On a Tuesday night in January, Dragon's Eye Recordings artist Geneva Skeen saturates the Chinatown echo chamber known as Human Resources with a set of ambient sounds, as attendees — most with their eyes shut, lying limp on floor mats or back-to-back with one another — engage in a kind of communication that transcends verbal form. Her music, though unique, is representative of the independent, L.A.-based imprint's focal points, which include sound art, minimalist field recordings, and situational pieces that function as scores for choreography or visual art. It's not the kind of stuff you hear at traditional music venues — and it's definitely not for everyone.
“It’s really not my kind of music,” says Paul Novak, who founded Dragon's Eye in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1989 and whose son, Yann, now runs the label. “At some point Yann was getting an interest in music, but it was quite a different interest than mine, I should say. Mine is sort of blues and international and Greek and rock & roll. Not computer-based.”
Dragon's Eye began when Paul, formerly a bread baker by trade, founded Only Connect … Publications as means of releasing his book of bread recipes, A Baker’s Dozen of Daily Breads & More. An avid vinyl collector, Paul dreamed of a score to accompany the project — a medley composed specifically as bread-kneading music. He sought an 8½-minute piece that matched the instructed kneading process with its tempo: beginning at a medium rate, slowing down in the middle, quickening at the end. For this task, he commissioned an acquaintance, acclaimed new age pianist George Winston.
Winston's lively medley, “Bread Baker’s Stomp,” was pressed as a Soundsheet (a kind of flexi-disc) and included in the book as a tearout. “Because my dad was a big record-collecting nerd, he couldn’t release a record without having a catalog number,” Yann explains. “So he created Dragon’s Eye Recordings as the record label for this one release.”
A longtime friend, John Ribble, painted the book’s front and back covers. According to Paul, Winston would buy copies of the book at cost and sell them at his performances, with proceeds going to food banks.
Paul printed two editions of the book, both of which sold out. For years, nothing else came of Only Connect or Dragon’s Eye. But after moving to Seattle and developing his own distinct interest in music and sound art, Yann saw an opportunity to revive the label. He relaunched Dragon’s Eye in 2005 and moved both himself and imprint to L.A.’s Arts District three years later.
Dragon’s Eye’s second wave of releases strayed from the style of its foundational Soundsheet. The imprint has housed releases from relatively unknown acts such as Celer, which features subdued analog synth improvisation from duo Danielle Baquet-Long and Will Long, and Swedish composer and sound artist Tobias Hellkvist, whose 2015 release with Dragon’s Eye, Pause, consists of a 25-minute swelling drone. Despite its title, the minimalist hymn sounds as if it could stretch on indefinitely.
Still, these artists keep the core intention that Paul solidified with Winston’s medley in mind: to release music that induces an action or performance in and of itself. “Bread Baker’s Stomp” was composed as means for engagement. This remains a prerequisite for Dragon’s Eye artists — as is the case with Skeen, who released her debut, Dark Speech, with the label in September. Her work fuses years of piano training with self-taught experience on the flute, in addition to vocal looping and manipulation through Ableton software.
“I think that’s the conversation developing around ‘sound art’ or ‘experimental music,’” Skeen says. “All of that work is invested in building a relationship between the sound or the music and the listener. Ways of building relationships other than talking or seeing.”
Dragon’s Eye functions as a platform for building relationships among its artists, too. In February, Yann — now based out of the Brewery, an artists' colony just east of downtown — held a solo audiovisual exhibition back at Human Resources. After its eight-day run, Skeen participated in a set of closing performances that engaged with the installation.
The friendship and ongoing collaboration between Yann and Skeen is emblematic of how Dragon's Eye distinguishes itself from the standard label structure in its interactions with artists. While most labels develop artists by releasing their record, booking live dates and the like, Dragon’s Eye focuses specifically on the project at hand.
“This is about having our paths cross for this one project,” Yann says. “Maybe they’ll cross again, maybe they won’t.”
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But that assessment may be a modest one. Dragon’s Eye — while representing artists from Venice to Tokyo to Highland Park — continues creating collaboration out of friendship, or vice versa, thereby keeping the original intent alive.
“I feel really well-supported by my relationship with Dragon’s Eye and by the way that Yann approached releasing essentially my debut solo record,” Skeen says. “All of the stuff — while it may be this crossing of paths — is still so considerate and structured and supportive.”
In 2014, Yann asked sound artist Steve Roden to manipulate the original “Bread Baker’s Stomp” into a new Dragon’s Eye release. Rather than remixing the medley, Roden physically cut Soundsheets and unconventionally pasted them back together to replay and record the collaged flexi-disc. Flower & Water documents this process. Roden’s written explanation accompanying the release offers an admirable nod to the imprint’s origins.
“My hope was that the messiness of my process might offer some sound pieces that might relate to how a kitchen might look when I might have finished baking bread,” he wrote. “With hands covered in flour, with dough stuck to the counter.”