Phil Hall, a former movie theatre on Dominion Rd, is an old curiosity shop of music stands and microphones. The lights are dimmed and in the middle of the chaos two musicians are artfully lit, a 1960s jazz album cover brought to life. Clearly, Andrew Beer and Sarah Watkins are setting a mood.
"Oh, no," says Beer, smiling shyly. "The lights were humming so we turned them off." Beer gives a lot of shy smiles but put a violin in his hand and he is a man transformed, totally in command, as befits the concertmaster of Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.
He and pianist Watkins are recording what will become 11 Frames, a selection of duos by New Zealand composers, several of them commissioned for this album, which is released on Rattle Records this week.
"The project was initially my idea but it was just a general concept that we'd play all New Zealand duos," says Beer. "Sarah loved it and we started researching existing pieces and who we could commission; we made all the choices together. I think it was less than a week after I mentioned the idea that we met with Steve Garden."
Garden is behind the recording desk, where he is assisted by John Kim. Next to them in the gloom sit producer Kenneth Young and composer Josiah Carr. Garden is an undersung hero of New Zealand music.
A superb sound engineer, he was for many years drummer-for-hire to the likes of Sharon O'Neill. In 1991 Garden started Rattle, inspired equally by the austere German classical/jazz/world music label ECM and the number-eight-wire single-minded focus of Flying Nun.
Rattle's albums have earnt almost as many prizes as they have sales. Last year all three NZ Music Awards classical nominees were Rattle releases; this year every jazz nominee was. Few other labels or label bosses are adventurous enough to take a punt on an album of rarely heard or ink-wet-new Kiwi music.
Today, Beer and Watkins are recording one of the newest pieces, a commission from up-and-comer Carr. The last time I interviewed Carr, he had the thousand-yard stare of a man who had accepted a National Youth Orchestra commission to write a large orchestral work, the delivery date of which coincided with the final submission for his master's degree in composition. He is perkier today, listening intently to Beer and Watkins bring his new piece, Dance, to life.
Carr says he wanted to write something beautiful and he has. Dance is a study in light and dark, Beer's crystalline violin contrasted against Watkins's dense chords. A sprightly middle section skips between time signatures, before settling again into gentle reflection. It's fascinating to hear the piece emerge as the musicians chamfer the rough edges, and the tension between the instruments dissolves into the bright shimmer Carr was aiming for.
The composer proclaims himself satisfied.
"I knew the piece was in good hands and it was nice to deal with musicians who don't have egos and are relaxed and there to make music," Carr says, before rejoining the others for a post-session debrief.
When I return the following afternoon, Carr is absent and the team is about to start work on Gareth Farr's Unforeseen Evolutions. Watkins slips past looking shattered. Unforeseen Evolutions' piano part is taxing, a reminder, perhaps, that Farr is a percussionist, not a keyboardist. Additionally, Watkins says she finds recording to be draining and playing with other people is different to recording solo.
"You both have to be on at the same time," she says. "And you want to be in the moment but still listening with a critical ear."
Everyone's listening with a critical ear, even me. An unanticipated side effect of witnessing a recording session is that I find myself listening for accuracy, not musicality; Watkins agrees that's a danger. Most critical of all is Kenneth Young, though he's thoroughly charming about it.
"Am I mistaken or did something go wrong in the last bar?" Young asks, which is his diplomatic way of saying, "Play it again".
Producer, composer, conductor, university lecturer and, for 25 years, principal tuba of the NZSO, Young is blessed with two of the best ears in the business. Throughout he is meticulous, calm and encouraging.
"Gee that was good," he says, almost under his breath, before bringing the session to a close with a round of applause.
11 Frames by Andrew Beer and Sarah Watkins is released is released Friday, October 25 on Rattle