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.
The CDs have just arrived -soon to be available online at all the major download places. Its handsome and sounds wonderful…clear voiced, open sound with a grand acoustic dynamic. Dynamite through good headphones. A tip of the hat to engineer Jeff Wolpert for a meticulous mix and mastering.
The actual CD (opposed to virtual) is in limited supply. Only a small quantity of glass mastered CDs were manufactured. If you admire the actual you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and one will be reserved for you.
What Is Your Name OB106
original CD with liner notes, 2015 OB 106 *free shipping
Almost 1 year to the day, the recording is complete. Now, its all about listening. Letting some time go by to give perspective and listening to what has been recorded with fresh ears. We’re iistening now: the balance between sounds, the clarity and placement of the music and vocals, trying to find the best order and sequence for all the pieces that will make up the whole. It’s coming together as storytelling and the music and lyrics connect to each other in intricate ways, so that the sequencing becomes essential. We still imagine the wholeness of the album, rather than separated individual songs. Do people even listen this way anymore; or does the increasing prevalence of streaming encourage us to only hear individual separate pieces?
We are now working on the last composition of the song cycle. It will be a quiet mix of piano, understated vocals, spoken word and musical saw…perhaps with the addition of a repeated struck metal bowl tuned with water. The found sounds that orchestrate much of this recording are being selected for their particular timbre and presence. They are unlike any other sound with their certain rough edges. When we record found sounds the goal is not the electronic manipulation of the sound. We record them to sound like what they are: physical, tangible sounds with substance.
The search for low sounds in the universe of found instruments is always a challenge. It usually means finding something big, like long lengths of PVC pipes, which can be difficult for touring. For bottle sounds, the depth and low range of the perfect gallon jug is worth the trouble of collecting, cleaning, and carefully transporting.
The range of a glass cider jug extends below a wine bottle or an old vinegar jug. It takes an enormous amount of air to produce a good clear sound. And to get enough air, one needs to take deep noisy breaths. But this is actually a bonus, because the sound of the in-breath just before the articulated note, can form part of the music. The in-breaths are quite audible, especially when the mics are close and hot. So using this sound will be an interesting way of allowing a natural percussive line to be heard while producing the pitched sounds from tuned blown jugs. The real breath sounds produce a sense of necessity and energy in the music. This technique is used in the song “Why Don’t We” from the album “Whisper in My Ear”.
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.
Now we’re orchestrating a song that features the music box sounds of the toy piano. I’m playing on a 3 octave keyboard which activates little hammers that strike metal rods, and the accompanying noise of the mechanics is so wonderful, and strangely out of tune, (hell to sing against,) but the mysterious intonation is just so right for this song.
Robert is playing a melodica – a curious hybrid between a keyboard and a harmonica. He blows through a tube while his fingers play the little keyboard. It’s almost like an accordion but there are no bellows and the tone is controlled by his breath. The song plays with the ideas that children’s toys can suggest. To this we will add the soaring sound of the carpenter’s hand saw, vacuum cleaner hose vocals, tuned glass bottles and a touch of French horn.
The song was inspired by an unlikely meeting, at just the right time, with a comedienne from Chicago, named Poppy, in the waiting room of an almost empty train station in Saskatoon in the middle of the night.
As I’m writing this I can hear the mellow sounds of the French Horn. Carla is writing a new line for the song we have been working on. During the last month we have been living in a world of splendid acoustic sound: vintage waterphones, bowed saws, blown bottles, struck floating bowls, toy piano and voice. Exploring the words and sounds of a new project which we plan to record in a month’s time. More soon.