Symphony Orchestra

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I was asked to shoot the Frome Symphony Orchestra last evening (more on that, anon). This followed my work with them last year at the Frome Festival. Honestly, out of the many things I do, shooting symphony I find the hardest, not least as one is acutely aware of the audience, and you don’t want to disturb the musician’s concentration. For rock gigs, things are much easier in many ways, even if you do have to work faster (‘3 photos and go away’ in the pit). Shooting musicians close up, from the pit, is a heck of a lot easier than covering symphony with a big orchestra in an open hall. So, here’s a few thoughts on what I have learnt so far.

If it is possible, I like to use rehearsals as practice sessions for all of event work – gigs, wedding and so on. Often the light isn’t exactly as it will be at the show, but it’s usually close enough to be able to check angles and identify problems. The photographer can also move around freely at a rehearsal, whilst during a performance keeping out of the audience’s way is an issue.

I usually use centre-weighted metering, 2/3 stop underexposed, as the light at symphony is often quite flat across the orchestra. At a rock gig, I would also tend to also use spot metering on faces as there is rapid changing of light and colour. Underexposure works best, adding to the mood, whilst avoiding blown highlights.

Lenses that I use favour are the 70-200 mm F/2.8 (Nikon, on the D810), 75 mm F/2 (Leica SL – and this Summicron is probably my favourite lens of all that I own) and the incomparable 28mm F/1.7 (Leica Q) which never fails. I shot as wide open as possible, and always shoot RAW as I prefer the extra dynamic range for post processing. But it must be noted that RAW is intrinsically more ‘noisy’ than JPG.

Compare these two images shot with the Nikon D810, 3200 ISO, 70-200mm at maximum and F/2.8. Cropped to about 33% of the original file size, with moderate post processing including noise reduction, the same for both JPG and NEF (RAW). Click to zoom in.

Mick Yates. 2020. NEF (RAW) Inset

Mick Yates. 2020. JPG Inset

The RAW has more dynamic colour, the JPG less noise. A good step for concerts is to set the camera t0 shoot both, and then compare.

I prefer not to go above 1600 ISO although 3200 ISO gives very useable results, a bit better with the Leicas than the Nikon, partly reflecting their smaller sensor size. Kristian Dowling tested pushing the SL to 6400 ISO, and that is definitely worth a try.

I always shoot in colour, and then convert later. For symphony, musicians are often in black tuxedos and dresses, and lighting tends to be less colourful than rock, so whilst lighting is flat, the contrast range is large. As noted, I aim to shoot for the highlights. The occasional chimping / playback is helpful to check for blown-out highlights, as long as it doesn’t distract the audience. I don’t check shadows and leave that as it falls. Modern dynamic ranges allow a lot of fiddling in post.

One aspect that I should be more disciplined about is using a tripod with pre-set positions based on the rehearsal experience. This can save time and lead to less audience distraction. Of course, this is essential if a camera is set up in some inaccessible place (e.g. behind the band/orchestra) in which case a remote trigger is needed.

A frustration is that whilst it is possible to get the occasional ‘portrait in action’ of some of the musicians, angles and the sheer size of an orchestra make that harder than shooting a 4-person rock band. Separate portrait sessions are probably the only way forward, or being ’embedded’ in the orchestra during dress rehearsal.

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Header: Mick Yates. 2019. Mark Gateshill, Frome Symphony. 

Music From Free Creek

mickyates Art, Design, Music, Narrative, Photography Leave a Comment

Unusually, this is a music post – although with many connections to photography – not least as I couldn’t find decent images of the album liner notes online (without a huge amount of fiddling about), so I took photographs of my copy of the vinyl record which I have had since its release in 1973.

The album Music From Free Creek is essentially one long series of jam sessions, featuring one of the first supergroups of artists, although recorded in sub groups at different times. Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck (named as King Cool and A.N. Other for contract reasons), Linda Ronstadt, Keith Emerson, Todd Rundgren, Dr John, Mitch Mitchell and many more all feature. The album is a double, released in 1973, although the music was recorded at The Record Plant, New York City from June – August 1969.

I am not a music critic, though it seems to me that the artists were having fun, jamming with each other, and the production is ‘neutral’, in the sense that the music flows through. It is a classic.  Naturally some tracks are better than others, though it’s hard not to like any of those featuring the names noted above. Cissy Strut, with Jeff Beck is brilliant. The recording sessions featuring the artists were spread across the album rather than laid down as blocks. I especially like the Linda Ronstadt tracks, which include ‘He Darked The Sun‘, and Keith Emerson’s virtuoso keyboard playing (without too much pretentiousness!).

This is also a post about the power and suggestive ability of social media. I went back to this album having been challenged to post 10 vinyl albums which most influenced my taste in music – has to be 60s and 70s I am afraid. It triggered my digging.

