it all began with an open door...
ckart Rahn realized early on
that he wanted a life in music. But the prospects for
a young man from a small town in Germany, with no money
and no formal education, were bleak, to put it mildly.
"I didn't even come from any musical background," Rahn
explains. "There was no music in our house, and no money
for music." Growing up in the small university town
of Marburg, Rahn was one of those typical lost youths
of the early 60s—unhappy in school, unenthused about
the local job market, and uncertain about what kind
of future he actually wanted. That all changed on a
hot summer day when Rahn was fifteen. "I was walking
past a Marburg record shop," he recalls; "and because
it was so hot they had their door open, and I could
hear the record playing inside. It was The Sonny
Rollins Trio Live at the Village Vanguard
Note. I had never heard anything like it." The impact
was immediate: Rahn bought the record. "I didn't even
own a turntable, but I had to have that LP."
Almost immediately, the young Eckart Rahn set
out to become a jazz bassist. He bought a used Kay
bass from an airport security guard who happened to
be a retired bassist from a nearby opera house, and
spent much of the next four years trying to learn
how to master the instrument. "I dropped out of high
school in 1963," Rahn continues, "and got a job at
the Marburg City Theater. This was a turning point,
because I was a stagehand, did work as an extra, and
operated the tape for the incidental music." He found
the tape operation to be another sort of open door.
When a production of Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra
was mounted, Rahn seized the opportunity to provide
incidental music consisting of carefully faded excerpts
from Jimmy Giuffre's orchestral third stream work
Pharaoh. "It was," he says, "my first major
accomplishment in the music business."
Rahn's tape accompaniment was well received, and the
director of the theater promptly rewarded him by firing
him. "I was devastated," he recalls. "He said they
did not believe it proper to hire a dropout. So I
took a train to Cologne, which at that time was the
music capital of Germany." Cologne boasted an internationally
famed electronic music studio, numerous jazz clubs,
and a new radio station, called Deutsche Welle. Eckart
Rahn became the index card filer in Deutsche Welle's
music library. The job lacked glamour, but as Rahn
says, "I got my musical education there. It was a
worldwide service, so they were constantly playing
music from all over the world."
During the next three and a half years, he taught
himself about Beethoven and Stravinsky, and about
African music, Indian ragas and American spirituals.
"Each weekend, I would take a briefcase full of LPs
home and tape them on my Grundig—at the risk of losing
Soon editorial staff were seeking musical advice from
the young library clerk. "The producer of an English-language
program wanted to do a program on Spirituals for Easter,
and she needed help. So I helped her collect some
music, and she said, well, could you write the manuscript?
Yes, I said. But can you read it too? Yes, I said.
Of course, I had never done anything of the sort before.
But that was not going to stop me."
In 1966, Eckart Rahn made his first step toward what
would become his life's work. Not surprisingly, it
was a jazz production, although even at this early
stage, he found himself working at the edge of the
genre. Rahn put the Yugoslavian musician Dusko Goykovich
together with an ensemble that included the great
jazz pianist Mal Waldron, among others. The result
was a project called Swinging Macedonia, produced
simply from a love of the music and without any commitment
from a record company. Eventually, the German Philips
label agreed to release the album within its 'twen'
series, but at the time, the record represented quite
a personal risk. In fact, Rahn had to borrow money
from friends to complete the recording and to actually
get the tape out of the recording studio.
Eventually, Rahn grew disillusioned with the bureaucracy
and the pre-packaged, prerecorded nature of Deutsche
Welle's programming. He landed a job at a small publishing
house in Munich, where he learned the basics of music
publishing and administration. The music industry
as a whole was a closed door. Undeterred, Rahn struck
out on his own in April of 1968. With-out any funding
or formal education in the field, he began doing music
copyright administration. "It really only required
a willingness to do the paperwork," he recalls. He
found himself drawn to the sound of English blues
and a trip to London revealed that there was little
interest within the industry; rock's explosive popularity
had marginalized virtually every other style. "So
I was able to build a formidable catalogue of British
blues, including the music of the Immediate and Blue
Horizon labels—early Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac, Small
Faces, Jimmy Page, etc."
Between 1968 and 1972, Rahn was allied with artists
ranging from Jose Feliciano to Leon Russell, doing
copyright administration and music publishing for
popular groups like Mountain, Mark-Almond and Loggins
& Messina. This brought the fledgling business a good
income, but Rahn's work was confined to Germany, still
a secondary market in the music world. "It was impossible
to do international work from Germany," Rahn points
out; "German music just didn't travel well. The German
music industry consisted either of Anglo-dominated
rock imitations or local singers doing silly pop songs,
or traditional brass music, much of which was dreadful."
