“The Most Profound Silence”
Dispatches from the RSNO recording stage - My Adventures in Underscore, part 18
You can listen to a selected playlist on Apple Music or Spotify @joesoundtrack
Sunday Evening, 17:00 - Travel is disorienting and uncomfortable, but at some point you have to surrender to the reality and get on with the business at hand. Doug, Roger and I left San Francisco around 6:00pm on Saturday night, and 15 hours later we were in a hotel across the street from the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. We’d barely slept, or enjoyed anything like a normal day, stuffed into planes, terminals, shuttles and taxis. To add to our discombobulation, the sun had already set and the temperature dropped to 0° C.
The one comforting, familiar note was struck in my hotel room. Even though I was on the third floor near a busy intersection, the street outside was still and quiet. Maybe I’d be able to relax and catch some needed zzz’s. I know it’s better to skip screen time before bed, but I was curious what the local TV had on offer. Sure enough, there was a rerun of the original Twilight Zone. Just a quick peek to settle my mind.
Gig Young tears into a gas station and starts leaning on his horn. He’s an obnoxious, impatient lout, sure to get a just comeuppance in this land between science and superstition. Turns out he’s just walking distance from a confrontation with his past, and his journey is underscored by the composer of the hour, Bernard Herrmann. The man responsible for the two scores we’ve come so far to record. Against my better judgment, I settle in for the episode. I’ve seen it before, but it sounds different. More plaintive and urgent. Certainly auspicious.
I turn off the TV as the credits start rolling and hope for the best. Monday promises to be a blur of handshakes, meetings, and a lot of walking around the hall. I hoped that I could shove all that anticipation aside and snooze. Instead, I spend most of my first night lying with eyes closed and head percolating with thoughts.
Monday Morning, 8:30 - The three of us meet in the hotel restaurant to enjoy the breakfast buffet—eggs, beans, stewed tomatoes and black pudding. Doug nudges me to ask “Are you ready to hear “The Prelude” from The Man Who Knew Too Much? All that orchestral power is impressive enough. But when you’re sitting on the studio floor—well, it isn’t like being in a symphony hall.” Of course I was excited, but I could see that I wasn’t the only one. Doug clearly had a special fondness for this score. Roger warns me that as exciting as it is to be on the stage with the orchestra, the thing he remembers most is the aftermath. “When the music stops, the room is filled with the most profound silence.” Hmm.
Halfway through the meal our music contractor Paul Talkington arrives and wonders why we aren’t sitting with our engineer? Don’t we have anything to talk about? “He’s right here in the booth next to you.” Mike Ross-Trevor is a quiet, unassuming fellow with an impish smile and thoughtful gaze. Despite his low profile, you’d think Doug and Roger would have spotted him—they’d recorded five albums together and have talked at length about his many collaborations with artists from Jerry Goldsmith to Bob Dylan, among others. In their defense we were all a little punchy—and it’s been over two decades since their last project. But you wouldn’t know that from the way they picked up from where they left off. Doug in particular can’t say enough about working with his old friend again.
Largely retired and living on the south shore of England, Mike has nothing to prove. With hundreds of credits in music and film, he reserves the right to return to the mixing board for an interesting project. He’s keen to check out the relatively new Scotland Studio (the paint was barely dry on the stage when Intrada recorded Dial M For Murder in 2019). Unlike other booths, this one does not have a window facing the orchestra floor—instead, three CCTV screens make it resemble a miniature Mission Control. It's only one flight above the stage, but the maze of steps, stairwells and doors in between take a little getting used to.
“Of course, you’ll be in the booth the whole time, won’t you Doug?” Our producer’s face drops a little. He’d come all this way expecting to be listening on the floor. “Bill can hear what the orchestra is doing, but I’ll need you to approve what we’re recording.” There’s a barely a split-second hesitation before Doug says “Of course…of course I’ll be there!”
I can’t help thinking he must be disappointed.
