Recording Reports

Focusing on Jane Ira Bloom’s Latest Album “Picturing The Invisible: Focus 1”

What do you get when you mix virtuosic musicianship, top-level audio engineering, and the task to record an album remotely via the internet? Answer: you get one amazing album story.

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with the talented team of Jane Ira Bloom, Ulrike Schwarz, and Jim Anderson. Jane is an award winning jazz soprano saxophonist who constantly pushes the boundaries of her music to new heights. Along with the talented production team of Ulrike and Jim, who are both well-known producers in the high-end audio world, Jane embarked on her latest musical feat: to record an improvisational album of duets during the Corona pandemic… in different locations… at the exact same time. As Jane so passionately puts it: “The project is a marriage of art and science,” and what a marriage it became…

I’ve been hearing a lot about your album Picturing The Invisible: Focus 1 and its’ unique story and creation. Can you take me back to the beginning and tell me about when it was conceptualised?

Jane: Yeah, well, you know if I were to use one term to describe everything about the whole journey, it’s about the power of improvisational thinking. We had to make things up as we went because life gave us a few curve balls, and funny enough the substance of what I do as a Jazz improviser is, basically that I make things up! Luckily for me, I had the pleasure of working with professional audio engineers and producers who also have this improvisational skill. So that’s where our story really began with this album. I had a suite of compositions that I wanted to record but couldn’t go in to a studio for safety reasons [as this was the middle of the Corona period] so I had to think, ‘Well, can I record this album remotely?’ Then I thought that the best sonic possibilities for remote recording might be duets. So Ulrike, Jim and I spoke at length about how we would do this. We realised it had never really been done before, attempting to record an album of remote improvisational duets in real time. So we had our challenge, Ulrike especially, to capture the essence and the sound of each musician so that as a listener you couldn’t tell  how it was done. Thus began the marriage of Art and Science that was motivation behind this whole project.

How did you go about selecting the songs that would make up the album? Was everything written specifically for the album based on the initial inspiration? Or did some unfinished songs of yours lead to the inspiration for the album?

Jane: Well these were compositions that were part of a project called Picturing The Invisible. There were pieces that I wrote inspired by the legendary black-and-white photographer Berenice Abbott. She made this beautiful science photography, which the cover of our album kind of evokes, and her photography is what inspired the compositional choices for the music on the album. In fact, the pieces that I recorded were written for much larger instrumentations, but they suited a duet format because of their sparse character. To allow sound and space to be heard in a very audible way, I think that’s part of the reason I chose some of the compositions that I did. Also they suited working with these specific collaborators. Mark Helias the bassist – he and I have been playing remotely now for two years! I have a long history as well with Allison Miller. So these pieces suited the personalities of the other musicians. It’s like the way Ellington wrote for the particular musicians in his band –  these pieces fit these people. 

How was the process of recording remotely? I imagine it must have been quite a different experience than what you are used to…

Jim: Well Jane you’ve been doing remote work even long before the pandemic. I remember one time sitting at the UN and you were working remotely with people from around the world, and this was years ago. 

Jane: Yeah actually I’ve gotten quite used to recording remotely because I had been working with a wonderful composer, orchestrator and director named Sarah Weaver, who was on the cutting edge of remote-recording using Jack Trip Software. She devised a way so that we could play in real-time, or as close to it as possible, with people from Dubai, China, Korea, California, & New York. That’s what that UN project was about years ago, and that was my first introduction to playing with someone who was not in the room with me. One important thing I learned from that project is that the musicians tend to be almost hyper-sensitive to the other’s energy.Normally musicians are in a studio together, and they listen to each other and what they are doing and they adjust their playing to each other in order to play. When we were separated by thousands of miles, I found that this ability was intensified, out of necessity I suppose. 

Jim: Another thing is that the latency for such a project back then [2010] was an issue. And if each musician was waiting for the other as a cue to join, well then everyone would just be waiting and waiting and no one would begin. So they almost had to just jump in. And over the last 10 or 15 years I think certain musicians have really adjusted to this timing and have adapted to know how to play with it. And I think we were really able to take advantage of all the people who have done this over the years. But Jane was one of the pioneers in this field to figure out how this works. 

