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Time and Space, Pitch and Rhythm
What to do after you have played seemingly endless concerts in noisy places? You had to move endless lute cases, large keyboards and all the junk, lights, cords, strings, something to sell (CDs), brochures, programs, music stands, backdrops, coats and gloves (hey, it's Canada) and, of course, yourself. You spent months selecting and preparing the music, massaging the publicity, the mailing list, advertising, signing cheques, filling out grant applications and taking care of many, many details. In my case, it took months, even years to build the instruments. Sometimes a lot of people showed up and enjoyed the show, and sometimes not so many. It's a large scale undertaking and it certainly shapes the musician into a seasoned veteran of many battles. Naturally the music is also shaped, in its timing and its execution.
Having mastered the music, there's still more to say. It's time to record it. Instead of the large canvas, the wide lens, the rhetoric which even those in the last row may understand, there is a complete change of scale. The space and time are much smaller; the microphone is a more demanding and microscopic listener, and even a more educated and discriminating one. Every note has to be in place, and the instruments must be perfectly in tune. Every string must sing at its best. Every hammer, every jack has to work reliably. There cannot be any noise. The piece must take its final form in the musician's mind and every decision must be made irrevocably.
Even the practising must reflect this new approach. There is no room for sloppy fingering or lapses of memory, indecisive or ill-considered choices. Though we may indeed improvise, we must make sure to do it in the right circumstances. We listen to one another's pieces. We gauge the spaces between phrases, the length of pauses or silences. We concentrate on "stealth" playing, eliminating noises of fingers, clothing, excessive breathing or movement. We try to produce a smooth execution, rather than the seeming courage and insouciance which is the demeanor of the stage performer. We know there is a take two, but we also know that the human scale limits our enterprise. We cannot play a piece too many times before it suffers. It must be ready and not sound as if it is being played for the thousand and first time. Though much music requires bursts of tremendous activity of the mind and fingers, an attitude of meditative concentration must prevail, and no detail can be left to chance. Even apparent chaos requires the most diligent premeditation, but it can never be apparent. A famous and revered teacher once said to us: "Never work". By which he meant: work hard, but don't let it be seen.
Tuning, Temperament and Instrument Preparation
Keyboard and fretted instruments are complex in their demands on tuning and in the choice of appropriate temperament. Temperament is the secret of the old harmony's seductive quietitude. In today's music there is a nervous throbbing produced by constant vibrato. It's common to voices, bowed strings, synthesizers, and electric guitars. It permits pitches to inhabit an uncertainty cloud, in which many instruments may sound together but still beat (the physical effect of two or more slightly differing frequencies).
Endemic vibrato crept slowly into music when wind instruments were incorporated into the orchestra. Since their tuning system was quite different from the just intonation of the voice or bowed strings, it was necessary at first to isolate them. In the early symphonies of the Classical period, the "Trio" of the Minuet is usually a solo for concerted winds, allowing them to sing sweetly in tune together.
Later, during the early 19th century, elaborate mechanical systems permitted the strings and brass instruments to integrate fully into the orchestra. We came to accept out-of-tuneness extending over the harmonic palette, as we embraced equal temperament and the capacity for change of key within a work. This movement was largely driven by theatre music rather than instrumental music. In the growth of multi-cultural musics since the 1950's, we have re-visited unequal temperament in world music, movie music and in the resources of art music. The epidemic use of 'Autotuner', software in which even the most horribly flat singing and vowel formation can be made to sound perfectly in tune, had made our fifths and thirds beatless again. That's progress.
But old music adheres to a strict code of conduct in its allowance of consonace and dissonance. A lot of research and empirical knowledge has gone into the search for the proper temperaments for our lutes, early piano, and the harpsichord. To do this we place the frets by ear, we choose stringing that permits specific colours to be heard. C major and D major have differing sounds, they are certainly not interchangeable, as they would be in a later period. Minor keys are darker, their chromaticism is more evident. Open string keys (on the fretted instruments) sound very different from those requiring chords in which most notes are stopped (fretted). On keyboard instruments, the choice of which thirds beat and by how much is crucial. Bach requires different temperament than Couperin, his contemporary. Mozart and Haydn keys must be modified to allow, for example, E flat to sound like it may convey quiet jubilation, while C is a placid key, in which the principal chords beat with little distinctiveness.
On some lutes, especially from the Baroque period, I have chosen to use all gut strings, which have a very demanding requirement for temperament and action (fretting and string height), or a combination of gut and synthetic strings, which make pieces in major keys sound brighter and more affirmative. You will hear these effects in the recently recorded suites by Reusner, Bach and Couperin.
In order for me to prepare for recording the Reusner, I had to perform major and minor surgery on some of my lutes. The Hofmann-style lute had its top removed, its fingerboard scraped down and the body reduced to allow for lower action and a quieter and more deliberate plucking. The Raillich lute already had a low action, but I removed more of its fingerboard to permit lower frets, and changed to all-gut stringing. The very different sizes and shapes of the two instruments were employed to enhance by the key-relationship: the larger synthetically-strung lute (Hofmann 1680's) was used for major keys, while the darker sound of gut, the shorter string-length, yew-backed multi-rib lute (Raillich 1647) for minor keys. The result is a very different sense of the key color within suites by the same composer.
