Todd Garfinkle of M•A Recordings—A World Citizen

Todd Garfinkle, guiding light of M•A Recordings, travels the globe recording provocative music in unbelievably wonderful acoustic settings. Todd travels to exotic climes such as Macedonia and Southern Siberia to capture unique and beautiful traditional ethnic music and song. He records with only two omnidirectional microphones, the signals of which are fed into handmade recording equipment designed especially for his work. Kathleen and I caught up with him at St. Peter's on 20th Street, a popular recording venue in the West Village. After wrapping a session, Todd stopped by our loft, where we rolled some tape of our own...

Jonathan Scull: What's behind the name of your company, M•A Recordings?

Todd Garfinkle:'s Japanese for "space."

Scull: Very apropos.

Garfinkle: The dot between the M and the A signifies that space. It's actually a note! M•A Recordings has been in existence for eight years altogether, and I've been recording for ten.

Scull: How did you get into recording ethnic music?

Garfinkle: I was born in Los Angeles and lived there until I was 13. I spent six and a half years in Israel in high school on a kibbutz, then went to Jerusalem. What struck me most was how much the people in Israel valued life and living. There was a real hard-core meaning to life and, needless to say, survival. I found that attitude so different from the shallow lifestyle that I saw in America at the time. This was around the time of the Vietnam war. As we all know, that was a big drag for lots of people. But in Israel, life was really "life," somehow.

I'm sure that my adolescent experiences there were the main influence on where I am today musically. You know, I've lived in three different countries up to now, and I don't feel 100% that any one of them is my country. You might say that I'm a citizen of the world, and that's a pretty good reason, I suppose, to record music from all over the globe. It's also very interesting for me to mix different musical elements together—like with guitarist Dusan Bogdanovic. He mixes Balkan modes with African rhythms, for example, and his approach is so elegant that it really becomes his own kind of "world music."

Scull: You enjoyed living in Japan?

Garfinkle: It's crowded, but the tofu is the best in the world. [laughs] I came back to the States and studied music at university, you know. I have a Bachelor's degree in composition. I call it...decomposition!

Scull: badaBOOM. Why'd you move to Japan?

Garfinkle: [smiles] Well, I wanted to live there, of course, and I was trying to promote a friend of mine, Milcho Leviev, who's on our label now. Milcho toured Japan with Art Pepper and did a record with Eddie Harris, who's a great sax player. Around that time Sadao Watanabe had an annual music festival, and I was trying to get him interested in Milcho.

Eventually Sadao heard the demo tapes I'd made. It turned out I knew an engineer, Seigen Ono, who was working with Sadao doing mixdowns. He took my tapes in to Sadao, and the next day I had a message from my friend that Sadao liked my music and wanted me to come to the studio that night! I show up and he says, "You want to play on the radio with me?" He had his own program at the time. So suddenly I'm on the radio in Japan doing sax-and-piano duets with Sadao Watanabe! The producer had a friend at Sony, and suddenly I had a record out. All this just, like...happened without my trying to promote myself—I was trying to help Milcho! Well, anyway, it didn't happen in a few days. It all took time.

Scull: That sounds rather ominous. What happened?

Garfinkle: Well, Sony wasn't interested in doing a second recording. But I knew I had to continue the momentum because, a big company like that...well, getting your name out there is a big step, you know? So the next tape I produced eventually became the first release on M•A, Prayers Wishes Illusions. That was piano-and-bass chamber jazz duets I did with bassist Shigeo Sugiyama.

Scull: Let's talk equipment for a bit. Was that a pair of spaced omnis I saw you using at the first recording session we attended at St. Peter's?

Garfinkle: Yes, a pair of B&K [DPA] 4006s. A short run of cable took them into a modified mike preamp that's built by the same guy who modified my DAT.

Scull: I noticed you took the line-level signal to the DAT via a long run of Nirvana cable.

Garfinkle: Yeah, I used the Nirvana because of the heavy RFI problems here in New York. Otherwise, I use Cardas Golden Cross.

Scull: That's a modified Pioneer DAT, Stax T2S headphone amp, and a couple of headphones. How about headphones?

Garfinkle: Stax Lambda Novas; they're really very good.

Scull: How has the DAT been modified?

Garfinkle: The mods start with the power supply. You can't expect Pioneer to put too much into the supplies when the machine retails in Japan for 165,000 yen, or around $1350.

Scull: What model did it start out as?

Garfinkle: It was a 07A Multi-Bit D/A converter. Anyway, the power supply has oversized condensers—really big ones, in fact. And the analog section was redone. It's still based around an op-amp, but they've been changed to units from Analog Systems, which probably not too many people use. They're similar to highly selected 5534s, which a lot of people might frown upon, but it's how it sounds that counts!

Scull: Exactly. And the DAT runs at 96kHz?

Garfinkle: Yes, but that's Pioneer's doing. We removed some of the digital filtering because you don't really need it at 96k. And it's been modified for all-balanced XLR connectors.

Scull: It's 96k, but how about the data word length?

Garfinkle: That's still 16-bit.

Scull: So we can say that you're a purist? There's not much to your recording outfit...

Garfinkle: Well, yes. All the equipment is exotic, but I don't have nine flight cases full of stuff. Like I say, it all fits into my backpack.

Scull: How about the editing side?

Garfinkle: No overdubs. But of course, I have to edit sometimes.