Jane: I think another reason this album suited this format so well is because of the style of music. When I listened back to some of these songs for the first time with the other musicians involved, we were shocked at how we could be playing so well in time together. It should technically be impossible since we were not in the same room. But I believe it’s because Jazz improvisation requires decisions to be made in anticipation, which is a handy skill to have if you are recording remotely. It’s like baseball players : when a baseball player is at bat and sees a 100mph ball coming towards them, they don’t have time to think. They’re ahead of it before it even leaves the pitchers glove! And likewise jazz musicians when improvising are making all kinds of split-second anticipatory decisions before we even make a sound. Thanks to this learned skill, and some genius technical preparation by Ulrike, we were able to play in time together. 

From an outside perspective this sounds as if you’re reading minds or seeing the future!

Jane: Haha, yeah there’s definitely something mystical about it. 

Well it’s clear that the musicianship of you and your duet partners was crucial to the success of this experiment. I’m guessing that just as important was the technology used to make it possible. Considering technology is improving so quickly these days, was there a big difference in the experience of this recording compared to the older remote recordings you’ve worked on, like the one at the UN in 2010? 

Ulrike: Well I think what is most spectacular about this project is that we used just your typical at-home internet setup rather than something larger and stronger. All of the projects doing this type of remote-recording that were happening back then were mostly for Universities and they would use different internet connections than most people had. Or they would use something called JackTrip which worked a bit differently than normal internet connection and could reduce the latency while performing remotely. What is special about this album is that we used normal internet connection that was available from each musicians’ home. I mean, I have a background in broadcast and if I had asked someone in broadcast, ‘Hey I need two of these units and I need a fixed bandwidth for half an hour,’ I mean that wouldn’t really have been that spectacular. But the way we did it – recorded on both ends in super high definition, and doing it with ‘home means’ using personal computers – now that made it unique. 

Jane: Yeah it’s funny because technology has come a long way and it is definitely what made it possible to create this album in the way that we did. That being said, the way that we made this album posed its own challenges and obstacles. 

Ooooh, sounds like you have some interesting stories to share…?  

Jane: Ulrike why don’t you just explain the room in which we recorded my part.

Ulrike: Yes, so that was Jane’s office where we recorded. It has a desk that was smaller than my 53” computer monitor, another desk and a sofa. And acoustically to treat it we were doing things like, “Let’s put a towel on the desk” and “Maybe a jacket on the spot of the sofa”, you know really sophisticated acoustic treatment. We had 2 microphones in there, we had a  Sanken and a TLM in there, and it was a very small room. But Jane’s room was relatively easy to set up and get a good sound. After we figured it out, we just left everything where it was and I went to the other location, let’s say I went to Allison’s basement to set up for the drums. Well, in her house there was no internet connection in the basement but only on the third floor. So we had to run a line to the third floor bedroom to get internet down to us. Yeah, I mean it was really interesting to step into people’s homes, and in to their home situations where you never know what you’re going to get. For instance, when I was recording Miya [Miya Masaoko, koto player] who had a really fast internet sometimes I thought “Well, what’s going on? She has a Gigabyte line but the speed is not where it should be.” Well she had mentioned that her son was home but would not be loud, but I was hearing something out of that room. So we found out that he was playing online games which was slowing down the internet speed. Inevitably we had to forbid him from playing because we needed the speed, not a great way to make friends with a teenager! So those were a few of the instances that were really unique and interesting to come across. 

Well as you mentioned Jane, it seems that the success of this project is owed to having amazing improvisational musicians as well as improvisational engineers. 

Ulrike Schwarz and Jim Anderson, audio engineers

Jane: Oh definitely! And you should understand as well how many programs were running simultaneously, it’s incredible what Ulrike accomplished. The musicians were watching each other via Zoom (without audio), while we were communicating sonically through SonoBus, and then she was recording!

Ulrike: Yes, there were always two machines recording, one at each location. I tried to actually get the Zooms always off the computers that the SonoBus was running on, because that would just slow down the SonoBus connection which needed to be as fast as possible. So it was sometimes a bit of a puzzle to figure out which computer should run which program in order to produce the fastest connection. 

