Sergei Kvitko Discusses His Independent Label With Fanfare Magazine

fanfare-logoBlue Griffin: Sergei Kvitko Discusses His Independent Label

by James Reel

Sergei Kvitko started his recording business because as a pianist entering competitions he needed to submit audition tapes, but he couldn’t find a satisfactory recording setup in his adopted home of Lansing, Michigan. Five years later, Kvitko no longer performs regularly in public (aside from his job as a church organist), and he hasn’t seen fit to release a recording of himself, even though his little business on the side has developed into an independent label. Blue Griffin Records features musicians you probably haven’t heard of, an injustice Kvitko is determined to rectify. At age 37, Kvitko remains, to his mind, very much a performer on these CDs, even if you never hear him play a note. He considers himself a full collaborator in his dual role as producer and engineer, seeking both quality and personality from musicians and microphones alike.

This detour from piano performance isn’t the first time Kvitko has changed musical course. In Russia, his mother, concert violinist and teacher Larisa Mageramova, started him on the violin. “I actually hated it,” Kvitko confesses, “so I began playing the piano instead.” He says he “sailed through” three music degrees through the Russian equivalent of a doctorate, and subsequently concertized and taught music to children and teenagers. During a 1996 concert with his mother in East Lansing—part of a US/Russian Sister Cities program—Kvitko got noticed by a Michigan State University faculty member, who talked him into auditioning for the MSU graduate program. Before long he was resettled in Michigan, studying with Ralph Votapek and giving recitals that drew more than 100 people, which was extremely unusual for graduate recitals.

At the same time, he was developing a dangerous addiction all too common among youngish Americans: computers. Once he started recording, editing, and mastering his own competition audition material, using his own computer hardware and software, he couldn’t stop. He started sharing with friends. “And after some time doing that,” he reveals, “I realized I could charge for it.” So he started a little recording company on the side in 2000, serving the needs of musicians from Michigan State University and nearby University of Michigan and elsewhere in the region. “I’m recording live concerts, audition tapes, job applications, and all these things,” he explains, “and I also work with faculty members and guest artists, and I record things for other labels. I just finished two projects for the Verdehr Trio, part of their series on Crystal Records.”

In late 2001, he developed Blue Griffin’s second “head,” the independent label. “This is still a full-service company,” he says, “but the label is where my passion is. That’s where I can get creative and feel in total control. When I started the recording company, it was because I couldn’t explain what I wanted to the recording guy who was working for me. When you perform, you have a certain idea how you want it to sound. Sometimes it doesn’t come out at all, but you know in your mind what you want. With a recording, too, you have a certain perception in your head, but it’s impossible to put into words. I couldn’t explain to him in a way he could understand how I wanted it to sound, so I did it myself. So now, the process with Blue Griffin is basically a one-man show, except for the artists. I pack stuff into my car, I take it to the concert hall or the church were we record, I choose the microphones and set them up, and I sit there with the score and talk with the artists about what I want or what they want or what we think we both want. Most of the time, I do the editing myself. I discuss the details with the artists, then I master the CD and make it sound the way I think it should sound. I do the covers and the Web site, but I have people help me with the paperwork. I’m really bad at accounting.

“I can be a team player, but I feel more comfortable when I’m in full control and I don’t have to trust anyone but myself. Businesswise, some days I feel like I’m going to close up the shop, and some days I’m very happy; the satisfaction I get out of the things I’m creating is overwhelming, and that is the main thing. I do still play solo concerts, and I just accompanied a mezzo from Canada at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but it’s not the main thing for me. Blue Griffin is. My friends ask me when I’m going to record myself for Blue Griffin, but I’m not good enough for my label. Maybe I’m too picky. I made a very pathetic attempt to record my playing of the Haydn F-Minor Variations, one of the most gorgeous pieces of music ever. I ended up with a 30-minute tape of the first note, over and over. I thought, if I don’t like the first chord, why keep going? Maybe someday I can do something about it. I’m trying not to discard my education; I spent 30 years of hard work getting to where I am on the piano. They were saying that I was very good and I still have this following in Lansing; every time I play a concert, I fill up the hall. So I’ve achieved something, but I feel that recording and producing the CDs totally took over my life. And I’m happy because it works, even though some days I feel like I’m not going to make it; other days I feel on top of the world.”

