Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Sacred Space: Sounds of the Present in a Place from the Past

WPLN News Feature Transcripts View All

Sacred Space: Sounds of the Present in a Place from the Past (transcript)
Tuesday, December 01st, 2009
By Joe Nolan

In Nashville, great musicians record in great rooms – Elvis Presley at RCA Studio B, Jack White at Blackbird Studio. Now, artists and engineers are discovering a space for music-making that isn’t a studio at all. It’s a 150-year-old church sanctuary inspired by the architecture of ancient Egypt. WPLN’s Joe Nolan reports.

Audio for this feature is available here.



In the Sanctuary of Nashville’s Downtown Presbyterian Church, a small audience gathers in the front pews for a live concert. After fiddling with his tuning pegs and shaking the bangs from his eyes – singer/songwriter Terry Price eases into his first song…

(SOUND: Terry Price “No Ice” live)

The Sanctuary is bigger than a professional basketball court, but Price’s tentative finger-picking fills the room. Nearby, an audio engineer turns up the input knob on an old-school tape machine. The uniquely named Welcome to 1979 is a Nashville music studio that prides itself on its vintage gear and its commitment to recording on reel-to-reel tape instead of on computers. The first time audio engineer Neil Anderson and his partners toured the church they knew they wanted to record there.

ANDERSON – “We just fell in love with the rooms. We’ve always wanted to record in rooms that were this large and this monumental. The walls are very reflective which means the sound will bounce around quite a bit, and the ceilings are extremely tall which lend themselves to monstrous sounding recordings.”

Although they fell for the space’s sound, the engineers had been invited on a tour to see the church’s stunning architecture. Exotic birds, colorful flowers and Egyptian motifs fill the Sanctuary’s walls, while palm trees bend above a cracked desert in the huge stained glass windows.

JIM HOOBLER: “At the front of the Sanctuary, it looks like a stage setting from Aida. Like you could perform Opera up there.”

Jim Hoobler is a curator at Tennessee State Museum and a member of the Downtown Presbyterian Church.

HOOBLER: “There are frescoes on the walls that have a perspective painting of a hall of columns. Amun Ra, the Sun God of Egypt is carved at the top.”

Painted versions of the winged disc symbol of Amun Ra repeat throughout the Sanctuary, which is one of the few surviving examples of Egyptian Revival architecture in America.

The style was inspired by Napoleon’s survey of Egypt in the late 1700’s. Designed in 1851 by William Strickland – the architect of the Tennessee State Capitol – the room is built for music. Hardwood and plaster materials reflect sound throughout the space. The coffered ceiling with it’s crisscrossing beams and inset canvas panels creates a grid of boxes that capture music and redirect it back down into the audience.

(SOUND: John Francis “Johnny Cash On the Radio” live)

Strickland’s design allows a songwriter like John Francis to sing and play guitar – with no amplification – and make what the engineers call a “monstrous sounding recording”.

(SOUND: John Francis “Johnny Cash On the Radio” live)

While the Sanctuary’s sound may be a new discovery for Welcome to 1979, the space has already hosted recording artists like old-timey chanteuse Julie Lee and Patty Griffin, who’s new gospel CD was recorded in the Sanctuary and is set for release in early 2010. While gospel music is a natural fit for a church, unplugging for an acoustic show was an unusual twist for hard rock band Orange Willard and their lead singer Rusty Paquay.

(SOUND: Orange Willard’s “Angels” live)

RUSTY PAQUAY: “We try to be the loudest band around and most powerful. This is like one of those very rare moments for us especially because we’re so used to playing clubs and loud venues… nice change of pace.”

The engineers from Welcome to 1979 return to the Downtown Presbyterian Church for another live recording during the Gallery Crawl this Saturday. The monthly art event provides a built in audience for the shows. While the concerts are a promotional opportunity, all the recordings are done for free. Chris Mara – the studio’s owner – sees the series as a creative project, not just a marketing ploy.

CHRIS MARA: “I think art inspires art. You know when I’m down here I feel more creative and same with the artists we bring down here to record they just love the space. I mean artists made this.”

It’s been said when it comes to good music, it’s the singer not the song that counts. Sometimes, it is the singer. Sometimes, it’s the song. But, sometimes, it’s the space that makes all the difference.

For Nashville Public Radio, I’m Joe Nolan

(SOUND: John Francis “People On The Edge Of The World” live)