We had the pleasure of speaking to recording engineer Ulrike Schwarz and Jane Ira Bloom about their relationship with sound and music, and the inspiration behind their new album Picturing the Invisible: Focus 1. This album features award-winning saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, percussionist Allison Miller, koto player Miya Masaoka, and bassist Mark Helias.
Editor: The music on Picturing the Invisible: Focus 1 was inspired by the science photography of Berenice Abbott. Please can you tell us more about this inspiration and how it is reflected in the music?
Jane: If you look at the photographs, even though they’re about scientific subjects, they are beautiful. Probably one of the biggest influences I had from looking at these images was the stark contrast of dark and light. If that translates to your ear to the idea of sound and silence having equal weight in your audio field, then that’s the music that I honed in on for this project. The other thing is, if you look at the images, they’re all about momentum and physics, and light waves and patterns of sound waves being visualized. Motion and flow of melodic lines is something that I’ve always been interested in. You’ll hear a little bit of that influence as a composer, translating the visual motion and flow into audio motion and flow.
Ulrike: I always thought that these patterns are usually in science books, or books we studied for acoustics, they look like interferences. Like the water drops and filters. They can also be interpreted like audio phenomenon. So that’s also an image I had in my head. That’s also why I thought that going at the highest possible recording resolution that we had would probably display this best.
Editor: Did this particular music inspire your choice in musicians? Can you tell us more about your choice to use the traditional Japanese instrument Koto?
Jane: It’s really about the koto player Miya. Miya could play anything, and I’d be interested in playing duets with her. She happens to be a master performer on the koto, but it’s really the musicians and their improvisational minds. These are people I’ve collaborated with in the past, so I have a history with them. I know how they feel about improvising music together. Alison Miller is an amazing creative mind for creating sounds spontaneously. Miya is a master on her instrument so when I talk about sound and silence – that’s her thing. It’s all a part not only of the instruments they play, but also their musical imagination.
Ulrike: I would say that none of the musicians played traditionally. Miya is not only playing Koto, she was doing things to her Koto I’d never heard before, and that were a little difficult to capture. Alison doesn’t just play drums, it was more percussion – it was really creating these sounds that go so far beyond traditional playing of the instrument, as Jane does. They didn’t just play their instruments – it went far beyond that.
Editor: Sound quality is clearly important to you, and you have had the album encoded in MQA. Can you tell us more about this?
Ulrike: The sheer data rate of what we recorded is not very consumer friendly. There are some people who buy native DSD and want an incredible data rate that doesn’t even get them anything.
I’ve found that with encoding it into MQA when the consumer has an MQA ready system, it will unfold back into the 384khz in this case. But it is a file of 48kHz which is of course much more manageable which can be streamed and downloaded easily. For me it is a great way of transporting super high audio quality in a manageable means.
I was acquainted with it when we mastered some other albums with Bob Ludwig – he always sent it over as MQA. Since we purchased this enormous clock, the Merging Technologies Clock U, which is true to ten parts of a billion, our clocking has improved, and I find the MQA works really well. Since then, every album I’ve done has been MQA and I really like it a lot.
Jane: From a listener’s perspective, listening to sound at this level of quality has a richness and a depth that’s so extraordinary for the ear. You don’t have to play a lot of notes when you have this kind of quality of sound to your ear, to listen and luxuriate in. It’s almost like a single note becomes a whole full course dinner. It’s like one note sounds absolutely breathtaking, and it’s because of this quality of sound.
When people listen, they don’t even know why they feel the way they feel when they hear it, but there’s a whole emotional response to hearing music this way in this type of quality. People don’t even understand what they’re hearing, it’s just this incredible breadth of sound that can make a single note sound like a symphony.
Ulrike: I think the emotional response is actually very interesting. As with the super high quality, you also respond well to the immersive sound when it comes at you in 3D. When you add the next level to surround, it becomes a very different story emotionally.
Jane: For the artist, it is so euphoric. We’re used to hearing sound around us on stage, but for an artist to hear themselves in relation to other musicians coming back at them in a completely immersive way, that’s completely new and very intoxicating. That’s why it’s so emotional to hear music that you’ve made come back at you in this way.
Editor: Sound is important, how do you view the link between sound quality and the music? Is it about communication, nuance or helping listeners understand or get involved in the music? Or something else?
Jane: It’s a wonderful collaboration of these two things that are operating at an extremely high level and ultimately become indistinguishable. It’s such a joy, and this is the essence of my collaboration with Ulrike. We’re trying to combine art and science together to create a unique emotional experience for the listener.
