Bernard Stollman formed the independent record label
ESP-Disk in 1963; their first release was the all Esperanto sing-along album
Ni Kantu en Esperanto; followed shortly thereafter by Albert Ayler’s
Spiritual Unity, which opened the door to releases by one of the widest and
most extreme (and brilliant) catalogue of artists ever covered by any record
label in history. Essential releases by folks like: Pharoah Sanders, Ornette
Coleman, Paul Bley, Guiseppi Logan, Bob James, Sun Ra, Milford Graves, The
Fugs, Marion Brown, Patty Waters, Timothy Leary, The Godz, Gato Barbieri,
William S. Burroughs, Pearls Before Swine, Charles Tyler, Steve Lacy, Bud
Powell, Holy Modal Rounders, Alan Silva, Cromagnon, and many more, carved
out one of the most admirably open minded and inclusive aesthetics ever attempted.
With the motto: “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their
ESP-Disk”; the label fostered some wildly creative and outside sounds,
and allowed them to find their way to the surface, with an output that for
the most part still sounds as avant garde today, as when first recorded. Our
thanks to Bernard for his time and patience in doing this email interview
with us, and to Mark Dagley of Abaton Books for helping this come into being.
G.P.: Do you see any correlations between
now and the 60s?
B.S.: I see some disconcerting resemblances between now and
the 60's. Bootlegging was rampant in the 60s, practiced by the record industry
until Federal laws ended it in 1974. Our government conspired to launch a
war against the Viet Namese with an eye on their offshore oil deposits. The
current government has done exactly the same thing, for the same reasons.
The largest known oil deposits in the world are in Iraq.
G.P.: Do you hear any current artists
and think “That could have come out on ESP Disk”?
B.S.: I hear many artists today who would have been at home
on ESP. I do not regret that they did not record for ESP. The purpose of the
label was to set an example. There are vast numbers of creatively gifted individuals
on our planet. The more fortunate ones are able to find a way to give their
music to the world, on their own terms.
G.P.: Tell me a bit about the Esperanto
language and your involvement and interest?
B.S.: Esperanto was invented in 1887 by an 18 year old student
of linguistics in Poland. The international language dissolves the barriers
between people. It is absurdly easy to learn, phonetic, and because it is
based largely on international terms, it can provide a means for poetic expressions.
It is intelligible to those who speak Spanish or Italian, since 75% of its
words are taken from Romance language sources, and Latin. Everyone has a basic
vocabulary of approximately 75,000 words before beginning to learn the language,
so memorization is not a problem, and there are just 16 basic rules, with
no conjugations, no exceptions or irregularities, because it has to be intelligible
to Esperantists from all cultures and language groups. No one knows exactly
how many people speak Esperanto,but it is in the millions. Esperantists travel
the globe, enjoying hospitality from host Esperantists, eager to practice
the language. The world organization, UEA, based in Rotterdam, has identified
Esperantist clubs and societies in over 100 countries. While I see music as
the most effective way to unite the human family, speech is important as well.
My first production was NI KANTU EN ESPERANTO (Let's Sing in Esperanto), on
Esperanto-Disk, in 1963, and it is now in the catalog as a cd (ESP-1001).That
is how we arrived at our name.
G.P.: Would it be safe to say that
part of the concept of Esperanto was to ultimately promote greater understanding
between peoples of the world?
B.S.: The dream of the creator of the language was to break
down the language barriers to promote greater understanding among the peoples
of the world. At heart, he was a humanist, and to him the language was just
a tool to realize this dream. He died in 1917, broken hearted by the ravages
of World War I. His daughters perished in the death camps of World War II.
G.P.: Did you, or do you see your choices
and actions regarding Esperanto and ESP Disks as agents of change?
B.S.: To me, Esperanto and the ESP label are agents of change,
and that is why I am involved in both of them. Our species got into big trouble
when the first atom bomb was dropped on Japan, and environmental pollution
stripped away the protective ozone layer. It is now a race for time, to bring
awareness to the entire human family of the importance of collaborating to
avert the extinction of our species from nuclear destruction or global warming.
G.P.: What future did you see for the
label when it started? Did you have any idea of what was to come?
B.S.: From the beginning, I saw the future for the label
as very doubtful, because of its focus on the art of music,which would require
a long gestation period for public acceptance, too long in fact for a business
enterprise. I did not anticipate that ESP would be celebrated by critics in
Europe and Japan, that it would quickly enter into licensing agreements in
these territories, or that earnings from these sources would be small. They
say that fools rush in. Had I studied the industry before launching the label,
I would have realized that any significant commercial success would result
in bootlegging by the industry and doom the venture. ESP had 3 chart records
within the first two years, by the Fugs and the Pearls Before Swine. Overnight,
the industry took over, and we were effectively out of business. This is reported
at our web site: www.espdisk.com.
G.P.: How significant to ESP Disk was
experiencing Albert Ayler’s playing for the first time?
B.S.: When I heard Albert Ayler play for the first time,
on a dark sunday afternoon at the Baby Grand Cafe on 125th Street in New York
City, my first impulse was to invite him to be the first artist on my new
G.P.: What sort of fellow was Ayler?
B.S.: It is impossibly difficult to characterize a person
in a few words. My relationship with Albert was centered on his music, a series
of encounters to plan recordings and public performances. He was reserved,
dignified, soft spoken and very private, and I did not press him for personal
information. Occasionally, as when he introduced me to Patty Waters, he would
display a generous inclination towards other artists.
