Moments of Enlightenment with Béla Fleck and Brooklyn Rider

At the Dōjō where I train, the black belts begin every class by saying “Shiken Haramitsu Daikoumyo,” reminding themselves that “every moment is an opportunity for enlightenment.”  I have been training for a year, making good progress, and if I keep it up, I might earn my black belt in 3-4 more years.  There’s a lot to learn and a lot know, and these Black Belts, who know so much more than I do, are constantly prepared to learn even more.

Earlier this month we hosted Béla Fleck and Brooklyn Rider, high-degree black belts of their respective instruments for sure, and I was struck by not only how much they knew, but how prepared they were–every moment–to receive new enlightenment.  Shiken Haramitsu Daikoumyo!!

Amy and I are lucky to be living in such a culturally rich and connected part of the country.  When the schedule at Carolina Performing Arts is quiet (which is rare), there’s something happening in Raleigh or Durham.  A week before the recording session, Duke Performances presented Béla and the Marcus Roberts Trio playing at the historic Carolina Theater in downtown Durham.  Béla was playing songs from his new CD Across the Imaginary Divide, a brilliant foray into straight-ahead jazz that directly confronts the question “can a bluegrass banjo player and a jazz trio find common musical ground?”  In order to become enlightened on the matter of that question, I crossed my own imaginary divide (as a CPA Board Member at a Duke event) to see them play.  It was a great event in and of itself, but it became a priceless preparation for the upcoming session when, toward the end of the performance, Béla said that he was really enjoying what for him was the ultimate Jazz Fantasy Camp.  That resonated with me on many levels, not least because I knew that in a similar fashion I was going to be attending the ultimate High-end Recording Studio Fantasy Camp the next week…

Perhaps I should back up just a bit and explain how these musicians, one from Nashville and four from New York, settled on coming to our studio in Pittsboro for this recording.  Carolina Performing Arts have proclaimed their mission and vision:

The mission of Carolina Performing Arts is to enrich lives by creating and presenting exceptional arts experiences and connecting them to the UNC community and beyond.

We strive to nurture artistic innovation and the development of new works on and off campus; to challenge and inspire audiences with powerful and transformative performances; and to integrate the arts into the life of the University, embracing its mission of teaching, research, and public service.

Our vision is to be recognized globally as a top presenter and the leader in integrating arts into the academy.

As part of that vision, Emil Kang invited members of Brooklyn Rider to visit a very unfinished Manifold Recording back in September of 2010.  It was then that I shared our vision, to be a place that can produce superior recordings by reintegrating the relationships between artist and audience into the recording process (plus an entrepreneurial model to help fund such projects).  For more than a year, the seeds planted that day had been growing in each of our respective minds.  A CPA commission further strengthened their commitment to do new things in North Carolina.  When they got the call from Béla asking if they would team up with him on a new work, they said “Yes!  And here’s the perfect place to do it.”

If you have ever been to the Grand Canyon, you know that no photograph can do it justice.  You also know that once you have seen it in person, and especially if you have hiked down into it, the photographs you had seen before, and the photographs you see thereafter, have an entirely new meaning, because they now relate to an experience that is personal.  I believe this is the result of a kind of enlightenment.  Similarly, once you have heard a string quartet playing their instruments unamplified, at eye-level, in a proper acoustic environment, it changes the way you hear string quartets, whether amplified or unamplified on stage or recorded.

To fund this recording project, we invited about 40 people to participate as listeners in a live recording session in the Music Room and to receive this musical enlightenment.  Before the performance, Béla explained that whether or not any of the material recorded that night ultimately made it on to the finished product, there is nothing like an authentic performance for a real audience to really define the essence of the music.  In the studio, where every detail becomes audible on playback and every sound is subject to possible revision, it is easy to lose the forest for the trees.  The performance recorded with the audience that night would be their touchstone, their north star, the heart of what they would ultimately build, movement by movement, measure by measure, to achieve both technical and artistic perfection.  In a sense, the audience became the medium through which the artists ultimately achieved their own enlightenment.

Before the session could get underway, we had to set up for the musicians.  Engineer Jesse Lewis brought with him quite the microphone collection from his studio in Boston:

He also brought with him an idea of how he wanted to use them based on past recording sessions with both Béla Fleck and Brooklyn Rider.  Our Chief Engineer, Ian Schreier, has 15+ years of studio experience and knows best how our rooms work, how our equipment works, and how to make our both deliver the desired results in a minimum of time and effort.  This would be Jesse and Ian’s first time working together.

Engineers Ian Schreier (left) and Jesse Lewis (right)

Another teaching in the Dōjō is “it’s always my turn.”  What this means is that whether we are training as the “good guy” (defending) or the “bad guy” (attacking), we should be 100% engaged in our respective role.  Even if we never plan to attack, we need to give our training partners the best and most authentic practice we can.  For the session, Ian ran the recording device and annotated the takes which freed up Jesse to focus almost exclusively on the aesthetics of the performances and to give critical feedback the moment it was needed.  Jesse could hear and respond not only the notes and the rhythms, but also the bowing, the gestures, the really subtle details that mark the difference between really good and un-freakin’-believable performances.

The result was that the musicians could dedicate all their attention to getting the most out of their instruments, their own performances and the 886 bars of music that Béla wrote.  And wow did it sound great, as you can see in these happy faces at the end of the session:

The studio has been formally open for a little more than one year and every single session has brought with it myriad new teachings and myriad new learnings.  Right after every session I try to write down all the things that I learned, the things I could have done better, the things that the studio could have done better.  How we could change our processes or procedures for the better.  How we can communicate or prepare better.  For the most part, each session has been better than the previous one.  But I think there is more to Shiken Haramitsu Daikoumyo than continuous improvement (aka Kaizen).  To be enlightened is to grasp a whole new paradigm, not to merely improve one’s grip on the existing paradigm.  We will always continue our quest to improve.  But we will also remain even more open to do what previously might have seemed impossible, or to be open to entirely new interpretations of past and future based on the present moment of enlightenment.

And always, always have fun doing it:

Stay tuned for news about when this remarkable piece of music will be available on CD.  When it is, I encourage you to listen to it and to become enlightened.  Shiken Haramitsu Daikoumyo!!

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