Crafting magic

July 29, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

Blue Coast Records maven, Cookie Marenco, commented on my post about finding the magic in performances. She expressed to me that musicians don’t seem to know when they’ve made magic. They are focused on the mistakes.

She tells me it is the audience, the producer, the staff listening, that instantly know when there’s magic.

There’s a basic truth to what Cookie has written. Craftsmen, artists, perfectionist are so focused on creation they often miss the moment when sparks fly, when 2+2=5.

Those moments are what I believe most of us seek. The recording that stands out from all others, the new equipment that elevates our listening experience, the tweak or trick that puts us over the top.

Perhaps this observation explains why movie producers never know what will be a hit, and record producers the same.

It is you that see the sparks when they fly. And it is you that reverberate with a big thumbs up or down.

As creators we can only make as few mistakes as possible, then roll the dice.

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26 comments on “Crafting magic”

  1. Paul, I am sure Cookie knows more about this than I do, however, I know of one well documented exception. According to and interview with Graham Nash, the first time David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash (CSN) sang together was at Joni Mitchell’s house in Laurel Canyon at a social gathering. As soon as the three of them sang the song they knew they had captured lightening in a bottle. The rest, of course is history.

  2. I highly recommend this week’s episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, “Revisionist History.” It’s about how some artists don’t really know when they’ve gotten it right, using Elvis Costello, Cézanne and Leonard Cohen as examples. They keep reworking and reworking their material, never being satisfied, never quite sure if the latest iteration is magic or just another step towards it.

    P.S. I think you used “maven” incorrectly. Cookie Marenco is indeed a Blue Coast “connoisseur,” but mostly she’s the founder, producer and engineer, right? 😉

    1. Isn’t that what part of GNR’s problems stemmed from?

      Some groups thrive in the studio. Steely Dan comes to mind. I can’t think of one of their albums that were mixed or recorded poorly.

  3. I think more musicians are “head-orientated” people than one would think in such an emotional matter as music is. But there’s also the complete opposite.

    Sometimes perfection makes magic, sometimes spontaneity and creativity. Having watched some films about professional classical pianists, I can confirm, they seem to precisely analyze what happens and also look for mistakes. Not in playing notes anymore, but how a piano key is tuned etc.

    I see some but less analogies to making equipment, as it’s a process not dependent of the moment, it can be planned. The one unsure thing is how it performs in customers setups. Not that I personally want this, but I’m waiting for a company, offering a portfolio, optimized for typical home listening scenarios. Could be a big success (if not the best possible and “correct” sound).
    Think of how a good speaker with a dry bass in typically resonating rooms would sell if demo’ed at home, even if it would sound crappy in a professional listening room.

  4. As a newbie to Bluecoast Records I’d be glad if Cookie could recommend some of the especially “magic” recordings to start with as a teaser 😉

    1. I’ve been working with Blue Coast for a couple of years now and listen to music recorded by Cookie regularly both as an audiophile and as an aspiring producer and recording engineer. In my own ears (and soul) the magic sparkles most often from a stellar performance, when the artist makes me FEEL something with just the music pouring from their own soul. I’m also partial to the overall sonic experience, as well as great stories and poetry. My favorite tracks are a mix of music that I have heard as part of my own listening adventures on and the sessions I have been invited to assist with. Here’s my list:
      Fiona Joy – Into The Mist – “The Void” (That 1885 Steinway and vintage analog reverb give me goosebumps every time)
      Jenny Maybee & Nick Phillips – Haiku – “Interstellar” (Another appearance by the 1885 Steinway and such an incredible live performance by Jenny and Nick)
      Odell Fox – BC Special Event 44 – “Cassiopeia” (one of my first “assists” as a paid Blue Coast employee, good memories)
      Meghan Andrews – BC Special Event 43 – “Waiting Around To Die” (dang Meghan makes me FEEL!)
      Keith Greeninger – BC Special Event 21 (The NPR Sessions) – “Into The Mystic” (There’s a tender spot in my heart for classic rock… this is as close as we get at Blue Coast, plus Keith REALLY knows how to give a performance)
      José Manuel Blanco & Jason McGuire – Blue Coast Collection Remastered – “Lilliana” (Recorded IN an acoustic reverb chamber if I have my stories straight… nothing else comes close to the sound)

  5. You’re quite mistaken when you say that musicians are focused on the mistakes. That’s something a non-musician would say. Maybe YOU’RE too focused on the mistakes. Why else would drop many hundreds of dollars on speaker cables?

    Musicians are focused on being totally in the moment of making music. The music flows THROUGH you. Those players who are focused on mechanical perfection make mechanical music. Maybe you like that. I don’t.

    Listen to Clifford Brown, Phil Woods, Richie Cole, Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey’s bands… these are people who play with fire. None of those cats are worried about making mistakes.

    You don’t choose to be a musician. The music chooses you, and in that spirit, you’re not focused on mistakes. You’re focused on music. Sure we make mistakes and want to do better, but that’s just the road we travel as we play our horns.

  6. Good day Paul:

    A very interesting post. The posts from the people at Blue Cost Record are correct about musicians becoming emotional while playing live concerts. There isn’t an expectation of perfection that exists in the recording studio’s. I remember watching a young Chinese girl playing the violin with tears streaming down her face while playing. The audience was crying with her. I remember a young Metis girl singing Amazing Grace with tears rolling down her face. Again the crowd was crying with her. Those performances went beyond great to magical.

    When I audition equipment, i like to use Vanessa Mae, Violin Concerto for Butterfly Lovers. If it emotionally moves me, I consider it to be good equipment. I find Vanessa Mae’s CD very moving. Being emotionally involved in the recordings important. Another recording I find emotionally involving is the Soweto Gospel Choir, African Spirit.

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