Bay Area guitarist and free-improvisor John Shiurba hit upon the idea of his new Limited Sedition record label soon after buying a CD burner last year: "I just wanted to put out CDs of my music, and music that I think is worthy," he explains. "But the idea of shopping tapes of this kind of music to labels seemed like a dead end. When the CD writer opened the door to small editions, it just occurred to me that here was the perfect medium for improvised music. If you have an audience of five people, then you can make five CDs and not have a closet full of aluminum coasters."
Free improvisation and the recording industry have endured a troubled union from the beginning. Improvisation is a fleeting mode of musical communication, felt by many to exist purely in the moment of creation, and to be resistant to documentation. And the audience for the music is so comparatively small that it renders recording improv too costly for most record companies, anyway.
But the falling cost of home-recording technologies has enabled less marketable musicians to document their work and to sell it to enthusiasts in a creative and cost-effective way. Shiurba's Limited Sedition (www.sfo.com/~shiurba/sedition.html), for instance, documents his own music and that of his fellow Bay Area improvisors with extremely limited-edition runs on recordable CD (or CD-R).
Such a D.I.Y. approach is not without precedent. In 1973, British guitarist Derek Bailey released a series of four solo-guitar recordings on reel-to-reel tape, making individual custom copies to order. (These rare recordings were issued on CD as Incus Taps on the Organ of Corti label in 1996.) But Shiurba is among the first to devote an entire record label of strictly limited, numbered editions of well under 100 copies that will never be re-pressed. He has released eight hand-designed recordings since founding Limited Sedition last July. His production costs average around four dollars per disc. This, coupled with grassroots promotion via the Internet, helps him turn modest profits into new recordings quickly in order to keep pace with the rapid evolution of the music and its creators.
Already, Shiurba is not alone. Saxophonist David Gross has begun to release limited-edition CD-Rs of music recorded live at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts on his Tautology label (members.aol.com/Tautology3). And Splatter Trio percussionist Gino Robair, who runs the more conventional Rastascan label (www.rastascan.com), has taken the notion a step further, creating individual "private concert" releases on CD-R. "They're more than just a live improv," Robair explains. "I do a bit of digital hacking on the material before burning a CD-R. They're one of a kind, and I've made them to order. I think this is the way that many improvisors will be working very soon."
Beyond the obvious benefit of low overhead, this approach to recording allows an artist to explore even the most unlikely creative impulse. Saxophonist Dan Plonsey gave Shiurba a whimsical solo-oboe recording made on the day he purchased the instrument. And Robair, who has played on two Limited Sedition releases and compiled a disc of Splatter Trio rarities for the label as well, has plans for an album of music performed entirely on…Styrofoam? "A handful of Styrofoam and a bow and that's it," says Robair. "You can see why we need a label like Limited Sedition."