Kirtan Rabbi Blog

Birthday and the Beatles

Posted by Rabbi Andrew Hahn, Ph.D. on May 14, 2010 at 5:09 pm.

I’m going to keep this post short, because it’s my birthday, and I don’t feel like working too much — or staring at a computer screen.

This morning, as promised on facebook, I woke up and played the second “side” of the White Album, because it opens with the song … Birthday! Take a chan-, chan-, chan- chance! I always sing some crusty version of the song into my friends’ voicemails on their birthday, so why not the real thing on mine?

I have been having a bit of Beatles resurgence of late. This is thanks to my friend Cameron Afzal, who is a professor of religion at Sarah Lawrence College. Last I visited him and his family, he turned me on to the recently recently re-mastered and re-released original mono versions of the Beatles’ earlier CDs. I highly recommend checking these recordings out, because, though subtly so, they are different than the stereo recordings with which we all grew up. Apparently, when the Beatles were first recording, there was no stereo yet in Great Britain, so they mixed in mono. Then, because the US was switching over to stereo, these recordings had to be converted almost immediately to stereo.

But here’s the catch: The mono recordings represent the sessions where the Beatles themselves were in the studio providing their artistic input. The stereo mixes were then turned over to the “pros,” who had to remix them. In the course of doing so, they made some changes. For example, there are instances where, say, John wanted a truck to drive right through the recording loud and clear. The professional engineers, hearing this (and needing to mix and pan the sounds), must have thought: “Why is that truck so loud there? Let’s move it back.” So, the truck is still in the recording, but it no longer reflects the intentions of John and the others who did the original mono mix.

Those of you who have worked in the studio know how important things like this can be. I’ll share with you what was absolutely the toughest moment in the recording of the most recent Kirtan Rabbi CD, Achat Sha’alti (one thing I seek). It had been tough going getting some good vocal takes to make a lead track for one of the tunes. During one of the best takes I felt I had done, Frank went out to have a cigarette. I heard the door sliding sound as I was singing. Quite clearly. We got in an argument. I was saying we needed to do this or that or the other thing, and, by the way, right in the middle of my best take, you went and slid the door and ruined the whole thing! He literally responded by saying: “This is my house. This is my studio. When we are in this room, we do it my way!” Obviously, the toughest moment in a nine month process. By the end of the day, we were chummy again as usual. I eventually realized that I was being a bit uptight and — not used to the studio process —I was getting too attached. I had calmed down. Frank, smiling reassuringly, said, “Listen. You need to relax more about this.” (This was my first time ever in the studio.) “You need to know that if there is a sound in the recording which we don’t want, I will fix it.” And then he said the thing which is the main point of this digression: “Besides. You never know. When we’re mixing, we might hear that door sliding sound and say, ‘Wow! That was cool.’ We might decide to isolate the door sliding sound and loop it through the track and it’ll become the distinguishing feature of the tune.” He paused. “In this process, you just never know. So you have to let go and trust.”

My point here is that the professional engineers who converted the Beatles mono recording to stereo also didn’t trust. They couldn’t believe that John wanted a truck sound so prominent and upfront. They couldn’t believe that there should be this scratching sound or that siren so dominant. So they moved all of that back. Check out the mono recordings. They are a new experience.

Recently, a new friend of mine asked me what I thought of the Beatles. She felt she had detected some Beatles influence on Achat Sha’alti. It was sychronistic that she said that, because I had also been thinking about the Beatles and just how up their music was. I, too, felt that my new CD — precisely because it is such an uplifting album — was influenced by the magic four. So, when she asked me that, a bell went off. I remembered a moment, not too long before, when I had asked my percussionist, Shoshana Jedwab, why she thought people were flocking to Kirtan Rabbi events. I was a bit mystified. Shoshana’s answer came without hesitation, and it was quite simple: “It’s because we make people feel happy. These are hard times, and people want to have the opportunity simply to feel happy.”

Precisely what the Beatles did — and still — do. My thought for the day, then? Kirtan which is not as uplifting as the Beatles’ music is not good kirtan. They say it’s your birthday? Gonna have a good time!

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