Sunday, October 11, 2009

White Pine Music: Sandra Seaton's CD 'From the Diary of Sally Hemings' In Editing Stage

(Sandra Seaton, Professor emerita, Central Michigan University)

On Sept. 1, 2009 AfriClassical posted “White Pine Music Records 'From the Diary of Sally Hemings,' by Sandra Seaton & William Bolcom,” based on an interview with Scott Burgess, Audio Production Manager of White Pine Music at Central Michigan University. The libretto is by Prof. Sandra Seaton and the music is by William Bolcom, the frequently-recorded and Grammy-winning composer who recently retired from the University of Michigan. The performers are soprano Alyson Cambridge and pianist Lydia Brown, both of the Metropolitan Opera. A second interview with Scott Burgess took place on Oct. 7, 2009.

Thanks for agreeing to talk to us further about “From the Diary of Sally Hemings”!
It's my pleasure! We got interested in this piece when we first heard about it through our connection with Sandra Seaton, of course. She used to teach her and she's been a good friend of the Music Department for some years. It always looked like it would be an attractive project for our White Pine label. When the opportunity came to apply for the Copland grant, it seemed like a perfect project for that, and apparently they agreed!
They awarded $9,000, right?
Right and that was a real blessing because it allowed us to go forward with the project. We had actually already planned on it before we knew whether or not we were getting the grant, because my Director said “Yes, if they don't pay for it, we'll find some other way to do it, because it's an important project for us.” So I had a lot of support in getting this recording made, which was great!
It sounds like it!
Yes! And then I think I mentioned when we talked earlier that we had everybody up here in July and recorded it down and we'll be editing it in the next week or two. It was just a treat to work with these artists, with Alyson and Lydia, and also with Bill and Sandra, and to get to know this piece. I was reviewing the libretto in preparation for talking to you, and some of Sandra's notes on it. I think the cool thing about it – your readers are probably familiar with the story of Sally Hemings and who she was...
Sandra describes it as “a work of the imagination constrained by historical possibilities.” She did a wonderful job of getting us into what might be in the head of this important person. So I really enjoyed learning it on that level too!
I see Sandra describes her as a “complex person, not just a mistress”?
Right! We have a tendency from this vantage point in history to look at a lot of people in the past, especially those that were servants or slaves or lower in the society as being one-dimensional, and they're not. I mean they weren't then, and the more you can get to know about them you can find out that everybody's got a story to tell.
So there's a real lesson for us there?
I think so! It brings somebody to life that people might not have spared a thought for otherwise.
The story between Hemings and Jefferson is so interesting. There's a new book that just came out about it a few months ago and it continues to draw people's attention. But to get behind the history, and use art to try and find out what was at the heart of the matter – well I guess that's what art's for, really!
Right. So you're moving into the editing stage?
Yes. The way it works is we'll normally record several takes of the piece, of each song, and then go back and pick out the best bits and come up with the best possible representation of how they were performing it at that point in time.
I see.
Recording is a funny process in that way, and being an artist you always look back and say “Oh, I could redo that” or “We could make that just a little bit better.” But as Bill pointed out during the session and as I like to point out as a producer, what you're trying to capture is how you're performing the piece at this point in time. So we have taken all those different takes and putting them together to get the very best possible whole.
Do the artists take part in the editing?
No, normally what we do is present them with what we consider to be the finished master and then they'll go through and say, for instance, “Is there a different take of bar 8 that has a little more of a line to it?” or “This note here is a little out of tune. Do you have another?” The reason I don't like to have the artists participate in the editing is that really what I'm doing when I'm editing is focusing on the flaws and trying to eliminate them, where if something isn't quite together, I'll look for a take where it is, or something like that, and that can be kind of disheartening for the artist to sit through.
So, it's better for them to see the product of your editing?
Yes, well there's an old joke that says “Those who enjoy the benefits of sausage and public policy are better off not seeing them made!” This kind of falls into that same category!
I see!
So we do the hard work of putting the puzzle together and then let them evaluate the final result.
Do you have help on it or do you do it all yourself?
I typically do it myself. I have a fair amount of experience doing that kind of editing and frankly, it's a lot of fun! It is like putting together a puzzle!
So it's not all a chore?
No, not at all! It can be, but generally it isn't, and when you're working with artists of this caliber it certainly isn't! Because basically I get to listen to the whole thing again, which I really enjoy.
That's great!
Yes, it's a lot of fun! Then of course we have to also figure out the print materials, what the cover's going to be. On a song cycle like this, of course we want to have the words available to the listener, whether we put them in a booklet or put them online, so that they can get the full story and get the whole arc of it.
That makes sense.
Yes. Sometimes that can be tricky too, getting it all to squeeze into 8 pages or 12 pages or however much your budget allows for.
Do I remember correctly that you were shooting for February as a release date?
That's correct! Alyson and Lydia will be up here at CMU to perform this music in recital on February 18 and I think they also have some other recital dates booked during that month, so we want to have it done by then. So that'll be fun! We have a Masters Series up where we bring in nationally known guest artists and have them perform for our students and for our community, and this is going to be part of that. We were thrilled to be able to put that together as a package with this recording!
I'm sure the artists were pleased also!
I hope everybody had a good time, I think so!
Are there any other developments that you'd like to point out now, or is that pretty much where we are we are right now?
I think that's pretty much it. I have some other projects up my sleeve that we'll be able to talk about later, but right now I'm still getting them put together.
Well, I'll look forward to that! But for the present I thank you very much for giving us this insight into your ongoing process!
And as always, I appreciate the chance to talk with you!
Comment by email: "Bill, Many thanks to you, as well. I appreciate the opportunity to be part of the work that you do. Best, Scott"

1 comment:

Sandra Seaton said...

Dear Bill and Scott,

I was delighted to read the very informative interview about the upcoming release of "From The Diary of Sally Hemings." It is fascinating to hear about the music recording process from the point of view of Scott, an accomplished creator of classical music cd's. It was my hope to bring Sally Hemings to life as a complicated human being. I am gratified to know that Scott feels I succeeded.
Take care and thanks,