Tag: recordings

Can’t See the Trees for the Forest at the 2015 Grammys

A photoshopped image of a bunch of Grammy awards in the middle of a forest

It’s been a few days since the 2015 Grammy Awards were given out. Since then, in the wake of the televised broadcast, the web has been all aflutter with debates over whether Beck or Beyoncé has greater artistry, whether a domestic abuse PSA by the President of the United States projected on a video screen during the awards will have positive or negative political impact, or if Paul McCartney should have sat down or continued to dance when the cameras landed on him. I’m more concerned about who the cameras didn’t land on and what that ultimately means about these awards and their significance in the mainstream of our culture.

Normally we feature a Grammy wrap up on this site but since information travels virtually at the speed of light on the internet these days, we figured that anyone reading us would already know who all the winners are. Then again, folks who clicked on Rolling Stone magazine’s “The Complete Winners List” or the coverage on two of the three major television network websites—NBC (which simply lifted their info from Rolling Stone) and ABC—were left completely in the dark about many of the awards that we would have been particularly concerned about. Admittedly CBS (the network that aired the broadcast which only featured the awards in categories fitting some executive’s rubric for what could be classified as mainstream pop music), has a complete list of the awards on their page, and CNN offers a list of “the awards you didn’t see” (though not on their main article about the Grammys).

If the Recording Academy feels that certain awards they give are not worthy of exposure on network television (which ultimately are the awards that wind up getting reported on in most of the media outlets and therefore the ones that most people are aware actually of), why give the awards in the first place? Aren’t these not-ready-for-prime-time awards ultimately those trees that are falling silently in the forest since no TV broadcast is there to record them for us to hear? Or does the fact that these awards were live streamed on the internet earlier in the day mean that a television broadcast is ultimately irrelevant since the time folks spend online now trumps the amount of time spent watching TV? In the true confessions department, rather than staying glued in front of a TV set at home, I followed the awards on my smartphone via Twitter at a restaurant where the big screen TV broadcasting the ceremony was drowned out by a live DJ.

The Recording Academy clearly has a problem with how to acknowledge diversity. Tons of pundits are now claiming that Beck and Beyoncé’s albums are so different from each other and that to lump them together is not fair to either of them. But what about albums (all 2015 Grammy winners) that are even more different than either of those—such as Cantaloupe’s recording of the Seattle Symphony’s performance of John Luther Adams’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning Become Ocean, Nonesuch’s recording of the St. Louis Symphony’s performances of two recent works by that other John Adams, Chick Corea’s jazz trio album Trilogy (which fetched him two awards), violinist Hilary Hahn’s compendium of encores newly composed for her (In 27 Pieces), a disc devoted to the 43-tone just intonation music of Harry Partch, or Arturo O’Farrill and The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra’s The Offense of the Drum (which won for best Latin jazz album, a category the Academy tried to eliminate a few years back)? Are these albums served by the Grammys they’ve received if most folks don’t actually know they received them?

What would have happened if those albums were allowed to compete in the “Record of the Year” category? Would Kanye West have attempted to bum rush the show if Hilary Hahn or JLA got the nod? (That’s something that would have increased everyone’s awareness of those two extraordinary albums, and I say this as someone who is a huge fan of both Beck and Kanye.)

Some folks in our community are bent out of shape that the Grammy folks couldn’t properly say the name Pierre Bou-LEZ (since his lifetime achievement award did make it onto prime time). For me, it’s indicative of a much larger issue at stake here. If the general public is not made aware of the achievements of folks in all kinds of music, how can we expect anyone to know what anyone’s names are?