So American optimism may eventually overcome Kvitko’s Russian pessimism. Meanwhile, Kvitko is doing what he can to make sure he has more days sitting on top of the world than bearing the world’s weight on his shoulders, and that starts with his artists-and-repertoire choices. “When people go to a music store,” he says, “they either look for a recording by a particular performer they know or they look for an interesting piece and they don’t care who plays it. That is pretty much the two ways I decide what to do with Blue Griffin. The CD with piano music by Edino Krieger is something that has never been done before, or the pieces on it that have been recorded are scattered all over and hard to find. The complete set of piano works, with two world-premiere recordings, is only here on Blue Griffin. That excites me, because I’m doing something that’s never been done before, and that makes me a very small part of history. That’s why I enjoy working with people like the Verdehr Trio, who commission a lot of music. They learn it, they record it, and they go on to new works. Every time I work with them, I feel there’s something great happening in the air. But that’s for another label. On Blue Griffin, something we’ve done recently is the Bach solo cello suites played by Suren Bagratuni. On stage he is incredible, a charismatic person when he plays; he shines, the energy and intensity and emotion that come out of him are so incredible. So if this guy said ‘I want to record Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,’ I would do that. It’s a personal relationship, we’re very good friends, and we have very ambitious plans for the future. He wants to record—I don’t know, everything. On the Krieger CD, Alexandre Dossin is a great pianist, but that is not a personal relationship. I didn’t know him before we started the project; he contacted me and we talked about it for a few months, and I decided to go ahead with it. He turned out to be a pleasant person and an excellent player. All the CDs I make are based either on personal relation or admiration, and something that I’d really like to do, something that has never been done before. There’s a pianist named Sean Duggan, a Catholic monk I met at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He’s playing the complete works for clavier of Bach in concert. He’s already recorded some of it, but not all. It’s a huge undertaking, but he’s up to the task, and I think I will be, too. That’s probably not going to sell millions of copies, but it’s something I would like to be part of. We’re going to start recording in September. He’s a very interesting character, and we’re doing something absolutely incredible.”

At this writing, the Blue Griffin catalog (at www.bluegriffin.com) holds 14 titles, including a couple of oddities by any standards. One disc contains music Kvitko wrote for a local production of the play Dracula; another is the original cast recording of a musical created and so far performed only in Michigan. Still another is an odd violin-cello album mingling Joplin and Rimsky-Korsakov with extended fantasies on Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd songs. These lurk among more mainstream offerings, like pianists Peter Miyamoto playing Chopin and Nicholas Roth playing Schumann, as well as several cello-oriented recitals. “I’m trying to be a strictly classical label,” Kvitko insists. “I don’t want to sell my soul to the pop industry. But some things I want to do to sell enough so I can afford to do something else that would sell only 20 copies, but would make 20 people on-top-of-the-world happy. I don’t have any illusions about classical sales, and I don’t expect to get rich, but I would like to keep the business running. Things like the Dracula show and the musical written by local people, I’m not going to distribute them nationally, but I thought it had historic value. And in case the musical takes off and goes on to Broadway, I have the first recording! The person who wrote the music for the show is a very, very good friend, and that’s why I did it. We sold quite a few and paid for the production; it’s not something I would push, though.”

