others), and how the best ones had a distinctive sound—a curated sound.
But specifically why I started Cold Blue is not particularly clear to me anymore. I suppose it simply seemed like the right thing to do in the early 1980s. However, I had little money at the time (I worked then as a bookstore clerk), so as I started Cold Blue, I soon found myself on a diet of those little packets of Japanese-made dried noodles and broth that sold for just a few pennies a package.
As I recall, my Cold Blue goal was simple: release music that I enjoyed that wasn’t otherwise getting to a broad listenership. By happenstance, this turned out to be primarily music from the West Coast (where I’d lived since the mid-1970s), music by composers who were perhaps loosely united by a common interest in music’s basic sensuality.
Cold Blue wasn’t planned as the home for a “school” of composers, but critics quickly dubbed it as such. And who am I to refuse a handy moniker? (“[Cold Blue] is an invaluable resource for what might be called part of the new ‘California School’… a label with a particular viewpoint and consummate good taste,” wrote Joan La Barbara in High Fidelity/Musical America. “The [Cold Blue] label defines a certain ‘Southern California sound,’ uncluttered, evocative and unusual, with a wistful emotional edge,” wrote an LA Weekly critic).
So my founding of Cold Blue was about stumbling forward with good ideas and intentions. I had taught university-level electronic music, so I had a working knowledge of the electronics of sound reproduction. Business sense seemed like something I could pick up along the way. (Yet it apparently eludes me to this day.) Although I knew almost nothing about manufacturing records, I recalled visiting a large RCA record-pressing factory as a child. (The sounds of its many pneumatic record presses all going at once was the loudest thing I’d heard at that age!)
The 1980s incarnation of Cold Blue only lasted a few years. Around 1985, both of my primary distributors went bankrupt. Without distribution, Cold Blue closed its doors too, just as CDs were emerging. By the way, I was one of the last among my friends to get a CD player. I found the early commercial CDs, circa the mid-’80s, to be harsh-sounding, uninviting. But after a few years, the people mastering CDs, as well as the people designing the digital-to-analog converters (DACs) and output amps and filters on players, seemed to get the hang of it, and a beautiful sound became available on CD.
What prompted you to decide to re-establish the label?
Why did I restart Cold Blue in December 2000? It’s not that I had gained wealth to squander in the interim. A new music label arranged to release some of my music, but its contract was absurdly unfriendly to the composer. It actually contained a “de-escalator clause”—the more you sold, the lower your royalty percentage became! It wasn’t the money that mattered to me; I expected my royalties would amount to only a few pennies. It was the principle of the thing that bothered me. So, in a fit of high-mindedness, I asked some composers if they’d be interested in having their music issued on a new Cold Blue, a reincarnation-plus—all new releases and friendly contracts. Everyone I spoke with was delighted by the idea.
So off I stumbled again, hoping—and succeeding, if I do say so myself—to make and release high-quality recordings of music I personally enjoy.
I should also mention that at this point in time I was growing interested in recordings as their own musical statements, not merely documents of live performances. So I’ve enjoyed working on Cold Blue record projects that might be hard to put together as purely live performances and to avail myself of a good studio’s editing and processing possibilities, when handled by an engineer whose ear I highly respect. One such engineer, with whom I’ve worked on most of the Cold Blue recordings since 2000, is Scott Fraser—a fellow with excellent ears and wonderfully musical instincts.
And, I should note, I believe in putting out music that is affordable, not expensive limited editions. This is important to me, and I’ll tell you why: As a kid, I learned a lot about music, particularly “new music,” by listening to recordings, because the small city I grew up in, Indianapolis, Indiana, just didn’t have a new music scene for live performances in the late ’60s, when I was in high school and growing a passion for new music. Very little music by living composers found its way to the city’s stages at that time, and few contemporary scores and recordings found their way to its libraries. Therefore, I haunted record stores for the odd and unusual, grabbing whatever I could find. Record shopping and seeking The New became much the same activity for me.
Why did you choose to focus on West Coast minimalist and post-minimalist American music? What does this kind of music mean to you?
I hate these terms because—like “jazz” and “classical” and most other music genre descriptors—they just don’t come anywhere close to expressing the myriad interesting things musicians who may have roots (i.e., jumping-off points, off into the wild unknown) might now be doing. For many years I refused to use those terms. But I later grew to accept that such words could act as a handle that some listeners can grab onto to help them approach musics that they might otherwise shy away from.
As opposed to “minimalism” and “post-minimalism,” I prefer to think that Cold Blue specializes in particularly sensual music—music that subtly tickles the ears (perhaps with interesting, often rich, harmonies) and the mind (perhaps with compelling though not always complicated shapes), and does so without crying out, “Hey, look what I’m doing!”
I also like to think there is, in a very broad sense, a discernible spirit of ecstasy (often a quiet or understated ecstasy) running through most of Cold Blue’s offerings.
On another level, I tend to like and want to produce music that depends for much of its character on color and texture (not that these are necessarily two separate musical elements). I also like music that has subtle surprises in it—surprises in note choices, surprises in instrumentation, surprises in shape, etc.
I think that a quality one might find/hear if listening to the whole Cold Blue catalog is a tendency for direct, straightforward expression of musical ideas (which, I suppose, could possibly be said to bleed over into some very broad or passing allusions to musical minimalism and post-minimalism, if one is sorting it all into common pigeonholes). Also, though not in conflict with the aforementioned straightforwardness, I think there is a sense of mystery—of clouds on the horizon—and perhaps even of unease or uncertainty hovering around many Cold Blue releases.
