Rattle Records was established in 1991 by three friends - lovers of European jazz, contemporary classical and world music. The avant-garde-bent label was set up as an outlet for local artists producing the kind of music Tim Gummer (label manager), Steve Garden (recording engineer, producer) and Keith Hill (A&R) adored. Back then there were no other labels catering to this largely under-represented music here.
"Nobody was crazy enough to try and figure out how they were going to sell it!" laughs Hill. "The market for this kind of cross genre music is quite small and an ongoing problem is finding the people to support it and buy it. There was no label for what we are doing, which I guess you could call 'new music.' In a musical and philosophical sense, Rattle came about from the three of us having a wide range of musical tastes. There was a lot of cross genre stuff happening in jazz, contemporary classical and world music, but no outlet in New Zealand for these artists to put their work out."
Gummer and Garden had been running Progressive Music Studios in Auckland central when Hill came into some inheritance money. "I was looking around for a creative project to put some money into and Steve said, 'Oh, Rattle would be a good idea!'"
Using niche German label ECM as their guiding light, the Rattle crew inevitably found contemporary classical a hard sell. "Record stores didn't know where to put it. Sometimes the music would be in the 'world' section, other times it would show up in the 'new age' section. So one of the disadvantages of this kind of music is 'where does it go?'" Hill says the label is more interested in trying to create a recognisable Rattle sound or brand. "So people who buy a Rattle CD know it's a Rattle thing, not necessarily something that fits into tight genre guidelines."
A solid example of that hard-to-pin-down Rattle style is the recent Besser and Bravura album Turn. A lovely, elegant and accessible album, it doesn't sound like jazz, even though it's improvised, and it's not classical despite using classical instruments.
Three Rattle albums, including John Psathas' 2000 debut Rhythm Spike, have been winners of the Best Classical Album award at the NZ Music Awards. Psathas composed music for the opening of the 2004 Olympic Games, an honour that has enabled Rattle to secure funding for his upcoming album. View from Olympus is an ambitious project that required three soloists. "We've been planning (the album) for about three years. It has a saxophone concerto, which is really unusual. If it isn't the first then it's one of the first," says Hill.
The label has also had the pleasure of seeing one album go gold. 1994's Te Ku Te Whe by Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns, features waiata and compositions performed on traditional, pre-European Maori instruments. "We initially thought 'who's going to want to listen to this?'. But it ended up being our biggest selling album. I think it was a breakthrough for the artists, for Rattle and NZ music alike." A remix project (Te Whaiao), where contemporary artists like Sola Rosa, SJD and Pitch Black put a new spin on tracks from Te Ku Te Whe is designed to give the material more exposure to an even wider audience.
It has been slow and hard work for over a decade now, but with four album releases this year Rattle is making up for lost time. Hill says the biggest problem for Rattle - which remains a side project for the trio who all have other careers - is sustaining a momentum of releasing albums frequently enough to keep cashflow going, as well as maintaining the public awareness of the label. "We have found it hard to maintain that profile. If you leave it too long between releases you have to start building your profile all over again with each release as people would have forgotten who Rattle is."
"These days," says Hill, "we're looking for performing artists with a public profile, because without that nobody gets to hear the music. We've got great albums in our back catalogue that nobody even bought! Yes, profile is something we'll definitely be working on."
Kiran Dass, NZ Musician magazine, July 2006