BANGOR — One of the challenges for an orchestra of any size in any city is finding a place to make high-quality recordings.
In the past two years, the Bangor Symphony Orchestra participated in two recording projects, and didn’t have to leave town for either one. “The largest hurdle most orchestras face wasn’t a hurdle at all, thanks to this place,” said Brian Hinrichs, the orchestra’s executive director.
Hinrichs spoke in whispers from deep within a maze of sound studios and video suites at the New England School of Communications at Husson University. He was observing a recording session by the a cappella group Anonymous 4 and Grammy Award-winning composer Christopher Tin.
The four women of Anonymous 4 came to Bangor in January to premiere a work by Tin with the orchestra. Tin and the singers spent an afternoon at NESCom recording their parts for a CD that Tin will release later this year featuring the Royal Philharmonic of London.
Two years ago, the communications school engineered and recorded Maine songwriter Noel Paul Stookey’s “The Cabin Fever Waltz,” performed by Stookey and the Bangor Symphony at Gracie Theatre on the Husson campus.
NESCom, as it’s known, has earned a reputation for having some of the finest recording facilities in northern New England. Recently it has attracted other high-profile projects, including an award-winning short film based on a story by horror writer Stephen King, who lives in Bangor, and a movie based on the writing of “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling.
It’s a small school, with fewer than 500 students and an annual budget of $6 million. It has grown slowly in its three decades, and lately has evolved from a place that trains DJs and camera operators into a school that prepares students for careers in Hollywood and recording studios.
Tin, who won two Grammy Awards in 2011, also used Abbey Road in London and The Village in Los Angeles to record his upcoming CD. On a cold January day, he added Studio D at NESCom to that list.
“This is on par with everything else I have seen all over the world,” Tin said. “I didn’t know what to expect with Bangor, a city of, what, 40,000 people in a small state like Maine. But I’m very impressed. The equipment they have here is what you’ll find in places like Abbey Road.”
SYMPHONY PUT COMPOSER TO WORK
Tin’s association with the Bangor Symphony and NESCom grew from his friendship with the orchestra’s music director, Lucas Richman. They became friends in Los Angeles, where Richman offered a workshop to prepare film composers for conducting. Tin signed up for the workshop.
They collaborated on Tin’s Grammy-winning CD “Calling All Dawns,” for which Richman also won a Grammy. After Richman became music director in Bangor, the orchestra played a selection from the CD.
That was a catalyst for the new work that brought Tin and Anonymous 4 to Bangor in January.
Said Richman, “We started thinking, ‘What else can we do for Christopher Tin, and wouldn’t it be wonderful to get a new composition from Christopher, written specifically for us?’ At the same time, Christopher was formulating his plans for a sequel song cycle to ‘Calling All Dawns.’ ”
The Bangor Symphony commissioned Tin to write a movement for the new song cycle, a single piece of music called “Seirenes.” It is a work for orchestra and vocal quartet that uses text from Homer’s “The Odyssey,” and is part of a larger song cycle called “The Drop that Contained the Sea.”
Tin and Anonymous 4 recorded “Seirenes” in Bangor. That single track will be part of an album featuring London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Bangor Symphony did not perform the piece for the recording, but facilitated its creation by paying Tin a fee to compose it, and premiered it with Anonymous 4 at the University of Maine’s Collins Center the day after the recording session in Bangor.
WORKING WITH EQUIPMENT MAKERS
Richman, who also is music director of the Knoxville Symphony and has conducted the New York Philharmonic and other U.S. orchestras, said part of his decision to take the job in Bangor in 2010 was the opportunity to record at NESCom.
“I was blown away by the facility,” he said. “Right in our backyard, we’ve got this high-tech recording studio and training ground for 500 undergrad students, who all are learning the art of audio and video recording. They always have the newest and latest technology, and I just couldn’t believe it was all right here. It was the cherry on top. Anything and everything is possible in this community.”
Ben Haskell, NESCom’s academic dean, said the school has cultivated relationships with manufacturers of audio and video equipment. For the Anonymous 4 project, engineer and associate professor Walter Clissen used the API Vision console. At retail, the board costs close to $500,000. It’s about the size of a small SUV, with hundreds of knobs and levers and two oversized monitors hanging on the wall overhead.
“We can get a board that costs $500,000 for much less because we will say to the manufacturer that we will field test this for you,” Haskell said. “We’ll bang on it, we’ll use it, we’ll play with it and we’ll see what works and what needs to be improved. We are the testing ground and the training ground for a lot of technology.”
INSTRUCTOR DRAWN TO NESCOM
Clissen set up multiple microphones in a studio out of view from the control room. As the women of Anonymous 4 sang, Tin sat at a control board sandwiched between Clissen and Elijah Gudroe, a student.
For a piece of music that will clock in somewhere between eight and 10 minutes, they recorded multiple tracks over two hours. At the end of the session, Clissen transferred all of the tracks onto Tin’s hard drive, from which Tin will edit the recording for the CD.
Clissen has 25 years of recording experience. He was born in Belgium and worked in venues across Europe, then moved to Los Angeles in 1988. Before coming to NESCom two years ago, he worked at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the University of South Carolina.
Clissen was drawn to NESCom because of the opportunity to train students on current technologies.
“When I saw that equipment, I thought, ‘This is what I am looking for.’ There are not many places out there that teach students on this type of equipment,” he said.
MAKING FILM FROM ROWLING STORY
In addition to working with Tin on his audio project, NESCom students are developing a short film based on a story by J.K. Rowling. “The Tale of the Three Brothers” is being edited, and is expected to be released on the festival circuit this year.
Thanks to the persistence of NESCom film professor Frank Welch, the school secured non-commercial rights from Warner Brothers to produce the movie. The trail started with a handwritten note from Welch to Rowling, via her London publisher. Welch was told that Rowling doesn’t do email, so he dropped a letter in the mail.
Whether Rowling read it, Welch isn’t sure. But her publisher referred him to Warner Brothers. After numerous emails and months of waiting, he got permission from the Hollywood studio to shoot the movie in Maine.
NESCom students adapted the script for film, scouted locations and hired actors. They filmed last summer and fall.
“The Tale of Three Brothers” was featured in the final Harry Potter novel, and later released as a short story. Warner Brothers will allow NESCom to use the film for non-commercial screenings, and students who worked on it may use it in their portfolios.
The film gave them their first chance to use a super-high-definition Red Epic Mysterium camera. This is the kind of camera commonly used in Hollywood for major theatrical releases, Welch said. Peter Jackson used the same camera, with more powerful lenses than those used by NESCom, when he made “The Hobbit” trilogy.
“Working with equipment like this is a big deal,” said Tom Ostrowski, a senior video production student from Scarborough. “It’s a game-changer for people like me. Being able to work with a camera like this as a student will help me get a job.”
Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: