What it takes to make an album

Almost as soon as I came back from my epic 2018 summer of travel and work, before I had time to learn where the light switches were in my new house or to recover from jet lag, I plunged straight into a completely full-on project that’s been consuming me every since: the making of the first Damask album. I’ve been involved in other people’s recordings before, and I’ve recorded short sessions of demo material for myself, Damask, and other groups; but this is a full-length commercially available album with full creative control, made to showcase our work, and it’s one of the most absorbing, satisfying, time-consuming, and expensive projects I’ve ever personally undertaken. The learning curve has been steep and the work load has been heavy. It has given me huge respect for everyone who is still involved in recorded sound and for all the greats who came before—the artists but also all the other hundreds of people who work unbelievably hard to make this sort of project happen. Now that we’re preparing for the album’s release, I finally wanted to write something to describe the whole experience up to now. I had NO idea what was truly involved, and I was blindsided by many aspects of it (in mostly good and some bad ways); I am SO SO SO incredibly excited for the end result, but also would love for the process to be more transparent, as I have realized how many misconceptions exist about recordings, how they get made, and what they represent to both artists and listeners. So, off we go!

Drew, Marine, Guy, and I have known for a while that we wanted to record, and with whom: Frerik de Jong of the boutique Dutch label 7 Mountain Records has been a friend and a champion for some time, and we knew that when we were ready, he would be interested in collaborating. So we talked about it ad nauseam for two years. There’s so much music that we’d love to record: our program of 20th-century pieces written in response to WWII; modern quartet cycles by John Musto, Ned Rorem, Zachary Wadsworth; all the Schumann and Schubert; the commissioned works we’ve created as a quartet with other groups. But eventually, we decided that our first album should feature music that feels most like home: Brahms. Whenever we sing his music, it settles in our voices and our hearts like an old friend. We’ve done many concerts titled “O schöne Nacht” with different combinations of quartets by Schumann, Brahms, Herzogenberg, Jenner, and others; some of this music is known in choral-music circles, but it doesn’t often get well-rehearsed, considered performances by vocal soloists (the forces for which the pieces were actually written), and it’s almost never performed by a set ensemble, rather than by an ad-hoc gathering of singers in a festival or a single concert. So it seemed like a good project to introduce people not only to some very special music that we feel strongly about and perform particularly well, but also to the uniqueness of what Damask offers: a set quartet of four solo singers engaging with 19th-century chamber repertoire very deeply, in the same way an individual singer, a string quartet, or a pianist would. Eventually we narrowed down the list of pieces, Flore found an extraordinary un-recorded short cycle of piano works by Kirchner that we had to include, and we were ready with the program.

We’ve been performing with Flore Merlin for several years on a number of pianos, including original 19th-century instruments. Flore also plays fortepiano, and she’s extremely thoughtful and creative in her sound, very responsive to whichever instrument she is playing, which allows us to respond in turn to the shifts of color and personality that different instruments bring. After discussing recording on one of the Érards we’ve worked with in the Netherlands (Érard was a French piano maker from the early 19th century) and deciding that they were a little too far removed from Brahms’s own sound world, we began to research and look for a piano more similar to the one Brahms would have played. It was an exciting hunt. There were several days that a few of us would drive several hours out to an obscure place, meet a piano, and then breathlessly text our impressions back to the group WhatsApp chat, with video; even recorded on bad iPhone mics, we heard some stunning instruments and colors. We were looking, if possible, for a Streicher—the maker that Brahms valued most in the latter half of his life. In the end, we got unbelievably lucky and found an original 1868 Streicher (the same production year and make as Brahms’s own piano!) owned by a Belgian pianist, Piet van Kuijken, who agreed to rent it to us for this recording. Here’s what Drew wrote to the chat after first hearing it:

“The tenor and bass ranges are absolutely stunning—warm and deep and gnarly (in the best way). The quality of the very top was a bit metallic, which can actually be quite beautiful/striking but also has the capacity to sound a bit ugly. In general this piano is less perfectly blended throughout the ranges; each range seems to have its own character. We both found this difficult in the beginning but after spending some time playing and singing we found this irregularity to be quite special and exciting as it spoke through the music.”

