Did anyone else catch Jeremy Denk’s piece in the New Yorker this week? Jeremy is a phenomenal concert pianist and a great writer—I had the pleasure of hearing him play several times over the last few years and I’ve also gotten somewhat hooked on his highly entertaining blog. I am officially a fan. His New Yorker article came at quite a timely moment for Q, since he wrote about the perils of being in the recording studio….the week after we spent 15 hours in the recording studio…
Before I joined Q last fall, I had never actually played in a recording studio. My only experiences with recording involved taping myself practicing orchestral excerpts and then cringing in horror as I listened back, bracing myself for countless more hours of practicing, based on what I had heard. But this year alone, Q has recorded two professional albums—the string quartets of Amy Wurtz (which will be released ever so soon, dear fans!), and this week, Kyle Vegter’s music of FJORDS (which you can hear live at the Poetry Foundation February 23-26, or buy the CD in March). These two projects, though seemingly similar, could NOT have been more different. When we recorded Amy’s music, we spent most of our time playing through giant sections of the pieces—sometimes a movement, sometimes a full 5 minutes worth of music—and if one of us made a mistake, we stopped and started over (even if the mistake happened 4 minutes and 48 seconds into the 5 minute take). There were, we must admit, some tears shed. In the end, we felt great about the CD we made—it was full of spontaneity, passion, and even felt to us like we played the way we would have in a live performance, even though it was definitely a stressful experience in the studio. If you read Jeremy’s article, you probably got a taste of the obsessive-compulsive behavior all musicians are known to harbor, behavior which inherently becomes severely amplified in a recording studio. Our neurotic, self-critical tendencies definitely emerged in the studio in November.
Recording Kyle’s music last week, on the other hand, was a completely different bag of worms. We generally played through each piece fully once in the beginning, but after that, everything was done in micro-sections. Kyle and Neil, our fabulous audio engineer, even recorded each player playing sections alone, which they will magically piece together so that it sounds as if we are all playing perfectly together. To echo Jeremy Denk, it totally feels like cheating, but in fact, this is the way many classical recordings are made these days. At one point, Ellen hit her bow on the microphone during what was otherwise a really good take, and we all slumped back in our chairs, frustrated that it wouldn’t be usable…until Neil simply deleted the extraneous noise on his computer and deemed the take perfectly fine! Ahhhh, technology!! This approach certainly made it easier and less stressful to record the music, but we also felt a little more distanced, like we have no idea how the final product will actually turn out, since so much of it will be tweaked in the editing process.
Sending recordings out into the world is a very different experience than giving a live performance. Once you’ve made the CD, it’s there, FOREVER. It makes us musicians feel much more like visual artists, who finish a piece of art and send it out into the world like a parent would send their kid to college. That analogy for a performing musician would probably involve keeping our kids at home, occasionally displaying them to the public, bringing them back inside to “improve” them, taking them out again when they’re a little bit older and better behaved, bringing them back inside again for more improvement, and so on… When asking a musician when they will be finished working on a particular piece, the response is always “Never.” Ever the perfectionists, admitting that a take is “good enough” to capture forever and produce on a CD is painstaking. So we, like Jeremy, are definitely treading on uncomfortable waters. At least we’re in good company!
However stressful the studio experience may be, however, it has certainly made us stronger as an ensemble. And, though we may hesitate to say it, we are undeniably pleased with what we accomplished and are confident to admit that we think both of these recordings are going to be awesome. Amy’s and Kyle’s works are written SO well, we couldn’t help but do both of them as much justice as we possibly could! Stay tuned, because both of these CDs, whether we like it or not (okay okay, we DO like it!), will be on the market within the next month or two!