The Making of Ave Maris Stella

Album summary

"My end is my beginning, and my beginning my end."

A commercial approach to classical recording. This concept album rethinks motets and secular songs from the 14th through the 16th centuries and recasts them with 21st century orchestration, blurred genres and creative post-production processing effects.

Album background

In 2018, Nevada Wind Ensemble Conductor, Reed Chamberlin began thinking about the idea of a concept album based on the novel use of recording and editing techniques. Specifically, he was considering the flexibility of the wind ensemble concept and the application of sound processing to acoustical instruments beyond the ways in which it had already been tried. This led Chamberlin to begin to ask several questions, some creative and some specific to assets at the University of Nevada, Reno.

What assets do we have?

We have excellent facilities: outstanding acoustics in our rehearsal rooms and hall, cutting edge technology (a modern recording studio with Dante high speed internet which allows us to record from anywhere in the building). We have excellent recording engineers: Tom Gordon and Ray Silva, both USC educated with direct experience in the commercial recording realm in Los Angeles and in Reno, who have worked regularly with several Grammy Award winning artists. And, we have excellent and committed students. The students would purpose to excel at any project given to them.

How could we use our facilities?

The Dante internet connection allows us to use the excellent acoustical environment of our large ensemble room as a tracking room along with isolation booths in the recording studio. Because Dante is a zero-latency connection, we could record in real-time together, across these disparate physical locations. This lends itself to flexibility of isolating drummers from soloists, and from larger groups of wind performers. It was clear that using isolation could mean a different approach from large ensemble classical recording, similar to one used in commercial recording.

How could we best use our recording engineers who have a commercial background?

We’ve made several successful large ensemble recordings at our University in the past, but Tom’s wheelhouse is recording popular music (this means using spot microphones, careful mixing, recording and editing drum tracks, click-tracks and effects).

How could we innovate the use of electronics and technology in wind band performance? How could we further expand the boundaries of the medium?

Traditionally, the wind ensemble concept has stood for flexibility of instrumentation (it can be a band, a chamber ensemble, a mixed instrumentation ensemble). Many works have been written for wind ensemble along with electronics but to Chamberlin's knowledge none of them use the wind ensemble’s acoustical sounds as source material. That is, most of the existing repertoire consists of sounds that were synthesized or sampled with a live ensemble simply playing along with a track. While there is value in this type of piece, Chamberlin wanted to explore the idea of organic sounds generated by human beings, acoustic sounds that become edited and processed — essentially creating an additional layer of sounds (or in this case, a new instrumentation). Ideally, this could lead to new works that must be recorded and edited to reach their full potential.

Mark Scatterday, conductor of the Eastman Wind Ensemble and mentor, suggested that Chamberlin first try this idea himself, rather than commissioning a composer to write a work to achieve these goals. He also suggested that the music of the Renaissance would be a perfect vehicle. While Chamberlin thought about the scope of such a project, the idea laid dormant for a time.

Enter COVID-19 in March of 2020. For an academic year, the wind ensemble rehearsed in small ensembles with reduced capacity and rehearsal time due to aerosol concerns. The Nevada Wind Ensemble did not give live concerts to audiences. Obviously, this was not an ideal situation for the students who use concerts as an important exhibition of their learning and musical development.

How could we create a project that would be educational for our students and provide them with an artistic outlet, resulting in a piece of work they could be proud of when so much seemed lost during this time?

By answering these questions, the project came together. It was born by conceiving a commercial approach to classical recording (most classical music recording is intended to sound like a concert, whereas in commercial recording the substance of the music is first developed in a studio). This resulted in the scoring of works for chamber groups to align with a variety of constraints and assets, including COVID-19 safety regulations, a limited and mixed instrumentation, engineers and facilities, and the sound processing aspects available in postproduction.

It took an astonishing amount of planning on the musical and technological side. Chamberlin had to identify musical works that would transfer well for the instruments/players at hand (relying on a Renaissance practice of transcribing vocal works for winds), then narrowing that list to pieces that had potential for generic creativity or for postproduction, or both.

Each rehearsal consisted of four-to-five pieces in small groups, taking 20-minute breaks to clear air, and using three-to-four venues at once. Rehearsals were led by Chamberlin, graduate assistants and were also self-directed by the student performers.

The recording process was comprised of two nine-hour days and had to be scheduled around safety guidelines. Students recorded for 30 minutes, took a 20 minute break to clear aerosols, and then returned to record (it helped that the selected pieces to record were five minutes or less). Because we used a player pool concept and rotated players, not all students were required to be present for the duration of the marathon days; however, the engineers, producers and conductors were.

The 20-minute air-clear breaks were used to reset microphones and routing assignments on the mixing console and Protools software. All of this was pre-determined by the engineers who executed the sessions flawlessly.

Watch recording session highlights

Discussion of tracks

Discussion with Nevada Wind Ensemble Conductor, Reed Chamberlin.

Guillaume de Machaut / Ma fin est mon commencement (My end is my beginning) (14th c.)

A Secular song with text by its poet composer. Scored for three lines, we see that the upper and lower are in retrograde canon, and the middle line is a palindrome. The piece sounds the same when performed forwards as it does backwards. This vocal piece could have historically been performed on instruments and in this instance I chose to score it for three flutes. We were hoping to emulate the Mellowtron sound at the beginning of the Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever, so in postproduction we dubbed the digital Protools file to analog tape with a high level of saturation. This compressed the dynamic range, warmed the sound, and added a certain type of density to the timbre.

