Getting it just right

I’m a little frustrated that I haven’t had a chance to post in what looked on the calendar like a quiet week. This is often the case- a week without a concert ends up with so much off-the-podium activity crammed in that it feels even busier.

Just as by a quirk of scheduling I ended up recording our two upcoming CDs with Orchestra of the Swan almost back-to-back in November/December, now both discs are going into pre-release phase at almost the same time. Bobby and Hans volume 1 (Third Symphonies by Robert Schumann and Hans Gal on Avie, AV2230) is coming out in June, but in order for that to happen, we needed to have a cover image to put in the distributor’s catalogue by this past Tuesday. You will have seen that image (taken by Ben Eealovega) in the last post.

No sooner was that decision made than it was straight on to getting the inside of the booklet put together. We decided to base the liner notes on essays I wrote about the two symphonies for the blog when we performed them in December. Slimming those down to fit in a normal booklet, hammering them into a slightly more formal and less quirky style, and cleaning them of any and all typos was no small job.  There was also the matter of translating my own patois into standard UK spelling (apologies to my friends back home in America for all the “favour”s and “theatre”s- it is a UK record company). It took significantly longer than writing them in the first place., and required the sharp eyes of a number of friends and family members.

It really hit me recently that in almost all meda, we are evolving to a less edited world. In the age of electronic publishing, we see a lot more typos in the great newspapers. This morning, the Independent reviewed Yuja Wang’s new CD, but spelled her name wrong (as Yuka).  It’s the way the world is going. Does it matter? Just as I think there ought to be plenty of room in life for the live, the raw and the un-edited, I also appreciate reading and hearing stuff that has been properly polished.

If book publishing and hard copies of newspapers are dying,  future generations will rarely see writing that has been vetted, massaged, considered and cleaned to within an inch of its life.  I try hard (always failing) to make everything I put up here read as well as possible, but if I had to invest the kind of time that it takes to edit something to the level of a book, there would only be about 3 posts a year.  Of course, the one thing that is infinitely easier about writing for the blog is that there are no space limitations.

Once all the prose for one disc was done, it was time to start listening to the first edit of our Mahler disc  (Das Lied von der Erde and Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) for Somm Recordings, coming out in May. Listening carefully to edits is a very important part of the conductor’s job. I remember the scandal many years ago when the incoming music director of the Minnesota Orchestra didn’t listen to the final edit of his new recording of Firebird. In the end, there was a bar missing from the Berceuse. Oops…

Listening to a CD edit can be emotionally draining. At first, one can’t help but be a little excited at how good it all sounds, even when it hasn’t been mastered yet. Great singers and a great orchestra! I usually listen once without following the score or taking notes, and generally just enjoy it. Then, it’s on with the headphones to listen, with the score, to each track 2 or 3 times in a row, literally looking for every possible flaw. By the end, you never want to hear it again.

Of course, there are always still little smudges on a first edit- that’s why we call it a first edit. What is different, and more stressful, about editing a CD as opposed to prose is that you are completely at the mercy of what is “in the can” from the sessions. If I leave off the “d” on “band” I can just type it in. With a CD, you have to ask yourself- did we get a clean “d” on “band? “I’m sure we did! It was just before we finished that take…. I think it was…. Well, if he didn’t use the “d” I’m thinking of on this “band”, was there a reason? Did I miss something? What if we’re out of “d”s?!?!!??!!?

Rather than just typing in a “d” on “band”  you make a note of it, talk to the producer who talks to the editor, who then tells you whether or not there’s a “d” available. Can the “d” be integrated given the available edit points? It can take many weeks.

It’s really a playday for the paranoid.


Post script- Not long ago I got a nice window into the lengths producers will go to find a “d” for “band” when editing a CD. I borrowed a score of a Shostakovich symphony from an orchestra that had been used for editing their recording of the work (a CD I already had!). In three places, the producer/engineer had noted “take 67a or Rostropovich.” Nicking the odd note from another CD is apparently the dirty little secret of the industry. That won’t be helpful with something like Gal- when you’re doing a first recording, there is nobody to steal from….

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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