Sounds Heard (Historical Edition): Henry Brant—Young People’s Records

In Montreal during the First World War years there were various kinds of music. The place where my family was living was out in the sticks and it didn’t even have sidewalks. It had houses that sort of stood in mud flats. Across the field was a military school; they blew their bugle calls morning and night. I couldn’t have been very old because I was in a baby carriage bundled up and I was put on the porch. I remember seeing the sun go down. Nobody told me this stuff. I told the adults. I heard the bugle calls. I looked forward to them every day.
—Henry Brant, 2002

How We Learn Now: Education Week

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This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer Henry Brant. There was something invigorating about the diversity of Brant’s careers: the teenaged acolyte of Charles Ives and Henry Cowell; the expert professional arranger and orchestrator for radio and film; the omnivorous devotee of musical styles both esoteric and popular; the merry, prolific guru of spatial music. But there is one other corner of his catalog that doesn’t get mentioned much: his music for children. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Brant wrote three original scores for records produced by Young People’s Records and its successor, the Children’s Record Guild. (He also arranged music for releases by singer and educator Charity Bailey, and probably had some part in the music for what was one of the Guild’s more beloved records, an adaptation of Ruth Krauss’s book The Carrot Seed.)

Young People’s Records was the brainchild of Horace Grenell, a Juilliard-educated pianist, record producer, and entrepreneur in New York. Grenell’s musical efforts were wide-ranging and restless. He was, for a time, chairman of the music department at Sarah Lawrence College; he had a stint conducting the leftist, pro-union Jefferson School choir; he was connected to the folk revival of the 1940s, alongside such figures as Pete Seeger and Tom Glazer.
The Children's Record Guild
By the late 1940s, most of the major record labels had jumped on the children’s record bandwagon—”kidisks,” in trade parlance—some of them backed by serious talent. (Composers Paul Creston and Alec Wilder, for instance, wrote scores for children’s records; Capitol Records released a series of such records with music by the noted bandleader Billy May, the best being the ingenious Rusty in Orchestraville.) But the Young People’s Records label was unusual. They operated under a subscription model, mailing subscribers a new record every month, an innovation in the recording industry; by the early 1950s, according to one report, the number of subscribers exceeded a million. The records Grenell produced were sophisticated and progressive. In 1947, YPR recorded Jazz Band, putting jazz on the same music-appreciation footing as classical, and recruiting Teddy Wilson’s quintet (with Buck Clayton on trumpet) to provide the music. Seeger and, especially, Glazer would feature on numerous YPR releases. Folksinger and broadcaster Oscar Brand recorded a series of folksong collections. Walter Hendl—then the associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic—led samplers of music by Stravinsky and Copland. YPR got Groucho Marx into the studio for an anti-bullying tale called The Funniest Song in the World. At its height, Young People’s Records was turning out, in the best sense of the word, some of the hippest children’s records ever made.

Brant’s first YPR effort was based on his prowess on the tin whistle, a skill that landed him occasional performing work in radio and film. Penny Whistle, based on a story by Erick Berry and narrated by legendary voice-over artist Norman Rose, tells the tale of a child who can only play one note on that instrument; his mother sends him out of the house to play, and each of his encounters with a variety of sounds along his way—a truck horn, a bullfrog, a cricket, etc.—adds another note to his repertoire, until he has an entire diatonic scale, which he proudly demonstrates to his mother. “After that,” Rose adds, “he found a big string of new notes, and played all kinds of tunes on his penny whistle”—a cue for Brant to do a little showing off:

Penny Whistle is charming, in its bare-bones way. Brant’s other two YPR projects were more elaborate. Kitchen Music spends its first side talking kids through the construction of a few homemade instruments: how to tune water glasses and pop bottles, how to make a tin-can string bass. Flip the record over, and there’s a mini-suite by Brant that wrings a lot more music out of household artifacts than might be expected. (This was right up Brant’s alley; he had, as a child, written some of his first music for such DIY instruments and had revisited the idea in his Music for a Five and Dime Store, which surrounded a piano and violin with a small clutch of percussive cutlery and glass.) A nifty, bouncy “March” is followed by “Swinging,” which puts some vaguely modernist chromatic parallel harmonies into waltz time. The finale, “Jumping,” puts Brant’s bright jazzy sense on display:

