Friday, December 26, 2014

A Composer’s Prep Work For Recording Sessions

In the recording booth with Cedille Records' producer
James Ginsburg and engineer Bill Maylone.
The key to an efficient, successful recording session is preparation. The musicians rehearse the piece prior to the session, the producer pores over the musical score, and the engineer ensures that there are enough microphones, stands, cables, and computer equipment. Composers aren’t always present at recording sessions, but if they are, they should prepare as well. Here’s what I recommend:

• Schedule a few rehearsals (or, better yet, one or two performances) with the musicians in the weeks or months leading up to the session. These rehearsals are best in person, but can be handled remotely if need be. The musicians can record themselves and email the composer audio files, or even a Skype rehearsal session will work if the musicians are using a good external microphone (using a computer’s built-in microphone isn’t a good idea as it tends to distort the audio).

• Know exactly what you want for every detail of the piece before the recording session begins. Do all of your experimentation of the piece’s details with the performers during the rehearsals. Should a string passage be played with extreme sul ponticello? Or is it better with tremolo instead? Attempting to use the recording session to make decisions that easily could have been made beforehand squanders valuable time and the performer’s energy. If you waffle between choices during a session, you will come across as unprepared and unaware of how much time, effort, and money go into a session.

Study your score carefully. This sounds obvious, but it is easy to think that since you wrote it, you will remember all of the piece’s salient details. As performers are quickly laying down take after take, you might discover that you’re really not sure what tempo you want the performers to play, how much of a diminuendo is needed to get into a new section, or if one of the performers is playing the correct pitches. If it takes you several run-throughs of a section to realize that the musicians are playing something not to your liking, then – again – you’ve just squandered time and energy, since everyone will have to re-start the process over of laying down fresh takes (it is ideal to have multiple takes of each passage to choose from rather than just one good take).

The TV in front of us shows the stage where the Avalon Quartet
is recording my String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations
• Check in advance if the engineer will have an extra pair of headphones for you to listen in on the session. If he/she doesn’t, bring your own. Find out from the engineer what types of headphones are recommended, as well as if you need to bring an adapter to plug in your pair.

• Bring a music score, notepad, and pencils/pens, and learn the shorthand that producers use. Ask the producer or engineer to show you how they take notes during the session so you can quickly record each track number, starting and stopping measures, and any comments you have on each track. Occasionally confirm that you are on the same track number as the producer and engineer. For comments, I note particularly good takes as well as problem spots, along with a quick note on the nature of the problem (for instance, “tuning” or “alignment”). I also mark these problem spots on the music score. For instance, I write “-2” above a measure in which there was an issue in take 2. If the performers fix the problem on take 3, I mark “+3” above that same spot. Honestly, a composer might never need to refer back to these take sheets, but these can be very handy when you’re reviewing a master copy of the piece and hear a problem in a spot that you know got fixed in another take.

Listen vertically as well as horizontally. We typically listen in performances for the long lines and overall shape of phrases; in other words, we are listening “horizontally.” While that’s still important in a reading session, you also need to catch how things line up vertically. Did everyone start together, or did an instrument speak late? How was the tuning of each note in each chord? Did someone’s bow inadvertently tap a music stand, or was there a loud page turn? I find “vertical” listening to be the most challenging skill to master, but essential for getting the cleanest takes for the final recording.

Be supportive throughout the session. Let the performers know when you find something especially beautiful; help them to shape moments that aren’t quite there yet. Your job is to be an additional set of ears to help bring out their best performance of your piece.

At the end of the session, show your appreciation. Thank your performers, producer, and engineer. I personally like handing out chocolates to everyone, but you can get creative with this – thank you notes, homemade cookies, even a round of beverages at a nearby pub – whatever feels appropriate.

I try to attend every recording session that I can to help guide the performers and shape the piece, as well as to work on my own listening skills. If a session has gone well, everyone is tired but happy with the day’s work. The proof is in the final product when the CD is commercially released.

With the Avalon Quartet post-recording session

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Composing of my Mythology Symphony

I wish I could take credit for every great idea that I turn into a piece, but the truth is that not all of the best ideas are mine. Sometimes an idea is the brainchild of someone else. The Mythology Symphony is one of these ideas.

