on making the “two-part harmony” live, in person

Since Mira and I first met in person several weeks ago, we’ve been planning to start doing Kaddish recordings together occasionally—to start emphasizing the “two-part harmony” of our project title. We released our first collaborative recording last night in the daily kaddish: for all the foster children who don’t quite make it.

It seemed fitting that our first live recording together was on the Sabbath. We made and shared a lovely meal with the traditional candles, wine, and even a bracha—except that it was part of a Hebrew lesson and occurred well in advance of the actual dinner and lighting of candles. Still, pretty observant for a couple of non-observant atheists.

After dinner we went into the studio to record together. We suspended the “first take only” rule for this daily kaddish, for several reasons. First, the reason for the rule in the first place was to help me remember that this is not a daily performance—it’s not about me the musician on stage, it is about a ritual that I participate in along with Mira and all our listeners, in which I am expected to be just another human going through a year of processing my grief. The daily recordings are also a journalistic record of a process of how this piece evolves through a yearlong collaboration.

That rule was not necessary for Mira, who was bravely entering a (home) recording studio for the first time in her life, reading and extemporizing live on the text of the Kaddish for the first time in front of another person (me), and working together with a musician, live, for the first time. The pressure of doing all that in one take that would go out to the public is obviously unfair.

Another reason for the one-take-only rule <i>for me</i> is that as a professional musician with a perfectionist streak and far too much pride (that’s one of the seven deadly sins, isn’t it? I know why!), I could easily make myself crazy doing take after take after take every, trying to get one “perfect” take, day after day. If I did not have the one-take rule, I would frequently burn through hours trying to make something that would feel good enough, and the ritual would have become an unsustainable tyranny within the first month of the project. My wife would have divorced me by now, and I wouldn’t get my job or any essays done. The first-take rule has tortured me at times, because those first takes are often flawed in ways that feel appalling to me at the time. In the grand sweep of making a daily kaddish over a year—we’re starting our sixth month now, and this was the 158th recording—I can see how the piece is becoming richer, and this is deeply satisfying, but on a day to day basis publishing some of these recordings is hard.

That, too, is a reason that wasn’t applicable to the new situation of recording live with Mira. It was especially important to drop it for this kaddish, because we had a number of technical challenges to overcome. The first was figuring out how to mic each of us adequately despite my horn being so much louder than Mira’s voice. The horn definitely came through her microphone onto her ProTools track as well as my pair of microphones and track, and the first take or two were problematic. Eventually we found a better arrangement in the room and a better set of gain levels, and putting a chamois-shirt-covered music stand between me and her mic also helped a bit. Not a perfect solution, but the best I could do on the spot. I’ll be seeking professional advice on the matter, of course.

We also had the fun of Kjersti wandering through the studio while we were working, once getting tangled in cables and almost pulling a scary amount of gear to the floor, and another time getting so friendly with Mira that we both started losing it. We carried on for quite a while, fighting the giggles, but eventually we both lost it and broke into a laughing fit from which we couldn’t recover.

I think we did two full takes and several aborted third takes before we finally did a full third take that we felt was good enough. In the first several takes (and the misfires), we worked out some ideas about timing. Each one was different of course, and it was refreshing for me to be able to discuss with someone else how to think about the pacing and the alignments of text and music. By the third take, I think we had a good joint understanding of where we were going with that.

It was also refreshing for me to be able for the first time to have a two-way give and take between my music and her text. Neither of us have anything approaching a clear plan for how the music and notes should line up rhythmically, or how tightly to try to weave them together vs. letting them run at their own paces over each other. But there is something about being able to watch each other working that helped with this. For me, it was easier than trying to remember and anticipate the recorded text’s pacing. Mira had no basis for comparison, but her instincts were good, and she said it helped her understand better what I’ve been trying to do in the Kaddishim that I’ve made with her text recordings.

I also asked Mira to lay down a new vocal-only track that I can work with between now and whenever we can get together for another live recording. She has made her previous recordings using GarageBand and her MacBook’s built-in microphone, and those have been remarkably high quality considering that origin, but this new recording made with ProTools and studio-quality gear (an AudioTechnica AT3035 large diaphragm cardioid condenser mic) will be noticeably clearer and richer.

I look forward to working with it for today’s “Kaddish” recording.

About erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…

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2 Responses to on making the “two-part harmony” live, in person

  1. mira says:

    Well, I was appalled at my incompetence, and at how one delightful not-so-little pup could distract me quite literally beyond words. Kjersti figures prominently in my experience of our live kaddish. And one of our takes was entirely dictated by my ticklish response to her nuzzling.

    I’m also in awe of the musician (we all know that) and what it must take, year after year, to be not just a meticulous practitioner, but a playful and inspired one as well. Daunting.

    What this did for me is reduce the fear and amp up the OCD instead. It made me want to get it right. And I can see how a person could fall right into the trap of attempted perfection. We worked on this bloody thing until almost 3:00 AM, as I recall, which shows just how awful I am at this. So, of course I want to try it again. And again. Until I get it right. And get it right as a kaddish in two-part harmony, which is, after all, the intent. And is that even possible? Apparently so. This was my first time at it. Steep learning curve, and daunting as well. But eventually, we got something serviceable. Barely. I hope I didn’t exhaust you, cara, with my fear and my incapacity.

    I’m hoping Erin will indulge me and let me try again sometime. After I recover from the shock of just this once.

    • erin says:

      Well, of course I will. But maybe that first take rule is necessary for you, too. And maybe knowing the first take is the only take you get helps you get that first take right.

      And yeah, I’ll let you try again. I insist. We’re in this together.

      Curiously, I was not tired at all, working with you live. I could have done several more. But today, working alone, with your audio from Saturday? Completely shot by the end of the Kaddish.

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