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Auckland, February 2023

Reflection 8/10 - Fake it till you make it

This blog begins on a sunny Sunday morning at the Auckland Ferry Terminal. Well, at least that's the direction it was going to take before a brief video call with the one and only Johnny Chang. Johnny made me realize that in the small and isolated enclave that is composition within tertiary institutions, a once protected area now becoming increasingly threatened by neoliberal policies, a compositional culture is developing with very little regard for real-world musiking.

Johnny pointed out that I have a pragmatic approach to musiking. He asked if I was a runner and much to my delight I said yes, thinking that the angle of the video chat must be highlighting my athleticness. Sadly he was using it as a metaphor. He explained that I seem to approach music with an acceptance of needing to work in order to get the job done. This is true. Because composing isn't inherently easy, I accept that discomfort and hard graft are just natural parts of it. It has always been this way. This made transitioning from the safe university world to the real world less of a shock to the system. I had learnt that you couldn't just expect opportunities to be handed to you or fall into your lap.

Returning to that sunny day. It was the final day of the tour's Auckland leg and Joshua Taylor was glowing at the prospect of our imminent day trip across the harbour. We were invited for brunch by our former supervisor, David and Joshua even made it there on time, which says something about the significance of this occasion. I hadn't seen David for a few months, and one of our many conversations was about a proposed recording session for our master's cohort. Rather casually, I just said "hey, you know, if you need somebody to organize that" and landed my first university contract. Some might even say it was handed to me.

I have always focussed on the "extramusical" side of a composition - basically the non-music-related aspects of music. I became interested in recording when I realized it'd make me more self-sufficient as a songwriter. It meant I didn't need to rely on other people to make projects happen. Being capable of producing my own projects, meant I could be more ambitious, the Jazz album I did as a 16/17-year-old is a testament to this. It was blind nativity to think that I could arrange and record a full-length jazz band album as a high schooler. This was definitely a good dose of reality.

One of the reasons I wanted to organize the Masters Recording Sessions was because I knew that anybody else would look at the requirements of my piece and say no. It called for 20 musicians with headphones, which as Johnny put it, is pushing the bounds of what is possible. But I had written this piece with the intention of recording it myself, so I knew if I could make happen with the gear I had and therefore with the resources of a university, it'd be more than achievable.

One of the most notable aspects of creatives in the university enclave is their approach to boundaries. Life at an institution gives you access to all of the resources you could ever ask for, making it easy to seek perfection at the expense of good. You are seldom limited by what you have and so you embark on an endless journey of exploring what is possible. I found limitations to be the most helpful thing in developing a plan of attack. If you know that you have 16 microphones and 12 places to plug them in, with only 10 cables, you can then work backwards to build the best configuration for this situation.

Real-world institutions take this approach to the extreme. We were fortunate enough to have the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra as a source for many of the project's players. Unfortunately, though, the world of orchestral management comes with rigid and structured processes - an absolute necessity for an operation of their scale. Whilst this imposed some unexpected limitations, it actually helped to make a number of decisions. For example, the orchestra's collective employment agreement dictates two 2.5-hour sessions per day, which meant that our sessions would be 2.5 hours per call. Restrictions like this facilitate decisions and make them easy to justify.

When it came to recording my piece in early Feb I wanted to be on top of everything. This was my first time working with a professional recording engineer, but I hadn't met them before and didn't know their style. Not wanting to stand on their toes, I wrote out 3 different microphone setups at different scales, ranging from adequate to ambitious, to overkill. Being an artist himself, the engineer seemed inspired by the project and wanted to push the bounds even further - we were to have 40 microphones capture the performance!

I thought that arriving a few days earlier would give me enough time to prepare. When recording by myself typically the space is only available for a few hours, so all of the prep work and devising a plan is done long before ever walking in the door. It was a luxury having this space for as long as was needed which turned into 3 fifteen hour days in the studio. There was less urgency than what I was used to and so I followed the engineer's laid-back, let's explore this attitude.

Having 5 hours to prepare and record a piece also seems like a huge luxury. However, as Johnny Chang pointed out, this number isn't really representative of what actually happens. For various reasons, we were plagued with delays whittling the 5 hours down to 3, with just over one hour for the actual record. As a 15-minute piece, this gave us at best 5 attempts to capture everything. Although I am grateful that we put the time into getting a really detailed capture, I would have much preferred spending the time working with the musicians to get a really detailed performance. I've not heard the recordings yet, and to be honest it's making me rather anxious thinking about them.

Whilst I have expressed a fondness for restrictions, admittedly they can be somewhat suffocating. However, what frustrates me with this session is that the bulk of the delays were completely avoidable. My approach to organizing is to set everything up so that an event can just run smoothly - give people all of the information need so that they can do their job. I don't like telling people how to do things, particularly when they're much older than me. It was an attitude that developed after several unpleasant collaborations with aggressive micromanagers.

This session, however, marks an end to my passiveness, or as David calls it, my "kiwiness". When operating in the real world of musiking, I've realized I can be confident without being arrogant. It taught me that access to better resources shouldn't be a barrier to getting the best result. A small machine running smoothly is better than a big machine running inefficiently.


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