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With technology increasingly affordable and talent omnipresent, Harvard students have been taking the plunge into the recording industry. These are three of their stories.
To talk to Al Bennett '00, half of the band North House, you'd never suppose him to be the talented, impulsively bluesy singer/guitarist he is. Soft-spoken and polite, looking like an ad for Structure's fall line, he sits calmly at his first interview since the release of North House's debut album, Two Stories, which he co-produced with Becky Warren (Wellesley '00), the other half of North House.
Bennett's refined, somewhat subdued manner belies his powerful singing on the album, but that's only one of the surprising things about him. "My background musically?" he repeats, and laughs, "I played the French horn in high school for six years." Beyond this musical experience, and a few years in show choir, Bennett has had no other formal musical training; he taught himself how to play the guitar six years ago.
Clearly, then, Two Stories owes much of its musical success to Bennett's complete dedication to music. "That album was all eight classes for Al last year," says Bennett's roommate, Mike Abramson '00. "It took up so much of his time."
Bennett agrees that he and Warren were utterly consumed by their project. "Every spare minute, if not in the studio, was [spent] thinking about it. I'd be listening to a lecture, and in my mind I'd be, 'Okay, now what's the trumpet going to do?' The week prior [to getting the album finalized] we probably spent 50 or 60 hours in the studio."
North House was born when Bennett began working in the Quad Sound Studios, in the basement of Pforzheimer House (the former North House), a year and a half ago. "[Becky Warren] was a guitar player and songwriter, and she'd come down to the studio; I was just starting to work there. Basically, I just needed someone to play while I practiced recording. And so she did that, and we decided that our music was close enough together that we were committed enough to working on them, fusing them."
One of the hardest things about producing the album themselves, according to Bennett, was that they had "no experience with this at all. The hardest part was starting out with nothing. I mean, we had two guitars, and our two voices, and a studio." But North House did it all from beginning to end, writing by themselves the music and lyrics for every single one of the eleven tracks on Two Stories. "We had to conceive of what each of the arrangements was going to sound like," says Bennett. "[Like with one song,] Becky sat down and said, 'I hear strings,' so I had to sit down and arrange a string part, with a percussion and the violins, the cello, the bass. The biggest challenge was trying to hear all those different parts."
The maturity and complexity of the music itself, with instruments ranging from Bennett's roommate Rex Graff's '00 harmonica to Warren's fellow a cappella singers in The Wellesley Blue Notes, are echoed in the lyrics, whether they be written by Bennett or Warren. "Becky moves me lyrically in a way that very few musicians do," says Bennett; "even her words on the page are poetry to me. She's brilliant."
Bennett often finds himself writing about very personal experiences, as in one of his favorite songs, "Chinese Cabdriver." It concerns Bennett's frustrations with his "place, musically, in the world," but it also has a story attached to it.
"I went to China for a summer after freshman year, and this cabdriver was taking me--I was drunk, just got back from a disco--and the cabdriver took me around the city about four or five times, and I started to recognize things." Bennett grins and goes on, "He thought I was much more drunk than I was! And so I started trying to yell at him, but I couldn't for the life of me remember anything in Chinese to yell at him! So to get back at him when I got home I wrote a song about it."
Not everything, however, was as enjoyable as songwriting: Bennett acknowledges how taxing the project was. "Because it was just the two of us, it was sometimes hard to keep motivated. Especially in music, no one is providing you with any kind of 'We like your music' thing at any of the early stages. You just have to believe in it so much," he says firmly. "There were times when we took fairly long breaks from it. We just felt like it was just crap, you know. And that's where we helped each other a lot. When I got down she would say, 'Okay, let's get back in there,' and if she got down... it helped having the two of us to do it."
Even when the album was completely recorded, their work far from over. Besides making the album cover and booklet from scratch, Bennett and Warren had to deal with "getting all of [the music] mastered, dealing with the duplication company, coming up with the money, developing the website [www.northhouse.com]. It's very complicated," as Bennett said.
But Bennett and Warren were ultimately rewarded for their troubles. "One of the best parts of this whole thing [is] having something in your hand that can represent a time in your life," says Bennett of the album. "And that's a rare thing to have, a physical thing that captures my junior year. That CD, that's it." He pauses for a moment and gets quiet, contemplating it. "Pretty special thing, and I'll always have it." Then he laughs. "I'll always have several hundred in my closet, I'm sure!"
Now that the album is finished, Bennett can look forward to finishing his East Asian Studies concentration to graduate in the spring, and can also focus his energies on the Immediate Gratification Players, of which he is a member, and on the Quad Sound Studios, of which he is the president. What does the future hold for North House, besides the Quad Sound Studios Benefit Concert on Dec. 10--a second album, perhaps?
