Thursday, August 22, 2013

Taking Dance-Musicianship to a WHOLE new level...Intercontinentally

This past month, I had the honor to collaborate on a dance film project filmed in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. This entry is about the process from beginning to end. The steps I took, the hurdles I had to take, and most importantly, forcing myself to ignore the voices in my head.
This opportunity came about when William Lu needed a pianist who was familiar with Schubert's works. William is a talented dancer and choreographer I've crossed paths with many times. We have worked at the same studios, and he has taken many classes I've played for. However, we've never directly worked together. He has since relocated to Rotterdam, The Netherlands and creating another dance journey in another continent. Of course I jumped at the chance, not really knowing what I was jumping into.

William was at his last mile of his dance film, and hit a snag when getting the licensing to use Alfred Brendel's Schubert Moments Musicaux Op. 94 would be drawn-out and costly. Attached to the message, was a link to his rough cut of this beautifully done dance film. I told him I would look over the music before I agreed to it. Though, I was pretty certain I was going to say "Yes."

Before I did say yes to him, there were a few factors I had to consider. Schubert's Moment Musicals are pretty standard in the piano repertoire. Unfortunately, the ones he asked for are the ones I have never played. Considering I have spent 4 years in my teens pounding out the 4 Impromptus Op. 90, I figured Moment Musicals wouldn't be too difficult for me to learn quickly, and crank out a few recordings by the end of the month.

Then there's the technical side. My husband, Dan, listen to Brendel's recording and already had technical concerns. The recording is done in a large room with a 12-foot Steinway. My recording will be done in my loft, on my 5'2" Yamaha C1. How am I going to make my munchkin sound like a 12-foot Steinway in a large room?

I took the leap of faith and said, "I'll do it!" William and I mainly corresponded via Facebook messaging. We had one telephone conversation. He was thrilled I had agreed to do it, and quite frankly, I was shocked he trusted me enough to do this recording for him. I was also excited that I finally get to work with him, with the two of us being on opposite sides of the world. William had requested that the length of my version would match Brendel's version. Also, if there was a way to tweak a few things to help with transitions from one section to the other.

Find the Music. I hopped onto to IMSLP and found the music right away in public domain. Problem is, these editions are so old that the details are sometimes not accurate compared to the newer, 20th century editions done by folks who have done extensive research on performance practice. I knew I had to lean on Brendel's interpretation to guide me along the way for dynamics, articulations, and tempo references.

Do a plunk-through. Was it easy to pick up? Yes.

Re-score the music to a larger print so I can...
a) Play it off the iPad to avoid page-turn interruptions and noises that could be picked up by the microphones.
b) Scribble my own notes, such as visual cues, dynamic changes, time markers from the film, and dynamic changes.

Really take the time to learn the music. As an accompanist, we learn the music so quickly that we do gloss over the small details and miss a lot of notes. I am very guilty of it. Here was my chance to really take the time to learn these pieces, get it right, and get it into my body.

Learn the movement in the film. This was a challenge I wasn't 100% prepared for. There is a huge difference between a Dance Video and a Dance Film. A Dance Video is normally shot from one perspective. It's used for educational purposes. Ex: Bolshoi's Don Quixote would be a Dance Video.  A Dance Film however, sometimes tells a story, sometimes it's abstract, and sometimes they are a compilation of One's ideas formed into images. Therefore, a Dance Film isn't all "Tombé pas de bourrée, glissade, saut de chat!" It's more intimate. It's close-ups of a hand, or a gesture, or a look, a quick frame of an eyeball, it's not JUST dance.

Tagging the score with movement and visual cues, and time markers. This was also a challenge because again, it was mostly gestures. My music was filled with words like, "Look. Look. Look. Walk on back. Sit. Arm. Look. New frame. Head on tummy. Finger walk. Cross the street. Look. Arm Circle." Finally towards the end there were a few "Lunge. Pirouette. Grand Battement."

Put it all together. Movement + Visual Cues + Time Markers + Music = WHAT THE HELL DID I GET MYSELF INTO?!

Once I thought I had the music down, I realized I had to look up at the film where I marked my music. Ex: By the time the dancers cross theirs legs on the couch, I need to be here in the music. When she walks on his back, I need to hit this chord at this time, at this very moment. If I miss that cue, I miss the next cue. I have no meter to work off of. Just Visual Cues. My first play-through with the film streaming was filled with, "Shit I missed it! Shit, I was too fast! Shit, I missed it again. Ohmahgahd! This is so hard!" My tempo was all over the place. My dynamics and nuances that I thought sounded so brilliant in my own head all went out the window! My original plan to imitate Brendel was immediately scrapped. This is not as easy as it looks.

In a live performance, the dancers and I rely on each other and every performance is slightly different. In a film recording situation, I only have the film to guide me through the music, but it has to be the same and perfect every time. It's impossible!

Humor me: Turn on a random movie on Netflix, mute it, now play music over it and hit all the nuances when you see someone smile, someone cry, or someone in deep thought. It's HARD.

