Chapter 3: Behind the albums

3.1 Thailand and Cambodia

Living one year in Siem Reap, Cambodia back in 2006 served as a point of departure for my interest in other cultures and changed my perspective: I wanted to compose and work with traditional musicians to create a new sound signature. This idea slowly emerged throughout the year as I reflected upon my own musical practice. Commuting between Cambodia and Norway over the subsequent years, I collaborated in the studio and performed concerts at small venues in Phnom Penh with Savy and Theara, trying out musical ideas and sketches.

The traditional music is closely intertwined with dance or theatre performances, and made an impact on me. As a westerner and outsider listening to the traditional music of the two countries, I hear more similarities than differences. That may be because I am listening in a different way by focusing on a combination of the comprehensive soundscape of the music and the instruments, and how the melodic lines are ornamented together yet individually from each performer. I perceive vocalists as an instrument and their lyrics as part of their sound, regardless of language.

Building networks over the years has been a slow process since I seek musicians who also have an interest in expanding their musical horizons and genres. In addition, there has to be a musical connection. They are remunerated and credited accordingly to international standards, since most are sought-after musicians with busy schedules. I find that working within academia (Figure 25), as well as with freelance artists, is a good balance that covers a wide musical field of interest. I value education and am a firm believer in sharing knowledge.

Figure 25: Paper presentation at the symposium Metamorphoses at Princess Galyani Vadhana Institute of Music, Bangkok, Thailand (2018)

Every lecture is a learning experience as the teacher, in addition to interacting with students. The symbiosis of this is valuable: I will argue and explain my view and philosophy in class, but at the same time I want the students to present their view. This is a method I use in the studio with both artists and musicians.

Figure 26: Photo from a studio session with Yun Theara at CLA Studio (2013)

Through Cambodian Living Arts (CLA, Figure 26), I got in touch with Savy and Theara and set up our first studio session in early 2009. In 2012, I started the ongoing collaboration with Mahidol University. Akarat Narong, the head of the traditional music department at the time, was important in helping me to facilitate contact with Thai musicians. I had been in the country as a tourist many times, but working there was different. It was a steep learning curve, although aspects of the culture and mind-set had some similarities to Cambodia, as both are Buddhist countries. Later that year I did my first concert with Thai musicians (Figure 27) at the venerable Siam Society, where the Norwegian Embassy and Ambassador hosted the event.

Figure 27: Photo from a live concert at Siam Society, Bangkok, Thailand (2012). From left: Kanthana “May” Kornsupharom, Pattaraporn “Synth” Saengsamang, me and Nithitorn Hiranhankla.

In later years I have lectured, done workshops and presented papers at conferences throughout Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Laos, building up a network through the Southeast Asia Directors of Music (SEADOM).

A highlighted project is the collaboration with Silpakorn University in Bangkok, working closely with Dean Damrih Banawitayakit, now the vice-president at the Princess Galyani Vadhana Institute of Music. As the only foreigner, I was asked to rearrange the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej´s compositions, recording a special edition double album in the SilPASEAN project (Figure 28) produced by ethnomusicologist Anant Narkkong (Silpasean, 2017).

Figure 28: Cover Arts from the album SILPASEAN (2017)

As one of the project leaders in the three-year research project, Music without Borders: Traditional music from Setesdal and world music (2014-2017), we collaborated with 56 traditional musicians from 17 different countries, hence providing further insight into different microtuning and music traditions from countries such as Nepal, Mongolia, China, Armenia, India, Iran and Tibet. The artistic result of this project is published as the album FERD (2017) , as well as an online article.

3.2 Lebanon and Palestine

Parallel to working in Thailand in 2012, I had my first encounter with Palestine and an intensive week meeting various music organizations, observing teaching and attending concerts in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bethlehem and at refugee camps in Nablus. These left quite a few impressions. Through the network in Palestine I was given an introduction to contacts Lebanon, which I visited for the first time in 2013 when I met scholars and artists.

My strategy in Lebanon was to listen, observe and ask, though not perform. I wanted to learn and understand. This meant putting aside my ego, and zeroing out expectations on own projects in the near future.

Dean Youssef Tannous at The Holy University of Kaslik (USEK) was a key person, and gracious with his time every time I visited. There were many interesting people dropping by casually into our conversations in the hours during our talks. One of them was the darbuka player Rony Barrak, who is now my long-time collaborator. Tannous provided me with insights into both cultural and religious knowledge in the region. Being a catholic university, they were surprisingly inclusive in their teaching and singing the Quran, and collaborating with universities in Egypt and Morocco.

