Monthly Archives: July 2008

Vespers session photos

Okay, we did not record in the original church, as the photo in my pre-recording post indicated. St. Peter’s built a new building three years ago, and this is where we recorded (click on any of these photos and go to The Crossing’s website to see all the photos—thanks, Jeff!):

St. Peter's in the Great Valley, new building
St. Peter’s in the Great Valley, new building

I hear they call it The Barn, as that’s what it’s intended to resemble. It is quite beautiful outside and inside, and as it seats more than the original sanctuary (which I hear they’ve outgrown: good for them!), they do hold services there. Here’s how it looked after we removed all the chairs and while we were setting up:

Setting up
Setting up

Pretty, isn’t it? Nice sound, and a very pleasant place to spend four days. That’s me in the middle, blue shirt, standing ponderingly-like. Here’s Piffaro during rehearsals to figure out balances in the room:

Piffaro's Greg, Tom, Joan, Bob, and Christa
Piffaro’s Greg, Tom, Joan, Bob, and Christa

Like I said, click on any of the photos to link to all of them, but here’s Priscilla and me after all those thunderstorms Wednesday night, after wrapping up all the choir recording. I can’t remember what I was saying, but golly it looks like a knee-slapper. Or is she just humoring me?

Priscilla, ersatz raconteur

Priscilla and putative raconteur

Vespers recording, leftover thoughts

  1. What kept me up at night the most was knowing I had to produce, as in be Producer, the last two days. This week was the only time we could get everyone together, including Donald and others from Chicago and Atlanta, since so many are going from one summer festival to another. George produced Monday and Tuesday and took a red-eye train to Boston for a seminar he was already committed to leading.
  2. Monday and Tuesday I didn’t leave George’s side. George worked me into the process more and more as we went along.
  3. Tad was the engineer and so took care of making sure everything was being taped, and kept track of all of it in the log. He also listened for sounds that shouldn’t be there.
  4. That leaves it for the producer to listen to the music and all aspects of it: balance, tempo, wrong notes, interpretation, intonation, everything. Most of the time Donald catches these things before anything needs to be said.
  5. Also required is calling the track numbers, and keeping everything going. Sometimes the process needs to speed up, sometimes a philosophical viewpoint needs consideration, sometimes a time-out needs to be called to listen to a new balance structure, to move someone, or just to chill.
  6. Everyone needs to be respected, since everyone in the room is a wonderful musician
  7. It was great having our friend Becky on the job, who sings in Quidditas with us and has worked with Jackie many times over the years
  8. If you look at the main photo in the Inquirer article, the very tall singer to the right who looks like he has amazing dreadlocks, is Dan. He is a bass, and he is not only nice but as perky as a six-and-a-half-foot tall (at least?) bass could be. And he has amazing dreadlocks. He also has a father who has won a Pulitzer Prize in composition, and when we talked in January and I knew who Lewis Spratlan was, Dan was surprised and delighted and we talked shop for a while.
  9. The sopranos have lots and lots of high notes in them, and this one is nowhere near the highest, but the high G Rebecca Siler holds in Herr Christ, where 15 other voices cut out one by one to leave her all by herself (“und dürsten stets nach dir,” “so that we thirst for you”), is as moving as it gets.
  10. Actually, since Piffaro plays in A=463 rather than 440, the singers are singing a half-step higher than written. All those high A’s for the sopranos in Wie schön? Yep. Bb’s.
  11. I was hoping they wouldn’t notice but some of them thar whippersnappers have perfect pitch
  12. Stephen, often the tenor soloist, must be one of the most sought-after musicians in the city. Again, tremendous musician, again, tremendously nice.
  13. Bob and Joan handle some of the most intractable instruments (bass dulcian, great bass recorder) with such a light touch. Man, do they sound good. Piffaro is the bel canto of early-music groups. I don’t know if they’d like to be compared to Donizetti, but…you know?
  14. The three sopranos sang the Magnificat canon over and over and over and over and over again, always perfectly, never tiring (not that I could hear), and continued to smile at me
  15. I cannot say enough about how Donald ran the sessions
  16. I will always remember the look on Priscilla’s face when we finished Wednesday night, the toughest stretch of all, she and Tom as the Greek chorus on soprano recorders with the Psalm 27 antiphon, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” while the storm raged outside in the dark, and after that session how my daughter came up to me with wet eyes and gave me the biggest hug because she was so proud. But I was prouder.
  17. How could I be so fortunate?

