Someone finally understood you. This is what music is about.
Gerard Arthur Way
Gerard Arthur Way
Yes, the weather’s done turned cold again, and as I write this I’m about to head out on the road on my annual Christmas tour, this year comprising ten concerts (or twelve, if you count the two that are each two shows in one day) ranging from Maryland to Florida. Which means, for me, it’s time to be listening to Christmas music to get me in the right headspace and give me ideas. I grew up in a home full of record albums (remember those? – oh, right, they’re coming back now, aren’t they), and this time of year there were plenty of Christmas albums to choose from. Most of which, admittedly, were kind of on the treacly side, but there were always a few good ones mixed in too…
As the years have gone by I’ve kept my eyes and ears open for Christmas albums that agreed with my particular musical tastes, and I’ve gradually acquired quite a collection, which among other things served me well providing inspiration and guidance in putting together my own holiday CDs, A Guitar for Christmas and Christmas Eve is Here. So whenever I’m asked what some of my favorites are, I always feel like asking how much time do you have? But if I absolutely had to narrow it down to a handful of Christmas albums I’d take to a desert island, my list might look something like this (this year, anyway; it shifts around slightly from year to year):
In no particular order:
J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio. Quite possibly my single favorite musical work ever. I’ve got two incredible recordings of it, one by the New London Consort conducted by Philip Pickett and the other by Collegium Vocale Ghent conducted by Philippe Herreweghe (both of which have Michael Chance as the countertenor soloist, interestingly enough), and I can’t decide between them so I’m taking them both. Is that cheating? Well, too bad. My desert island, my rules.
Al Petteway and Amy White, Winter Tidings. Two of my best friends and two of my favorite musicians. Nobody else blends Celtic, folk, classical, “new age” and original ideas on a roomful of acoustic instruments the way they do.
John Fahey, Christmas Guitar Volume One. The late pioneer of “American Primitive” fingerstyle guitar had his greatest success with his 1968 Christmas album The New Possibility, of which this is mostly a re-recording, but after much thought and comparison I have to say I like this version better. Way cool folk/bluesy solo guitar interpretations of favorite carols that are brilliant in their simplicity, concluding with a mysterious slide version of “Silent Night” straight out of the Mississippi delta swamps.
Steve Baughman, Old World Christmas. And while we’re on the subject of great solo guitar Christmas albums… Steve, of course, is another of my best friends and a longtime collaborator and partner in crime on the road, and I just love the way he plays the guitar, whether Christmas carols or anything else. So, an album of Steve playing Christmas carols – what’s not to like?
The Robert Shaw Chorale, Christmas Hymns and Carols, Volume One. One of my favorite Christmas albums growing up (I think my mom still has the scratchy, beat-up family vinyl copy). The standards, sung the way they should be by an impeccable a cappella chorus. Robert Shaw was in a class by himself as a choral director. This album actually exists in two incarnations, recorded in mono in 1946 and re-recorded in stereo in 1957, and after much hunting and some pure blind luck I finally tracked them both down on CD; the second one’s the better of the two but they’re both a joy. (And so is Songs of Angels by his later ensemble, the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, which might be easier to find.)
Chip Davis Presents Renaissance Holiday. Chip Davis is the man behind Mannheim Steamroller, who have several fine (and mega-popular) Christmas albums to their credit, but to my mind this one blows even them away. I don’t think Davis himself actually did anything on this album other than bankroll it as executive producer, but it’s a gorgeous collection of Renaissance carols and dances played by a half-dozen world-class instrumental ensembles.
David Lanz, Christmas Eve. I had a couple of David Lanz’s CDs of soothing solo piano music when I came across this one, not even knowing it existed, so I took a chance on it and boy am I glad I did. Pretty much the perfect solo piano Christmas album.
