Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Backstage Pass: Recording with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

This past weekend, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus performed a program featuring music from two living composers with local ties: Jennifer Higdon, a Philadelphia-based composer who is claimed as one of the "Atlanta School," and Alvin Singleton, who served as ASO composer-in-residence from 1985 to 1988 and resident composer at Spelman college from 1988 to 1991. In addition to three performances, the orchestra and chorus put in extra hours on Saturday and Sunday to record Higdon's The Singing Rooms (2007) and Singleton's PraiseMaker (1998). (The orchestra also recorded Alexander Scriabin’s Le Poeme de l’extase, the final piece on the concert.)

Making a recording with hundreds of people onstage is quite an undertaking, which is to say that it is a long process that requires patience, abundant reading materials, and comfortable, quiet footwear. For the ASO chorus, it also necessitates more junk food than a group of 200 could reasonably consume in a week or more. There's no great magic to it -- aside from the resulting music, ideally -- but I've had enough friends and acquaintances who know I'm in the chorus inquire about the process that I thought writing about it might be a good way to kick off this blog. For those among you curious about what happens in a 4-hour symphonic recording session, this is a glimpse into the glamorous backstage world of the Woodruff Arts Center.

Before any of the musicians arrive, the production team will have attempted to transform the shoebox hall into a somewhat more resonant space, an effect achieved by laying out plywood atop seats in the first several rows and on the side aisles, going all the way to the back of the auditorium. About a dozen plywood panels lean against the back wall. On Sunday, I counted more than 150 sheets of plywood. Essentially an extension of the stage, the surface creates a floor on which to place some of the microphones while also enhancing the acoustics of the hall.

The chorus is usually called an hour before the orchestra so we can warm up and spot-check for 30 minutes before we have to turn the stage over to the instrumentalists. During the subsequent half-hour, the chorus scatters: to the vending machines, the dressing rooms, the lobby gift shop, the hallway outside our basement rehearsal space. Meanwhile, members of the orchestra amble to their places and start playing to themselves, working out difficult passages. Right on the hour, Robert Spano arrives on the podium, accompanied by Russell Williamson, the orchestra's personnel manager, who stands beside him and claps his hands once to get everyone's attention. A reminder to turn off any cell phones or other noise-making devices is issued, Russell departs the stage, and principal oboe Liz Koch sounds an A so the orchestra can tune.

At this point, Elaine Martone, longtime ASO collaborator and producer for Telarc comes over the sound system, introduced by a loud, dull click. Speaking from a control room behind the stage, she chirpily greets the musicians, and then it's down to business, from the top.

At left is the all-important red light. When the light is on, tape is rolling, and you had better not sneeze, shift your weight, or turn a page loudly. Or, you know, biff an entrance.

Each recording session begins with a complete run-through of the piece, or at least the first movement. In a longer work with no breaks between movements, like the Higdon, Robert and Elaine agree on a good stopping point. Unless something really egregious happens early on, we press on toward the end in spite of any cracking horns, creaking risers, and misplaced final consonants, just to get the whole thing down. When reach the final cutoff, everyone onstage freezes in silence for a few seconds. Robert quietly folds his hands in front of him and waits for Elaine's voice over the speaker: "Twenty minute break."

Robert grabs his score and walks briskly offstage, back to the booth with Elaine, the composer(s), and Norman Mackenzie, director of choruses, to review the playback and see what needs to be patched (or re-recorded entirely). While they're busy listening, the musicians are enjoying a break. Of the chorus, some hang out on stage and read, but most people head downstairs to check by the self-furnished snack table. There are usually a few healthy items in the spread, but more often than not the table is covered in cookies, chips, and leftover holiday candies. The few homemade items disappear quickly. In the lounge area that we share with the Alliance Theatre, a group of tenors and basses plays cards around a table while other chorus members settle into the available chairs with paper plates piled high.

Back onstage, Russell claps and everyone comes to attention. Robert, just off a brief smoke break outside, calls out a measure number and once again, the red light switches on. We work, long stretches at a time, from the beginning of the piece, or movement, to the end. During a pause between sections, Elaine or one of her offstage cohort may give direction as to what they are looking for: better intonation, more dramatic dynamics, a clean release. After about another half-hour, we break again so Robert can go over the recording.

Twenty-minute break. The composer has sent dozens of cookies down to the snack-hall for the chorus... wouldn't want them to go to waste. Choral administrator Jeff Baxter rings a bell (not unlike the recess bell from elementary school), signaling that we are to get back in position on stage for more. This time, it's the second half of the piece, all the way through. Twenty-five-minute break. More cookies.

After a few cycles like this, we have captured satisfactory performances of most measures of the piece. The final half-hour or so of a session is often a back-and-forth between Robert and Elaine: "Do you have measure 485?" "Yes, but I do need the three bars before that." Compared to the earlier pace of recording, this is the lightening round. We put down bursts of music, which Elaine will later carefully stitch into the longer tracks. Robert and Elaine ask each other and the orchestra if there are any more spots to be picked up -- as soon as the answer is no they thank all the musicians, and the chorus clambers offstage and spills out onto Peachtree Street. In the space of two four-hour sessions, we created definitive recordings for both pieces with chorus. (I would be remiss if I didn't mention the exquisite violin soloist, Jennifer Koh, who premiered the Higdon last year in Philadelphia as well.)

That's the long version. In short, the recording process involves plenty of waiting and often a lot of repetition of music that can wear on one's voice. It can be tedious, for sure, but the end result is ultimately worth the sacrifice of a weekend.


Surya said...

Are you a member of the choir, an instrument player or a soloist?
And when the recording take session do you sing also?
Before I read your article I didn’t imagine that recording a full orchestra including choir could be that difficult. Because I’m a choir member also in Indonesia and recently start a small recording company and a music school vocal major

Thx before

Joe Few said...

Great work, Kathleen! Thanks...

Kathleen said...

I'm a member of the chorus. I imagine recording symphonic works requires a lot of time because the takes are so long, relative to shorter works or even pop songs. It may well go faster for other groups, but this seems to be our process. Depending on the length and number of the pieces, the ASO chorus will record anywhere from 4 hours (Adams' "On the Transmigration of Souls") to 14 hours (Brahms' "ein deutsches Requiem")in a weekend, sometimes with a weekday session added.

bobusn said...

Thanks, Kathleen! This is especially meaningful to us...we loaned mics to the recording crew for The Singing Rooms. Our Royer ribbon was Jennifer's spot, I understand from Michael. The performance is great!