Within a couple of years I was working as Label Manager for their...

Within a couple of years I was working as Label Manager for their Australian distributor, and although I've left the record business behind for love of the printed word, I'm still an avid collector and reviewer.

Which is why I decided to visit the Harmonia Mundi headquarters.

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I wanted to see this fabled French house maison de musique in Arles, where I imagined the sunlight could be bottled and sold as a tonic to induce inspiration (perhaps branded Vincent van Gogh in honour of the citys most famous adopted son, though I wouldn't be surprised if a van Gogh painting already appears on one of the labels album covers).

Synchronicity

Rifling through racks of CDs and books at the Harmonia Mundi boutique at the Cit de la Musique in Paris, the labels international sales manager, Tarik Tamzali, calls to confirm our rendezvous in Arles the following day.

Ill be at the train station with officials, Tarik coos in his expansively chivalrous, accented English then hastens to add, Dont forget your bathing suit!

Bring my cossie to a business lunch, product presentation and tour of the grounds? It strikes me as unusual, even for a balmy August in Provence. Then again, Arles is an unusual place for a record label to base itself, and Harmonia Mundi is an unusual label.

Launched in Paris in 1958, it is one of the oldest classical independents still standing. The founders among them Bernard Coutaz, who served as president until his death in 2010 we're a group of intrepid idealists on a quest to discover and disseminate beautiful, rarely heard sounds.

It must have been a courageous move for a start-up to leave the thriving capital and take shelter in a disused Provenal farmhouse and potentially isolate itself, but, as Coutaz recalled matter-of-factly before his death, Paris was too noisy and we wanted to move to the country. We decided to go to the top of a hill in Lubron, because that was as far away as we could get from Paris and not too close to Marseilles.

In 1986, after many happy and productive years in picturesque Lubron, Coutaz and co. moved operations to the ancient city of Arles.

The sprawling 9,000m2 estate, home to a wine storage complex in a past life, could accommodate an expanded enterprise including a book publishing house, distribution wing and non-classical house label World Village (Arles-born celebrity designer Christian Lacroix even designed album artwork for the latter last year, showing his local pride).

Now a multinational company with a chain of boutiques in Europe and more than 300 employees, the heart of the business and it's philosophy remains, literally, a cottage industry.

Old and new

Peering through the train window during the three-hour journey from Paris to Nmes, I note the encroaching storm clouds with a counter intuitive sense of satisfaction: I knew it was a silly idea, bringing a swimsuit.

As promised, Tarik is waiting on the platform, umbrella in hand, looking dapper but slightly crestfallen about the grey skies. He is quick to assure me, though, with the warmth of the tu form of address, that I can still look forward to an enlightening tour of the mas and it's environs .

Strolling through the centre historique , a UNESCO World Heritage Site , its clear why Harmonia Mundi belongs in Arles.

This hilltop site overlooking the Rhne was settled as Arelate by Greek Phoenicians as far back as the 7th century BC, with traces of that civilisation giving the streets their archaic charm and historical gravitas: the remparts romains, and an immense, elliptic amphitheater, it's crumbling stone archways painstakingly restored once the blood-soaked battleground of gladiators, and today home to similarly gory bullfights or corridas, betraying the Spanish influence in Arles, and milder entertainment such as concerts (The Muse de lArles Antique is dedicated to these sites and artifacts).

At the same time, it's a forward-looking city, especially when it comes to the arts. The old sits comfortably alongside the new literally, in the case of the Carre dArt, the futuristic glass cube building housing the contemporary art museum and media centre a stones throw away from a Roman temple opposite.

The famed architect Frank Gehry will be putting his stamp on the cityscape with a set of angular silver towers in his distinctive freeform style at the Parc des Ateliers.

The restoration of the coliseum (you can see precisely where a different type of stone has been smoothed over the timeworn edifice) and the sight of the Carre dArt and it's neighbors Corinthian columns could well be an analogy for Harmonia Mundi, a company still producing CDs as objets dart in a digital world.

Although the labels recorded repertoire spans a millennium or so, the heart of it's extensive catalogue lies in early music, especially in medieval chant and rare sacred fare, much of which has to be reconstructed from fragments of original manuscripts before it can be performed.

