Yarlung Records celebrated its first seven years with a special CD including repertoire stretching across five hundred years of musical history. Joshua Cheek wrote this article in appreciation:
Small is Beautiful: Yarlung Records and a Pilgrimage to a Perfect Sound
Had Bob Attiyeh told me he was founding a record label seven years ago, I would have done everything in my power to discourage him. Launching an audiophile label with a piano recital that ranged from Baroque music through the High Romantic seemed an impossibly risky first step. And yet, seven years later, Yarlung Records has cultivated a distinctive catalogue of hand-crafted releases that consistently win the acclaim of the industry’s most discerning ears while showcasing extraordinary young artists performing an exciting and eclectic mix of repertoire. From that first recording with rising star Australian pianist David Fung, Yarlung Records has continued to deliver fresh and surprising ways of hearing music. As for Mr. Fung, I urge you to check out his Yarlung catalogue: The label’s approach to recording the piano’s sound will give you a new appreciation for the music, even for familiar music, while David Fung’s interpretations chart a confident course from Mozart to Rachmaninov to Tan Dun. Since Fung’s auspicious first Yarlung album, the label has released 24 recordings with orchestras, opera singers, several international and emerging soloists and chamber ensembles.
So after seven years, Yarlung has flourished, thanks to enthusiastic support from friends in the audiophile community, to generous benefactors who have underwritten many of Yarlung’s releases and what can only be described as – quoting pianist David Fung “the magic touch… like Harry Potter!” Despite an enviable collection of accolades and accomplishments, including a GRAMMY® Award, Bob is quick to joke about Yarlung as the perfect opposite of corporate excess: “Think of AIG: remember the insurance company that was too big to fail? Well, Yarlung Records is too small to fail.” And while the irony is not lost on this writer, Yarlung has succeeded for the precise reason that the majors have failed: he’s not just grinding out inventory; he and his team hand-craft musical programs that deliver an exclusive, immediate experience to the listener.
This intimate, organic approach inspires confidence and loyalty from artists and audiences alike. Despite Yarlung Records’ audiophile pedigree, the label’s primary focus is its presentation of the music and the artists; the technological wizardry remains in the background, determined not to draw attention to itself. On the other hand, Yarlung’s approach to repertoire immediately catches your attention with creative, eclectic juxtapositions as well as a catalog spanning the musical eras between the 11th and 21st centuries. Yarlung Records takes us from Leonin and Machaut through the Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras, to Avant-Garde works, often on the same program. Robert Levi, president of the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society (the world’s largest community for audio enthusiasts), notes that Yarlung’s distinctive approach to programming is a primary source of the label’s appeal: “There’s a taste level at Yarlung that is really special. It takes guts to put these programs together, and Bob goes into every recording session as if he’s taping Fritz Kreisler or Jascha Heifetz.” Accordingly, fans of new and unfamiliar music find much to enjoy here as Yarlung actively and enthusiastically commissions new music, releasing world premiere recordings of works by John Adams, Jason Barabba, Jose Bragato, Adam Knight Gilbert, Osvaldo Golijov, Robert Gupta, Pierre Jalbert, David Lefkowitz, Miloj Magin, Joseph Pereira, Badal Roy, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Lalo Schifrin (who’s commission won Yarlung Records its first GRAMMY), Diego Schissi, Steven Stucky and Derek Tywoniuk. Even a forgotten and utterly delightful “lost” work by Arnold Schoenberg was dusted off and given its world premiere recording, and a recording of orchestral music by the tragically neglected Eric Zeisl is being prepared for release as I write.
To date, most of Yarlung’s catalog has presented “classical” repertoire, that is to say concert music from the European musical tradition, but Bob’s labor of love has yielded some surprising and delightful digressions: Antonio Lysy at The Broad: Music from Argentina and Suryodaya (which includes Yarlung’s first raga recording as well as Istanpitta, a tune originally from 14th Century Iran) expand the label’s musical vision. Also in the pipeline is Yarlung’s debut recording of authentic Tibetan music recorded at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Northern India. And jazz aficionados will be happy to know that the label has scheduled its first jazz recordings. The label has worked with some of the most dynamic orchestras, ensembles and soloists in the United States and now sets its sites upon Europe. As many orchestras swoon from the continuing budget cuts and austerity programs around the world, it is important that this current artistry be preserved for future generations – and as audio pioneer Steve Hoffman sees it, “…have them do a few old warhorses, and get that ‘Romantic Era’ blood flowing with the Yarlung sound.” Recent runaway critical successes of recordings featuring Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and the beloved Lorraine Hunt Lieberson have inspired Yarlung to consider future collaborations with other great singers as well.
If “small is beautiful,” than it logically follows that it is also a “gift to be simple.” The proliferation and lower cost of recording technologies since the advent of the CD have truly leveled the playing field, to the extent that most everything produced sounds pretty much the same. But Yarlung has resisted the siren call of overly manipulated, studio polished enhancements and has instead embraced basic principles to ensure the highest possible sound quality. Yarlung records in a simple manner: direct to two track analog tape and high resolution digital media, with minimal equipment, in order to create an accurate and lifelike soundstage. Robert Levi sees this as the logical evolution of the approach developed by Telarc in the ‘90s: “Telarc patented that ‘center-of-the-hall’ sound; Bob puts you in the third row.” To accomplish this intimate sound, Bob uses one stereo microphone or two mono mics for most albums. Yarlung “cheats” when working with full orchestra by using three or four microphones. This is blissfully at odds with most contemporary recordings which utilize mixers and as many as 30 or 40 microphones for a full orchestra.
