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WHEN THE BORROMEO STRING QUARTET DECIDED TO DOCUMENT EVERY SINGLE ONE OF ITS LIVE PERFORMANCES, IT EMBARKED ON A DO-IT-YOURSELF EXPERIMENT THAT BLOSSOMED INTO A BUSINESS.
The very first time I heard a Heifetz recording, I was seven years old, standing in the house of one of my teachers. I was shocked and thrilled to know the violin could do that! Soon afterward, I wore out an LP of Henryk Szeryng's Bach Ciaconna. Recordings defy mortality: you can hear Bartók performing, or Shostakovich, or Rachmaninoff. Although in its early years recording technology left a lot to be desired, you could at least try to imagine what it must have been like, for example, to hear Kreisler's tone in real life. In a recording, you could sense the fever of Furtwängler or appreciate the arabesques of Mengelberg. Jussi Björling could pierce the heart with a golden spear of tone, and you could hear Caruso launch full sail into an aria. These experiences were made possible by the efforts of the engineers and producers who wanted to preserve the sounds of the artists around them. Their efforts have by now accumulated into a tremendous archive, and we who live in the 21st century visit the past with amazing ease, cruising with our disc-spinning time machines!
Today, as a violinist with the Borromeo String Quartet and as artistic director of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, I have a musical life filled with live performances. The constant re-creation of great pieces of music is a very special journey. Each concert has its own alchemy: Every hall is different. Each audience creates a different "vibe."We may be playing a piece for the first time--or the hundredth. Someone has a cold, or feels his or her strings are false. The day leading up to the concert was spent in a peaceful, idyllic location with ample time for rehearsal and mental preparation, or it was a nightmare travel scenario that has reduced everyone to a frazzled pulp. (Interestingly, the frazzled pulp performances are sometimes quite good!) The same piece of living music transforms constantly as the group's ear absorbs it more and more deeply. I think of ocean waves hitting a certain shore, each the same in some way, but each unique. For our quartet, the sequence of performances has been a rich history of discovery. The Borromeo was founded fifteen years ago. Some presenters recorded our concerts in those early years.We were delighted when they did--and more so when we actually received a copy. But the vast majority of concerts went un-recorded.
We value the few commercial studio recordings we have made, but there is nothing like the magic of the concert hall. In so many performances, something special occurs; and it is sad to think that these moments can survive only as vague memories. So, gradually, asking many questions of the audio engineers we worked with, I started to think through how we could make an archive of all of our concerts.
Would our affection for these concerts survive the scrutiny of preservation? By making such a record, would we better understand the alchemy of live performance? After a more than two years of documenting our concerts, all of us in the group feel the answer to both questions is yes.
A record of the live event, I thought, would be much richer if it could be both heard and seen. I devoted myself to figuring out a way of getting the best of both the video and audio worlds. The first thing that seemed doable was to videotape the concerts. One tripod and one camera seemed like something I could carry and set up. Joel Gordon, of the Boston public radio station WGBH,told me about the Sony TRV DRV-900, a 3-CCD digital camcorder that seemed to be a really nice combination of good quality and small size. (There's also the Panasonic DVX 100A, the Canon XL2, and other fine semipro cameras to choose from; but the lightweight Sony, at $2,500, seemed just right for our needs.)
I started to videotape some of the concerts. When someone else--the presenter, say--was recording the concert with professional audio equipment, I tried to bring that high-quality sound into the camera through a special adapter (rather than using the stock stereo microphone mounted on top of our camera). Engineers were quite willing to help me try this; but the set-up was very cumbersome and different at every venue. Instead, I decided to use the no-hassle on-camera mike, but I set the camera's audio switches to make the best possible recording. Fortunately, the Sony allows you to turn off the audio equivalent of auto-focus. Turning off this annoying auto-leveling feature ensures that the camera does not pump up the pianissimos and suppress the fortissimos--or, for that matter, amplify air conditioners and coughs.
I knew my audio recordings were still less than ideal, but I figured that later I would collect whatever sound source was available from the professional recording. I trusted that someday I could synchronize the two. (At the time, I had no idea how I would do this: now I'm happy to say it is not a problem.) In this, the middle period of my recording concerts, some of the documented concerts had good video and good audio; but more of them had good video and marginal audio. Having seen the suitcases of professional audio equipment that most engineers bring to concerts, I had always thought it would just be too cumbersome for us to do top quality audio recording ourselves. But I kept my wheels turning.
Then, in summer 2002, working with the New England Conservatory audio department (the Borromeo Quartet is quartet-in-residence at NEC), I was made aware of the Digidesign M-Box. This cigar-box-sized package of electronics cost us about $300 (it's $400 now). The M-box would allow me to mike any performance at near-professional level, consistently and without help. It has good microphone pre amps that don't distort the sound as they amplify it for recording. And it provides something called Phantom Power (a concert must benefit from "Phantom Power," right?) Actually, Phantom Power lets you use fine microphones that would otherwise require a separate power source. The M-Box also has a decent A/D--analog to digital--converter to send the signal through the cable to the computer, in this case, to an Apple G4 Powerbook. (Powerbooks seem to be trusted tools for many audio engineers I know.) A further advantage of the M-Box is that it includes ProTools Audio software, which you would normally have to purchase separately. With ProTools, we could edit the performance afterward--things like shortening the ovations, or getting rid of any re-tuning of instruments between movements.
