Last summer James Ginsburg, recording engineer Bill Maylone, and organist David Schrader made a couple of five-hour trips (once through a wave of tornadoes) to the Salem Evangelical Lutheran church in Wausau, Wisconsin, to record on the “perfect Bach organ.”
Ginsburg explains, “This is a small church, with a small instrument. It’s not a behemoth, but it’s the style of organ Bach was writing for. Organs in northern Germany in the late 17th century, when Bach was working, were more straightforward than most organs today. They had more clarity of sound. You’ve got a lot of small towns in the upper midwest where churches–usually Lutheran–have built really good organs. Now, for an album of French music, we’ll be going to Duluth, Minnesota, to record on a French-style organ. French organs have a more romantic, rounded, wallowing sound.”
The recordings are for the label Ginsburg, who’s 27, founded: Cedille Records, Chicago’s only classical label. He issued his first CD three years ago and now produces a half dozen new recordings a year, featuring some of the Chicago area’s outstanding performers, pianist Dmitry Paperno, composer-pianist Easley Blackwood, and Schrader, a versatile keyboardist, among others.
Ginsburg says that the emphasis on keyboard instruments in the catalog–which relies heavily on piano, with a little harpsichord and pipe organ thrown in–stems from his choosing the music and artists he knew best when he started out: the New York native and sometime U. of C. law student studied harmony and counterpoint with Blackwood at the University of Chicago and piano with Russian virtuoso Paperno at DePaul.
Most of the recording to date has taken place in WFMT’s studio. “They have an excellent nine-foot Steinway and a controlled environment,” says Ginsburg, who also gives Maylone credit for his innovative miking techniques. Most piano recordings are made in large halls; Ginsburg, a former record critic for American Record Guide, thinks that’s a mistake. “A small room is an appropriate venue for solo piano. Sitting out in a 4,000-seat auditorium is not the ideal way to listen–the piano is an intimate instrument. I think you get much more out of it in this kind of setting.”
Yet things seldom go in a completely straightforward manner even in WFMT’s studio. “Murphy’s law definitely holds true in recording,” observes Ginsburg drily. At one session, every time Blackwood struck a particular note on the piano, a loud buzzing sound was heard. A loose light bulb, which they tightened with a plunger attached to a long stick, proved to be the culprit. In churches the problems range from car, truck, train, and airplane noises to shifting deadlines because of choir rehearsals. Once a PA system suddenly started broadcasting WBBM AM’s old-time radio show; Ginsburg finally muffled the speaker with his coat.
The recording team generally consists of Ginsburg, Maylone, and the artist. Once the last take is recorded, Ginsburg picks out the best ones, edits them on a machine (“You can actually see the wave form of the music as you work–it’s a lot of fun”), sends the first cut to the artist for approval and suggestions, and then goes back to see if anything else can be improved. Once the final version is approved, the compact discs are manufactured at a plant in Maine.
Ginsburg, an inveterate seeker after oddball recordings, says that when he started Cedille “I assumed most consumers were like me, combing the record stores trying to find obscure things.” Evidently they’re not, and he’s found that he has to spend a considerable portion of his time and energy on marketing. To reach the less-adventurous music lover, he’s put together a sampler CD that’s available free with a Cedille purchase from several record stores, or you can call or write for a copy: Cedille Records, 1250 W. Grace, 3F, Chicago 60613; the phone number is 404-0758.
Future plans include more American music: a couple of Blackwood symphonies and possibly some projects with the Vermeer Quartet and His Majestie’s Clerkes. “If you want a Beethoven Ninth, you’ve got a lot of choices–you don’t need a small label. We’re here to record artists and repertory that have been overlooked.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Merideth.