Stage 1: Becoming Medusa

Back in 2007, I received a commission to write a piece for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The DSO had a concertmistress instead of a concertmaster (who sits in the first chair of the 1st violin section). This got me thinking – could I write something that would highlight her? I was on a Greek mythology kick at the time, having just written a large string quartet about Gaia (the Greek personification of Mother Earth), and that got me thinking about Medusa. Most stories I’ve read depict Medusa as a hideous gorgon with snakes for hair and eyes that turn the unfortunate gazer to stone. But how did she get that way? With some research, I learned she started as a beautiful human who made the poor decision to seduce a god in Athena’s temple. So I crafted a piece that would portray Medusa’s beauty as well as her metamorphosis into a gorgon. At this point, I thought Becoming Medusa was a fifteen-minute, stand-alone piece that was complete when the DSO premiered it.

Stage 2: The Lovely Sirens and The Fates of Man

A few years later, the Albany Symphony selected me to be composer-in-residence for the 2009-2010 season. The residence included a performance of Becoming Medusa along with a commission for a new piece. When I was in the early planning stages of the new piece that was tentatively titled Forces of Nature and had nothing to do with Greek mythology, David Alan Miller (the Symphony’s maestro) sent me an email. He proposed that I add more movements to Becoming Medusa to create a symphony; moreover, he suggested I create a “Mythology” symphony in which the companion movements are about other female characters from ancient mythology. Miller’s email was a true “a-ha!” moment for me. I hadn’t considered writing something so massive as a symphony! Miller’s idea immediately took hold. I revisited some of the other Greek female characters I had researched while looking into the story line for Becoming Medusa, and decided to compose two movements for the Albany commission: The Lovely Sirens, whose lovely voices lure sailors to their deaths, and The Fates of Man, which depicts the three sisters of fate who weave the threads of life for all of humanity.

Stage 3: Penelope Waits and Pandora Undone

By the time the Albany Symphony premiered The Lovely Sirens and The Fates of Man, it was clear to me that the piece needed something more. There was so much dramatic music in the existing three movements that I realized the symphony lacked sufficient “down” time. My solution was to add two more movements – one right after Becoming Medusa (the first movement) that would consist of calm, slow music, and one at the end of the piece to alleviate the tension of Sirens and Fates, as well as to give the symphony a proper conclusion (neither Sirens nor Fates consists of good ending material, as Sirens ends on a moment of extreme tension and Fates stops abruptly mid-phrase). But without an orchestra lined up to premiere the new movements, I waited. The wait was over in 2012, when Henry Fogel, Dean of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University (where I’m on faculty) stepped into my office and announced that the CCPA Orchestra would record my orchestral works for Cedille Records. We made an arrangement for the CCPA to commission the final two movements and I started composing. Penelope Waits (the second movement) tells the story of Queen Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, who patiently waits twenty years for her husband to return from the Trojan Wars. Pandora Undone, the fifth and final movement, is in turns both lighthearted and serious as the music depicts a young, naïve Pandora who opens a box that allows all evils to escape into the world.

Sometimes projects start off as my idea, sometimes as someone else’s. Over the years, I have found that inspiration can come from anywhere and anyone. Had I not been open to David Alan Miller’s idea of writing companion movements for Becoming Medusa, I wouldn’t have a complete symphony today. The piece has a total duration of 43 minutes, and the final ordering of the movements stands as follows:

I. Becoming Medusa (2007)
II. Penelope Waits (2013)
III. The Lovely Sirens (2010)
IV. The Fates of Man (2009)
V. Pandora Undone (2013) 

The Mythology Symphony will receive its world premiere on January 27, 2015 by the Chicago College of Performing Arts Orchestra at the Harris Theater of Performing Arts under the baton of maestra Alondra de la Parra. This is a free concert. For more information, please visit the Harris Theater website.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Happy 25th Anniversary, Cedille Records!

Click here to watch a video of Cedille Records recording
artists talk about the impact Cedille has on their careers.
At this precarious moment in the music industry in which CD sales are globally declining, Chicago-based Cedille Records has not only beat the odds but is flourishing. From the expansion of the number of CDs produced each year, a growing roster of recording artists, and four Grammies for their eighth blackbird recordings, Cedille Records has proven itself a vibrant entity in the classical music world. This year, they celebrate their 25th anniversary with an assortment of concerts and special events scattered throughout the 2014–2015 concert season.