When asking Bob “how do you do it,” he explains that the secrets to the success of the Yarlung sound are frankly not complicated. There are hundreds of textbooks and tech manuals available to engineers, detailing “optimal” mic placement, etc., but if the results don’t deliver the beauty and balance of sound that Bob is seeking, he changes plans and trusts only his ear. Another aspect of Yarlung’s artisan approach is that Bob places his artists in superb acoustic environments. (Yarlung Records uses concert halls for all of its recordings, not recording studios.) Of course there is more to it than that. Gearworks Pro Audio provides exquisite tube microphones, Elliot Midwood, Arian Jansen and Len Horowitz have designed and built vacuum tube microphone preamplification and analog tape recording equipment especially for Yarlung. You’ll hear Bob’s own designs in the custom Yarlung cables he created specifically for various instruments and acoustic environments. And Yarlung’s esteemed sound guru and mentor Steve Hoffman oversees the mastering of all of Yarlung’s releases. Yarlung Records could not exist without these people, Bob is quick to point out. And as if this were not enough, Bob personally makes all the analog tapes for his SonoruS Series analog tape releases himself, a labor-intensive expression of the sound engineer’s art at its finest. Steve Hoffman wrote to me “I think that Bob and I have the same love of organic sound on a mechanical medium (records and CDs). It’s very difficult to capture that sound but the “naturalness” of the Yarlung releases speaks volumes of the dedication of the staff to create a beautiful sounding disk.” Bob is quick to respond with “Thanks Steve! But from whom do you think I learned it?”
One of the first things that struck me as distinctive about Yarlung was its two separate identities as “Yarlung Records” and “Yarlung Artists.” I asked Bob to explain: “Yarlung Records is the for profit corporation,” he said, “which I call the ‘No Profit.’ Then in addition, we founded Yarlung Artists which is a tax-exempt 501(c)3 Non Profit organization with its own board of directors and advisors.”
While the record label releases Bob’s musical visions, either paid out-of-pocket or through the generous contributions of the ensembles or third parties, Yarlung Artists fulfills a specific mission serving the public. As Bob explains, “Yarlung Artists raises money to bring new music to the public and to support young musicians with debut albums at the beginnings of their international concert careers.” I asked why this particular focus: “In the glory days of the recording industry, the major labels would make most of their money on mainstream and popular albums; some of the profit from such projects would be used to bankroll the more exclusive projects and fund artist development, another rarity in today’s market. It’s a gamble to support young musicians, and most labels simply have no patience or desire to support even the most inspiring artist if they can’t make money.” And yet, some of these “risky” projects would prove to be milestones in artists’ careers and have become some of the most collectible and important albums of the 20th century.
Yarlung Artists recognizes the great leap that young artists make between graduating from a conservatory and becoming established as an in-demand soloist (or ensemble) around the world. This leap is so challenging that many, even supremely talented artists, become discouraged and leave the music world at this point.
So how does Yarlung Artists help? “High quality recordings make an important difference for musicians in three key ways,” Bob elaborated. “First, audiences connect with musicians through recordings in a more permanent way than just hearing an artist in a live concert. Musicians use CDs as their ‘take-away’ souvenir and a business card. When musicians sign CDs for concert patrons and shake hands, they make deeper connections; the physical recordings remain an important part of this process. Our artists often tell me how following a performance where they have a recording available for purchase, they get asked back with a greater frequency.
“Secondly, conductors and impresarios sometimes hire today based on recordings if they don’t have the time for in-person auditions. This has happened for Yarlung musicians several times now.”
Without a doubt, having a commercially released CD, with some great reviews behind it, opens doors for aspiring artists.
“And finally, music critics, and even the musicians’ peers, view artists differently and more positively when they have a ‘real recording’ with a reputable company. So many musicians are forced to self produce their albums today, resulting in albums which are sometimes of lower quality and which can suffer because the musicians didn’t have the benefit of collaboration with producers. Not only is collaboration often more fun for the musician (and certainly for the producer) but this sort of partnership can result in better repertoire choices and possibly even deeper interpretations of the music. It is our hope, twenty-five years from now, that we will be able to look around the world and see more than a few musicians on important concert stages whom we have helped. If Yarlung Artists can provide even that extra 1% chance of success, sometimes that will have been enough to make the difference in a performer’s life and career.”
And so, the Pilgrimage to the Perfect Sound continues, but rest assured there will be plenty of milestones along the way: for audio mavens Yarlung releases some of the best-sounding 180 Gram Vinyl LPs in the business, and has supported the analog tape Renaissance by releasing select recordings on two-track quarter inch tape, while other fans can choose from the high resolution downloads or special alloy CDs manufactured to sound among the best in the world and distributed all over the planet through NGL in Munich. And of course all the label’s recordings are available on myriad standard download platforms like iTunes and Amazon.
Music connoisseurs, collectors and musicians from around the world have followed Yarlung’s journey with growing interest and recognize both the label’s mission in bringing out new and classic music and the label’s commitment to the careers of its artists. Yes, you read that correctly: a label that is actually committed to its artists. Just one more benefit of being “too small to fail.”
April 10th, 2013