Friday, July 10, 2009

The Recording of the 6 suites

This July, I recorded Bach's six suites and two "bonus suites", (in other words; 8 suites!), in 10 days!

I recorded the suites the same way that I had performed them in six concerts across Alberta in April and May:
Suites 1 and 4 on my 1870 Mirecourt,
Suites 2 and 5 on the baroque cello, tuned to A=415 (suite 5 with a scordatura, in this suite that means that the a string is tuned down to g),
Suite 3 on the Luis and Clark Carbon Fibre cello, and finally
Suite 6 on my lovely violoncello piccolo.
The 3rd bonus CD will be the 5th suite 3 times; on the baroque cello, the Mirecourt and the Carbon fibre, all with the scordatura.

Recording the six suites by Bach is the most difficult thing any cellist will ever do. Doing it on 4 cellos adds yet another dimension to it. The entire process is very exposed, very vulnerable. I feel very lucky that I had a recording engineer with whom I felt safe enough that I could allow myself to be just that.

The sessions were about 4 hours each. The interesting part is that it depended a lot on the instrument on how I felt afterwards.

(my Mirecourt cello)

In past posts you have read about the differences between the cellos, about their strengths and weaknesses and about the effect that has on the performer and the audience.

While all of that still holds true, I was now truly confronted with the instruments on a much more intimate level than ever before.

But before we get to all of that; let me describe a little bit of the recording process and the emotions that come with it.

I recorded at a fantastic, huge Catholic church which sits in a big field in the middle of nowhere just outside Edmonton.

(Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Spruce Grove)

The church was amazing for the occasion; the acoustics are perfect for unaccompanied Bach and it is completely quiet, so there is no traffic noise or other noise to interfere with the recording.

(a huge space with wonderful acoustics)

In all of his years recording, my sound engineer has never ever recorded in a quieter place and that includes Edmonton's amazing concert hall, the Winspear Centre.
Well...; except for the day when a next door farmer decided to mow his field...
Needless to say we quit early that day.

On the very last recording day, Edmonton had the very first, much needed, rain of the season. I had wished the weather gods had waited another day, because the church was not entirely leak proof, nor silent when it rained! It threatened to ruin our recording day and postpone it for who knows how long, but it slowed down, thank goodness, and we were able to finish the project.

The first day of recording, a Tuesday at the end of the school year, in the middle of my very last week of teaching, I played the first suite. I figured that would be a good suite to "get my feet wet". I played it on my Mirecourt and it went well. The instrument did what I needed it to do (and I guess so did I). I walked away from that day of recording very confident and pleased with myself.

Over the next few days I travelled to Toronto for a gig on Wednesday and Thursday, taught on Friday and Saturday and had all of my students play in two recitals (one for the younger ones and one for the adults) on Sunday.

(student recital)

Needless to say that life had gotten a little in the way of personal practice time and more importantly it got in the way of mental preparation time, of being able to completely focus on the huge task at hand.
I had decided that on the coming Monday and Tuesday, I would like to record, if possible, the 2nd and 5th suites, both on the baroque cello. Just two weeks prior, I had put a set of new strings on this cello, which I had ordered directly from Italy, where they are (hand) made.

On Saturday morning, eager to start practicing before my afternoon teaching got on the way, I opened the case, only to find that the C string had broken! In the 30-some years that I have played the cello, I have never broken a C string (this is the lowest, and fattest string) so it was a bit of a shock. But it being an authentic gut string; perhaps it was faulty. That could happen, right? Thank goodness I had ordered two strings, so I put on a new one, a little upset that I now had only a few hours to play it in before recording. It usually takes a few weeks to break in a gut string to its full vibrancy. My practice time was precious, and I now had wasted too much of it changing strings.

I taught the rest of that day and opened the case again on Sunday morning, anticipating a day of practice before my first student recital at 4:30.
Imagine my despair when I found yet another broken C string! Now I no longer had a good spare string, so I needed to try to tie a knot in this string. The C string is silver wound gut, and it had broken just above the tail piece (Which I suspect was a little sharp and thus cut the string, causing it to break). Tying a knot in a wound string is not easy. So I first stripped a bit of the silver winding off, then tied a knot, hoping it would not have made the winding so loose it would buzz. My quiet practice day was gone, I had to play the role of teacher the rest of that day and evening and I just hoped for the best on Monday.