The connection between the German language and contemporary
music had been largely severed after 1933 with the
dissolution of the famed Kurt Weill/Bertold Brecht
collaboration. "No one picked up the trail and established
a new direction for the German language."
Nonetheless, there were exceptions. "At that point,
ECM was a small jazz label called JAPO owned by its
founders, an appliance dealer with a love for jazz,
and the editor of a catalogue of jazz recordings,
and Mal Waldron began recording his first LPs for
Enja and ECM Records," Rahn says. Waldron, of course,
was on the scene because Rahn had brought him there
for the Goykovich sessions. And in the middle of 1969,
Eckart Rahn began his own contribution to the burgeoning
music scene in Munich: Kuckuck
Schallplatten. In fact, he recalls, it was the
industry's inability to keep up with the new developments
in music that opened the door. "The late Hermann Zentgraf
was head of A&R (artist and repertoire) for the German
Philips label, and he brought me the band Ihre Kinder.
He said, we can't do justice by them." Rahn worked
with Ihre Kinder on their first LP, released by Philips.
Then came their second LP, on Rahn's own label, with
distribution by the worldwide record giant Deutsche
Grammophon. Ihre Kinder's founder and main singer-songwriter,
Sonny Hennig, managed to create an entirely new approach
to writing and singing lyrics in German; any number
of German artists have since benefitted from his pioneering
work. Then, "A high-ranking Austrian executive at
DG, Oskar Drechsler, called and said, look, I don't
know what you know, but I know you know something,
and I want you to do it for us. That was the real
launch of Kuckuck."
Rahn chose the German word for cuckoo as the name
of his new record venture—an appropriate name, given
the young company's status as a sort of orphaned step-child
growing amidst the established ones. "I thought my
first deal with DG was extravagant," he chuckles.
"Of course I didn't know how much it really cost to
make records." He soon found out, and soon learned
some of the other hard facts of life in the record
business. In 1974, Drechsler was promoted out of his
position and the cuckoo was kicked out of the nest.
"We had no distribution, a small catalogue, and we
were broke. I looked for another deal but everyone
from A&M to Virgin turned me down."
Rahn spent the mid-70s representing artists and working
in copyright administration to keep Kuckuck alive.
He had a hand in Cecil Taylor's sextet recordings
for New World Records, and made business and record
deals for Gil Evans, Ornette Coleman, Dexter Gordon,
Randy Weston, Woody Shaw and Larry Coryell. He was
largely responsible for the appearance of one of Taylor's
most acclaimed solo performances, Indent, on
LP—the tapes were saved and restored by Rahn. Taylor
returned the favor by introducing the young producer
to the iconoclastic keyboardist Friedrich Gulda, whose
forward-looking album GEGENWART (19003-2)
Rahn produced in 1976. Since 1971, the young German
Deuter had come to Rahn's attention. By 1976 Deuter's
Asian-inspired musical meditations developed a small
but enthusiastic following, and helped Kuckuck crack
the American market.
In 1979 Rahn discovered the magic of a new kind of
contemporary music which was beginning to emerge in
Brazil. The results of several long trips to Rio de
Janeiro and Sao Paulo can still be heard on the Black
Sun label, which was formed to publish the music
of important musicians such as Egberto Gismonti, Marcio
Montarroyos, Sérgio Dias and Azymuth among others.
"By the late 1970s, only three American distributors
were willing to take us," Rahn explains. "Peters International
took us because they liked Deuter. Barry Kobrin's
Important Records was another, and the third was called
Greenworld, in Los Angeles. They were responsible
for our early success in the U.S." (In fact, the buyer
for Greenworld was Paul Marotta, who would eventually
become a key player in the growth of Kuckuck/Celestial
Harmonies in the 1980s before moving on to head New
World Records.) By 1980, Rahn had taken a home in
Connecticut and was working on both sides of the Atlantic.
Celestial Harmonies was set up to distribute Kuckuck
releases in the States, and soon became a label itself.
The chosen name seemed to reflect the spirit of the
times, virtually symbolizing 'New Age' connotations;
however, few realized that the name was more physical
than metaphysical, having been inspired by the 16th
century German astronomer Johannes Kepler's theory
of the harmony of the spheres ('Weltharmonik').
In April of 1981 Rahn signed a licensing agreement
with a Japanese record company that had released some
electronic music by a musician named Kitaro. And within
three months in late 1981, everything changed.
made Kitaro famous," Rahn says simply. "It started
with his first release, Silk Road. No Japanese
artist had ever sold more records than Kitaro." Between
Kitaro's phenomenal popularity, the increasing interest
in Deuter's music, and Rahn's deal to issue the groundbreaking
solo flute record INSIDE THE GREAT PRYAMID (12060-2)
by Paul Horn,
Kuckuck/Celestial Harmonies saw sales go from $41,000
in 1980 to over one million dollars the next year.