Guillaume du Fay / Ave Maris Stella (15th c.)

A hymn to the virgin Mary written in responsorial form. The antiphon was composed as monophonic chant, and the homophonic response in faux bourdon. I choose to retain the use of a vocalist for the antiphon and added two soprano clarinets and bass clarinet for the response (I thought the clarinet’s ability to blend and its gentleness of tone would work well in this vocal context). We wanted to accentuate the eerie connotation of the minor fauxbourdon and thus added significant processing in post-production, using delays and an Eventide H3000 harmonizer plug-in. Note that all sounds are derived from acoustical sources made by people. We were thankful to be joined by Albert Lee, tenor, a former voice faculty member.

Guillaume du Fay / Apostolo Glorioso (15th c.)

An isorhythmic motet. I chose to set this piece for winds without postproduction effects, seeking to provide variety across the album and to showcase the melodic lines of the piece and the fine performing of the ensemble members. The orchestration of the clarinet and flute is inspired by Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, in which the flute and clarinet often cross voices. Trying such an orchestration in this piece might keep the flute from projecting well in a live acoustic performance (it is often quite low); however, because each performer was individually miked we could create an acoustically viable mix in postproduction. So, this piece has a distinct orchestration that might not work if performed live.

Orlando di Lasso / O la, o che, bon echo! (16th c.)

An echo song, with a jovial Italian text and lines like “What a lovely echo,” and “ha ha ha ha ha, let’s all laugh!” The prosody of the text is clean and apparent in the music, even in an instrumental setting. Because the piece is written as a verbatim call and response, we recorded the “call” with four players and then copied and pasted their tracks as the “response” in postproduction. Significant signal processing was added including several patches from an Eventide H3000 harmonizer plug-in, distortion pedals, and panning. The treatment of this work is intended to explore what might be possible with the processing of “classical” acoustic sounds into new and different sounding genres.

Johannes Ockeghem / Deo Gratias a 36 voce (15th c.)

A very large canon! Originally intended for 36 total voices, or nine voices on each soprano, alto, tenor, and bass line and all in canon. Due to COVID-19 capacity restrictions, this would have been impossible to rehearse and record with 36 musicians (it would also have been technically challenging to achieve a sense of clarity in the recording). As a solution to these issues, we recorded it as an overdub with only eight musicians. We recorded each musician one at a time with a click track and placed them in varying physical locations in the room. Then we overdubbed each line to achieve Ockeghem’s intended canon. As we listened to the playback, we noticed that an ambient effect was achieved by the sustain of the final note. This is not what Ockeghem intended but we chose to keep this as a central feature, thereby crossing a 15th century genre with one from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Adrian Willaert / Arousez vo violette (16th c.)

I was drawn to this beautiful chanson for its melody and the imitative aspects of the lower voices. Originally written for six voices, works like this may also have been historically performed as lute intabulations, with the lute carrying a reduction of the lower voices and accompanying the melody. This became a guiding paradigm for this arrangement, resulting in the cello and keyboard instruments as accompaniment for the top two voices (trumpet and flute). I wanted something on the album with sounds like Frank Zappa’s Dog Breath Variations or his Uncle Meat album, and while this idea didn’t quite make it into the album, the percussion instrumentation in this song is a direct nod.

I had hoped to add improvisation to some of the works on the album, and this piece’s modal qualities seemed a perfect fit. Julien Knowles (trumpet) and David Gervais (drums) are recent graduates of our jazz program and made the piece into a sensory experience with their improvisations.

Giovanni Gabrieli / Angelus domine descendit (16th c.)

This is a sacred antiphonal piece for voices from Gabrieli’s Sacrae Symphoniae. I picked this work for its stirring conclusion and antiphonal characteristics which we hoped to maximize in stereo recording. Originally written for two antiphonal choirs, I rescored the work for a choir of interlocking saxophones and clarinets, and one of trumpet, horns, and trombones. Due to issues of projection, register, and timbre it would normally be hard to achieve a balance inside the woodwind choir and against the brass. Because the recording process used a spot microphone on each player along with overhead room microphones, we were able to bring the woodwind choir to an appropriate balance within itself, and then balance it against the brass in postproduction.

Many of the orchestration choices on this album were inspired by Donald Hunsberger, longtime conductor of the Eastman Wind Ensemble (1965-2002), who encourages orchestrators to hear distinct instrumental timbres as one might see colors on an painter’s pallet. We hope that we’ve expanded that concept into the electronic realm, too — an environment in which scoring combinations that could not be heard acoustically in a live setting can work in a recorded session.

Adrian Willaert / Vecchie letrose (16th c.)

This is a secular song (a villanelle) which was originally intended for four voices. When I first heard this song I was drawn to a comparison with 1970’s or 1980’s vocal driven rock songs like The Outfield’s Your Love, Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Suite Judy Blue Eyes, and the Who’s You Better You Bet. So, we turned it into a rock tune. We were rejoined by David Gervais and Julien Knowles, and added our professor of bass Hans Halt to this track.

Make sure to let this track play out completely while you listen.