(19 Apr 2015) Our frequent visitors will recall our review of the first The Book of Rounds album that was accompanied by an exclusive interview with Emil Adler, Marina Belica and Julie Flanders.
Now, in the run up to the commercial release of Book of Rounds: 21 Songs of Grace, an album that includes and extends the debut significantly, we are most pleased to present another exclusive interview with the team.>
Read the full interview to learn more about this new recording and also for a brief glimpse into the next October Project release -- The Ghost of Childhood -- both albums due out later this year.
Musical Discoveries: Your new album, The Book of Rounds: 21 Songs of Grace, combines all seven tracks from your previous album of rounds with fourteen new tracks. What was the reasoning behind that?
Julie Flanders: The new album is an expansion and development of what we wrote originally. Essentially we wanted the material of the first album to serve as the first 'chapter' of a larger piece -- a deeper musical journey with greater scope.
Emil Adler: We released that first album on our own, just the three of us, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. The record began to circulate and Hal Leonard Publishing got wind of it. They ended up publishing the score, and distributing it to choirs worldwide. When Sounds True heard it, they wanted to collaborate with us to help it reach more people.
Marina Belica: That is until they realized that the whole piece was only sixteen minutes long!
Emil: Exactly -- and they don't put out any albums that are less than forty-five minutes long!
Julie: So Sounds True commissioned us to lengthen it, and we got excited about the ridiculous challenge of that -- to write another fourteen rounds that could each stand as its own song, yet be part of a bigger piece.
Marina: That required a tremendous creative effort within a rigorous timeframe. Emil and Julie wrote the fourteen new rounds in a non-stop, round-the-clock month, focusing all the while on creating pieces that are accessible yet richly layered for repeated listening.
Emil: We then got the key people from the original production back together, and coordinated everybody’s different schedules, so that we could finish up by the December deadline.
Julie: The result is a piece that is now almost exactly an hour long. And believe me, surrendering yourself to that kind of listening experience has a pretty deep impact. Each song is intended as a little epiphany, with the whole piece coming together as a kind of rhapsody, with variations. It's like getting intoxicated, with no ill side effects.
Wow. So how much time transpired between the decision to write the new rounds and the delivery of the finished recordings?
Emil: Let's see. Julie and I wrote them in April. Keiji [Ishiguri] arranged and rehearsed them over the summer. We recorded the initial tracks at Yale with Ed [Boyer] over two weekends in September. Then we had a few problems to attend to, so I spent all of November enhancing, adding voices and re-editing the tracks. Ed remixed them in record time -- excuse the pun. And Bill [Hare] had it all mastered by the deadline.
Marina: It was a pretty strenuous eight-month schedule.
And when had the first set of rounds been recorded?
Marina: Those were recorded almost exactly two years earlier. Of course that session required many months of preparation as well—arranging, rehearsing, and then editing and mixing, and so on.
So, when you think about the first set of tracks and compare it to the second set, what bits would you say were consistent and what would you say were more of an excursion?
Julie: What's consistent is that every song is constructed to deliver a positive emotional experience that helps the listener let go of something negative or limiting, and arrive in a better place. The songs are all intended as small circles of embrace and delight. All of them are like little fugues of wonderment.
Marina: And now there is a very clear through-line. The work follows a dramatic and a meditative arc that moves the listener through three distinct 'chapters,' shifting the mood as it goes, and offering an experience that is both transformative and cathartic.
Emil: Musically speaking, the first set of rounds is the simplest and the most straightforward--simple phrases, ordinary time signatures. The rounds of chapter two get more adventurous—with extended phrases and odd time signatures. And the arrangements introduce additional melodic lines and use freer harmonies, so that the pieces vary with each repetition. And with the third chapter, the rounds get quite sophisticated and a bit daring. All the pieces up to now have been a capella, but here we introduced piano accompaniment, and in one spot we actually use body percussion.
Julie: That piece is called, "Joy," and it’s one of my favorites. There's a body percussion solo in the middle of it -- with Keiji and Emil snapping, clapping, stomping, clicking and popping their hearts out!
Well, that is definitely a world away from "Frere Jacques," isn’t it? Now what about the singers? Did you use the same performers for the two recordings, or were they different?
Marina: They were different, but in each case we found fantastic people. For the most part, the performers were current students at Yale or alumni. By the time we got to the second album, the singers on the first album had graduated, and many are living in far-flung places.
Emil: Evidently they were as good at their studies as they were at singing!
Marina: Also, in the interim between albums, Keiji began directing an a cappella group in New York City, from which he culled some amazing singers for the second recording.