The dish rack qualities of Kitchen Music may have inspired Brant’s third album. The Lonesome House was conceived by Douglas Moore, the opera composer whose greatest hit, The Ballad of Baby Doe, was still several years in the future. (Moore had been associated with YPR from its earliest days; his children’s opera treatments of Puss in Boots and The Emperor’s New Clothes, for instance, were both YPR commissions.) Moore wrote the libretto with Brant in mind as the composer; the story wonders what a house does when its inhabitants are away, along the way encouraging a Cagean appreciation of everyday sounds—a dripping faucet, a hissing radiator, a squeaky shutter. The brilliance of Brant’s score is that none of these are illustrated with standard sound effects. Rather, Brant deploys a pair of flutes, a pair of double basses, and a pair of pianists—armed with a full array of preparations, inside-the-piano glissandi and pizzicato, and buzzing, scraping bass strings—to provide evocative imitations. Like Kitchen Music, the music coalesces on the second side, as the house puts on a concert for itself:

The Lonesome House was ultimately issued by the Children’s Record Guild, a label Grenell developed for Greystone Press (a direct marketing publishing company) after a falling out with the ownership of the Young People’s Records. In the meantime, YPR had become ensnared in one of America’s great this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-cultural-things spasms, the Red Scare of the late ’40s and early ’50s. As early as 1947, Walter S. Steele, anti-communist publisher and pundit, was telling the House Un-American Activities Committee that the label was “exploited by the Communists.” By 1948, the California Senate Fact-Finding Committee On Un-American Activities was calling YPR a Communist front organization—”The Communist Party does not overlook the indoctrination of children. The Communist book stores recently have been handing out folders advertising Young People’s Records”—which was enough to land it on the HUAC Guide to Subversive Organizations three years later. Red Channels, the infamous one-stop-shopping blacklist of entertainment professionals published by the newsletter Counterattack in 1950, included a host of names common to YPR credits: Grenell, Seeger, Glazer, Brand. (They were in good musical company: Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Aaron Copland, and Artie Shaw were also listed in Red Channels.)

With libraries and schools boycotting the McCarthy-bruised YPR, the company soon recombined with its successor, CRG. Most of the YPR records were re-issued by CRG, but a few—including Kitchen Music—were not. (David Bonner, whose book Revolutionizing Children’s Records is the standard history of the YPR/CRG enterprise, speculates that the master recordings had deteriorated too much in the interim.) That’s probably why Brant published the score to Kitchen Music. But the others remain unpublished, the recordings long out of print.

The Lonesome House, especially, seems unjustly forgotten. It’s one of the few children’s records that not only understands a child’s point of view, but actually privileges it over that of adults—Brant’s avant-garde extended-technique enthusiasm is childlike not in the adult-vantage, simplistic way, but in the complex, intricate, far-out fashion of actual childhood imagination. “Awaken your child to music,” the YPR logo suggested. Brant was an ideal alarm clock, himself always happy to discover a new musical day.
Thanks to David Bonner, Peter Muldavin, and Kathy Wilkowski for help with this article.

Judged By Its Cover

An album of music begins at track one, but you start setting the scene long before this. People see the cover before they hear a single note, before they read the track listing, and sometimes before they even find out who the artists are. Most musicians have some sort of a plan in mind for their next album. That plan should already include the cover. In this article, I’ll tell you why it matters and how to avoid screwing it up.

As a buyer for a large music retailer, I quickly learned that you could tell almost everything you needed to know about the commercial potential of an album by looking at its packaging. This seems wrong. I was taught from an early age not to judge a book by its cover. It seems like a useful lesson until you find yourself standing in a bookshop, trying to figure out which book to buy.

It would be very wrong for a music critic to review an album s/he hasn’t heard, but as the buyer for a store, you’re not really concerned with whether or not you think an album is any good. You’re concerned with whether or not lots of other people will buy it. At the point at which they make their purchase, a great many customers will not have listened to the album either. There’s something to be said for taking a walk in their shoes.

