Dec 11, 2010


Exciting news from December 2 – Steven Mackey: Dreamhouse is nominated for 4 Grammy awards including Best Classical Album! Gil Rose conducts BMOP, David Frost produced and David, Tom Lazarus and I edited and mixed. Before I received that news I had already drafted a blog about my current recording projects. This news nudged it along. 

Flashing back to December 1 ...

I am sitting on a plane returning from a few days in Limerick Ireland where I was recording Four Iconoclastic Episodes – a double concerto for electric guitar, violin and string orchestra – with Anthony Marwood and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. As I reflect on this recording it hits me that, a few short months ago, I was lamenting the fact that my last CD was released way back in 2006. Suddenly I am juggling 7 recording projects in the span of a year. I am so deep into recording projects that I'm brewing a little anxiety about not having time to compose. Of course that is a silly thing to complain about since I regard recording as the culmination of the creative process ... but still.

These 7 projects are quite different from one another and I thought a survey of them might be an interesting snap shot of a busy composer/performer, but one without an exclusive agreement with a record label to consolidate and fund recording projects.

1. The first project to be completed was Busted, Micro, Shorts, containing Busted for solo percussion, Micro Concerto for percussion and 5 players and Five Animated Shorts for cimbalom and 6 players. This recording grew out of a ten year working relationship between me and the British new music group Psappha and the friendship I developed with their percussionist and artistic director Tim Williams. Psappha did an Itunes only release this past summer on their own label. This is the premiere recording of FIve Animated Shorts which I wrote for TIm and Psappha but Micro Concerto and Busted had each been recorded before. I have revised Busted and Psappha and Tim had a fresh enough perspective on Micro Concerto that I am very glad it is available in two versions. All these pieces feature Tim and he is both amazing and unnervingly humble.

2. Steven Mackey: Dreamhouse, was released in late august, just under the deadline for Grammy eligibility, a decision which turned out not to be as delusional as it seemed at the time. This piece is close to an hour long for orchestra, 4 electric guitars, amplified vocal quartet, and tenor/actor/performance artist. Such a monstrous project had to be approached in phases. Gil Rose, the director of BMOP and executive producer of the BMOP sound label, and I partnered on raising money for each phase and by the end we had tapped at least a dozen different sources. It took four years from the recording session at Mechanics Hall to the release of the finished disc. In my mind the two heroes on this recording are David Frost and Tom Lazarus, producer and engineer respectively, who coordinated the recording of all the different elements and kept their eyes on the ball over a long stretch of time.

3. Last Spring eighth blackbird, Rinde Eckert and I hunkered down in CRC studios in Chicago to track SLIDE. We have been touring SLIDE as a music theater piece but we are recording it as a song cycle. The songs delineate a character and contextualize the expressive landscape but don't tell an explicit story. This is not that much of a stretch since the stage version suggests more than it nails down anyway. The blackbird's label Cedille is putting this out which is generous of them and I am pitching in by splitting the heavy lifting of editing with David Frost the producer. The old Dreamhouse team was back together as Tom Lazarus flew out to help us deal with all the issues of electro-acoustic versus acoustic and recording percussion. I better pick up my pace if we are going to be ready for a March release prior to the next live performances at Stanford and UT Austin.

4. Right around the Time Dreamhouse was released I went into the studio with my band Big Farm. This music ranges from fully notated compositions to collaborative/improvised constructions. We asked Lawson White to produce since he is equally at home in both worlds. He is the only guy I know that in a 15 minute span can call us out on a our lack of faith to the score and then tell us to play a groove as if we were "drunk on a Tuesday afternoon." We laid down the basic tracks in the historic Avatar studios in Manhattan and will go back in for overdubs over the next few months in hopes of a September release on New Amsterdam records. I'd like to get some friends involved like violinist Leila Josefowicz and flutist Alex Sopp but I have to compose something for them and that takes time! 

5. So that bring us to the present as I am leaving Limerick Ireland following the recording of  Four Iconoclastic Episodes, with Anthony Marwood (vln.), myself (e-gtr.) and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. This recording is under the auspices of the ICO so I have no idea what it will be paired with. Andrew Keener is producing which is a great pleasure because I very much admire his work with orchestras far and wide. He is an old school producer meaning that there are no isolation booths, multi tracking, big post production mixes, etc. We found a good live sound and hit record. Judy Sherman has recorded me like that to good effect in the past and my gear and technique have evolved to create the illusion that the electric guitar is a "normal" instrument. I use a spherical speaker to radiate the sound more like an acoustic instrument and I keep my effects simple, often have many patches for the same effect but with different dynamics so that I can enter with confidence that I will sit nicely in the mix rather than be a punch line for an electric guitar joke.

A curious aspect of this recording experience is that the four movements of Four Iconoclastic Episodes are arrangements of four songs I wrote for Big Farm. The songs are shortened a little in some cases and by half in the case of Salad Days. The vocal part is ornamented in the violin, the guitar part is nearly identical and I kept the drums and bass in mind when composing the string orchestra part. The musical effect and the approach to recording are completely different.

6. By this time I have unpacked from Ireland and repacked for Brattleboro Vermont to record It Is Time, my 40 minute percussion extravaganza for SO percussion. This time I'm traveling with the family which I think I can get away with since I don't actually have to play myself. Still I learned a lesson – never take a two-year old on a 6 hour train ride. Anyway, as I suspected, the best thing I can do here is keep my mouth shut and stay out of the way of SO playing the hell out of every note and producer Lawson White recording everything with such care that every sound has just the right resonance and character. It honestly sounds better than I could have imagined but I try to pretend that this was my vision all along. Like most of my recordings this one was made possible by a patchwork of funding from Argosy, Princeton University and private contributions. We are not sure of the label yet but Cantelope has worked a lot with SO in the past. My wife, Sarah Kirkland Snider who co-directs New Amsterdam records loved the way it sounds so much that shw expressed label envy for whoever releases it if it is not New AM ...very sweet of her.

7. Finally, next Spetember, Hsin-Yun Huang is recording Groundswell a chamber concerto for viola I wrote for her back in 2006. She will be joined by the American Modern Ensemble in a Bridge records release, which will also include viola piece written for her by David Horne and SHih-Hui Chen. 

These discs should all be out by the end of 2011 and then I anticipate another hiatus before the next batch.I do prefer waiting until there is a coherent package of music to present on a disc rather than to just put out pieces as they come down the pike. I hope that the next recording features concertos: I am just finishing a piano concerto for Orli Shaham co-commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony, the LA Phil, and the New Jersey Symphony. Down the road I hop that finds its way on a disc with Time Release, the percussion concerto I wrote for Colin Currie, and Beautiful Passing, the violin concerto I wrote for Leila Josefowicz.

You know I lied: I did have another release earlier this year. Measures of Turbulence, for 5 classical, 2 electric and 1 Bass guitar, performed by David Tannebaum leading the SF Conservatory Guitar Ensemble was released on Naxos. I forgot about it not because I'm not excited about it but because this recent-ish physical release was a year after the Itunes release which I did duly celebrate.