Cedille has recorded my works on seven CDs with a host of talented ensembles and individuals including the Lincoln Trio, Chicago a cappella, Grant Park Chorus, Gaudete Brass, mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott, pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, and the (now defunct) Biava Quartet. Cedille recorded the first ever all-Garrop chamber CD titled In Eleanor’s Words: Music of Stacy Garrop. Cedille is currently recording my fourth string quartet with the Avalon Quartet (who are new to the label), as well as producing an all-Garrop orchestral CD featuring the Chicago College of Performing Arts Orchestra (also new to the label).

What makes Cedille so special? I find there are several aspects:

With flutist and fellow Cedille recording artist
Eugenia Moliner at Soirée Cedille
• James Ginsburg, president of Cedille Records, made it the company’s mission to mainly focus on Chicago area musicians and composers. The company often records pieces they consider under-represented. They occasionally work with ensembles that are from outside the area (always in projects with a Chicago connection), but for the most part, Mr. Ginsburg has carefully cultivated a diverse group of Chicago artists that offer a great amount of variety to his label.  I find that this Chicago-based focus encourages Cedille’s artists to collaborate with each other on potential CD projects.

• Cedille helps artists develop their careers over time. Some artists are regulars on the label – violinists Rachel Barton Pine and Jennifer Koh, eighth blackbird, and the Pacifica Quartet are all in this category – and have created an assortment of CDs that explore an astoundingly diverse range. For instance, when Ms. Pine was pregnant, she was inspired to research and record lullabies; when the Pacifica Quartet proposed to record Shostakovich’s fifteen string quartets, they wanted to add a piece of Shostakovich’s contemporaries onto every CD in this multi-CD project. While Mr. Ginsburg doesn’t accept all projects that artists propose, he carefully chooses those that have something unique to offer both the label and its audiences. Cedille furthers its commitment to artists by never removing recordings from its catalog.

• Cedille allows its artists to be extremely involved in just about every aspect of a project. Suggesting repertoire, actively participating in the recording sessions (while this is obvious for performers, it isn’t necessarily so for composers), proofing the recordings before they go on the market, even ideas for covers and liner notes – Cedille is open to it all. This, for me, is unprecedented access to the shaping of the project that allows me to be an essential part of the process.

• The company actively promotes its products. Cedille’s distribution is handled by Naxos of America in the Western Hemisphere and by major independent distributors in international markets elsewhere. Cedille regularly purchases advertising in Fanfare magazine (on the back cover, which gives their products a lot of exposure), as well as sends information about new releases, plus the CDs themselves, to hundreds of music critics, writers, press outlets, and classical radio stations in the U.S. and internationally. As a result of these strong promotional efforts, new CDs are regularly reviewed by a number of publications and critics (I received seven for my In Eleanor’s Words CD) and aired coast-to-coast on classical radio.

Rachel Barton Pine and Wendy Warner
perform at Soirée Cedille
Without Cedille Records, my career wouldn’t be nearly as far along as it is. Cedille has given me a voice and a market to hear it. Their amazing producers and engineers craft high-quality products, which provides the classical music world with fantastic representations of how my music sounds in the hands and voices of talented performers. These CDs have led to numerous performances of my music around the country, as well as commissions for new works and the expansion of my fan base. Thank you Cedille Records for everything you do on behalf of Chicago artists!  Happy 25th Anniversary, and may the next twenty-five years be just as fruitful as your first.

Friday, November 14, 2014

5 Musical Inspirations for Terra Nostra

Whenever I start a new piece, I listen to a LOT of music. Sometimes I drown my ears in the music of baroque composers like Bach and Handel, sometimes in folk-inspired artists like Mumford & Sons or Joan Baez – I’ll listen to anything that strikes my fancy as a source of inspiration. Ultimately, I start to hone my listening list down to pieces that have similar forces and scope as the piece I’m about to compose. As I brainstormed about the type of music to compose for Terra Nostra, I went big. Terra Nostra is my 65-minute oratorio for adult and children’s choirs, four soloists, and orchestra, so I studied works that were comparable in some manner to my project. Here are the top five inspirations that I studied throughout the composing of my oratorio:

1. Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth – cover recorded by Martin Gore (originally composed by the rock band Sparks)

Okay, this song is the opposite of an oratorio with only a duration of three minutes and the performing forces consisting of a singer and his band. But this little golden nugget is what got me thinking about writing a piece about our planet in the first place. In 2008, I was commissioned to write a new string quartet. During my brainstorming phase for the quartet, I coincidentally happened to be listening to Gore’s rendition of the song while watching an intense thunderstorm outside my window. Gore’s hauntingly beautiful voice, along with the song’s lyrics and raging storm, gave me the distinct impression that I was listening to a cautionary tale about the dangers of not paying attention to our planet. I wrote the string quartet about Gaia (the Greek personification of the planet) but felt my work on the subject wasn’t done. When the San Francisco Choral Society asked what I’d like to write an oratorio about, I knew exactly what the topic would be.

