Behind the Sea

The making of Ocean Dreaming Ocean, Hans Christian’s Grammy-nominated album

The newly Grammy-nominated album Ocean Dreaming Ocean was no typical project for Sturgeon Bay musician and producer Hans Christian.

“It was a collaboration with someone who passed away two years ago,” Christian said.

That someone was David Darling, an acclaimed cellist and composer who Christian had never met, but whose work he had listened to for around 40 years. 

About a year after Darling died in early 2021, his longtime producer, Mickey Houlihan, called Christian, saying he had raw tracks by Darling that he didn’t want to delete, but wasn’t sure what to do with. He asked if Christian wanted to take a look and see if he could do something with them. Christian’s reply was an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ so Houlihan started sending the tracks over one at a time. 

Ocean Dreaming Ocean. Submitted.

Christian soon learned just how raw the tracks really were. Some were compositional ideas Darling had sat down to record, but the majority were long, free-form recording sessions in which Darling would “just play and play and play.”

“Having played cello for over 50 years myself, I know what he was doing,” Christian said. “He was pushing himself into a zone where he wasn’t thinking anymore, where it [the music] was free-flowing.”

As Christian listened, he kept an ear out for “building blocks” – good ideas that just needed to be developed or expanded. Then he added his own cello music.

By the time it was finished, most of the album consisted of cello, either by Christian or Darling. Other instruments – including trumpet by the late jazz musician Ron Miles, and piano and vocals by Darling – supplement the work, which is rounded out by morsels of waterphone and whale song. Christian titled the project Ocean Dreaming Ocean after a Darling track by the same name, thinking of himself and the late musician as the two titular oceans.

Though he had never created an album in this way before, Christian had plenty of inspiration to draw from during the process, as well as a level of creative freedom that’s not possible with every collaboration.

“It’s not like I had to turn it into a David Darling record,” Christian said. “It was more like I wanted to honor him, and not violate his work with cheesy decisions or poor playing.” 

And honor him he did. On the morning of Nov. 10, a list of nominees for the 66th annual Grammy Awards was published online after record labels and members of the Recording Academy submitted albums to be considered for awards this summer.

Not long after the nominee list went live, Christian started receiving a downpour of texts congratulating him on his nomination. 

“I went online right away to double-check and make sure it was real,”  Christian said.

It was. Ocean Dreaming Ocean had been selected out of a pool of around 175 other entries in the category Best New Age, Ambient, or Chant Album.

That selection was made during the first of two rounds of voting, which took place Oct. 11-20 and resulted in five nominees for each of the 91 Grammys categories. The second and final round of voting – the one that determines the winning entries – will be held Dec. 14 – Jan. 4, 2024. 

Winners of the most popular Grammy categories, like Album of the Year and Best New Artist, will be televised on Feb. 4, 2024 in Los Angeles, California; winners of other categories will be announced at a ceremony, which Christian hopes to attend, at the same location earlier in the day. 

Though Christian has spent decades making music, he considers Ocean Dreaming Ocean a highlight of his lengthy career. Part of why he holds it in such high regard is the connection he felt between himself and Darling, whose recordings revealed a vulnerability Christian could relate to.

“David was a supremely gifted musician, but there was also a tragic side to him,” Christian said. “Many musicians who are so gifted are also dysfunctional in some ways. I heard that in the music. I could hear the price he was paying by listening to the raw material. As a fellow cellist, I’ve had my share of that.”