Jim: And my involvement so far is that I’m outside in the car.

Ulrike: Yes, Jim was the ‘getaway driver’!

Jim: Yeah I would wait for Ulrike to finish setting up in one spot and then we’d drive the rest of the gear over to the second location and she’d set up there. 

Ulrike: And another funny moment where we had to ‘improvise’ was when Miya called us some days before we were going to record and said ‘My husband is coming home from the UK and he’s coming home early!” So we had to change gears and get over to Miya’s place to record her parts before he got home, which meant we had to move up every other session in order to make it in time. 

I’m curious which location provided the most challenges for you? In my experience, recording drums is usually quite difficult. Did you find the drum sessions the most challenging? 

Ulrike: Actually no, the drums were not the most difficult. Allison is always hyper-focused on tuning her kit and making sure that everything is ready and sounding great even before I ever get there to set up. She makes it feel like the job is already done by the time I get there! There was also the benefit of recording at her home, on her drum kit. Most drummers aren’t allowed that luxury because they go record in a studio on the studio’s drum kit, but at home Allison was grateful to play her own kit and it showed in her comfort and ease of playing. Her father is also a recording engineer, and he had actually worked with her before we got there to set up a couple of microphones.

So the drums really went quite smoothly. The most difficult location was probably the home of bassist Mark Helias and of course not because of Mark, but because of circumstances. He lives in the East Village and outside his house was party central. Also the bass is not as loud as drums and where the drums don’t really suffer from any outside noise, the bass really does. So outside was really loud and it was a challenge to record the bass parts. 

Jane: But I’m so impressed with what Ulrike was able to do in these locations. You know when you’ve been improvising for a while you really get comfortable with the idea of ‘less is more’. And from an audio engineer’s perspective ‘less’ means that the musician is allowing the sound to be equalled in strength by the silences. And it’s these silences as well as the sounds that engineers are capturing with such incredible techniques and microphones – so that there’s as much mental weight given to the positive parameters of a sound you make as there is to the silence. This empty space determines how the sounds resonate inside people’s minds, and allows the mind to sort of chew on what it hears. It’s a very important concept that the composers and musicians work with, but also a concept that the audio engineers do as well. And Ulrike did such a fantastic job with this.

I wanted to ask about the inspiration for the album, and how Berenice Abbott’s photography was involved in the creation of this music. 

Jane: Well Abbott, in the 1950s & 60s, was photographing properties of physics – the way light and sound waves move and how to photograph them to demonstrate their properties for use in science text books. That’s where her science photography came from, and if you look at these black and white images there’s a beauty to the spare starkness of the dark and light. An interest in cyclical motion and momentum and how things ebb and flow together. Those were some of the core ideas that resonated with me as an improviser, and the main ideas I used in the melodic writing for the album. They are inspiring as well because Berenice was the very first photographer to figure out how to photograph these scientific phenomena. The photographs absolutely floor me, and when I first saw them I knew that I wanted to compose music derived from these ideas.

Ulrike: Yeah, and the only reason that this project came to be was because you had the idea to take it to the New York Foundation of Arts and apply for a grant. 

Jane: And rightly so, yes. We were given a grant by the New York City Women’s Fund for Media, Music and Theatre, and we fit into the category of music and media. And we have a lot of powerful women involved in this project, no doubt about it.

Ulrike: Yes definitely. And it’s a project we plan to continue. You know this album being titled Focus 1 has a purpose. We plan to come back and record these with larger ensembles perhaps. 

Jane: And there are more compositions that have not been recorded yet so that’s for the future. 

Well I for one cannot wait to hear more arrangements of this inspirational project. Until then, we have Focus 1 to enjoy in pristine DSD quality.

Written by

David Hopkins

David is NativeDSD’s Product and Communication Manager. He grew up writing songs, playing guitar and drums. Working with musicians in studio to produce records as a recording engineer and producer, he produced music for numerous commercials for Pulse Content, and organised numerous music events and concerts.

Currency
Cart