AHRC Online Conference

Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice As Research

Reflections on 'About CMHP'

First of all, I'd like to express my delight at being invited to take part in this conference. I very much appreciate what is for me a rare opportunity to discuss the nature of recording practices and how they might be developed. 

I've been pondering the ideas presented on the 'About the Project' page on this site, which outlines CMHP's aims and poses some challenging questions. Contrasting the apparent conservatism of classical music productions with the "creative contemporary interpretations" of Shakespeare plays proved to be a provocative fillip for me at least. It set me wondering whether this is indeed a fair comparison; whether Shakespeare's plays really are analogous to classical music performance. 

If the theatre is equivalent to the concert hall, with the players representing the musicians, Shakespeare's text, like the written score, and the drama itself akin to the musical performance; scenography is left without any obvious parallel, and it is this, above all, that is most often modernised. I'm also unsure of the extent to which the score is really analogous to the written drama. Musical composition and performance are thoroughly interdependent, while the dramatist's written text surely has a literary existence that extends beyond the theatre. It seems to me unlikely, for example, that even an exponent of the rarefied skill of internally auralising a score would derive satisfaction from the practice comparable to the pleasure an typical reader gets from their solitary reading of a play. 

If theatre has a parallel in the musical world then it's in opera; a genre that has indeed updated its staging and scenography in much the same way as theatre – even to the extent of incorporating multi-media. Peter Seller's staging of Tristan und Isolde in which Bill Viola's film dominates the stage and performers, is an excellent example. 

Classical music performance certainly seems, at first glance, to be a conservative stalwart. But as our recorded heritage makes clear, performance today is actually very different from how it was 100 or even 50 years ago. Even instrument design and, therefore, the sound of acoustic instruments and orchestras has evolved. It's easy to overlook or disregard such changes simply because they are comparatively subtle and gradual in comparison to the frantic rate of technological change that we tend these days to regard as the norm. 

A large part of the power of acoustic music performance lies in the fact that it is just that – acoustic. The modern symphony orchestra has grown to its current size, in part, to exploit the viscerally affective power of such a large body of musicians. This is not something that's possible to leaven or improve upon by electronic means. The introduction of recorded or amplified sound immediately evokes another mode of mediated listening. Anyone who has tried to balance acoustic and electronic sound together will be aware of their inherent incompatibility. They are of a different order; a different disposition to one another. 

That classical music recording is conservative in its aims is harder to refute, though I believe the objective has changed significantly throughout the industry's history. When one considers that virtually all of the aspects of film-making set out on the 'About the Project' page – editing, multiple takes, camera angles, (surely comparable to microphone angles) and special effects (eg artificial reverb) – do in fact find their direct counterpart in classical music production, the apparent distinction between the two art forms suddenly seems less stark. 

The aims of the two arts are rather different in other ways too. Film – at least the kind of film that relies for its impact on CGI and special effects – is specifically conceived to be popular: Indeed, ever larger audiences are necessary to underwrite the exponential cost of productions. What's more, the power differential between the big Hollywood studios and actors, writers and other artists is widely acknowledged. Classical musicians, on the other hand, understandably fearful that commercial success comes only at the cost of artistic integrity, have dallied with, but never fully embraced this model.

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  • Hello again, Andrew.
    No, we do not disagree, after the terminology was cleared up. I also agree with the graduated range of modes of listening.

    There is no doubt that it is the end user listening experience that the producer tries to control. I have an example: when the former Danish Broadcasting house was built 1936-40 it was known that much classical music listening in homes took place in heavily carpeted sitting rooms. Furthermore, it was discovered that the beautiful concert hall had a decay time that was much too small (and partly for the same reasons the instruments could not hear each other very well, but that belongs to a different story). For these reasons all live transmissions were mixed, whereupon the signal split and one part passed through an echo chamber (concrete corridor with Telefunken loudspeaker and microphone) and recombined before transmission. All in order to give the listener a sense of space. This practice continued certainly until ca. 1980.

    But the ear is so important to our survival that it will adjust to the most abysmal sound sources and, as you say, quickly forgets what it sounded like. That is why certainly I as a professional listener have to take breaks in e.g. experimenting with various narrowband EQs, because I lose the ability to distinguish after a while. The worst you can do to your listening (not hearing) is to steal the ambience. Somewhere I have an interview from a noisy lobby where the noisegating is so heavy that you only perceive ambience during the spoken syllables. That really keeps your hearing processor on its toes!

    I am presently reading your interesting invited paper, and I hope that I can comment before the conference runs out.

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