These preliminary impressions ended up confirmed and deepened as we got to know the piano during the recording days. We came to love even the slightly bizarre high range of the piano. I ended up thinking of it as a particularly beautiful and singing treble, actually, which just goes to show that our response to sounds are so individual—no wonder there’s no objective standard by which singing voices can be judged, since everyone reacts to the humanness and organic origin of acoustic sound in a different way. This Streicher, designed and assembled 150 years ago by the hands of people who knew Brahms personally, felt like another conscious, sentient, eccentric creature in the room with us—six performers altogether, instead of five—and one that gave us a direct path to the music and its time in a startlingly visceral, vibrational, sound-driven way, as well as in our imaginations. We hired a technician, the earthy, imperturbable Daniel Boulanger, to be with us for the entire recording process, because the piano needs so much attention. Daniel tuned and re-conditioned it at every break, i.e. once every couple hours, and was on hand to help us solve little piano mysteries or small problems that arose during the sessions. The difference between this instrument and a modern piano cannot be overstated. I love this music on a modern Steinway or Bösendorfer too, of course, but it’s very different—both mellower (because of the emphasis nowadays on even regulation of registers) and more powerful (because of the advantages of modern construction). The mellowness and the power can be both advantages and disadvantages. We will mostly be performing CD release concerts on modern instruments, because the expense of caring for and shipping around priceless historical pianos is prohibitive. But I am so glad that for the recording, we were able to work with such a special instrument, and that the Streicher’s voice is the one most people will hear.

These decisions were made very carefully, but the planning was extra difficult because the quartet is essentially in a long-distance relationship! Drew and I live in the Netherlands, Marine in Paris, and Guy in London. We were all traveling for a good part of the summer doing other work, and we hadn’t seen each other together in person for some months. We know the program intimately, having performed it together many times, but still, we would have been glad for a more spacious schedule; in the end, most of the planning and decision-making happened remotely, much of it by Drew and Marine. (The quartet shares work between us according to each of our own strengths and available time, with the help of one paid producer who does hourly work for us and a number of friends and partners generous with their time and skill. The work goes in cycles, it’s never over, and it isn’t always an even distribution; we’ve mostly gotten used to stepping in when there’s a need and getting a job done. Eventually, we expect to have a more fleshed-out administration team, but at the moment it’s still a huge amount of our own work.) Many emails and texts and conference calls ensued, and before I knew it, my insane summer abroad was nearly over, I was practicing Brahms and Herzogenberg and Jenner in an Argentinian hotel room on my free hours before concerts of Vivier’s Kopernikus (an especially wacko juxtaposition of repertoire, even for me), I spent nearly 24 hours in transit from Buenos Aires back to Schiphol, and then the days were upon us.

I was super concerned about fatigue, so I took every precaution imaginable, spending the week before my flight getting as much rest as I could in my hotel room instead of going out to tango bars (sad face), taking every sleep aid I could find, trying to eat lightly (in the land of the best steaks ever), drinking very little (in the land of Malbec), practicing very carefully; and these precautions, plus plain good luck, allowed me to arrive back in Rotterdam sleepy but unscathed. On a drizzly August day, we all made the trip out to the east of the Netherlands, where we had hired a recording venue on a former farm that has been turned into a unique all-inclusive work/sleep/concert space, overseen by the hospitable Marion van den Akker. Drew and I made an epic grocery trip for everything we would need for four days, we all got a bit settled in, and then we plunged into rehearsal for our only day with the Streicher in the venue before the recordings began. (Flore had worked on it alone, and we had rehearsed with different instruments in the days previous.)

