A peaceful landscape in rural Montana is hardly the backdrop you’d expect for a state-of-the-art recording studio.
But near the small town of Fishtail, the Tippet Rise Arts Center is where the JACK Quartet created its musical piece “Lines Made By Walking,” which has been nominated for a Grammy in the Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance category.
And this New York-based quartet recording in Montana got some help with that Grammy nomination from a former Powell resident.
Located on a 12,000-acre working cattle and sheep ranch in southern Montana, Tippet Rise Art Center was founded by Cathy and Peter Halstead, artists and philanthropists who have created a space for both large-form modern art pieces as well as intimate music performances.
“Our concert hall, which is where we do all the recordings, is fantastic, acoustically speaking, so it really helps keep that bar up there,” said Monte Nickles, the Center’s on-site recording engineer.
Nickles is a graduate of Powell High School and a product of the Music Tech program at Northwest College.
Working With World-Class Musicians
Nickles told Cowboy State Daily that opportunities to work regularly with high-caliber musicians in the northern Rocky Mountain West are not common.
“I think there are some local jobs in radio broadcast and TV broadcast and stuff like that,” he said, “but to just work with world class musicians on a musical level out here is very rare.”
Nickles has been the recording engineer at Tippet Rise for the last four years.
He said composer John Luther Adams was commissioned by Tippet Rise Arts Center to create the Grammy-nominated work “Lines Made By Walking,” performed by the JACK String Quartet.
“It world premiered here in the concert season of 2019, and we had about five days to record it all,” said Nickles. “And the JACK String Quartet is kind of John’s exclusive string quartet.”
The New York Times has labeled the group “the nation’s most important quartet,” and officials at Tippet Rise note that the JACK Quartet is one of the most acclaimed, renowned and respected groups performing today.
Comprised of two violinists, a viola player and a cellist, the musicians operate as a nonprofit organization, dedicated to the performance, commissioning and appreciation of new string quartet music.
“They are on a whole different level,” Nickels said. “They are so good, their intonation is insane. And John (Luther Adams) really takes that and pushes it and writes really hard, challenging music. And they pull it off amazing.
“It’s incredible to see live, and when they’re recording, they’re on it the whole time, no matter what,” he continued. “And it’s really fascinating to be a part of that, to get to see musicians work at that level.”
Middle Of Nowhere
Tippet Rise is located in a rural area of Montana, over one and one-half hours away from the nearest airport in Billings. Nickles pointed out that one of the benefits of recording at Tippet Rise is the uniqueness of the location.
“When you go to a traditional studio, you’re under a lot of pressure to move really quickly because you’re usually paying by the hour for the studio time, for the engineer’s time, for the producer’s time, and it costs a lot of money,” Nickles said. “But we really like to enjoy the time it takes to make something, and slow it down so that people can really live in the artistic moment throughout the whole process. And the results always, always pay off.”
The remoteness of the Arts Center adds a new dimension to a performance, Nickles said, because that time pressure is off, which allows creativity to flow.
“We want them to slow down, enjoy the moment and really have this perfect space to kind of delve into the art of whatever it is they’re creating,” he said. “And part of that is slowing down and taking the time to be here, and be in the quiet, and be in nature and surrounded by the Beartooth mountains and all this amazing landscape.
“It can feel sort of isolated but at the same time, not,” Nickles continued, “because we’re here to help elevate their artistic ability as high as possible, within this kind of ecosphere of art and nature.”
Nickle’s experience recording the JACK Quartet was just one of around 30 projects he worked on in 2019 but the only one he’s recorded that has received this kind of national attention. However, competition for the Grammy award is tough. Other entries in the same category include a performance by acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Nickles and the JACK Quartet will be waiting to find out if “Lines Made By Walking” wins the coveted prize when the 2022 Grammy Award winners are announced on April 3rd.