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Jaguar Songs - CC1026

On the Edge

Recording multi-tracked cello, by Nancy Green

A technique commonplace in the recording of popular music, multi-tracking is rarely used in the classical realm. My experience of making a CD involving this technology was as difficult and painstaking as it was exciting and gratifying. Perhaps the main challenge was to achieve a feeling of spontaneity even though the technical process was so slow and exacting.

The idea of recording the cello works of Venezuelan composer Paul Desenne came about after my student, Tulio Rondon, introduced me to Desenne’s fiendishly difficult solo cello work ‘Jaguar Songs’. Tulio brought the piece into lessons over the course of many weeks and months and as I became familiar with it I decided it would make an excellent recording project. The writing for the cello is both unique and unprecedented. Paul Desenne is an extremely accomplished cellist as well as a composer, which explains his sophisticated writing for the instrument and his intimate knowledge of what frontiers can be explored. For instance, the almost exclusive use of harmonics in the transcendent ‘Glass Bamboo Frog Consort’ for four cellos would be hard to imagine written by anyone but a cellist.

The project began with learning and recording Jaguar Songs, but it wasn’t clear at that stage what else would complete the CD. While lying awake one night I thought about the cello quartets and trios that Paul had on his website (performed in a 12-cello version by the wonderful San Bolivar youth orchestra cello section with three or four players on each part). I became very excited at the idea of recording the multi-cello pieces all by myself, layering one part on top of the other. The idea seemed sufficiently crazy that I thought it wouldn’t survive the cold light of day, but when it refused to leave my mind I called a friend at the recording studio at the University of Arizona to ask if this could work and his answer was a resounding ‘yes’! Little did I know at that point what I was getting into and what a painstaking process it would actually be, given the ferocious difficulty and complexity of the pieces! In retrospect I am grateful for my innocence at that phase of the project.

My first step was to become familiar with the works by listening to the only available performances, which were recorded live. However, the sound quality was muddy and everything blurred together. Consequently I felt I was ‘shooting in the dark’ when it came to interpretation. I tried to follow the dynamic markings impeccably, trusting that things would make sense as I slowly recorded, section by section. In fact, it was only after starting the recording process that I was able to understand how everything should work – I was discovering the music as I went along.

I was very excited by the piece called Pájaro-Guaracha for four cellos, with its sizzling Latin rhythms, so I chose to record that first, even though Paul had recommended starting with the simpler Aeroglifos (for three cellos). I certainly learned my lesson when I experienced how difficult it was to get the complex rhythms to line up perfectly! What I thought I could knock off in one or two evenings in the recording studio took innumerable sessions to complete.

To record multiple tracks, I first needed to familiarize myself with the use of a ‘click track’. The engineer would ask me for a tempo, set the click track to it like a metronome and then feed that through headphones, a technique very familiar to pop musicians but unusual for the classical artist. When tempi needed to change within the same piece the click track would be reset. I found out quickly that headphones hit the cello pegs and the microphones would pick that up, so ear buds worked best for the click track. Trying to play my best while reading music (I am used to performing and recording from memory) and trying to line up extremely accurately with the click track was hugely challenging. On top of that was the fact that most of the time I was recording a voice that was subordinate to another voice, but everything needed to mesh perfectly in articulation and dynamic.

Another major consideration was what order to use in layering the different cello voices. The trick that usually worked best was to lay down the line that had the most moving notes first, since in the simpler parts one could more easily place the slower notes correctly within the more complex line.

When the going got tough in the studio, owing both to the painstaking process of multi-tracking and to the extremely demanding cello writing (e.g. difficult-to-speak harmonics marked forte, or a battuto bowing that was next to impossible to line up with the click track…), the engineers and I had our share of jokes to keep ourselves going. But now that the project is complete, I hope that the reader can put aside the technical details that I’ve related in this article and enjoy the music with a fresh ear. All that remains is the genius of Paul’s Desenne’s writing for cello, shining through in all its colourful richness.