For the harpsichord the case was far more clear-cut. Taskin designed this large and well-engineered harpsichord to be suited to the highly ornamented music of his day, the music of the Couperins, Rameau and others. The stiff case and expansive soundboard, with two keyboards, three sets of strings and four sets of jacks make it multi-dimensional, with rich overtones. The ornamentation serves to enliven and rhythmicize the basically simple melodic and harmonic structure, filling it with an expressive filligree. The execution of this ornamented style requires a paradoxical combination of "grip" and relaxation. Rameau called it "la dernière souplesse da la main", the ultimate suppleness of the hand. Each quill must be exactly the correct length and thickness to provide even voicing, the tongues in the jacks, which hold the quills, must all repeat without fail. The harpsichord provides one other sophisticated sonority, the "peau-de-bufle" (buffalo skin), a leathered stop which plucks the string more softly (heard in the Bach Loure and the chromatic and dark Couperin piece, Les Ombres Errantes, the Wandering Shades, one of his last works). It's a pesky thing which requires constant attention, but yields a sonority that gives the music a sensuous luminosity.
Location, Location, Location
We began recording our work in 1987. It was then that we decided to hire professional engineers, proper equipment, and modern manufacturing and distribution to make a musical "product". For recording art music we are always faced with choices concerning the place of recording-- studio, location or simply at home. At first we experimented with large spaces with naturally good acoustics, distant microphone location and that time, the highest of tech, digital recording. Noises were always a problem and many takes had to be discarded because of the ubiquity of the internal combustion engine. Older buildings such as churches are frequently used because they have minimal or no air handling with noisy fans and ducts which are a plague on our ears. But we still can't control building noises, birds, traffic or unwarranted intrusions. Despite some good-sounding material and a succesful product, we decided to opt for a studio. Much quieter, we thought.
We didn't count on back-alley garbage trucks and idling delivery vehicles, unwanted audiences peering through windows, rumbling low-freqency road noise, power fluctuation and, in East Vancouver, the occasional cockroach. We used closer mike positioniong and digital reverb, which is a very problematic and difficult tool in use, as it amplifies noises from the instrument. It can make you sound like you are trapped in an enormous empty box, and because you play the "room", you must be prepared to work with headphones on.
Another studio consisted of a quonset hut (galvanized ribbed steel) with a separate box built inside it. Freezing cold, and during the long rainy season of the west coast of Canada, very damp and humid. Once again the spectre of reverberation and the sensory isolation of headphones made the work fatiguing. Noise problems again, this time from rain and forest dwellers; ravens and bluejays.
We're not getting a good enough studio, we thought. Our national broadcaster, the CBC, spent millions to build an enormous subterranean vault, to record its elite orchestra and visiting distinguished artists for radio broadcast, surrounded with concrete, with a 20 metre ceiling at street level, Think of the excavation. The floor lined with rosewood, a control room, lots of space and perfect quiet. Air handling was by convection, through 3 metre ducts that moved air quietly around. Well, the control room we could not use, instead we used a storage closet. Promptly at 6 pm, after taking an entire working day to set up, tune, make the usual tiring mike tests and prepare the instrument, the ceiling started making (what seemed on the headphones) deafening cracking and creaking noises. We adjourned for two hours for dinner, and finally got to work, exhausted at 9 pm. It was a very frustrating session. Eventually we found out from a voluble technician that everyone knew about this building flaw, and had worked around it for the last twenty years since construction. No one, naturally, had told us.
So finally, on the advice of our most trusted engineer, with whom we graduated from University with degrees in music, we tried recording in the most obvious environment--our studios at home. No unexpected noises, no intrusions, and with the proper mikes and timing, no noise other than those we ourselves make. It is a revelation to be able to record without counting the seconds flowing like a river, and to be able to relax and concentrate on the musical issues of recording without the myriad distractions of the past experiences.
Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
Having stored up the material in its raw form, the musician has to make choices about how it shall be made into a coherent and unified narrative of music, just as the writer must discard, the film editor must take disparate scenes and create a seamless flow of action. Editing music is very slow and painstaking work. It's not only that we have to remove errors or noises. We must optimize the material to give it the lightness that music must exhibit, the sense of order and sublimity. It must seem natural, though it is highly unnatural. A piece is normally played from beginning to end, but in order to achieve it, we must work from a "grundfassung" (basic version) created by playing the piece through several times, so that the form is easily observed, the cadences have their relaxation, the dynamics and ornaments are in proportion, and the outward embodiment of the composer's intent is clearly realized. Then we may make re-takes to improve various moments which seem to need to be brought out. The piece in its eventual form may be listened to hundreds of times. A rhetorical flourish which seems right for a large gathering will seem silly and overblown when heard repeatedly. A single tiny flaw will irritate the listener's ear when heard endlessly. So a balance must be struck between the apparent detail and the unseen forces of time. Call it unity of time space and action, only tranlated into the interior scene of music. It must represent an event, but not be that event. No one expects the events of a movie to take place within the time frame of two hours, but we suspend our disbelief because the characters and the motion bid us to surrender our normal sense of time to the details of the story, and no others. That is the scale of the human, established in art since the Renaissance and art's principal subject. This is especially true of a single small instrument, without the stage, the audience, the sense of occasion which accompanies the concert experience. We could easily imagine that we are hearing music from the distant past, because our imagination, assisted by our senses, permits us to do so. It is also our care with the details that permits it.