The renowned oud player and composer Charbel Rouhana, and traditional singer Ghada Scbeir, shared their knowledge and approach on Arabic music, maqams and Syriac music. Both Lebanon and Palestine have a turbulent history of war. I remember asking Charbel how he managed to compose and function during the civil war in Lebanon. He said you eventually adapt to survive, the bombs become part of your life and you focus on the music.

Meeting composer Jamal A-Hosn through The Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music, I was invited to observe the rehearsals and concert of his symphonic piece, 1983, performed by the Lebanese Symphony Orchestra (LSO). The Lebanese Oriental Orchestra rehearsed after the LSO, so I stayed on and listened to the sound of the instruments and orchestra, and the guest vocalist Hiba Al Kawas, who was beautifully ornamenting the traditional Arabic tunes. Oriental means traditional in the Arabic societies, which took some time to realize. In late 2014, I was referred to traditional singer Abeer Nehme by mutual artists, which led to new material being performed at a live concert in Norway the following year (more in 4.2.1).


3.3 Asian Flow – The studio albums

Studio recordings often have a pre-production phase which includes composing, writing lyrics and arranging, and then proceeding into recording in a studio followed by mixing, mastering and releasing the album. The record company handles the distribution and press. Sending tracks via Dropbox and recording it in home studios is common, and several of my guitar tracks on this album were done this way. I used two guitar players on these albums and also had a session at my house with Tor Gustav Tønnesen, where we set up the amp in the kitchen (Figure 29) and used the living room as control room recording with my portable laptop studio.

 Figure 29: Studio session in my house recording the guitarist Tor Gustav Tønnesen in the kitchen (2013)

The two versions of the album Asian Flow were recorded in several different locations: Kristiansand, Bratislava, Phnom Penh and Bangkok. It was recorded layer by layer over a period of two years, with the entire process lasting four years. In my case, the composing and arranging phase went through many recording sessions and changes before achieving the final result. The musical ideas and compositions needed time to evolve. In addition, the cost of travelling and recording limited the progression.

The portable laptop worked out as a musical instrument (Bell, 2018; Eno, 1979; Frith & Zagorski-Thomas, 2012; Howlett, 2009, 2012; Zagorski-Thomas, 2014) and a center of combining the musical elements.

Figure 30: Album cover art from the CD Asian Flow feat. Ouch Savy (2014). 

Asian Flow (Figure 30) started out as a small project, but became more comprehensive when I decided to arrange and record a string orchestra on several of the songs already recorded. It was back to the drawing board in terms of editing the compositions, changing keys to use the full range of open strings on the violins, and then re-recording in several countries, including Bratislava. Here, I produced the recording session with the string orchestra, adding it to the previously recorded band instruments and vocals (further details in 4.1). I wrote the string arrangements for the album in an apartment in Phnom Penh, emailing the Sibelius scores to my colleague, composer and professor Geir Holmsen for proof reading for errors and suggestions for improvement.

The title of the album is partly connected to, and inspired by the term mindfulness and flow in Buddhism perception psychology: To be present in the moment. I find this to be an underlying social layer in Thai and Khmer societies influencing everyday actions. In traditional dance, like the divine Apsara, the movements are slow and controlled yet gracious, and possess this flow.

3.4 Preproduction the live concert

Two years before the concert in 2015, I delivered a written proposal to the programme committee for the Kristiansand Symphony Orchestra (KSO), lobbying for my idea of the musical concept for Journey: A collaboration involving Asian and Arabic artists, the KSO, the University of Agder and the local Cambodian immigrant community. At the time of acceptance, no one had heard the music because it had yet to be composed and the Asian Flow albums had not been released. 

The majority of the music was composed in the last four months before the concert. I needed the pressure to dig deep within my mind, but I had not grasped how extensive it would be to compose and score for a bigger orchestra in combining elements from so many different music traditions. In particular, the Arabic part of the concert was lacking, and I travelled to Lebanon in late January to meet Abeer and other musicians and to get inspiration and compose. I was finally able to deliver the scores to the KSO February 24th, two weeks past the deadline.

The schedule for the musical preproduction (Figure 31 & 32) before the concert was tight, with only two days of rehearsal and a final dress rehearsal the same day as the concert. Since a lot of the music was new compositions, I was not sure how the chemistry and performance of everyone involved would influence the music. I had sent around some audio sketches to the musicians, but it was just fragments and small parts. In the string orchestra everyone had their individual part, but not the full string score. At that time, the sound only existed in my mind.

Figure 31: Photo of the schedule from the three day production at Kilden Performing Arts Centre (2015).

Adding to the pressure, this was a live recording and video production. The orchestra was a total of 40 musicians and artists who had not previously performed together as a group. The teams from Kilden and the KSO did a thorough preproduction, and we had meetings where we did the stage plot and practical things like contracts, budget, backline, schedules and wardrobes.

