There Lies the Disc, the making of the new Cantus CD The Sessions 2

At 1:06pm, almost precisely on schedule, we slated take 1 of "Shenandoah." At 1:44pm, in the middle of take 11, we heard the first pile driver through the omnidirectional mikes, with their extended low end. It goes without saying that the next song scheduled for recording was Sting's quiet "Valparaiso." "You can filter that out," Erick said to JA, "can't you?"

"No problem," said John through clenched teeth. That's another part of recording strategy, at least as taught by John Atkinson: The musicians must never know that what they are asking is impossible. They make the music; the engineer makes it sound right.

After nailing "Valparaiso," we decided to deviate from the schedule and break for dinner early in hopes of coming back to record after the road crew was done for the day. That strategy worked, and we reconvened at 7pm to record Alice Parker and Robert Shaw's arrangement of "Lowlands." Or that was the theory—one of the Metric Halo boxes didn't at first lock to the dCS master converter, so we spent 15 minutes coaxing it to. We finally got 45 measures of "Lowlands" recorded, and the group called a meeting. Afterward, and after a quick run-through focusing on attack, we got a second take of those measures that was far more together—and far more energetic, which meant that the first take was essentially unusable for edits.

Things ran smoothly until 8pm, when WWIII broke out outside. We rushed to the lobby doors and were dazzled by a prairie-style gully-washer of a thunderstorm. It simply wasn't possible to fix that in the mix, so we waited it out. Refreshed and juiced, the group nailed "Lowlands," then attacked Tormis' Incantatio maris aestuosi in 16 takes in less than an hour.

Day Two: Tuesday
Tuesday morning began auspiciously. Ha! First, the computer wouldn't recognize the DACs, then John spent nearly an hour chasing down a hum in one microphone channel, which necessitated first a switching out of cables, then of preamplifiers. Once recording began, the group burned through the works featuring pianist Charles Kemper—"Sea Fever" and Stanford's Songs of the Sea, Op.91: "Drake's Drum," "Outward Bound," "Devon, O Devon," "Homeward Bound," and "The Old Superb"—who was only with us for the one day. There were no disasters or dramas. An uneventful day—meaning that Cantus was performing at the top of its level and the recording gods seemed temporarily appeased. This, of course, was deadly for John's cuticles—he strongly believes that only through creative worrying can disaster be kept at bay.

Day Three: Wednesday
John apparently forgot to worry about baritone Adam Reinwald's health. Adam caught a cold, which dropped his range and necessitated some scrambling of the schedule in the hope that, by the last day, he'd be able to hit his notes. (Trouper that Adam is, he was and he did.) Wednesday, however, was a busy day, and we escaped serious catastrophe. When we broke for dinner, we discovered that Sioux Falls had scheduled a classic car show along its downtown shopping district, and we all wandered around gazing at beautifully restored jalopies. Little did we suspect that this show would prove significant.

Back from dinner, John and I met Edie Hill, who had dropped by to hear Cantus record her two compositions. She charmed us almost as much as her music did. "A True Heart Is Waiting" is flat-out beautiful—deep and tuneful and full of mystery that resists your knowing it too well. Although Cantus had only had three weeks to master it, they were cooking—right up till sunset, when we heard what sounded like mortar fire downtown.

It was the classic car parade, accompanied by some glass-packed Harleys and a whole sky full of fireworks. We all strolled out for a Starbucks break, and by the time we'd returned, silence had fallen on Sioux Falls and we could resume recording. One more day and we'd be through.

Day Four: Thursday
June 23 was slated to be a busy day, and as much as I wanted to get on the road on Friday, I couldn't see how we could get everything we had left to do recorded in just two sessions. Yet the group burned through Muistse mere laulud, which is incredibly difficult, as well as Peter Schickele's "Jonah's Song," "Rio Que Pasas" (for a future CD), and Alan Dunbar's arrangement of Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

This last called for Alan to play guitar and Mira Frisch to join in on cello (as she did later that evening for Brian Arreola's setting of Tennyson's "Break, Break, Break"). Setting up the extra mikes kept John running to the stage from the recording booth at the back of the hall, changing mike positions and setting levels. After about five trips, JA began swearing, "Every time I think I have the spot mike on the cello right, it changes on me." He looked out the booth window and realized why. Every time he moved the DPA 4006 closer to the cello, Ms. Frisch, fearing she might knock it with her bow, moved her chair, which changed the cello's sound. This, too, was worked out.

But the fickle fates weren't yet done with us. Around take 12, I heard a low-pitched whooshing in my headphones. "Did you hear that? Did you hear that?"

"No," said John and Erick, who of course were listening for different things—tonmeister John for balance, artistic director Erick for performance issues. What I was hearing—what it was my job to hear—was the carpet cleaner outside the concert hall. Apparently the Pavilion staff had forgotten to cancel that for the evening.

"Great," muttered JA. "Just one more freaking thing I have to fix in the mix."

Days Five to Forever
Listen as hard as you like—that whoosh isn't there any more. It's fixed. Nor will you hear the tension, the thunder, the equipment malfunctions, or Adam Reinwald's cold. What I hear when I listen to There Lies the Home is an enchanting performance that freezes forever a single point in time—a point actually made up of many other moments.

That's not an illusion; it's magic.—Wes Phillips

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