First Impressions

It’s not just the retailers and the customers who will unwittingly let their prejudices make judgments for them. There’s significant evidence that trained professionals hear quite a bit of what they’re expecting to hear, too,[1] so when it comes to ensuring your record gets the best possible reception, it’s worth thinking about the signals your packaging is sending.
effort vs. effect
The outside of a CD is intentionally informative. It will almost always list the artists, the repertoire, and the name of the label. The track record of each of these will tell you a lot, especially if you’ve never heard of them. Movie posters use that weird narrow contractual obligation typeface, so everybody can have their name printed in letters X inches high. This is almost never the case with guest artists, so the relative size of their names will give you some insight into the priorities (or power) behind the enterprise.
The type of packaging will tell you a lot, too: a plastic jewel case is the standard choice. A cardboard Digipak is more expensive to make, and indicates a higher expected retail price. A Super Audio CD is expensive to produce, so the SACD logo tells you something about aesthetic and commercial priorities, while a record that comes in the even more expensive SACD case wears its old-school audiophile priorities on its sleeve. An o-card (a cardboard sleeve that wraps around the jewel case) is another little extra expense. If the label doesn’t normally use them, an o-card is an indicator that this was an unusually expensive record, a high priority, probably assigned a larger marketing budget. These are all the standard types of packaging: the types that are easy to order. If a CD is packaged in something else fancy, somebody made a real effort to make that happen.

A CD without a barcode isn’t for commercial release. One without a catalog number is probably not from an established label. The convention is for the text on the spine to read from top to bottom, so that when it’s on the shelf, you tilt your head to the right to read it. If you have to tilt your head to the left, the packaging is the work of a beginner or maverick. If there’s something vitally important on the left-hand quarter of the cover, the record will struggle in Japanese stores, where it’s common to wrap this side of an imported CD with a piece of paper carrying a Japanese translation.

All of this, and we’ve barely started on the actual design.

Value Proposition

The design itself carries a lot of value cues. Expensive records tend to use photography on the cover. They tend to have images that go right to the edges (“full bleed” as the designers say), and they place the logos and names right on the image, without a solid background behind them. This is difficult to make work—you end up throwing out a lot of otherwise perfectly good images because there’s nowhere to put the text, and you can spend a lot of time in Photoshop gently blurring, darkening, or lightening the details behind the words. Cheap records use stock photos, put the images in boxes, and put the text on solid backgrounds, because it’s easy and you can bang them out quickly.

Batman: comic sans

Typography is a minefield. The rest you can do yourself without too much risk, but typography is the bit that sends me running to a real designer, every time. Decades spent fiddling with Microsoft Word has given most of us an intuitive sense of the basics of desktop publishing, but Word is bad at typesetting: it gives us too many of the wrong sort of choices (lots of fonts and gimmicky effects) and not enough of the important ones (little tweaks to the one font we’re using). Word teaches us that all typefaces are available in normal or bold. In truth, most good typefaces are available in lots of different weights (thin, ultra light, light, medium, book, bold, black and ultra black). Most text takes on a certain designer air if you just pick a typeface and use several different weights to indicate the information hierarchy—especially if you avoid the “default” looking normal/bold ones in the middle.
The other thing a real designer will do is fiddle with the spaces between the letters. You can make them all bigger (or smaller) to expand (or condense) the type to make it more readable (or to make the layout work without distorting the shape of the letters). This is called tracking. There’s also kerning, which is where you adjust the spaces between individual pairs of letters. If you don’t know how to do this, avoid all-caps, especially if your album has the word Stravinsky on the front. If you ever wondered why the copy just looks better when the designer does it, it’s because they know how to do this and they know when to leave it alone.

A Question of Image

Perhaps here, 1,000 words into this article, is a good time to admit that I’m not even going to try to tell you what kind of image makes an effective album cover. You can Google this question and find lots of people rationalizing the things they like. I read a lot of these types of posts before I started writing this piece, and I learned nothing very useful. That’s not to say there’s no space for creativity here—just that I can no more tell you what it should look like than I can tell you which notes you should write or how you should play them.

