1990s rave culture, the noise in our heads and the things we can learn from silence are among the influences that recently inspired Front of House sound engineer Dan Bora to re-think his approach to miking a performance by the internationally acclaimed Philip Glass Ensemble (PGE).
With PGE set to perform at the Click Festival in Elsinore, Denmark, Bora decided to ’flip the script’ to give the festival audience a new way of hearing Glass’s ground-breaking work. Part of this process involved miking the Ensemble’s three woodwind players (doubling on piccolo, flutes and saxophones) with d:vote™ Instrument Microphones rather than relying on small diaphragm condenser microphones on stands.
The genesis for these changes came last December when PGE played a rare show in a warehouse festival in the USA. Along with die-hard PGE fans, the concert also attracted a new generation of listeners, many of whom weren’t even born when some of Philip Glass’s music was written.
“Philip was surprised by the number of young people at the show,” Dan Bora explains. “We know the influence his work has had on Western classical, pop and electronic music, but after that experience we realised there was scope to share it with an even wider audience of young listeners.”
However, playing the kind of venues younger audiences frequent, in particular festivals, presented technical challenges that PGE wouldn’t normally encounter in places like Carnegie Hall in New York, the Sydney Opera House and London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.
“At that show, for example, the festival’s entire platoon of power generators were parked right behind our stage, chugging and groaning on the other side of a thin rolling metal door,” Bora says. “The sound pollution was so bad that we struggled to hear each other and had to battle really hard to keep the ship together. We realised that dealing with these kind of venues meant changing our approach to sound onstage – specifically the monitoring and the miking.”
The opportunity to try something new came at Click where PGE was scheduled to perform Music in 12 Parts, a piece that Glass wrote for his Ensemble in the early 1970’s.
“My ongoing fascination with Music in 12 Parts stems from the fact that I see it as a place to explore ideas of how live mixing and sound design can become an artistic extension of compositional form,” Bora says. “During the piece the music develops through the use of repetitive processes. Change seems to happen glacially (or not at all), but if you compare the beginning to the end you realise the musical distance travelled. I have been trying to imagine how to present Philip’s concepts about form in live sound mixing, as a sort of ‘extended technique’ of the performance. Clues in this ongoing quest involved 90s rave culture, thinking about noise and silence, and the petri dishes that are music festivals – too many details to go into here, but the results have led us away from the decades-long practise of using floor wedges as an extension of chamber music performance, in which the Ensemble’s synths and samples perfused the stage with an almost acoustic presence, to a more focused approach through the use of in-ear monitors and DPA microphones.”
After some research and testing, Bora put together a new set of tools consisting of Digico SD boards, Shure 535 earpieces and d:vote™ 4099 Instrument Microphones on saxophones.
“If you do the physics, it's pretty obvious - the distances between the transducers and what they're pointing at is significantly smaller,” Bora says. “Microphones and speakers are no longer on the same plane. The d:vote™ 4099's are by far the best-sounding and most practically built microphones for this type of filigree work. Replacing small diaphragm condensers on stands with d:vote™ made this core element of the Ensemble as crystal-clear as our synths. Our rebalanced image was complete.”
Bora adds that without the blur of monitor bleed, performers could precisely hear each other’s timing and intonation. “I wasn't prepared for how many more magnitudes of power and shades of inflection our sound now had,” he says.
PGE’s success at Click has resulted in the Ensemble investing in its own stock of d:vote™ Microphones so they can be used for all future performances.
“Initially we rented the microphones because we were trying them out, but now we don’t want to part with them,” Bora says. “I was surprised by the overwhelming approval from the other Ensemble members: our venerated Music Director, Michael Riesman said ‘there's no turning back!’. I saw Philip after the performance. Smiling, he exclaimed ‘I could hear things in the music that I haven’t heard before.”
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