George Winston, December. …unless you count this one. Not exactly a Christmas album per se and not intended as such (I don’t think), but it paints an unforgettable sonic picture of a winter midnight, has enough familiar carols to make it onto this list, and is a time-tested classic, whatever you call it. My admiration for how perfectly this album is constructed and performed just grows more and more over the years. (I especially like the 20th anniversary edition with two extra tracks at the end – normally I’m not a fan of adding bonus tracks to an existing album, but in this case they complete the original beautifully.)
There are plenty of other great Christmas albums that I also love that might not _quite_ make it onto the desert island this year (how does one celebrate Christmas on a desert island? Decorate the palm trees?) but will sure be coming with me out on the road: Surrounded by Angels and A Winter’s Night by Ensemble Galilei, Christmas Gifts by Jo Morrison, The Christmas Rose by Patrick Ball, Hammered Dulcimer Christmas by Joshua Messick, Evergreen by Butch Baldassari (RIP), Gifts by the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, A Quiet Knowing Christmas by Jeff Johnson, Brian Dunning and John Fitzpatrick, The Gift and Comfort and Joy by Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel, Wintersong by Paul Winter, A Windham Hill Christmas and A Windham Hill Christmas II (after that the series became somewhat more uneven but the first two are exquisite), Winterfall by Lee Spears and Donna Beck Michael, The Gift by Liz Story, Celtic Harp for Christmas by Lori Pappajohn, Colonial Christmas by Barry Philips and Friends…
Yep, there’s no need to settle for crap Christmas music – there’s plenty of good stuff out there.
I’ve loved Johann Sebastian Bach’s transcendently beautiful music all my life, but as a non-classically-trained steel-string guitarist and mandolinist I assumed for years that actually performing any of his work myself was out of the question. Then I acquired my first vintage Gibson mandolin, and vaguely remembered that Bach had composed for unaccompanied violin and for unaccompanied cello…and thought, that should be possible on mandolin, maybe I could learn one or two short pieces…and one thing led to another…
Quoting from the liner notes of J.S. Bach: Suites for Mandolin, Volume One:
“Transcription of music was a common practice during the Baroque era, and Bach himself was one of music history’s great transcribers, routinely transferring both his own and other composers’ work from one instrument or ensemble combination to another, modifying it as necessary in the exploration of different timbres and registers. Thus Partita No. 3 in E Major for solo violin also exists as Lute Suite No. 4 (with its Prelude showing up in a couple of cantatas as well), the trio sonata for two flutes and continuo is also Sonata No. 1 in G Major for viola da gamba and harpsichord, and so on, to the point that the legendary pianist and Bach specialist Glenn Gould spoke of Bach’s ‘sublime instrumental indifference.’ In the two-and-a-half centuries since Bach’s death, transcriptions and adaptations of his work have run the gamut from solo piano to full symphony orchestra, from saxophone ensembles to steel drum bands to jazz and rock groups (Jethro Tull’s 1969 hit ‘Bourée’ coming straight from the E Minor Lute Suite) and virtually every other imaginable instrumental setting. An interpretation of the unaccompanied Cello Suites on mandolin, an instrument similarly tuned in fifths and related to the lute, therefore seems a fairly logical choice; in fact, I would even venture to call it well within the spirit of Bach.”
