Music is a collaborative art. If we learned nothing else from the era of COVID, it is the extent of this foundational truth. Any musician who spent hours fighting to synchronize a smartphone and rudimentary audio device, just to remind themselves and their hidden audience that music can live wherever the body calls home, understands the profound depths of artistic isolation.

This label is dedicated to the creative power of collaboration, named after this epigrammatic stanza from Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel, Pale Fire:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.

—John Shade (a.k.a., Vladimir Nabokov), lines 1-4 of Pale Fire (1962)

My first introduction to Pale Fire was through my friend, composer Michael Small, who wrote this gorgeous and whimsical piece for cello, piano and electronics, inspired by the imagery of these same lines. This stanza can be read in many ways. On a superficial level, of course, the imagery is evocative and lyrical, balancing the macabre within a nostalgic Frostian landscape, all accented by a classical rhyme scheme. True bait for a musical imagination, the sense of play against a boundless sky.

More meaningfully than that, however, is the way in which these lines capture the reflective nature of musical collaboration.

Ironically, Nabokov had very little interest in music, to put it kindly:

Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds. Under certain emotional circumstances I can stand the spasms of a rich violin, but the concert piano and all wind instruments bore me in small doses and flay me in larger ones.

—Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (1955/1966)

Furthermore, even alluding to this novel as an artistic inspiration feels dangerous.

To summarize… a “great American poet” (John Shade, modeled after Robert Frost) dies soon after completing his 999-line poetic magnum opus, allegedly entrusting the manuscript exclusively to his neighbor and close academic confidant, Charles Kinbote. In a verbose diatribe masquerading as an educated preface, Kinbote outlines his friendship with Shade (which, it turns out, has been vanishingly brief), their first meeting, the suspicious manifest circumstances of Shade’s death, plus a litany of complaints about students, colleagues, and publishers who have clearly misunderstood Kinbote and, by extension, Shade’s work, which naturally Kinbote understands better than anyone, even Shade’s wife. Shade is simultaneously lionized and invisible, whereas Kinbote’s grievances and defensive possessiveness of his late friend’s legacy take front and center. Shade’s 999-line poem follows, a mere footnote compared to Kinbote’s exhaustive line-by-line endnotes and index. This commentary is frequently tangential, possessed, hallucinatory, and related to Shade’s rhymes only by dint of their ability to inspire Kinbote’s own roundabout fantasies. The book can be read front to back, back to front, out of order… the effect is largely the same: a violent juxtaposition of authorial voices where the reader is actively forced into complicity with Kinbote’s willful misreadings.

In a nutshell, this is an almost surgical account of artistic eclipsation, a relationship most sincere collaborators would fear.

But, of course, there’s more to it than that. The potential for misunderstanding is arguably what makes collaborative relationships meaningful at all. In other words, a mirror is a powerful tool because it reveals what we ourselves cannot see, yet its insights are by definition untruthful reversals of reality—musical notes are written for human performers because of the unpredictability with which they are rendered; performances of these notes are given in halls to live audiences because of the chaos of communality, that veritable Ouija board of collective attention, often spontaneously revealing insights unforeseen by composer or performer; poems are written with words we know (more often than words we don’t) because of the delicious collisions of their constituent sounds with our expectations of their meaning…

Shade’s lyrical imagery even alludes to such an idea, as we can see in the lines immediately following the opening:

And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

—John Shade (a.k.a., Vladimir Nabokov), lines 5-12 of Pale Fire (1962)

The same substrate that assassinated our waxwing is also the creative force behind this beautifully surreal image of ghostly furniture and bric-a-brac strewn across a snowy lawn. Of course, this opening image is capturing the attractive metaphysical realism of the book—Nabokov describing the creative process by describing a creative persona describing a creative process, sandwiched within Kinbote’s own creative process which is really Nabokov’s critique of the creative process critiquing the creative process. A true hall of mirrors with no way out but in, a fate underscored by Kinbote’s fictional (and, one assumes, dubious) assertion that Shade’s unfinished 1000th line was meant to be a poignant reprise of the opening “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain.”

And, lest we forget, Nabokov composed this entire ‘collaboration’ all by himself inside his own head.

This gets to the root of the inspiration. Collaboration is aspirational, it is an attempt at something that, on some deep level and learned only through experience, we all understand is impossible.

A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

This label is dedicated to works that exist within this shared expanse. Works that are in-between, ambiguous, even unfinished and incomplete, palimpsestic, yet somehow entirely whole as fragmentary composites of disparate threads. This label leans towards the music of our time, but partly as a means for understanding the music of times we will never know. Anyone who has worked with composers knows the painful fluidity of decision. The things we think of as musical facts—notation, tempo, instrumentation, dynamics, and even emotional implications—are all conditional, and must change in order for the work to develop. Often it’s not until a composer hears the work rendered live by performers that the piece can even begin to finish. Any performer who has experienced a composer in full creative meltdown can appreciate why an “Urtext edition” of, for example, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro seems a near impossibility: this work changed at almost every performance, with arias added and taken away as cast members were added and/or cycled out. Schrödinger’s box in operatic form, and a reminder that, owing to the exigencies of the moment, one of the great constants among creative personalities is a tendency to change one’s mind.

All context aside, we invite you to experience our albums less as ‘records’ or ‘references’ than as mirrors, clear adaptations of a moment that reflect not only our collective creative labor, but also the creative power of how you choose to listen.

Yes, you are also participating in the creation of this work. Thank you, and please drop us a line to let us know how you did.

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