16 October 2011

Stringing the Pearls

The Five Borough Songbook, presented by the Five Boroughs Music Festival at the Galapagos Art Space, lured me out to Brooklyn on 6 October with the prospect of songs by nearly 20 composers, performed by four able singers. Getting to Galapagos — which used to be conveniently located in Williamsburg, across the street from my friend Eric’s apartment, but is now Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass (a.k.a. DUMBO) — got me lost in the dark in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I felt like a tourist, and I missed the first several songs.

But I arrived in time for two that I’d anticipated most gladly: those by Jorge Martín (“City of Orgies, Walks, and Joys!” to a text by Whitman) and Glen Roven (“F from DUMBO,” to a text by Michael Tyrell*). And I enjoyed the performances of the four singers: baritone David Adam Moore (no stranger to readers of this blog), soprano Martha Guth, tenor Alex Richardson, and the real discovery of the night, mezzo Blythe Gaissert.

Now, thanks to Roven’s ingenuity — and the fact that he’s the “G” in GPR Records — I’ll be able to listen to the Five Borough Songbook again and again, as often as I please, without getting lost in Brooklyn. Last week, I sat in on a recording session, and the experience proved fascinating indeed.

Glen Roven

GPR aims to step into the void left by the major labels, all of which have been hammered by economic and technological challenges, and some of which have neglected classical music for years. Working with Peter Fitzgerald (the “P”) and Richard Cohen (the “R”), Roven can avail himself of new technologies and unbeatable access: Fitzgerald, for example, is president and co-owner of Sound Associates, and he’s been sound designer for countless concerts and Broadway shows, including Rags. When the sound equipment is already in place, Roven says, and with studio facilities readily available in New York, it’s easy enough to record a piece; since brick-and-mortar stores are a thing of the past, it’s actually become easier to distribute albums.

Sitting in the control room with Roven, Cohen, and studio engineer Megan Henninger, I listened as David Adam Moore and pianist Thomas Bagwell put the finishing touches on Roven’s “F from Dumbo”; then Blythe Gaissert and composer Mohammed Fairouz came in to record his “Refugee Song” (to a text by Auden).

My experience in radio studios is pretty vast, but my experience in music-recording studios is quite limited — and all of it predates the digital revolution. Henninger can achieve with a few keystrokes what used to require razor blades and Scotch tape on the old reel-to-reel machines. (I still bear the scars.)

You’d wind up with a crazy-quilt of patches, and in some cases, you really did go crazy. That’s one reason that artists like Teresa Stratas tried so hard to get it right on the first take (as she did with The Unknown Kurt Weill), and the resulting record would be in that sense very much like a live performance: played straight through.

David Adam Moore

Now, however, the singers, pianist, and composers could go over individual bars again and again until they were satisfied, and the editing process was largely complete, almost instantly. The process struck me as less like a live performance and more like a rehearsal or coaching session, in which the musicians repeat fragments of the score and may never perform the song complete. (In this case, as with Stratas’ first Weill album, which grew out of a recital at the Whitney Museum, it surely helped that the Songbook musicians had performed the cycle complete before an audience only a few days earlier.)

In many ways, the process reminded me of filmmaking, and I remembered an interview with the actor John Malkovich, who said that his theatrical training proved useless or even harmful when it came time to make movies: before the camera, he had to think in a different way, just as Moore may do before the microphone. Now the image that presented itself was that of a mosaic, piecing together a larger picture — or perhaps (because music is in its way linear) the stringing together of scattered pearls.

Familiar as I am with Moore’s voice, the acoustic of a studio is different from what I’ve heard before, yet of course I recognized the clarity and the open, conversational tone I admire in his singing. Given that he’s such a physical vocalist, it shouldn’t be surprising that he listens with his whole body during playback, too.

Blythe Gaissert

I had a moment to chat with Gaissert before the session began. She’d given a thrilling performance in Brooklyn, not only in Fairouz’ song but in all her offerings; perhaps most surprising was the advanced stage of her pregnancy, at which few in the Galapagos audience might have guessed. Naturally, it turns out that she’s from Beaumont, Texas (birthplace of Joyce Castle), and she and David Adam Moore have known each other since they were in their teens.

“Refugee Song” requires that Gaissert traverse a wide range of strong emotions, and she delivers the music with guts and fire, always demanding more from herself. Another surprise: you know how we non-singers hate to listen to the recorded sound of our own voices? Well, singers feel the same way — but both Gaissert and Moore put up with the process gallantly. (Bagwell was unflappable all the while.)

Fairouz seemed on edge throughout the session, and afterward I asked whether he found the process stressful. Not at all, he said; in fact, recording isn’t difficult, but “Refugee Song” itself is so intense that he responds to the song this way. (I daresay he’s not alone in that response.)

Mohammed Fairouz

Through it all, Roven seemed playful, almost ebullient as he pushed the buttons and encouraged the musicians: producing a record is creativity expressed, and he really enjoying this work. If his ambitions drive him to record more and more music, I suspect that it’s due not only to his dedication to art but also to his desire to have fun.

And in due course, the Five Borough Songbook will reach an audience far beyond DUMBO. The cycle is necessarily a mixed bag, with work of varying quality (and surprisingly few lyrics worth setting**); I’m frankly not terribly enthusiastic about some of the songs, and I doubt I’ll play them often. But at least I’ll have the opportunity.

If I’d known how hard it was to find a good picture of Thomas Bagwell, I’d have brought my camera to the studio.

*NOTE: Roven’s was but one of several subway-themed songs, and the rare of these numbers that didn’t rely on comical complaints for (admittedly crowd-pleasing) effect.

**Indeed, the concert served as a useful reminder that, for all their lyrical gifts, composers aren’t always the best judges of what constitutes good poetry.

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