Label Spotlight: Invisible Birds

November 5, 2012
By Jordan Anderson

Recently I’ve been having long conversations, touching on any number of subjects, with Matthew Swiezynski, a co-founder of Invisible Birds, the label Swiezynski started with former co-proprietor Diane Granahan in 2008; I’m impressed by his knowledge of art, design, and literature, as well as the sense of intelligence with which Swiezynski and Granahan have curated and designed their label’s releases. Invisible Birds strikes me as both a label worth discovering more about, and one that has much potential.

I think one of the most striking qualities of the Invisible Birds label is the aesthetic sense of the releases. There is an elegance to the music and visuals but also a sense of understated or muted design. Clearly the look and feel of the releases is important to you — could you talk about some of your favorite designers or artists? What sort of influences would you say have shaped the way you look at curating the look and sound of the label? Could you discuss the origins of the label? How did it start? What was the initial idea for the label to be like? Do you feel you’ve been successful with realizing this original idea?

Thanks! We started the label in 2008, the initial impulse came from reading the French poet Philippe Jaccottet’s “Landscapes with Absent Figures” and his beautiful descriptions of birds, bird life, and nature. From that book, “Invisible Birds” resonated with us, and we began to think of how to use that as a starting off point for a label; the many interpretations of those 2 words, how music, drone, field recordings, film, and packaging could be filtered through Jaccottet’s words. The editions, especially the limited editions, bring poetry, painting/drawing, photography, design, film, and music together.

We wanted the releases to have a similar look in terms of the design and artwork, so we decided to use a reductionist aesthetic. Gallimard Books were an influence as well as other publishers that have a design restriction, like Archipelago Books.  With this reduction, variations and subtly become more meaningful.  By way of the design, we wanted to put things out in the world that had a simple beauty.  So much of the design is almost like an invisible design aesthetic (non-design), like the cover to ib004.  The Shaker aesthetic was important. The record label ECM was a big influence on the packaging, and The Hafler Trio releases from 2002-2006 were very inspiring for us, especially in our decision to issue special editions. Another design influence was the Hungarian typographer/printer Nicholas Kis, and Jack Stauffacher who has championed his work. We have restricted all fonts to Kis or Janson. Paul Rand’s work for Wittenborn as well. The Giancarlo Toniutti and Andrew Chalk’s lp “Tahta Tarla” was an influence when designing the website, and the Mirror and Chalk releases as well.

I think so far the label has been successful in carrying out our initial ideas.  Each release has explored in some way the concepts of the label. Our in-house releases Oiseaux Invisibles/Ingenting Kollektiva aim at exploring these concepts even more specifically.

In a related question, what is the process of designing a cover and look for a record like for you? What goes into making the visual side of an Invisible Birds release?

We have primarily used photographs by members of the Ingenting Kollektiva for each release with the exception of the Lethe edition. The art work becomes the most prominent element, with the Nicholas Kis typography creeping in for titles and some explanations, and plenty of blackness and abstraction! Usually the previous releases are consulted, and a variation then changes the design a bit.

The special editions are mostly handmade, housed in a box. The newest series are limited to 11 and contain a drawing and inkjet photographs. We plan to repeat this edition of 11 2 more times for 3 total releases over the next year or two. These future releases will involve some kind of destruction to the art works either through weather, the landscape, vegetation, water or ink/water colour. The label has just purchased a printer so not only will editions have printed images “tipped in”, but also photos that have been processed through unconventional methods.

What would you say are some of your favorite all-time records? What is it about these records that you feel strikes a common feeling with you?

Having worked in a classical music store for a bit of time, many of the obsessions there became a big influence on the label, such as J.S. Bach, John Cage (specifically his Number Pieces, Ryoanji, Quartets I-VIII, and Satie-inspired works), Giacinto Scelsi, Morton Feldman, La Monte Young, Charlemagne Palestine, late Beethoven, and Satie. Beauty, lushness, minimalism, and abstraction are all common in these recordings, not unlike the work of Agnes Martin or Mark Rothko. Furthermore many many of the hat art releases: Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, and Herbert Distel, (very nice recordings). Braxton’s “Willisau (Quartet) 1991″ is a great set of recordings.  In addition, releases by Mirror, Andrew Chalk, Jonathan Coleclough, the more lush Bernhard Gunter discs, steve roden, and Thomas Koner. These artists for how they use melody; stretched out and abstracted and how they also use surface sounds not unlike the grain in film, flickering, with scratches and imperfections. Many rock albums come to mind too; The Smiths, Earth, the 1969 recordings explored in the Ingenting Kollektiva LP. Jazz like Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John and Alice Coltrane, and many of the Impluse! recordings just for the pure bliss they give the listener (a great example is Alice Coltrane’s version of “A Love Supreme” on “World Galaxy”)

In a related question, what do you feel you look for in a work of art, whether in music, literature, film, poetry, etc.? Do you notice yourself drawn to certain subjects, or certain authors? Who are your favorite writers, filmmakers, painters, philosophers, etc.? Why do you feel this is?