After I got the Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1 more or less under my fingers on the mandolin, originally I’d thought that’d be it, but it was such an exhilarating journey that curiosity led me onward to try the next movement, the Allemande…and the next, and the next…and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. So over the course of the next few years, as I learned more solo Bach pieces on both mandolin and guitar, I was also immersing myself in all the books about Bach’s life and works and all the Bach recordings I could get my paws on. Gradually, a crazy idea began to form: would it be possible to learn and record all six Cello Suites, in their entirety, on solo mandolin? Had anyone even done that before? Chris Thile was famously (and sublimely) performing and recording the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin on mandolin, as was the Israeli mandolinist Shmuel Elbaz, but my digging hadn’t turned up any full recordings of the Cello Suites on mandolin (and still hasn’t…)
And before I knew it I found myself with a self-imposed musical Everest to conquer. But in the meantime it had been three years since my last solo CD (Christmas Eve is Here, which, granted, did include a brief multitracked Bach chorale), I was overdue for a new one, and there was no way I could think of tackling even the first half of the cello cycle and having a completed recording for at least another few years, so while continuing to study the Cello Suites and adapt them for mandolin I turned my attention back to my first instrument, the guitar, and began pondering possible directions for a new solo album. The blind Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan had long been a favorite of mine, and had lived at about the same time as Bach; I was also getting deeper into the Renaissance lute music of John Dowland, and thought that just maybe an album devoted to those three, interpreted on solo guitar, might be a rewarding project to take on while gradually learning my way around the Cello Suites on mandolin.
Quoting from the liner notes of Majesty and Magic:
“Bach, of course, needs no introduction as the supreme master of the High Baroque and one of the greatest musical geniuses who ever lived, whose thousand-plus catalogued works range from intimate solo suites to huge, sprawling passions and cantatas for full choir and orchestra. Carolan was his contemporary, though the two men had no awareness of each other, only sharing a few common musical influences such as Vivaldi. Carolan’s heritage was the tradition of the Irish bards, and the blind harper became the most celebrated of them within his lifetime, leaving a legacy of over 200 tunes for the Irish harp. The melancholy Dowland, who lived a century before the other two, achieved fame almost in spite of himself as a lute virtuoso and composer during the heady days of the English Renaissance, publishing bestselling books of lute songs and viol consort arrangements and ultimately becoming court lutenist to King James I. On the surface the three would appear to have little if anything in common as composers and musicians, yet I find similar threads running through all their work: a melodic grace that transcends the limitations of their various periods, genres and instruments, surprising harmonic and structural choices centuries ahead of their times, and most of all, emotional depth far beyond most other music of their age, or any other age for that matter.
“The immediacy of solo guitar seems to me ideally suited for journeying to the heart of this repertoire. The instrument becomes especially powerful and independent when its natural resonance is heightened through the use of altered tunings. […] The guitar is capable of evoking in turn Bach’s harpsichord, Dowland’s lute or Carolan’s brass-strung Irish harp, and a fascinating three-way conversation across centuries and cultures springs forth when the three masters’ music is set against each other’s.”
Thus it was that the CD Majesty and Magic came about – almost as a stopgap at first, yet it grew into one of my favorites (and from what I’ve heard, an audience favorite as well). And there I was, playing Bach on both steel-string guitar and mandolin, when just a few years earlier I’d thought his soundworld was forever off-limits to me as a player.
And interesting things were starting to happen: as I became more knowledgeable about Bach, and especially the Cello Suites, through my independent self-education, I was both feeling a responsibility to play them as faithfully to Bach’s intentions as I knew how, and at the same time developing more and more solid opinions about how I wanted to interpret them and what they could communicate through my performance of them from hearing the wide variations of possibilities on the many recordings I was devouring. Bach, perhaps more than most other composers, gives the musician a specific message to deliver, but almost total freedom within those boundaries as to how to say it.
Somewhere along the line I saw a video interview with banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck – another of us nonclassical folks finding a home in the world of Bach – in which he made a remarkable observation: it’s well known that Bach was a great improviser, and many of his compositions most likely grew out of his improvisations…which means that when one plays Bach, particularly the solo instrumental works, something of Bach’s own improvisation is literally passing through one’s fingers in the present moment, and that inevitably has an effect on the rest of one’s playing. Not too long after that I was on the road in England with Tom Paxton, and in the middle of one concert, as I played an improvised solo break on one of his songs, I realized that Bela was right: I wouldn’t have come up with just that melodic idea or pulled it off just that way had it not been for all the hours I was spending studying and playing Bach.
