This month we spoke with internationally acclaimed recording artist and cello soloist, Nancy Green. She has been likened to cellists who have become household names, including Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Leonard Rose, and Jacqueline du Pré.
In the full interview, Nancy and our curator, Brenda Neece, covered a wide range of topics about Nancy’s 50+ year career. In fact, their conversation spanned several days and many hours (a full transcript would be well over 100 pages). This article is the first installment, discussing Nancy’s recording career. Look for future articles as well as episodes in our new podcast (coming soon!).
We are thrilled that Nancy will join our new Cello Guild, offering courses in the near future.
To go with this first installment, Nancy has donated an autographed copy of one of her CDs for a random prize drawing held on the 9th of September. (The winner may pick one of four options). The winner will also receive a Cello Museum T-shirt. Two runners-up will receive Cello Museum stickers. Scroll down to submit your entry.
As Nancy is primarily known for her recordings, that is the topic we chose for this first article. She started working as a soloist long before she began recording as a mature cellist.
The following interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Nancy Green’s Recordings
In the following video, Nancy Green walks us through her recording career, album by album.
The Process of Recording: From Idea to Album
One often hears interviews with authors discussing their process of writing novels, but I’ve never heard a similar discussion of creating an album. Please tell us about your process of creating a recording, from the seed of the idea to the release.
The first thing is having an idea that really works for a CD. Partly, I strategized as an unknown artist. I started off with pieces like the complete cello and piano works of Robert Fuchs, the Johannes Brahms 21 Hungarian Dances arranged by Carlo Alfredo Piatti, the Franz Schmidt Three Fantasy Pieces after Hungarian Melodies, and the Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
For an unknown artist, if you record all new repertoire, it will get reviewed. So that was a very strategic choice, plus it was meaningful to bring attention to deserving unknown works. I got help with this from a friend who really was in the know, and knew how to find unusual repertoire.
I find one of the funnest parts is just learning the music, and then rehearsing it. In the rehearsing process, you might use some little device and start doing some practice recording and then ask yourself, “What are we getting? Is this working? Let’s try it this way. Now, let’s try that way.”
Fred and I, since we’re cousins, are close, and we’ve done so much duo playing together and know each other’s playing so well that it has often helped to send a lot of practice recordings back and forth in advance of meeting. I would record something without piano to show him, “I’m going in this direction with this,” and then he’d send me something to say, “I’m feeling this.” So we will have done that in advance of rehearsing together. I haven’t done that with other pianists, but I have done it with Fred, and it’s been helpful when we have limited rehearsal time together due to his touring schedule.
When you’re recording, like playing live, you learn through experience. It gets easier the more you do it. With my path, the first commercial recording I made was an LP. As my first, it was really challenging. For the microphone setup (this was with pianist Fred Moyer), we were relying on an engineer, and we didn’t really agree with everything that engineer did.
That was the beginning for us. After that, we decided that we were going to take things into our own hands and have complete artistic control over the final product. We learned so much, and we decided to do things differently where we wouldn’t have an engineer hovering around us, telling us what to do. We wanted to run the session ourselves, which meant also that we could listen back as much as we wanted. Now Fred and I have our own gear. Not all, but many of our recordings were actually done with our own equipment.
I think that’s really important. I think a lot of artists who don’t do a lot of recording, probably their listening back is fairly minimal. I mean, I’ve done recordings like that, too. I’ve done ones where I have less control – like the Haydn concertos. Before we started recording, we went down to the basement where the guy was at his mixing desk and gave us 15 seconds of sound. And we said, “Great. Go with it.” And then we had such limited time with the orchestra.
But other recordings, like duo ones with Fred, we can just take our time. I can listen back and say, “Oh, my God, I thought I was making such a big gesture there, but the microphones are telling me differently.” I think I’m throwing myself into it, but the microphones say “No, you are not.” It’s very different. Like when you’re playing live, you don’t really know what’s going out there. I feel like the microphones dictate whether something’s working or not.
Fred often uses Neumann microphones, and I have two nice AKG 414 microphones, which are very standard.
I think being careful and trying to get it right is absolute poison. I think you can’t go into a recording session like that, or you’re going to end up with a recording that sounds like a studio recording – it’s kind of dead.
In the early days, we used DAT tapes. Then it became 24-bit and different technology. So if it was a project where we had a lot of control, then Fred and I would do our setup. Usually, I would sit pretty far away from the piano, so the microphones wouldn’t be too close to each other, which is helpful for the mixing engineer.
