Can music learn from the slow-food movement?

Great-sounding records can be made on home computers, but one man's convinced a fantastic studio is music's future

Topics: Art in Crisis, Music, Editor's Picks,

Can music learn from the slow-food movement? (Credit:

This past summer, Zenph Sound Innovations had a problem. Zenph is a North Carolina-based company specializing in computer-generated “re-performances” of classic recordings with astounding results. But Zenph’s latest project — “The Spanish Masters,” featuring renowned cellist Zuill Bailey and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian accompanying recreations of century-old piano-playing — was coming in over budget.

That’s when Zenph’s management took a cue from the project’s setting, Manifold Recording Studio, which was designed with both old-school live performance and new-school open-source philosophy in mind. Manifold co-owner Michael Tiemann suggested that Zenph go the crowd-funding route to raise the money needed.

“I proposed that we offset the costs by holding a recording salon,” Tiemann says. “So we invited a select group of people to come in and experience the music live in the studio as it was being created.”

Six people came in to watch, and each paid $250 for the privilege. Presto, budget gap closed. If Tiemann has his way, that will be a regular happening at Manifold, a wildly ambitious high-end studio that opened over the summer in the rural splendor of Chatham County, North Carolina (near Raleigh).

Thanks to his deep pockets from his position at the software company Red Hat, Tiemann had the means to turn his “passionate obsession” of a dream into reality. He spared no expense on Manifold, which is a remarkable facility with lavish attention to detail. Most of the building’s dimensions are based on the Fibonacci sequence and/or the golden ratio, with all the grids of the floors, walls and ceilings lined up to interlock and intersect with perfect symmetry. The wooden floor of the main studio is composed of a diamond pattern, and each diamond has 12 slats in honor of the 12-note scale of Western music.

The studio’s technical gear is all state-of-the art, of course. Manifold is the sort of destination studio where you could imagine U2, Adele or some other chart-topping act setting up shop for a month or three to wax their latest opus. But if anything seems less practical than starting a record company right now, it’s building a high-end recording studio that rents for $2,000 a day. Having built it, Tiemann is convinced they will come — although the “they” he has in mind is less top-of-the-pops and more grassroots.

Even though Manifold is very much a high-tech facility, Tiemann’s vision of it is steeped in the vibes of past glory days from the era before Pro Tools rendered studios obsolete. Speaking of models for Manifold, Tiemann cites the Beatles’ old stomping grounds of Abbey Road, where they pioneered the technique of using the studio as another instrument; Peter Gabriel’s Real World, a studio he says was “built to support creativity”; and most of all the old CBS 30th Street Studio, favored back-in-the-day recording venue of everyone from Miles Davis to Leonard Bernstein.

“When Miles Davis would record at 30th Street, he’d bring three or four dozen people into the studio and they’d do a live recording session,” Tiemann says. “This was a lot like a musical version of the salon model, people gathering in a room small enough to support conversation and large enough to hold a diverse group of people. Glenn Gould, who recorded ‘The Goldberg Variations’ there, said that recording would completely replace live performance within 50 years. That was in 1966 and it has not quite come true, not yet. What we’ve got in mind is to bring together those two experiences, recording and performance.”

To that end, Manifold is set up to do broadcasting or webcasting, just in case anyone is of a mind to make a recording/performance available to a wider real-time audience. Even without that, it’s a very comfortable space for a live audience of several-score fans. And with the right act and setup — an unplugged rock band, say; or James Taylor, who grew up right down the road in Chapel Hill and still has ties to the area — you could imagine Manifold being the perfect setting for the right kind of live-recording project.

“Everybody still wants to make great-sounding records in great studios,” says Souvik Dutta, a producer scheduled for two Manifold projects in 2012 including one with Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring. “It’s like taking your kid to a baseball game to see his favorite player.”

Still, are there enough projects like that out there to support a studio that cost millions to build? Tiemann is convinced there is, citing parallels with the slow-food movement.

“Just as the slow-food movement encourages eaters to think more holistically about how food is grown, prepared and brought to the table, this co-producer model gives people much more access to the creative process of music,” Tiemann says. “They’re not just financially involved, but also participants in a stronger way than the traditional music industry has really encouraged. There is a new economy waiting to be discovered, new markets waiting to be engaged. We’re very early in addressing this brave new market, and doing so at a time when the record industry’s rhetoric is so wildly against anything new that it makes us look like the crazy ones.”

Trying to sell an idea like Manifold is actually familiar territory for Tiemann, a guru of the open-source-software movement whose career began just as the Internet was coming together in the 1980s. Early in the game, Tiemann was doing a lot of work with open-source software, which is free and set up so that users can easily modify it.

But open-source software seemed like a commercial dead end until Tiemann figured out how to monetize software that you give away: Sell support services, the software equivalent of giving away cell phones and charging monthly user fees. Red Hat, a company specializing in Linux software, acquired Tiemann’s company in the late 1990s, and he moved from Silicon Valley to Red Hat’s home base of North Carolina.

Tiemann started out as Red Hat’s chief technical officer, eventually settling into his current role as the company’s vice president of open-source affairs. That involves a fair amount of punditry and acting the gadfly. Couple that open-source mindset with his lifelong love of music (he first recorded as a 10-year-old member of the Saint Thomas Choir while growing up in New York City), and Tiemann might be just the guy to drag the record and studio industries kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

“People said the idea of giving away software and selling services to new markets would never work,” Tiemann says. “That worked out fine and this can, too. What would it be worth to provide a path to sustainable success in the music industry? I think that’s worth a lot. Strip-mining the low end, selling less and less quality to more and more people — there are limits to that model, and the music industry has done about as much of that as can be done. It’s time to try something new.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>