Deep River: the Cantus Spirituals Project

When Cantus's artistic coordinator (and Stereophile reader) Erick Lichte phoned me in the summer of 2000 about my recording this Minnesotan male-voice choir, it didn't occur to me that I was entering a long-term relationship. But just as sure as 16-bit digital is not sufficient for long-term musical satisfaction, my first Cantus CD led to a second, and now a third. (All available from this website). For Deep River, I traveled to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where the city has spent millions of dollars to transform the downtown high school into a gloriously warm-sounding, state-of-the-art performing arts center.

My two earlier CDs of Cantus, Let Your Voice Be Heard and ...Against the Dying of the Light, are very different from each other. Voice is a lighthearted world-music romp, Light a moving progression through death, remembrance, salvation, and acceptance that pays homage to those killed in the 9/11 tragedy.

In contrast to both, Deep River explores the repertoire of the African-American spiritual. In the words of Erick Lichte:

"Our first goal was to present the spiritual in a way that takes the listener on a journey through the history of the spiritual from a compositional perspective, and in a way that mirrors the African-American experience in the US. The different compositional styles give insight into the roots of so much great American vocal and choral music. We also want to subtly trace the conditions encountered and endured by African-Americans, which spawned the jubilation, resignation, hardship, and hope present in these songs. The program of 16 songs is arranged into five suites, beginning with fast, upbeat songs to grab the listener's attention. It moves to louder, angrier music, then to slower songs, and finally to faster, upbeat music for a joyous end.

"Cantus is performing this music as American choral music, perhaps the American choral music. Our thesis is that the spiritual fell out of traditional liturgical use, replaced by gospel music during the early 20th century. The banner of the spiritual was then taken up by people like William Dawson, John W. Work III, Jester Hairston, and Harry T. Burleigh as arranged music for the classical singer, both in solo recital and for choral ensembles. These four men, whose arrangements are represented on Deep River, were classically trained musicians and composers. For most of these men, their purpose in arranging these songs was to, in their eyes, 'elevate' the spiritual by infusing this powerful folk music with more sophisticated compositional techniques in a spirit inspired by or akin to the Harlem Renaissance ideals.

"Cantus enters into this recording project with all of this in mind. As with any other music, singing the arranged spiritual requires understanding of its style, and we approach this music as classical singers in a tradition handed down from generations of other classical singers and choral musicians. We believe that singing this music requires great vocal technique, complete emotional commitment, and educated understanding of the style of the arrangers and the songs they set. We believe that legitimate, honest interpretations and performances can come from any singer who takes the time to truly learn the spiritual."

Let Your Voice Be Heard and ...Against the Dying of the Light were recorded in relatively small halls, which were appropriate for the chamber-scaled nature of the works. But presented with the magnificent acoustic of Sioux Falls' 1500-seat Washington Pavilion of the Arts & Sciences, the question facing me was how to present what are still fairly intimate works while taking advantage of that supportive acoustic. I therefore set up three pairs of mikes, all at different distances from the singers, to give the maximum flexibility when mixing the songs when I was back in the sanctuary of my listening room.

For my primary pickup, I placed two DPA 4011 cardioid mikes, set up as a quasi-coincident ORTF pair, 25' from the choir's center point, with the singers arranged in a shallow arc 22' wide. The cardioids would provide a basic well-defined stereo image, although, as is always the case with directional mikes used at a distance, their sound would be bass-light. A widely spaced pair of wide-bandwidth Earthworks QTC-1 omnis were placed to the sides of the DPA cardioids; these would add "bloom" and a better feeling of the size of the hall. Finally, I set up a second pair of omnis: high-voltage DPA 4003s mounted either side of a Jecklin Disc 6' behind the cardioids. These were angled at 45 degrees from one another. They produced a sound that was a little too "wet" to be used alone but, when mixed in with the sounds from the other pairs of mikes, would allow the apparent distance of the singers to be adjusted.

As the Washington Pavilion has an isolated sound booth at the back of the stalls, I set up my recording gear there, which gave me a good view of the stage. I also set up a monitoring system in an adjacent room, so the singers and producers could easily audition takes. As I have with all of my recent recordings, I captured the music with a sample rate of 88.2kHz and a 24-bit word length. The conversion to the CD's 16 bits and 44.1kHz sample rate is transparent, and the hi-rez originals can be used for a later DVD-Audio or SACD release.

The Earthworks omnis and DPA cardioids were amplified with low-noise Millennia Media HV3B solid-state preamps and converted to digital with word-clock-linked dCS 904 ADCs. The two sets of 24/88.2 two-channel data were temporarily stored on Nagra-D and Tascam DA-38 MDM recorders, respectively, the latter using a PrismSound MR-1024T "bit splitter" to spread the two-channel hi-rez information over all eight of the recorder's 16-bit channels. The four channels of music data were later transferred to hard drive as 24-bit AIF files.