It all seemed very promising. But what about set-up and mike placement? These were very daunting issues for a non-engineer. Sometimes there is a lot of time to set up, but sometimes there is next to none (not to mention that my real job is to get ready to play). Again, asking the advice of many people, I learned about the Schoeps ORTF mikes. This delicate, pair of first-class microphones ($2,500) is set in a T formation, locked into a stereo positioning that, as I understand it, is related to the configuration of human ears. Anyway, if the Schoeps ORTF is decently aimed, a good stereo image will result. Since there's no chance to do any significant monitoring, having this nearly indestructible microphone setup is crucial. Rick Scott, of Parsons Audio near Boston, helped me find a very tall, very light, very thin microphone stand, so that the mikes' presence would be as discreet as possible.
The trickiest part of setup, I learned, was taping down the mike cord and tripod. At one concert, an audience member accidentally crunched the tripod leg and sent the whole thing tumbling. Once my heart was beating again, I found that it was all fixable, and the mikes (and the audience member!) were fine.
Starting with a performance at Shriver Hall in Baltimore in September 2002, I began to record every concert--not just on the video camera, but on the computer with the new Schoeps/M-Box combination. Some presenters had already set up recordings; in those cases, I would simply patch into what they were doing, capturing their signal on my computer's hard drive.
Having this complete audio file was vital to the making of the video, but the task of putting the two parts together would come a little later. I felt strongly that we needed to make both CDs and DVDs of each concert and have the DVDs include the same sound as the CDs--and all of the information needed to be saved in an easily retrievable format.
Now came the maze of software. To make a long story short, from the starting point of using OS9, the old Macintosh operating software--and not even knowing about ProTools, Final Cut Pro (the video editing software), or DVD Studio Pro (to edit the DVD)--I now have come out of the meat-grinder using the most up-to-date Macintosh operating system, OSX, and knowing each of these programs well enough to do everything I need, and a little bit more. These are amazing programs. My respect for the engineers and designers who have built these formidable platforms for handling information is enormous. I find it particularly impressive that Apple, while certainly profiting from these as commercial items, has made every effort to make them as flexible and all encompassing as possible.
Making our archive was important to us, even if we were the only ones who ever listened to the recordings. Only later did it strike us that the project might be of interest to audiences, too. In fact, audience members often asked us after concerts about obtaining a recording of a certain work on the program. Sometimes it was a new work for them, and sometimes it was a particular rendering of a familiar piece. I wondered, Could these requests actually be answered?
That was when the quartet, and our publicity associate Joseph Correia, decided to call our project "The Living Archive." We decided to give our audience the option to order any of our concerts in CD, DVD, or CD/VHS format.
The proceeds of any sale would benefit all who took part in producing the concert: presenter, engineers, composers, and performers. (It is impossible to overstate the generosity of engineers who collaborated with us on the archive project; and wherever possible, we give them credit on our recordings.) It was a big step for the group to decide to share the "whole house"--every recorded concert--with the public. Artists often carefully guard the right to veto the release of a concert for broadcast (and we have had our share of such refusals). To conceive of releasing everything, on principle, was a major shift. Ultimately, we decided that there was no reason to apologize for any of the work we were sharing, and thatn opening all our performances to the public only increased our effort to make each performances the very best we could.
Collaborating with Joe Correia, we worked out a system for audience members to order CDs and/or DVDs of our concerts. On October 10, 2003, at a performance at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York, we gave out our first printed order forms. Filling the orders is a considerable challenge. Each of us has taken on some administrative responsibilities to make the project work. Violinist Will Fedkenheuer handles the website, violist Mai Motobuchi the order forms, cellist Yeesun Kim the shipping, and Joseph the record-keeping and communications. By now we are humming along, getting as many as twenty orders per concert, figuring out seemingly endless details as we go. But the biggest challenge by far is the handling the amount of information we are archiving. Each concert uses about 50 gigabytes of space for the building process and results in about 25 gigabytes of information that must be archived. (This number is higher than the capacity of many computers!)
Recording all this on DVDs takes an enormous amount of time (burning at higher speeds than x1 is risky for the quality of the information). Each four gigabytes of information takes about 10 hours to burn onto archive DVDs. I am constantly managing six 250-gigabyte hard drives, all full and in constant process of being archived.
As far as we know, this kind of exhaustive archive is unprecedented in classical music. Now that it is growing, we've added another job: to cull the results, so that listeners may order what we feel is our very best performance of a given work. We recently created a collection of the six Bartók quartets, from six different performances. (We could conceivably re-construct each piece from individual movements played on different days, but so far we think it's better to select a complete work from a particular performance.) These "best" recordings will be updated as we continue to perform a piece.We also intend to use our archived concerts as the basis of educational material and in residencies.
The recorded archive of classic performers from the past continues to inspire and teach us all.We hope that, in time, our own archive may prove interesting to others in unforeseen ways. It will certainly be a faithful record of the enthusiastic work of one set of individuals: the Borromeo String Quartet. And maybe--one day--even our grandchildren might enjoy seeing and hearing what Grandma and Grandpa did!
Nicholas Kitchen is the first violinist of the Borromeo String Quartet, artistic director of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, and a faculty member at the New England Conservatory of Music.