Figure 32: Photo of the rehearsal schedule from the three day production at Kilden Performing Arts Centre (2015).

The technical team of seven people was led by Eirik Mordal, while the monitor mix on stage was done by sound engineer Ruben Leirvåg. Both has a lot of experience, and Rony still talks about how clear and transparent he could hear every detail in the other instruments in his monitors on stage. Everyone got their own monitor of course and specified the level of the other instruments, thus pleasing every musician’s individual needs. Since this is very subjective, it is a necessity that greatly affects the performance. According to several participants, it was not a stressful schedule and things went smoothly. I also handled the practical arrangements, in addition to being musical director and pianist on stage. 

The conductor Lars Erik Gudim had the full score and was the leader on stage, handling the strings securing a good progress in the rehearsals. I had worked with Gudim on previous occasions, as he is a composer and arranger with extensive experience from TV and live productions. The KSO sent him the scores and we met a couple of hours before the rehearsals, where he shared his take on how to conduct the music. The core trio with me, Karl Oluf and Torbjørn had several rehearsals alone before the final two days to remove any uncertainty in the arrangements for bass and drums.

During the two days we adjusted some of the string expressions, and how to assign the different open or solo parts. I could secure a sound closer to my intention, as I had a direct impact (and power in the decisions) on stage. I knew the specific instruments and the sound of them, and I trusted the traditional performers and the band to improve and change any involuntary mistakes I made in the score.

Small technical issues such as a default cable can decimate a live recording. This is why many bands record several concerts on a tour so they can choose the best takes. We only had one take, but were able to use approximately half of the music material. Excerpts from the concert is presented in chapter 4.

3.5 Mixing the studio albums

The Asian Flow records were a learning experience collaborating with sound engineer Jon Marius Aareskjold, who has previously worked with Rihanna and Beyoncé as part of the production team Stargate. We did a preliminary mix of three song sketches back in 2013 as a pre-production establishing some common aesthetic values towards a pop sound (Frith, 1996; Hawkins, 2011). This was before I decided to record live strings, so the tunes were in different keys and had more programmed digital instruments. Because this project grew out of proportion due to the workload, a fixed schedule became impossible. With one-month notice Jon Marius graciously agreed to mix my album, even though his schedule was full six months ahead.

I uploaded all my audio files as separate files, with no volume automation and plug-ins, in a shared Dropbox folder for mixdown. The sound quality of my files varied since they were recorded by me over a time period of four years, and were more often focused on the artistic result. Consequently, Jon Marius ended up doing a lot of editing, thus adding to his workload. The vocal files contained background noise from the traffic in Phnom Penh, which was impossible to remove, so if you listen closely to some of the vocal tracks featuring Ouch Savy you can hear it. We communicated through email, Skype and SMS since he was mixing in his studio in Tromsø, a city far from Kristiansand. When a mix arrived, I would comment like this:

Strings 02:45-03:20 +1 decibel (dB)    

Piano 05:15-50 – 0.5dB        

02:45 indicates the specific minute and second for the edit, and decibel (dB) is a music industry standard when addressing volume measurement. 

I now wanted to preserve the open acoustic live string sound from Bratislava and used minimal compression, so we went back and forth a couple of times to adjust this. From the preproduction we established a more compressed strings sound and needed to address the change towards a more acoustic aesthetic value. A challenge emerged in mixing the tune “Remembrance”, as the volume of the strings was almost non-existent in the mix file. I asked for higher strings which lead to Jon Marius having the strings volume too high in his speakers.

Since ProTools 10 only allowed real-time bounces, Jon Marius had no time to check the actual bounced file, which was my job. The day after, I opened the session from Dropbox at the UiA studio in Kristiansand with sound engineer Alf Henrik Spilde Vaksdal to check the mix. All played well, and Alf pointed out that the strings were routed through separate auxiliary volume faders and failed to come into the final mix. When Jon Marius got the message from Alf to check the aux setting for the strings, it was an easy fix. Therefore, it comes down to terminology, in which I was not specific enough and Jon Marius misunderstood due to time pressure. This exemplifies how small misunderstandings can be time consuming when working in a virtual online studio environment.

As we reflected back on the process, Jon Marius emphasized the freedom he got from me to shape the soundscape. He remarked that I had a typical jazz approach, to let the music itself be the centre of attention. His evaluation is in line with my musical aesthetic values presented in Chapter 2. When he works with pop productions, the focus is often towards a specific sound to fit the artist as a product for a certain genre and commercial market. 

