More than a coincidence: Frederic Chiu records at Manifold Recording

When an artist makes a recording at a studio, there is always a coincidence–two things happening at the same time and place.  One is the interpretation and the performance of the artist, the other is the creative capture of that ephemeral performance so that it can be replicated and experienced across time and space, perhaps by people not yet even alive when the recording was made.  But the coincidences we shared with pianist Frederic Chiu this past week went far beyond that.


Let us first begin with the program that Frederic chose to record: a series of hymns and dervishes coincidentally composed by Thomas de Hartmann and Georgi Ivanovich Gurdjieff.  I say coincidentally because it is very rare, if not unheard of, for classical music compositions to credit two composers for an instrumental work.  There is a long tradition of division of labor between composer and librettist, composers taking inspiration from other artists, be they poets, painters, dancers, or even other composers.  But rarely have works been credited as having been co-created, or, more appropriately, coincidentally created.  But according to Frederic, these hymns and dervishes were the result of collaboration:

Georgi Ivanovich Gurdjieff was a Greek-Armenian mystic who was active in the early 20th century. He was widely known as a spiritual teacher, who organized various schools to teach his methods in Europe, most notably in Fontainebleau, France, where he welcomed pupils from around the world.

Thomas de Hartmann was a classmate of Prokofiev (you can understand my excitement now!) and an excellent composer in his own right. In these collaborations, he notated music that Gurdjieff performed, adding harmony and structure. Through an iterative process, the pair produced a number of collections of works, inspired both by Middle Eastern, Asian and Western musical traditions. I wanted to juxtapose selections from the Middle Eastern and the Western music, in order to better appreciate their differences and their similarities.

It turns out that this program cannot simply be played as one might a Chopin Étude or a Listz Rhapsody [hyperlinks added by Tiemann]:

The challenge of this program comes from my desire to recapture the Middle Eastern origins of the Music for Dervishes through the use of traditional scales – Bayaty, Esfahan, Hijaz, etc. The harmonious feeling of perfect fifths, and the bending pitches of seemingly improvised scales produce a much deeper emotional effect in these tunings. In preparation for this recording, I consulted with experts on Middle Eastern music and on micro-tuning the piano, producing a number of different scales for different pieces. In all, 5 separate tunings are used in 5 different keys.

The overall effect I’m looking for is a large-scale breathing. The unusual tunings of the Middle East alternating with the even-tempered Western scale creates an intensifying inhale, followed by a relaxing exhale, over and over. In my live performance, I was able to approximate this effect through the use of electronic keyboards to execute the different tunings in real time. The only other way to perform this music would be to have 8 different pianos on stage, each one tuned differently!

However, it is only through a recording that the depth and uniqueness of the program can be fully realized. I’ve imagined each piece with a specific tuning, and consulted with experts in micro-tunings and traditional Middle Eastern music to create these scales that bring out hypnotic, haunting qualities in the music. During the recording session, the piano’s tuning will be constantly adjusted in order to bring out these elements, then the music seamlessly integrated together in the editing process.


It also turns out that one cannot properly tune a piano except in the room in which it is played.  Indeed, as we learned working with Marc Wienert for the Zenph sessions, even the piano’s position within a room affects how the piano should be voiced and tuned, because every distance to every boundary is part of the overall harmonic equation, as is the subsequent reflection, diffusion, and absorption of that boundary across the entire frequency spectrum.  Almost all pianos are given some amount of stretched tuning (which can be as much as +/- 35 cents) from the lowest note to the highest, but the right amount is really a function of the piano, the room, and the artists intentions.  Which implies that if the goal of the artist is to fully express and capture the most subtle harmonic relationships across a range of possible tunings, the room must be exceptionally well balanced and controlled across the entire frequency range.  And perhaps because of that requirement, Frederic reached out to us, thereby creating some new coincidences.


