By Masumi Rostad | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine
There is something about recording that can summon the absolute worst of my musical insecurities and technical doubts. To a person who is simultaneously an idealist and a perfectionist, the microphone can feel like a frustratingly unflinching opponent. Performing in the absence of a live audience feels desolate and futile, like calling out into the void and hearing nothing back.
I was raised listening to iconic solo albums, so as a student I held the flawed notion that recordings should be pinnacles of perfection in our musical art. I realize now that my beloved recordings were actually snapshots of great artists at various points in their lives—documents that captured only a particular moment in their thinking, experience, and feeling. With this idea, I made the decision to record a solo viola album. Though planned well before the pandemic, it became an all-too-appropriate project for an artist in lockdown.
Solo work is relatively new territory for me. I’ve forged a career based in collaboration. I am a violist, after all! However, in 2017, after 17 years in the Pacifica Quartet, I made the decision to transition into the next phase of my life as a musician. I joined the faculty of the Eastman School of Music and began exploring this new chapter as a violist who now often stands up while performing. As an ensemble member, I had toured extensively, living out of a suitcase and shuttling along hastily from one performance to the next. I deeply desired a chance to unpack, in more ways than one. However, post quartet, I easily fell into a familiar rhythm and found myself traveling as much as I had been before.
And then the pandemic shutdowns arrived. The wheels of the world ground to a sudden halt and I felt like a frozen sprinter, still panting and with a racing heart. Like many musicians, I was anxious about the future and, in many ways, just didn’t know what to do with myself. I was thrilled to be granted the time with my family and also to be able to watch in wonderment as my dear daughter grew from a toddler into a beautiful little girl! I felt like an actual human being for a change.
And I finally found the time for my solo album. Free to choose my own repertoire, I sought to assemble a balanced collection of pieces, meaningful to me, that would traverse the full range of the instrument in sound, technique, and expression. Being a natural middle voice, the viola is particularly well suited to unaccompanied repertoire. I allowed the exceptions of electronic tracks and my own vocalizing to an otherwise “a cappella” album. The composers range from Bach and Vieuxtemps to Reger and Stravinsky to Elliott Carter, Stefan Wolpe, Stephen Taylor, Nico Muhly, and Caroline Shaw. The recording also includes a new work that I love, written for me by my high school friend Earl Maneein.
Though in the studio alone, I could not make a recording alone. I have the deepest admiration and respect for Judy Sherman, whose incredible ears, patience, and thoughtful management have produced some of the best recordings ever. Having worked together for decades now, I know her to be the producer who can elicit my best performance and whom I trust to tell me when I need to go back and re-record a passage or must move forward. She has eliminated an incredible amount of my stress in recording sessions and maintained my sanity countless times. Judy also has the habit of correcting my grammar, which I actually find comforting. It feels as though, for even just a fleeting moment, there is indeed an order in this universe.
Eastman has some of the best facilities and performance venues in the world so, together with Judy and Eastman’s sound engineer, John Truebger, we scheduled the sessions at Eastman… before the pandemic began. After the first cancellation we pushed it out further, only to be canceled again. Repeat. It is agonizing to prepare for a performance and then be denied an outlet. After the third attempt, I was beginning to lose hope and it was increasingly difficult to maintain an arc to my preparation. However, the school’s administration was pulling hard for me and found a way to give me the “go ahead” in August 2020. With 2.5 days booked, things suddenly became real.
I walked into that first session knowing that I would be climbing a mountain solo. Performing alone, I had nowhere to hide, with my own instrument as the only reference for pitch, tone, and texture. I found myself surprised often by which passages were easy to record and which passages were elusive. I remain uncertain as to whether some things recorded well because I really invested my practice efforts into them or because I simply overestimated the obstacles. Regardless, I walked out of my final session knowing that I had just done the most challenging thing I had ever attempted with my viola. It was a potent mixture of elation and sadness. That thing I had been working toward for so long was now over.
After many months of emails back and forth with Judy, I found myself with a finished master recording of my album. So, what now? I picked my head up out of the sand and investigated record labels. I set up some meetings and read through some proposals. However, something didn’t quite feel right to me. The world is changing so rapidly and the landscape seems to have evolved. With a desire to maintain complete control, I took a deep breath and decided to self-release my album.
This meant I naively embarked upon a complex and often frustrating journey, learning about mechanical licenses for copyright compliance, UPC and ISRC codes, graphics templates, and “songwriter” attributions, among many other things. I reached out to a graphic designer and, heavily consulting my concert-pianist wife, Sonia, worked to craft an image and feel for the album as both a digital and physical product. Meanwhile I wrote all my own liner notes.
This turned out to be a much bigger project than I anticipated, with a very steep learning curve. Now, on the other side of it, I am proud of how the recording came out. This was a labor of love and a true document of me from this time. I hope you listen.