The recording itself – it’s wonderful, but it is really hard work. Most projects, because of my own perfectionism and my high standards, there will be a moment, usually at the end, where I’m lying on the floor, maybe even sobbing because I’ve just kind of had it. It’s so intense and really hard work. It made me feel better when I heard a story about Casals recording all the Bach suites, and about how utterly spent he was at the end of the recording sessions. I thought, “Okay, I’m glad it’s not just me.”
So then you have all this material that needs to be edited.
Very early on, both Fred and I decided that we would be in control of editing. I’m very much in favor of that if an artist has the time and wherewithal to do it. Of course, you have to learn how to do it. I think most artists have some artistic control – “Please don’t use that take” or “Let’s go for this take.” But usually, an engineer has put everything together, done their own splices, and then the artist gets to hear it and then chime in.
Fred and I tend to be micromanagers. So that can be very involved because I think only the player really knows what they were after. And only the player will put that kind of energy into it. I actually edited CDs once as a freelance project for a record company in England, because they knew I had experience editing. I don’t know how to actually make the edits but just make an edit chart. And so I did that for those CDs, but I noticed that you just don’t have the focus when it’s not your own. Because, when it’s you, you know what you want, and what you don’t want. That’s a big process.
Usually, I record in a space where the sound is non-optimal, and then you get it to an engineer to tweak the sound – getting the balance just right. Then, if you need to enhance the sound in any way, the engineer can do that, too. I’ve sat for hundreds and hundreds of hours with engineers actually watching waveforms go across the screen.
Some people argue that live performances are so much better and that recordings are dead. I think that depends on how you do the recording; you can’t make a blanket statement like that. You can have a recording that is red hot – that is so on that edge – and you want to fall off your seat, it’s just so exciting.
How involved are you in the beautiful cover art and booklets for your recordings?
I chose the cover art for some of my recordings. I was the one who found the cover image for the Beethoven; I really like that sculpture. Of course, then you have to get permission to use it, and often you have to pay to use the image.
For the Jaguar Songs CD, the original version of the picture of the cover image looked a little less psychedelic, but the artist had two versions and let me use the more trippy one. It was perfect because of the shamanic imagery and even had the depiction of a jaguar on the shaman’s chest.
For the Haydn CD, I found this image:
So I like having a lot of say in every aspect of my recordings. Maybe that’s why I feel like they’re my babies – because I literally brought them up – I was involved in every step.
From Vinyl to Video
During your career, technology has gone from LPs to CDs to videos. I think, when you create a recording, you’re creating a sound world. And now you’ve added a video layer on top of this, which must feel different. Do you find it exciting, adding that visual layer?
I do. It’s interesting, though, because I started doing video when I was 64. I started with the Zoltán Kodály Solo Sonata, and to do that when you’re 64 is a real stretch, but I wanted so bad to do the piece. I went back and listened to my recording from the 90s a lot when I was getting ready to make the video because I noticed that I was in danger of letting my standard drop from when I was younger, and I was not going to let that happen. So I kept referencing what I was doing with other artists’ recordings as well as my own CD from the 1990s to make sure I was maintaining a high level. For the spinning song sections in the last movement, I had difficulty, as an older person keeping the tempo I wanted, but the final video sounds plenty fast. It’s like most other recordings, but it’s not like how I could do it when I was younger.
I’m just really glad that I recorded it, and the guy who did the video, Mike Stipe, is just fantastic. He’s actually in Durham [North Carolina]. There’s a lot I could say about how we decided on the setup and the black backdrops, and the spotlight. It took some experimenting to come up with that, but we ended up with that dramatic look by having two black drops, and then we put the spotlight peeking out from behind them. Instead of shining on me, it was behind me.
To get the vibe of that piece, I told him I want something that looks kind of abstract. Something with just a little bit of a scintillating sparkle, so it’s almost black with a little bit of light coming off of the silhouette and not something well lit. And he really got it! It’s fantastic what he did.
He used black backdrops and blackout curtains, and big black plastic bags to tape over every source of light. There was one skylight we couldn’t do anything about, but we did our best.
So I’ve done things where we’ve experimented with lighting. And we’ll see what the “look” is, what the color scheme is like, and then you try a bunch of tops, and you see what is making the most pleasing visual look.