Tuesday Morning, 9:45 - I return to the studio floor after setting up a time-lapse camera in the chorus rafters. Bill Stromberg is out front welcoming musicians, making new acquaintances, arranging his sheet music. The temperature hovers just above freezing outdoors, but it’s getting warm indoors. One hundred souls generate a lot of heat. Besides the musicians, there are a few crew members making last minute adjustments, and a few lucky fans who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign. Anna Stromberg rushes to the podium to get a picture with her hubby. She laughs, “He’s always so sweaty when a session is over!” With a peck on his cheek we’re ready to begin.
10:02 - After a few words from the producer and conductor, Bill raises his baton. The first cue on the schedule is one of the most complicated: “The Prelude” from On Dangerous Ground. A ferocious 95-second tour de force might seem like an ambitious place to begin, but it provides the opportunity to set the stage with the unique colors of a Herrmann score and see how well the orchestra grasps them. That includes a 4" steel pipe subbing for an anvil, eight french horns, six trombones and two tubas—twice the complement of a typical symphony orchestra.
The players start with a clang of steel and immediately launch into a breakneck performance. The sight of three dozen plus string players “sawing” furiously is only matched by the throb of the brass, passing notes from stage right to stage left and back again. I catch my breath as all 90 players start and stop on a dime. It’s as if everyone has been rehearsing all day. In fact, they’ve only seen the score for the first time a few minutes ago. It’s a testament to the professionalism and virtuosity of the RSNO, that when the piece concludes, I think it sounds nearly perfect.
Of course, it’s not my place to say so. I’m just a knowledgeable fan who’s dazzled by a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This is not Bill or Doug’s first rodeo, and they immediately dig into their notes. I can’t exactly follow what’s being said, either by Doug on the intercom or Bill on the podium. They’re speaking a kind of shorthand that I can’t quite parse. “Part A, the trumpets need to be more piercing...” “Cellos, I'm missing the hairpins…” But I’m impressed with the concise rapport that they share, and when the time comes for a second and third take, followed by pickups of a few bars, it does sound better. Impossible, but true! Apparently Bill and Anna’s longtime collaborator John Morgan is listening in via live stream from California, and he gives a thumbs up as well.
11:15 - Although the first session calls for all hands on deck, not every cue requires every player. It’s amusing to see the harpist or pianist lean back in their seat casually read a book through the strenuous chords of “Violence” or “The Hunt Scherzo”—but they are ready to drop it at a moment’s notice and lean into the music for “Nocturne” before we move on to “The Vista-Vision Logo.” Sharp-eyed readers will recognize that we’re moving back and forth between our two film scores—because we need to record the most demanding cues while all of the musicians are present. Even if a few get to take a break now and then.
I’m shuttling between the floor, the chorus bleachers and the control room to capture what’s going on. There’ll be no trouble getting in my 10,000 steps today. Up in the booth, Mike is happy with what he’s hearing and Doug nods without raising his head, reviewing the scores. We’re a little behind schedule—only six minutes were recorded in the first hour, and we have another 14 minutes to record in the remaining two hours. Bill chalks that up to “getting acquainted” and says not to worry. With a $60,000 price tag, I can only wonder what the producer is thinking. But he trusts his conductor implicitly. “Sounds good, let’s move on.”
After a fifteen-minute break, the band continues with a brief, previously unheard piece of music. In the bleachers, I turn to contributor Erik Nelson as we hear the unused finale of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Did you hear what I heard? He smiles back. We’ve already caught snatches of music that presage other Herrmann scores: Have Gun Will Travel, North By Northwest, even The Day The Earth Stood Still. But I didn’t expect to hear a fleeting snatch of Livingston and Evans…
As it turns our, Erik is a good seat mate for the recording. He’s a recently retired film score fan who traveled from Houston, Texas specifically to hear the recording of On Dangerous Ground, a personal favorite. Just like our producer, he first discovered the music of Bernard Herrmann on TV as a teenager, during a prime-time broadcast of Marnie. And he has studied the films on the docket closely—even if we miss Bill calling out the title of a cue, or if the recording order is changed to give the players a little rest, Erik can tell me exactly what we’re listening to.