Batman: You can't fix ugly with more

A substantial portion of the posts on my blog have fun with the photos people put on their album covers. I see people tweet links to these saying things like “Album covers that miss the mark” or “More terrible album art” and it makes me rather sad. I don’t create these posts to call attention to bad work. I do it because it’s fun to do. I look at a photo of a person either doing something or just standing there trying not to look awkward. We’re supposed to think this person is either making music or thinking about making music, but these little square photos are like individual cells from a cartoon strip, just waiting for somebody to impose a new narrative on them.
Cartoon covers
I don’t pick them because they’re bad. I’d like to be able to tell you that I pick the good ones, but the truth is I just go through the new releases on iTunes and pick the first ten albums with photos of people on them. Nothing interesting is safe from ridicule. If there’s anything funny about this, it’s the captions, not the covers. Otherwise I could just collect together all the covers and invite people to laugh at them. Besides, if you’re going to care about what people on the Internet think, you’ll never get anything done.
The choice of what (if any) image to put on the cover is personal and individual to the specific artists and repertoire. If you can find a picture that says something about the concept behind the album, that’s great. If the connection isn’t obvious, you might find some space to explain it in the booklet or, better still, on the back cover. Almost nobody does this, even though it’s an obvious opportunity to draw the listener into your world.

Here’s the thing: whatever you put on the front of your album is going to be partly aspirational. Whatever else it tells people, it’ll tell them which albums you’d like yours to be associated with. It’s very much like the clothes you wear: you’re unique and you’re an individual, but people are going to put you in a pigeonhole because it’s the way their brains work. There’s nothing you can do about that, but you do get to choose what sort of pigeon you’re going to be. The choice itself is not unimportant, but what matters most is that you execute it well. If you’re going to wear a suit, make sure it fits. If you’re going to dress your album like a hipster, do it in a way that doesn’t make people cringe.

You can go with a photo or a painting or a drawing or a collage or an abstract pattern. Whatever you choose, remember this is like a passport photo. It’ll be on the discography page of your website forever. Sometimes we’re happy that a product is very much of its time, but if you don’t want it to age conspicuously, it’s safer to aim for something that looks like it could have been done at any point in the last 40 years. Whether we’re talking clothes or graphics, modern fashions fall out of date far more obviously than classic styles.
Cartoon approach 2
Size Matters

A lot of customers will first experience an album cover as one of those little thumbnail images on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or some other website. Getting them to click on it is the first step in the process of getting them to buy it, so the cover should make them want to see it bigger.

When I commission album art from a designer, I frequently ask them to deliver the first set of concepts not as glorious big high resolution images, but as little tiny thumbnails. Once you’ve seen it big, the experience of looking at it small will be totally different: you only get one chance to learn something important from this exercise. [2]

All About Assets

To print an album with a “full bleed” cover, you’ll need the background to extend at least 3mm past the edge. Your manufacturers or distributors should be able to give you a template or specification for all this.

When you come to make the real thing, you want it really, really big. To print the picture on the front of the CD booklet, you need an image about 1600 pixels square, but if this is the biggest version you have, you can’t blow it up for a full page ad or limited edition vinyl, let alone a poster or one of those giant album covers we hang up at signings and in the few remaining record shop windows.

More importantly, if your cover image is made up of lots of different elements (text, logo, image, etc.) you want all of these assets individually. If any of them (like the background image) were cropped to fit on the cover, you’ll want the whole thing so you can expand it to make adverts, flyers, posters, and other promotional materials.
Don’t forget to ask for all this when you brief the designer. If you don’t ask for it until they’ve finished, they’ll have to do at least some of the work twice.

Working With Designers

If you’re not used to working with a graphic designer, here’s what I suggest: get them to give you a quote for one set of five ideas, one set of three ideas, and two rounds of revisions to the final concept, with an agreed fee for each subsequent revision. If they haven’t done a lot of cover art before, make sure you give them the specs from the plant so they deliver something you can actually use.

Unless you have a very fixed idea of what you want, show them examples of things you like (not necessarily album covers) and ask for ideas in that direction. Collect up all the feedback you want before you ask them to change something, so you’re not running up the bill or driving them crazy with lots of little alterations.

In my experience, good designers respond much better to written briefs than to a drawing of what you want it to look like. Having a go yourself and asking them to fix it up is like humming into a Dictaphone and then asking a composer to turn it into a symphony. It might be what you’re paying them for, but it’s not the way to get their best work.

