David Behrman: Composer as Record Executive
from "Don't Quit Your Day Job"

By Kenneth Goldsmith
© 2000 Originally published in New Music Box / American Music Center

David Behrman | David Soldier | Joan La Barbara | Stephen Vitiello | Morton Subotnick

Among kids today there's a fetishization of old avant-garde vinyl. Just walk into hipster stores like Other Music in downtown New York City: lining the walls of the store are scads of discs with hefty price tags that just a few years ago you couldn't give away. Recently Stockhausen's out-of-print 1966 Hymnen on Deutsche Grammophon was fetching 125 bucks, an outrageous price I thought. I was wrong--two days later the disc was gone. When I reported this to David Behrman, the well-known electronic and computer-based composer, he found this surprising. As a producer of avant-garde vinyl for Columbia in the 1960s, Behrman's discs--which included pianist Jeanne Kirstein playing John Cage, Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air and In C and the seminal New Sounds in Electronic Music--are all fetching phenomenal sums of money and are much sought-after items among many of the new electronica artists.

Behrman couldn't have foreseen any of this when he started working at Columbia in 1965. He got the job through his dad who was a friend of Columbia Records president and composer Goddard Lieberson, an old-fashioned record exec who seemed to care as much about making good music as he did about making money. Lieberson encouraged an open-minded attitude among his staff and was responsible for a huge discography of adventurous recordings in the 50s and 60s by mainstream modern composers like Webern and Stravinsky.

Behrman, a classically trained musician, started working overnights as a tape editor. His job was to make splices on the master tapes of Columbia's recording sessions including Glenn Gould, Robert Craft's recordings of Stravinsky, and the first recording of Ives Fourth Symphony. By doing this type of work, Behrman sensitized his ear to the delicacies of recording techniques, which would later inform his own compositions and recordings of his work; indeed, to this day Behrman is keenly involved with his recordings and personally oversees the technical end of the sessions to his satisfaction. It was also through this work that Behrman fell in love with the beauty of recorded sound; in those splicing rooms, he was exposed to the best speakers, the best recording devices, the best amplifiers and listening to the fresh master tapes knocked him out.

Behrman reported to John McClure who, at the time, ran Columbia's subsidiary Masterworks label. McClure was as open-minded as Lieberson and saw it as his duty to keep his ear to the ground. In 1967 with the counterculture was in full swing, McClure thought it'd be a good idea to get involved with the avant-garde and experimental side of things. Company philosophy in the mid 60s dictated that if it was once considered wild and crazy, it now had the potential to be a big hit: It was just a matter of going out and finding it. Behrman, who was deeply involved in the New York experimental music scene started to bring in suggestions to McClure who, in turn, began to trust his employee's tastes (Behrman would run downtown on his "lunch hour"--8 to 9 PM--to catch snatches of avant-garde concerts and then dash back uptown to the office to finish his work).

Behrman soon found himself in the position as producer of the Music of Our Time series on Columbia's budget label Odyssey. He not only dreamed up the projects, but arranged for the recordings to happen, even at times commissioning the compositions themselves, e.g. A Rainbow in Curved Air and works on the Extended Voices LP which included Robert Ashley's "She Was A Visitor" as well as music by Alvin Lucier, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros and Toshi Ichiyanagi. His only restriction was that things had to be produced cheaply--which usually was not an issue since the works were made downtown on a shoestring anyway. For instance, an electronic music project might simply require buying a tape from a composer.

His first release was New Sounds in Electronic Music which included Pauline Oliveros' "I of IV," Richard Maxfield's "Night Music," and Steve Reich's "Come Out"--one of Reich's first mainstream exposures. It was very well distributed through Columbia's massive network--regardless of what kind of music it was, 2000 copies would go out to stores upon release--and even today, the disc can easily be found at used record shops and flea markets. Over the course of the next three years, Behrman went on to produce 10 of the most adventurous and critically acclaimed American records of the period. Their success is measured by how fresh they sound and how visionary they appear some three and a half decades later.

Almost everything he produced sold between 3000-6000 copies in the first year they were released. Early on in Behrman's career, Columbia was making so much money with acts like Bob Dylan and The Byrds that they didn't keep close tabs on sales figures for the experimental stuff. As a result, Behrman had an incredible amount of freedom to do whatever he wanted regardless of the ultimate sales figures. He was supported by Lieberson, who's attitude was that if a record broke even or made a couple of thousand dollars profit, then it was a success--a far cry from today where, in major label terms, a small success isn't enough. A Rainbow in Curved Air, which sold between 10-12,000 copies the year it was released, was an unexpected cult hit even spawning a namesake rock band, Curved Air.

However, within a few years, things began to unravel both personally and within the company. Behrman felt the inevitable contradiction of being in a position of power to get challenging material out to the record buying public, but was uncomfortable with the choices to be made amongst which of his peers he would select for his projects. In addition, Behrman felt a conflict working for a big company during the Vietnam War era.

Toward the end of Behrman's tenure at Columbia accountants started walking down the corridors with computer printouts of sales, spelling the kiss of death for Behrman's position. With the counterculture now generating huge profits, Columbia's focus moved more toward sales figures and away from adventurous material. As things turned more conservative, Behrman found it increasingly difficult to get projects approved: his pitches for LaMonte Young and Philip Glass discs were rejected (ironically, Columbia went on to release Glass just a few years later when he was a proven quantity). As a result, in 1970, Behrman lost his job and never returned to work in the record industry. But he still recalls the best of the period with pleasure, reminiscing of a short utopian window in time when the ideals of the avant-garde meshed with the concerns of big business.

David Behrman | David Soldier | Joan La Barbara | Stephen Vitiello | Morton Subotnick

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