Music in Montreal

image via H2T site.

Last week I was in Montreal, recording the music for the film at a groovy little recording studio called Hotel 2 Tango. Somehow I forgot to take pictures, so I will just have to describe it!

The studio itself is mainly an indie-rock recording studio, so this project was a little different for them. We rented a grand piano, set up a projector so that the musicians could see the film up on the wall, and Graham Lessard, the recording engineer, scattered mics and chairs throughout the room.

When the musicians (Ensemble Qat) arrived, they spent an hour or so warming up, while Graham tweaked his set-up. This was one of my favourite parts of the day — the musicians just have such a great rapport, and clearly know how to have fun. The warm-up sounded like eddies forming and disappearing in water… the musicians would play separately, then join their sounds into a formation, then separate again. Sometimes it would get silly, with plucks on piano strings, or jabbing the violin and cello with the back of the bows, or a clarinet being taken apart and its smallest part played like a kazoo… Sometimes the music would be extremely loud, sometimes soft… But the playfulness and friendly energy carried throughout.

Then, once Graham was satisfied with the way the sounds were coming through his deck, we did a quick run-through, and Qat improvised as the video played onscreen, and on the wall. We may have done two run- throughs like this, and then the musicians came into the recording booth to hear what they had done, and so that we could chat about it.

This is where the choices made in improv get interesting. I had discussed with the band a week prior to the recording whether or not they wanted to see the film before our recording session. Since the music is improv, I wasn’t sure if they wanted to see it and think about it, or, as the pianist (my cousin Sonia) had suggested, just wing it on the day of the recording. Improv works best when there is a freshness to the sound, she said, and if the music is planned too much, or repeated too often, then it loses this freshness.

But then they later decided to see the film a couple days in advance, and they asked me for some notes, describing the mood of the film, and moments that needed any kind of musical emphasis. So I sent them a link to the rough cut along with a couple pages of notes, where I tried my best to describe the film’s various moods and emphatic moments. With our first ‘take’ of the recording, this quick run- through, it seemed like my notes were interfering — the band was looking for these moments to hit, and it was sounding a little choppy. Compared to their warmup, which seemed to flow and ebb so beautifully, the first couple run-throughs sounded forced and tense, and didn’t quite strike the right mood.

So now, we decided the best approach would be for them to focus on creating a mood for each section, rather than hitting the individual moments of action. This method definitely worked best — the following few takes turned out brilliantly.  We then chatted a bit more about the moods of the film. There are 3 distinct sections to it, and each one has a very different feel. The first two sections were easy for me to describe, and perhaps easy to interpret visually, in terms of mood, but the last section was tricky. What is the poem about here, what mood do we want to create with the music? My direction was a little unclear. I knew how it should resolve in the last few seconds, but there were a few empty parts where we just left things open.

Xavier, the clarinetist, decided to use the bass clarinet for the first and second parts. (I was so grateful that he brought his bass clarinet — it has such a beautiful sound, and hit the theme perfectly.)

In 4 takes, they were done. In the very first take after our ‘run- throughs,’ the band hit the first section perfectly. I knew instantly that this take was going to work best for the visuals. They continued on, without breaking to listen, and in take 2 they nailed the middle section of the film. Then in the third take, I wasn’t sure… they did one more take, which I still wasn’t initially sure about, but in the end, we used this take for section three. I think because I wasn’t 100% clear on what that section should sound like, it was more difficult to say “YES! I love it” when I first heard it. But it grew on me, and by then the band had exhausted that direction, anyway. So that was that, it worked! I think by the end we were all totally happy with how the sounds worked with the visuals.

The band then took a break for an hour, while Erín Moure came in to record her voice for the VO. Graham set up a mic for her in the main room, where the band had played.  She was standing in the middle of the room, looking out onto the wall that had the film projection. But as Graham started to record, he wasn’t happy with the sound… because Erín was standing in a large room, her voice was echoing and sounding distant, as if she was performing in a concert hall. For a VO the voice should have more intimacy, Graham said, and feel more immediate. So he set up the mic in the a booth beside the ‘control room,’ and all was well. Erín read the poem twice, while watching the film, so that she could get the right intonation for the lines of her reading. Her voice happens to suit the visuals so well — she has a fairly dark- sounding voice, and added even more drama to the image… So everything just seemed to fall into place!

After about an hour, just as we were wrapping up with Erín’s recording, Sheila, the band’s cellist, called to see how things were going, and if we were ready for them to come back. Yes, it’s perfect timing! So they came on back to the studio, and set themselves up to record the closing credit music.

The music up to this point had been atonal, but I was looking for a distinct change in ‘tune’ once we reached the credits. So the closing music is also improvised, but it has a melody to it. Sonia and Sheila played the accompanying baseline tune, while Xavier and Roland (the violinist) alternated their solos. This part was fun, and quite amazing for someone who’s not very musical, like me, to witness, because it came together so easily for them, and sounded so beautiful! In fact after about 3 takes, both Graham and I were nodding our heads, thinking this was a wrap… Then once the band came in to hear their music played back to them, they weren’t satisfied. Tonal music is to music what uncanny valley is to animation… The closer the music is to following the rules of music, the more likely people are to hear the ‘mistakes.’ (Though I didn’t hear them! But I trust that they were there… :))

So we went through about 6 or 7 takes of the 1.5 minutes or so of music for the close, until the band was happy with it. The end result is so beautiful, I have actually cried a little while listening to it… I have since listened and watched the film over and over again… it’s tough to stop! I love the music so much. The violin is especially beautiful, I find, though of course I was so impressed with *all* of the musicians of the band… They did such a fantastic job — they are utter *naturals* at putting music to visuals.

Thanks, Ensemble Qat, for your music-making-magic!  And thanks to Erín for her unique voice, and of course, for the beautiful poem!

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