One thing that is always a draw is the “long form” either in literature with Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities”, or in film with Michael Snow’s “La Région Centrale” or Bela Tarr’s “Satantango”, or in music with La Monte Young’s “The Well-Tuned Piano” or J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”. Something so wonderful about these artists that stretch the sublime out over a long period with no sense of boredom. The Romantic writers and French poets as well, for their obsessions with Natur, the beauty and the chaos of it, like Büchner’s Lenz. One time we saw hundreds of small birds attacking a large black bird.  It looked something like a photo by Masahisa Fukase, very haunting and disturbing. For art, much of the Abstract Expressionists’ work, photographers like Susan Derges, contemporary painters like Ricther and Kiefer, classic artists like Vermeer, Durer and Van Eyck. Another influence has been the Land Artists, especially Herman de Vries who works directly with the earth, or Dubuffet’s “Radiant Earth” works, and very similar are Yves Klein’s “Cosmogonies”, or his works with fire. Another was the tradition of photographing the cosmos, such as August Strindberg or Pierre Jules César Janssen. The books “Dans le champs des étoiles: Les Photographes et le ciel 1850-2000″ and “Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible 1840-1900″ are really wonderful. Other classic books like “The Hermetic Museum: Alchemy & Mysticism” and “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985″.  Also the visual art of Victor Hugo and Henri Michaux has had an effect as well as Duchamp and Cornell.  We only hope to put something out into the world that is inspired by these great artists and works of art. Inspiration is very important for the label.

Your label is unique in that you list an amazing and extensive library as part of the label’s aesthetic — what books do you most hope to read in the future? What are the commonalities to the books you like, do you feel?

In listing the library, we thought it would be helpful for people to see where we are coming from. Looking through Harold Bloom’s Western Canon, you realize how many amazing books there are.  It is hard to say what the commonalities are; many books just don’t seem appealing, many do.  One goal has just been to read through the old classics of horror and mystery, though I have not gotten far, books can take a long time to finish!

How have you chosen the artists that you’ve worked with? Do you reach out to artists, or do you go through demos? What is your demo policy like?

We had some artists initially we wanted to work with like Colin Andrew Sheffield and Yannick Dauby.  Lethe contacted us and we loved the work he submitted.  We don’t really have a demo policy but for the most part we have too many releases planned for the near future to accept any presently.

If you could work with one or two living musical artists, who would they be, and why?

There are so many artist that it would be great to work with, certainly anyone already mentioned here. It would be wonderful to put out some classic experimental films on Bluray as well, like “<->” by Michael Snow or something by Ernie Gehr.  It is sad that these great works are known by so few. It would also be good to do some kind of bass driven jazz or rock albums.  We really love The Thing and The Necks. An album of Vashti Bunyan singing with a bird on her shoulder would be amazing.  Definitely doing something different than what we have already done.

What are your top records of 2012, and why do you feel you’ve gotten something out of them?

So far the two most listened to albums have been Swans’ “The Seer” and Bill Fay’s “Life is People”.  Both are very intense experiences with many layers of darkness (and light), great musicianship, great packaging and they both call for multiple multiple listens. After 30-40 listens of “The Seer”, I hope to emerge slightly out of its darkness, possibly into another kind of darkness…. blacker than black. Have also really enjoyed Sylvain Chauveau & Stephan Mathieu’s “Palimpsest”, with Smog covers over Mathieu drones, and Oren Ambarchi’s “Sagittarian Domain” which just has an incredibly heavy groove.

What are your plans with the label for 2013? What can we expect out of Invisible Birds in the future?

The goal for 2012 was to pick up the pace a bit, so we had three releases that year instead of one.  For 2013 it would be nice to pick up the pace a bit more. We are planning on doing more vinyl. There are quite a few collaborations planned with other artists in this coming year. There is a third Ingenting Kollektiva album recorded earlier this year that is a funk/kraut rock album.  A Fender Jazzmaster was purchased to add some shredding intensity to the project.  We plan a DVD of films by Matthew Swiezynski, the packages for this project will mostly be handmade where paper and photos will be abstracted through destructive processes. There is an album that is inspired by a rock band that will for the time being remain unnamed.

What advice would you give to others who are thinking of starting a label?

Problems with the label have been finding time to do the work (having a full time job) and coming up with money to put out the releases.  Our goal at the moment is finding a ways of getting around these problems. And although it seems to be happening slowly, we know it will happen.  The only advice is find a way to get people to buy more music and mellow out with the mp3s.

The Invisible Birds website is here:

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