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Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Marcello Sonatas recording project part 03

Like a good short-order cook, I've got to start knocking these things out a bit faster, or I'll never finish.

The 3rd movement gave me the most problems, and I'm least happy with the final result of the three movements released so far. Predictably, at the outset it seemed to be the simplest, and so got the least amount of practice time.

My original plan for this project was to record the continuo (or accompaniment) part first, and then lay the solo part over it. After a few test recordings, I realized this was more difficult than I had imagined. Making the solo part conform to the less than perfect playing of the continuo line ended up being more difficult than doing it the other way around. In hindsight, it seems obvious; the more difficult part, technically, is harder to be flexible with. So, for the first two sonatas at least, the solo parts have been recorded first, and then I came back and played the accompanying line underneath.

My favorite science-fiction author, Stanislaw Lem, wrote a very memorable short story about a space traveler who, falling into a series of gravitational vortices, encounters multiple versions of himself, in the immediate past or future. In the hands of Lem's sardonic wit, of course the situation turns farcical, with our hero engaging in a series of verbal and physical conflicts with his alter egos. And every time the protagonist deals out a blow or an insult, he finds himself on the wrong end of it as he progresses through time.

Since I'm using two different instruments to make these recordings, and because it has been difficult to reserve time in the room where I am making these recordings, the solo and continuo parts were recorded about 2 weeks apart. After recording the solo lines, I listen to determine if I have recorded any useable takes or not. The biggest lesson learned to date has been that it is one thing to listen to something and think it is good enough, and another to try and play along with it, matching pitch, rhythm, and phrasing. This third movement proved vexing, in that I thought the solo line was pretty consistent, until I took out the other bass and tried to play the continuo part along with it. Then it seemed like the pitch wavered from note to note, and it was a real challenge trying to play an accompaniment that didn't make the solo line sound awful. As in Lem's story, I found myself seriously at odds with, maybe even hating an earlier version of myself.

Playing along with something robotic and inflexible might well be an essential skill for playing in an orchestra. Never the less, making a workable accompaniment for the top line as I recorded it proved trying in the extreme, and I found myself loathing the person I had been two weeks earlier as I struggled to play along.

click below to listen

I encourage anyone interested to pursue the work of Stanislaw Lem. His most well known work, Solaris, would go on my list of 'must read' works for those not only interested in sci-fi, but who share a sense of, if not despair, wariness about what the inexorable march of 'progress' and technology actually mean for the human condition. The Soderbergh-Clooney film version, while not as awful as I feared, is a pale shadow of the Tarkovsky masterpiece, but both, in their own ways miss the point of the original. The adventures of the everyman, cosmonaut, Ijon Tichy, in The Star Diaries, of which the story cited above is one small part, is another essential component of Lem's output.


Andrew said...

The 1972 version is one of the greats. One can hope that this quote by Dr. Kelvin bears only slight significance to an ambitious project such as yours:

"Well, anyway, my mission is finished. And what next? To return to Earth? Little by little everything will return to normal. I'll find new interests, new acquaintances, but I won't be able to devote all of myself to them."

Michael Hovnanian said...

The elegiac tone at the end of the novel is quite moving. I think about the last two lines often.

“I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.”

Jacque said...

A question about your recording process, Michael: are you editing or compositing takes at all? Or are you using the best complete take after you have recorded several?

Michael Hovnanian said...

Here's a quote from the post on part 01:

"Since the point of the exercise is to see for myself whether or not I can play the instrument, the recordings would be of complete takes of each movement, and I would not resort to any sort of editing, pitch correction, or other digital wizardry to make the end product more palatable to the ear. The only nod in that direction would be the use of overdubbing, which would allow me to play both of the parts, and some EQ to compensate for deficiencies in my equipment and the location(s) where the recordings would be made. The end result would be something of a cross between a studio and a live recording – I would 'perform' each movement for the microphone three or four times and use the best take."

There is going to be a quiz at the end of this, you know...