Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Keep Believing

Our family has been listening to the music of "With Mine Own Hand" for a long, long time. First it was just humming a melody, then it was plunked on a piano, then it was filled out on a piano (a million times), then we added our own voices, then we added test-actor voices, and eventually we heard it orchestrated with MIDI (computer-generated instruments.)

We heard the score with real instruments and real actors for the first time only weeks before the 2007 workshop production. But the quest for the best possible representation of the score was not over. The real With Mine Own Hand; the music that as creators we had been hearing in our heads for many, many years, was yet to be played, was yet to be sung...

This is the story I have been asked to tell; it is the story behind the making of the CD of “With Mine Own Hand: The Musical Account of Nephi”. It is a story that begins with BELIEVING: first, in the Lord and the Book of Mormon, second, in ourselves and our family, and thirdly in a whole lot of other people.

Of course, we knew something about audio and recording work, ever since college days. We actually have a small studio in our home which we dub “Voices in the Shed”, since the sound booth is where the yard tools used to be before we padded up the walls. We employed our home-based equipment and engineering skills to make test recordings for the orchestrator to work from. That project, just piano and test voices, took the entire summer of 2006.

The next twelve months were spent orchestrating and refining the score for performance. First, David Zabriskie of Sandy, Utah, the musical genius behind the “Nauvoo Pageant”, “Light of the World”, and “Savior of the World” did the copy work for Becky Alexander’s score; that means he transferred all of Becky's handwritten notation into a computer-generated piano-vocal score. Dale too got involved with that copy-work, learning first-hand how exacting the process really is.

Next, Jay Richards, of Logan, Utah, a musical theater composer himself, began to arrange the new piano-vocal score into full orchestrated pieces. It is one of the miracles associated with the project that Jay had six weeks to accomplish this titanic creative task: twenty-eight pieces of music to be interpreted and arranged for all those instruments in the orchestra. Since we were going into production at the end of that same six weeks, there would be no time for rewrites; we needed perfection and we needed it now. Without question, and to our thrill and delight, he nailed it. Churning out two and three pieces a week, Jay captured the magic of the score and the magnificence of the story through his orchestral arrangements.

Following the workshop performance in Vancouver, Washington (which took the entire summer of 2007) we wondered what could be next. It wasn’t long before the opportunity to produce the show at Brigham Young University during Campus Education Week was offered us. We knew that transporting a show from out-of-state, that is, from the Pacific Northwest (which is our home base) to Provo, Utah, would require minimizing the number of bodies involved, and that meant recording the orchestra. It only followed that we might as well go a step further and record the cast as well. The vocals would not be used in the live performance, as would the recorded orchestra, but the 2008 cast would be featured in the recorded CD version of “With Mine Own Hand.

A steady stream of opportunities, decisions and revelations led us to the top of our Mt. Everest. Jay Richards, an accomplished studio producer in the Utah musical community, acted as our guide. He recruited musicians from Orchestra on Temple Square, BYU School of Music faculty, and Utah Symphony Orchestra.

The players came rolling in (the bass and tympani literally rolled in) over the ice and snow on the morning of Feb. 13, 2008. By the sheer number and variety of instrumentalists at one time, we were breaking new ground at Salt Lake City’s Counterpoint Studios. Recording Engineer Michael Greene sectioned the musicians into five different spaces or adjacent rooms, which actually proved an advantage in mixing since he could separate, or control, the volume of the different instrumental groups for a better blend on the final track. For instance, the percussionists set up their paraphernalia in one room, harpists hid behind another door, while the horns were separated from the strings and woodwind by a glass wall. Becky, with headphones on, sat at the keyboard in the control booth itself.

Everyone had a clear view of Dale, who would be conducting this dream orchestra. They were definitely Utah’s best of the best. He knew it, and they knew it. Not that they needed much direction; these professionals could, at first sight, at first read-through, play a piece to near perfection, both interpretively and technically.

As impressed as were were with both the musicians and the music they made, they, interestingly, were just as impressed with us; not only with the work itself, but with our determination to make this project happen, to see it through: “tenacity” they called it. I know too, that they felt amused, if not charmed, by our enthusiasm. Grant and Hannah, who also sing on the CD, were with us in the booth doing scratch vocals. And of course, Becky, the composer, sat on the piano bench. Maybe the four of us should have behaved more aloof, more professionally, but with the music soaring about us in its full glory at last, we just couldn’t help our yelps of glee.

With the recording of the orchestration complete, it was time to add the vocalists at Super Digital Studios in Portland, Oregon. Over the course of an intense week, each performer took his turn in the booth, pounding out his part, relentlessly critiqued and tweaked by yours truly; yet each one came out smiling like the fisherman who’d just nabbed the biggest catch of his life.

Now engineer Michael and producer Jay -- back at Counterpoint -- mixed, that is combined and balanced, the orchestra and vocals. This meant days and days of repetition: every note, every instrument, every sound analyzed and worked over. Once that was accomplished, our Portland engineer, Erik, took over and “mastered” the entire recording (something like polishing a clean car).

Dale and I of course were intently involved each step of the way, lording over the process, protecting and perfecting every drop of the dream. Grant was right beside us and Hannah held us all up. With the finishing touches going on in the studio, Grant busied himself with cover artwork and liner notes so that all of the ingredients came out of the oven in July 2008. Audiences in Portland and Provo could actually take home CD’s from “With Mine Own Hand” that same summer, a very unusual offering from a brand new musical.

So guess what we’re doing this summer? Yes, we are back in the studio, the ole’ studio, (our fourth summer at this) adding all of Nephi’s narration and other dialogue to the CD. Don't worry, we’re not going to recall the originals (…hey! maybe they’ll be worth something on Ebay someday…I’m just sayin’…) but we are producing a “new and improved” version which will allow the listener to follow Nephi’s account from “I Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…” all the way to the “Promised Land”, through music and spoken word.

Stay tuned…what a funny thing to say. We’ve been “tuned” in to this dream for nearly two decades. It’s exhausted and frightened and intimidated me to no end, but the big picture keeps getting bigger, and there is no changing the channel now.

I think you will find that everything I have written can be characterized by two words that are worth musing over for a long time to come....


Related Musings: Wish List
and Dream House

Muse with me: What dreams have you realized or hope to realize one day? (Don't give up! This dream of mine took 20 years and counting!)