So now – though I would hardly presume to call myself a Bach specialist – I’m deeply enough immersed in his music that it’s become an integral part of what I do, along with the perhaps more expected traditional Celtic and Appalachian tunes (and the occasional foray into music of the Renaissance, or John Fahey, or the Grateful Dead, or…). I’m halfway through my long-term goal of recording all six Cello Suites on mandolin, with the release of Suites For Mandolin Volume One (the first three suites) in December 2016 joining Majesty and Magic on the Robin Plays Bach CD shelf, and there’ll be more to come, on both mandolin and guitar. And in live performance, not only has Bach become an essential element of the show – I’ve heard more positive audience feedback about that than just about anything else I’ve ever done, I do believe – I can now even offer a “Bullock Plays Bach” concert, a full evening devoted entirely to the Leipzig master.
Who’d have thought, back when I was ten or eleven and my piano teacher told me you can’t play Bach on guitar.
Most classical recordings are made in prime acoustic spaces like churches, recital halls, concert halls and the like. The conventional approach seems to be to set up two microphones (or one stereo microphone) more or less where a listener’s ears would be, the musicians do their thing, and what the mics hear in the room is what goes onto the CD. There’s typically no signal alteration after the fact such as equalization, compression, level adjustment or what have you, the idea being to capture the “authentic” sound as “purely” as possible. (Editing, though – lots and lots of editing, to fix mistakes or imperfections in the performance. That’s apparently not considered cheating, whereas all the other stuff is. More about that in a bit…)
And most non-classical recordings are made a very different way: in studios that are designed to be as acoustically “dead” as possible, soaking up all the echo and reverberation that one would hear in a church or a concert hall and leaving nothing but the initial sound produced by the instrument. This in theory gives the engineers and producers a sonic “blank slate” to sweeten any way they choose after the initial recording: through adding electronic reverb that can be completely controlled, equalizing (raising or lowering certain frequencies that aren’t in balance), compression (flattening out the dynamic range somewhat, so the loudest parts and the quietest parts aren’t quite so extreme), and even overdubbing additional instruments later on, taking advantage of multitrack recording and mixing capability. If what’s being recorded is an ensemble, from duo on up, the musicians are often separated from each other by thick foam baffles (or even in separate rooms) to keep instruments from “bleeding” into each others’ microphones, and the players hear each other through headphones. All of this, ironically, in the interest of creating as convincing an illusion as possible of actual performance in an acoustically friendly space – and even more ironically, I tend to be of the opinion that such an approach is usually more successful than the “purist,” straight-into-stereo-mics-in-a-concert-hall approach.
Well, I’ve done it both ways, many times, but for Bach Suites For Mandolin Volume One we didn’t do it either way…or rather, we did it somewhere between the two approaches, borrowing a little from each.
First of all, the entire project was a single instrument – suites composed for solo cello, being interpreted on solo mandolin – so there was no need for headphones, or more than two mics (one for each stereo channel). So far, not dissimilar to the purist classical approach: play normally, let the mics capture it, and Bob’s yer uncle. However: the space I chose for recording wasn’t a church, or a cathedral, or a concert hall – it was the downstairs room at Al Petteway and Amy White’s house on top of a mountain near Weaverville, North Carolina, where Al has his studio set up. Al and Amy and I have been the best of friends since forever and they’re two of my favorite musicians (and just generally all-around creative spirits), and among his many other talents Al is an expert recording engineer whom I’ve entrusted with many of my CD projects, so there was no question about where to record or with whom. Especially since a) I live only about half an hour away, b) there’s a beautiful view from up there, and c) they have the coolest dogs and cats that are big fun to play with. (Kip, their Australian shepherd, is the perfect studio dog: he was born deaf, as many Aussie shepherds are, and once he gets over the initial tail-wagging-jumping-up-and-down-oh-boy-oh-boy excitement of greeting a visitor, he settles down and goes to sleep on the studio floor – completely unfazed by take after take after take of the same piece of music.)