Not surprisingly, Deuter, Horn, and Kitaro would become
the core of Rahn's catalogue throughout the 1980s.
The next big step was the beginning of the CD era.
Eckart Rahn was one of the first to embrace digital
technology, and points to his 1981 recording of Spirit
of Peace (13008-2)
by Popol Vuh's leader and pianist Florian Fricke as
the turning point. It is hard to point to any one
project as the first-ever digital recording, but this
was certainly one of the first. "It was the first
time I experienced the magic of digital recording,"
Rahn recalls. "I was in the studio with engineer Ulrich
Kraus and we were listening to the performance in
the studio. I said, could we listen to the tape itself?
And he said, you are listening to the tape. I couldn't
believe it. He switched back and forth between the
live sound and the sound from the tape and your ears
could not tell them apart." When the digital CD format
was introduced in Europe in late 1983 and in the U.S.
in 1984, Rahn was ready for it. "No major American
label wanted to commit to it. I not only committed
to it, I banked the future of the company on it."
Albums by Hans Otte (11069-2)
and James Newton (13012-2
(the latter, recorded in Echo Canyon, New Mexico,
was the first digital remote recording, produced by
Stephen Hill of Hearts of Space) set a new standard
for recorded sound, and within two years, as the industry
scrambled to find enough pressing plants to make their
CDs, Rahn's Celestial Harmonies label was among the
very few with a 100% fulfillment rate—"because we
made our commitments early," he points out. "We had
invested $300-400,000 per year in CDs. It could have
ruined us; but we sold every CD we could make."
Celestial Harmonies became one of the leaders in the
New Age music field. Additional recordings by R. Carlos
David Hykes (13010-2
and Terry Riley (13026-2,
12047-2 and 14018-2)
brought the elements of Native American, Central Asian,
and world/minimalist styles into the mix. Between
1985 and 1987, Rahn began incorporating the catalogue
of Ethan Edgecombe's Fortuna
Records from California. This led him to the Celtic
harp music of Patrick
Ball, the slightly darker electronic sounds of
and Steve Roach,
and Japanese classical music. The impact of this marriage
of companies is hard to overstate. Parsons and Roach
have become two of Rahn's most important field producers,
having traveled the world in the 1990s to bring recordings
from Asia, the Middle East, and Australia to the West.
And the appearance of ancient musical traditions of
the Far East in the catalogue heralded the production
of the remarkable boxed sets of non-Western music
that have characterized Rahn's recent work.
"Different influences were making themselves felt,"
Rahn says, "and the next step was to do the unthinkable:
move out of the New York City area." In 1988, he chose
to leave Connecticut for Tucson, Arizona. "Paul Marotta
told me, Tucson's not where you're going—it's where
you're from. But I wanted more space, I needed to
listen to the quiet, to hear these different influences."
In Tucson, Rahn found himself in a place that had
a more Pacific-oriented view, and a very different
Hispanic culture from the Cuban/Puerto Rican culture
of the East coast. "I started reading Octavio Paz,
and developed a new orientation to local music, Mariachi
and Native American. So we did that. Two video laser
disks on the then-new MonteVideo label reflect this
orientation toward the American South-West: THE
PETRIFIED FOREST: A PICTURE POEM (19001)
and THE WORLD IN OUR EYES: A NATIVE AMERICAN VISION
OF CREATION (19002).
The next big turning point, for me and the company,
was looking out from Tucson toward the west, toward
the Pacific. You discover a wide open space, one that
was a lot less explored at that time." And so, in
1989 and 1990, Eckart Rahn began traveling to Japan,
Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. In June 1992, he
brought out the first result of those trips: the 4-CD
silk-covered boxed set THE HUGO MASTERS: AN ANTHOLOGY
OF CHINESE CLASSICAL MUSIC (19901-2).
"At the time, it was the only—and is still the best—Chinese
classical compilation with an in-depth explanatory
booklet. And it led to recordings in almost all the
major Asian countries."
is something poetic and appropriate about the unplanned,
unexpected way Celestial Harmonies grew. Nor has this
been lost on Rahn himself. "I never planned it; it
just happened," he says. "I always related to improvised
music, not notated music. And Asian music is strangely
similar to be-bop, which I always loved. It is improvised,
without the icons of the Western conductor and composer.
