Simon Sweetman | RATTLE

Simon Sweetman interviews Steve Garden

Rattle is a label that bills itself as offering "contemporary art music from Aotearoa/New Zealand". I first knew about Rattle as a retailer, CDs would arrive - beautiful packaging. And the music was either jazz or classical. Obviously within those areas there was room to move, but in a retailing sense - back when chain music stores were putting CDs out on shelves and trying to adhere, fairly strictly, to no-nonsense genres - you would find Rattle CDs in the jazz or classical area. And/or the New Zealand section - being that it was (and is) a New Zealand label.

I now know Rattle from a different point of view. I'm a reviewer. I receive download codes via email and CDs in the letterbox - and I'm not concerned with sales, although I certainly wish this label well given all the incredible work it's doing and offering up. Over the last two years the quality of releases from Rattle has been close to mind-blowing. Several of my favourite albums from this year and last are on the Rattle label.

When I first thought to put up a post about Rattle I wanted to tell you all about the most recent album I've reviewed, Henry Wong Doe's Landscape Preludes. It's a set of contemporary classical pieces, one New Zealand pianist taking on 12 distinct solo piano works by a dozen of our finest contemporary composers. It's an extraordinary effort as we hear the abilities of the pianist and get, in some sense, his voice. But he also serves up the voice of each composer, knows his place inside the works.

But I realised that just posting about that album doesn't do Rattle justice. Not when this year they've also released the new album from Jonathan Crayford, Dark Light, a masterpiece, his finest work I believe. And that's saying something given the breadth of Crayford's talent. There have been local jazz releases from Dog and The Jac (worth hearing) and a new one from Hip Flask (I'm yet to review that, but on first listen it's another great addition to the Rattle imprint).

And then late last year there were the soundtracks to White Lies from John Psathas and Beyond the Edge, David Long's music for the Ed Hillary doco (one of my favourite albums from last year). Stepping outside and away from just jazz and just classical - and blurring the lines - Rattle has also released Naga a collection of Gamelan music, and Rob Thorne's wonderful Whaia Te Maramatanga. There are plenty of other albums too. That's just a small handful of what Rattle has had to offer recently. The label continues to offer the beautiful packaging, liner notes, credits, attempts to get in behind and around the music. Rattle continues to push the envelope, never settling with safe or obvious. They're about to release a 14-CD set from Michael Houstoun - his complete Beethoven sonatas. That's going to be something.

Quite how they do it - and why they do it - is frankly beyond me. I hope the rewards are there. I hope people are aware of what Rattle does and this quite incredible contribution to preserving and promoting the New Zealand music that doesn't make it onto the radio, that doesn't turn up elegantly dishevelled at meaningless awards ceremonies, that lasts for years rather than having all the conviction of a fly-by-nighter, all the appeal of flavourless chewing gum.

This is music that lasts - that exists irrelevant of trends, due to the passion and talent of the people on the disc and those working behind the scenes (at Rattle). A thankless task most often, most likely. The passion and ear of Steve Garden (thanks to Gary Steel here for providing a great profile for AudioCulture) deserves to be applauded. He's worked tirelessly as label head, engineer, producer, talent-spotter and curator of and for the Rattle label. In an alternative universe somewhere he's toiling away, under the radar, earning a knighthood.

Simon Sweetman, Off the Tracks

Steve Garden