Several years ago, while on a trip to Canada, a friend of mine gave me a little book entitled ‘Excellence In All Things’. I don’t remember exactly what was written in that little book but the gist of it stayed with me ever since – to set your standards high, always seek to improve your skills, and never settle for anything but your best in all that you do, whether that’s sweeping the streets, governing a country or playing music.
Over the past few months, I’ve been at home working on some new solo piano compositions, and while working on them, I got an email from Damien Rice, who had recorded my first two volumes of solo piano music in his home in the mountains outside of Dublin. He told me that he’d been listening to those recordings lately and that he found himself feeling that perhaps they could have sounded better. He felt bad that they didn’t sound as good as they might, and he suggested that perhaps I should re-visit those pieces with someone more experienced in the realm of ‘solo piano’ recording, to see if I could step them up a notch in sound quality and bring them to a higher level of excellence.
So returning to my first 20 pieces, and with a handful of new ones on my mind, I set out to search for a new piano to record on, and the right person to record it. I started off in Dublin, and eventually found myself trying out pianos in London, New York and Paris. I tried out Bosendorfers, Baldwins, Bluthners and a bockety old Bechstein. I even tried out Freddy Mercury’s ‘Fazioli’ – an elite Italian brand of handmade grand pianos designed by a team of musicians, scientists and engineers in a town called Sacile, near Venice (the kind of piano people like Freddy Mercury can afford to own) – at a studio in London.
Eventually I began scouring the liner notes of my favourite piano recordings by composers like Wim Mertens and Yann Tiersen, and I kept finding the same name popping up in the liner notes of almost every album – a Belgian recording engineer called Stephan Kraemer. After some research I found out that Stephan’s recording career spanned some 300 albums over the last 30 years, including everything from classical to heavy metal, and he had spent his youth working at Neumann – probably the world’s most important microphone company in the history of recorded music. I sent him a short email to see if he might be available for a recording session, and I was delighted when he agreed to record my music.
I travelled to Brussels to meet Stephan and he brought me on a tour of his favourite pianos and studios around Belgium. We settled on a classic “Steinway D” – a 9-foot concert grand, the standard ‘best’ in the world of grand pianos, and I spent 3 days in a Brussels recording studio re-visiting my first two albums ‘Don’t Go Back To Sleep’ and ‘The Home of Laughter’ with the man who had captured the sounds on Yann Tiersen’s famous ‘AmÃ©lie’ soundtrack – one of my favourite records.
Some friends have remarked that simply because of familiarity, they’ll always prefer the old recordings, but I was happy to bring these pieces back into the recording studio. After two summers of playing piano on the streets of Dublin, the pieces felt steadier under my hands, the louds and the quiets more purposeful, and the overall performances more relaxed and confident. And thanks to Damien’s high standards, and Stephan’s studio skills, the recordings have a new clarity to their sound too.
Volume 3 is still in the oven, but in the meantime, Music For Solo Piano – Volumes 1 & 2, newly recorded by Stephan Kraemer, along with the sheet-music books for both albums, are once again available on iTunes and right here on my website.
…Just an experiment in the pursuit of excellence.
Best wishes, and as always my deepest thanks for your support,