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The Agony of Recording

Recording at the National Shrine, March 1, 2004Since I have been singing in the Choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, we have made two recordings: I Sing of a Maiden: A Mosaic of Motets to the Virgin Mary (2000), when Leo Nestor was Director of Music, and Carols at the Crèche (2003), under the new director, Peter Latona. Over the past two weeks, I have had some late nights, as we have been recording in the evenings for our next CD. The photo at left shows about half of the choir in the location we used, the chancel of the Great Upper Church (the red circle seen on the floor in the foreground is directly under the chancel dome).

On this recording, the choir was joined by members of the Washington Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble. The theme of the recording is music dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the program features, among other things, several Renaissance polychoral pieces, including Vincenzo Ugolini's motet Beata es virgo Maria, for 12 parts in 3 choirs (see post on July 25); Luca Marenzio's Magnificat and Jubilate Deo, both for 8 parts in 2 choirs; Tomás Luís Victoria's glorious motet Ave Maria and the complete Missa Salve regina, both for 8 parts in 2 choirs. The performance forces for these pieces are varied, with some pieces featuring smaller groups of singers or quartets and sometimes with the instruments doubling or replacing voices on the parts. We also have continuo accompaniment on some of these pieces, including portative organ (see the image below), theorbo (the large lute seen in the image above), and viola da gamba. (Yours truly is in the picture below, center, in the white sweatshirt.)

Recording at the National Shrine, March 2004The selection of music is superb, and the performing and rehearsing have been challenging and rewarding, but the actual physical work of producing a recording is excruciating. It is not unusual to spend an hour or more just to get enough useable material for a 3- or 4-minute piece of music. Sometimes this can mean several complete takes, from the beginning of the piece to the end, or it can require several partial takes of problematic sections. Any mistake, any stray sound can mean that you have to do another take. For example, we had to turn off the air circulation system and all of the regular lights, so that the electronic buzzing they make is not on our recording. The recording engineer set up special temporary lights to illuminate the recording space without any noise. Still, one person might turn a page carelessly or shift in place, making a riser creak or a shoe sole squeak. The neighborhood around the National Shrine and Catholic University, Brookland, is sometimes called Little Rome, because of all the churches, monasteries, and other Catholic institutions there: this means that bells are regularly tolling in the distance. And there are the noises that you associate with any city, sirens and vehicle sounds (the Metro Red Line runs along the eastern edge of the Catholic University campus, and the Basilica itself is right on busy Michigan Avenue), as well as those that we are so used to in Washington since the September 11 attacks, helicopters and military jets in the air above.

What is new about this recording is that Malcolm Bruno is producing it, and his input and advice throughout the process were very helpful. This was a great luxury for the musicians and our director, since we had an expert pair of ears listening to each take and excellent advice on how to arrange singers and instrumentalists to create the best sound for each work. As you may know, this sort of polychoral music creates a whole host of problems in creating two (or three, for the Ugolini) discrete and equal sonic territories. Malcolm also helped maintain an air of levity with his witty comments over the speaker and by other moments of whimsy, such as when he put a smiley-face in tape on the side of a piece of recording equipment (in the right foreground of the first picture above), which is a sort of self-portrait meant to keep us feeling happy. (Malcolm was trained as a choirboy, and I was shocked to hear him correct the soprano section at one point by singing their part properly, in their register.) The last night of recording, which lasted over four hours, happened to have been his birthday, and we sang an impromptu "Happy Birthday" to Malcolm, in full harmony, which was heartfelt.

More information will follow when the CD is released.

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