Tell us a little about the singers you worked with. Everybody is interesting, but our focus this time is on the women.
Marina: Not to minimize the men singing on the album! We have several Whiffenpoofs, and other very accomplished vocalists.
Julie: The women on the first album were some of the best singers at Yale at the time, mostly from Marina's a capella group, Redhot & Blue, which she conducted when she and I were at Yale. They included Mary Kleshefsky and Emma Akrawi, who went on to perform as a duo, and Hannah LaPalombara. All of them are exceptionally accomplished musicians, along with a few others.
Marina: For the second recording, we have Lucy Fleming from Yale, and a trio of wonderful singers from New York: Jessie Tomsko, Jamie Serkin, and Stephanie Lee.
Julie: We also added our own voices throughout the work, with the idea of it being timeless and intergenerational.
Emil: And we also have our friend, Leslie DiNicola, who Julie co-writes with. She's an amazing pop singer in addition to being a wonderful choir singer, using her voice here in a whole different way than she does on her solo project.
Marina: Leslie is our secret weapon. Her ability to blend is astonishing.
Julie: The Book of Rounds is really about strong and beautiful voices coming together without ego and in total harmony. It's much harder to do a work such as this than to sing solo because everything has to be blended, and yet melodies need to emerge, but with subtlety. It's a very demanding art form--choir singing and a capella singing.
Emil: And the arrangements are demanding as well. So it's not so much about giving the singers a lot of vocal latitude in order to express their personal touch or to show off. It's about skill and musicality.
Why and how did Yale University get involved, and what has been their reaction?
Marina: Each of the residential colleges at Yale sponsors what they call a Master's Tea, which is an opportunity for alumni with successful careers to speak to an audience of interested students. So Frank Keil, then master of Morse College, invited us to give a tea. Our talk on music as a career was well attended, and the enthusiastic reaction of the kids so moved us that we began to think of ways we could do more.
Emil: We thought that doing a professional recording gig together might be a fun way to connect--an inter-generational project around the rounds, some of which Julie had been singing in her solo work.
Julie: Our idea was that creating and recording a musical work with people of all ages--especially a work that was beautiful, healing, and musically unique--would be a terrific project, and a way to mentor these incredible young musicians.
Marina: Our contacts at the university have been very enthusiastic and supportive every step of the way.
With the vast global success of October Project as a band, what gave rise initially to producing something as tantalizingly different as The Book of Rounds is?
Marina: The project grew very, very organically.
Emil: Julie and I originally wrote the first set of rounds for our son, Julian--as an embrace of protection and comfort during a difficult time for him when he was quite young.
Julie: I did them in my solo project at the Omega Institute and at several spiritual conferences, and the response was positive and strong. We invited audiences to sing right along with us, and presented the rounds in sign language as well. It was clear that the rounds were creating an unusual and unique reaction in our audiences--quite unlike the effect of our pop songs.
Marina: We put a few of those rounds in October Project's set, where we also invited many of our audiences to sing along.
Julie: But we weren't considering doing anything special with them yet--it was more for the sheer joy of it that we would include them.
Emil: So when the Master's Tea came about, we realized that the beautiful voices of these young college men and women would suit the nature of the rounds perfectly.
Julie: When that first record was all finished--when did we release it?
Marina: December of 2012.
Julie: There were several major tragedies that struck right around then, including Hurricane Sandy and the Sandy Hook shooting, where a dear friend and musical collaborator of ours lost her child.
Marina: We raised money through the sale of the album for the American Red Cross, to help victims of Hurricane Sandy. And then we dedicated additional funds to help support the family of Ben Wheeler.
I didn’t know that some of the rounds had been performed live prior to their being recorded. My next question was going to ask whether you thought that The Book of Rounds was suitable for a live setting.
Julie: Absolutely! Of course when we did them live, we performed them as simple rounds, not the extraordinary arrangements in the recordings. They can still be performed either way, and are beautiful in either incarnation.
Marina: Choirs around the country are already performing a few of the rounds, and we are in talks for a world premiere of the entire work, which is very exciting.
Julie: We are exploring the idea of having a choir perform it in a configuration that surrounds the audience, so that sound is occurring from every direction, giving a true feeling of being at the center of a circle.
Are there any specific plans concerning live performances of the work, especially around the new release?
Emil: It would be fantastic if the world premier could coincide with the release. But that's hard to say at this point.
Julie: We have lots of live performance ideas. It's a very flexible piece that can be done as single songs, in chapters or other groupings, or in its entirety as an evening's fare. Obviously it would be fun to do something special in New York, or perhaps New Haven.
