SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

New York City has its share of great performance spaces where musicians can also record - Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall. But making an album there is out of reach for most performers. That's why a group of recent New York University graduates are trying to create new studios out of very old spaces. They're making live recordings of musicians in aging and abandoned buildings around the city - sometimes in the middle of the night.

NPR's Robert Smith followed along as they took over an empty Catholic schoolhouse in Brooklyn.

ROBERT SMITH: It's been years since any real students have been inside St. Cecelia's School, but the kids calling themselves Mason Jar Music got the keys from the parish. And they led a small chamber orchestra and a rock band into a dusty classroom.

Mr. DAN KNOBLER: It sounded real nice when we walked in and just sort of said some words. I was worried we were going to sort of oversaturate it with instruments, having like, a 12-piece ensemble.

SMITH: Because anyone who's been in a classroom with 30 kids knows the way the sound bounces off the walls. I mean, this is not exactly your pristine recording studio.

Mr. KNOBLER: No, but it's got a certain charm to it.

SMITH: Dan Knobler and his fellow music program graduates have been scouring the city for spaces that have that certain charm. They've recorded in an old church in the middle of the night, an abandoned hotel lobby in downtown Manhattan. They bring in volunteer musicians, recording equipment, cameras, and they see what happens.

(Soundbite of instruments warming up)

SMITH: But what might seem easy in a studio becomes a challenge out here. They had to hunt through the old school building for enough adult chairs for the chamber orchestra. And the featured artists for this session are warming up in a stairwell.

(Soundbite of instruments warming up)

SMITH: The Wood Brothers, Chris and Oliver Wood, played Carnegie Hall the night before - Carnegie Hall. And now the next morning, they're tuning up next to a pile of old desks.

Mr. CHRIS WOOD (Musician): Yeah. Now, that's what happens you go from a, like, yucky club to, yeah, to Carnegie Hall and then right back to the yucky, sticky, beer-filled...

Mr. OLIVER WOOD (Musician): You got to be humbled often.

SMITH: The Wood Brothers have already made it in the music industry. They have albums, they play high-end clubs and festivals. Chris Wood was part of the group Medeski Martin and Wood.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: Then they got a call from this group of young musicians they'd never heard of. The guy said, hey, when you're next in New York, we have an old building we'd like you to play in. And Oliver Wood thought, I don't know, why not?

Mr. O. WOOD: It's kind of exciting and interesting 'cause we're sort of stuck in our little world of how we create these songs and live with them, and it's kind of cool to see how someone else would interpret them.

SMITH: Dan Knobler, from Mason Jar Music, says that the abandoned building angle helps the team stand out from everyone else trying to hustle their way into the music industry.

Mr. KNOBLER: You know, the Wood Brothers, they all have a recording studio to go to make their record, but they don't necessarily have a team of people who are just chomping at the bit to create something like this. And I think it is. It's sort of coming through the side door, but that's the door that is open to us.

SMITH: The Mason Jar Music team picked a Wood Brothers song they felt would reflect the nostalgia of school days. "Blue and Green," it's called.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue and Green")

SMITH: Then they took the spare, folky music and they added horns and strings.

Unidentified Man: One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: It's funny to see a small orchestra, a rock band, and a bunch of recording nerds squeezed into a tiny classroom. The Wood Brothers sit on the teacher's desk, and they goof around.

Mr. O. WOOD: Lunch today is crappy pizza and crappy canned vegetables.

SMITH: Then they get down to business, taking the song over and over again.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: It's hard to say how it would have sounded different in a studio, but there is a feeling here of sneaking into the space and goofing around, of getting away with something. And in a sense, the Mason Jar Music guys are. They're in the music business now. Of course, they aren't making any money. The project's supported by volunteers and donations from online fundraising websites like Kickstarter. But they hope the videos and recordings will become a calling card.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KNOBLER: To be at the point right now where we can sort of just send an email to artists that we admire and have them write back and be like wow, this is great; we'd love to work with you, is pretty cool for us.

SMITH: And they do have their sights set on bigger spaces: abandoned subway stations, old banks, the Museum of Natural History - anyplace that sounds good and will let them sneak in for the night.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of song, "Blue and Green")

STAMBERG: You can see a video of the Wood Brothers playing in that classroom at NPRMusic.org.

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