When I Am Laid in Earth (Dido’s Lament from the opera Dido and Aeneas)

by Henry Purcell (ca. 1659 – 1695)

Voice, recorders, arrangement, and recording by Racheal Cogan

Recorders: Bass, c-Bass and 2 Contrabasses made by Geri Bollinger

When I began thinking about an arrangement for this beautiful song over a ground bass, I knew that I wanted to use four of the very low recorders in a very simple way to underpin the clarity and purity of the high voice. Simplicity and solemnity in the beginning was key to match the idea of being laid in the earth, and as the concept of suicide bleeds deeper into the song, so the recorders speak louder and become more complex with the eloquent lyrics and melody that have travelled to us through almost four hundred years in time.

Each project I embark upon is another opportunity for a learning curve. This time it wasn’t so much a curve as a cliff face; each different component of the whole presented new problems and asked for a lot of re-thinking and re-learning and re-peating… and all I was looking for was simplicity!  In a first recording of all the parts the silent click track sternly dictated all movement and didn’t suit the beautiful breathing sentiment that the music asked for.  So I spent a couple of days working on a tempo map,  to pause, to slow down, to speed up as if each part was hand in hand with the other, breathing as one. Then I patiently re-recorded and re-mixed it all fresh again.

The deep, deep contrabass recorder had also been sounding murky and muddy in it’s two lines weaving throughout this very short piece. I spent days patiently examining changes in EQ, and listening to other options – but they didn’t help it to sparkle either. In the end it took a skype call with my friend Geri (the maker) to point out to me the importance of crook placement (the crook is the metal curvy part joining at the top of the instrument – see drawing below). So I re-recorded those two lines and then balanced and mixed the piece again. But wow, now I can hear those lines in all of their richness. A little more light started coming in.

Dido's Lament

Then the voice: I have now been working on singing and having regular lessons for five years (!). I feel like it is still very much a work in progress, especially compared to the recorders which I have been playing now for 40 years (though I’m always still learning on those as well!). I have an awesome singing teacher (Robert Poliquin) who helps me stay on track, and I had a recording of the vocal part that I thought was passable. But Robert gently suggested it still needed some work.  My broad Australian dipthongs generally don’t help with un-muddling clarity and projection (it also doesn’t help that they feel so damn wonderful and familiar to use so when I live so far away from home). The rest is about freedom – mainly involving a lengthening of the mouth and absolutely no tension in the jaw; hell, try that all of you night time teeth grinders (me too…).  And then projecting a very high ‘c’ through some imagined space above the jaw bones inside your head resonating towards the top of your skull with the jaw completely relaxed, fearlessly knowing that beauty will come (one day).  The thought warrior makes music once again. But that’s what we musicians are and what we do – always balancing the possible with the impossible, with the smallest of micro movements in the body and spirit.

So I re-recorded the voice, and then some recorder parts so they would work hand in hand again. Now it is time to move onto a fresh challenge and bring with me all that I learned on this one.

Thank you so much Geri and Robert for your support, friendship and insightful comments that lead me further down this rabbit hole. I might not have seemed very happy to do the work, but my gratitude for the changes you help to bring about is immense. Months of work translated into 3 minutes of sound! And it’s never good enough, never art enough; the only sanity is to remember that it is all about the journey.