Paul Cantrell’s music blog & podcast
Piano music old and new from a devoted amateur,
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This is the second half of the thrilling chronicles of my attempts at mastering the piano recordings. (Here’s part one.)

Mastering Experiments, Part 2: EQ & Imaging
Paul Cantrell, piano

I’m constantly changing things — I’ve tweaked the process since my last post, and even while making the explanation, I suddenly noticed a new EQ adjustement. It never ends. These experiments are now coming up against the limits of my ears, the point where I spiral endlessly varying some parameter or other, eventually unable to tell whether the result sounds better or worse, or even any different at all. This week, I’m going to enlist the aid of some more knowledgeable friends, and of the listening public (that would be you!), then call it good and move on.

And yes, I really am interested in how it sounds to you, on your speakers and to your ears.

Once again, Logic Express is heavily involved in what you hear, as is some custom code of my own which handles the stereo image manipulation. But the real software star here is Firium. I’m generally unimpressed with the quality of audio software: it’s typically convoluted, opaque, crashy, ridiculously finicky about its environment, and an embarrassing distant last place in getting compatible with a new OS revision or new hardware. Even much-praised Logic, while it has an excellent set of capabilities, suffers from most of these complaints. It just doesn’t feel polished; it’s certainly no Adobe Illustrator.

And then there’s Elemental Audio’s products. They’re elegant. They offer powerful capabilities through a simple, carefully considered feature set, expressed in interface that explains itself clearly and makes what’s most important most obvious, yet rewards exploration and handles exceptional needs gracefully. On top of all that, to my ears, their stuff sounds fantastic.

Loyal readers of In the Hands might reasonably ask: “Paul! Where the heck are you? What have you been up to?” Well, there are many answers to that — preparing my McKnight fellowship application and visiting my parents in Colorado among them — but the piano recordings have not been neglected. I just purchased a round of new software to really try to get my mastering process right. ("Mastering,” for those of you not in on the audio tech speak, is the process of finessing the sound quality of a recording after it’s made.)

Today’s recording is first in a two-part audio explanation of what I’m doing.

Mastering Experiments, Part 1: Reverb
Paul Cantrell, piano

For those who are wondering, the software packages behind what you’ll hear are Logic Express and Ambience.

I have been busy applying for a fellowship, and also writing writing writing more music. Here is a new one in the set of dances I’ve been working on — as with the others I’ve recorded, a rough performance (there’s a section in the middle that is horrendously hobbled together), but enough to give you the idea. (The score.)

Disembodied Dance (rough version)
Paul Cantrell, piano

This is probably the weirdest, most abstract thing I’ve ever written. I love it. But be warned: those of you who found the Dance for Remembering and Forgetting a bit puzzling will be completely freaked out by this one. That is OK. It is your prerogative to be freaked out.

And yes, this is the same set of dances that includes the Cradle Waltz. I promise it will all make sense in the end.

Fascinating fun fact: I thought as I was writing this that it would turn out about three or four minutes long. As I got to the end, I though, “Well, it’s run up to five.” It wasn’t until I made this recording that I realized how long it actually is, and it took me completely by surprise. It doesn’t feel over seven minutes long to me — just as the third ballade doesn’t feel under ten. Strange how music alters our sense of the passage of time. Update: I made some substantial practices and made a re-recording, now it’s five. Was the finished length always in my mind? Moral: composition is as much a mystery to the composer as to everyone else.

What do you do when your piano’s a touch out of tune? You record an improv like this. Or at least I do.

Paul Cantrell, piano

Oh, you say you wanted a piano improv with actual notes? Well then, check out Chris Morris’s very clever tip of the hat to the In the Hands improvs. Yes, it’s this site’s very first piece of fan art ever — and nicely done at that! So awesome. Thanks, Chris!

He has a bunch of other music on his site, more jazz-leaning and thus a nice counterpoint to the stuff here, all ready for your downloading and listening delectation. Don’t keep the man waiting. Go visit!