It sounds like artistic direction, and I think it ties into your wanting to be part of the whole process.
When Larry Todd and I recorded in Bone Hall (at Duke University) we did the Fauré “After a Dream” and Tchaikovsky Nocturne in d Minor, Op. 19, No. 4, and both of those have a little bit of a nighttime theme. My son does videography now and he did the videography for that.
The video of the Beethoven g minor sonata was also done in Bone Hall, and that was done by Mike and his business partner, Teddy Denton. That was an elaborate setup – they put up a huge structure, and a lot of time was spent on lighting for that.
If you don’t record at night, you’re going to get light coming in from above, and that means you don’t have a lot of control over the lighting. So the Fauré Elegy and the Dvořák Silent Woods were done there. So these don’t look fancy with dramatic lighting like the other ones where you really could make it dark. I like them just as much – it’s just different.
Please tell us about your upcoming projects.
Well, some have already been recorded. And it seems like there’s this long time-lapse because I do a lot myself, but there’s a lot I can’t do. I can make edit decisions, but with video, I’m at the mercy of the availability of who is going to put the video together. A lot of things that I’ve actually recorded for video are just sitting on a hard drive, and I’m at the mercy of somebody else having time to put it together.
One of my upcoming projects is a piece for solo cello and percussion backing track by my brother Gordon, who is a composer. I’m still working on that – I just have a little bit more recording to do. Then it’s a matter of putting the backing track and the cello parts together. That’s atonal – that’s really new for me, and everything feels different. When you’re playing atonal music, the patterns are different, so it’s a real learning curve for me.
Videos I’ve recorded that haven’t come out yet are Fauré – “After a Dream,” Mendelssohn – Song Without Words, Saint-Saëns – Allegro Appassionato, and the last movement of the Jaguar Songs piece for solo cello by Paul Desenne from the Jaguar Songs CD. The movement is called “Birimbao – Jaguar,” and it starts off with tapping on the string with the stick of the bow to imitate that tube-like instrument played by some indigenous people from Desenne’s (the composer’s) native Venezuela. It goes into some very wacky stuff, including the weird chanting passage where the cello is playing in unisons and the section with the strange inchworm motion in the left hand – all things that lend themselves well to video where the audience can see how the strange sounds are produced.
Playing from the Heart
I’ve been working on the Bach 6th suite. I performed it a lot, but over the past 30 years, Bach has become a hot topic, and if you use vibrato, you’re a very bad girl or a very bad boy. I love so many Bach recordings in different ways, and they could be played completely differently, and I love them all – they all have something to contribute. When I had my sabbatical year at the University of Arizona, my project was the Bach suites. I listened to a lot of recordings, and I tried playing them in different ways myself.
The conclusion that I’ve come to, being 70 years old, is that I can’t fashion what I do based on getting approval from other people. It’s me, and spirit. Usually, I’ll listen to other recordings and get ideas. I might be pushed to do something better if I hear somebody else. There will be things I don’t like and things I do like, but it will help boost me to do the best I can.
In this case, I have a new motto. It’s “I’m 70. I can do what I want.” So, I’m going to apply that motto to this Bach, and I’m just going to do it. It’s just between me and spirit – just between us. It’s kind of like, “Let go, Luke. Trust the Force.”
I’m going to do that, because I think that that musical inner guidance system – trust in God – is what I’ve always relied on in music. If I’m recording, I might try different ideas, but when I hear it on playback, I instantaneously know that it works or it doesn’t. For Bach, I can appreciate so many utterly different interpretations – I could myself play it in completely different ways, and I might like all of them.
I’ve decided to do my best and love the music and just play it from my heart, the best I can, and people who like it will like it.
How to Follow and Support Nancy Green
Enter for a Chance to Win an Autographed CD and a Cello Museum T-shirt!
Enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of one of Nancy Green’s CDs. The winner will receive one autographed Nancy Green CD (choose which one you’d like in your entry below) plus a Cello Museum T-shirt. Two runners-up will each get a Cello Museum cello sticker. The random prize drawings will be held on 18 September. Only one entry per person, please. Good luck!
This Giveaway is now over. Thank you to everyone who entered. If you were not a winner this time, please try your luck in our Birthday Giveaway.
Congratulations to –
- Our Winner: Anonymous, Udenhout, Netherlands
- Our Runners-up:
- Dominic M., Chapel Hill, NC USA
- Anonymous, Richmond, VA USA
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