February brings the premiere of a new ballet of The B-Sides and a Mercury Soul club show based on “the color of sound.” But before the exhilaration of both of those public events, I had to hole up in the cave-like privacy of recording studios to put the finishing touches on two upcoming albums, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs and Mass Transmission.
Ask any musician: recording is both a delight and a demon. All of us love the chance to permanently freeze, in a kind of crypto-animated suspension, the millions of details that makes up a piece of music. The many variables of live performance are wonderful in a concert hall, but at some point all musicians want the chance to put the genie in a bottle. And in the process of recording lies a certain kind of madness.
Take, for example, the Herculean task of making a live recording of my Jobs opera. Six principal singers on stage; a chorus of sixteen; an orchestra in the pit; electronic sounds and an array of acoustic guitars – all these elements interact in an indoor-outdoor theater perched in the high desert during monsoon season. Plus, there are six giant panels dancing around the stage that create quite a rumble. In live performance, these variables create excitement; in the recording studio, you’re constantly scratching your head and trying to create a perfectly balanced eco-system.
The expertise in making a live opera recording is therefore a highly precious commodity. Luckily, Santa Fe Opera works with the experts at Soundmirror, a Boston-based company where I spent a week last month. Surrounded by an array of stunning speakers, with the producer Elizabeth Ostrow and engineer Mark Donahue, I listened carefully to a lyrical guitar solo that seemed accompanied by both the Breath of God and a small earthquake.
The hard part was getting the interaction between vocal, instrumental, and electronic elements just right. This opera has an important electronic soundworld made up of the pops, beeps, and whizzes of early Apple computers, along with some pulsing techno and some floating Buddhist ambience. My inclination, when putting an album together, is to push for a visceral mix that pops out of the speakers. I like more presence to the electronic sounds, and a more dynamic mix to the orchestral palette, than is acceptable to the highly specialized engineers of classical music.
That’s where you hopefully find the happy medium.
Many times during my week in Boston, Mark – sitting at the mixing board – would gently push back. Classical music engineers passionately believe that one of the points of listening to a classical album is to experience the warmth and beauty of true acoustic resonance. This is what makes them experts in setting up microphones in exactly the right places, or in creating seamless edits in the middle of a delicate bit of resonance. So between me and Mark, with Elizabeth acting as the pro moderator, we found a way to have both yin and yang in this album. Mark agreed to push the mix into a more visceral zone in some parts, while I tried to chill out and let the warm acoustic passages feel as natural as possible. The resulting album feels like it travels all the way from ambient electronica to the classical concert hall and back. When it comes out this June, see if you agree.
A few weeks later, I found myself in the unbelievably grand interior of St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco recording Mass Transmission with Capella SF, a new chorus led by Ragnar Bohlin of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Mass Transmission tells the true story of a mother and daughter communicating over the earliest long-distance radio transmissions between Holland and its colony, Java. Like the opera, this story is told by a complex mix of vocal and electronic sounds, with the special additional element of a massive pipe organ.
The organ plays the role of the Dutch Telegraph Office, churning out mechanistic 16th-notes while the chorus sings the words of the mother and daughter. The electronics, built from the strangely organic sounds of short-wave radio, inhabit the white-noise medium through which the mother and daughter speak.
Few things are as tricky to record as an organ, due to the latency from keyboard to pipe. The magnificent Isabelle Demers performed the organ part with characteristic coolness under pressure. It’s hard to imagine how an organist has to play continually ahead of the beat in order for the pipes to spit out the sounds at the right time, an even greater challenge when locking to an electronic beat. On top of it all, we were recording in a beautiful though cavernous cathedral that added a 3-second reverb trail to every note.
Maestro Ragnar Bohlin kept things together with his uniquely Nordic combination of precision and charisma. His ability to draw stunning sounds out of a chorus is unparalleled. For example, the central movement of the piece, “Java,” calls for some exotic vocal effects from the men, a kind of “Hhuwoom” that can sound plain wrong if not done exactly right. Ragnar patiently coaxed them to the correct balance of pitch and punch. I enjoyed working with him on Mass Transmission two summers ago in Brazil and am so thankful that he’s delivering on his promise to record the piece.
With those two albums in the can, I can now focus on the upcoming Mercury Soul at San Francisco’s DNA Lounge, entitled Prismatic: the Color of Sound. We’ll explore a variety of music inspired by color from Michael Torke, Jennifer Higdon, Joel Hoffman and the renown Alexander Scriabin – whose concept of a “color organ” will be reinvented in this show around a remix of his music for musicians, DJs, and lighting. The show also includes a set from beloved steel drum ensemble Pankind Trio and appearances by the ensemble Steel & Ivory, along with the many surprises and cameos for which Mercury Soul is known. Mercury Soul’s kinetic shows bring electronica and live musicians together in thumping club environments, and this event engages the ears and eyes in powerful and unique ways.
Last but not least, I’m hoping to drop into Chicago to see the Joffrey Ballet premiere of a new ballet based on The B-Sides, my symphonic suite that drops into five surreal landscapes. The ballet is by choreographer Nicholas Blanc, who created a ballet for Mothership for New York City Ballet that beautifully captured the work’s hybrid musical language. For this premiere, I created at Nic’s request an ambient shimmering opening soundspace – “Nic’s Netherworld” – that unfolds for several minutes before the orchestra enters. During my five years working working at the Chicago Symphony, I loved popping into the Joffrey Ballet to catch all manner of things, including a recreation of the original Rite of Spring. It’s a huge honor to have a large piece created for them.
Check in next month for updates about my busy March at the Kennedy Center!
Cappella SF and Ragnar Bohlin perform From the Book of Matthew, an excerpt from the full 12-part a cappella choral work, Sirens.
From Works For Orchestra with the SF Symphony, nominated for the 2017 Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance
• Named Composer of the Year by Musical America
• Wired: “Jobs’ Life is the Perfect Opera”
• Wall St Journal: Jobs opera “theatrically arresting & new”
• Review of post-Moby DJ set at SF’s LoveBoat
September 21st, 2011
2/23: Mercury Soul’s Prismatic at SF’s DNA Lounge