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, na├»ve 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.