Point Counter Point: Golden Tips for Planning and Recording a CD

November 18, 2016, 11:59 AM · Tackling a cd project is daunting for novices and veteran performers alike. In a delightfully open encounter, the Dutch-based American violinist Sarah Kapustin charted the path to her critically acclaimed solo release, temptingly titled, Point Counter Point. Kapustin considers the ups and downs of her polyphonic gambol, to share insights and raise process-related consciousness. “The greater the challenge, the more chance you have to grow”

The Milwaukee-born artist spent her formative musical years with the likes of Mimi Zweig, Mauricio Fuks, capping her studies at Juilliard with Robert Mann. A versatile musician and chamber musician pur sang, Kapustin moved to the Netherlands to take up the first violin position with the well-established Rubens Quartet in 2008.

Point Counter PointNo stranger to the recording studio as a quartet performer, Kapustin also recorded the ten Beethoven violin/piano sonatas in 2010 with pianist Jeannette Koekkoek. Setting forth on the path to a solo release was the next challenge. And, it all began with the Rubens Quartet’s mutual decision to disband. For Kapustin, the conclusion of a demanding quartet career with its multiple demands of frequent travel and numerous intensive rehearsals provided the opportunity to dream, to bring the inner voice of the artist to the fore. A selection of golden tips follows.

Tip #1: Be true to yourself and pick repertoire you love

Take a long walk through the park; revamp your inner curiosity to discover what you would really like to offer. A woman who draws deeply from many sources, Kapustin hearkened back to the printed word. A close read of Menuhin’s book, The Violin paved the way to the choice for the Bartok Solo Sonata and led to Bach as well. ”From the pages of that wonderful book we learn that Bartok heard Menuhin perform Bach’s epic C major Sonata and this subsequently provided inspiration for the solo work that Menuhin had already commissioned.” Selecting two top favorites with huge technical and musical demands provided not only incentive but added to the drive and excitement that would propel the project further.

Tip #1a: If you commission a work, make sure it fits your program and…you!

The title of the release points in a specific direction. “Its title, Point Counter Point is borrowed from the eponymous 1928 novel by Aldus Huxley. And, what is counterpoint exactly? The official definition, “the relationship between voices which are interdependent harmonically yet independent in rhythm and contour”; essentially it’s an artistic weaving of characters, comparable to the symbiosis of story lines in Huxley’s novel. It almost felt like a natural option, the decision to commission a shorter yet weighty bridge between two colossal cornerstones within the solo violin repertoire. Call it a mediating voice, music to move from one point to another, music deeply rooted in both compositions while maintaining its own powerful identity.

Composer-violinist David Fulmer, a double-degree graduate of Juilliard, understands the repertoire from the inside out. A former Robert Mann student, Fulmer comprehends the repertoire and more importantly, understands Kapustin as an artist. He was the absolute right creative talent to compose a piece that would not only fit the program, but fit me. The result is ‘Sirens’, a work for solo violin that is truly unique and represents the ‘cross-pollination’ of two multifaceted artists.”

Tips #2: Organize your logistics meticulously

As the pressure rests on the shoulders of the artist throughout the entire cd process, it is of paramount importance to try and minimize the stress level, perhaps an impossible feat but one worth exploring. Of course, your practice and mental preparation have taken years but what about finding a suitable label not to speak of a sound engineer? Kapustin’s experiences recording with the Rubens Quartet persuaded her to work with a specific label and sound engineer. “Working closely with Daan van Aalst, a fine sound engineer from my quartet years, was the obvious choice. And, the Et'cetera label with whom I recorded all 10 Beethoven sonatas in 2010 was equally enthusiastic with regards to the project.” Just in case you might think the path to marketing success was strewn with roses, keep reading.

Tip #3: Pick the best location possible, be realistic within the parameters of your budget

Research, research and more research netted a wonderful location for this polyphonic panorama. Somewhat appropriately, a hidden church with a Baroque gem of an altar hidden behind a non-assuming brick exterior provided the perfect home for four days of recording. “Gorgeous sound, calm surroundings, not too expensive, and close to home.”

Tip #4: Innovate, yes, but make sure you genuinely have something tangible to offer

A solo cd comprised of two chestnuts and a totally unknown work calls for more explanation than cogent liner notes. Bartok’s music is still perceived as complex and impenetrable while Bach anno domini 2016 is more often than not relegated to period performers. Most prospective listeners are wary of contemporary pieces thus the cd’s program begged for elucidation. “I came up with a plan to combine my various strengths beyond the realm of violin playing: public speaking, music theory/analysis skills. My objective was to explain music to laymen in a way that is clear without being condescending and develop a unique lecture-recital format to present to any type of audience.”