Vespers recording, Day Four

The last day:

  1. After the intense final session with the choir, Thursday is for Piffaro alone, to get the last two instrumental sections done
  2. O süßer Herre Jesu Christ is a child-like chorale, set for the whole band on seven recorders, all imitative and inverted and retrograded and augmentated (I mean augmented), all of which I now forget how I worked out, but I know it was painstaking
  3. Two sections, the second homophonic, Tom leading from Alto I to get the cutoff and entrance just so
  4. The main challenge in this is tuning. Piffaro has quite specific ways they tune, depending on the era of the music. The entire Vespers was a melange of listening and adjusting for them, as it goes in and out of modality and tonality, in and out of simple and complex chordal structures. Voice-leading was constantly in the forefront of my thinking.
  5. Chords with seconds (I write lots of those, it seems) are a new experience for them. Playing them is not a challenge; tuning them is not a challenge; deciding which way to tune them (out of two, three, six different ways?) is.
  6. Nun danket, the triple canon, comes last, and at last! We decide I might as well conduct it. They can play it, but it’ll cut down on the recording time.
  7. Six recorders and sackbut for this. Greg can make the sackbut take on any role: a hero, an ingenue, a flute, even…his musicality is eye-popping. His ff subito 16th-note run at the end of Deo gratias, up to G, was as big, bright, open, clear, hammered, and light as I could wish, plus he did it that way about 38 times in a row.
  8. Sopranos are in 6/8, in canon at the 3rd; tenors are in 4/4 in a perpetual canon at the fifth; bass and great bass are playing the chorale in 3/2 in octaves, in canon with the sackbut at the octave (actually in the same sounding range as the great bass, since all recorders sound an octave up)
  9. I conduct it in 3/2. Basically they have to ignore me and play their own mensuration, and I have to not mess them up. Because it’s so intricate, once you lose the line it’s pretty certain you won’t find your way back in. Mostly I try to be a strict metronome, but I give cues when I can, and am astonished to see them looking at me. How do they do that?
  10. This makes me nervous.
  11. They pretty much get it within the first two takes, but we spend another hour on various things, including different ways to play the O. Henry ending.
  12. I ruin one take because in my too-vigorous cutoff my left hand brushes against my shirt pocket, causing the turnpike receipt encased therein to crumple ever so slightly. Everybody hears it.
  13. One final run-through, even though we have everything. We milk the last silence after the ending. I hold my hands up and hold my breath. At last, Tad’s voice comes through the monitor: “’kay.”
  14. Okay. That’ll do it.

The press on Vespers recording

The article by David Patrick Stearns came out Wednesday, 23 July, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which you can find here. It also includes a link to audio they did for the Creatively Speaking radio show, airing Saturday at 11 am. The photos of (1) Donald conducting The Crossing and (2) Priscilla and me are the best, because I’m not in (1) and Priscilla is in (2).

The article catches the utter uniqueness and the sense of marvel we all have of the entire project, I think. Stearns includes quotes from Donald Nally and Joan Kimball that I’ll always remember. Quotes that didn’t make it in are words from me to the effect that, that any of this happened at all is due entirely to (1) Joan and (2) Bob Wiemken of Piffaro. OK, I composed for about eight months but if I had done that on my own, (1) it would not have turned into this Vespers, and besides (2) it would not have gotten all this notice. And what Donald did in (1) first preparing the premiere and (2) now navigating the recording has simply stunned me. And what a joy it is to work with (1) top professionals in their field who (2) are nice people.

One thing that Stearns wrote surprised me: “self-expression is essential to Smith’s religious music…”. I take it as a generous compliment from him (and that the piece has resonated with him or anyone is tremendously gratifying to me), but I’m surprised by it because I’ve never felt it to be true, or at least, it’s the furthest thing from my mind. I have no intention of expressing myself, in music for either sacred or for secular use. My thought only and always is to serve the text, the musicians, the listeners. That sounds awfully grand and over-the-top humble-pie-ish, but I don’t mean it to. It’s just that it’s the only thing a composer can accomplish, to serve. Besides, I don’t see that self-expression is ever held up as a goal in my religion, or in anyone else’s, for that matter, so I don’t think it’s worth bothering over.

Self-expression in any case is a chimera. It doesn’t exist. And if it does, it can’t be captured.

But that has little to do with the article, which was a delight. Our buddy Don just called from Florida and said it made me look good, so I’ll take that!

