It’s the longest day of the year today which was the working title for a piece we composed many years ago on the longest day of the year. The song opens with a plaintive melody heard on blown glass bottles and the twangy acoustic of repetitive plucked old guitar strings (a musical invention – “string box ” by Dewi Minden as a gift to her father when she was twelve) then the easy voice of Carla Hallett singing an elegiac ode to the natural world. The sounds of tuned glass milk bottles and cider jugs played by Andrea and Dewi Minden provide the quirky textured ground of this dark environmental song. The piece was lovingly recorded at Vancouver’s historic Mushroom studios with engineer Simon Garber and released as “Alone Together” in 1992 on the album “Long Journey Home” by the Robert Minden Ensemble.
Our unique instrumentation makes for a compelling array of varying timbres. Always seeking to expand the predictable sonic palette found in contemporary music, our recordings concentrate on the colour and texture of acoustic sound. Much of the Duo’s focus is on timbre. The musical saw is an excellent example and is explored in all of our recordings. It has an unexpected voice and when placed with other sounds can offer acoustic surprise.
Listening to the sound of the musical saw in live performance is uncanny, the sound feels like it comes from everywhere/nowhere. Unlike a trumpet or a piano or a vocalist which have a direct point of origin the musical saw is strange because it seems to originate in the air itself. In live performance the rubbing sound of the bow is diminished because the listener is not that close and one is not required to pay attention to it. If one places a mic in front and close to the saw it amplifies the sound caused by the bow rubbing the blade and the delicate, mysterious sound of the saw is compromised and becomes confined.
The difficulty in recording the bowed saw is to recreate its ethereal experience. Experimenting over the years with many different mic positions and different ways of recording the saw, what seems crucial is the sound of the room itself. It is important to record in as resonant a room as possible using two microphones. Mic the sound in the room, as well as the closer sound coming from behind the player and the blade of the saw. Mixing both tracks together comes close to reproducing this extraordinary resonance.
The music suggests images, scenes, narratives. It feels like we are scoring a film, – the music evocative and cinematic, the film becoming visible by the listener.
In a more literal sense, the mixing of our sounds creates a soundscape – on the left, on the right, in the centre, coming in from the back of the listeners head. Will a sound move? How will it move? Which sound will stay anchored in one place? And how will each sound be coloured, and in what space are they happening/seen? These sonic decisions are also visual decisions; the music suggesting the movie imagined in the mind.
In live performance when I sing I’m usually playing some sort of “instrument” at the same time. Whether it’s a toy piano, a pair of soup spoons, tuned glass bottles, simply pushing one side of a sruti box, or swinging an elastic band drone through the air – I like to be busy while vocalizing, and the interplay between singing and playing can be very engaging.
But in a recording studio, when the final vocal line is performed alone it’s curiously freeing. During this last recording session I found that when I concentrated solely on my voice, without playing additional instruments, I could really sink into the telling of the story – seeing the images as I sang the song. I wanted to keep the voice natural and honest, and close, like a good storyteller. The engineer chose a vintage (1950s) AKG C12 microphone. We wanted to achieve subtleties of expression and a clear and intimate sound with great presence, underplaying the intense emotion of the song.
We began the recording session with the sound of the toy piano. I knew the engineer would want to isolate this sound, but I was used to singing and playing the toy piano at the same time. Sometimes the voice leads the piano, and other times the piano leads the voice. So how can one separate these sounds without compromising the musical dialogue between them?
As I took the toy piano out of its’ case and began attaching the legs, I looked around the room. It was spacious and bright with lots of wood, so there was a warmth to the space. But when I sat on the little stool and began to play, the room felt enormous and vaguely intimidating for my tiny sounds. Meanwhile the engineers were busy gathering large blocks of thick foam. They began to encase the toy piano leaving only the keyboard exposed for me to play. A veritable fort started forming around me – just like the ones we used to build out of cushions from the living room couch. It was perfect. The toy piano sound was isolated and so was its’ mic, while I could sing to my hearts content, in my little fort, cushioned and contained.