Cantus at Abbey Road
On February 8th this year, thirty members of The Cantus Ensemble followed me across the iconic pedestrian crossing, up the stairs and into the world famous Abbey Road Studios to spend a day recording Rebecca Dale’s When Music Sounds. In our four years together, the choir has sung in venues ranging from Fulham Football Club to Westminster Abbey, and will sing at Gaudi’s astounding Sagrada Familia in Barcelona in May, but no venue has gotten us quite as excited as Abbey Road. From the zebra crossing made famous by the Beatles, to fans' graffiti love letters on the white walls, to the autographed platinum records and movie posters adorning the walls inside, the place oozes musical history. After arriving early and sorting ourselves out with a bite for breakfast, we moved into studio 2 for the day, a studio where history had been made with artists like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Elton John and David Bowie, to name but a few.
We had been working on Rebecca Dale’s wonderful new work for a month by this point, familiar with it to the point of finding ourselves humming our parts in the pub, on the tube, in the shower... We were switched on and ready for a focussed day ahead, aiming to achieve the best possible sound and do this incredible piece the justice it deserved. I've sat in on Abbey Road sessions before but nothing could have prepared me as Director for the incredible minutiae involved in really getting a piece to sparkle, it was quite something. Sat up in the studio above us was Rebecca along with her team and the sound engineers for the day, some tasked with ensuring the notes were exactly as written in the score and some tasked with ensuring things like balance, tone and round vowels were being picked up by the mics.
Each of us had a headset which piped through the sensuous orchestra backing track as well as a click track, essential for multiple tempos and extensive rubato; this headset was our umbilical cord to the studio, the lifeline through which we would be directed on what to change, improve or re-record. One of our own singers, Chris Roe, a musician with extensive recording experience, had kindly agreed to create a visual click track for me, which sat in front of my stand, allowing me to judge rubato more accurately and new time signatures at speed. Around and above us hovered a plethora of microphones of all shapes and sizes, picking up every tiny sound, from page turns to banter about the football result the night before. Primed and ready to tackle a day’s recording, we did a few sound checks before our first take of the day.
The concentration levels involved in recording are not so different from those applied in a rehearsal or concert, but multiple takes of the same small section of music can test the attentiveness of any musician. I was extremely proud of all the members of Cantus for their incredible professionalism and single-minded determination to make each take better than the last: their fortissimos at the end of a very long day were no less impressive or controlled than those at the start – no mean feat!
What struck me about the detail involved in recording the music was that, like a pole position lap in Formula One or a triple Michelin-starred dish, every element needed absolute control and perfection to deliver at the highest level. As a choral conductor, I found it extremely rewarding and it has informed my rehearsal technique since, as I now strive to achieve perfection in even the smallest elements of the music we tackle. Things like unified breathing, balanced crescendos and diminuendos, and perfect placing of consonants were natural requirements when recording, but delivering a vowel sound and pitch in complete unison was a new trick we had to learn quickly. Similarly, Rebecca had written some wonderfully evocative chords that stretch the timbre in each voice part, so ensuring absolute purity and fidelity in each and every chord (exact bright intervals tied together by a uniformly bright vowel) became one of the key challenges of the day.
"Like a pole position lap in Formula One or a triple Michelin-starred dish, every element needed absolute control and perfection to deliver at the highest level."
It was wonderful to hear tiny snippets of the music and very interesting to see how some sections that involved whispering and aleatoric entries could be recorded in different ways, allowing the producers and Rebecca unlimited options in the editing suite. As I mentioned above, it was wonderful having Rebecca’s expertise being piped straight through the headphones, meaning that the details I didn’t pick up on could be calmly dissected, reviewed and amended in the next (or seventy-ninth) take!
It was a perfect Sunday for me really, especially after Tottenham had beaten Arsenal the day before (!), and I was so very proud of each and every member of Cantus for doing such a fantastic job. After the cry of “that’s a wrap”, we hurriedly devoured a couple of boxes of Celebrations and then headed to the pub for a celebratory meal as we wound down over a few pints. I’d like to thank Rebecca Dale for engaging us to sing in such an exciting project and the team at Abbey Road for their guidance, lovely comments, and excellent bacon sandwiches!