by Joshua Hopkins June 29th, 2009


Why make a recording?

In early May of 2009, I recorded my debut solo disc with pianist Jerad Mosbey in the beautiful Charlevoix region of eastern Québec. I was privileged to join the roster of ATMA Classique, an admirable classical recording label based in Montréal, headed by Johanne Goyette. I chose a program consisting of English language art song written by 20th Century composers from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. This repertoire continues to astonish me by its depth and beauty. The lead-up to these recording sessions required months (in many cases, years) of preparation and countless internal mental battles, but the joy of making a disc and the arrival of a completed journey left me with a great sense of accomplishment. The following is a narrative that explores some of the troubled issues, concerns, discoveries, worries, and revelations that fought a hearty battle in my mind, during both the months leading up to the project, and the actual three days of recording.

 


Houston. Late January. 12 a.m.

It’s midnight; I’m brushing my teeth and the simplest of questions pops into my head. Why am I making a recording? What is the purpose of making a disc? There have been countless art song discs released over the past several decades, so what gives me the right to record most of the same material that has already been heard? Up until now, I have only seen this disc as a marketing tool, an official declaration of “Here I am, world!” to those people that aren’t able to witness my live performances. An unhealthy way to think of this rare opportunity, I know. The dire state of the classical music recording industry and its shrinking audience can be felt everywhere, and I should be thanking my lucky stars that companies like ATMA Classique still exist and continue to fund projects. I go to bed questioning my modus operandi, with a hungry desire to answer this question that has surfaced.

Houston. Early February. 3 p.m.

I’m practicing a particularly difficult passage in one of the Canadian songs. I am thankful that, over the past three years since I first performed this group, my understanding of vocal technique has steadily improved. It is so much easier to sing these vocally challenging songs! I am reminded that when music I have previously learned and worked on is given idle time to rest, the return to this music is psychologically fresh and easier to sing than before. My confidence level rises as I realize I still have a good 3 months to work out the kinks and discover so much more joy and detail in this repertoire.

Houston. One Day Later. 11 a.m.

I am sitting at the dining room table reading through the poetry of one of the American songs, attempting to decipher a deeper meaning in the words of Tennessee Williams. I am suddenly struck with the vivid image of a cranky, aging musicologist poring over the song scores in a dusty, darkened room while he listens to my disc after it has been released. Horror and fear seep into my thoughts as I become overly self-conscious about the interpretative decisions I make. Here are some of the critical musicologist’s thoughts that plague my imagination:

“Well, that’s a poor tempo choice. Completely off the mark and no relation whatsoever to the composer’s wishes.”

“Hopkins is not paying any attention to the indicated dynamics. That phrase could have been more pp than was delivered.”

“I am missing any sense of emotional thought behind the text. Hopkins has obviously not done his homework.”

I am starting to freak out that I am making poor choices for this music. Every critical review that I can imagine coming out after my disc’s release is negative. Self-esteem is at an all-time low and I feel like I’m sinking in a vat of quicksand. Next week I am meeting with Jerad to rehearse these songs, and I hope that I can find my way out of this funk.

Chicago. Mid-February. 1 p.m.

Jerad and I consider the meaning of life.I am beginning a rehearsal session with Jerad in his studio. I am excited to collaborate once again with my reliable ‘partner in crime’ and to explore new pathways of interpretation for this music. The bulk of this program we have performed in public recitals, so revisiting this repertoire is like catching up with an old friend. Jerad and I share a very similar musical vocabulary, and our collaborations are always effortless. When we arrive at the American set, we share our concerns about adjusting the marked tempo. Although one of our primary concerns is to reproduce the accuracy of the score, the argument can be made that for interpretative purposes, the tempo should reflect how we feel about the song, or how it illustrates the song’s hidden message. We do, however, take great care to ensure that the tempo relationships within the song remain intact. The decision to slightly alter the initial tempo brings back the haunting memory of the brooding musicologist, who might happen to have a metronome on his study table. ENOUGH! Right there and then, we decide that we must shed all apprehensions about how our performance will be interpreted in the musical world by other people, and focus all of our attention to bringing as much passion, joy and colour to the music as possible.

New York City. Late March. 10:30 a.m.

I’m walking to work along Broadway, experiencing the commotion, sounds and smells of Manhattan as it sheds its winter coat. I’m thinking about how I’ve been away from my disc repertoire for the past few weeks due to my operatic obligations, and how anxious I am to get back to it. I’m also pondering the issue of trust between singer and pianist. One of the most important things that a pianist and singer can share in performance is communication, which helps us to breathe together, begin and end phrases together and ultimately think together. Pianists have often told me that I am easy to follow, but now I start to wonder if I am overcompensating in my mind, worrying about making sure that we are together in the moment. Although I trust entirely in Jerad’s musical ability and sensibility, on some subconscious level I feel as though I concern myself too much with our unity when we are making music, rather than letting our seamless teamwork happen naturally. Is my subconscious, distrustful behaviour inhibiting my freedom and taking me out of the music? It’s a difficult concept to explain in words, but I do feel like it’s an important issue to address. I promise myself that when Jerad and I get together for the recording sessions, I will try not to control our unity, but rather concentrate on the text and try to get lost in the drama.