Okay, we’ll wait and see. Let's return to the record. Could you tell our readers something about the creative-slash-production process itself--taking us briefly from conception to realization?
Emil: Okay. Let's start with what a round is. A round is a melody that harmonizes itself as it repeats, with voices entering at measured intervals, cascading over each other to create a kind of kaleidoscopic effect. So the music had to be written first. I felt--as I usually do--that the melodies should be musically accessible, and yet a discerning listener would be able to find the Easter eggs I like to hide in the structure. And then it's Julie's turn. She has to take the existing melodies and make the words play well with them.
Julie: The main objective in writing the words was to create a fugue of positive messages that would invoke a feeling of well being in the listener.
Marina: Then the finished rounds went to Keiji for vocal arrangement. He gets to decide which voices to choose, and when they enter.
Emil: Since Keiji is capable of writing in absolutely every musical style ever created on the planet in the history of mankind, our challenge was in directing his powers toward our far more narrow stylistic vision of the work. Julie had established the tone for the piece early on as intimate and epiphinal. She was very specific about the emotional journey she wanted to evoke. And Keiji was amazing at creating those emotional soundscapes.
Marina: Next is production. We were all involved in producing the project, but handling the logistics is my particular superpower--the million details surrounding rehearsals and recording sessions, the scheduling, the communication, the payments, and so on.
Julie: Also, Marina's background in directing a capella was critical in holding the standard of excellence in regard to vocal performances at every step of the process.
Emil: She gets that terrifying Slovak brow when she's dissatisfied, and she takes no prisoners. Scorched earth as far as the eye can see!
Marina: Actually, I'm a lamb. Anyway, the next important step is the recording session itself. Ed Boyer was our man behind the curtain, and we were very lucky to get him. He is the first-call producer for every a capella group with a name, the music director for the film franchise, Pitch Perfect, and he has arranged, recorded and mixed vocals for the TV shows The Sing Off and Glee.
Emil: His recording skills are killer, and so are his a capella chops.
So, what do you think the future holds for The Book of Rounds?
Julie: We hope it finds its right and evergreen audience--people who love music that has a penetrating message of self-awareness.
Emil: There is a mantra-like aspect to this piece that is intended to elevate the spirit of the listener. Julie's background as a hypnotherapist and spiritual teacher is very present here in all the positive messaging in the piece.
Marina: We also hope to create some wonderful visual works based on the rounds, and once again to use the piece to raise awareness and donate funds for worthy causes, especially those involving children.
Julie: We of course hope it will have a wide appeal, especially with the surge of choirs, choruses and a capella groups around the country. The urge to sing is powerful and to do so in a group is true joy. There are evidently a lot of aspiring vocal groups in the world, and we believe that the piece is valuable not only as a listening experience, but also as a work that people can perform and share.
Do you see an opportunity to find stronger intersections between the future of this work and the direction of October Project, or instead do you see the two very much as parallel paths that will never connect, even in the farthest reaches of the space/time continuum?
Emil: In the farthest reaches of the space/time continuum, I will be a younger man who will instead decide to go into real estate.
Julie: Everything I do in music, whether it's the rounds or the band, is connected--because it is all from the same source. The contexts and styles may change, and may express different aspects of light and dark. But I make music that is intended to reach people in ways that transform their spirit. The Book of Rounds is very different than anything else we have done, but represents a strong direction of its own, and a fun expression of all of our musical gifts, flowing together -- Emil’s classical world, Marina's a capella gifts, and my passion to use words to move people into better states of feeling and being.
Emil: Aesthetically speaking, October Project and the rounds probably represent parallel paths. The Ghost of Childhood -- OP's upcoming, full-length studio album -- shares some of the richness and complexity of The Book of Rounds, but will sound totally different. It will be a pop album, more in keeping with the progressive and expansive sounds of our first two Epic albums, but as vocal-driven as ever.
Marina: The three of us have enjoyed the living experience of mutual harmony for our many decades together, as friends and as October Project. The Book of Rounds is just another expression of that relationship. There will be many more.
Thanks so much for these unique insights and the opportunity to chat with you so much in advance of the release!
Insights: As one of the first to hear 21 Songs of Grace other than the artists themselves, we are certain that those who enjoyed the first installment are sure to love this follow-up. Those that have not yet heard the chorale's work will also adore it. Stay tuned to Musical Discoveries for a full review of the album closer to its release date! -- Russ Elliot near Boston, MA