As Shuichi sipped his Sam Adams, Azusa made silly faces as she devoured yet another clam from the bucket on the table. I was practically swooning over my wood grilled tuna, and all of us lounged with tired satisfaction after another good day of work. Any one of the hundreds of people passing by the window of Legal Sea foods that night would have seen three people beaming with satisfaction. They would never guess that one week ago it seemed like the entire recording project was about to unravel. After hours on the phone with the American Embassy in Vietnam, and begging the Bureau of Consulate affairs in Washington, my stepfather and I managed to help facilitate my producer’s departure from Vietnam, belated by a street theft of his Green Card and wallet, just in the nick of time. The intricate interweaving of small puzzle pieces fell into place the day before we began recording. The key pieces in this puzzle being the airlines, the Vietnamese government, a recording engineer about to leave for another job, the building schedule, the availability of hosts, back-up producers, and a Brazilian drumming class. But by Wednesday night, this was more than forgotten. We had recorded the bulk of the CD in three days; only possible with a group of people who collaborate with heart felt dedication to their specific role in the recording process. Ironically, it was in my most soloistic endeavor to date that I relied most heavily on the effort of an entire team for the success of the project.
On Monday, the first day of recording, we decided to tackle Piazzolla. Under any circumstances this Tango is exhausting to play, but sweat was literally dripping off of my elbows in the sweltering humid heat of our non air-conditioned hall. Ahh, New England in July!!!! It seemed like each take was getting worse, and as I shifted to a high A octave, I missed it so badly that my cello squawked and screamed! Azusa and I squealed with laughter and the session unraveled from there into exuberantly regressive behavior. We decided that it was time to go to dinner.
In the midst of many good laughs in the fun company of Azusa on stage, the first day or so found me aiming for technical accuracy, adapting to my role in the team and learning to manage my mental and physical stamina so as to make the most efficient and affective use of our limited time. By Tuesday we had mastered the art of enduring the 90 F hall for 5-7 hours with a cooler full of cold washcloths, ice, electrolytes and towels to mop up sweat. Azusa and I were the musicians in the incubator while Roberto, our sound engineer and Shuichi, the producer sat up above in an air-conditioned office, analyzing, organizing and capturing our sounds. They were barely visible from the stage by a small window, left over from the days when the manager looked down from his office on what used to be the showroom for a car dealership. The main form of communication was through a loud overhead speaker that boomed before each take in a warm yet commanding voice “Bartok, take 1-32, go ahead”. My form of communication was a beautiful, large Neumann microphone in front of me, who, by the end of the week had taken on a human personality. He was the one who heard my cello, loved my music, and then shared it with the world.
In the middle of the third day of recording it was time to record De Falla. As I prepared for a full run through of “Nana” at that very moment something clicked for me about the piece that I had never quite understood. The movement is a lullaby, but it has an unusual sense of melancholy and longing, a depth of emotion a small child could not understand. I had a sudden image of a young widowed mother, comforting herself while comforting her child, from the loneliness of lost love. I could feel the child in my arms, the tangible result of a passionate love, and the tug of war between the desperate needs of my sorrow and my child’s helplessness. The poignancy of a moment so filled with both pain and tenderness captivated me so completely that, as my producer put it, I “played the shit out of the piece” on the very first take, and miraculously without a single scratched bow or out of tune note.
As Azusa and I made our way through four doors, our bare feet slapping on the stairs up to the cold studio to listen, I was choking back the tears. It was exactly as I imagined it. Roberto, always prepared, offered me a box of tissues, while I blubbered how “every now and then…and it makes it all worth it”. With his nurturing steadiness and uncompromising professionalism he seemed unsure as to how to respond in that moment. Shuichi looked pleased, and gave me his first “great” in the notes, where typically a “good” or “OK” was the norm.
This is how “Nana” was born. One beautiful straight take. DONE. The rest of this day and the next had an ambiance of magic, and we moved with precise enthusiasm and joy through the rest of the repertoire. Each piece, like a baby, had a different way of being born, and no one seemed to question this organic asymmetry. We had a great team, and despite needing to quickly adapt to the needs of each different piece, by the second day there was a familiar rhythm to our process that relied very heavily on mutual trust and respect. And TONS of caffeine.
The act of recording combines the mental focus and careful, repetitive execution of practicing with the emotional and physical output of performing. In a word, the process is utterly exhausting. Since most of the technical challenges and success of the repertoire rested on my shoulders, I quickly realized the importance of having a healthy sense of my own limitations, while at the same time not accepting less than my best. This was an interesting line to draw each moment and each hour. I felt lucky when I expressed 95% of my intentions spread out over several takes, and aimed for this. When I was tired it wasn’t my arms that went, it was my ability to discern when to stop recording a certain piece. After repeating a passage with chords numerous times, finally Shuichi intervened, telling me I must be tired, because it was fine by the second take. He must have been tired too since it took him five takes to stop me.
When the recording was finished, I was extremely grateful that I had not truly comprehended the permanency of what I was doing while I was doing it. I became momentarily paralyzed with fear when I realized we were done and customers, maybe critics, would be hearing only these particular moments in my life, and it was too late to change them. As a performer I am used to the pressure of realizing the importance of every bow stroke and shift, while remaining connected to a larger musical intention. Live performance frees the musician from any permanent humiliation of missed notes when the concert has ended and the possibility to endlessly improve and do it better the next time around. Not so in the studio. When you have your takes, you have them. Wrong notes are circled, and then rerecorded, and ultimately easily fixed in the final editing. But the interpretation and phrasing, the depth of a performance, this becomes frozen in time.
Nevertheless, it is a bizarre but some how satisfying feeling to know that long after I am gone, one of my CDs may be hanging around, recalling again and again the musical moments we captured that one hot week in July in Boston.