September 3, 2015

Obstacles (Art Is Hard)

"Try again. Fail again. Fail better." — Samuel Beckett

We start rehearsals in three weeks, with the performances on September 25 and 26. So for the past several weeks I've been working like crazy in the studio to get this thing finished. That involves going through the many hours of field recordings I made in the Azores, deciding which parts to use, then meticulously editing and assembling them into some kind of form that makes sense musically. It would be great if I had some brilliant compositional scheme in mind, but the truth is I'm just making it up as I go. I've been waiting for something exciting to emerge, something new that I've never done before, some epiphany; the reality is that it's just one step and then another and then another, slogging towards…whatever it will become.

I originally thought this would be a sound installation in a gallery. That still might happen someday, but the more I've worked on it, the more it seemed to be turning into a concert piece. So I've invited some musicians to improvise along with the soundscape I'm constructing, the idea being to have a tiny mirror version of the marching bands that are common in the Azores. I asked them months ago, knowing how people get booked up. Last week I checked in to confirm the rehearsal schedule and discovered that two of the musicians are now unable to do it. Mad dash to replace them! It looks like the band will be Lesli Dalaba (trumpet), Beth Fleenor (clarinets), Paul Kikuchi (percussion), Naomi Siegel (trombone), and Greg Sinibaldi (tenor sax) – all great players who I admire and feel lucky to have on board. And I might play my grandfather's alto sax, if it gets fixed in time and I remember how to play it (see previous post).

My short-term goal is to have the recorded soundscape finished after Labor Day weekend, so I can give it to the musicians and they can start thinking about how they might want to approach it. So last week I put in some long studio days and by Friday all of the chunks were basically in place. There was of course some tweaking to do, but the compositional part was there. I was feeling so good about it that I took the weekend off to step back and approach the mixing later with fresh ears.

On Monday night I started mixing it in the Chapel, where it will be performed. This is important because it allows me to hear how it will really sound in that space and on those speakers, and adjust accordingly. After a couple hours of dealing with equipment headaches, I quickly discovered that it sounded like crap! This is not just me being neurotic. It really sounded terrible, and I'm pretty sure that any of my colleagues would confirm this if they heard it.

For one thing, all of the volume levels were much too loud. This can be fixed easily enough – that's basically what mixing is about – but it is quite time-consuming and in this case particularly so, as the levels were just ridiculous. That's what I get for mixing in the studio at low volume out of consideration for my neighbors.

I also discovered that a lot of the sound files were in drastic need of equalization (balancing out the crispy high frequencies, the warm middles, and the beefy lows). Or maybe they'd had too much bad equalization? For some reason, everything sounded like it was recorded with the mics placed inside of a cardboard box. I'm not sure if this is an issue with the original recordings, the speakers in my studio, or my ears. But it was bad. Really bad.

I had conceived of this as a six-channel surround piece – a pair of speakers in front of the audience, a pair behind them, and a pair in the middle on the sides, plus a subwoofer to handle the low frequencies. I don't have that kind of set-up in my studio, so I've been mixing in stereo and trying to imagine how it will sound once it is distributed over all those speakers in a big room. I now know that it sounds like a muddy, cluttered train wreck. The middle speakers actually detract from the sense of space created by the front and rear speakers; filling in the middle just turns it all to muck. And those beefy low frequencies that the sub is supposed to handle? Where are they?

I went home that night feeling completely dejected and, frankly, rather freaked out, wondering how to save this thing from being a total disaster. Somehow I managed to get to sleep, and when I woke up (way too early) it was clear what has to happen: I need to scrap that first version and start over.

So that's what I've been doing this week. I'm able to use the old version as a kind of map, so at least I know what bits go where and I don't have to spend so much time making all of the compositional decisions again. And there are a few parts from the old version that I can re-use. But for the most part I've been going back to the original recordings and re-editing and re-equalizing them, reassembling the whole piece bit by bit and making necessary changes along the way. The new version is for four channels rather than six, which should help with the clutter and open things up, leaving more space for the live musicians to fill in.

I think it's improving, but I won't really know until I get back in the Chapel to mix again next week. Until then, I'm in total studio lockdown mode. Just leave some food outside the door for me, knock, and go.