Setting Records

Not a lot of posts lately, as I have been occupied with recording related work. I recently met with Alan Harler, director of Philadelphia’s Mendelssohn Club, at the studio of Joe Hannigan to go over a live recording of my Mendelssohn Club commission Fire-Memory/River-Memory (more about the piece here.) A run-through of the piece had been recorded as well, and the idea was to touch up the performance recording with patches from the run-through as need be. However, what we ended up doing was more about adjusting the performance recording rather than splicing in bits from the run-through. Joe was able to work a good deal of digital magic to clean up and improve the live recording. This was no small challenge, given that the recording was made in the cavernous chapel at Girard College, with a long decay that may be desirable for the organ that is based there, but not for choir and orchestra. While Joe couldn’t dry out the sound, he was able to improve the balance of the orchestra. He also adjusted the pitch at a moment when the women of the choir and a horn entry are juxtaposed – I don’t know if the women were low or the horn was high, but it got fixed. Especially impressive was the way Joe could excise bits of noise from the recording. A cough during the soft chime note that ends the first movement of my piece was removed not by splicing, but by filtering. Joe used a piece of software that provided a graphic image of the overtone content of the sound. You could then select a portion of the signal and attenuate or remove it. Joe was able to remove the high frequencies of the cough while leaving the sound of the chime intact. The software served as a sort of pinpoint band reject filter. All of this wizardry is old news, I suppose, but the relative ease with which such things are done remains impressive for those of us old enough to know how to use a splicing block.

Along with F-M/R-M, the Mendelssohn Club disc will include Jennifer Higdon‘s On the Death of the Righteous and Andrea Clearfield‘s The Golem Psalms, so I am in good company. The album will be released later this year.

I have also continued to work on mapping edits for a disc of vocal music with the 21st Century Consort. I must say I find it a challenging task. How to pick between two great takes? What to do when Take A has problem X, but Take B (of the same passage) has problem Y – and you’re not sure where a practical edit point might be? Some of my colleagues say they love to do this kind of thing because of the control it gives them over the final result. Me, I find it paralyzingly difficult to make the necessary decisions.

It helps that the raw material is so good, what with the splendid players in the Consort, Christopher Kendall’s conducting, and singers Susan Narucki and Bill Sharp. And it also helps to be working with some real pros in the studio. George Blood is helping with editing the Consort recordings, while the man who did the recordings themselves, Curt Wittig, will do the mixing, cleanup, and so forth. (Go here to read about Curt as well as the members of the Consort.) Curt and I go back a long ways, including his work on the record I made with Lambert Orkis of George Crumb’s Celestial Mechanics (reissued not so long ago on Innova). I can’t say exactly when this vocal disc will come out, but progress is definitely being made.

The planned disc will include four pieces. Holy the Firm, on texts of Denise Levertov, Susan Stewart, Annie Dillard, and John Climacus was originally written for Dawn Upshaw and Gil Kalish who premiered it back in 1999. I made the chamber ensemble version for the Consort, and did the same with From a Book of Hours, a Rilke cycle. In this case, instead of expanding the instrumentation, it was a matter of reducing it, since the original version was an orchestral commission from the Chicago Symphony, who premiered it with Lisa Saffer in 2002. Four Sacred Songs, arrangements of old Latin hymns, was made for Voices of Change, and was based on a set of Three Sacred Songs originally written for voice and piano in 1989 and premiered by Christine Schadeberg and Christopher Oldfather. (I added a fourth song for the ensemble version since the set of three seemed too short to make it worth getting a group together.) Rounding out the album is Dark the Star, a baritone cycle that sets Rilke and Susan Stewart, plus a verse from the Psalms. This set was written specifically for the Consort and Bill Sharp and dates from 2008.

It’s remarkable that though I have been fortunate enough to have a bunch of CDs out there, only one has any vocal music, even though I have done a good deal of music for voice in recent years. So it will be especially good to have recorded documents of this side of my work, both for chorus and for solo voice.

All this comes on top of the recent release of the Prism CD Dedication, which includes my Straight Up. Read more here.

Fire-Memory/River-Memory in the chapel and in the studio

The column at right notes that I am working on mapping edits for the recordings the 21st Century Consort made of four of my vocal pieces, but recently I have been involved in another CD project as well. I just finished going through recordings from a performance of a piece I wrote for chorus and orchestra on a commission from the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Fire-Memory/River-Memory. Here is my program note on the piece:

Fire-Memory/River-Memory, commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, is my fourth and largest composition on the poetry of Denise Levertov.  The two poems I have selected contrast in tone, but are unified, as my title suggests, through their shared concern with memory.

The first poem not only memorializes the victims of war, and laments the loss of their traces, but speaks of acts of memory rendered impossible by war. In this sense, the line “maybe fathers told their sons old tales” becomes the emotional center of the text: for a moment, remembrance was possible. In my setting, I have mostly assigned the poet’s questions about the people of Vietnam to the men of the chorus, while the bitter and elegaic answers are principally sung by the women.  Levertov was writing at the height of the Vietnam War, but her powerful images transcend the historical moment of the poem’s origin.

The second poem reflects Levertov’s love of nature and concern with the spiritual realities. Here memory is a memory of the divine, as embodied in the creation. The poem’s opening words are repeated at the end of the piece, turning them into an imperative, challenging us all to acts of mindful remembrance.

This is the first time a live performance of one of my pieces will be used for a commercial CD release. The performance was in the cavernous chapel at Girard College, (see at left) and the highly resonant acoustic made for a grand, if not very clear or well-balanced sound. I will be working with Mendelssohn Club director Alan Harler and engineer Joe Hannigan to mix the multiply miked recording, hopefully bringing the various elements of the piece into better balance. A run-thru was recorded, but the performance was so good, I am not sure much patching will be necessary. I am grateful to Alan and the Mendelssohn Club for bringing the piece to life. It will be great to have a document of the work. More details on the CD will be coming.