We worked all day for four days. A typical schedule: rise around 8. I was waking even earlier, my sleep patterns completely disoriented; Marine or I would put water on for everyone’s coffee or tea; Drew, Frerik, Marine, and I would chat sleepily while caffeinating and listening to Daniel working on the piano in the next room; Guy and Flore were usually the last ones up, but both sound miraculous even first thing in the morning, lucky jerks. Gather in the barn between 10 and 11 (depending on how late we had worked the previous night). Get two or three pieces in the bag before lunch. Break for an hour or two. Work through the afternoon on three or four more pieces. We would cook dinner at around 8 pm. Two of the four days also included evening sessions. There were 25 pieces total, each its own miniature and fully-contained world that needed the utmost specificity and generosity of story-telling and sound. In a concert this is a well-rounded and satisfying program, but it’s a huge challenge to record, with every 3-minute stretch of finished product requiring its own complete, separate vision and integration of all detail. Some songs took us only 45 minutes; others took several hours; one took an entire evening session, and another (I won’t tell you which) had all of us at the end of our wits because we cared about it so much and wanted it to be so perfect, and yet we were all so tired. Mostly, though, we were able to work fairly steadily through very long days. The energy between the six of us—me, Marine, Guy, Drew, Flore, and Frerik, who was as integral to the process as any performer—had to be just right, and it usually was. The work felt, by turns, calm, urgent, filled with love, desperate, tedious, and hilarious. (For anyone who thinks that this whole process is high-brow, all Classical Art and hallowèd traditions of Quality, you should hear the number of dirty jokes that go around the room during any ten-minute stretch. So it always has been, so it ever shall be.) Frerik sat out of sight in another room, his soothing voice coming through a speaker in the recording room; a red light bulb told us when his tape was live or not; we stood in fixed spots and received his feedback, gave each other feedback, tried new things, recorded, recorded, recorded again. Usually we would try for one first full take of a piece and then begin refining in smaller sections. Sometimes, a few patches were all that was needed; more often, we would refine and push each other and ourselves to the point that our first complete take of a piece was no longer usable, because the music had evolved so much in an hour. The ideas and suggestions came from all six of us, led by Frerik and his generosity, his belief in our capabilities, his ultra-refined ears, and his absolute love for this music, which equals our own—we are all, it turns out, total romantics (and Romantics) at heart. The few hours that we weren’t working, we were eating a tremendous amount and consuming our body weight in tea, trying to replace all the lost calories and fluids from such long days; we laughed a lot; we went for short walks in this bucolic farmland landscape; we talked about our summers, all full of change and upheaval; the one night we didn’t feel like cooking, we ate dinner at the one restaurant in town, De Wok, a hilariously terrible Chinese place that was absolutely packed to the gills with locals. One night, a windstorm blew out a huge, heavy window in the room where I was sleeping, falling to the floor with a tremendous crash and scaring the daylights out of me. One late afternoon, we broke early to do a photo shoot with Evelien van Rijn for promotional material and the CD booklet, so we scampered around the grounds of the farm, dragging chairs and props into fields, sinking into soft mud in our dress shoes, trying to keep straight faces, trying to catch the best light of the setting sun.

Back to the music. I had never felt so personally prepared for a recording as I did for this one, and I could really notice what that allowed me to achieve compared to other sessions I’ve sung; and even so, I was surprised by how much further we could go than I expected. I think everyone felt that way—that we were singing and playing at a high level when we arrived, but somehow the energy of those days, the mental spaciousness of this calm place where this was the only work we could do, the depth of our knowledge of each other’s voices and hearts and minds, the concentration, the trust, and our physical strength combined into something we wouldn’t have been capable of, individually or collectively, even a few months before. There were hard moments when I wanted to cry or actually did, or when I could tell that someone else was almost at a breaking point, or when it seemed like we could never get everything done at the level we wanted. But I was amazed (having sung only sessions where I felt almost powerless in the face of the perfection I thought was required, and my own limitations in reaching it) at how we were all able to stay in a flow state, working methodically and sometimes with inspiration and always with concentration. I worked at a level I didn’t know I could reach; my voice could somehow still sound fresh even at the end of an eight-hour day—and that was possible because of the people, the place, and the specifics of this project. We elevated each other to that level.

I had also always assumed that recordings could never compare to the crackling, dynamic energy of a live performance, but now I know what they can offer instead: the luxury of having already rehearsed this music for hundreds of hours and still, STILL being able to discover things in it that you’ve never thought of or heard, and then being able to try a few times to see if you can integrate that into your work in the moment. I realized that it’s not about perfection or creating a museum-quality preservation of something flawless; it’s about digging as deeply into yourself as possible at a particular moment and hoping that the result is audible. When we managed that, it felt like magic.

In addition to transforming the music and our performance during the sessions themselves, those four days also transformed all of us in the longer term. A month after the sessions, we performed some of the same pieces in Paris, and we could notice that the music had journeyed farther than ever in our minds and voices and fingers just from having done this work in the studio. It was more integrated and passionate and capable than ever before. The Paris concerts were when I realized that the work is truly never finished, since even one month later we had matured so much. It made me wish we could immediately record again, and it also made me realize, fully, that no recording is definitive. I grew up obsessively listening to certain recordings over and over, mining them for every nuance, learning to imitate tiny little vocal inflections of singers I loved, analyzing perfect moments in timing and silence; I know now that those bits of ideal perfection were also just moments in a studio, snapshots of a transitory artistic process that couldn’t ever be exactly recaptured live and shouldn’t be.

If I sound a bit overheated and emotional about all this, it’s because I was, and still am. This summer I learned something extremely precious about myself and about chamber music and about recorded sound, about the quality of work Damask has built over nearly five years (amidst plenty of missteps, lackluster performances, and bad judgment calls—it hasn’t been a perfect process!), about this music that I love so much, and about all the recordings I have ever loved.

