The conductor beat out a measure. A rich orchestra sound flowed from 80 headphones into 80 heads. With a sound like an earthquake’s rumble overlaid with angelic choirs, 80 voices sang out: “Una Volta che Avrai…“. And I was sitting 10 metres in front of them. Wow.

Christopher Tin — composer of some of my favourite albums of new classical music, winner of two Grammy Awards, viewed over 30 million times on Youtube — is making his latest album. Called To Shiver The Sky, it is an oratorio about “mankind’s quest to conquer the sky”. Or, it is about the human spirit, and our ability to accomplish great things. He took writings about flight, and the sky, and space exploration. He took texts about flight and space travel, from Leonardo to Zeppelin to Earhardt to Kennedy, and used them as jumping-off points to compose vocal music on those themes. He will premiere To Shiver The Sky on 21 August, 2020 in Washington, D.C (pandemic willing).

But first he had to record the album. To fund it, he launched a crowdfunding campaign, which turned out to be the largest classical music campaign in Kickstarter history. I made a small contribution, enough to secure me one of the first-batch CDs. But a larger donation would earn me “the Abbey Road Experience” — a chance to sit in on one of the recording sessions. At the iconic Abbey Road recording studio. The session orchestra: the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The vocal ensemble: the Royal Opera Chorus, of the Covent Garden house. Amazing!

Picture of Abbey Road zebra crossing

Abbey Road

It is worth spending money on experiences, more than on things. This would be quite an experience. And I have seen others get a lot of fun from supporting artistic projects. And so, after some agonising, I donated.

Thus, on an overcast London morning in early February 2020, did I walk along Grove End Road, until I came to a startlingly familiar zebra crossing, and behind it, an unassuming two-story building behind a low white wall: Abbey Road Studios.

This experience was fantastic, in more ways than I have patience to write about. But I can sketch a few highlights.

The music: if you liked Christopher Tin’s earlier orchestral albums, you will be thrilled by the music on this one. I heard the orchestra record about half the tracks at this session; the others were recorded at a session in July 2019. Tin traces the history of music as he traces the history of flight, track by track, from baroque to romantic to film-score epic styles. And while I haven’t heard the final mix, I have heard some of the ingredients, and I think we are for a treat.

I remember that Baba Yetu in Civ IV was arresting enough to delay my gameplay while I listened to it multiple times through. But Baba Yetu on the CD Calling All Dawns was three notches more epic: the orchestra, the chorus, the recording, all of it. I suspect that Sogno di Volare on To Shiver The Sky will be a similar step up from the Civ VI video at the start of this post. The closing number, set to John F Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech, will knock your socks off.

Conductor and orchestra

Tin and the RPO

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are of course fantastic musicians. But what I particularly admired in the recording session was how they were able to essentially sight-read this score, and deliver such musically correct and emotionally vivid playing. I sing in a high-end but amateur chorus. We take weeks of rehearsal to get the music right, and only at the last moment do we really galvanize the emotion in our singing. By contrast, the RPO were on fire from the first note.

Chris conducted the session. He did something very savvy at the start of the session: he talked to the RPO about his years of working with them, over multiple albums. He told how their musicality had challenged him to write better music, to take better advantage of their capabilities. Their respect and appreciation for this, I think, motivated them to give even more.

Two people from behind, with orchestra beyond

Jim and Ducky, having an experience

In the evening, the orchestra left, and the Royal Opera Chorus came, to record large-chorus parts. They too are fantastic musicians. But I had a special appreciation for their competence and professionalism from my background as an amateur chorus singer.

Every chorus I have been in has had more sopranos and altos than basses, and more basses than tenors. This Chorus had just about exactly equal numbers of all four voices. The result was a balance, and a thrilling power from the bass and especially tenor parts.

And every chorus I have been in struggles with chatter. We sing, we pause to go back over something, and someone starts to talk. Then someone else. Then the conductor has to project to be heard, and the chatterers miss some of it. This Chorus was phenomenally disciplined. The conductor would stop, and they would sit silently. That sounds trivial, but it was amazing how powerful that was.

Room with chorus, score in foreground

Studio One, from the balcony

Abbey Road has a few studios; Studio One is a grand, high-ceiling box, with space for a large orchestra or chorus. We observers spent most of our time on a balcony overlooking the room, but there was a table behind the conductor where two or three of us could take turns sitting. In that position, we were less than two metres from the cellos, and less than 10 metres from the chorus.

There is a physicality to the sound of an orchestra or of voices, when you are close to them. It is a beautiful, visceral experience. With the RPO and the Royal Opera Chorus, it was like bathing in a fire hose.

A modern recording session can be an amazing process to watch. The album is recorded in separate layers: orchestra, large chorus, small chorus, soloists, organ, etc.; then mixed together afterwards. This means everyone has on a headset, on which they hear some combination of a click track and layers recorded earlier. They will record in segments, often several takes, which means starting and stopping.

There is a lot of conferring with the control room, which is inaudible to the performers, and it might seem like nothing is happening. But there are several perspectives in the conversation: the composer being sure the music was realised, the conductor clarifying tempos and cutoffs and balance among instruments, the recording engineer listening for bad mics and ambient noise (careless donors turning score pages as they read along can be surprisingly loud), producers hearing tuning and expression. I heard all these skilled people working together for long, tiring hours with great mutual respect and courtesy. It was inspiring.

Image of several people including Jim DeLaHunt and Christopher Tin

Christopher Tin with Kickstarter backers

I must express my appreciation to the people I was with. The other donors in the group all were or did something special to want to support this project. This made them interesting to be with. More than that, they were a pleasure to spend some fairly intense hours with. We donors were welcomed and wrangled by Gabriel Majou, Chris’s assistant of all trades, with care and enthusiasm. (Gabe is also a skilled photographer, and a composer in his own right.) Finally, Christopher Tin was generous and friendly, even with  many donors underfoot. His delight in this music, and in doing the hard work needed to make it shine, is an inspiration. Gabe and Chris have my deepest thanks.

It was indeed a fantastic experience. I can’t wait to hear the finished product!

Postscript: I drafted this post in February, intending to get it out by the end of the month. A pause to get permission for photos was overtaken by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, and other concerns, and so here we are three months later. In hindsight, putting a hundred people shoulder-to-shoulder in one room, to sing and to spray respiratory content over each other, is a luxury we may not have again for a year or two. It was fortunate that the studio work for this album was completed before the pandemic landed hard on London and Santa Monica.

[2. June 2020: updated with wording correction and clarification. —JDLH]