A brief note about the strings: As far as I understand, the difference between an authentic wound gut string and a modern wound gut string is that the modern winding is flat and is lined with silk. The authentic gut winding is round and has no lining in between. That also means it could buzz against the winding when the string dries and thus shrinks. I have certainly had that happen in the middle of a concert in dry spaces. Old editions of cello methods, such asDotzauer , describe how to get rid of that annoying buzz; rub a drop of almond oil on the string. The string will expand and: voila, problem solved!

If you are curious how they are made, check out this website of the maker of my strings (after you are done reading the rest of this BLOG post of course):

Monday morning the C string was still fine and sounded pretty good also, despite being a new string. I went to the recording session tired and stressed. I performed the prelude of the 2nd suite, which I can play in my dreams and upside down if I had to. "This is a toughy" my engineer said. Oops! Not a good sign. I tried again. And again. This was much too hard work. We started the Allemande. After about two hours my engineer said "Hey; I have an idea! let's go home and try again tomorrow". Good thinking, indeed! We really had no usable material from this day.

(Let's go home!)

On Tuesday I went in a little less confident, wondering I was doing the right thing, recording these most difficult of pieces. I started with the Sarabande of the 2nd suite and immediately knew that it was going to be all right. But by no means was it easy!

After 3 hours I had the Courante, Sarabande, Menuets and Gigue to my satisfaction, but had no energy left for the Prelude and the Allemande. That would be Wednesday's task, in addition to, perhaps, the 3rd suite. I was emotionally so drained that I could not think straight anymore. Even when I spoke, the sentences came out slurred. This was definitely the hardest thing I had ever done.

As I said earlier, I feel I was very lucky with my recording engineer. Aside from being amazingly good with sound, he is a nice guy (that helps!) and musically very knowledgeable, critical and honest; he wouldn't hesitate to tell me what I need to do when I play it again, or to compliment me when it went well.

(this will be "easy" today)

The next day I decided I would start with the third suite on the carbon fibre cello, and if I had time, I could always go back to the 2nd suite.
That was a great idea. Minutes into the recording I knew it would be great. That carbon fibre cello sure does give me confidence! Every note came out like I wanted. Within two and a half hours we competed the third suite and I decided to give the Prelude and Allemande of the second suite another try.
I now realized how difficult the previous day had been because of the instrument. The baroque cello doesn't always speak when I want it to and it is much harder work. It also has much more depth, character, complexity. It is very hard to play it well according to current standards. With the confidence of just completing the third suite in record time, I played the Prelude and Allemande much to my liking and we were done in another 45 minutes.

(finishing the day on the baroque cello)

The hours on the carbon were emotionally much easier than the hours on the baroque cello. I found that the 45 minutes on the baroque cello took everything out of me, where 3 hours on the carbon didn't. I wonder if you will hear that on the recording. I played the third suite well, gave it the musical intention I wanted to, but was emotionally still strong after. On the baroque cello it was hard work to reach the level that I wanted and I was emotionally drained but very satisfied after.

The rest of the suites went much like that. The fourth took one recording day, after which all that was left to do was the Gigue, only because my muscles couldn't play fast in the brutally difficult extended position that the entire suite (in Eb Major) requires anymore. I had just spent 3 hours extending; that was it, my body said! I needed to play the gigue another day, when my left hand muscles were relaxed again.
The 5th suite on the baroque cello was hard work and took a day and a half.

The 6th suite on the piccolo was a lot of fun. The sound is so sweet! To capture that, it was a little closer mic-ed than the other suites. Again, this was more difficult than on the modern instruments; it took a session and a half to get it all down.

The second day on the 6th, I also recorded the Gigue of the fourth on my Mirecourt ("easy"!) and played once through some movements from other suites that I had felt not quite sure about. (Yes: I played 4 different cellos that day!)

Now I had all six suites "in the can" and the rest was going to be "gravy".

