People talk about how making a movie is mostly about standing around and waiting. But all performance arts have those quiet times — the quiets before the storms — and before a recording session it’s a busy quiet. You’re not just getting yourself ready, the way you routinely do before any performance. You’re making sure the instruments and recording apparati are just right, too.
One night not too long ago I drove out to the theater at Clackamas Community College near Oregon City, where the drumming ensemble Portland Taiko was in the last stages of recording its newest CD, and it made for one of the more intriguing hurry-up-and-waits I’ve sat through in quite a while. I was invited not as a working journalist but as a friend of the company: I’ve recently joined Portland Taiko’s board, marking the first time, after decades of observing arts organizations, that I’ve taken a hand at actually making decisions to help one do its work.
Recording sessions are funny things, and this one, for the CD Rhythms of Change: The Way Home, which will be released in August, is no exception. In order to get those precious moments of surging, melting sound, everything has to be prepared just so. Which generally means laying down an undergrowth of electrical wires, erecting a small forest of microphone booms, placing and re-placing baffles and makeshift mufflers (an old blanket might do the trick), arranging and rearranging the positions of players and instruments so that sometimes the people playing can neither see nor hear one another. The focus is up there, above the seats, behind those glass doors in the booth. That’s where everything has to balance and play right.
On this night the ensemble is getting ready to recordÂ a piece called Slipping Through My Fingers, by artistic director Michelle Fujii, that features not only the array of drums that are central to taiko but also a violin, which alternately leads and counterbalances the sound. Except that most of the drummers can’t actually see the violinist, Keiko Araki, who is standing far stage left, hidden from view by a mini-wall of sound-directing barriers.
The drums range from a little bigger than trap size to the looming odaiko, a fatter-than-a-bass drum sitting on a gorgeous wooden stand. All of these hand-fashioned drums are beautiful, from their stretched skins to their burnished wooden finishes to their finely polished metal stays and tuners. But on this night, beauty — that is, visual beauty, which is of no consequence to a sound recording — doesn’t count. Most of the drums are wrapped inelegantly in white T-shirts to keep any metal parts from rattling. (You’d also better not cough, and your shoes had better not be squeaky.)