Today's troubadours are tech-savvy, and this one gets the message across with a piano and an iPhone.
I have decided to adopt role of troubadour. Whether I like it or not, my album The Good, the Bad and the Awkward casts me as storyteller and a performer of (sometime abstract) narratives. Whilst it may have been enough in medieval times to cart a lute about the countryside, regaling kings and queens with tales of courtly love, these days there are myriad other ways of presenting these stories, of bringing them to all kinds of people so they can be consumed upon a multitude of "devices". How to do this in the most effective way? I've incorporated a spoken-word element into this album that will, I think, not only bring the stories themselves to life, but also serve to focus attention on my personal feelings about these characters.
My album divides itself up into three pretty clear chapters, and I've written three little spiels to introduce each chapter in turn. The other day I spent an hour with my dear friend, the sensationally talented Nadia Piave, working on delivery of these spoken texts. As I knew would be the case, Nadia asked me all the right questions, things that only proper actor/singer/performers would ask themselves in order to get inside each character: "Exactly who are you when you're saying this? To whom are you saying it? How do you want to affect them? Why do you want to affect them in this way?", and so and on and so forth. Her questions were forcing me to make the text "read" for an audience. It worked exactly the same way that it worked when Nadia and I were writing cabaret shows together, which had me feeling all nostalgic. I vowed then and there that she and I must start writing and performing together again. Very soon.
Anyway, the thing that stuck in my mind was Nadia's definition of my album being "like an audio coffee-table book". Now there's a concept! While ordinary coffee-table books are full of pictures (which do indeed say a thousand words) and occasional commentary on those, my album is full of abstract sounds with occasional commentary to tie them all together into little naturally occurring narratives. I rather like that idea, not only because of the parallel nature of each medium's implied storyline, but also because of the implied context of its appreciation i.e. I love the idea of somebody sitting down to relax with at least one full 23-minute chapter of my album and really escaping into the narrative, rather more like a talking book than an album of instrumental classical music.
In recent weeks, while preparing the music for the recording sessions, I've become extremely focussed on its abstract elements, the phrasing and dynamics and texture and shape. Of course I needed to do that in order to make the performances convincing and confident, but it's really only a starting point. Now I think I finally know how opera singers must feel when preparing a role, as their process isn't all that far from my process on this album. You must learn the music so well that you can just do it without needing to concentrate on how the rhythms go and what the notes are and what you need to do physically to create the right sounds. Once you've mastered those elements, then you're ready to get inside the character and share their story. I have a newfound respect and admiration now for what opera singers do.
During the sessions last week, recording engineer Virginia Read also helped me enormously to focus on the raison d'être for the album. She listened to me rabbit on about Fellini's women and underdogs and how socially awkward people suffer in the world and how I was going to let all these characters' emotions grow through the music. She never complained once that I talk too much! Instead, she allowed me the time to talk through what I wanted to express and helped me to find exactly the right instrumental sound to achieve that expression. This means that sometimes the recorded sound is very spacious, a bona fide classical concert hall sound, and other times it becomes much more intimate, a more pop-music/small-room sound; whatever was needed to match the characters in the stories at that given moment. This will, I hope, help to put the listener in the world of the characters, the right social/historical period and the right emotional frame of mind.
Recently I started consolidating all my research on each individual story, analysing the characters' motivations and the situations in which they find themselves, contextualising the use of the music in the films, and so on. I've read a number of published volumes on the films but I've also been doing a great deal of research online, watching YouTube videos, interviews with directors and actors and composers, reading IMDB articles and Rotten Tomatoes reviews… whilst they may not be the most reliable source material, they are certainly an excellent way of finding out what's most important to me: how people feel about these films. After all, that's what brought be to this project in the first place and I mean to stay true to that. The other thing I really love about this kind of research is the way that it is interactive. People comment online and leave long, heartfelt epistles on what they love about the films. These words are often just as fascinating as the materials about which they are written, and I would like to incorporate reactions to the stories into the mix here. But how?
Technology. These days, access to information is becoming increasingly immediate. Our portable devices can bring so much information to us with just a few taps on a touchscreen, something that even 10 years ago may have seemed impossible to most ordinary folk. So I'm considering the development of an iPhone/iPad/Android App (or even just a website dedicated to the album and compatible with multiple types of devices) to bring links to all this information into a hub of sorts - those reviews, interviews and articles in audio, video and text formats and, perhaps most importantly, a place for anyone to share their stories and feelings about these things. Wouldn't that be fun?
This is more than an album to me. It's a very personal story from a 21st-century troubadour. Don't worry, you won't need to go searching too hard. Just sit tight and I'll bring the story to you.
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Sally Whitwell is a Sydney-based pianist, composer and conductor with eclectic tastes. Her debut album Mad Rush was an ARIA Award-winning sensation; now she takes us through the process of recording the much-anticipated follow-up. Follow Sally’s new album as it comes together piece by piece, from concept to shelf.
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