Getting It Done

If you compress the timeline for producing and releasing an album so that everything gets done the day before its absence starts costing you real money, the album cover gets finished long before the music. Distributors need the cover before they need the audio, so there’s an argument to be made that you should start work on this before you record a single note.
Idea for album
This approach has several advantages. If you’re not in a screaming rush, you’re less likely to make uncomfortable compromises. You’ve got a better chance of including session photography on the cover or in the booklet if you have this in mind before the sessions take place. If the record features a rare collaboration between two busy artists, the session is a rare chance to get a picture of them in the same room. It’s not uncommon for labels to take two headshots and put them side-by-side on the cover, but it sends a terrible message about the extent to which this is a constructive creative partnership.

If I have a single piece of constructive advice for you, it’s that the day you think, “I’m going to make a record,” is the day you should think, “and I’ll need a cover.” If this is at the back of your mind as you go through the creative process, there’s a much better chance you’ll hit upon something fun or something beautiful. That is, after all why we do this, isn’t it?


1. I’m putting this in a footnote because it’s too big a topic to treat properly without going off on the sort of tangent that does not belong in the fourth paragraph. In the ’70s and ’80s, many American orchestras began using screens to anonymize the audition process. This led to a huge increase in the number of women joining those orchestras. It’s possible this discrimination was conscious and deliberate, but there’s reason to believe that a lot of the time, if the panel couldn’t see the gender of the performer, they simply heard something different. The classic paper on this is Goldin & Rouse 1997. Plenty of research has been done into how the visual presentation of a performance or recording affects the way it is judged—so much research, in fact, that Friedrich Platz and Reinhard Kopiez (2011) were able to do a meta-analysis of them all. They concluded that the visual aspect of a performance had a significant effect on its perceived quality. For those interested in exploring the research on this subject, this paper is a good place to start: the authors list not just all the studies they included in their analysis, but also the relevant ones they excluded as being unsuitable for inclusion.

2. This is completely off-topic, but the same is true when you’re developing a new website: the first time you look at the site, you get confused by some neat-but-not-very-intuitive aspect of the user interface. The second time you use it, you know what to do. The third time you look at it, you forget all about whatever it was that confused you, and it doesn’t get fixed. That neat-but-not-very-intuitive thing goes on to confuse everybody who ever visits your website, and nobody ever bothers to tell you about it. You can’t experience a first impression twice, which is why you need a steady supply of fresh virgins [3] when you’re revising your website. If you ever catch yourself asking somebody, “O.K., take another look at this. Is that better?” then you’re doing it wrong. Ask someone else. This is probably the single most valuable piece of advice I’ve ever heard about product design, and I have no idea why it isn’t written down more often.

3. Not literally.

And the Winner Is: 55th Annual Grammys Awarded

The artists crowded into the Staples Center in Los Angeles last night might have been dressed a little classier (well, maybe), but the televised portion of the 55th annual Grammy Awards only included a small portion of the winners. Here are a few classical, jazz, and composition awardees whose statuette pick-ups you might have missed. The full list—in case we missed your favorite category—is available here.

Best Contemporary Classical Composition
Hartke, Stephen: Meanwhile – Incidental Music To Imaginary Puppet Plays
Stephen Hartke, composer (eighth blackbird)
Track from: Meanwhile
Label: Cedille Records

Best Instrumental Composition
Mozart Goes Dancing
Chick Corea, composer (Chick Corea & Gary Burton)
Track from: Hot House
Label: Concord Jazz

Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance
eighth blackbird
Label: Cedille Records

Best Orchestral Performance
Adams: Harmonielehre & Short Ride In A Fast Machine
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (San Francisco Symphony)
Label: SFS Media

Best Choral Performance
Life & Breath – Choral Works By René Clausen
Charles Bruffy, conductor (Matthew Gladden, Lindsey Lang, Rebecca Lloyd, Sarah Tannehill & Pamela Williamson; Kansas City Chorale)
Label: Chandos