In it's aesthetic, it's philosophy, and it's mission of cultural excavation and preservation through music, Harmonia Mundi is an ideal tenant in Arles.

The preservation side of things came almost 50 years ago when a couple of members of the team would drive around the churches of France, and then wider Europe, to record historic organs. They we're flying by the seat of their pants in a battered two-seater 2CV, often with the sound engineer and sometimes even the organist crammed in with them. Finding some of the small-town instruments in a state of disrepair, they would patch up pipes and buttons with sticky tape and string. Without even realizing it, they amassed a rich, never-before-heard sound in a catalogue of 50 recordings, capturing lesprit du son of these majestic old instruments for future generations.

An accidental kidnapping

Tarik and I chuckle about the labels humble, slightly madcap beginnings as we enter the Clotre de Saint-Trophime attached to the gothic Cathdrale dArles.

In a playful mood that seems at odds with the sanctity of the 12th-century gothic church, he points out a severe-looking woman at the ticket booth.

Watch this, he whispers conspiratorially. She has no sense of humour, you'll see. Sidling up to the counter, he requests an under-26 concession for me; then, for his own plein tariff, asks disarmingly, Do you have discounts for friends of Carla Bruni?

Sure enough, not even a twitch.

Contemplating the heavy tapestries that hang on the stone walls and depict detailed scenes of the Crusades, we hear the strains of a soprano singing medieval troubadour songs in the courtyard, accompanied by a lute.

I am reminded that Bernard Coutaz had been part of the religious order of St Francis de Sales for 10 years before he became a journalist, eventually funding his new record label with his book royalties. It is his monastic training that instilled in him a profound appreciation for Gregorian chant, and little wonder that his rather esoteric first recording was of obscure music of the Slavonic liturgy, or that his label bears a Latin name.

It was in the early 1960s, in a provincial French church not unlike the one in Arles, that Harmonia Mundi had a coup de bol that came to define the label.

Coutaz and his crew went along to hear the concert of a little-known English countertenor (falsettist) named Alfred Deller.

Immediately struck by the purity of both his tone and musicianship, they accosted him in the churchs makeshift backstage area. What with all the attention and the language barrier, Deller thought he was simply being greeted by his French management team, and willingly went for a drive with these strangers.

They we're some distance away when the misunderstanding came to light, but over an impromptu meal of eggs, goats cheese, wine and whatever else was lying around, Coutaz had convinced Deller to sign to Harmonia Mundi.

In this unpretentious way, the French label chose an Englishman as it's first major talent an Englishman who changed the face of the early music revival at a time when singing as a countertenor was regarded as a freakish use of the male voice. Deller soon became an unlikely star in France, and his fruitful recording partnership with Harmonia Mundi lasted until his death in 1979.

An unusual office

By the time Tarik and I emerge from the cloister, the grey gloom has cleared and the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean skies clashes violently against the bright white sandstone of the arena in the distance.

It is with this second, more hospitable southern welcome that I am driven down a plane tree-lined gravel path past a sign unostentatiously tucked away in the grass: Le Mas Vert.

We arrive in Tariks sedan, but I can't help thinking a horse-drawn carriage would have been more appropriate.

There are no cubicles or booths in the rambling converted office; most staff members have their own slice of provincial paradise. I take in the original patterned tiling and ornately carved columns, creaking wooden staircase and, over the mantelpiece in one room, the Harmonia Mundi logo a spiral snail she'll wrought in stone.

The neighbouring warehouse no longer stores rice and wine, but CDs and books, with sparrows peering down from wooden rafters at the comings and goings of a busy distribution and export centre.

In Tariks office, piles of CDs line the walls and the discs we play echo against ceramic tiles and up into the high ceiling, cicadas whirring away gently outside. Inspired surrounds for inspiring music.

But his presentation of the labels latest releases is cut short when my guide has to add urgent final touches to a Middle Eastern distribution contract there is actual work to be done, after all.

Why don't you have a swim? he suggests, pointing casually through the blue-shuttered window at the secluded courtyard.

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Posted in Jobs/Employment Post Date 04/16/2021


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