Vespers recording, Day Three

  1. Air conditioning is fine
  2. But a severe storm system moseys up from the Carolinas, decides that our church roof would be a delightful place to spend the day, doesn’t move for six hours
  3. Hear thunder all that time, and wind and rain. And thunder. Which means the microphones hear it, too.
  4. Air conditioning problem doesn’t seem so bad now
  5. See rain of both vertical and horizontal varieties, black clouds, hail, lightning, Margaret Hamilton on a bicycle if I’m not mistaken, all out of the prettiest picture windows.
  6. Even prettier when the power goes out
  7. Tad turns off, then unplugs the computer about 30 seconds before the power goes out
  8. He already can hear an airplane before anyone else can, now he knows when lightning will strike?
  9. I resolve always to be Tad’s friend
  10. Unbelievably, we record Deo gratias and Psalm 113 before dinner, plowing through takes just so we can get two in a row with thunder in different places
  11. If the CD has thunder on it, we all agree, we’re just gonna live with it
  12. Will look into, like, the new age market, you know, Forest Vespers, Seashore Vespers, Thunderstorm Vespers
  13. Christa’s triple harp sounds scrumptious on Psalm 113
  14. Everybody likes the new Deo gratias. My favorite note in Vespers (don’t tell anyone), the low E at bar 59 on Bob’s octave bass dulcian, is like they gave you all of the saxophones from Stax Records that ever backed up Sam and Dave only now with more fiber all in a delicious chocolatey shake but just before they shove you toward the castle with a torch and a pitchfork and a slug of Jägermeister, and it also makes you want to put on Elvis’s 1973 Aloha from Hawaii (via satellite!) white sequined jacket and slide on one knee and fist-pump.
  15. Notice I said it makes you want to do that. I wouldn’t admit to anything of the sort.
  16. The 900-lb gorilla in the room, Psalm 27, we finally tackle at 7 pm, must finish by 10
  17. Joan’s suggestion for the colla parte instruments to double the voices—2 bass recorders, sackbut, and bass dulcian—is right as, um, rain, and sounds like an organ. Wish I could take credit for it.
  18. How did it get to be 9:08 so fast?
  19. At 9:17 it dawns on me that we’re going to make it. Donald has sliced and diced this quite long Psalm, juggling the easier and tougher sections like some table-side chef at a Chinese / Japanese / Thai restaurant.
  20. They have table-side chefs at Chinese / Japanese / Thai restaurants?
  21. We finish exactly at 10; everything’s covered
  22. This was the last session with the choir, lots of hugging and compliments and who brought the champagne?
  23. An almost inconceivable amount of work from everyone, at such a high level from everyone, and everyone as sweet as can be
  24. Ride home floating, and it’s not from the rain

Vespers recording, Day Two

  1. Four more sections recorded, including Vater unser, which we knew would be difficult, mainly because of tempo. It’s a long piece (nine verses), and although I mix the ensemble up to keep changing the landscape, it’s still a lot of music to get through. The choral harmonies are very rich, which makes us want to slow it down. The solo verses want to move faster. Donald finds an excellent tempo, and the choir produces a lightness of expression that just nails it. It’s just slightly faster than at the premiere, but with some elasticity.
  2. So much comes down to tempo, and what’s perfect one time is perfect only for that time
  3. Instruments sound fantastic
  4. This is a very nice space for recording, St. Peter’s Church in the Great Valley. The voices and instruments have a natural bloom here, don’t have to fight for anything. It’s an easy sound, although finding the right placement of the performers takes some time.
  5. Magnificat is recorded, and we make one last adjustment to the harp at the end. The Gloria Patri comes out of left field, and the coda comes out of the left field of left field. Wickedly fast, everyone wants to laugh when it’s over. I was thinking the Magnificat is the song of quite a young girl, and while all of it is innocent, the ending is just plain giddy.
  6. We capture the hymn Herr Christ, as the singers make magic. This is where they are one to a part in the third verse—16 voices—and they are strong and expressive as can be. This is a special piece. Donald and The Crossing are special musicians.
  7. Priscilla and I run off during dinner break to a Chinese / Japanese / Thai restaurant in a shopping mall. Not bad. There are Chinese / Japanese / Thai restaurants?
  8. Such a treat to see my daughter!

Vespers recording, Day One

The first day was very successful, and everyone was patient and professional. It’s delightful to work with these folks.

  1. Decided to change Grant’s two notes, um, two more times. He smiles wryly each time.
  2. Looks like we’re keeping the original harp and theorbo notes in Magnificat, after all. Mostly. They’re convinced it’s doable, and that I’m not an idiot for writing it that way.
  3. David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Jim Cotter of Creatively Speaking on WRTI come to the sessions to write, interview, film, and record the goings-on. I am to be interviewed on-camera for WRTI, which is starting to add video to its website. I ask Jim “How’s my hair?,” since my normally unruly mop has gone through about 15 dozen headphone-on-headphone-off changings. Jim lies, “It looks delicious”; David says that I look like a “working composer.” This cannot be good. I’m sure the video will turn up as an audition at Bozo the Clown headquarters.
  4. I think the interview goes OK; at least I avoid saying most of the top-of-my-head opinions that would only get me into trouble.
  5. Photographer sees Priscilla and me and takes our picture together. She already knows Priscilla is my daughter, and now she knows how to spell shawm. Culture advances!
  6. Donald is extremely patient, and knows just the right word to say at each stoppage
  7. Piffaro works incessantly on things that I can hardly hear
  8. Producer George Blood whispers to me, “This is what makes them great. They keep moving the goalposts back.”
  9. The singers of The Crossing are extremely patient. They keep singing the same things over and over, which would make me hate my music. They still smile at me though.
  10. Piffaro is extremely patient. We keep moving them around the room to get the right balance and sound from the space.
  11. Recorders are really loud
  12. The air conditioning compressor has a mind of its own and decides to kick in, even after we’ve shut it off. At least a half-hour of recording time flies away, all told.
  13. We get four numbers in the can
  14. George has amazing ears
  15. Tad, the engineer, is a Swiss watch of efficiency
  16. George and Tad are extremely patient
  17. George and Tad always work in long-sleeve shirts, and ties, and are utterly unflappable. It occurs to me that they would make good FBI agents.
  18. Absolutely beautiful music-making from everyone