Monday, November 2, 2015

Songs from the Poets, a new recording

Does that sound like another episode in the Star Wars canon? Sorry! But, as I have mentioning here, we have been doing the first complete recording of my set of songs, Songs from the Poets, and just finished yesterday. So I wanted to share some of them with you.

This time around I was much more involved with the production and learned quite a few things. There are four stages to the recording process, preceded, of course, in the case of these songs by the composition process, the learning process and the rehearsals with singer and guitarist. But the recording itself is in four stages:

  1. The recording itself which involves, not just showing up at the studio and playing the music, but the selection of microphones, their placement (which is very important) and the positioning of the musicians, whether they are together in the same room, or isolated in different rooms (though with good sightlines).
  2. The editing of the raw tracks, which means taking out any flaws and replacing them with good sections from other takes. Sometimes you can do a song in one take, but there is usually some little flub somewhere. With digital editing, you can do a lot more than you could with magnetic tapes, which were edited, believe it or not, with a razor blade and scotch tape!
  3. The mixing of the edited tracks, which I had always assumed was just something pop musicians did. But no. This involves going through each track, listening very carefully and making small adjustments whenever one player seems to have popped out or faded out for no musical reason. This can happen if the singer happens to turn their head a bit or if the guitarist overdoes a particular chord. This does NOT involve making any changes to the musical phrase, just small adjustments to restore the right equilibrium.
  4. The mastering of the tracks which involves listening to the whole and making any changes to the equalization that seem necessary. In this case, I decided that the combination of the microphone, the placement of the microphone and the interaction with the room was making the guitar sound too dark, so we brought up the high end a bit for all the tracks so that the guitar would sound "normal". Remember, recording is a complex and artificial process that we need to tweak in order to get the desired result: which is for the instrument and voice to sound as they really sound. Other things you do in the mastering is find the highest amplitude peak and, without "limiting" it in any way, bump up the whole to the maximum level. This sounds a bit weird, I suppose, but it is just so that it will have a good amount of sound on playback. In pop music they apply a limiter on the peaks so they can jam everything up to the max so everything sounds "loud". But in classical music you want to retain the full dynamic range so you don't limit any peaks. But you do want to bring those peaks up to the maximum. Another thing you might do is add a bit of reverb if the room you were recording in was a bit dead. Unless you are recording in a chapel or church, this is usually the case. Finally you clean up the beginning and end of each track, put them in order, and put the right amount of space between each track. And that's it!
I want to put up one of the shorter songs today, barely over a minute and a half. It is a setting of a short poem by Anna Akhmatova (1889 - 1966) an older contemporary of Dmitri Shostakovich. The occasion for this poem was deeply dramatic. She, along with Shostakovich, was trapped in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) when the Nazis surrounded it in WWII. The city was besieged for 900 days, but despite the most severe hardships, never surrendered and finally the siege was broken. Long before that, in the early months, both Akhmatova and Shostakovich were evacuated by air--in fact, they shared the same flight out and she wrote this homage to music as a tribute to the composer. Shostakovich had with him the score to his Symphony No. 7, unfinished at the time. My song is permeated with quotes from the first movement of that symphony and is a homage to both Akhmatova and Shostakovich. Here is the text of the poem:


There is a magic burning in it,
Cutting its facets diamond clear,
And it alone calms me in minutes
When others do not dare come near.

When my last friend cast down his eyes,
It was at my side at the grave,
It sang as thunder in spring skies
As if all flowers started raving.

And here is the song. I have accompanied the audio with some images. First, the poet, Anna Akhmatova, then Dmitri Shostakovich, the first page of the score, Hannah Pagenkopf during the recording session, myself similarly and finally, a diorama of Leningrad during the siege.


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Christine Lacroix said...

Thanks for that Bryan. I like it.I listened several times before reading anything you wrote about it. I didn't really understand the poem until I read your explanations though.

Bryan Townsend said...

Good for you!! That's just what you should do. Yes, it really helps to know the context of the poem. I think the other songs will be more directly expressive.