Sunday, 5 May 2013

Behind the scenes on our Christmas CD recording

Last month we were honoured to be chosen for a Two Moors Festival Residency. A Residency usually takes the form of a period of intensive study where musicians can rehearse or practice without interruptions. This sort of freedom can be very difficult to find in the working world where everyday life and responsibilities get in the way, so an opportunity like this is every musician's dream.

In order to be eligible for one of these hotly contested opportunities, we had to have a project that we were working towards. Our Christmas CD recording provided the perfect vehicle, and so off to Devon we all trundled in our four estate cars, equipped with music stands, stools, harps and trolleys. Oh, and two babies, push chairs, toys, a high chair and a travel cot!

We spent the first day of the Residency rehearsing the 20 different Carols that we were going to record. Three of the carols were being performed with soprano as well as the four harps, and our fantastic soprano Helen Winter arrived in time for an evening rehearsal of her numbers (she also has the best surname ever, given what we were recording!). It was lovely to play in the large rehearsal space of the Two Moors Festival gallery as opposed to our usual four-harps-crammed-into-a-space-meant-for-one arrangement. We finally finished at 11pm and sank into peaceful slumbers dreaming of Holy Nights...

Our recording was scheduled to take place over the next two days and was being recorded by Patrick Allen of Opera Omnia. After a couple of hours of sound checks and tuning harps, we were satisfied we had the right balance of harps and voice and the real work could commence! Four hours later we had got the harp and soprano tracks in the bag, and after a swift break (and goodbye to Helen), we rearranged the set-up to suit the four harps on their own. Our only difficulty was that during rehearsal we had found the perfect layout for being able to see and hear each other clearly, but sadly this didn't work for Patrick's microphones. After a lot of harp shifting and seat adjustment we were finally able to compromise on a position which worked for both sound quality and also visual interaction.

One bonus of a Christmas recording is that all the pieces are relatively short so it is possible to do multiple recording takes without getting too fed up. All the Carols on the CD had been arranged by us, with the lion's share being undertaken by Harriet. It was very satisfying to be playing music specifically arranged for four harps, and also music that utilised many of the different sounds and effects that a harp can create (harmonics, xylophonic effects, percussion and glissandi). Amazingly (given the number), all the Carols had a unique feel to them, and between the different arrangements and arrangers, we encompassed everything from medieval music through to jazz and soft rock! By the end of day one we had recorded nine tracks and felt like we were well on our way.

Day two started with more harp tuning (sorry Patrick!) - harps do not have equal temperament in the same way as a piano, and so will sound slightly different in different keys (a harp that is perfectly in tune in a key with lots of flats in the key signature may not sound quite so good in a key with lots of sharps). This means that a large proportion of time during a recording is spent retuning to ensure the harps sound at their best - with four harps to tune, this inevitably means a LOT of tuning! We were pleased that we were able to maintain focus during the second day (no doubt helped by the peaceful setting and lack of mobile reception at the 2MF Residency site!) and we finished the final piece at about 9.30pm. Afterwards we all trouped back to our onsite Festival accommodation for a celebratory glass of champagne and a hearty supper. A well deserved rest and a Silent Night was had by all....

The final day of our Residency took the form of rehearsal and preparation for an evening concert, held in the Festival gallery. Despite it being the end of April, we decided to deviate from our 2013 season programme slightly and include some of the Christmas Carols we had just recorded. A fruitful decision, as we were rewarded with rapturous applause for our performances of Greensleeves, Gaudete, I wonder as I wander and Sussex Carol. In fact several audience members signed up straight away for our Christmas CD pre-order list!

In conclusion, it was a fantastic week of hard work from everyone involved, and we are confident that the finished CD will be everything we hoped it would be and more. We would also like to thank Patrick and Helen for being so patient with us and the eccentricities of our harps. Finally, we are extremely grateful to the Two Moors Festival for giving us the opportunity to record in such a lovely relaxed setting.

A photo of us rehearsing for the recording

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