Grammy-winning composer Tan Dun’s latest work, Water Passion After Saint Matthew, was recently performed at L.A.’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. Developed to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the death of J.S. Bach and his work “Saint Matthew Passion,” the piece was conducted by Grant Gershon and featured sound design by Jody Elff (Laurie Anderson, Bang on a Can Allstars, Paul Winter).
Water was one of the show’s primary instruments, which was played by three “water percussionists” and led by percussionist and Dun collaborator David Cossin. Says Elff, “It is a very beautiful sonic component to the composition. It’s something you certainly don’t hear in a conventional orchestral setting.” Traditional classical instruments—violin, cello, baritone and soprano soloist and supporting vocals of approximately 80 members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale—all round out the soundscape.
The way the water was played during the performance had a direct impact on the way that the bowls were miked, says Elff. “The water is actually extremely dynamic; sometimes very subtle and quiet—delicate drops—and sometimes quite loud. The percussionists employ various methods of activating the water, from simple hand splashes to using mallets to strike inverted wooden bowls floating in the water. which, when struck, make a lovely resonant sound that modulates with the changes in the water. At another point, tubes are submerged into the water and are hit with paddles on top, which makes a hollow sound with varying pitch as the tube is submerged. It’s a challenge to capture that wide palette and incorporate it effectively into the larger sonic experience.”
For the L.A. performance, the bowls and tubes were each miked with one DPA 4052. DPA 4052’s water-resistant capsule allowed it to handle both “the physical environment and the very wide dynamic range,” according to Elff. Short mic stands and a DPA suspension elastic mount were used to mike the bowls to ensure that the microphone was poised within six inches of the surface of the water. The sound was amplified in stereo, and preamps were supplied through the Yamaha PM1D console on-site. As Elff notes, “The Disney Hall is such an ambient environment; it’s a really great-sounding hall, but it’s not the kind of place where you’re going to hard-left/right imaging [because] people tend to be seated in the round, behind and on the sides of the stage. To do any sort of extreme panning would deprive some audience members of the experience.”
Elff’s future projects include working with four-time Grammy winner Paul Winter on his latest album, Flyways.