"Oh yeah, there's a lot of music coming," Bennett says assuringly. "I've probably got 50 or so guitar melodies, and we've got six or seven full songs we haven't even touched. We could do another album right now."
But all that comes later. For now, Al Bennett will be concentrating on some personal goals, one of which is the production of his friend Duane Koh's album, due out in April. The other?
"A rock opera," he says, quite seriously. "Like Swingers... but a rock opera."
The Album Itself: Two Stories
After hearing that Al Bennett '00 and Becky Warren (a Wellesley senior) produced their debut album, Two Stories, by themselves, you may approach it rather warily. How good could a couple of college students possibly sound on a self-produced album?
Any doubts you have about the quality of the production or the music itself will quickly be dispelled merely seconds into the first track, "War of the Worlds," as a harmonica wails against the festive background of shouting, murmuring voices. The songs on Two Stories incorporate everything from violins and cellos to trumpets, saxophones, and clarinets, and Bennett's seamless mixing produces a sound that's as close to perfect as you could get, especially using the Quad Sound Studios at the basement of Pforzheimer House. While it's true that at times the sound gets a tad echo-ey and the voices are a bit overwhelmed by the instrumentals, overall the quality is virtually professional.
However, it's not just the sound quality of the album itself that will amaze you; the music itself, described by North House as "the lovechild of Bonnie Raitt and Lenny Kravitz" with some Jimi Hendrix and Dave Matthews Band thrown in, is incredible. The music and lyrics for every track were written by Bennett and Warren, and Warren, especially, writes like she's a poet by calling, as in "Babylon": "You live on cigarettes and cherry brine/Your windows translucent and your broken lullaby." Bennett's smooth, relaxed voice sounds as if it were born knowing what to do on each song and his guitar skills match it perfectly: in "Chinese Cabdriver," a sexy guitar intro winds itself around you before Bennett begins to lazily croon, "Hey, Mr. Cabdriver/Say, where the hell are you takin' me?" Meanwhile, Warren performs some amazing vocal acrobatics--her wonderfully mature voice can be anything from thick and milky sweet in "Babylon" to loose and bluesy in "Goodbye Song," and her smoldering, darkly seductive "I Know What Boys Like" ensures us that, yes, Warren probably does know what boys like. Together, Bennett and Warren create a stellar first album that is surprisingly polished for a debut.
Combine the recent advances in technology and the booming Internet economy with a prodigious amount of musical talent, and you get Teenage Hysteria, the first album of Sean Bennett '01, which is currently topping the classical charts on MP3.com.
Approached by a producer from MP3.com after one of his performances during the summer, Bennett read up on the site and decided to compile a number of recordings made during his teenage years into an album. With a 30-hour repertoire of music to choose from, Bennett attempted to include a varied mix of classical music, including pieces from the contemporary, Baroque and Romantic periods.
Teenage Hysteria is not only an audio CD but can also be played as a CD-ROM which features a video presentation, photographs of Sean, the liner notes and each of the eight tracks in MP3 format. Visitors to www.mp3.com/Sean can also download samples from Teenage Hysteria. Bennett believes that downloadable music is transforming what historically has been a very political industry. "By having the option of putting out a downloadable song for most everybody, it really makes it more of a free-market system. Ultimately it will insure that those musicians who do have the most to bring to the stage will be the ones that shine," he said.
MP3.com allows Bennett to track how many albums he has sold and from where they were purchased. He is often amazed by the different geographic locations of his customers, and attributes this to MP3.com being a truly global site. He also receives more email now than he used to and attempts to respond to each personally.
Bennett's first exposure to music was from his mother, who taught him how to play piano by ear. At the age of five, he did a rearrangement of "It's a Small World" with his tape recorder, inserting other Disney music into the catchy tune and rewriting the words. His arrangement won him a prize in a Disney-sponsored contest, and, more importantly, showed him that music was to be a huge part of his life.
Bennett has since gone on to perform over 400 concerts, win 50 national and international competitions and become one of the youngest musicians ever to perform Rachmaninov's 3rd concerto. His favorite memory was performing privately for the President of Poland, Lech Walesa, at the age of 17. "He is someone I grew up idolizing. He freed Poland from the Communist government. I had always grown up admiring his strength of character and to get to play a program of all Polish music (Chopin), there was something kind of magical about the whole thing," he stated.
Although Bennett no longer takes lessons, he practices three hours daily, usually in the Pforzheimer Holmes Living Room. "Practicing comes before classwork and attending class. It comes before social time, extracurriculars, whatever. I enjoy it so much, it's never burdensome."