Then, this is an art and photography post. The album sleeve was designed by Hipgnosis, arguably the best and most successful album art group of all time. This British design firm was founded by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell.  Their first cover was Pink Floyd’s 1968 A Saucerful of Secrets and their last was Led Zeppelin’s Coda, 1982.

James Stafford has put together a nice page featuring all of the Hipgnosis album designs. There is also a great book ‘Total Records: Photography and the Art of the Album Cover‘, from Aperture (details below) which features some of Hipgnosis’ work, and many others.

The firm blended photography and painterly graphics in unusual ways, and photo-montage was their stock-in-trade.

The Nice. 1970. Five Bridges. Cover by © Hipgnosis.

Hipgnosis designed all of Pink Floyd’s early album covers, with perhaps this being the most iconic, photographically.

Pink Floyd. 1975. Wish You Were Here. Cover by © Hipgnosis. Photo by Aubrey Powell.

10cc. 1976. How Dare You. Cover © Hipgnosis. Photo by Howard Bartrop.

UFO. 1978. Obsession. Cover © Hipgnosis.

Hipgnosis always pushed boundaries, photographically, design and subject wise.

This artwork, for Led Zeppelin’s 1973 Houses of the Holy, remains controversial to this day, as it is featuring naked young children.

Pink Floyd. 1973. Houses of the Holy. Cover by © Hipgnosis. Photos by Aubrey Powell at Giant’s Causeway, Ireland.

The photos, originally shot in black and white, featured two children, Stefan and Samantha Gates, and were subsequently collaged. Stefan was 5 at the time, and is now a TV personality.

Finally, the Free Creek album illustrates the power of narrative.

Some might find producer Earle Doud’s alternate notes pretentious or corny … but I just think it’s cool.

Two alternate universes are described as to how the album was made. One, with huge effort and planning – and repercussions.

‘I suppose if I told you that this album cost 1/4 of a million dollars to make … that practically all of it comes out of jamming, without any arrangements … that we made up most of the tunes on the spot off the top of our heads … that it took so long to get together that some of the stars playing on it became nobody, and some of the nobody’s became stars … that at least two major rock /n roll musicians asked to be on it after the fact, and we had to turn them down … that the work of over 300 people is embodied in the album, and only  3 won’t let us use their names … that LINDA RONSTADT is no long speaking to me …’

The other, by chance.

‘So okay … this is how it happened. One night, I think it was a Monday, and it was April, about 50 of us, including many of the world’s leading musicians, happened to bump into each other on the corner of 51st St and Park Avenue in New York City. We had nothing to do, and we all had our axes and the like with us, so we decided to go over to Madison Square Garden. Much to our surprise, Madison Square Garden was empty that night, so they invited us all in, and said why don’t you record a big super session album, seeing as the RECORD PLANT remote truck is still cleaning up, after recording the GRAND FUNK RAILROAD over two months ago …”

Judge for yourself the power of words and how they add to both images and music. Imagine the scenes when the music was recorded in each scenario.

Here are the full notes – click to read the words properly.

Music From Free Creek. Album notes. 1973. Cover by © Hipgnosis. Photograph Mick Yates, 2020.

So, a fascinating conjunction and blending of music, photography, text, storytelling and graphic design. A slice of history.

Perhaps, though it all does underline the power many of us see in Vinyl records. Not just the sound, but the tactile quality of an album, and the physical ‘real estate’ which allows story telling and art to be properly developed. That’s not something one can experience the same way with streaming music, no matter how hi-fi the sound.

Here’s a good review from johnkatsmc5.

You can also find the album on YouTube.

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Header: Album double-page spread. 1973. © Hipgnosis. Photograph Mick Yates, 2020.

DE BEAUPRÉ, Antoine et al (Eds.). 2016. Total Records: Photography and the Art of the Album Cover. New York: Aperture.

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The recordings were made in 1969, and released in 1973 – in the UK by Charisma Records and in the U.S. by Buddah Records.

Released on CD by Lake Eerie Records in 2002, and re-released by the same company in 2006.

Music From Free Creek – Track Listing

A1. Cissy Strut
A2. Freedom Jazz Dance
A3. Sympathy For The Devil
A4. Mother Nature’s Son
A5. Road Song

B6. Lay Lady Lay
B7. Hey Jude
B8. He Darked The Sun
B9. Earl’s Shuffle

C10. Getting Back To Molly
C11. Cherrypicker
C12. Kilpatrick’s Disaster
C13. Girl From Ipanema
C14. No One Knows

D15. Living Like A Fool
D16. Working In A Coalmine
D17. Big City Woman
D18. On The Rebound

The recordings were made in 1969, and released in 1973 – in the UK by Charisma Records and in the U.S. by Buddah Records. Released on CD by Lake Eerie Records in 2002, and re-released by the same company in 2006.

