Borletti-Buitoni Trust
18 October 2010

Houston, we have a recording!

by Joshua Hopkins

Houston.  Late May, 2010.  3 p.m.

Over a year has passed since I have recorded my debut disc, and the copy of the first edit arrives in the mail.  The contents of this small package represent hours of Johanne’s creative wizardry, having assembled all of the material we recorded into one cohesive, non-stop recital.  I admit it has been a long while since I have given the disc much serious thought, as it has been a busy season of exciting opera and concert performing projects, including a variety of role and company debuts.  A release date of October 26, 2010 has been decided upon, but there is much to be done before this puppy appears on shelves or is beamed onto the Internet.  I feel a churning mixture of nerves, excitement, dread and hope in my stomach as my shaking fingers begin to clumsily open the manila envelope.  It’s time for an initial listening session all the way through, no stopping and no specific judgments or critiques.  I load the disc into my CD player and crank up the volume on my surround sound system.

Over the course of approximately one hour, I laugh, cry, cringe, breathe deeply and hold my breath for long stretches of time.  The experience of listening to myself is akin to what I imagine floating weightless in a padded cell might be like.  My ears and brain remain very focused and my body seems suspended in some kind of stasis.  Oxygen is limited.  My neck becomes stiff.  On occasion, my hands will mold and shape the musical phrases as I hear them, floating along invisible waves of sound.  I want to control what I hear, but I am helpless to satisfy that part of my personality, knowing that the full extent of my contribution to the final product ended over a year ago.  As the last song fades out, I take a breath and sit back on the couch.

Overall, I am full of joyous satisfaction.  Every hour of effort and thought that was put into the repertoire’s preparation was worth it.  The song sets relate well to one another and flow together with ease; my feeling is that it’s a very “listenable” disc, and not just to the art song appreciative elite.  I am particularly proud of the Canadian set by Srul Irving Glick.  Some songs move me to tears while others make me wish I had another ten years of vocal technique behind me.  But what can I do about that?  This disc represents a snapshot of my capabilities over a span of three days in May of 2009.  I have no regrets about my artistic output during those three days and know I gave the best effort I could.  What I find hard to accept is recognizing the kind of treatment I could give the songs at this very moment, now that I have another year of vocal maturity and technical development in my pocket, with the understanding that the disc will be released several months from now.  In the Fall of 2010, I shall willingly supply the mass market with a product that represents me from a year and a half ago.  I find myself realizing that patience is a virtue I openly allow others, but rarely grant myself.

Houston.  One Day Later.  May, 2010.  1 p.m.

Thus begins the nitty-gritty editing with the fine-toothed cochlear comb.  To be honest, much of the editing was already accomplished during the recording process, given the fact that if we were unhappy with what we heard in the editing booth, we could simply step back out into the hall and do another take.  My wife, Zoe, and I prepare the necessary materials for an afternoon adventure, including a copy of the music with numbered measures for easy reference, laptop for easy note-taking, remote control and plenty of water.  We decide to focus on a few key topics while we listen to each song individually.  These include:

1) volume balance between voice and piano;

2) overall dynamic levels, and how they reflect the composer’s intended dynamic markings;

3) noticeable mistakes, pitch problems or audio glitches (such as loud page turns) that might be fixed in an alternate take.

After a considerable amount of time exhausting the buttons on the remote control – pausing, rewinding and fast-forwarding – we end up with about a page of notes that look something like this:

“Around m. 31 – m. 32 (or minute 1:53) there is an audible page turn.”

“Is there a better take for “gone” in m. 58? – the note doesn’t last the full measure and sounds shallow.”

Our considerable task is finished for the day, so it’s time for a celebration!  Wine and cheese, please – hold the cheese.

Houston.  Early June, 2010.  4 p.m.

Today’s challenge is to decide the order in which the song sets should be arranged, to provide the listener with an emotional journey while keeping musical relationships between composers in balance.  The most important considerations are how a song cycle begins and finishes, the key relationships between the final song of the previous cycle and the first song of the following cycle, and the general mood that the end of one cycle will leave the listener feeling.

