Steve Garden is the driving force behind Rattle, a company that, for 23 years, has been a key player in the recording of our country's music. He has been the man at the console for CDs by NZTrio, Henry Wong Doe and, most recently, Michael Houstoun's mammoth 14-CD set of the complete Beethoven Sonatas.
In the early 1980s, Garden was a drummer. "I almost joined the Mutton Birds but Rattle came up and took over," he laughs. He has few regrets about the shift in his career. His time in Sharon O'Neill's band made him realise he "wasn't a touring animal", although the track Elephunk in my Soup, recorded by his own band Low Profile in 1984, has become a cult classic. A stint in Progressive Studios alerted him to the joys of soundplay. "My interest in sound is very much along the lines of my interest in collage and assemblage," he says. "To me, the mix is as visual as it is aural; finding the way the sounds fit in, and the kinds of colours and textures they have."
Rattle was launched on Waitangi Day, 1991, with two albums by From Scratch and Gitbox Rebellion. The inspiration for the label was Flying Nun Records, which had been "able to focus on a particular type of music and attitude", Garden explains. "We wanted to create an instrumentally orientated art music label, not constrained by the need for commercial success."
The 1992 sampler, Different Tracks, was "something of a manifesto". It included music by John Psathas, Eve de Castro-Robinson and the duo of Richard Nunns and Hirini Melbourne. Rattle's philosophy is that classical music can be recorded along the same lines as any other acoustic-based music. "I don't subscribe to a special classical approach, with the microphones set back to catch an image of the environment. We moved the microphones closer to the players to get a more immediate and intimate sound. There was less of the space and more variation in the way that instruments are managed within it."
Garden first worked with Houstoun on John Psathas' 1999 Rhythm Spike album and, more intensively, on the 2007 double CD Inland, an album featuring New Zealand composers John Psathas, Douglas Lilburn, Kenneth Young, Gao Ping, Victoria Kelly, and Mike Nock. "It was a good experience," says Garden. "and it established a relationship between Michael, producer Kenneth Young and myself that keeps building with each new project. Michael understands the importance of a good producer, and Ken communicates really well. He can get Michael to do things, then it's my job to capture whatever they do."
Comparisons between the new Beethoven release and Houstoun's 1996 Trust recordings of the 32 Sonatas will be inevitable. "Our version shows quite a different attitude, in his soul and his body, to the way he approaches the music."
Auckland-based Rattle is now a division of Victoria University Press, which leaves Garden more time for musical matters, while the new Beethoven set is the second release to bear the imprint of the Wallace Arts Trust. Houstoun is looking at Brahms and Debussy as future projects as well as a complete Bach 48. With two NZTrio releases lined up, together with collections by David Farquhar, Jack Body and De Castro-Robinson, and a steady stream of its classy jazz CDs, 2015 should be a rattling good year.