Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Jason Kahn

Some Notes on Making the Recording

I recorded this version of Michael Pisaro's composition "Only [harmony series no. 17]" in the swiss Alps, about an hour's hike from the village of Brüsti in the state of Uri. After reading the score I instantly thought of doing the recording here. I'd been to Brüsti several times with my family for holidays, so I knew the area relatively well and was confident I could find a good spot to record. I made the recording with a large steel bowl I bought at a flea market in Zürich. I played the bowl with one hand, using a soft vibraphone mallet.
After arriving in Brüsti I walked further up in the mountains, trying to find a place away from the hiking trails. I settled on a small ridge rising between two valleys, with a view of the Vierwaldstättersee (Lake Lucerne) in front of me. The elevation was around 2000 meters (6000 feet). I spent a good deal of time finding the right position for the microphones and the steel bowl. It became immediately apparent how far removed this site was from the cliché of the alpen idyll, as a steady background of cowbells, rushing water, wind and the occasional airplane made for a very dense and sometimes loud environment.
The cowbells came from a herd of cows far down in the valley behind me, as did the water which flowed from a slowly thawing patch of snow around the size of a football field. As I was using very sensitive microphones, all these sounds tend to take on more of a presence on the recording than they did when I was sitting there listening and playing. The sound of flies buzzing past the microphones or even some of the birds singing were not audible to me until I listened back to the recording.
The wind played a great role in both my playing and the recording. At times I was engulfed in fairly strong gusts blowing in from the valleys below. This had the effect of either sweeping some sounds away or amplifying them. I sometimes had the sense that the cows had moved away or that the river was slowly drying up. But as soon as the wind receded these sounds returned to their previous levels. At one point the wind even made it possible for me to hear the steam ships down on the Vierwaldstättersee blowing their horns as they headed into port.
On the recording the wind becomes especially evident when I am playing the bowl. I had the feeling that I played at fairly constant dynamic levels and also rather softly, but, depending on the direction and intensity of the wind. the sound of the bowl would either almost disappear or become more audible. In any case, my aim when playing was to somehow find a way of co-existing with the sonic environment up there on the ridge. In a way, I didn't want to concentrate as much on my
playing as on all the sound events occurring around me. I'd have to say that the first time I played the bowl on the recording, after sitting still and listening for around ten minutes, I experienced the strange sensation that I was somehow encroaching on the natural sound environment, so alien did the steel bowl sound in relation to everything else. After several minutes of playing I started to feel more comfortable with my role and found a way into the sounds around me.

Technical Information

I made this recording with a mid-side array of Sennheiser MKH30 and MKH60 microphones going into a Sound Devices 702 digital recorder. The microphones were set up around twelve feet from the bowl. I wanted to make sure I had a good balance between the signal coming from the bowl and the natural environment. It seemed that having the bowl close mic'd would be going against the spirit of the composition.
Back in the studio I rolled off the bass frequencies below 60 hz. Other than this, there was no noise reduction, compression or any other post-production applied to the recording.
Recorded August 18, 2009.
Brüsti, Switzerland.

Only - Jason Kahn (43:07) Flac
Only - Jason Kahn (43:07) MP3

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