Today was the first recording session for my latest CD project, an as yet untitled Christmas album.
Ideas for a Christmas recording had been floating around for quite a while, but serious planning began this spring. Initially, I knew I wanted it to be an instrumental album, centered on the hammered dulcimer with support from my other instruments (recorder, bowed psaltery, and guitar), from my trio (fiddle and guitar), and possibly from some other local musicians.
I also knew I wanted to focus on music that reflects the spiritual meanings of Christmas.
Right now, for example, I plan to open the album with an original piece called “Fallen.” I wrote it one day after viewing the finalists’ entries in the competition for the September 11 memorial. Its theme of mourning the fallen also looks beyond that tragedy to the first and greatest fall of humanity in Eden. It’s because of that Fall that we have Christmas and the Savior it celebrates.
Near the end, I hope to include a piece called “Easter Thursday” along with one verse of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”; again as a reminder of what God came to earth to do. In between, there will be carols both familiar and less well-known, from “The Lord at First Did Adam Make” to “Silent Night” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”
When I arrived at the studio this morning, I found that the dulcimer wasn’t as in tune as it was last night after I spent most of yesterday tuning it. Some of you reading this may know how frustrated I’ve been with tuning. It takes me much longer than it should (believe it or not, most dulcimer players can tune in an hour or less), despite an excellent dulcimer and good tools and techniques. Must be me. Anyway, I was quite upset to find I’d have to do all that work again, and under the pressure of being in the studio and supposedly ready to start recording. Fortunately, the good folks at Electric Wilburland (a great studio housed in an old church in Newfield, just south of Ithaca) don’t charge for tuning time, and Matt was very patient as I did my best to get it ready.
Once the dulcimer was in tune, we decided which microphones to use and where to position them, then did the same with my soprano recorder. For the dulcimer, we decided on a matched pair of Earthworks QTC1 mics. They are set up like ears, with a foam disc in between like a head. Notice also the bits of white tape on the dulcimer, which helped us position the dulcimer in the same place each session to avoid changes in the stereo image.
The first tune we worked on was “The Lord at First Did Adam Make,” a carol from the 1800s that tells the Christmas story beginning with Genesis. My arrangement opens with solo recorder and includes sections with multiple recorders, multiple dulcimer parts, and a dulcimer accompaniment. Today I recorded the first recorder verse and all but one of the dulcimer sections; tomorrow Stuart and Robin Milliken will join me to add the other recorder parts, and then I’ll do that last dulcimer section.
Today I also recorded almost half of a dulcimer solo medley of “What Child is This?” and a Quantz “Menuet.” After one time through “What Child is This?” with the familiar chords, I change key (a blend of A minor and dorian) and introduce more major chords (F, D, C…) — thanks to Keith Bryant for some of these chording ideas.
It’s exciting to be in the studio again. I would have loved to record with Henry Smith at Outback Studio again, but since Mechanicsville VA is a little too far away now, Wilburland is a good second choice. Actually it’s great so far and I think I’m really going to enjoy working there.
The tuning thing is a huge source of anxiety; knowing how awful some tuning days have been, I hate the thought of having to tune in the studio. This will either force me to quit altogether, or else learn to metabolize some of that anxiety and patiently do whatever it takes to get in tune. Maybe necessity will even help me learn to tune a little more quickly.
Meanwhile, I have plenty of wonderful musical work to do, selecting and arranging and practicing pieces for this recording as well as continuing to teach and perform.