The Music Room was designed by Wes Lachot, who, coincidentally, is both a jazz pianist and a student of the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright.  For Wes, the piano is far more than just an acoustic stress test for a room design; it is an instrument that defines and is defined by the room in which it is played.  Similarly, a room is far more than the four or six walls that contain its space; it’s form is its function, be it at the macro- scale of its floorplan, the micro- scale of the materials of which the room is made, or the human scale of all of the activities that take place therein.  The coincidence of these two loves were so perfectly expressed in the plans he drew for Manifold Recording that, through another series of coincidences, he was invited to present a pair of lectures on the subject of acoustics at Taliesin.  The two lectures he gave, Architectural And Musical Scales In Sound Room Design and Materials And Their Uses in Architectural Acoustics, helped to complete a line of thinking that Wright once expressed but never had an opportunity to develop or test for his clients.  You might wonder why, having said so little about acoustics in his lifetime, Wright ever said anything at all on the subject.  (Wright was famous for eliminating unnecessary details from his designs.)  Perhaps it is because in 1950s Wright attended a lecture about the interrelatedness of the arts, given by Thomas de Hartmann.  When Wright heard this lecture, he invited de Hartmann to work with his students at Taliesin West.  According to the Gurdjieff International Review, “Wright believed that musical composition and architectural design were closely related skills. De Hartmann, perhaps with this in mind and certainly aware of the architect’s friendship with Gurdjieff, accepted the invitation. An autographed copy of Wright’s The Story of the Tower remains in de Hartmann’s papers.”

And so we now see the coincidences coinciding: the compositions of Gurdjieff and de Hartmann being performed in a space so true to the ideals of Frank Lloyd Wright that the designer was invited by Wright’s disciples to teach how to integrate architecture and acoustics.  And this was made possible by the economics of open source on the one hand, and crowd-sourcing on the other.

Alas, to find out how this all sounds, you will have to wait for the CD to come out.  In the mean time, we live-streamed parts of the recording process, and here’s a snapshot of one of those streams (broadcast via a Miraverse channel):

The Ustream video (now on YouTube) does not attempt to capture the audio quality that will be the final product. If Frederic can wait 12 years to find the right studio for recording this project, hopefully you can wait a year for the CD to be properly mixed, mastered, and distributed. One thing is certain: we had a great time working with Frederic, and look forward to more happy coincidences in the future!

Here are a few post-session photos taken with my new Lytro camera:

Author: Michael Tiemann

Open source pioneer. Red Hat Executive. UNCSA Trustee. Ninja.

5 thoughts on “More than a coincidence: Frederic Chiu records at Manifold Recording”

  1. I loved watching bits and pieces live over the weekend. As a fellow ustreamer I was really happy to see such good video (and, relatively speaking, audio) quality. We’ve switched over to Blackmagic hardware for streaming and have upgraded our internet connection, but the quality is not as good as yours. I’d love to see an outline of your setup.

  2. Castle, the gear setup for audio and video is as follows:

    A Yamaha CFIIIS provided by Miller Piano (Charlotte, NC)

    DPA 3521 compact cardiod stereo pair in the body of the piano positioned above the harp.
    Schoeps CMC65 Mk-5 (switchable cardiod/omni capsules) stereo pair in omni over the hammers.
    An L-C-R tree with full-sized DPA 3511 cardiod stereo pair for L-R and 4006 omni for C.
    A pair of Sanken C100K omnis picking up the room at the east corner of the room (behind Frederic).
    A pair of Sennheiser MKH 70 shotgun mics picking up the room at the west corner (above the soffit).

    All of the above are feeding straight into the API 212L console preamps.

    An Earthworks QTC-40 omni is in the Contol Room, going through a Millennia Media HV-32 preamp.

    Lighting in the Music Room comes from ambient lights (24 120W Halogen Lamps at 22′), key lighting from an ARRI L7-C LED fresnel at about 75% 3200K, and hair (or beauty) lights from a pair of ARRI 300plus fresnels behind Frederic. (The high 300W lamp was full power, the second was lower, and mainly filled the shadow under the piano with a 2x scrim). Camera was HMC150 using Scene5 FilmCam, 1080p30, with 3.2K WB preset.

    Lighting in the Control Room comes from ambient lights (8 50W Halogen Lamps at 12′) plus an ARRI L7-C LED fresnel at about 65% 3200K and -0.20 Green (compensating for 1″ of glass) and an ARRI 650plus fresnel diffused. Camera was AF100 using Scene5 FilmCam, 1080p30, with 3.2K WB preset.

    On the first day, my solution to “audio follows video” was simply to let the camera microphones pick up the respective environments, which was effective but a little to “authentic”. On the second day, we routed all of the mic channels plus a (rough) stereo mix to the Harrison Trion console in the studio annex. There, I made a custom mix for each camera and stream it via Ustream’s ProducerPro application. The decision I made (for better or worse) was to use the stereo pair over the harp to represent the sound of the recording in the music room and the stereo mix from the console mixed with the CR mic to represent the sound inside the Control Room.

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