New York City. Mid-April. 4 p.m.

Jerad and I consult on musical choices.I am finishing a run-through of half of my disc program, and am feeling completely confident vocally and dramatically. I am looking forward to the physical freedom that a recording will allow. There will be no suit and tie, no audience; I will have the freedom to close my eyes whenever I want, make any hand gesture or strange face that I care to make in the moment. I could make the recording in my pajamas if I wanted to and no one would know the difference!

New York City. One Week Later. 3 p.m.

I’m in the middle of singing a portion of my program in the apartment and my wife is working with me. (She’s my teacher and coach on the road.) I get caught up thinking about the flexibility of tempo in a song, and how I don’t feel the freedom to express myself artistically because of how it might be perceived. Lo and behold, my favourite visitor to my psyche, the spooky musicologist, is back to wreak havoc on my self-confidence. I express my concerns to my wife, and as always, she is able to diffuse any worry I might have. The truth is, I have no control over what others may think of my recording. I can’t make everyone in the audience love me, no matter how much work I put into my projects, and I can’t be concerned with their opinions (or in this case, their fictional opinions). The only thing on which I can focus is the work itself.

Houston. Late April. 6 p.m.

It’s one week to go before the recording. I am in the middle of a voice lesson, singing through the disc repertoire. My teacher is impressed with how everything is sounding and has very little to say or to improve, which means that I have done my homework. I couldn’t be happier.

Toronto. May 1st. 1 p.m.

Three days before I start recording. I am finishing up final preparations before I travel to Québec. This involves marking all of the measure numbers throughout each song for easy reference, making copies of the music for Johanne, and planning an outline of what I want to record during each day. In general, my low range is stronger earlier in the day, so I plan to record songs that dip into the lower register at the beginning of the sessions. I also want to make sure that some of the most difficult songs are recorded early in the process so that I can get them out of the way. It’s hard to believe in a very short amount of time I will begin the actual recording!

St. Irénée, Québec. May 3rd. 4 p.m. Day Before Recording.

The residencies at Domaine Forget, nestled along the majestic St. Lawrence coastline.Yesterday we arrived at our comfortable lodging nestled in the hills along the glorious coast of the St. Lawrence River in Eastern Québec. We are housed in a comfortable, modern dormitory-style apartment complex with breathtaking views of the rolling hills and coastline. The location is part of the vast Domaine Forget estate, where the Domaine Forget International Music Festival beckons music fans during the summer months. Jerad and I are finishing up a run-through of the entire program in a rehearsal room and I am careful not to sing everything with my full voice, since we have a long three days ahead of us. All of our material feels comfortable, engaging and well prepared. My voice feels in very fine form, and it is without a doubt that the majestic country setting is benefiting the quality of air I inhale. I look forward to a restful night of sleep in the comfort of quiet.

Baie-Saint-Paul, Québec. May 4th. 8 p.m. First Day of Recording.

The view from my perspective.We have reached the end of the first day, and Jerad, my wife and I are having dinner at Restaurant Le Mouton Noir in a tourist town about a half hour east of St. Irénée. Reflecting on the first official day of recording, our tone is generally a positive one. We are happy about the work we did, but are also aware that we are slightly behind schedule, a factor that we could not control. Here is how the day played out:

I wake at 9 a.m. after a great night’s sleep. I dress, head outside in the stiff Charlevoix air for a quick jog around a field, and head back inside for some calisthenics, yogic sun salutations and stretching. After a hearty breakfast of oatmeal, eggs and fruit, I warm up in the confines of the bedroom, a process that begins with breathing exercises followed by vocal scales. Forty minutes later, my wife and I head down to the Françoys-Bernier Concert Hall, the grand location for our recording sessions. Jerad is already in the hall practicing, and we are looking forward to an exciting day of music making, scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. Johanne informs us that we will have to delay our sound check, because there is a technical problem with one of the cables. The sound engineer and technical wizard, Carlos Prieta (a fellow McGill University grad, I might add) is busy soldering a complicated-looking cable in the next room. So, we wait.