Still, Bennett has enjoyed his time at Harvard and believes that his liberal arts education has encouraged him to grow as a musician. "Everything you learn about philosophy, psychology or history is directly applicable in some way to how you play, how you view the arts, how you view music, how you view the relationship between the audience and the performer."
Bennett, who is also the managing editor of the Unofficial Guides, president of the Pforzheimer Music Society, conductor of the soon-to-be implemented Tuscany Orchestra and a Transfer Link (having transferred to Harvard from DePaul University), values his very limited free time. He enjoys listening to MP3s and has eclectic musical tastes that run from techno to top 40. "I like going out a lot. I think working on the Unofficial Guide made me really appreciate everything that Boston and Cambridge has to offer, so especially if it's nice out, I have a hard time staying in my room and studying."
While Bennett is unsure of what his future will bring, he knows that he wants music and performing to be a part of it. "The classical musical world is changing, and I hope to be involved in that change."
Christina Castelli '00 is not your typical young musician. Although she has been playing since the age of three, and is having her first commercial recording released at the age of 21, she exhibits none of the qualities usually associated with the young and the talented. Throughout the interview, she maintainws a refreshing outlook, describing her gratitude to her parents, her love for music, her hatred for competition and her desire to maintain her identity as a person outside of her musical life.
Unlike the stereotypical stage parents who push their children into performance, Castelli says, her mother and father "always left it up to me. If I wanted to quit the next day, I could, which I think is why I got as far as I did. Because if I had been pushed, I would have resisted."
So now, as a Harvard chemistry concentrator (having left Oberlin's notoriously difficult double-degree program, where she studied biochemistry and music performance, before her junior year), Castelli feels free to follow her passions. "My parents don't really care what I do in life. Whatever I do, they say just do the best you can at it. Whether it's chemistry, whether it's music, whether it's being a street musician, it's up to me. That's allowed me the freedom to be able to come to Harvard and study academics."
Isaac Stern, the great violinist, has recently become an important guiding force in Castelli's life. Although he is notorious for crushing the dreams of hopeful young musicians, she says that he has been "nothing but supportive and kind" to her. "He strongly believes that I will have a solo career; he's not concerned about that. What he's concerned about is where to go from here. Once I graduate from here, what happens next?"
But while Castelli may be an extraordinary talent, there is far more to her personality than a simple desire to perform. "I'd get bored if all I had to talk about was music," she says. "There's much more to life than just music, and I know that. I'm a person before I'm a musician."
One danger of any strong focus on music is the competition of the classical music world. Although Castelli sees competition as a natural reaction to many situations, she says, "I don't see the point of not wanting to talk to someone because he's a competitor of mine. I go in there and I introduce myself to everybody.
"It's more enjoyable even if you lose to be friends, and to enjoy yourselves and have a good time and go out for ice cream and be people. I'm not happy with my own playing if I feel it could have been better, not because somebody else won the competition."
These attitudes are certainly at odds with the prima donna image that some people hold of young musicians, and Castelli realizes this. "I like to hope that I defy some of the negative aspects of being young and being a performer. I think trying to do a lot of different things is important in keeping perspective."
Since arriving at Harvard, Castelli has experienced a great shift in how she dedicates her life. "There's a lot more work to be done than I had there," she says, but while she misses the conservatory environment, she enjoys a new freedom in her scheduling. Because she is not studying with a teacher, she chooses how and when she will work with each piece she takes on.
What's more, the violinist has nothing but praise for her experience at Harvard. "I love it here. People here are so amazing, so diverse, it floors me, and that's what I wanted to be around."
Another difference of life at Harvard: despite the fact that the accessibility of air travel was a factor in her decision to transfer here, she has found it increasingly difficult to miss classes here, where the school is under no obligation to excuse her absence.
Later, when Castelli mentions that her next major concert appearance, with the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra, will occur during finals period, she says, "You can put that in there so that my teachers will sympathize. When you sign that contract, that's it. You're there, you're doing the concert, and you have to figure out something else to do with the rest of your life. The rest of your life gets moved around for it."
Although she soloed with the HRO last year, Castelli is not currently involved with any musical groups on campus. "The thing that I think about most in joining a student group here," she says "is whether I would be able to contribute my maximum to it." Because she's so committed to her classes, solo work and her new album, she says, "I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to do as good of a job as I would want. I want to be there for all the rehearsals. I think it's unfair to the other players if I can't contribute fully."
Castelli's new album was recorded in Munich last year on a grant from an award that she received for playing, among other pieces, the Wieniawski Scherzo-Tarantelle that appears on the recording. The entire process took two days: one to record and one to edit the tracks.
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