I wrote recently about the the danger that virtuosity can make us neglect the virtues of simplicity, and even neglect the music itself. That is true not only of a simple masterpiece like the prelude I was talking about, but also of technically difficult pieces — such as the Chopin ballades.

In everything Chopin writes, no matter how complex and virtuosic, that powerful simplicity is there at the core. Although he wrote some very difficult and impressive stuff, the ultimate effect of his music, I feel, should never really be to impress. But that’s exactly what the pianists we usually hear are striving to do: impress the contest judges, the critics, the public. The world we classical performers live in gives us very little room not to play big show pieces, or make everything we play into one.

Chopin’s third ballade suffers particularly from this problem. The ballades are all difficult, but it’s the easiest of them (sort of like the shortest Himalaya). It seems as though all the star performers I’ve heard end up trying to make it as hard as the others by plowing through it with virtuosic flare, and thus trivializing it.

What wonderful music it is that gets plowed under when that happens! I could spend the whole next month talking about this piece, about how Chopin plays with the sense of return, about his use of dissonance as an architectural device, about all those wonderful melodies … but for now, I’ll just leave you with this one thought to perhaps open a mental door: The melody that opens the piece is the stepping-off point for all that follows in the next two and a half minutes, but then it disappears, and the music goes somewhere else entirely. Listen for it. The experience of wanting that melody to return, and it not returning and not returning and then — that’s the force that shapes the piece.

Ballade Op 47 (in A flat major)
Paul Cantrell, piano

So this is my current take on the other, non-virtuosic side of Chopin’s third ballade. I actually recorded this several weeks ago, but found that listening back to the recording and hearing all the little nuances I could play slightly differently, all the little things I want to fix, all the different options in all the takes I’d already done, sent me into a tailspin of endless revision from which there would have been no return save in the back of a van wearing a straight jacket. (I mean me wearing the straight jacket, not the van.) So I give myself a little breather until I could make it through the process of editing, mastering, and posting the piece with my sanity (such as it is) intact.

Gosh, I sure play this piece differently than when I was 21 — more differently than I’d remembered. Better? Heck if I know; it’s too late at night to decide stuff like that. Don’s version is also quite different. And in a few years, I’ll probably play it yet another new way. It’s a cheerful thought: I take great comfort in knowing that it’s not possible for me to ever exhaust the interpretive possibilities of Chopin.

To conclude this trip down prelude memory lane (at least for the time being), here is the veeery first piece I worked on with Don Betts. I’ve actually hardly played this one since that first year of lessons, but I found it came back quickly. Is playing a piece like riding a bicycle? Maybe a little.

Prelude Op 28 No 4 (in E minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano

Don always gives this one to his beginner students. At the time, although I’d had piano lessons for many years as a child, and had recently played piano in a dixie band, I was still really a beginner in many ways. I’d brought Louis Lortie’s recording of the Chopin études (or more accurately, stolen it from my parents), and as I fell in love with Chopin, I began to think that taking piano lessons might not be such a bad thing. So I signed up, Don gave me this piece, and now here I am, quitting my job to noodle around with the piano all day.

I realize just now as I write this that my first lesson with Don would have been ten years ago this month. Gosh.

As long as I’m on this Chopin prelude kick….

Prelude Op 28 No 20 (in C minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano

This piece is easy to sink one’s teeth into, I think, very dramatic and engaging on the first listen. But subsequent digging reveals a lot of subtlety in the way the different voices move, the modulation and chromaticism, the emotional shape. It has a fascinatingly unusual structure: many piece start softly and work to a crescendo, but this one starts loud and fades to a whisper. Many pieces in binary form have an initial section that’s repeated twice (AAB) — like this or this or both the first and second larger sections of this taken individually — but this prelude repeats only the second part (ABB). What fascinating fellow Chopin was.

But enough with the analytical rambling. What a fine piece.

After next Tuesday’s recording, I’ll be switching to a once-a-week-Tuesday schedule, at least for a while. I want to focus on composition for a while, and I’m behind on some of my other projects. Fear not! Updates will keep coming; “Paul gets a job” armageddon is not yet upon us.