Best Instrumental Arrangement
“How About You”
Gil Evans, arranger (Gil Evans Project)
Track from: Centennial – Newly Discovered Works Of Gil Evans
Label: ArtistShare

Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)
“City Of Roses”
Thara Memory & Esperanza Spalding, arrangers (Esperanza Spalding)
Track from: Radio Music Society
Label: Heads Up International

Best Improvised Jazz Solo
Hot House
Gary Burton & Chick Corea, soloists
Label: Concord Jazz

Best Jazz Vocal Album
Radio Music Society
Esperanza Spalding
Label: Heads Up International

Best Jazz Instrumental Album
Unity Band
Pat Metheny Unity Band
Label: Nonesuch

Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album
Dear Diz (Every Day I Think Of You)
Arturo Sandoval
Label: Concord Jazz

Best Engineered Album, Classical
Life & Breath – Choral Works By René Clausen
Tom Caulfield & John Newton, engineers; Mark Donahue, mastering engineer (Charles Bruffy & Kansas City Chorale)
Label: Chandos

Producer Of The Year, Classical
Blanton Alspaugh

Best Folk Album
The Goat Rodeo Sessions
Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile
Label: Sony Classical

Best Musical Theater Album
Once: A New Musical
Steve Kazee & Cristin Milioti, principal soloists; Steven Epstein & Martin Lowe, producers (Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova, composers/lyricists) (Original Broadway Cast With Steve Kazee, Cristin Milioti & Others)
Label: Masterworks

Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, composers
Label: Null/Madison Gate

The Recording

Back in February, I wrote a post about my experiences with the Grammy Award-winning producer Judith Sherman as she worked with the Gaudete Brass Quintet on their latest CD. Having never worked with a producer before, the experience of working with her during the session was nothing less than a gift. That gift, however, pales in comparison with the gift that I received in my inbox on Tuesday when the quintet sent me the final audio files for the CD for one last listening before they get pressed. I’ve had a few of my works recorded in the past and love hearing them, but this one felt different when I heard it…and it got me thinking about what having a good recording of a work means to a composer today.

There were several reasons why this piece felt different. My work on the recording, Brass, had been a commission by the Gaudete; I wrote it in December 2011, it was premiered at Symphony Space in NYC in January of 2012, and it was recorded in February of 2012—less than two months between the time the work was finished until the time that it received its definitive recording, so it is by far the most recent of my works that has been recorded and the best demonstration of what I’m doing now.

The experience of working with the Gaudete as collaborators was amazing; their openness to new things, their patience with a composer’s requests, and their willingness to push the composer to make the piece even more than what it might have been originally still stands out in my mind as a model of how it can and should be done.

Finally, the finished product. Normally one listens intently to hear any mistakes or slight rough edges to polish, but when I heard the recording for the first time I realized I wasn’t focused on the performance because I was hearing the work—my work—exquisitely played and masterfully recorded, exactly as I had heard it in my head back in December. That transcendence of what I had created from a live performative interpretation to a sterling and permanent expression hit me hard. You’ll have to remember, because of my background in education, jazz, and film music, I’m still getting used to the idea that I’m now a professional composer. In many ways, this recording feels like the final leg in my own journey.

Today, one cannot overstate how important it is for composers to have quality recordings of their works. Most applications for grants, residencies, artist colonies, and other valuable opportunities require recordings before they’ll even make a consideration. As many composers today are self-published, they don’t have the advantage of someone else “talking them up”—they have to prove their place in the world on their own and recordings are the most effective way to do that. To that end, with social media becoming the primary conduit through which musicians interact, the ability to distribute a sample of one’s music through a SoundCloud player or other similar method in an e-mail or on Facebook is quickly becoming standard operating procedure for many composers.

For today’s composer, having a recording is more than just an archive of a performance or a “calling card”—it is an important and necessary tool in the creation and sustainability of a career, as well as the external expression of who a composer is.

