Millions watched the 54th annual Grammy Awards show on Sunday, but no one at USF had a better view than music professor James Bass.
Over the summer, choir students and professionals collaborated to record Brahms’ “Requiem” at USF for the first Professional Choral Institute. This recording was nominated for Best Choral Performance, but fell short of top honors at the award ceremony.
The Oracle talked with Bass, who is also a voting member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), for a behind-the-scenes look at the music industry’s biggest night of the year.
The Oracle: What was the award ceremony like?
James Bass: What you see on television, you only see the last seven Grammys awarded. All those other ones are awarded through the entire day. So it’s a 14-hour-long experience that was absolutely amazing.
It started the night before with the Grammy nominees party. We all just get to kind of celebrate and be around each other and we go on to the Grammys the next day. It was a blast. Literally sitting two rows behind me was Steve Martin. A few rows to the left were the Foo Fighters. Tony Bennett walked right by us, but on that day, you’re all equals — you’re just musicians.
O: Was it really that down to earth?
JB: It was. And of course, you’re in L.A. with the most famous musicians in the world, and so there’s always a little bit of the hierarchy of pop musicians, but there was a real respect factor. With Steve Martin and the Foo Fighters only a few feet away, you had a bluegrass musician, a classical musician and a rock musician and we’re all trying to do the same thing: be the best at our particular field.
During the pre-telecast they had different artists sing, like a gospel group and other nominees. One of them was an American-born opera singer, Joyce DiDonato. After each performance the audience was really good and gave a lot of energy. But then Joyce DiDonato sang, and when she finished, I saw people from the Foo Fighters all the way to whoever had just gotten the Grammy for the best children’s CD jump to their feet.
For me, that was an amazing moment because people recognized what an amazing artist she was. She may not ever sell as many discs as Adele, but in that room, she was the best performer.
O: How does one get nominated for a Grammy?
JB: It’s a long, convoluted process. Any recording that’s released on a nationally based platform — meaning it has to be available through something like Amazon or iTunes —those discs are allowed to at least be considered for the Grammys. So you can’t make a disc in your basement and have it be a Grammy disc.
Our disc was released on Amazon and iTunes through our label called Seraphic Fire Media. It immediately made it into the top 10 classical discs within that week and it actually made it all the way to No. 7 on Billboard, which is another reason it garnered some Grammy attention.
There’s a committee for the NARAS and their classical panel reviewed the disc and said it was eligible. It went up for a vote and it made it into the top five. Only the top five CDs out of the 461 that were eligible were considered the nominees.
In every category, meaning everywhere from Adele down, there were 774 nominees total, and we were one of those nominees from the entire planet Earth. It’s kind of an amazing thing — we were the only choir from North America nominated for a Grammy.
O: So there’s no application for it or persuading done on the part of the artist? It’s completely up to NARAS to select and nominate?
JB: That’s exactly correct. After they receive the nominations, everyone that’s a member of NARAS receives a ballot. And for example, I’m a member, but you have to have shown expertise in a particular area of music industry, and you have dues that you have to pay and you become a member of the Recording Academy.
So sometimes there’s some popularity involved and the person we ended up losing to, Eric Whitaker, is one of the most popular choral conductor/composers in the world. I’m not saying that had anything to do with it, but that can come into play once you get to the vote part of it.
O: Being a voting member yourself, what is that process like?
JB: You’re technically allowed to vote in any category, but what they tell us is that they request that you only vote in the categories in which you consider yourself an expert. But for some categories I do vote because I do have an opinion. So I only voted in about 15 categories.
O: Who was the most commercial artist you voted for?
JB: I voted for Adele. But also, this is going to reveal a little something, I’m a classical musician through and through. I mainly only listen to classical music, but I do have a high affinity for what you would call electric dance music, or some people call it techno — I enjoy it. And I really like Deadmau5. So Deadmau5 was up for a couple Grammys and I knew the album very well, so I voted for it.
O: After the recording, how much behind-the-scenes work goes into the final product?
JB: For every five minutes of music you record, it takes over two hours, with how many times you do it over again. The Brahms Requiem is 50 minutes long, so it took us about 30 hours to complete it—and that’s just the actual singing part.
Once the live recordings are done, there about 100-120 gigabytes of digital recording. Our producer in Los Angeles spends the next two or three weeks sifting through the tapes. And then he creates a beginning-to-end performance with all the cuts, using what he thinks are the best runs. That’s called the first edit.
That first edit is sent to me and Patrick (Quigley) and we go through all the edits and make notes. We go through this process three times, and then finally we get to the final edit. Then Patrick and I flew to Los Angeles to put the recording through what we call “the sound.” We sit in this cockpit and get it so it sounds how we want in real life.
Here you can literally change the scope of the recording. So for example if I’m sitting the chair and the choir sounds like its eight feet away from me, I can tell the producer to make it sound like they’re 12 feet away. We can even change the size of the room all based on the sound.
So it’s literally hundreds of hours of post-work after you’ve sung. And most people don’t realize that.
O: What does this mean for the students involved on the recording?
JB: Everyone on the disc, which includes seven current USF students, are Grammy nominees. Not formal nominees in the Academy’s eyes, but if their name is on that disc, it’s legitimate and identifiable. The idea that these students from all over the country can come together over the period of two weeks and make something that’s in the top five globally in that category, is something that is obviously inspirational.
It validates what we do at USF. It validates our program. I can walk into a high school tomorrow and tell them, “Come to USF, we have Grammy-nominated performances” and not be lying.
O: Any hopes for another shot at taking home the gramophone?
JB: This has been one of our goals, and we’re going to try again. It may not be this year because of finances. We are definitely doing another Professional Choral Institute, but we’re changing it a bit. This year we’re not doing a recording. We’re going to space those out every two or three years because those recording cost about $80,000.
So we’ll wait to gain some more support and funds and we’ll be back. Somehow, someway, we’ll be back.