G.P.: I recently heard Albert Ayler’s
Spiritual Unity for the first time, and it’s really incredible. How
do you feel about this album?
B.S.: Listening to the recording session for Spiritual Unity
while standing outside the tiny control room, as the sounds came over the
monitors, I was thrilled by the power of the music, and the auspicious beginning
for the label..
G.P.: It seems the early ESP catalog
was primarily focused on jazz, what led to the expanding horizons, and the
inclusion of folks like Pearls-Before Swine, and The Fugs?
B.S.: While ESP began as a means of documenting the work
of composer/performers in what is called "jazz" (a word that was
widely detested by the members of this community as a racist term, and which
is not used in the ESP literature) originality in any format was the focus.
Both of these groups created art, and both were opposed to the war in Viet
G.P.: When you say “originality
in any format was the focus”, for recording on ESP Disk, could you elaborate
what it took to get a record out on ESP?
B.S.: ESP chose artists on the basis of their originality.
Those artists who joined ESP were members of a generation of composers who
were shunned by the establishment as too unorthodox. They all knew and performed
with each other, and ESP documented their work. Succeeding generations of
musicians have studied ESP, and it is taught in music departments of universities
and in conservatories.
G.P.: How was the feedback in the beginning?
Were people listening from the very start or did it take time "sell the
B.S.: The response by word of mouth was galvanic and immediate.
Critics in the US were also supportive.
G.P.: How did you arrive at the motto
of "The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk"?
B.S.: The phrase signaled to the public and to the music
community and the industry that we intended to define a new standard for the
treatment of creative expression in music, documented in a permanent form,
shifting the responsibility for the result to the artists themselves.
G.P.: How did you discover The Godz?
B.S.: My staff at our first office secretly coalesced into
a music group. One day, they identified themselves to me as the GODZ, and
blithely stated that they were about to record an album, and asked whether
I wished to attend the session, scheduled for the following day. I offered
to attend their rehearsal, which would be the same evening in the apartment
of my executive assistant. I liked the one work that they performed for me,
and titled it: WHITE CAT HEAT. CONTACT HIGH WITH THE GODZ was the name I gave
to their first album, ESP-1037, which is being reissued by our label this
fall. When I visited them at the studio the following day for the record session,
delaying my arrival for 45 minutes, surmising that my presence might be intimidating.they
were sitting around. Paul Thornton genially explained that they had completed
the album, and were about to listen to it. I was delighted with the results,
which could be described as anarchistic, iconoclastic bedlam, and the forerunner
of what would be called Punk Rock. The typical ESP session lasted about 45
minutes. There were no out takes. The musicians took their payments, signed
agreements and left. I rarely saw them again.
G.P.: Did you get to know many of the
artists that recorded for ESP-Disk?
B.S.: I have had almost no personal contact with ESP artists
throughout the years. When I visited Pharaoh Sanders recently during an engagement
at the IRIDIUM in Manhattan, I had not seen him or spoken with him since the
recording session for PHARAOH'S FIRST, ESP 1003, in 1965.
G.P.: Are you at all surprised at how
the legend of ESP-Disk has blossomed over the years? And how well the recordings
have stood the test of time?
B.S.: ESP was a participant in documenting the emergence
of a generation of innovative
composers, with confidence that their work would eventually be celebrated,
but that this process would be glacially slow. It was not surprising, but
gratifying, to find that these decisions had been endorsed by succeeding generations.
Listening to these cds now, over good equipment, I experience a pleasant shock
at how well they have stood the test of time.
G.P.: What is the current status of
ESP Disk? What are you planning for the future?
B.S.: ESP-Disk' has returned to manufacturing its catalog,
after many years of licensing. All 120 titles will be available in stores
or from its newly created on line store this fall. (www.espdisk.com) 12 titles
have been converted by the new Sonature process to Surround Sound, for release
on DVD A, and more are pending. Previously unreleased works by Albert Ayler
and Sun Ra will be included, on cd and DVD A.. ESP has made agreements with
companies engaged in selling down loads, which thus far include emusic, pressplay
napster, musicnet, and moontaxi.
G.P.: What was the most personally
satisfying aspect of doing ESP Disks?
B.S.: For me, the most satisfying aspect of the ESP experience
is the realization that
musicians have been influenced by it. When I encounter them in my travels,
they invariably tell me about their exposure to the label at the age of 12,
and that it had a profound impact on the course of their lives, and thank
me. A vast number of independent labels have been formed, recognizing the
authority of the artist to shape his or her own work, the policy first championed
by ESP. The artist owned label is now the norm. This makes me very happy.
G.P.: I noticed a mention of ESP-Disk
on the Devorah Day CD Abaton put out, what's ESP's relationship to this release?
And what do you think of it?
B.S.: Devorah brought me a self produced production about
four years ago. I was impressed by its originality and her ability to inspire
the other musicians to engage with her in a remarkable series of improvisations.
It was probably Marion Brown's last professional recording. Just two months
ago, I played the cassette for the owners of Abaton,a small record label that
is championing the work of Marianne Nowottny, a highly original 20 year old
composer and performer. As we listened, we were all deeply moved by the power
of Devorah Day's performance, and they asked permission to release it. We
agreed that an endorsement by ESP-Disk' would enhance its potential for recognition,
so it was licensed to Abaton. I acted as Devorah's attorney in making the
agreement. It was quickly released and circulated to the media, including
key college radio stations, and it has received immediate air play over several
stations, and favorable reviews. The net and print publication ALL ABOUT JAZZ
featured a glowing, insightful review,and WIRE may have something in its pending