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After two years of recording sessions, the Bill Cunliffe CD launches

Here are Bill's notes about the process of transformation

After two years of recording sessions, the Bill Cunliffe CD launches
Sunday, October 5, 2008 James Walker
photography featured on cd cover

In early 1998, I was looking for a spiritual home in Los Angeles. A friend, actor Steve Rowe, told me about a very special place, All Saints Episcopal Church, in Pasadena. Their motto is, “Whoever you are, and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, there is a place here for you.” That intrigued me, as I was struggling for a way to deal with the deaths of both my parents within the period of a year and a half, and had gone to several churches. None had really clicked with me.

I had, actually, grown up in the wonderful music and liturgy of the Episcopal Church back in my hometown of Andover, Massachusetts. At the age of 8, I was singing in the boys’ choir and picking out melodies of Leo Sowerby and Herbert Howells on the piano, even though I gave it up fairly early for baseball!

I accompanied choirs at Phillips Academy in Andover and at Wesleyan University. While at Eastman, I directed a choir at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Henrietta, New York. Shortly after that, I played for the choir of St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Dayton, Ohio. I even wrote a benediction for them. But I think it had too many “jazz chords” in it. They never performed it.

So my love of choral music lay dormant for over 18 years, until 2001.

I had been attending All Saints Church off and on for about three years. I got a phone call from James Walker, the director of the All Saints music program; he asked if I’d like to bring in a jazz combo to participate in a morning service. I said, sure, I’d love to… but… could I write something for the choir? His answer was, “of course.” I didn’t really know why I asked, but I had written a lot of music for big band, and had recently finished a three movement piano concerto in an attempt to learn how to orchestrate. So this seemed like a likely next step. The choir sounded terrific and it would be great to see if I could do something worthwhile in this new genre.

Right around this time, I heard “Lux Aeterna” by Morten Lauridsen and, like most people, was blown away by it. It was a modern, yet tonal, and intensely lyrical language, and I had to fight not to imitate it. I was able to see that my own desire to produce a modern, tonal, perhaps jazz-​influenced idiom for choir was not without precedent.

Creating Transformation

Psalm 37” premiered in late winter of 2001, and it was a real success. The choir enjoyed it, and I found writing for choir curiously very easy.

Instrumental jazz writing, forces you to generate an idea which allows the piece to develop. It seemed that the text in a choral work simply tells you what to write next, and it would just happen. I found the Psalms a particularly rich mine of lyric material because of their inherently musical meter and sound.

A secret project was proposed to me the next year for the anniversary of the combined musical directorship of James Walker, and his talented assistant Tim Howard, now director of music at Pasadena Presbyterian Church. I composed “Hymn” as an extended work for both Canterbury and Coventry choirs featuring clarinet, and trombone, James’ and Tim’s childhood musical instruments. We sprung this on them as a surprise and I still remember the looks on their faces when we led them into the church and they saw BOTH choirs (over a hundred people) filling the sanctuary!

Soon after, “Comfort, O Comfort” was written for an Advent service featuring harp and a string quartet. Three movements of the Mass were written for Easter 2003 for brass quintet, percussion and organ. This was quite an education, having all these instrumental combinations to write for, in addition to exploring different aspects of the style I was evolving.

The Lord Is My Light” was an a cappella piece that we did at a jazz vespers in 2005 — jazz only in harmony — the stylistic idiom is pretty traditional.

Jazz elements started to creep into my work, such as the gospel waltz-​flavored “I Thank You” and “Psalm 130,” the latter written for Greg Norton and the Pasadena Presbyterian Church. This piece was completely rewritten several times; it was a new idiom, more flowing, like chant, and it was tough to get the rhythm of the words and the music together quite right.

I stepped into a more severe Anglican idiom with “The Glory of God,” a text by Irenaeus, a favorite of Ed Bacon, All Saints’ rector, and “Psalm 150,” both written for organ, brass and percussion.

Home on the Range” was written after a performance of mine with the Pasadena Pops Orchestra. I heard the Occidental College Choir, directed by Jeffrey Bernstein, perform a version of this classic piece of Americana. They were wonderful and I thought how great it would be if you could put a little jazz harmony in it! “Golden Thread” is a pop tune written by me and my friend, singer, producer, screenwriter and land-​use consultant Melissa Sweeney. I enjoy hearing it as a choral piece very much.

Finally, I decided to flesh out the three movements of the Anglican Mass with a Kyrie, and an Introit, featuring a soprano soloist. As it happened, we had a great one in the choir, Zanaida Robles, who is also a very accomplished composer and conductor and runs the choral program at LA County School for the Arts. The Introit is a great text; it asks, in paraphrase, “Please, God, where are you? Give me a sign,” which leads effectively into the triumphant Gloria.

Recording Transformation

Around the summer of 2005, I became obsessed with the idea of getting this music recorded correctly. The All Saints audio staff did a fine job of live recording, but there are so many limitations in a church: ambient noise, the occasional crying child and the inability to balance the organ correctly. So, encouraged by my friend, composer Alex Shapiro, who is never short of brilliant ideas. I put together a proposal to the church to show off their exceptional choirs and music program with a special recording, done in true audiophile fashion, digitally, with a fine chamber ensemble, multitracked, so we could not only record the instruments with ultimate fidelity, but balance them afterwards. James Walker was very supportive, as was Ed Bacon. We had, what I recall to be a fifteen-​minute meeting. Their reaction was, “LET’S DO IT!!,” with untrammeled enthusiasm.

