Ehse on Ice
Feb. 25 at 10:30 p.m. at the Mount Pleasant Ice Arena
With Matmos, Salamander wool, Dysgenix, and DJ Jonathan Ehrens.
For more information visit tinyurl.com/ehseice
Given a passing glance, the only thing that noise music and ice skating have in common is a capability for hurting. Looking a little closer, you might be able to pry out a shared thread of absurdity; if ice skating’s ridiculousness is a bit less outward for being on TV and in the Olympics and such, remember that it’s still people zooming around sheets of ice with sharp strips of metal attached to their feet. Which is silly. Within noise music, ice skating makes perfect sense because it’s noise, and nothing doesn’t make sense in noise: a toy keyboard or grand piano; a broken-glass feedback loop or six saxophones and a timpani; a disgusting black mold-filled basement and band called Black Mold or a stage in a Mount Vernon theater with a legend flown in from the other side of the planet. Or noise might happen on an ice rink in far Northeast Baltimore, as is the case this weekend when Ehse Records’ occasional party/show/event Ehse on Ice returns for a new edition.
If you have any preconceptions about the variety of people behind noise music—you very well might not, of course—Ehse Records founder/owner Stewart Mostofsky is not one of those people. Mostofsky, also co-owner of the True Vine record shop and a member of the original 1998 Red Room collective (which puts on the High Zero festival and, well, runs the Red Room venue), is by day a neuroscientist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. A quick search of the PubMed database of medical research will give you several weeks’ (months?) worth of pediatric neuroscience reading material with Mostofsky’s name attached. It’s impressive, and you’re left wondering how this guy who’s at every experimental music show in the city on any given night somehow, runs a reasonably prolific record label and helps put on a massive avant-garde music festival every year, and has a full-on family can possibly do everything and stay even somewhat sane.
Ehse Records came about seven years ago, with a joint release of Leprechaun Catering’s Kumquats, Lychees with Twig Harper and Carly Ptak’s HereSee label. (The name comes from his then 3-year-old son’s mispronunciation of “horse”; it rhymes with “peace.”) A spoken-word LP called I Am Drunk from underground legend Blaster Al Ackerman followe d on Ehse. The goal was and remains, in large part, documentation, Mostofsky explains over dinner before, naturally, heading over to the Red Room for a show.
“I really try to focus on things that have never been done before,” Mostofsky says. “The label has quote-unquote struggled in the past—I haven’t really done anything with a well-known artist. I don’t want to be doing a label where I’m doing, like, the 10th Wolf Eyes record. And with that, [Ehse] ends up being very, very focused on Baltimore. Timing is everything. I’m blessed to be in this city where there’s been an explosion of interesting music happening.” To date, Ehse has put out a whopping one release—of a not-too-shabby 22 total—not rooted in Baltimore. “Because I want to do things that are original, to do things that excite me, it becomes about Baltimore,” Mostofsky says.
The question What, exactly, is Ehse? didn’t go begging too terribly hard until this past winter, with an Ehse record from a new band called White Life. White Life is primarily the project of all-around pop genius Jon Ehrens and his sister Emily (“Pop Life,” Music, May 25, 2011). If there is such a thing as anti-noise, White Life is it: high-relief ’70s throwback R&B/vocal-pop—you might’ve pulled it from a thrift-store bin and made your best crate-digging find ever. Except it was recorded last year on the outskirts of Baltimore by Chris and Mickey Freeland. Even by the standards of Ehse’s prior pop-nodding release, Lizz King’s All Songs Go to Heaven, White Life is something else. Mostofsky was at a White Life show and found himself floored; he offered to release a record on the spot. Which is how it goes in the Ehse world.
By way of example, Mostofsky tells a recent story. Leo Svirsky, a pianist who grew up in Baltimore and now lives in the Hague and works at a music conservatory, was at Mostofsky’s house over the holidays performing a last-minute show. (Svirsky had been doing a date in Washington, D.C., and when Mostofsky learned there was nothing scheduled for Baltimore, he booked a show in his living room.) In addition to more regular improv/experimental stuff, Svirsky played a series of songs based on the Occupy movement. “I went up to him right after and was like, ‘These [songs] are amazing, I’d love to put out a record. When are you going back [to the Hague]?’” Mostofsky recalls. Svirsky’s answer was two days. The day after, Mostofsky had his piano tuned and invited Adam Cooke, of Lord Baltimore Recording, over to do an album. Look for the record soon on Ehse. “That’s how spontaneous it happens sometimes,” Mostofsky says.
That spontaneity is great but shares its roots with Ehse’s main problem: distribution, at least of the label’s physical tape/CD/vinyl product. Ehse’s not alone in the realm of boutique labels in having weak or no distribution, but one gets the sense that there is perhaps some amount of wasted potential in getting excellent music into a wider range and larger number of ears, and that’s worth mentioning. Many of Ehse’s artists don’t tour much, if at all, which severely cuts off a record’s potential of getting out into the world. Most of Ehse’s sales happen via mail-order, with a smaller amount happening via Baltimore record shops.
Mostofsky seems to agree that distribution has been an issue. The label just got picked up for distribution by Rough Trade in the United Kingdom, and he hopes to get back with underground powerhouse Forced Exposure in the future. “The fact that I offer everything for free has maybe been a bit of an obstacle,” he says, referring to the fact that, well, every Ehse release is available for download on the label’s web site for free. “White Life got a huge amount of press, so I was able to sell some White Life records. But still it’s not like putting out a Future Islands record. Honestly, I do the best I can with it.”
Throwing awesome events helps, of course, though in many ways Ehse on Ice seems as much like a reward to the avant-garde music scene for being awesome as it is a broadcast of that awesomeness. And Ehse on Ice—inspired by a one-time event put on by former Needle Gun drummer Jack Patterson, Mostofsky is quick to point out—is one of a kind and one of the more powerful Baltimore-art-is-awesome statements going. “Anyway I can create a novel live-music experience is great,” Mostofsky says. “I think the best thing about it is seeing all the freaks out on the ice.”