3.5.1 Mixing the live albums

The experience from the studio albums helped me when producing the live albums, although new challenges presented themselves. Re-experiencing both of the live recordings in the studio as a producer is a different experience than being on stage as a pianist and musical director. In the mixing phase, the role as the producer is prominent, though as the composer I can decide to cut or edit parts in close collaboration with sound engineer Eirik Mordal, hence shaping the soundscape. On the Live in concert album, Eirik was the Front of House sound engineer at the concert, and had control over his technical team in securing the correct mics and set-up on stage.

He uses this experience from live settings when working in studio, but this knowledge and perception is not easy to obtain. As the regular sound engineer for the KSO, he has worked a lot on mixing string orchestras, both live and in the studio.

We met in the studio, where he had set up a preliminary mix of one tune. We then started adjusting the fine tuning of the soundscape, as I preferred a bit tighter drums and less reverb, which was closer to how I experience Karl Oluf liked the sound. In addition, we worked on the Arabic instruments to highlight their acoustic sound. Once we agreed on an overall soundscape, Eirik used these settings as a starting point for the other tunes. We then communicated further via email and mix versions via Dropbox, following the same procedure as with Jon Marius:

00:29-32 piano +1dB

01:18-21 piano +1dB

01:38-58 A bit high ride cymbal?

01:58-02:10 Strings – 1dB

02:12-29 piano +1dB

04:02-27 guitar – 1dB

At times, Eirik is too polite and let me turn down the piano volume too low in the mix. My role as a pianist interfered with the executive decisions as the producer. In our second live album he was more direct, as I needed resistance in the process. As demonstrated in the timelines in chapter four, Eirik had several challenges with digital errors, and at one point replaced one bar with all the instruments. His background as a musician was crucial in these edits, since it involved a sense of timing and musicality. We experimented with the placement and overall sound of the Istanbul Strings in the mix, fusing them into a live soundscape. In the end, I made an executive decision to keep the sound as close as possible to the original recordings in Istanbul and centred them in the mix, highlighting the difference between recording live and in the studio, rather than spreading the strings out.

Mordal states that it is possible to make a more controllable sound environment in a studio recording but the energy and focus changes when musicians interact with the audience recording live. In addition, the textural space (Moore, 2001) in a live recording is more locked on to the reverb of the specific stage hall and physical placements of the instruments. In a studio recording the virtual placements of the instruments in the soundbox (Moore, 2001, p.30) is adjustable and determined more by the studio engineer than the recording room.

3.6 Mastering

After the mixdown from the sound engineer to a stereo track, the files were sent to the master engineer, as it was recommended to use a fresh set of ears for mastering. Some sound engineers have perfected this skill, and are exclusively doing masters. One of these are Björn Engelmann at the Cutting Room studio in Stockholm, Sweden. He has mastered all of my albums. He started collaborating with the Swedish group ABBA in the 1970s, and has now mastered close to 60,000 songs. The mixdown files were digitally sent from Jon Marius and Eirik to Björn, so there was no need to be present. Nonetheless, I wanted to meet him, so I could observe and discuss my music choices and his sound aesthetics.

It is a bit of mystery as to how sound engineers work in mastering albums. The sound engineer Howie Weinberg makes this comparison: Mastering is like Photoshop for audio (Weinberg, 2010, para. 3), meaning using plug-ins and hardware (instead of filters for photos) to manipulate and improve the original stereo audio file.

Björn only uses analogue hardware, and applies terms from nature when discussing changes in the mix: open up and let the music breathe, add warmth, make it more organic and add clarity. The mastering room has no windows, and is acoustically treated and soundproofed. His philosophy is to let the music itself determine the process, and not worry about compression. In any case, radio channels have their own compression that they apply. Surprisingly, he does not use a multi-compressor, because according to him most people are not disciplined enough to restrict their use of it. As a general comment, Björn is a bit sceptical of present pop aesthetics, with mixes compressed with a hard top in EQ. So for the Asian Flow albums, he applied the hardware tool DeEsser to smooth the vocals, generally adding warmth to the mix, or more specifically boosting the EQ in the lower frequencies. He closed his eyes, listened and turned the knobs (background image). There was no digital automation, with one master setting for each tune.

It was fascinating to watch him work. It was like watching a magician backstage, only to still wonder how he did it even though I observed everything. He is not afraid to speak his mind, and has an intuitive approach to the music. After each tune, he positioned me in the chair so I could listen to it and approve while he took a break.

In mastering the live albums, he commented on the aesthetic values in the compositions and mixes as being similar to ECM and Kirkelig Kulturverksted productions. On the string orchestra sound from the Live in concert album, he started by asking: “Is this really live?” This was a credit to Eirik’s strings mix, and complemented several of the musicians throughout the process.

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