Another thing Kvitko is also a little reluctant to push is the audio quality of his discs, even though he’s quite proud of it. “I use top-notch microphones, and that makes a huge difference,” he says, mentioning Neumann and Schoeps among his favorite microphones. “It is quite an investment, but that’s what makes the sound. When you put it through a preamp and send it to the digital domain, it’s gorgeous already before you even think about adjusting the sound. But the quality of sound these days becomes kind of irrelevant, because most people that I know who are not recording engineers, they don’t listen to the quality of sound, because they are so absolutely spoiled by the superb quality of the mainstream CDs. The sound is of such good quality now that it’s stopped being an issue. But that can be a problem sometimes. I was at a bookstore with a friend looking at classical CDs; he knows the music, knows the performers, and we saw a $5 CD of Oistrakh playing the Brahms concerto. Oistrakh for $5! But he said, ‘I won’t listen to that; the sound is so bad.’ I was just dumbfounded. To me the sound is a given; the sound is irrelevant. I want to it be beautiful, of course, but the performance is the important part. Some of these beautiful CDs have nothing behind the sound. You can admire the beauty, but there’s nothing beyond that. You want some kind of personality behind it. I want to shed the sound thing and see what is done with the phrasing and the dynamics and the other elements of the performance. The equipment is a good investment, and the ProTools software I’m using for editing is expensive, but it’s just tools. It’s not what the CD is about.”

Reminded that the increasing popularity of low-fidelity iPods and middling-quality downloads suggests that audio standards aren’t that important among today’s music consumers, Kvitko replied, “That may be true, but iPods and downloading I don’t see as a big issue for me. If somebody wants to grab a Scriabin sonata from me, that’s not a big problem.”

What Kvitko finds more interesting is the ongoing argument over how much editing is too much. “When a splice is well done, it can sound incredible. For me, coming from the performance side of it, I have to learn a lot about the technical aspect of recording, and I’ve read more about that than I read for my doctoral degree. A lot of musicians are concerned about chopping things up during editing and making it unmusical, but I always thought that through editing we can make it more musical than it can possibly be live, because you have time to listen to everything. When we perform live, we’re just putting note after note after note, and the direction of the notes creates a phrase, the direction of phrases creates a movement, the direction of movements creates a sonata. Well, you create a beautifully designed performance that is a recording in the same way, note by note, phrase by phrase, and you have time to sit and listen to all the possibilities instead of in a concert where you make a decision and you do it and then it’s over and you’ve moved on to the next thing. During the editing is when I feel on top of the world, because I’m creating something out of all these notes. It’s like when you edit a text, you put a different word inside the phrase, you create a beautifully structured sentence out of single letters. People don’t publish unedited words, so I don’t see why they think we should publish unedited performances. Editing is the fun part of the business, I think.

“As a pianist, the pianist’s perspective is the last thing I want to hear in a recording. I want to hear what they hear out there in the audience, only I want it to be more beautiful and I don’t want anybody to sneeze and I don’t want to make any mistakes and I want every phrase to come out exactly the way I want, and not hear it from behind the music stand on the piano. When I close-mike a piano in a big hall during a concert I feel a little guilty because I see a blue-haired lady sitting in the 50th row of the hall, and that’s not how she hears the music. I want to create the feeling of a live concert hall, but I want it to be more beautiful, like everybody has the best seat in the house.”

Kvitko believes that one of his greatest advantages as a producer is his experience as a performer. “I have this understanding in my head of how I want it to be that is closer to that particular performer’s understanding than some other engineer’s understanding who hasn’t been on a stage playing for 2,000 people. I may be wrong about that. But it can be so frustrating sitting there trying to record music and something doesn’t come out and you need some support and advice. For me, as a performer with two doctoral degrees, I wouldn’t take advice from just anybody; I need advice from somebody I can trust to say, ‘Maybe play it slower,’ or, ‘Maybe play it out,’ or, ‘Change the fingering there.’ That’s what I do in some of my recording sessions, and when I’m recording students, it’s like a lesson sometimes. I’m passing on my knowledge to the people I record, and it’s affirming to hear some of the biggest people in music saying, ‘We trust you, just do what you think needs to be done.’ That’s very nice and rewarding.

“I’m the happiest guy in the world because I’m doing what I love and I’m getting paid for it. Most of the time.”