This article relies too much on references to primary sources. (February 2009) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Erstwhile Records is an independent record label devoted to free improvisation, particularly the electroacoustic variety, and contemporary, experimental composed music, and combinations of both. Erstwhile was founded by Jon Abbey in 1999, whose personality and tastes are closely identified with the label.
Characteristic label artists include guitarist Keith Rowe, percussionist Günter Müller, guitarist/turntablist Otomo Yoshihide, homemade electronics group Voice Crack, sine wave improviser Sachiko M, Jason Lescalleet, guitarist/laptop composer Fennesz, guitarist Burkhard Stangl and synthesizer player Thomas Lehn, as well as younger musicians such as clarinetist Kai Fagaschinski. In recent years, also artists connected to the Wandelweiser group started releasing albums on the label, such as American composer Michael Pisaro.
The first few Erstwhile releases were something of a mixed set in terms of the music, ranging from the melancholy avant-blues of Loren Connors to the rather traditional free jazz of VHF.
With Tom and Gerry, an epic double-disc duet between Lehn and drummer Gerry Hemingway, however, Erstwhile gradually shifted. Perhaps even more important was the fifth Erstwhile release, World Turned Upside Down, featuring a trio of guitarists Keith Rowe, Taku Sugimoto and percussionist Günter Müller. Rowe and Müller would both become fixtures of the label, and are a generation older than many of their younger collaborators.
Subsequent Erstwhile releases have largely focussed on a style of improvisation which could be called "post-AMM": slow-moving, often rather quiet, making non-standard use of computers and electronics (such as Sachiko M's "empty sampler" or Toshimaru Nakamura's "no-input mixing board"). Such unorthodox electronics are often paired with acoustic instruments, which are themselves often defamiliarizing by use of amplification and extended techniques (trumpeters Matt Davis and Axel Dörner, for instance, sometimes blow their instruments through the valves rather than the mouthpiece).
Sometimes the music can be conventionally beautiful, with almost-orthodox moments of melody and rhythm: releases like guitarist Martin Siewert and drummer Martin Brandlmayr's Too Beautiful to Burn or laptop artist Christof Kurzmann and guitarist Burkhard Stangl's Schnee could well appeal to adventurous pop music or "post rock" enthusiasts. At other times Erstwhile's albums can be demanding even for veteran listeners to avant-garde music: Good Morning, Good Night, for instance, by Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M and Toshimaru Nakamura, is 100 minutes of extremely high-pitched sine waves, blips, crackles and snatches of vinyl record static.
The label's output is often controversial even among longstanding fans of free jazz and free improvisation, partly because some recent releases feature significant editing and overdubbing (both were often looked down upon by earlier experimental musicians who thought that such recording studio antics somehow betrayed the ideal of live improvised music), and also because much of the music released on Erstwhile has left behind most resemblances to earlier generations of free jazz and free improvisation. Regardless, the aesthetic has slowly found its own audience, though as yet there is not even an agreed-upon name for the genre ("laminal music," "granular music," "reductionism," "the new London silence," "Onkyokei," "Berlin minimalism," are a few of the terms that have cropped up); though "eai"--"electroacoustic improv" seems to be winning out at present, perhaps for reasons of brevity.
The music itself is part of an instantly recognizable, coherent packaging and aesthetic. Much of this was the responsibility of designer Friederike Paetzold, whose elegant packaging designs often entirely forgo details like artist's names, instrumentation and album titles in favour of striking minimalist images (often artworks by guitarist Keith Rowe, who is also a painter). Critic John Eyles writes, "Just as such labels as Blue Note, ECM, and Incus have captured and defined the zeitgeist at various points in the past, Erstwhile is now doing so. Like them, it has its own distinctive roster of players, its own sound and a distinctive visual style ... No need to see the label to know it’s on Erstwhile." This has remained the case since Yuko Zama took over most of the designs in 2009.
Unusually, Erstwhile's releases have been issued without UPCs.
Abbey has also organized the Amplify Festival, an annual series of live free improvisation concerts; a boxed set of recording from the 2002 event was released as AMPLIFY02: Balance; the results of the 2004 event have been emerging as separate releases under the subsidiary labelname ErstLive, notably a continuous four-hour concert by Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M, Toshimaru Nakamura and Keith Rowe (Erstlive 005). In September 2005 Abbey/Erstwhile put on another music festival in New York, this time in coordination with Tim Barnes' label Quakebasket, called ErstQuake. In 2008 an edition of the Amplify Festival was held in Tokyo. In 2011 and 2013 editions took place in New York.
Perhaps the most useful survey of the label's aesthetic and history up to 2002 remains Dan Warburton's review of AMPLIFY02: Balance.