Produced by Earle Doud and Tom Flye
Executive Producer and Musical Director: Moogy Klingman
Engineers: Tony Bongiovi and Jack Hunt
Additional mixes: Keith Emerson and Neil Slaven
Album cover painting by Ronchetti and Day
Album cover design: Hipgnosis

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Personnel, from Surfing the Odyssey:

The Eric Clapton (“King Cool”) Session

1. No One Knows

Guitar – Eric Clapton (as “King Cool”)
Lead Vocal – Eric Mercury
Organ – Dr. John
Piano – Moogy Klingman
Bass – Stu Woods
Drums – Richard Crooks
The Free Creek Horns* & the Free Creek singers

2. Road Song

Lead Guitar – Eric Clapton
Piano – Dr. John
Lead Vocals – Tom Cosgrove and Buzzy Linhart
Organ – Moogy Klingman
Rhythm Guitar – Delaney Bramlett
Bass – Stu Woods
Drums – Richard Crooks

3. Getting Back To Molly

Guitars – Eric Clapton (1st solo), Dr. John (2nd solo)
Lead Vocal – Earle Doude
Harmonica – Moogy Klingman
Free Creeks Singers*

The Jeff Beck (“A.N. Other”) Session

1. Cissy Strut

Guitars – Jeff Beck (1st solo), Todd Rundgren (2nd solo)
Organ – Moogy Klingman
Bass – Stu Woods
Drums – Roy Markowitz
The Free Creek Horns

2. Big City Woman

Guitar – Jeff Beck
Piano – Moogy Klingman
Bass – Stu Woods
Drums – Roy Markowitz
Lead Vocal – Tommy Cosgrove

3. Cherrypicker

Guitars – Jeff Beck, Todd Rundgren
Organ – Moogy Klingman
Bass – Stu Woods
Drums – Roy Markowitz

4. Working in a Coalmine

Guitar – Jeff Beck
Organ – Moogy Klingman, Bob Smith
Bass – Stu Woods
Drums – Roy Markowitz

The Keith Emerson Session

1. Freedom Jazz Dance

Hammond Organ – Keith Emerson
Guitar – Buzzy Feiten
Drums – Mitch Mitchell
Piano – Moogy Klingman
Bass – Chuck Rainey

2. On the Rebound

Piano – Keith Emerson
Guitar – Buzzy Feiten
Bass – Chuck Rainey
Drums – Mitch Mitchell
Occasional Voice – Geri Miller

3. Mother Nature’s Son

Piano – Keith Emerson
Acoustic Guitar – Carol Hunter
Oboe – Lou Delgato
String Bass – Richard Davis

The Harvey Mandel Session

1. Sympathy for the Devil

Lead Guitar – Harvey Mandel
Rhythm Guitar – Jack Wilkens
Organ – Moogy Klingman
Piano – Jimmy Greenspoon
Bass – Larry Taylor
Violin – Larry Packer
Drums – Fito de la Parra
Congas – Billy Chesboro
Bongos – Didymus

2. Earl’s Shuffle

Lead Guitar – Harvey Mandel
Pedal Steel Guitar – Red Rhodes
Organ – Jimmy Greenspoon
Bass – Larry Taylor
Drums – Fito de la Parra

3. The Girl from Ipanema

Lead Guitar – Harvey Mandel
Pedal Steel Guitar – Red Rhodes
Bass – Larry Taylor
Drums – Fito de la Parra
Shakers – Didymus
Wood Blocks – Earle Doud

The Linda Ronstadt Session

1. Living Like a Fool

Lead Vocal – Linda Ronstadt
Guitar – Bernie Leadon
Pedal Steel Guitar – Red Rhodes
Piano – Jimmy Greenspoon
Bass – John London
Drums – John Ware

2. He Darked the Sun

Lead Vocal – Linda Ronstadt
Guitar – Bernie Leadon
Pedal Steel Guitar – Red Rhodes
Piano – Jimmy Greenspoon
Bass – John London
Drums – John Ware
Violin – Chris Darrow

Odds and Sods

1. Hey Jude

Lead Guitar – Buzzy Feiten
Organ – Moogy Klingman
Drums – Mitch Mitchell
Bass – Richard Davis
Rhythm Guitar – Elliot Randall
The Free Creek Horns

2. Lay Lady Lay

Flutes – Joe Farrell (solo), Chris Wood
Piano – Moogy Klingman
Guitar – Doug Rodriguez
Bass – Stu Woods
Drums – Roy Markowitz

3. Kilpatrick’s Defeat

Lead Vocal – Timmy Harrison
Guitars – Carol Hunter and Buzzy Feiten
Bass – Stu Wood