To accomplish two goals: to make the music more accessible, and to sell the cd, Kapustin made a 15-minute movie, using the talents of Nander Cirkel (NeverMade films). Review for yourself, the results move a lecture-recital to new heights. https://youtu.be/iKMc3FrjXrM

Tip #5: Take expert advice for fundraising

While culture cuts are the new name of the game in the Netherlands, formerly known as a haven for subsidies, there still are grants available if one knows how to maneuver within the field. Thanks to years of grant-writing experience masterminded by the Rubens’ former violist, Kapustin was able to garner grants from both public and private sources to cover costs of making the cd as well as embarking on a tour. Supplementary research persuaded the artist to start a Kickstarter campaign that was helpful not only in terms of raising money but also guaranteed that all backers would receive a cd.

Tip #5: Handle publicity with care and flair

Let’s face it; even if you have the gift of gab or a knack for knocking out prose, a musician is not a professional publicist. Hire a specialist to promote your release. Thanks to professional assistance, the recital project received a catchy name, Kapustin performed live on several national classical radio programs and last but certainly not least rented a beautiful venue for an official release party with a special offer for generous Kickstarter backers.

The release was timed to coincide with two previously booked concerts with tag-on visits to stores offering the cd in order to create the momentum of a marathon release weekend.

Tip #5: Prepare yourself for disappointment: it’s not all roses

Treated to overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim in print media and blogs, Kapustin knew that she had reached another milestone in terms of artistic growth. Yet, on the downside, the road to greater exposure and wider recognition of a musical creation of great value was fraught with complications: the record label did not divulge the fact that their US distributor (Allegro) had filed for bankruptcy until after Kapustin had signed the contract.

Although the YouTube film clearly explains the lecture-recital program in an engaging manner, Kapustin discovered that it is very difficult to sell the program to paying venues. This could be a reflection of the economic malaise in the sector. Kapustin brought up another possible reason that impacts many artists who have made a name as a chamber musician or orchestral player and subsequently branch out. “Some presenters recognize my name and probably think, ‘aha, a quartet player’ which does not lead them to a decision to hire me as a solo recitalist. And, although Kickstarter is a great way to generate capital and reach out to a wider social network, it has its downside as well. After your supporters receive their copy of the cd, the momentum to spread the word is difficult to maintain. So, it's an uphill battle.”

Closing comments: an outsider listens in

While the object of this exercise was to take a closer look at a process, a few words concerning the release itself are merited. Kapustin is an artist blessed with savvy, guts and shining intonation. She pays deep respect to the composers’ detailed directions while maintaining great freedom of expression. It is this combination of care and abandon that succeeds in creating a solo debut where polyphony reaches a state of rhetorical radiance. In Point Counter Point wonderfully wrought interpretations by a skillful musical guide take the listener on an emotionally charged journey. The surprising harmonic cliffhanger between two of the compositions presented is an extra bonus to keep the listener in a state of wonder.

To order a copy of the cd, surf to: www.sarahkapustin.com


November 21, 2016 at 04:02 AM · Well I know the trials and tribulations - and also the satisfactions - of making a CD, having made two, myself. Every step has its challenges, from the initial planning, to the preparation, to the recording sessions and the editing sessions with the recording engineer. No recording artist need fear Purgatory or the Bardo State - we've already been there! Finally there is the production of the CD itself, from writing the program notes to getting photos done and planning the layout with a producer who specializes in those aspects.

"How fun!" said a cellist friend when I offered her a copy of my CD, "was it fun to make?" "FUN???" gasped I. "No, going to a dentist and getting an extraction or root canal without the benefit of Novacane - THAT'S fun (by comparison)!"

Yet such a project has its satisfactions as well. Another friend, a violinist, asked me after my first CD, what I was most proud of - meaning what track, what selection. "Just completing the project" was my answer. I felt the same way about the 2nd CD - maybe more so. Whatever their imperfections, the CD's are indeed a hard-won accomplishment in which I take a certain pride.

You'd think I'd have learned my lesson after 2 CD's. But maybe - just maybe - in the next couple of years I'll do one more. I like the idea of a trilogy!

November 25, 2016 at 05:07 AM · I'll have to check out your CD, Raphael! My only commercial solo release happened 10 years ago because a friend really wanted to try out the whole process. He did great, I did fine, and overall it was just as you say. Not exactly fun. But I did feel like I really learned the pieces. I would have been ready to perform them all over if anybody had asked! :)

November 25, 2016 at 06:33 PM · Thanks very much for your interest, Nathan! Excerpts of my CD's are on my website, http://rkviolin.com

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