Unfortunately, the intricate repair takes longer than expected, and the initial surge of nervous energy with which I entered the hall diminishes. My morale drops as I begin to get nervous about the precious time that is slipping away. Finally, we begin the sound check, as all of the equipment is ready. I am conscious of not wanting to sing out too much during this process, to save my voice for the real thing. We are asked to perform songs that test our dynamic range from intimate to loud. After a few takes, we enter the adjoining studio room to listen. I find my voice is being recorded with too much of a steely sound, missing the depth and warmth that I would like to hear on playback. The voice microphones are switched, we sample some more songs, and I am amazed at the difference in quality of sound between the two sets of microphones. The new ones capture my voice really well and after a few more adjustments are made, Jerad and I record our first song. We’re off to the races…unfortunately now it is time for lunch.

Jerad and I in sessionOur second session begins mid-afternoon, and although we are disappointed having only recorded one song earlier in the day, our spirits are high to get back to it. In general, we only need one or two full takes of each song to capture the essence of our performance. Occasionally a particularly difficult section might require beginning the take in the middle of the song. Jerad and I are completely blown away by the sound engineer’s ability to splice together the different passages, especially in such a live, acoustic environment. By the end of the session, I am surprised that my voice is able to weather the long afternoon without tiring; it is only my mind that is the tired one! I am losing focus and becoming slightly giddy, and this is a sign it is time to stop.

St. Irénée, Québec. May 5th. 7:30 p.m. Second Day of Recording.

My voice is on complete rest for the night, but my mind speaks a thousand words a minute in worry. My voice, body and mind are worn out after two long sessions of intense concentration and focus today. What will happen tomorrow? Will my voice make it through the rest of the recording? What if I can’t finish in the three days we have allotted? It is so easy to get down on myself when my instrument is tired. My voice lives inside my body, so there are many factors that contribute to its successful operation. If my voice is exhausted, there is nothing I can do to fix it other than rest. It is a very helpless, lonely feeling that stings my core.

The Françoys-Bernier Concert Hall exteriorAlthough we managed to record a hefty chunk of the disc today, my worries began near the beginning of the second session after lunch, when my voice started to feel tired and slightly gravelly in the low to middle range. Over time, my mental focus steered away from the joy of music making, morphing into a concern of making it through the songs without any noticeable vocal fatigue. It required us to change our plan of recording order, so that tomorrow in the early session I would perform the remainder of the difficult pieces when my voice would be fresh.

St. Irénée, Québec. May 6th. 10:45 a.m. Final Day of Recording.

Making the tough decisions in the studio.My voice feels great this morning. After an evening of full vocal rest and a peaceful night of slumber, I am freshly warmed up and raring to go. I take care not to sing too many exercises, so that I don’t prematurely tire my voice. As we head down to the hall for our final sessions today, I am excited to rediscover the joy and love of singing. We have nine songs to go before we finish. This is totally doable.

La Malbaie, Québec. May 6th. 8:30 p.m. Post-Recording.

Jerad, my wife and I sit around a comfortable table overlooking the grandeur of the St. Lawrence coast. We are seated in La Pinsonnière, a fine regional restaurant housed in a Relais & Châteaux hotel, about a half hour west of St. Irénée. This constitutes our celebratory post-recording dinner, and we all feel it is well deserved. All three of us exhale a big sigh of relief. We have a complete disc ‘in the can’ following three days of an intense concentration the likes of which I have never experienced before. It is difficult to fathom that the project is over. So many hours, months, years of preparation leading up to this three-day event and suddenly, in a flash, our work is complete. There is nothing more that we can contribute to the final product. I think about the process and ask myself, “What did I learn?” Well, in the future I would want a longer stretch of time in which to record, possibly five days instead of three. My choice of such a dramatic, challenging program squeezed into one disc will inform smarter programming choices for possible future discs I may record. I reflect on the freedom that we had within the three days and the flexibility of the time we used. We could take breaks when we wanted and we recorded at our own pace. I can’t imagine the pressure one would be under recording with an orchestra, having to follow a union schedule!

I look across the table to Jerad and hold such admiration for the amount of work he put into this program, and the emotion and spontaneity he infuses into every musical gesture he plays. He is a perfectionist, much like myself, and that is one of the reasons we work so well together. I look to my right to my beautiful wife, who has traveled this entire journey with me, coaching me to be better in every moment, supporting me Johanne and I share a bonding moment.through the times when my mind wanted to sabotage my spirit, and being so invaluable as my ‘outside ears’ during the recording process. I think of Johanne and Carlos, on their way back to Montreal to begin another project tomorrow, how dedicated they are to their craft and how talented they are in what they do. I can’t wait to hear the results of the first draft once it has been put together. I ask myself the same question that I did way back in January: “Why make a recording?” This time, I can’t think of any reasons not to.

Read Joshua Hopkins’ blog update 18th October 2010 “Houston, we have a recording!” and the earlier instalment charting the journey towards making a CD, “Breathing into Freedom: An Afternoon Session with Patsy Rodenburg”