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Hope For These Strange Times From An Unlikely Musical Source: Inside ORA Singers & Suzi Digby's 'Spem In Alium'

ORA Singers

Photo: Nick Rutter

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Hope For These Strange Times From An Unlikely Musical Source: Inside ORA Singers & Suzi Digby's 'Spem In Alium'

How a feat of recording and performance transcended time and technology to create a sublime stereo, surround and binaural experience

GRAMMYs/Sep 26, 2020 - 08:49 pm

A new recording of a well-known piece is rarely a cause for celebration, other than for those who participated in it. But once in awhile, the muses bring us such an event, when the recording and performance can reignite our passion, impelling us to hear an old work with entirely new ears and a new heart. Rarer still is an album that is so perfectly suited to the time and circumstances in which we are living.

Spem In Alium, the new Harmonia Mundi release by ORA Singers, conducted by Suzi Digby, is one of these rare works, and it comes at a time when many of us find ourselves questioning the future of our families and familiar institutions. The title composition speaks of sublime hope, an unwavering faith that things will improve, and that in working together we just might be able to make the world better a better, more harmonious place. That sense of community is written into every semibreve, crotchet, and thread of Spem by Thomas Tallis (c. 1570), the most iconic of works for singers. It is motet, a composition for forty singers in eight groups of five singers, conveying complex, ever-in-motion eight-part harmony.

The title piece, which celebrates its 450th birthday this year, has been recorded many many times before, and yet, as with Mahler's Second, it has been insidiously difficult to capture on tape or in 0s and 1s. The care and exquisite attention to detail on ORA's recording strip away the false veneer of technology, and allow the music to shine, stunningly through, and (even to this jaded listener), the result is a masterpiece of musical vision, production, and engineering.

Although Spem (literally, "hope" or "expectation" in Latin) is the album's title and opening gambit, it is bookended here by the debut performance of a piece that ORA Singers commissioned by composer Sir James MacMillan, Vidi Aquam, as a contemporary reflection on the Spem in Alium. Vidi shares many of the harmonic and structural features of the original, with a decidedly modern set of spatial and harmonic twists. Says MacMillan, "The style hearkens back to the sound of sixteenth century polyphony, but gradually shifts into different, more modern textures. The strict counterpoint eventually subsides into a more impressionistic, hazy world where we hear closed mouth sounds and a ‘smudging’ of harmonies and textures. It feels delightful to hear the ORA singers sing this work [on] the beautiful recording of it."

In between these bookends are an artfully curated tasting menu of smaller Renaissance vocal pieces by Byrd, Tallis, Wilder, Gerare, and Ferrabosco, the great Italian madrigalist, no less stunning in their presentation. The album has been released in stereo, surround, and binaural versions, and a Dolby Atmos mix is forthcoming.

"Well balanced recording in a beautiful space. While it can be sometimes difficult to provide adequate diction and clarity in an album of this type, this issue has been overcome here - there is good precision along with the appropriate measure of perspective and depth." -GRAMMY-winning engineer Richard King on 'Spem In Alium'

The entire album was recorded in two days at All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak in London, at 192K/24 bit, using 32 microphones, an RME Micstasy preamp and A/D, with fiberoptic cable to the Pyramix recorder. Engineer Mike Hatch described his approach to Grammy.com:

"With SPEM, and the McMillan, the issue is always to try and represent the sense of scale that you get in life, to somehow present it through the artificial medium of two speakers, to contain it but still make it involving. The trick is to make sure there's enough clarity, but avoid the feeling of congestion—so that the listener who's not actually in the room can get a sense of it. Obviously, if you have the singers too far away from each other they can't sing in tune, and if they're too close together you don't get the binaural."

To accomplish this, the singers were arranged in a circle, which could only work for a recording and not in a live performance. Hatch treated each of the eight voices as a group, plus put some central microphones in the circle to capture blend and ambience. To capture the spaciousness, he jury-rigged a quadruple XY, eight mic matrix of his own design. "For the binaural we used Ambisonic microphones, a low and a high and did an ambisonic to binaural mix to create the effect in headphones. I used some padding around the mics to favor as it was a human head."

Proof of Hatch's engineering prowess is that the ORA singers performed live-to-streaming at the Tate Modern this month, which sounded astonishingly like the recording.

Producer Nicholas Parker adds, "this music particularly benefits from the panoply of modern engineering options.  The innately complex intermodulation of the image and directionality of multiple sound-sources produces such exciting and moving effects. For the mixes, we were aiming for a truly 'democratic' balance, in an attempt to allow the composers' own writing to determine what lines might be more or less prominent within the complex counterpoint."

Suzi Digby, (Lady Eatwell) OBE, the founder, conductor and artistic director of ORA, formed ORA by handpicking its members from the best of British choral singers. And while she clearly has an affinity for Renaissance music, she has a foot firmly planted in rock music as well as the official choir director for the Rolling Stones. Parker recalls, "Suzi had a very clear idea of the global shape and pace of the pieces, and I think she knows that with this sort of music, often 'less is more'." On the message of hope, offered by Spem In Alium, Verdi Aquam, and the other pieces during this time of a global pandemic, Digby observes "It seems to have brought intense solace, joy and hope to many, at a perilous time for the Arts. It is a game-changing milestone for today."  Surely the literal meaning of these religious pieces was different for listeners in the sixteenth century than it is for us today, but the emotional meaning and messages still resonate: embrace hope, and hold on to music, for it shows us a more orderly and beautiful world.

—Daniel J. Levitin

Read More: Violinist Concetta Abbate Talks Trauma, Empathy & The Healing Process Of 'Mirror Touch'

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

 
This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Brittany Howard

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images

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Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:13 am

This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.

“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”

Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on smallbiz.live. The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Samantha Smith and John Legend

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle and John Legend take home Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2020 - 09:05 am

DJ Khaled, featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend, has won Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Higher" at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. The single was featured on DJ Khaled's 2019 album Father of Asahd and featured Hussle's vocals and Legend on the piano. DJ Khaled predicted the track would win a GRAMMY.

"I even told him, 'We're going to win a GRAMMY.' Because that's how I feel about my album," DJ Khaled told Billboard. "I really feel like not only is this my biggest, this is very special."

After the release of the song and music video -- which was filmed before Hussle's death in March -- DJ Khaled announced all proceeds from "Higher" will go to Hussle's children.

DJ Khaled and co. beat out fellow category nominees Lil Baby & Gunna ("Drip Too Hard"), Lil Nas X ("Panini"), Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch ("Ballin") and Young Thug featuring J. Cole & Travis Scott ("The London"). Hussle earned a second posthumous award at the 62nd GRAMMYs for Best Rap Performance for "Racks In The Middle." 

Along with Legend and DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG paid tribute to Hussle during the telecast, which concluded with "Higher."

Check out the complete 62nd GRAMMY Awards nominees and winners list here.