The Rhapsody Project

Thirteen Ways of Listening to a Recording Session (with apologies to Wallace Stevens): Wes Phillips

I The chapel is quiet. Early morning sunlight, tinted by stained glass, glares through the gloom. Golden dust-motes leap up at our entrance, flashing crimson, then cerulean as they dance among our rattling footsteps.

Silence is not emptiness, I muse, sitting in the deserted sanctuary. Even when still, the space is full of itself. The walls and roof are but a skin; what they contain is the thing itself.

II Hyperion Knight, drawn to the Steinway, begins to play, and the chapel seems smaller. There's a reason we refer to the loudness of a sound as volume: the sharp attack of the hammers seeks the boundaries of the space, even as the reverberation of the strings begins to fill it. As the other musicians enter, they too begin to play. The chapel is fuller, warmer, closer.

III The vestry is behind the choir loft, only 30' from the musicians but another world entirely. Our tables overwhelm it. Upon them we have set up three synched-together, two-channel, 96kHz Nagra-Ds and three 96kHz dCS Elgar D/A processors for monitoring, Stereophile's 44.1kHz four-channel Nagra with an Assemblage DAC-2 monitor processor, a fold-back microphone, two Stax amplifiers and three pairs of Stax and Sennheiser monitor headphones, two laptop computers, notepads, and an assortment of stopwatches, clocks, and pens. The room is cramped and stuffy, and—seemingly—miles away from the musical activity in the chapel outside.

IV As we position the microphones in the chapel, Natalie Brown photographs the proceedings, documenting them for this report. A violist, noticing Natalie carefully composing a shot of John Atkinson cabling the main pair of B&K cardioids, opines, "We don't need any shots of the sound guys."

V Recording is a process scarcely less collaborative than music-making. Throughout the afternoon, Hyperion and the other musicians pore over Rhapsody in Blue and the Preludes measure by measure, discussing note values, emphases, and each instrument's entrances. Since Joe Cea's arrangements are new, never performed, some of the discussions concern the handwritten scores, but they also hammer out compromises that second-guess Gershwin's intentions. If music is an art in time, then we must also consider that it is an art beyond time as well.

VI I enter the packed vestry. In a few hours we will begin recording arrangements that we have never even heard prior to this afternoon's rehearsal—in fact, we have yet to hear a complete performance of any of the four orchestrations. Arrayed around me is more equipment than we've ever marshaled for a single session—in addition to the two-channel 44.1kHz recording for this CD release, we're attempting to make what might be the world's first six-channel 96kHz recording, one day to release as a surround-sound high-quality audio DVD.

I catch John's eye and wonder if he's pondering the same question I am: What were we thinking?