The ego drive, the adoration of the icon—these don't
exist in Asian music. It's sung or played from the
heart each time anew."
This led to a new perspective on the world's music,
Western music included. India and China represent
over two billion people; add to that the populations
of Indonesia and Japan and you have about half of
humankind. That was a powerful revelation that changed
forever the way Rahn looked at music, and how he chose
what projects to pursue. "What we call 'classical'
music concerns about ten percent of the world's population,
over perhaps the last 500 years. Working with Asian
music put it in place; these traditions concern far
more people and are thousands of years old. Yet the
person who studies Austrian music of the past few
centuries is a musicologist, while someone who studies
these other classic traditions is almost derogatorily
called an ethnomusicologist. A lot of what we've done
in the past decade is to set that straight."
Another result of that new perspective is a renewed
interest in music that is neither Eastern nor Western.
The cross-cultural mysticism of G.I. Gurdjieff & Thomas
de Hartmann, the Asian-inspired scores of Peter
Michael Hamel, and the 7-CD set of Armenian classical
and traditional music (19909-2),
are all examples of music at the crossroads of Europe
and the East. This of course was not a new interest
at all, but it's still ironic that, after moving,
working, and traveling for three decades, Eckart Rahn
has found himself "back where I started—it's Swinging
Macedonia, that music somewhere between East and
It is also music between the accepted categories of
folk/popular and classical music. Rahn is quick to
point to the examples of Australian didjeridu music
or the music of Africa as instances where the distinction
between these categories does not apply. In Europe,
classical music developed around the churches and
courts. Vernacular styles were left to the villages
and common folk. "In a non-feudal or communal society,"
he explains, "that difference didn't exist. With the
help of Australian producer Michael
Atherton, who has explored this in some depth,
we've found that neither term, folk or classical,
really applies. At some point, you really see that
Duke Ellington was right—it's all just music."
The idea that music is something fundamental to human
nature, and the notion that the regional differences
between the world's musics are ultimately fairly minor,
is borne out the more one listens to the music of
the world. "Travel," says Eckart Rahn, "is where you
get your culture. I've averaged two trips around the
world per year. I've visited over 30 countries myself,
and we've recorded projects in over 40." Many of those
projects represented countries and traditions that
were previously obscure, or in some cases completely
unknown. The industry, for example, has recently released
a wealth of African music. But Celestial Harmonies
has made only a few, largely acoustic contributions
to this particular field, including the Takadja projects,
preferring instead to work on less familiar terrain.
THE MUSIC OF CAMBODIA, VOLUME ONE: 9 GONG GAMELAN
example, brought the sounds of the ancient Khmer Empire
as preserved by the rice farmers near Angkor Wat to
Western listeners for the first time. The same can
be said for the rare and precious recordings from
Vietnam's ancient capital, Hue.
As interest in 'world music' has increased in recent
years, Celestial Harmonies has stubbornly chosen to
produce recordings that are not in the mainstream.
This has included a series of successful compilations
of Western classical music (it is one of the world's
great classical traditions, after all) as well as
a groundbreaking series of recordings of the music
of German composer Carl Orff (13104-2,
13105-2 and 13106-2)
and an awesome recording of Munich's new cathedral
All of this makes Celestial Harmonies a difficult
company to pin down stylistically. "Westerners seem
to need to pigeonhole things," muses Rahn. "We've
always done things in the twilight—neither this nor
that but sometimes both together—and created our own
Harmonies has also created an environmental policy
that sets the standard for an industry that has blithely
ignored the consequences of its enormous use of plastics
and paper. Eckart Rahn is perhaps as proud of his
environmental stance as he is of the recorded catalogue
he has produced. In 1992, Celestial Harmonies became
the first record company to have an Environmental
Policy and stick to it. Rahn lists three main facets
in that policy:
1. Reduce the amount of plastic used. Rahn pioneered
the use of the duobox, a CD package capable of holding
two CDs in less plastic than a single conventional
jewel box and the use of a slim-line box (commonly
used for CD singles) for full-length recordings.
2. 100% recycled paper. "This is still unique," he
points out. "No other company of any recognizable
volume does it. I would invite Sony, Polygram, and
the others to follow us, because the industry has
a strong influence and this would send a strong message
to young people throughout the world." In some cases,
the look and feel of recycled paper, rougher and earthier
than conventional paper, can actually add to the packaging.
The textured paper of David Hudson's WOOLUNDA:
TEN SOLOS FOR DIDGERIDOO (13071-2),
for example, adds to the CD's image of antiquity and
tradition far more than the slick paper most recordings
3. Use of non-toxic inks. "German environmental regulations
have helped," Rahn says, "because they're very strict.