Then I thought to myself, am I making this harder than it is? I went to bed thinking, perhaps I should sing the music and record a click-track so when I record it, the timing will be JUST right. I woke up the following morning completely determined that this was the way to go about it.

(For those of you who do not know what a click-track is, it's a metronome done over film so you hit the music at the right points at the right time.)

That afternoon, I went-a-clicking. It was too hard. I couldn't do it. I was over complicating EVERYTHING!!!! That's when I realized my "solutions" to saving time was actually wasting time. I was trying to find short cuts when I should just practice while streaming the film.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

Here is my set up...

Because my MacBook Pro was being used to record the actual music, I used my old white MacBook "Dino" for streaming.

I divided the sections and placed time markers in the music, so I was rehearsing about 16 measures at a time. Again, WHILE streaming the film. This way, it's easier to go back if I missed the "crossing of the legs" or the second chord when she's taking her second step on his back. After "perfecting" each section, I put it all together. Then I rehearsed it over and over and over and over again, annoying my neighbors and hearing their windows slam along the way.


There were lots of "what-ifs" going into the recording. When I was in grad school, my piano professor told me about a piece she had done with her chamber group in a music performance setting. Years later, her brother had done the same piece in a dance setting. She was completely perturbed by the performance because it sounded completely different because it had to work with the choreography. I feared that this would be one of those cases because this Schubert collection was so well-known. If this was being viewed by the world, how would the rest of the music community respond to my performance? On top of that, my teachers use to tear me apart about my technique, my "disregard" for accuracy, or the fact that when I play a chord, the notes don't always all go down at the same time. Shit. Even with this piece, I played the first chord repeatedly because I STILL can't make all the notes go down at the same time. Guess what? You'll hear it in the recording. The mics pick up EVERYTHING. Finally I realized, this is what every performer goes through. The Voices. Well, I gave those voices The Finger and proceeded forward.

At the end of week one, it was go-time for the first piece of music. The tuner came to do some fine tuning, and actually spent some extra time on it to make sure my munchkin was ready for a recording session. Dan turned our living room and loft into a make-shift recording studio. The loft was covered in ugly blankets we don't even let our guests use to isolate the sound. (I'm not allowed to post those pictures. Sorry) We also had mic chords draped over the banister, connecting it all to the mixer down below in our living room. We put our dogs in their kennels and pushed them into Dan's office. They normally sleep in the loft.

Film cued. Music cued. Ready. Set. Rolling. Record.

This is what happens when you don't have a fancy recording studio and have a make-shift recording studio in your home:

-My Dino-White-MacBook's fan started to spin because I had been rehearsing with it all day. Dino was tired. The mics picked up the noise. We had to put Dino to "sleep" for  5 minutes before we tried to record again.
-My dogs started to talk in Dan's office. My boxer sounds like Chewbacca when he talks. "Let me out! Why am in in here? This sucks! I can hear you outside. You didn't even leave the house. So why I am in here? Let me out!" Yes. I can understand Dog. My neurotic rescued-Pekingese was scratching her kennel because that's what she does.
-My creepy next door neighbor decided to rev up his hog in his garage, and the exhaust crept into my house. It smelled like Disneyland's Autopia. ::cough cough::
-My creepy next door neighbor has like, 10 bird feeders in his yard and birds decided to congregate DURING my recording session.
-My neighbor behind me has cages and cages of bunnies and hamsters and they were making all sorts of cage noises.
-My neighbor behind me also has a little yipper-dog that wouldn't shut up.
-A plane flew by.

Then there was my own performance. If I was a little late on a visual cue, I had to start all over again. If I hit all the visual cues and hit a wrong note close to the end, I had to start all over again. If I had a perfect take and my boxer started speaking Wookian, I had to start all over again.

(Sidebar: Despite all the noise interruptions, I have to give a shout-out to AirTurn because that pedal didn't make a noise during the recording session. Kudos!!!!)

The first recording session took 6 hours with many noise interruptions and mistakes and missed cues. However, we were able to pull three good takes that I deemed passable to send to William for approval.

Rinse, lather, repeat.

The second chunk of music was a lot easier than the first chunk. It was an excerpt of No. 6 in the collection so I didn't have to re-score the whole piece. It took less time to learn, and less time to record. The challenge in the second recording session was having to remember how the mics and mix were set up the first time. Then it had to be mixed down to sound like the other recording so there was some form of continuity. But at the end, I was again, able to send off four takes for approval.

The film is now in its final stages. I am excited to see what the end product will be like. It was an amazing experience to be able to do this intercontinentally. Ideally, I would've loved it if I was able to fly to Europe to do this recording and have William just tell me when to speed up and slow down. But at the same time, I have never done an actual performance with my own piano before. How many times have I said to my piano teachers, "It sounded better when I did this at home!"

I am very thankful that I got to do this project. It was a learning experience for me. But most importantly, I am thankful William trusted me with his baby.

I cannot wait to share the film with you all.

Becca Wong