In this 2nd of 4 blog posts, I’ll talk about the background preparation for the music on Under The Stars, and how I organized the recording session to cover 18 tunes in 3 hours (a fairly remarkable feat considering the “normal” studio recording time ratio is over one hour of recording time for every 3 minutes of a finished tune).

I had already decided that an album recorded in an observatory dome would of course be based on astronomy-related themes. Furthermore, I was interested in the star lore of Native American tribes, and decided to use their legends and history as an inspiration. The book Stars of the First People – Native American Star Myths and Constellations, by Dorcas S. Miller turned out to be an extremely helpful reference; I also read passages from Realm of the Long Eyes – A Brief History of Kitt Peak Observatory by James E. Kloeppel and Burnham’s Celestial Handbook – An Observer’s Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System, by Robert Burnham, Jr. for additional facts and background.

As I read, I made notes about which stars, planets and celestial objects resonated with me, or had musical story potential. Some I knew would be slow, moody or meditative songs; others would be up-beat, energetic, and dance-like. Similar to other artists who specialize in Native American flute, I had discovered that certain flutes play best in particular keys or modes; some have a soft, soothing voice; some are earthy; some are bright and cheerful; some sing the blues. I made notes about which flutes would be suited for each musical idea, matched to its respective celestial object. I tested out each idea on each flute, and eventually narrowed down the stories/keys/flutes to about 24 options. I made up an index card for each flute, noting which object, story, mode and key I wanted to use. While this may seem like a lot of preparation for an improvised session, I wanted to ensure that each tune was unique and captured the characteristic mood of the chosen story.

One of the challenges of playing many different Native American flutes in one session is switching between instruments with different sizes and arrangements of finger-holes. When switching between flutes, it’s easy to miss notes because the fingers have not adjusted quickly enough to the new size and spacing of the holes. Since I knew it would be important to get acclimated as quickly as possible to each instrument change, I decided to record according to the sizes of the flutes. I arranged the index cards (and the flutes) in order from lowest (largest) to highest (smallest), since from experience I knew that would be the most comfortable switch for me. By coincidence, only 2 tunes wound up being tracked on the CD in the same order that they were recorded- Giant Cactus-Gathering Hook and Path of the Departed Souls were recorded back-to-back on the same flute (which was performing extremely well at that point in the session).

I also re-listened to the test samples I had recorded on previous trips to the observatory, to really internalize the mathematical precision of the particular echo pattern of the 100-inch dome. In studio recordings, the sound is normally recorded “dry” and any reverb or echo is added afterwards using software. In the case of a live recording in a location with a very pronounced natural echo, the echo itself becomes part of the melodic structure – I would literally being playing duets with myself. And because the echo would always have the same speed & delay factor, I would need to adapt my playing style to work with that consistent echo pattern. This meant that I would avoid certain types of melodic ornaments or rhythm patterns that I felt would come out muddy or blurry, and favored a more song-like style that left breathing room for the dome’s echo. This echo pattern would also come into play even more significantly when recording on the drone (double) flutes, because at any given time I would be hearing not just two notes, but four.

Even with all of the pre-session planning, each tune was in fact completely improvised in the moment, and I made some on-the-spot changes to the planned melody ideas based on my mood during the session (or the good or bad behavior of particular flutes )– more on that in the next post! In this snapshot, taken on a break between sessions, you can see Cygnus in the sky above the 100-inch dome.

 Here are audio links for tracks 5 - 8 of the album – Enjoy!

5) Giant Cactus-Gathering Hook (Big Dipper) This easily–recognized constellation appears in the lore of the Seri and the Tohono O’odham tribes as the Giant Cactus-Gathering Hook. The flutter-tonging effect represents the cactus. Listen for a brief bump in the melody – a surprise reaction to backing into a cactus. Flute made by Brent Haines (Woodsounds) 6- hole concert style in Thai rosewood, key of F# minor.

6) Path of the Departed Souls (Milky Way) Various tribes including the Shasta, Ojibway and Menominee, believe that the Milky Way represents a trail taken by the souls of those who have passed on. I chose a wandering, unsettled melody to describe the mysterious journey. Flute made by Brent Haines (Woodsounds) 6- hole concert style in Thai rosewood, key of F# minor.

7) Bear Who Wanted a Mango (Cygnus) The bear plays an important role in the lore of many tribes, however this tune was inspired by a local Mount Wilson bear. The observatory galley had recently been broken into by a California brown bear who tore out an air conditioner and in broke in through a window in order to snatch a ripening mango from the kitchen counter, leaving a wake of casual destruction. Flute made by Brent Haines (Woodsounds) 6- hole concert style in walnut, bass flute in C minor. When I first picked up this flute, I immediately heard a song about a bear.

8) Rabbit Tracks (tail of Scorpius) The appearance of rabbit tracks in the snow heralds the coming of spring. During the evening, I noticed the dome had a pronounced response to the pitch of D, so I made the melody sparse (hopping like a rabbit) in order to allow the dome acoustics to play a greater part. This song has the longest fade out, because the high Ds hung in the air longer than any other note. Flute made by Ed Hrebec (Spirit of the Woods) custom 6- hole concert tuned, in claro walnut, key of high D minor.

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