Remaining was the recording for the 3rd CD in the set; a bonus CD with the 5th suite played on 3 of the cellos. My initial concern was: am I going to play them so that I can show off/magnify, the strength of each of the cellos, and their weaknesses? And if so; how should I do that? That might mean I could play more "virtuoso" on the carbon, perhaps? Or would each of the instruments' qualities be obvious no matter what I did anyway?
I decided that I did not want to compromise the integrity of the suites, so I would interpret it, the way I feel good about.
Now here is the big question, which is what it has been all about for all of these months:

Is there a huge difference in how I perform something, depending on the instrument?
Or is there a difference in the final product.
Does the instrument play me as much as I play the instrument?
If there is a difference, does it really matter?
And... is one "better" than another??

(the Violoncello Piccolo)

I have so many answers to that. And even more questions.
One musician friend whose opinion I value greatly, said he really did not care which instrument I played; it was my music that spoke to him, no matter what the instrument. And, he added, whatever cello you play, unless you compare them directly, they all sound like you expect a cello to sound. When you do compare them, perhaps one would find himself more drawn to one instrument or the other, but in the end, it doesn't matter.

Some of that it true. But... doesn't playing Bach require gut strings and a baroque bow? Perhaps so. But I suspect that for someone like me, it really doesn't matter; I know what it feels and sounds like with that equipment, so I will try to channel my sound in such a way that I mimic that, even on a steel string or a carbon fibre cello. I grew up in an era and a country (the Netherlands) where music was performed in a manner that was consistent with the era the piece was written. That meant performing Bach on baroque instruments, or at least "stylistically correct", whatever that means.

It is safe to say that I could not play the Bach suites with many of the notes slurred, bow changes that are too smooth and lots of fast vibrato. I am not suggesting that it is wrong to do that (well; actually I do...), but it is absolutely not the way I like it.
In other words: no matter which instrument I play; I could not play it that differently.

Even so, I find that I played the 5th suite very different on each cello. As a musician, we respond to the strength and weaknesses of the instrument with our interpretation. We let the instruments play us somewhat.

I love the depth of my Mirecourt, so I while I play it and hit a low note I keep thinking; "O yeah!". It probably makes me linger there a little longer, or emphasize it just so. You hear that in the result, I think. The low F has a slight wolf-tone when you play it lightly, so any time I play that note, I have to play it quite deliberate, which, of course affects the interpretation too. Plus: this instrument has been my companion, for 20 years; we have some sort of a "love-affair" going on, that is bound to be obvious.

(On my Mirecourt for the recording of the 5th)

I like the crispness and ease of the carbon fibre, so in the fugue of the prelude, or the 2nd gavotte and in the gigue, I had great fun making use of that. I took the tempi of those movements a little faster, after all; on this cello I did not compromise clarity if I sped things up a little. I had assumed that the Sarabande of this suite, which is so peaceful and reflective, would be the least attractive on this instrument, because it responds so quickly. To my surprise though, it was amazingly effective on this cello...

(The 5th on the Carbon fibre)

I love the colour of the gut strings and the slightly husky voice on the baroque cello, so that makes me want to take advantage of that quality. I also like the difficulty on the baroque cellos; that "struggle" gives the music something that you can not easily reproduce on the modern instruments.

During the entire recording process, it has been interesting how I felt after a recording day depending on the instrument. As I mentioned before; I was much more exhausted after recording on the baroque instruments. The recording of the 2nd, 5th (baroque cello) and 6th (baroque piccolo cello) each took more than one recording day. On the modern instruments, only the fourth suite had one movement to be done after one recording day!

In addition to not getting the entire suite "in the can", I also was exhausted on the "baroque instrument days". More so than on the other cellos.
Does that mean the other cellos are better?
During the performances, or even at home practicing, I never felt that particular difference. So I have tried to figure out why it was so much more difficult during the recording.

(Piccolo Cello)

I suspect that it has to do with the level of "perfection" (I dislike that word!) that is required for a recording.
During a performance no one really notices (or at least most people don't really care) if one note in chord does not quite speak properly. As a matter of fact, if you noticed it in the first place, you'd probably have forgotten about it a moment later or at least not cared. But in a recording every note has to speak just right. And it still has to be musical. For me this meant that it required many more takes to ensure that I had enough material to work with.
And that's exhausting, because every take you do, you have to play the most beautiful and technically the best you have ever, ever, ever played. That is hard. And that is so much fun!!
Having said all of that; what have we lost in our search for "perfection"?

