by Adam Sliwinski
These two days, we are recording our project From Out a Darker Sea at Guilford Sound in Vermont. This multimedia work is a combination of storytelling and percussion music which explores the former mining communities of northeast England.
Our approach to recording varies with each project. As classical musicians, we are accustomed to focusing on scores. When a composer writes for us, the score itself is the ultimate document governing the final form of the work. Most of our collaboration with composers comes in the time before the score is finalized: exploring sounds, working out passages, seeing how things will work out in performance.
This means that the elements of the score must be executable by us onstage. Many factors come into play here: how many instruments can we tour with/how many can the four of us play at the same time? What does the theatrical presentation onstage look like with this instrument layout? So the “final” form of the piece is not an unlimited artistic vision – it is a compromise with the realities of live performance.
Starting with amid the noise in 2006, we realized that recording our own music offered a degree of freedom and flexibility in the studio that was exhilarating. Many musicians from other genres would already be accustomed to working this way, but it was still a bit foreign in our world.
Over the years we have developed an ethic and approach to live performance and recording. Recording is its own medium, and we don’t attempt – again, unless we are realizing a score as closely as possible — to reproduce the live experience authentically.
Could a melody be re-orchestrated or augmented to heighten its effect? What if we made this climactic section sound like 15 people instead of four by layering ourselves in multiple takes? Might one pattern be more interesting sequenced on a computer rather than performed live? What would sound amazing on this recording that isn’t possible live?
In the history of approaching the recording studio as a discrete art form, none of this is new. The great experiments of the 1960’s such as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds broke new ground in studio production and altered the way bands have recorded ever since.
But in classical circles this would usually mean violating or altering the score. Since the score has been the primary vehicle for preservation of works for centuries, mixing it up in another medium still feels often feels like a stretch. Or at least it feels unnecessary, since most questions are thought to be resolved in the process of composition and publishing.
As our own recording culture has evolved, the way we compose for each other reflects many possible outcomes in different situations. Often, melodies or patterns are prescribed while orchestration is left open. Or we will settle upon something we like in live performance and replicate it every time, but the resources of the recording studio will allow us to realize the musical idea in an entirely new way.
So, while walking into the studio on the first day of recording From Out a Darker Sea, our minds are busy thinking not only “how much time will we need to lay this down,” but also “what are the new possibilities?”
The only mechanism we require to alter parameters in our own works is finding consensus with each other. We also will track different instruments and experiment with mixing them together. Perhaps we will do five extra passes of a section trying different instrument colors. Then our amazing sound engineer Jon Low will combine the tracks to let us hear them. Some of those sounds might come from instruments which we could never tour with, like the Hammond B3 organ which they have here at Guilford.
As with much of our work, this also means that the question of what it means to be a percussionist goes slightly out the window. If that organ or piano provides just the right tonal support, we use it!
In this sense the recording studio (especially here at Guilford, which has every imaginable option) is a kind of fantasy-land for our imaginations. We now consider ourselves flexible enough to enjoy every advantage the studio has to offer.
Receiving support from an organization like New Music USA provides us with the means to not only document our work, but also for further creation.