We print exclusively now with a responsible company
The message is simple. "Responsible behaviour doesn't
mean less fun," he says. All of Celestial Harmonies'
artists have supported the policy, and Rahn feels
that it has even helped with their professional relationships.
"Artists see that we are considerate of this, and
it demonstrates that we can be considerate of other
needs as well."
Under Eckart Rahn's guidance, Celestial Harmonies
has become a record label that is about more than
just music. The environment is obviously a key element,
but so is the man-made environment. Rahn is an avid
student of architecture, which, after all, is simply
the art of humans adapting, and adapting to,
the environs in which they live. From the beginnings
of recorded history, music has grown up with architecture.
Virtually every sacred music tradition had its roots
in the temples and churches of the world's myriad
belief systems; nearly every "classical" music tradition
flourished and was nurtured in the regional courts
and meeting halls. Recognizing this, Rahn finds the
concept of producing music in a sterile, soundproofed
recording studio to be pure anathema. Since his decision
to reissue Paul Horn's classic recordings INSIDE
THE GREAT PYRAMID (12060-2)
and INSIDE THE TAJ MAHAL (11062-2),
he has increasingly sought to record music in any
space but a recording studio. The results have been
impressive: numerous recordings by the likes of Paul
Horn, David Hykes, and Franz Lehrndorfer (13090-2
in some of the world's great cathedrals and churches;
the James Newton album recorded in Echo Canyon (13010-2)
("God's architecture," Rahn calls it); the remarkable
first volume of The Music of Cambodia (13074-2),
recorded in the Angkor Wat temple complex; the Nagorno-Karabakh
in The Music of Armenia, recorded in the ruined
churches and music school of the wartorn capitol of
that region. The list goes on. "This music was meant
to be heard in these spaces," Rahn points out. "To
take these works out of their natural environment
and put them in a studio really diminishes them."
Music, environment, architecture—these are not separate
worlds, but are rather parts of a single, global expression.
Rahn does not believe you can effectively communicate
a music without communicating something about the
environment from which it comes. "Much of the world's
greatest music is sacred, or at least spiritual music.
When possible, we try to record that music in a sacred
space. Classical music we'll try to record in a concert
hall. I would rather record outdoors than in a studio."
So the environmental policies, and the quest to record
music outside the studio, are not the whims of an
industry eccentric, but part of an organic approach
to the whole question of doing work that has meaning—of
making a contribution to our understanding of other
cultures, and perhaps our own. "If you want to understand
another culture," Rahn once said in a radio interview,
"its music is a good place to start. If you want to
understand that music, though, you need to understand
its context. Presenting that is a great responsibility,
and it is one we take quite seriously."
The diverse and evocative spaces used in so many Celestial
Harmonies productions is also quite in keeping with
the label's diversity of music and packaging. The
absence of a slick, consistent label image, Rahn concedes,
hurts in the short run; "but in the long term, especially
if you want artistic variety, it actually helps."
If Celestial Harmonies has a style, it would be that
it doesn't have one. In an industry full of corporate
images, designer graphics, and restricted catalogues,
Rahn has intentionally varied the packaging and the
design of his releases to suit the music. But, he
suggests, there is a common sensibility: "you want
to do something worthwhile, and something that hasn't
been done too much already. One of the blessings of
working with Asian music in the past decade has been
the joy and sense of adventure of working in areas
you are unfamiliar with." Such adventures often require
a substantial investment of time and money. The current
project, THE MUSIC OF ISLAM (19907-2),
has taken four years of work and over a quarter of
a million dollars. But the result is a collection
of 17 CDs, all to be released in a polished wooden
box, complete with historical notes, musical annotations,
examples of Islamic art and calligraphy. Small wonder,
then, that one prominent Australian newspaper referred
to Eckart Rahn as the "Indiana
Jones of music."
"Style is an adventure," he says. "You can't be restricted
in your style because you don't know what's going
to happen next." One result of this has been Celestial
Harmonies' evolution into a company which is not large
commercially but which has a large impact on a loyal,
core audience. "If our market share is relatively
tiny, well, that's a choice that we've made. It may
be comfortably under 1% of the market, but it's a
noticeable contribution to some people, and that's
what's important. We are recording music for people
to whom music is much more than entertainment."
The open door - it's a wonderful image: a metaphor
for opportunity, fortune, for a new beginning. Sometimes
though, it's just an open door. It was a literal open
door that started this journey over 30 years ago;
but the result after three decades is a metaphorical
door, opening onto worlds of sound and glimpses of
faraway cultures for anyone willing to enter.
(based on conversations with Eckart Rahn in 1997)