Thursday, August 31, 2017

Exploring The Maginus Project

In probing the extraordinary realm of lesser known music in America, the Maginus Project seeks to unearth and record music that otherwise would be lost to posterity.  In this series of blog posts, we sit down with one of the Maginus Project’s founders, Phil Lewis, to dig a bit deeper into some of the organization’s musical and cultural precepts.  Prior to co-founding the Maginus Project, Phil studied composition at the Berklee School of Music in Boston and received his BA in ethnomusicology and jazz studies from UCLA.  He has written, performed, and recorded music for over 30 years.

Can you elaborate on the phrase “cultural significance” that is used in the Maginus Project’s mission statement?  

Sure.  Music in the US is not represented by a single cultural matrix, but is rather a tapestry of underlying subcultures.  The Maginus Project is concerned with music that lies outside the boundaries of commercial music.  Another way to look at it is that we are focused on music that record labels -- and I realize this is somewhat of an anachronistic term these days -- are not.  There's no question that a lot of commercially successful music is culturally significant, but its broad appeal makes it more appropriate for a recording model based on creating profit.  And while a small amount of jazz, classical, and other lesser known genres is being recorded, these forms are often prestige projects for labels -- they're not money-makers.  Recording industry profits are shrinking across the board, and the increased pressure is driving certain forms of music towards recording extinction.

Are there any developments in the recording industry that are relevant to what the Maginus Project is doing? What is the finished product for the musicians?

There is a lot of chatter among musicians and recording industry professionals about the increased accessibility and quality of tools available today at lower cost than a decade or two ago. The technology continues to develop.  But people forget that this also scales to the upper end of the recording spectrum.  And the fact that production costs are lower does not mean that truly high-quality recordings are within reach of the average working musician.  The fact is they are not.  As a result, a lot of really interesting and valuable music is going unrecorded.  At the Maginus Project, we are exclusively devoted to high-end recording; our goal is to meet the highest recording standards in the industry.

As far as the finished product is concerned, we release the masters to our sponsored artists; they become their exclusive property.  We leave it up to them to promote and distribute their work.  If budget is available for those activities, we may try to help with that, but it is not our focus.  We primarily look to sponsor projects where we believe the artist can effectively distribute and promote their recording.

Can we talk a bit about the notion of “preservation” when it comes to music?  Clearly the physical act of recording is key here, but is there a cultural meaning embedded here as well?

Well I think in the broadest sense, preserving means getting the music recorded and, at a minimum, registered with the Library of Congress.  And there is definitely a process of discovery involved.  One impetus for starting the Maginus Project was that in our many years of being in the music industry, we have been lucky enough to come across an incredible array of talent who simply have not been properly recorded due to financial constraints.  A great example of this is what I call the “Norman Symonds Syndrome.”  

Symonds was a great Canadian jazz guitarist who I had never heard of until I heard Wes Montgomery mention him in an old interview I was watching on YouTube.  I thought ‘I have to hear this guy,’ but when I began digging I found that virtually nothing of his has been properly recorded.  He died in obscurity, and this is a great loss to listeners and scholars.

It is of course worth noting that you and the advisory board are either currently working as musicians or have worked as musicians in the past.  Presumably this is a big advantage in assessing potential projects, but it can also present certain biases.  What are your thoughts here?

Although the Maginus Project Advisory Board currently includes several musicians that is by no means a criterion for serving on it.  More important is the ability to hear the music in its own unique cultural context and to discern its essential attributes.  We're currently in the process of expanding and diversifying our advisory board to include a broader range of perspectives and expertise.

I am a musician, and that does give me certain insights that would not be evident to a non-musician.  But non-musicians have different insights that I consider valuable and equally valid.  Different musical works offer their virtues to different listeners, and this is only revealed when considered from multiple perspectives.  Mozart’s music is a great example.  His work continues to be relevant because musicians, scholars, and audiences continue to find it inspiring, enlightening, and nourishing -- although perhaps for different reasons.  Imagine what it would be like if his music had been lost.  I think the world would be a much poorer place.

The Maginus Project seeks to foster a community of musicians, recording resources, and the public through its nonprofit recording ventures.  We look forward to continuing the dialogue and will explore topics relating to musical culture in America in future posts.

-Daniel Lilie, special contributor to the Maginus Project Blog

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