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These Guys Are After Really Golden Oldies : Early music recordings are hot and upstart L.A.-based label RCM wants a share of the pie.

August 13, 1995|Stuart Cohn | Stuart Cohn is a Los Angeles-based writer

When you think of the music that defines Los Angeles, gangsta rap jumps immediately to mind. Or surf, punk, banda , big-time movie scores. With the world's most diverse population, the city is home to some of the world's most diverse musical styles. So, what's next?

Early music, if Keller Coker has his way. In the city where pop culture is king, this musician-producer-scholar has started a new label--RCM--to record some of the richest and strangest music composed in Europe more than 300 years ago.

The label's debut disc, by Coker's own group, Ensemble de' Medici, is a collection of vocal and instrumental pieces by 17th-Century Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi. "Beggli Occhi Io Non Provo," released in January, is being played on KCRW-FM, KUSC-FM and KXLU-FM and displayed prominently on the racks at Tower Records and other local classical outlets. A disc of vocal music by 15th-Century German composer Heinrich Isaac has just been released, with an Orlando di Lasso (Flemish, 16th-Century) CD to follow this fall.

While early music giant Harmonia Mundi is also based in Los Angeles, RCM is unique in its focus on local artists. Not nationally known as a center for early music, like Boston and the Bay Area, L.A. is developing its own scene, coalescing around USC, one of the country's top music schools. As an undergrad there, Coker was a jazz composition major who was converted to the Renaissance sounds of Monteverdi, Dufay, Dowland and others by James Tyler, master lutanist and head of the university's early music program.

"Early music is very catching once you get going," says the 29-year-old Coker, an Oregon native and now a doctoral candidate in early music performance at USC. "You're sort of amazed by just the sheer beauty and the quantity of the music. When you look at what's most often performed and considered classical music, it really spans a period of, gosh, 150 years or less. But if you start heading back just a little bit in time, you find a tradition going back to at least the year 800 of music that was virtually untouched until guys like James Tyler started working with it. It's fascinating, it draws you in, you start listening to it, and you go, 'My God, this is beautiful, why aren't people doing something with this?' "

With an eye toward making a record, Coker and his mentor Tyler began batting around the work of different composers, eventually settling on Frescobaldi because of his identifiable name and wide variety of compositions. Acknowledged as an innovative keyboard composer and organist, Frescobaldi (1583-1643) actually wrote in all the styles of his day, including vocal arias and canzonas (instrumental "songs"), most of which have gone unrecorded. Like many late Renaissance and early Baroque composers, he didn't specify instrumentation for his pieces, allowing musicians to come up with their own arrangements, an improvisational approach that is very much part of the methodology of emerging early music groups like Ensemble de' Medici.

For Coker, Frescobaldi looked like a golden opportunity. He brought together 10 singers and instrumentalists, including lutanist Dirk Freymuth, soprano Kris Gould and other fellow students and graduates of USC, and coaxed a small investment from family friends to experiment with recording. Through a mutual friend, Coker hooked up with audio engineer Fred Vogler, 31, whose resume includes everything from producing jazz albums to sound engineering at the Hollywood Bowl. By the end of the project, Vogler became his partner and additional Ensemble de' Medici sessions soon followed.

"And that," Coker says, "is when the label really began."

"Beggli Occhi," recorded in a large hall on the Pomona College campus, features replicas of period string, brass and woodwind instruments. "This music was the pop music of its time," says Coker, "and ideas about pop and the way it's approached don't change. Fred set it up like we were mixing a pop record, so you can feel the groove in the base line. He tried to let you hear all the different layers."

Tyler, who plays lute, viola da gamba and baroque guitar on the disc, describes the sessions as "a family affair. Keller is quite meticulous, yet he still allows room for people to improvise, which is part and parcel of Renaissance music, to be able to come up with your own embellishments. I'm quite experienced in recording [over 40 albums as director, soloist or ensemble player], and it's refreshing to record in a new, freer manner, to not be totally bound by musicological details and the written note on the page."

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