Sounds Heard: Ion Sound Project and the Music of Jeremy Beck

Ion Sound Project, the fourth Innova recording dedicated to the music of composer Jeremy Beck, takes its title from the Pittsburgh-based chamber group of the same name. Stemming from a friendship with pianist Robert Frankenberry, Beck’s collaboration with Ion Sound Project began in 2007 at the University of Pittsburgh with a performance of his September Music, the piece which also closes this album. Beck’s music is unabashedly tonal, rhythmically intricate, and makes nods to the past while sitting squarely in the present. He is a prizewinner in the 2010 National Opera Association’s New Chamber Opera Competition, Boston Chamber Orchestra’s 2011-2012 Commission Competition, and the 2012 Aliénor International Harpsichord Composition Competition. When he’s not releasing new recordings of his work or receiving accolades from national and international competitions, he practices intellectual property (copyright and trademark) law, entertainment law, and general business law in Louisville, Kentucky.

Ion Sound Project opens with its strongest piece, In Flight Until Mysterious Night. Pulsing, jazz-inflected rhythms propel the work forward, recalling Copland’s Three Latin American Sketches in spots. Bright shifting harmonies in tandem with those syncopated rhythms pull the music this way and that, occasionally giving the listener the feeling you get when you are walking up (or down) a flight of stairs in the dark and you think there is one more stair, but there isn’t. Held together by the fluid playing of Frankenberry, this juxtaposition of largely accessible and recognizable pitch and rhythmic material with the occasional sharp left makes for compelling and interesting listening. Up next is by Beck’s Cello Sonata No. 2. , performed by Elisa Kohanski. The delicate and understated first movement starts quietly and builds to its animato namesake before returning to its hushed beginnings. The second movement features long melancholic melodies with sparse accompaniment in the piano before perking up with rhythms and harmonic language akin to In Flight Until Mysterious Night.

Soprano Margaret Baube Andraso joins ISP for In February, a work written in 2002 with text by the composer. For soprano, clarinet, violin, and piano, this one-movement song of love lost opens with a slow ostinato in the piano into which the other instruments weave. The simple melodies, accompaniment, and pacing make this a piece that could be at home in theater or film as easily as on the concert stage. Gemini for flute, cello, and piano features independent lines leading to tutti accents on upbeats that could be (at least rhythmically) straight out of any number of rock tunes from the ‘80s and that betray a contemporary classical style that formed in that period without sounding dated or borrowed. The ironically titled Slow Motion for piano and vibraphone takes cues from the collaborative work of Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Percussionist Eliseo Rael deftly trades polyphonic strains with Frankenberry, parts winding around one another before briefly coalescing in chords and accents that stutter step around, dressed in colorful harmonies. A less active choral section provides a respite from this activity before returning to the manic, quasi-improvisatory material from the top.

Third Delphic Hymn is a showcase for the evocative playing of violinist Laura Motchalov. Her ability to cleanly perform multiple lines at once sounds at times like two distinct players and is quite effective. This brief work is the oldest on the album (the original version for viola was written in 1980), but it is nonetheless a highlight both in terms of performance and composition, and I’ll admit to being disappointed that it ended so soon. This is not to say it was an inappropriate length, but that I was left wanting more. The final work on the album, September Music, initially picks up on the melancholy of Third Delphic Hymn in its modest tempo and longing harmonic language, and these characteristics continue for the most part in the second movement. The insistent third movement eventually displays many of the characteristics of the other works on the recording. Tutti climaxes rebounded from duo and trio excursions. Colorful clashes in the clarinet and flute, performed by Kathleen Costello and Peggy Yoo respectively, are answered by dramatic responses in the strings.

Ion Sound Project is a thoroughly engaging CD from top to bottom. Ion Sound Project (the group!) does a great job of presenting Beck’s work here, whether in solo or ensemble settings. Though architecturally rigorous, Beck writes clearly and without pretense, and while one might listen for the technical elements of his work, I think that would be missing the point. Well-wrought music should be architecturally sound as a matter of course, but checking that compositional tick-box alone does not necessarily a great piece of music make. If you’re interested in music that is for the most part harmonically tonal and rhythmically diverse, you’re sure to find a great deal of satisfaction in the world of Jeremy Beck.