During the recording sessions for Nico Muhly’s Drones & Piano, sometimes the piano bench squeaked. “Bench was loud,” I said, after a particularly squeaky take. Through my earbud, I heard the voice of engineer Paul Evans. “I rather like it,” he said. Paul wasn’t being entirely serious, but he was hinting (or poking fun?) at an approach to recording that resembles Dogme 95 or “Remodernist” films. As high technology allows us to achieve recordings of greater and greater surface perfection, maybe we don’t want it.
I was recording at Valgeir Sigurðsson’s Greenhouse Studios on the outskirts of Reykjavik. It’s a carefully curated studio where Bedroom Community‘s recordings are made. There’s very high technology there. At the same time, the overall aesthetic values the “human” — with attendant quirks and imperfection.
A few weeks before the recording sessions, I emailed Valgeir to ask what kind of piano would be in the studio. “Not a ‘concert piano’ by any means,” he responded, “but a charmingly characterful dirty old thing.” He was describing an antique Broadwood grand, fully functioning, and with a particular clarity or edginess of attack. The piano is heard in other recordings of Nico’s music, and much else.
It caused me to realize that all my commercial recordings until now were made using Steinway Ds — the 9-foot concert grand pianos that are a contemporary-classical-music-culture-constant. There are subtle differences among Steinways, but I’d never recorded with anything else.
Live music making is an important ingredient in most recordings. How much to smooth and regularize? How much to conceptualize or apply post-performance insight?
Dave Hickey maintains that good rock music engages us because of many levels of fault. “Glitch music” can be based on errors, unwanted artifacts from recordings — fleeting accidents cherished. Simple or elaborate cooking can make things delicious. At least sometimes, some foods taste better raw.