A recording session at Manifold Studios with Michael Tiemann, John Q. Walker, and the ghost of Oscar Peterson

by Rob Tiller

Last weekend I attended a recording session at Maniford Recording, my friend Michael Tiemann’s new recording facility in Chatham County near Jordan Lake. Michael’s been working on this project for four years, and it is clearly a labor of love. The setting is rural piedmont North Carolina, surrounded by farms and forest with lots of songbirds. (I heard a whippoorwill singing ardently for the first time this year or last.) The architect was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, and incorporated the golden ratio throughout the design. Michael explained his his purpose in terms of making great recordings with a total devotion to truthful sound. I noted that this is swimming against the tide of contemporary culture, which Michael conceded, but he noted that tides can turn.

The recording was done by software developed by Zemph, a company founded by John Q. Walker, who was also at the session. The objective was to reengineer a recording by Oscar Peterson (jazz pianist) and Ray Brown (bass) from 1949. A hundred-year-old Steinway that had once been at Carnegie Hall had been fitted out to play itself using Zemph’s software, and the Zemph folks had created a new instrument to reproduce the bass. The sound was uncanny. It was unsettling, but kind of moving, to see the piano keys moving, and the sound had authority.

I went through a long period of studying and really loving jazz. I still enjoy it from time to time. I particularly enjoy music from the big band era. But jazz sometimes gets more reverences than it deserves, based in part on the myth of improvisation. The non-musician perceives improvisation as a bold experiment, but it’s usually not. What improvisation mostly means is either variations on prior melodies or laying prefabricated riffs in various orders on top of fairly simple, repetitious chord structures. It can sometimes have energy and heart, but it can also be fairly boring. When I started to feel a little bored, I found my way back to the Western European musical tradition, in which composers wrote down ideas so rich that we still find, centuries afterwards, it interesting, and sometimes transcendently moving, to confront them. I don’t get that from Oscar Peterson.

John graciously allowed me try out the pianos after the session. I found the Carnegie Steinway a bit loose and diffuse, but the Hamburg Steinway was wonderful — brilliant colors and clarity. I worried that the reproduction equipment, including circuit boards attached to the keys, could affect either the sound or the action, but I couldn’t perceive any such effects. I played a bit of Chopin, including the Minute Waltz, and a bit of Debussy’s First Arabesque.

I enjoyed seeing the technology for recreating the performance, and the mixing session in the studio. And it was inspiring to see how passionate Michael and John were about the music. I have a soft spot for people that are absolutely passionate about art that will never win a popularity contest or make a dollar. It’s a reminder that art matters at the most intimate human level, and can inspire love so intense as surpass all rationality.