Frankly, I marvel at fans who can recite dialogue verbatim, describe a scene shot-by-shot, or most mysteriously of all, identify individual music cues and their precise deployment in a picture. My experience of watching films is nothing like that—I respond to the visuals, of course, particularly the framing of compositions, the rhythms in editing and emotional cues in the lighting. I’m drawn to visionary directors who create and sustain a mood. The combination of those elements, with music, heightens the experience. But it all goes away like a dream afterwards. By listening to the soundtrack apart from the film, I can often recall the sensation, but rarely the details.
13:05 - The concert master calls the break for lunch and remarkably, we’ve gotten all 13 scheduled pieces in the can. Even more remarkably, everyone is smiling on the stage and in the booth. Doug is especially happy with his conductor’s beefed-up brass section. “So glad that you decided to add the extra horns. It really provides a ‘floor’ for the rest of the orchestra.” Bill reveals that he’s wanted to take a crack at this score for decades, and has thought long and hard how he’d approach it. He’d already recorded a variation of “The Death Hunt” with the Moscow Symphony on his Battle of Neretva album in 2011. Now he has the chance to perfect it.
Over a hasty lunch of sandwiches and curry bowls at the local Pret-a-Manger, I ask Doug how things are going upstairs. Between bites of his cheese toastie, Doug reveals his musical distinctions. He explains how important a good multi-track recording is to capture the performance, how he needs to hear the location of each part of the orchestra, how the players respond to each other and how the music reverberates. “Even though we’re going to reduce it all to just two tracks, some of that feeling remains.” I can relate to that. Music is so ephemeral, we need to capture it by any means possible. I’m sorry that he’s not on the stage to hear it.
14:00 - Back in the studio, Bill and Anna are comparing notes for the second session. Even though he’s due back upstairs, Doug lingers behind the podium, watching the players prepare for the “Prelude” to TMWKTM. All five percussionists are on call, with snare, bass and tenor drums, timpani, tam tam, glockenspiel and of course, a large pair of cymbals. Those crashing cymbals set the story in motion and provide the climax of the film. It’s arguably the reason why we are all standing here today—one doesn’t embark on such a massive undertaking without passion. This particular piece of music set a young man on a journey 60 years ago that has brought us all here today. No wonder he decided to stick around to hear this cue.
The first run through does not disappoint. I’ve heard the “Prelude” in the film and in a re-recording, and I wasn’t that taken with it. It seemed to be merely series of heavy chords, building to a crescendo. The fact that the film sequence is rather static probably contributes to my attitude. But in this performance, I can hear the difference. Not simply because it’s extremely LOUD. (Several players plug their ears during the climax.) Roger’s Apple watch warns that we’ve hit 97 decibels, and “sustained exposure could be injurious to your ears.” But the delicate, crystalline percussion plays against the enveloping strings and brass to create a tension that I didn’t appreciate before.
Doug gets it. He’s standing with his eyes closed at the center front of the orchestra. His hands flutter briefly as if he’s conducting from the back seat. I catch a smile crossing his lips before I turn my attention to the crescendo. The tympanist is banging his drums furiously. The cymbals crash and the drums trail off. Bill holds his arms in the air for a few seconds afterwards and no one makes a sound. My ears are still ringing in the most delightful way and I remember Roger’s admonition. One hundred people hold their collective breath, allowing the sound waves to complete their transit of the room. And one man opens his eyes at the end of a six-decade journey from his childhood living room in the States to the Royal Concert Hall in Scotland.
A profound moment, indeed.
To Be Continued…
Thanks for reading my continuing soundtrack memoir. You can read the previous installment about the RSNO here, or start with my earliest experiences here.