Ulrike: It’s so much joy when you get the chance to record people on that level. You think, this is what they can do musically, and I think about what I can do to capture this and bring all of this across. The joy of it is to get the chance to work with people on this level and then think about what I can do to make them communicate even better and create those soundscapes that I’m hearing, and then turn this into something that everyone just loves to listen to.
Jane: This is the essence of producing, we’re imagining taking the music and its audio capture to the highest level we can imagine, and then some. That’s a creative decision.
Ulrike: A recorded product is always different from a live performance. Jane is very good at cutting things down, which means it is good quality music. That makes the whole thing so joyful.
They are seasoned musicians who know what to do. They command the room, and don’t wait for me to say whether it’s a great take. In the end, the musicians make the composition come alive or not. We do not keep a take that is not special.
Improvisers are spontaneous composers, it’s very different to interpreting in an orchestral sense. When you get used to having a sphere where you make things up, you wind up collaborating with people who have a feeling for this process – who make composition come out of the air. You make it up right in the moment, but it feels like you composed it. The lines between improvisation and composition get blurred, and that’s a skill that improvisers in the jazz tradition spend a whole lifetime and career developing. Alison, Miya, Mark, these are pros at the highest level at this process.
Editor: You received a grant from the New York City Women’s Fund for Media, Music and Theater for this project, can you tell us more about how this came about and any personal significance of this particular grant.
Jane: There’s no question in my mind that the ‘Women’s Fund’ was the key inspiration. Look at the powerful women involved in this project: Ulrike on the audio engineering side, Berenice Abbot legend in the photographic world as the inspiration, Alison an unbelievable improviser on drums and percussion, and Miya, a complete contemporary musician. These are women who really excel in their worlds. When Ulrike and I first talked about this, it just started making so much sense. Look at all this girl power, let’s face it!
Ulrike: We did accept Jim Anderson, the mixing engineer, and Mark into our world as honorary members of our group. Morten Lindberg was also involved in turning it into Dolby. The fund was about the combination of all these wonderful women and our original plan to bring in the media aspect – before the pandemic hit it was all supposed to take place in a great room.
Jane: The music was originally written for 5, 6, 7 instrumentalists. We didn’t record a lot of the music that I composed and we had to hone down our ideas a lot.
Ulrike: There might be Picturing the Invisible: Focus 2 at some point!
Editor: How did you form your taste in sounds and music? Did anything change or influence your taste in music during childhood or since, such as music played in the home on hi-fi or a piano, starting a musical instrument, friends at Yale University, or training at Yale College of Music?
Jane: I can remember from my earliest moments of consciousness loving musical instruments. I was just fascinated with them, with sound and what they looked like, I don’t know why. In terms of my journey as a musician, I think the most interesting aspect of how I’ve shaped a sonic identity is that I’ve been very interested in the sounds of other instruments other than soprano saxophone. I’ve learnt a lot from vocalists, trumpet players, violin players, shakuhachi players. I’ve gotten inspiration for my ideas about sound from places other than my instrument, and I think that’s affected how I come up with the sound that I do.
Editor: What system do you use for playback of music?
Jane: You’re going to laugh because I don’t have any of the high-end equipment Ulrike uses. I have a set of AKG headphones I’ve been using for years. I listen on my headphones. They are not the greatest, but when you get used to listening on something it’s like a standard of listening that you get used to.
Ulrike: We got her a really nice headphone amp! [I have old AKG headphones, I know them, they’re honest. I use them in the studio and at home.]
Ulrike: In my editing suite I have Wilson speakers, Wilson CUBs, and an Eclipse TD725sw subwoofer. When I’m working, I’m listening through the Pyramix and sometimes have our clock there as well to really see what’s going on. I have a selection of headphones. The amps are Benchmark ABH2 Mono blocks and HPA4 pre amplifier. My favorite headphones are actually B&W P5s, the small ones. I took them with me to the recordings, I like them very much for work. I have a selection of Sennheiser’s but in the field I prefer the P5.
Downstairs we have set up our other studio. For work Jim prefers to have his old Meyer HD1s. He’s had them for 30 years and these are the speakers he trusts for mixing. For listening we have Wilson WATT Puppies, and a Mark Levinson system with a 23.5 amplifier and 26S pre amplifier. In the dining room we have the surround 7.1 system of Eclipse TD712z MK2 speakers, the TD725sw and a Marantz A/V unit. For our wedding party we dragged a couple of those speakers out on the deck and entertained. We exclusively power all units – remote or at home – with Essential Sound Products MusicCord cables and Power Distributors.
In our next blog post Recording Picturing the Invisible: Focus 1, we discuss the extraordinary recording story behind the album, recorded remotely during the pandemic.
Listen to our playlist Jane Ira Bloom in Playlists by Roon on your Roon Home Screen.