2. Elijah – Felix Bartholdy Mendelssohn

This is the first oratorio I ever sang when as an undergraduate student, and it has remained a personal favorite. Written for four soloists, chorus, and orchestra, it times out around two and a quarter hours. Yet it never feels that long to me - how easily the music flows from one section to another! Mendelssohn masterfully controlled the pacing of his story of the prophet Elijah so that it just flies by. There is a particularly well-paced sequence in which Elijah repeatedly instructs the prophets of Baal to have their god prove his existence; as the prophets get more desperate to summon their god, so does the music until it reaches a feverish pitch that is only answered by silence. Mendelssohn tempers these wonderful moments of high drama with several sweet songs (Lift Thine Eyes, for instance); he is also mindful to employ a four-chord motif repeatedly throughout the entire oratorio that draws everything together.

3. Mass – Leonard Bernstein

At some point during my early graduate days, I encountered an LP of Bernstein’s Mass at a garage sale. When I brought it home and put it on the record player, I was stunned by what I heard. What is this melting pot of musical styles (rock, jazz, blues, folks, gospel, contemporary classical, etc.) folded around the story of a Celebrant who is trying to lead an unruly congregation through a traditional Roman Catholic Mass service that goes horribly awry? How had I never heard of this piece before?? This two-hour, semi-staged theatrical work for soloists, adult and boy choirs, dancers, pit orchestra, and onstage instrumentalists was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971. Bernstein had a thing for treading on fine lines that others might leave untouched (just look at Candide), but I had never seen anyone take it to this extreme. As the Celebrant keeps leading the Mass service, the congregants get more and more rowdy. The piece comes to a powerful peak when the Celebrant finally breaks down and smashes the altar. What follows next is an incredible fourteen-minute musical monologue that revisits many of the piece’s musical themes. In a particularly poignant moment of the monologue, the Celebrant segues from the word “Adonai” (Hebrew for God) into “I don’t know.” While this isn’t Bernstein’s finest work, his handling of the structure of the Mass, along with the pacing of its destruction, is very well done. He also repurposes material from the opening song (“A Simple Song”) at the very end (“Secret Songs”), which effectively bookend the piece.

4. Carmina Burana – Carl Orff

It is hard to beat “O Fortuna” when one is looking at how to craft raw, pounding energy. Orff scored the piece for large forces – three soloists, choir, and a big orchestra – which made this entire piece essential listening. In addition to studying “O Fortuna,” which Orff used as the both the first and final movements, there are a number of more delicate movements throughout this hour long piece that explore a good deal of orchestration and color.

5. Dona Nobis Pacem – Ralph Vaughan Williams

I originally began listening to Dona Nobis Pacem because the premiere of the first section of my oratorio was paired up with this work on the San Francisco Choral Society’s concert. But the more I delved into the piece, the more I fell in love with it. Scored for soprano and baritone soloists, choir, and orchestra, this approximately 35 minute piece is Vaughan Williams’ emotional response to war. Vaughan Williams created his libretto from excerpts of the Roman Catholic Mass, Bible, and poetic works of Walt Whitman and John Bright. Since I was compiling my own libretto for Terra Nostra, I was very interested in what texts he selected to create an overarching narrative. Another interesting aspect of the piece involves the soprano – she only sings the Latin texts that frame the opening and closing of the cantata, as well as at a climactic moment in the piece. I didn’t end up using the idea of a singular role for a soloist in my oratorio, but will consider it in future compositions.

Ultimately, I studied a wide array of musical elements in these works: the overall dramatic story, the pacing of the music, the lengths of instrumental interludes, and how the soloists, choir, and orchestra forces were balanced with each other. These five works, along with several others, helped me to make decisions on how to structure and shape Terra Nostra into its final form.