(The Baroque cello)

What will be the result?
I think will be obvious that it is all played by the same cellist; the larger musical lines are obvious (I hope!) and the ideas that I have of the structure of each movement will come through all of them in a more or less similar way. Aside from the fact that I interpret a piece somewhat differently every time I play it regardless of the cello, the biggest differences of the particular instruments are in the details.
A slightly quicker response on the carbon, more depth on my Mirecourt, more intimacy on the baroque.

Do I have a preference? Sure I do!!
But I am not going to tell.
My answer would probably be different tomorrow anyway...

I suspect that the opinion of the listeners will be as varied as the responses I heard after my concerts. It will range from enthusiasm to disgust for the carbon, from feeling strongly that it should have all been on the baroque cello to; "why not all on your Mirecourt"?

But really; all that really matters is BACH, right?!
It is the most amazing music, no matter the interpretation or the instrument!
Even after all of this, I am even more excited to continue exploring these suites. I suspect that, like all cellists, I will continue to do so until the day I die, or go senile.

The next big step for me will be listening, editing. It probably will be another 100 hours or so. I have 17 CDs of material to listen to in detail...gasp!.. I hope to be able to release the 3 CD set this fall/early winter. I will post a notice on my blog and on facebook but also keep an eye on my website:
If I have any discoveries while I listen to it all, I will certainly share it in my blog.
With my recording engineer, I will make an analysis of the sound, the overtones, the range of each instrument, make a graph, and that too, I will share here in a couple of months or so.

(The last CDs of the 17... I have work to do!)

This project is way too much fun, and still ongoing, as you see!
These projects are artistically necessary...unfortunately my line of credit isn't so happy...!
If anyone has any great funding ideas though, let me know!

It would be ultimate compliment if the listeners impression would be exactly like my friend's: It really doesn't matter which instrument it is played on; all that matters is that the music speaks to you.
Because music; isn't that what it is really all about?!

(The parish priest, a music lover and violinist himself)

A brief note about the microphone set up.
They were set at the same distance for the Mirecourt and the baroque cello.

Not too close to me, so that we would be able to record the amazing acoustics as well.

(Setting the microphones just right)

When it came time for the carbon fibre, I assumed it would be the same set up. Not so. Because the carbon fibre cello already sounds like it has a "built in re-verb", it was almost too much in that church. Listening through the headset you could hear the sound bouncing around inside the cello and then colliding with the acoustics of the church. He put the mics higher up, to catch the sound a little differently. That worked well.

(the microphones are initially much higher for the carbon fiber cello)

When I came back to the carbon fibre cello on the last day of recording, he set up the microphones exactly like he had for the 3rd suite. Since for every session the mics were set up according to exact measurements, he assumed it was good this time around too. But for the first time in 10 days of recording, he stopped me after a few bars and said: the sound is not right. It seems to be bouncing off something. One note in particular seemed completely unbalanced with the rest. Why this happened: who knows? It could be because of the scordatura (a tuned down to g), which makes the instrument resonate differently. It could be because of the humidity, which might change the air density, it could be a variety of factors. So the mics came closer and lower and more like they had been for the baroque cello and Mirecourt!

When we recorded the piccolo, the mics were much closer, to capture the intimacy of the instrument, which would have gotten lost if they were further away.


  1. Great BLOG Josephine.
    Have fun editing all this. I am looking forward to the end result.

  2. What fantastic photos. Very interesting reading. I sure would love to listen to your interpretation of some of the movements; particularly the sarabandes of suites I, II, III.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. It is very interesting and inspiring to read your weblog. You truly are an example for me and I hope that one day, I will be recording a solo cd as well. Is yours already available? I'd love to buy it, you made me very, very curious with the intriging texts above :-) Best wishes, Martine

    If you'd like to see my cellopage *blush* just click:

  5. Yes; the CD is now available! I shall write a final update soon. It turned out to be a 4 CD set! on my web page you can buy it directly;I will even sign one for you if you wish.