However, as relaxed a setting as that room is for recording, and it does have nice acoustics for an ordinary room in a house, it’s not acoustically resonant in the same way as a hall or church would be – so, we availed ourselves of the same sort of electronic sleight-of-hand that more conventional studios do: digital reverb added later to imitate the natural reverb of such a space, and equalization as necessary to make sure no frequencies were jumping out unnaturally. Once again, all in the interest of making it sound “real” and occurring in a beautiful acoustic space. The art of recording, after all, is ultimately the art of creating a convincing sonic illusion, and anything that allows us to make that illusion more convincing is fair game. (A philosophy I picked up from mastering engineer extraordinaire Bill Wolf, the other player on this project’s studio team.)
So, it’s all an illusion, yet it really is me playing, and that really is how it sounds when I play it – except it’s just right, because we can do that.
As it happened, I recorded Suite No. 1 a couple of years before Nos. 2 and 3 – other projects came up in between, and along the way I acquired several more vintage Gibson mandolins and decided to use a different one for each suite. I also learned, from the experience of recording the first suite, not to take on too much in one day or on successive days – solo Bach, even the easier movements (if there are any) is ungodly demanding on the hands and arms, especially if you’re recording many takes, and after pushing myself through long days recording the first four movements of Suite No. 1 my hands were tingling and my arms aching so badly I had to take a week off and get some massage on my arms, hands and shoulders to be able to finish the suite. (And here’s another example of using studio trickery to our advantage: by the time I was able to record the last two movements, the tone of the mandolin and the sound of the room had changed, infinitesimally but perceptibly – as they naturally do, with changes in air pressure, humidity and so forth – so we used a bit of EQ to make the last two movements tonally consistent with the first four.)
From that I learned: don’t try to do too much at once. Yet the six movements of a suite did have to be recorded as close together in time as possible, for the aforementioned reasons of sonic shift, so for each of the other two suites on Volume One, I booked six consecutive days with Al, one for each movement. Drove over each morning, a lovely scenic ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway to get me into a serene headspace, spent a couple of hours knocking out take after take of that day’s movement, called it a day, came back the next day and repeated the process. This turned out to be a wonderfully civilized approach; it allowed me to focus fully on that day’s particular movement, remain calm and relaxed, and not hurt myself physically through over-exertion.
Then I took my time listening to all the takes and deciding which were the best bits to splice together, again to create the illusion of a single, flowing performance, and Al and I reconvened when I was ready and made all the edits in another series of intense, but slightly less terrifying, sessions. (Before you fault me for cheating in such a way, just know that virtually every CD in your collection, at least after a certain point in about the 1960s, has plenty of this kind of “fixing.” The legendary pianist Glenn Gould, a pioneer of editing in classical recordings, maintained that the number of edits on a recording was of no more consequence than the number of revisions to a book or the number of stagehands backstage at a play, and I’m with him. Once more: it’s all about creating a convincing illusion when all is said and done. But can’t you hear the edits?, you ask…nope, not if it’s done right. With digital editing it’s possible to create crossfades as short as 1/100th of a second between different takes, way beyond what even the sharpest human ear can perceive.)
And there you have it. Nothing to it, really.
Tech notes, for those who care: Al used a matched pair of Sennheiser MKH40 microphones running through API preamps into a MOTU 828x thunderbolt interface, and finally into the computer using Digital Performer 8 software for recording and editing. The mics were in what’s called an “X-Y” placement (the mics crossing at a 90-degree angle, each at about a 45-degree angle to the front of the instrument), about two feet in front of the mandolin. Reverb was added during the mastering stage, and was a digital sample of the actual reverberation shape and rate of Santa Cecilia Auditorium in Rome – so in a way, what you hear on the CD is indeed the sound of me playing the suites in the gorgeous acoustics of that hall, even though I actually did it at Al and Amy’s place on the mountaintop, with Kip curled up at my feet.