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Troy Curry and Elaine Peña built an underground record label around their shared love of conceptual art

Even at the dawn of the '60s, brides-to-be made daily pilgrimages to the lovely grounds of the McNay for their wedding portrait sessions. Composer Phillip Krumm, a San Antonio native, began his musical career on those very grounds, serenading a continuous parade of indifferent, yet impeccably dressed people with obscure John Cage compositions.

From those surreal and humble beginnings, Krumm journeyed to some extraordinary places early in his career, including an infamous performance with Yoko Ono at Carnegie Hall in November 1961. For that performance, Krumm and George Brecht (like Krumm, a member of the underground Fluxus art group) tied soup cans to their feet and rattled around onstage while Ono sat on a toilet reading poetry - a bizarre spectacle punctuated by loud flushes from a second, rudely amplified offstage loo. As with most comically reductivist Fluxus happenings, other artists were enthralled but critics were not amused.

Experimental composers and performers like Krumm often drift into quiet oblivion. Even today's experimental elite - including international recording artists Tetuzi Akiyama, Brendan Walls, Oren Ambarchi, and Jonathan Coleclough - are hardly household names. But in the right circles, their mere mention makes palms sweaty, eyes bulge, and vocal cords tense with excitement. These artists, along with William Basinski, Christoph Heemann, Ivan Pavlov, and the Scorces, form the ever-expanding and decidedly avant-garde roster of the San Antonio-based Idea Records label.

Idea Records began in 2001 as the collaborative brainstorm of locals Elaine Peña and Troy Curry, whose shared love of conceptual art slowly bled out of a strictly visual landscape into the realm of sound. Their tiny label is currently poised to release Formations, composed by Krumm and performed by fellow San Antonio native Robert Sheff (aka Blue Gene Tyranny) this fall. Krumm's piece is the musical representation of archaic celestial star maps, inspired by a John Cage composition that utilized similar maps as a means of determining tone and frequency. Sheff is a respected producer and the former vocalist for the Prime Movers, an Ann Arbor, Michigan blues band which included a young James Osterberg - better known as Iggy Pop - on drums.

Curry is a former tattoo artist who used to work at Perfections. "For a long time after I left tattooing, I lost all interest in that type of outsider art - for lack of a better term - almost to the point of rejecting it completely, which was a shame," he says.

"Later, in art school, I fell in love with conceptual art until it was reduced to a philosophy, which made me fall out of love with it as well. But I eventually came back around, about three years ago. Seeing Andy Warhol's painting of Joseph Beuys in Chicago is what really did it for me. Also, the metaphysical and spiritual ideas of abstract painters like Mondrian - and Duchamp's occult explorations - really sucked me in as well. I think now I have a more universal appreciation for all types of art and music."

Perhaps as an extension of Curry's visual-art schooling, each Idea release is quite literally a work of art. The packaging on these small-run, limited-edition releases is exquisite, inspired in equal parts by handcrafted artists books and Curry's fetishized nostalgia for the album art of decades past. The production quality and subsequent cost of these releases is much higher than the average indie-label release, but Curry is not willing to sacrifice in this arena. After all, these products are not intended for the mass market.

Perhaps as an extension of Curry's visual-art schooling, each Idea release is quite literally a work of art.
"I never worry about the decline of music and video packaging in this day and age," Curry says. "Some folks will always appreciate a beautifully made object. As far as design goes, much credit is due to Tom Recchion, who was the creative director at Warner Brothers for years and to Tina Frank - she's been a dream. Taschen just released a book on her work."

Coincidentally, Curry is a childhood friend of Kevin Spencer, proprietor of the equally progressive Robot Records, also based in San Antonio. Spencer, however, is more of a theoretical purist than Curry and Peña. His selectivity is clearly reflected in Robot's cerebral catalog of ear films, works that purposefully belie traditional methodology, both classical and popular. Idea's roster is a bit looser and more diverse than Robot's. It reflects the wide personal tastes of its co-founders, who tend to choose artists based on their music's subjective, emotive qualities rather than an artist's theoretical approach to music making.

Their releases to date range from the folk-inspired Austin duo Scorces to the alien, blues-tinged rock 'n' roll emissions of Japanese improvisational master Tetuzi Akiyama. Both Robot and Idea have released work by acclaimed European sound sculptors Jonathan Coleclough, Christoph Heemann, and Andrew Chalk.

Curry has managed to dedicate himself to Idea Records full-time since the fall of last year, juggling the label's daily operations from his home. Peña is pursuing a degree in history, but still maintains an equal input into the label's selection of artists and all design-related issues.

In the next two months, Idea will release three new records. These include Akiyama's LP Don't Forget to Boogie and Formations, the 1968 recording of Krumm's composition performed by Blue Gene Tyranny. Curry describes Boogie as Idea's most outrageous packaging effort to date. Pre-press for both of these projects is already heating up on The Wire, the prestigious UK-based magazine.

If this music travels well under the radar of most radio listeners, at least it has a home, a base from which it can reach its small group of aficionados. And you get the feeling that for Curry and Peña, that achievement alone marks the realization of an eccentric dream. •

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