Joanne Barrett | RATTLE
A MATTER OF CHOICE by Joanne Barrett
Rattle is no ordinary label. It doesn’t do ordinary, or standard, or commercial, or anything else that might suggest ‘mainstream’. Instead, it upholds a persistent presence within the contemporary music culture of Aotearoa New Zealand. After 30 years, Rattle remains at the forefront of recording contemporary music in Aotearoa New Zealand. As a label, it chooses to provide an artist-focused platform that enthusiastically offers support to talented Aotearoa New Zealand musicians. I talked with Steve Garden, the man behind Rattle, and asked him what motivates and inspires him to continue to do what he does.
“My passion for music stems back to my mid-teens,” says Steve. “Before Rattle, I was a full-time musician. I played drums and toured extensively until my early 20s, after which, I settled in Auckland to work as a session musician. This led to an interest in sound recording, and throughout the mid-80s and early 90s I worked in small studios as an audio engineer.”
Progressive Music Studio was where many Flying Nun albums were recorded, and during this time he developed an appreciation for ‘art music’. He figured that if people such as Phil Dadson of ‘From Scratch’ and Nigel Gavin of ‘Gitbox Rebellion’ were recording at Progressive, why not start a recording label that would actively support the kind of music they were composing and performing.
In 1991 Rattle was born. It started out of a simple studio in the garden shed at the back of Steve’s Sandringham home, and to this day he and his wife, artist Viky Garden, continue to work from home in their respective studios. Rattle’s aim was to champion what it saw as ‘independent art music’ and to offer composers and performers of acoustic instrumental music an outlet for their work. This was something that no label at the time extended to artists who worked outside of the mainstream.
“I have a fondness for acoustic instrumental music, particularly projects that involve small ensembles, and that have some degree of improvisation about them. Our primary agenda is that music of substance by artists of quality has a supportive outlet, free of commercial constraints or imperatives,” says Steve. “Rattle also tries to ensure that artists receive fair treatment. Unlike traditional contracts, that mostly favour the record company, Rattle seeks partnerships between the label and the artist.”
“In a sense, you could say that Rattle is a philosophical endeavour. Its non-commercial nature has ensured that it has been able to survive for the last 30 years. The label, like most music labels today, cannot rely solely on sales to sustain its activities, so funding is hugely important to the work we do. The albums we produce simply couldn't be realised without grants from Creative New Zealand, the Wallace Foundation, the Lilburn Trust, universities, and private patronage. This is the reality of producing non-mainstream music in a commercial environment, especially these days when streaming has seriously changed the landscape of delivering music to people. Rattle survives because we want it to, and we’ll do whatever it takes to ensure the label continues to release music of cultural, rather than merely commercial, value.”
As a professional sound engineer, Steve works with his own high-quality equipment. He will commit time freely if necessary to ensure projects by artists he believes in are recorded. With this sort of dedication, it is no wonder Rattle albums are frequently nominated for, and often win, awards, most of which are critically acclaimed with four or five-star reviews.
“I’ve worked with a range of musicians in across a broad range of genres, from country to jazz to rock. I spent many years working as a studio musician recording jingles, radio and TV shows, and of course albums for composers and performers. But it’s my work as an engineer that I’m most proud of, particularly my work for Rattle, where I’ve had the privilege of working with artists such as Jack Body, Gillian Whitehead, John Psathas, Michael Houstoun, Richard Nunns, Hirini Melbourne, NZTrio, Roger Manins, Diedre Irons, Jeff Henderson, Marilyn Crispell, Jonathan Crayford, Jenny McLeod, From Scratch, Kenneth Young, and many other great individuals and groups. Artists choose to work with Rattle because of our consistency, and because of our willingness to embrace their creative vision – it’s a trust-based ethos.”
With a more in-depth understanding of Steve’s stance on music, I was curious to know what his thoughts were on the synergy (if any) between visual art and music and how this might impact us as individuals and as communities. This is what he had to say:
“Art and culture is central to who we are as individuals, as communities, and as a nation, whether we are aware of it and value it or not. There’s truth in the old dictum that one cannot serve God and mammon. Simply put, if you try to shoehorn creative disciplines into financial frameworks they invariably suffer. I’ve seen it happen often and have experienced it first-hand. This continues to be one of the pivotal motivations for Rattle — enabling artists to pursue their creativity with autonomy. If Rattle had set out to be a business, it would have disappeared long ago."
“The expressive arts have always cross-pollinated, and the influence of jazz on other artistic disciplines (and vice-versa) is well documented. The influence of jazz on contemporary classical music is also evident, but of course all art forms inform each other and draw from each other. The dialogue never stops, but, in terms of music influencing music, the value of the recordings Rattle will release this year will, I believe, continue to influence mainstream forms of music over the next 20 years. You can’t put a monetary value on that. We can trust that the work of composers and performers in the future will, in one way or another, be influenced by the work we release today. And that, to a degree, is why Rattle does what it does.”
“In terms of my professional aspirations, apart from working with good artists and releasing good work, the main thing that interests me is to ensure Rattle’s survival. On a personal level, Viky and I are very happy here in Sandringham — now more than ever. Sandringham is vibrant, and it has a strong sense of community. What was once a relatively forgotten part of Auckland city has blossomed and prospered. We love it. Looking ahead, I intend to make more time to spend with family, watch more world cinema and write about it, and share the occasional good Bordeaux with friends.”