The making of New York Requiem

A quick look at my files tells me that the process of composing New York Requiem began on the 3rd of October, 2020. This was the day that I proposed to my dear friend, Steve Stewart, that we do something together, a joint project. My original idea had been to take a recording and mash it up in various different ways. During that conversation, Steve suggested that we could also utilise the talents of Rachel Hickman which I jumped at. We were, of course, in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic and we were all sat around unable to perform and generally just twiddling our thumbs. The inclusion of Rachel brought some challenges. What would she sing? Would my original idea work? 

  It was around this time that the structure of a work written to commemorate the awful tragedy that was the 9/11/2001 World Trade Center attacks, began to formulate in my mind. I put the proposal to Steve and Rachel, they agreed and the writing began.

  As good luck would have it, Steve and Rachel had recently come into the possession of a Tascam digital recorder and a Rode condenser microphone. This opened up the possibility of recording their parts remotely which would throw up a set of unique challenges. As a media composer, I have worked in MIDI for many years. I had never had to work with raw audio files before and possessed absolutely no skills in this area. I knew that to make it work, I would have to learn how to edit audio files and how to mix them down to create a satisfying finished product. 

The Recording Process

A short excerpt showing Rachel recording Ave Maria, part of the

New York Requiem.

It was of paramount importance that we were able to establish a recording process as quickly as possible. 

 

  All of the music for this album was composed directly into Sibelius using NotePerformer as my playback configuration.  This enabled me to obtain a reasonably good realisation of my ideas to be able to demonstrate to Steve and Rachel my general intention.  After printing off solo parts and adding a click track, they were able to perform and record their parts with the NotePerformer score.

 

  While waiting for those recordings, my next step was to import the MIDI files into my Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) which in my case is Logic X. Once all the MIDI had been transferred over, I was able to reassign it to higher quality playback sources.  I am fortunate to have access to around £20,000 worth of virtual instruments so my scoring options were unlimited.

  When I finally received Steve and Rachel's takes, I was able create a timeline in my DAW to edit the various takes into a contiguous file. After the first few attempts, we had a process which was effective and appeared to run smoothly.

 

  I used, almost exclusively, libraries created by Vienna Symphony Library to render the high quality playback. The woodwinds sound amazing but the Brass and Strings just weren't cutting it. Because we had kept the timing tight, I was able to use the brass audio from NotePerformer. The Strings needed to be completely redone using EWQL Hollywood Strings.  If anyone has worked with this program, you will know that each articulation (for every instrument) needs to be on a different track in the DAW. As I had used a wide variety of articulations, this took a considerable amount of time, not to mention the huge strain on my computer. I do think, however, that the results we obtained justified the effort.

 

  We tried to maintain a consistent signal path throughout, recording everything at 48Khz, 24bit Stereo. This is also the format in which the files will be delivered to you.

  

The Writing Process

I am accustomed to the process of writing music to film and the techniques required to do so. With this work, however, I decided to write the music first and add the images at a later date. In reality, I had very powerful images in my mind and the music was composed to those images. The resultant video is merely my attempt to find footage which was close to the images in my imagination.

   

Each track was considered on the basis of its overall contribution to the whole work and what I hoped to achieve, musically and visually. Consequently, there are a large range of styles ranging from the simple prelude (The City Sleeps) to the complex Dies Irae (The Towers Fall). Because I wasn't limited by my choice of instruments, I used whatever I deemed to be appropriate. This led to some interesting choices: Basset horns instead of Clarinets, for example. I also strengthened the "contrabass" register by the addition of Contrabass Clarinet and Contrabass Trombone. 

  I chose Latin over English for the Requiem section of the album.  There were two reasons for this:

  1. The sound of the mass in Latin is primal.  To my ears, the English translations lacked any real sense of power. The emotions I wished to invoke were triggered more easily by the Latin phrases.

  2. I had to consider that I would have to program my choir to sing the words and the program sounds so much better in Latin although it is still difficult to program.   

   

Having live performances was transformative but challenging. I completely understood what Steve was capable of, having previously composed Brandane Rhapsody for his solo album, Over the Horizon. On the other hand, I had never written for a solo vocalist and my first efforts were very much trial and error. With Rachel's expert guidance, I was able to, I believe, bring out the subtle nuances of her voice, contributing massively to the finished album.