As you prepare to undertake a big project, sometimes people just come into your life at the right time. I struck up a friendship with a Coventry Choir member, Ed Johnson, who had an earlier life as a recording engineer, and was interested in rekindling that particular passion. We were both audiophiles, and Digital Performer recording software devotees. So we started thinking, how could we do this? There were many challenges.

First of all, this music is fairly difficult and there’s 75 minutes of it. How do you get the music learned, prepared and, seeing as these are very talented, but largely volunteer musicians, recorded without people feeling like this is just not fun?

The first time a piece is performed by an excellent group like this one, it’s a great experience. But the second time is much better. There is a relationship now between the people and the music; they anticipate what is going to come, they pace themselves. They sing with more style, more confidence. So James and I decided to program, over a two-​year period, the entire CD into the liturgical cycle, excepting, of course, “Home on the Range,” and “Golden Thread.” Each piece would then get about a month or so of rehearsal, a concert performance, and then a recording during the regular choir rehearsal. It helped that some of the music would be performed only by one choir and some pieces by both. This helped sort out the frenetic programming undertaken by James during this period, in his need to get all of this music recorded, and fulfill all the liturgical requirements of four services on a Sunday in the largest Episcopal church in the western United States!

I had decided NOT to have Elizabeth Lenti, All Saints’ talented associate organist, play during the choral recordings so that we could redo the organ later and have it balanced. (She later overdubbed the parts, and did a wonderful job under difficult conditions, playing to click track over headphones.) And as for the orchestral parts, it would be very impractical and expensive to have the orchestra show up for every one of these 16 (!) choral sessions. So how to give the choir their pitches and keep them in tune? We tried using the acoustic piano in the sanctuary, but it leaked sound too much into the choral microphones.

Ultimately, Ed and I decided to rig up small speakers and mount them around the sanctuary, pointed toward the choir, but as much as possible, away from the microphones which were fairly directional. I constructed basic piano reductions of the orchestral parts and played them on the speakers, hoping that the real orchestra would cover up the piano when we overdubbed them. That would allow us to have one two-​day orchestral session and get it all done at once. Ed consulted with a number of well-​known sound engineers in town and most of them were suspicious. The consensus was that it wouldn’t work. This wasn’t a professional choir, they wouldn’t be able to stay in tune just with a few flimsy monitor speakers, the synth would leak into the choral microphones, we wouldn’t be able to match the particular ambience of the church in the recording studio, etc. But we were determined to succeed. The great thing about our leisurely recording schedule was that we could try things and redo them without wasting a whole lot of time and money. There weren’t too many screwups, though. I got pretty finicky in the mixes; on one occasion, I insisted that a harried Talley Sherwood completely remix “Psalm 150” just to get the last high D played by Marisa Benedict loud enough. After all, you don’t do this type of record every day!

When we finished recording and mixing, we had a new piece based on Psalm 104, “Praise the Lord,” which was the closest thing we got to a gospel number. It was written for parishioner Lydia Wilkins who was going to turn 104! It also had a little Singers Unlimited in it, as some of us had gone to a Chanticleer concert at Disney Hall, where they performed a wonderful Gene Puerling arrangement. I felt we had to include it.

It was, finally, our great pleasure to trudge up the hill to Bruce Leek’s compound in Lake Elsinore, to do the final mastering. Mastering is, basically, assembling the tracks in the final order, spacing them correctly, and putting, often, a light equalization, on the whole, to make it fit as a unit. Bruce is an individual craftsman, to put it mildly; he uses extinct software called Sound Designer on an ancient Mac Quadra 905 using Mac System 7, which is all decades old. He feels that combined with his topnotch hardware, his sound is distinctly superior. Mac Wilberg, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, among Bruce’s many clients, agrees. Although Mac might not have gone along with the $300 bottle of Sonoma Cabernet that came out of hiding in the middle of the afternoon’s work.

A few years ago, I was named Composer-​in-​Residence of All Saints Church. A financially unpaid position, this is true, but the payment is in so many other ways, among them, the warm friendships I’ve developed, and the total willingness of James and the choirs to tackle my musical experiments. Quite an honor, in fact, and always present on my resume. As Bob Brookmeyer said of the Village Vanguard Orchestra, “this is the only band I would write for for free, greater praise I cannot offer.”

I want once again to thank the congregation of All Saints Church, Ed Bacon, James Walker, Elizabeth Lenti, Tim Howard, Greg Norton, Alex Shapiro, Ed and Susan Johnson, Talley Sherwood, Bruce Leek, Melissa Hayes, Anne Peterson, Susan Russell, Rusty Harding, Peter Kent, and Joshua Blanchard.

And I wish, of course, to thank God, and his Son, Jesus Christ, for pointing me in this musical and spiritual direction that has enriched my life without measure.

Learn more about Bill Cunliffe

Listen to selections from Transformation