Lastly, I should say that I don’t start out wondering how any given music that I encounter might embrace or fail to embrace the vaguely common qualities I’ve just mentioned. (And I most certainly do not ever start out thinking about how music might or might not fulfill certain pigeonholes.) I hope I’m always looking for something that doesn’t obviously fit too snugly with the other music on the label, yet at the same time feels like the very right next thing to release.
Cold Blue Music productions are exclusively in CD and digital format. What do you think about the vinyl? Do you think it will find some space in your label in a not too distant future?
I grew up with vinyl. Cold Blue’s first recordings, which were done in the 1980s, were vinyls—EPs and LPs. I would not have switched to CD if vinyl had still been a popular recording medium when I restarted the company in 2000. (In fact, as I mentioned in my answer to your first question, the earliest commercial CDs did not sound terribly good to me.)
I also like the idea (as strange and silly as it is) that after a great dystopian upheaval one could quite possibly glean the very basic info/music from a vinyl recording, even a warped one, simply by spinning it on a pencil and holding a needle in the groove with your ear next to it. The information—the sound waves—has been cut into the vinyl physically. This is akin to the ancient Greek pottery that was recently discovered to contain scratches/grooves caused by the potter’s stylus picking up the sound vibrations of the voices of those who were nearby when it was created on the potter’s wheel.
But, for me (for Cold Blue), it’s hard to change back to vinyl at this point. Plus, I think that state-of-the-art digital recordings, delivered on carefully mastered CDs—as I believe all Cold Blue CDs are—sound very, very, very good. And the plain old truth is that I’m getting old, so hauling around heavy boxes of vinyl LPs seems uninviting. Also, at this point in time, Cold Blue CDs are packaged only in cardboard (never plastic boxes)—as they have been for the past 10 years—so I feel that their environmental impact is fairly small.
What I do see as a shame regarding digital files, particularly those that are sold and played via the internet, is that people are listening to them on low-fidelity single speakers or low-fidelity headphones. Somewhere in the past dozen years, many listeners have given up on having a stereo system that produces at least a somewhat reasonable version of the sounds being played on it. Working with my recording engineers, I spend a lot of time making each Cold Blue album sound exquisite as a full-range stereo recording, so I’m sorry that some of the people who acquire these records will not be able to hear the beauty of their sounds.
What do you think about co-productions between record labels? Do you think it is a viable option also for Cold Blue Music?
I think that’s an interesting idea. If the right project came along, and with a simpatico co-producing label, I could see doing something like that.
How does the label act on social media?
I’ve really not gotten into social media. I’m not much of a social media person myself, and since Cold Blue is, for better or worse, a direct offshoot of me (my tastes and interests), the label is also not particularly active on social media.
I had a Cold Blue Facebook page (it’s still visible there) that I used in a most simple way: I announced new releases as they became available, and I announced concerts that Cold Blue put on (until the pandemic, the Cold Blue label had been producing two concerts a year in Los Angeles). But, alas, someone hijacked my personal Facebook page almost a year ago—and that page was needed for changing and adding information to the Cold Blue page. So, the Cold Blue Facebook page languishes, with no updates during the past year. (I’ve written repeatedly to Facebook, trying to reclaim my page, but they’ve never responded to my pleas; I’ve even had people with some thin thread of connection there try to intercede to help me, but I’ve had no luck with that, either.)
How do you imagine the future of contemporary music?
No one can answer this sort of question. Such pronouncements, as we look back on ones made in the past, are inevitably wrong and often quite silly. And I certainly am not one who wants to tell anyone else how their music should sound or how they should go about making it.
But purely as an exercise in imagination, I imagine it going in all sorts of directions—both interesting and wonderful directions that I like and trite or worn-out directions that I don’t like.
This month (June 2022) I’m releasing another new John Luther Adams album, ‘Houses of the Wind’, a new five-movement electronic piece constructed from the sounds of an aeolian harp (wind harp) “strummed” by Arctic winds. And next spring I hope to have ready the next album of John’s beautiful string quartets, as performed by the great JACK Quartet. (JACK has done three other Cold Blue albums of John’s music: ‘Lines Made by Walking‘, ‘Everything That Rises‘, and ‘The Wind in High Places’).
In June I’ll be in the studio for a number of days with my old friend the wonderful super-percussionist Willie Winant (https://williamwinant.com), recording a new album of primarily early music by Michael Byron. It’ll be a great, resonantly ringing album—music for multiple marimbas, chimes, vibes, pianos, and more. (Byron has a number of previous albums on Cold Blue.)
I’ve also got a cool new Peter Garland album coming out this fall: Willie Winant performing Peter’s album-length, multi-movement vibraphone solo, ‘The Basketweave Elegies’. (Peter has a number of previous albums on Cold Blue.)
In June I’m also in the studio for a few days to record a new album containing three of Nicholas Chase’s piano pieces: two solo works and one four-hand piece. (Nicholas’s previous Cold Blue album, which came out a few years ago, is the entrancing ‘Bhajan’, for violin and interactive electronics).
And somewhere in the future I’ll be recording a bunch of my tiny (generally very short) piano pieces, dating from long ago to quite recently.
Lastly, I’m working on a Cold Blue Three album, another anthology of original and previously unrecorded short works (many of the pieces written specifically for the album) from a dozen or more composers. I particularly enjoy this sort of project, because I enjoy juggling and sequencing an album of diverse works. In character and breadth of music it will be like the album Cold Blue Two, also a collection of original pieces (most of which were written for it), which came out some years back.
Link: Cold Blue Music Home Page
Link: Cold Blue Music Bandcamp Page