A Serene Oasis for Making Music


This article is part of our Design special section about water as a source of creativity.


The first things you notice upon entering Long Pond Studio are the glass windows and doors. They’re huge — the doors are eight-feet square — and frame pastoral scenes of grass, trees and water. Picture windows looking onto a pond would be merely pretty in a house. But in this setting — a recording studio in the countryside near Hudson, N.Y. — they’re startling.

That’s because recording studios more typically resemble gambling dens; they are dark, airless spaces where light and a view to the outside world would distract from the high-stakes act of music making. Large glass surfaces are also a no-no, because they refract sound waves and possibly allow outdoor noise to leak in.

But Long Pond Studio, which belongs to the musician Aaron Dessner, a founding member of the rock band the National and an in-demand record producer, has a very residential quality, with Scandinavian and Japanese design features, an inviting kitchen and even a pair of upstairs bedrooms.

Indeed, the focus on architecture and design has resulted in a building that is conducive to making music not because it’s acoustically correct, but because it evokes feelings of clarity and serenity.

Finished in 2016, Long Pond has already acquired a certain fame within music circles. The first album to be recorded inside was the National’s “Sleep Well Beast,” which won the Grammy for best alternative music album in 2018. Its cover features a black-and-white photograph of the building taken at night: a side profile of a barnlike structure clad in cedar, with a steeply pitched metal roof. A rectangular window offers a lighted glimpse of the musicians working inside. The same enigmatic image appeared on the band’s tour T-shirts.

The studio also served as the set for Taylor Swift’s documentary “Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions.” Ms. Swift, Mr. Dessner and the producer Jack Antonoff collaborated on her “Folklore” album remotely during the pandemic, and, in the film — produced and directed by Ms. Swift — the musicians play its songs together for the first time in stripped-down fashion.

It is the rare recording studio that becomes a famous building, and even then, the reputation is due principally to the music made there, not the architecture. But Long Pond, with its wood interior filled with guitars and pianos and its deck festooned with string lights, appears in the film as a rustic Shangri-la.

Erlend Neumann, a Hudson Valley-based architectural designer who founded the firm To Form, led the studio’s design, which he said grew from a modest idea and budget.

For many years, Mr. Dessner, 48, lived in Brooklyn, first recording in his attic and then in a teeny garage studio. “There wasn’t any real light or air in there — you would need to step outside,” Mr. Dessner said by phone.

He and his family eventually moved from the city to the Hudson Valley to lead a more relaxed life. He heard about Mr. Neumann because he had designed a house for another parent at Mr. Dessner’s child’s school.

One summer day in 2015, Mr. Neumann and Mr. Dessner walked the property, which sits on 10 sloping acres in the shadow of the Catskill Mountains and includes a finger-shaped pond and a farmhouse dating to 1791 (now Mr. Dessner’s main residence).

Mr. Neumann, 49, a strapping, bearded man who favors canvas pants and chamois work shirts, is also a sculptor. He’d never before designed a recording studio. But during college, he spent five months volunteering on a project to restore the Goetheanum, a concrete spiritual center in Switzerland designed by the architect and educator Rudolf Steiner, an experience that saw Mr. Neumann welding, chiseling and carving with little practice. Ever since, he said, he’s been unafraid to try new things.

“I like to tell the client, ‘Don’t tell me what you want. Tell me why you want it,’” he said, leading a tour of Long Pond on a recent afternoon. “Why is it special being here? What will make that better? I’ll choose the orientation by listening to why.”

Mr. Dessner’s directives — he wanted “a creative oasis where you would feel disarmed, you could feel vulnerable, you could be relaxed” — led Mr. Neumann to site the studio downhill from the house, at the edge of the pond.

“The land creates this oasis for the band,” Mr. Neumann said. “Having this space allowed that communal thing.”

Given a tight budget, Mr. Neumann used industrial materials like cement floors and painted joists rather than special finishes. A small, derelict 1980s pole barn on the property was torn down and its rafters reused for the stair treads and siding for the walls in the living quarters. The barn’s metal roof, patinated with age, became siding on part of the exterior.

Long Pond is 1,800 square feet total and divided by a wall, with the large, open recording room with its cathedral-like ceiling on one side and the cozier living area on the other. What is quickly apparent, aside from those big views, is the lack of an old-school, glass-boxed “control room,” as in many recording studios. Mr. Dessner wanted an open-concept atmosphere for artists to work together without barriers.

Other thoughtful design elements by Mr. Neumann help to nurture the creative flow. For example, there is no direct view line from the recording room of Long Pond to Mr. Dessner’s house, separating the work space from domestic life. The unattractive acoustical panels typically affixed to the walls of recording studios were replaced with an undulating cedar pattern inspired by a similar design in Mr. Dessner’s Brooklyn studio. And cedar-clad sound panels on wheels similarly fit with the vibe of the room and allow for more focused control of the sound.

Long Pond breaks many of the conventions of sound engineering. “No acoustician was excited by having 8-foot-by-8-foot glass doors in here,” Mr. Neumann said, adding that for the most part, he favored form over function, with Mr. Dessner’s approval.

“We wanted this feeling,” Mr. Neumann said, lifting his arms up high as if in an ecstatic church ritual. If an acoustical ceiling cloud had been hung over the recording room, as an acoustician suggested, “that feeling would be gone.”

The building of Long Pond has corresponded with a creatively fertile period for Mr. Dessner. A song he wrote with Ms. Swift, “Cardigan,” became a No. 1 hit, and he teamed with Justin Vernon, the founder of the band Bon Iver, to form the indie folk group Big Red Machine. He also welcomed Gracie Abrams to Long Pond, producing and co-writing her 2023 debut album, “Good Riddance.” And he continues to record and tour with the National.

“Having this space has definitely fueled my creativity,” Mr. Dessner said. “I feel almost like the studio is an instrument itself. It’s a place I want to be in.” (He is not the only one inspired by the setting. Many artists come to record, he said, and they never leave the property while they are working.)

For Mr. Neumann, Long Pond’s renown has led to an unexpected career collaborating with musicians on home studios, including for the Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist and producer Rob Moose on Orcas Island in Washington State. He has also been commissioned by Mr. Dessner to make large sculpture installations for several music festivals.

Mr. Neumann stepped outside and led a visitor down a long grass field to the far end of the pond. Long Pond Studio was silhouetted in the late afternoon light. Nearby was the firepit circle that was the setting for creative discussions between Ms. Swift, Mr. Dessner and Mr. Antonoff in the documentary.

“I know this building has its fame due to the people that worked here,” Mr. Neumann said. “But also, there’s something about this building. Aaron put it on the album cover. And then Taylor Swift doing the film here. It becomes a character.”

He added, without a trace of ego, “And it’s because of the architecture. Architecture subconsciously affects people. It’s going to engender people to stay here longer and create more.”



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