But what I didn’t know at the end of those August days, when I felt glowy and tearful and fully immersed in this rarefied artistic process, is that that the work had just begun. Apart from a few weeks since when I was necessarily focused on other projects, September, October and November have seen me working nearly full-time on everything else needed to get this CD finished, financed, distributed, and noticed—hence my total absence from the blog and even from routine website maintenance till now. It has simply been SO MUCH WORK. Frerik and I were in constant contact for weeks (and he was involved heavily with three other recording projects at the same time—I don’t know how he does it). I made a crowdfunding video; launched a fundraising campaign; babysat the crowdfunding; wrote to huge numbers of people asking for help; wrote to huge numbers of people thanking them for the help they had given; had meetings with other people working on the CD—designer and cover artist Herco Dijk, writer of liner notes Marten van der Meulen, PR agent Johan Kloosterboer—and was in frequent follow-up contact afterwards about all those aspects; wrote and sent newsletters and updates to our Damask mailing lists; made new translations into English of reams of German poetry; made a trailer video, and then scrapped it and made a completely new one based on feedback from the PR agent; got heavily involved with the writing and editing of the liner notes; frequently updated our website and social media accounts; obsessively copy-edited and proofread the booklet, track list, and design layout until it was as perfect as my eyes could make it (and of course I spotted one mistake as soon as it had finally gone to press); stayed in intimate contact with our immensely patient and positive photographer and acted as intermediary for all decisions about photo edits (of which there were many); helped sort out e-commerce on our website and set up a sales platform; downloaded several versions of the complete album and listened obsessively to them as we slowly worked together with Frerik on making the final version, tweaking the track order, trying to understand audio differences in spacing and warmth and acoustic and detail and balance that come from listening on different speakers and in different rooms, suggesting small adjustments here and there. I haven’t done any of this alone—we’ve all been working together on these things and we have professional help, and STILL, I think I have worked harder and more obsessively on this CD than on any other single project I’ve ever done, with the exception of the Entführungs that consumed much of my last year (and which is a different kind of work in many ways, though equally absorbing). Now, those parts of the work are over, the CD is at the factory, and the next phase is about the CD release concerts, the promotion of the album, sales, and leveraging this unusual amount of momentum and fire we have right now to try to get some new people and presenters interested in us and what we’re doing. There have been many moments where it felt, and still feels, like an endless process. I am sure that if I make another recording after this, it will be easier and won’t take as long, because I know what’s involved. But as I said earlier, through all this work I have gained such enormous respect for everyone who has done this before me, everyone who has chosen to make their livings with, or spend time on, such a valuable but rarefied, expensive, and non-lucrative part of the music business.

It’s been sobering and eye-opening to realize how non-lucrative it is. Even ten years ago and certainly fifty years ago, the economic and cultural landscape of recorded sound was totally different—it was big business. Nowadays, almost all recordings of classical music, even on big labels and even by major established artists, are self-financed passion projects that need extensive fundraising. We are doing this because we feel we have something to say artistically, because this music is under-represented, because we want to advance our own musical goals, and because we want to raise the quartet’s profile with a concrete product that is longer-lasting and with a much wider reach than a concert. No one is getting rich from this, and we have been more grateful than ever for those friends who have been willing to help us realize these goals by contributing to the CD. This process has both inspired me enormously, making me want to do this work over and over on other music that I love (both with the quartet and on my own solo projects), and has daunted me hugely about what a sacrifice of time, energy, and money it requires.

We are just eighteen days from the CD’s official launch. Early bits of press and feedback from friends have been very promising and validating. We’re spending extra on PR to make sure the CD can go a long way in several countries, not just in the Netherlands. We’re doing several release concerts, and excitement for those is building—I was super pumped to learn yesterday that Luister, the Dutch classical music magazine, featured our Amsterdam release concert on November 29th as #4 on its list of top events. I am hoping for a great response. But mostly, at this point, I am looking forward to cradling this beautiful object in my hands, opening the case, popping the disc out of its plastic nest and putting it into an actual CD player (I recently bought an old-school, high-quality sound system and great speakers, and I felt like I’d both stepped back in time to my adolescence and finally become an adult musician in the same moment!), flipping through the booklet that I practically know by heart, and then sitting down, shutting my eyes, and listening to what all this love, work, time, training, sacrifice, money, belief, cooperation, suspension of doubt, coordination of schedules, risk, and dedication has made.

 

A candid moment from the filming of the crowdfunding video–and its frame on my dusty computer screen as I worked with it later