Ben Cosgrove '10:  On the Artist's Process

Usually the way I write is by conceiving of the shape of the whole album first, then going through a similar process for each of the songs.  I know certain effects I want to achieve along the way, and I know roughly where I want them to occur, but most of the early planning (this is all that scribbling taped to the wall over my desk) has to do with a general sense of where the texture will shift, where the beat-based moments will fall, where over the course of a 45-minute CD a particular type of sound will be most prominent.  Because this album and my last one are largely about places and landscapes, it's easiest for me to imagine this part in a weird sort of geographical way: maybe there's going to be fog at the beginning that will lift revealing a plain, which in turn will give way to rolling hills, etc.  My music is instrumental, as you know, so texture is massively important to me - more so than subject matter, certainly.

This all probably makes no sense - I've never really tried explaining that part of the process, to be honest.  The important thing to take away, I suppose, is that I try to write an album all at once so that it feels cohesive, and so that as I'm developing each song I already have a very clear idea of where it will sit in relation to everything else.  It helps to orient me, and it gives me a better sense of how far I can push each piece without having it stick grotesquely out of the milieu.

Having now said all that, I should acknowledge that this album actually has some exceptions, because there are a few pieces that, like you mentioned, I did write while on tour.  So they're simpler, piano-based things but I knew I wanted them in there and so in a sense I've been building the album around those anchors.  It's turned out to be pretty helpful - it gave me a set of checkpoints that I knew I'd want to hit while I was painting the rest of the album around them.

Getting into the recording process, it's probably more useful for me to discuss a piece that's more complicated in terms of its design and its orchestration.  One of the biggest headaches I'm working through up there right now is inspired by the landscape of interior Alaska and it uses field recordings of the soundscape up there, made by the Park Service guy I worked with in Denali.  Its form is shaped by using changes in texture and mood to recreate the narrative of the shifting landscapes I walked through on a trip up there.  I knew I wanted to build the piece up from those natural sounds I mentioned, so I dropped all those recordings into a ProTools session and focused first on assembling them into the patterns I wanted.  This is, I guess, the equivalent of writing an orchestral piece by dealing with the woodwinds first, then going back and filling in the rest.

From there on, I'm pretty much laying track as I go.  I refer to the sketches and scribbles over my desk to navigate the shape of the thing (I know I want a big accordion/organ wash here, for everything to collapse into chaotic percussion here, etc), and I record the various instruments as needed.  You asked what I mostly use up there: the core parts are built around piano, organ, ukulele, guitar, double bass, banjo, violin, trumpet/flugelhorn, trombone, and euphonium.  There's a pile of some various percussion instruments up there too, which mostly come in handy late in the process for me - I mostly use drums for color, not for foundation, which I guess is one of the ways in which I operate more like a classical musician than a rock/pop one.

In general, I guess I think of my ProTools session as a version of the musical score.  All the parts are linearly on display (the difference being that I'm looking at waveforms, which are slightly less abstract than musical notation) and I manipulate, edit, and add to them as I go.  If there's a keyboard part required, I plug that in and add the part (often my additions are about 20-30 seconds -- I rarely play one part all the way through.  Usually, instruments pop in and out of my pieces more often than they would in most other places; my arrangements tend to be sort of schizophrenic).  If an acoustic instrument is needed, I set up the relevant microphone arrangement and play that as well.

The Artist in Residence suite turns out to be a very satisfying place to get recording done.  The big room there is very, very good for large instruments like that double bass, and the smaller room is great for acoustic guitar, ukulele, and other things.

If it's more useful, I can explain a different sort of song, like "When You Are a Road," from Yankee Division.  That one, as you know, is much more piano-based than the Alaska piece I was describing above.  In that case I just played down the piano part from beginning to end (it's actually not a real piano but that same red keyboard I have up there in my apartment now).  Then I went back, listened carefully to what I had, and wrote out parts by hand for trombones, violin, and viola.  I recorded the trombone and violin parts myself and then recruited a violist (my only imported instrumentalist on that CD!) to play the parts for that instrument (this was all done through overdubbing: when either of us was recording, we were listening not only to the piano part at the core of everything, but also to the other horn/string parts we'd done so far - I find it's easiest in those situations to record the lowest parts first and then build up from that, sort of how it's easier to tune a chord by building it from the bottom when singing in a group).  After all the parts were in, I adjusted all the levels and EQs to have it sit satisfactorily in the mix of the song and with the rest of the album.

After I do this (or something like it) for every song, I go back and master, which is just a long laborious process of more level-tweaking at a higher level.

 

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Ben Cosgrove is a composer, pianist, and multi-instrumentalist currently based in Cambridge, MA. He performs regularly both as a solo artist and as a sideman and has written scores for films, plays, radio, and television, toured widely across the US and Canada, and produced several well-received albums of his original, often geographically-inspired work.  More information:  www.bencosgrove.com