It was always my intention to begin the disc with the Songs of Travel, so after experimenting with different juxtapositions by playing the final song next to the first song of each of the other cycles, decisions begin to be made.  One could analyze ad nauseam all of the thematic relationships that this program shares, but for me it is most important to outline the arc of the narrator’s life story, and the disc order I end up choosing accomplishes this idea clearly.  The wandering, young vagabond depicted in the Songs of Travel encounters an entire lifetime of experiences through the overall story, and the narration even delves into his afterlife within the Barber songs.  A final order is chosen and I am extremely satisfied with how it all fits so well together.

Santa Fe.  Early June, 2010.  11 a.m.

One must never forget that two musicians performed the music generated on this disc.  I receive Jerad’s list of editing comments by e-mail today and compare them to my own.  Surprisingly, there are a number of different issues that Jerad has discovered.  This is most likely because we were each concentrating mostly on our own performances while listening.  Out of curiosity, I ask Jerad how he listened to the recording, and I learn that he used headphones for his editing process.  This raises a huge topic of discussion for me and begs the question:  “How does the audience listen when they are listening to my disc?”  I chose to listen without headphones because I thought that might be how most people would experience my recording, but I could be completely wrong.

With the advent of mp3 players and the ability to electronically purchase the songs, there are several ways that an audience could hear it.  One could even choose to pop the CD into their car’s player and listen while driving.  Personally, I refuse to listen to classical music while driving, since the diverse range of dynamics makes it difficult to enjoy due to road noise.

With these thoughts in mind, is it necessary then to tailor my editing process for a specific audience?  Is it my responsibility to understand how the bulk of my audience will listen, and does it make any difference in the end?  Ultimately, I choose to enjoy my recording in an acoustic environment that does not involve headphones, because that is how I like to enjoy classical music – the closest way to mimicking a live concert environment.

Santa Fe.  Mid-July, 2010.  4 p.m.

Based on an idea that my wife had many months ago, my disc is now officially titled, Let Beauty Awake.  This title is borrowed from the second song of the Songs of Travel, and I feel it expresses the heart of what the disc’s theme is all about – the narrator’s intimate appreciation of nature and admiration of the natural world that surrounds him.

Santa Fe.  Early August, 2010.  11 a.m.

I receive an e-mail from ATMA which contains not only the mock-ups of the front and back covers, but also the first version of the booklet that will accompany the disc.  I am excited by the layout and graphic design, and can’t wait to see all of this encased within that unmistakable rectangle of plastic which will house my CD.  Apart from the song texts, included in the booklet there are some very insightful program notes written by Richard Turp, as well as some rehearsal pictures from our recording sessions.  I begin to edit the booklet text, poring over the song texts and prose to find the slightest hint of a mistake, and with the combined effort of ATMA, my manager and my wife we can only hope to have found any and all glitches.  I enjoy the editing process, because it reflects very much on how I run my life – as organized and as planned as possible with no desire to let any mistakes run wild.

Santa Fe.  Mid-August, 2010.  2 p.m.

The second edit of my recording arrives in the mail today and I can’t wait to hear the results of further editing work by Johanne, based on our comments.  Since I’m away from home, I choose to listen to the recording using headphones connected to my laptop, so that I can focus on the specific changes that were requested.  Once again, I’m amazed at how seamlessly Johanne is able to fix certain things, and am very pleased with the results.  The recording I hold in my hand will now serve as the final master version!

New York City.  October 12, 2010.  4 p.m.

In the midst of rehearsals for my New York City Opera debut in Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, I take a moment to reflect on this entire process of making a debut recording, from its very beginnings in seeking out a label with whom to record, to today.  Two weeks from today, my CD will be available for purchase, to coincide with my performances here in New York.  It has been a long road full of ups and downs, but like anything worth doing in life, it can’t always be candy-coated.  I feel confident with the product that ATMA is releasing, and I certainly hope it will take its listeners on a journey away from their everyday lives and into the musical landscapes that have so inspired me.

Read the earlier instalments of Joshua Hopkins blog charting the journey towards making a CD.  “Why make a recording?” and “Breathing into Freedom: An Afternoon Session with Patsy Rodenburg”

Listen to excerpts from the CD “Let Beauty Awake” on Joshua Hopkins’ pages at