A Conversation with Earl McCluskie
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST PROJECT WITH ART OF TIME?
My first project with the Art of Time Ensemble was a live concert audio recording of Songbook 5 with Sarah Slean in May 2011.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED WITH ART OF TIME?
I first noticed Art of Time Ensemble in that indispensable industry bible, Wholenote Magazine, and determined to attend a performance when I could. It so happened that AoTE came to Waterloo region, where I am based, and I attended a concert featuring the ensemble and Sarah Slean. As a quick aside, sitting in the audience, it was easy to identify the Sarah Slean fans and watch as some of these experienced classical music for the first time, as the concert featured Beethoven’s Kruetzer Sonata, and hearing this left some around me in tears. The reverse path is true as well, I know, where through an Art of Time Ensemble performance, classical-oriented audiences open their hearts to a pop musician they have not encountered before.
Afterwards, I introduced myself to Andrew Burashko, offered my services, left a business card, and that was the end of that. Fortunately, I was working with Douglas Perry on another project, and he encouraged Andrew to contact me to record for them. I recorded the Songbook 5, and he has invited me back ever since. I have also produced a number of video productions for the band, Steve Page’s Songbook was the first, and the most recent is probably one of my life highlights, with the beautiful Brahms Intermezzi performed by Andrew and choreographed for dance by Peggy Baker and James Kudelka.
More recently, I have also been working with the band as live sound engineer when they tour. Last summer, I co-engineered a Banff performance of Sgt Pepper with Buford Jones, one of the world’s greatest live sound engineer legends, and last fall, toured with Madeleine Peyroux and the band, and this summer engineered Abbey Road again in Banff. The fidelity of venue sound systems has reached such a level in recent years that it is possible for us to create very satisfying concert experiences for audiences, and this makes my job very appealing and rewarding.
WHAT HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE WORKING WITH ART OF TIME BEEN?
Andrew is one of the most supportive artistic directors I have had the good fortune to work with. He gives you his trust, and then empowers you to do what you need to do to make the best recorded or live sound experience you are capable of. And he is not the least bit timid to challenge you if he thinks that you could do better. I understand he has the same relationship with his musicians.
That kind of 100%, all-the-time expectation is addictive.
WHO ARE SOME OF THE ARTISTS (MUSIC OR OTHERWISE) WHO'VE HAD AN INFLUENCE ON YOUR CRAFT?
There are so many superb engineer/producers in this business, and their recordings have guided my approach and sound. In the pop world, George Massenburg (Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Toto), in classical, in rock Daniel Lanois, and in jazz, Al Schmitt (Diana Krall).
I record music in many genres, but my roots are in classical music, and I have been strongly influenced by the engineering prowess of German tonmeisters such Günter Hermanns (Deutsche Grammophon/Berlin Philharmonic) and more recently the team from Tritonus, who recorded so many of the Tafelmusik recordings and the San Francisco Symphony’s superb Mahler cycle under Michael Tilson Thomas. I assisted Tritonus on a recording early in the Sony Classical opus with Tafelmusik, using a convent in Waterdown, Ontario, that is virtually an acoustically perfect environment. That recording was made with mostly a stereo omni pair, and I learned the importance of both the music/musicians and the hall they are performing in in making a good recording.
As well, the Digital Concert Hall performances, especially the video direction by some of the world’s best video directors, are superb.
The common point of craft between all these engineers is their ability to create a believable and engaging sound experience that enables the listener to transcend the world they are in.
There is one person, not an actively performing musician or sound engineer, who perhaps had the most influence on my craft. Denis Tremblay, now head of sound for IMAX and the driving force responsible for that company’s remarkable innovations in theatre sound, befriended me in the early 90’s, and I spent many hours at his home listening to music just for the sheer joy of listening. Even then, Denis was designing audio playback systems that had no peer, and his home system opened a window onto the work of the world’s best audio engineers that I could not have experienced anywhere else. Soon, I began to bring my own work to play on his system, and it was not hard to hear what I needed to do to raise the bar on my efforts. I now mix on the same system that I spent those many hours listening.
ANY GUILTY PLEASURES?
Ah… I've just discovered Paris. My partner was seduced by the city as a young woman, and enticed me to join her on a venture last summer. A feast of visual art and architecture. We traveled in August, and most musical activities pause during the last weeks of that month when we were there. I did manage to locate a chapel in which a series of superb 17th century performance recordings have been made by a now defunct record label. It was a special moment when I walked into the space and heard its ambience with my own un-aided ears.
IF YOU WEREN'T WORKING IN YOUR PRIMARY MEDIUM, WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
I think that I would be dead, I can’t imagine not working in audio and music. Are there such people?
WHAT ARE YOU READING? LISTENING TO?
I have just finished re-reading for the millionth time a series of stories written by British author Mary Stewart that retell the Arthurian Merlin legend: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment. I am developing a live music and visual performance using some spatial enhancement technology that will enable us to create a 3D immersive virtual world experience for the audience to tell the story of Merlin. I have been listening to music that evokes the mystical world that Merlin inhabited, Loreena McKennitt, Bruce Cockburn, Robert Schumann…
IS THERE SOMEONE YOU'D LOVE TO COLLABORATE WITH?
I am artistic director for Chestnut Hall Camerata, a musicians collective based in the Waterloo region, and it has given me the opportunity to collaborate with some extraordinary musicians, the eclectic electric violinist Hugh Marsh being a memorable example. I have also worked with Montreal-based Helmut Lipsky, himself an accomplished violinist, and his group Melosphere, producing a recording and concert tour for the Quebec City 400 year celebration. I would love to bring Helmut and Hugh together on a project: these two extraordinary musicians together would ignite the stage and audience.
DESCRIBE ONE OF THE MORE MEMORABLE PERFORMANCES YOU'VE SEEN IN RECENT YEARS
For Art of Time Ensemble performances, I would have to say that there are memorable moments from every performance, and it would be hard to rate them. Certainly, my very first recording with Sarah Slean, taking the raw multi-track takes back to my studio and realizing what I had managed to stumble into as I began to mix the audio rates as a high point. Greg Hoskins’ exquisite voice and interpretations still enthrall me, Jackie Richardson’s huge personality and infectious love of gospel singing, John Southworth’s ability to totally turn a song inside out and make it his own fresh experience, Steve Page’s voice, the soundtrack of so many of our lives, here in a context that allows him to connect so intimately with his audience… Rob Piltch: wow. Such gorgeous guitar playing, always the right inflection and nuance. And always steadily anchoring the Art of Time Ensemble sound: Andrew Burashko’s beautiful piano.
Outside of Art of Time, I had an extraordinary experience, probably the highlight of my life, attending several rehearsals of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. I had traveled to Berlin with violist Douglas Perry, after experiencing the orchestra through their Digital Concert Hall Internet channel and wanting to witness up close the technology behind that experience, and before leaving, I had managed to make contact with Fergus McWilliam, a long time horn player with the orchestra, and he invited us to attend rehearsals.
There was just Doug and I in the audience, I am not even sure the orchestra was aware we were there, and we witnessed splendor and magnificence of the highest order: I feed off the memory of that experience. The orchestra welcomed us during their break with open arms, I have never experienced anything like that ever. We were just two guys off the street, and security did not try to escort us out of the building. I walked onto the stage and chatted with Simon Rattle… “Hi, I’m Earl from Canada”, surreal.