AHRC Online Conference

Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice As Research

a few reflections on recording, modernity and modernism

In seeking contributions, Simon asked that contributors should reflect on 'the sound-worlds used in recorded classical music and how these relate to ideas of modernity, authenticity, commerciality, pedagogy and the musical 'text' both in the traditional repertoire and in the composition and performance of new music'.

Thinking about this in the light of the recent death of the composer, conductor and new music champion Pierre Boulez, I remembered one particular moment in the history of recorded music at which technical innovation – supported by the ideology of modernity as the embodiment and representation of progress – seemed to be supportive of a new way of presenting recorded music. This was the mid-1970s 'false dawn' of surround-sound: quadraphonic recording. Let's start with one of its most significant achievements: the first studio recording of Arnold Schoenberg's epic, post-Wagnerian, orchestral song-cycle Gurrelieder. The work calls for six solo singers, an orchestra of 120 and a chorus of at least 500; it is, therefore, seldom performed. Pierre Boulez and a cast of thousands had played the work at a 1973 Prom, and an almost identical cast met a year later at the Methodist Central Mission in West Ham to record it for CBS.

Producer Paul Myers and engineer Bob Auger set up choir, orchestra and soloists not as with the normal classical recording, if for a concert – with all ahead of and facing the conductor - but for a multi-track recording (16 tracks were used) which would be mixed both for stereo and quad. Myers and Auger later reflected on the process in a very interesting article for the (now defunct) professional recordists' magazine Studio Sound.[1] Here are some of Myers' thoughts on the set-up:

Because this was a recording for quadraphonic surround sound, it was necessary to rearrange the orchestra in such a way that certain sections could be 'folded' round to the back speakers in the final four track remix ... we arranged the orchestra in a semicircle, with the woodwinds on the outside left, the brass on the outside right, the strings and harps in the center, the horns (blowing backwards!) to the rear left, with the timpani and percussion spread across the back of the hall. The choir was placed in the balcony above the orchestra. Our intention was, therefore, to have woodwinds, horns and timpani coming from the rear left speakers, and brass and percussion from the rear right; the orchestra was laid out in such a way that the natural leakage of sound between one section and another would only help to create a fully circular rather than 'cornered' effect … the soloists … were placed behind the conductor, facing the orchestra. This allowed them a certain degree of separation and certainly avoided too much orchestral leakage into their microphones during the larger musical climaxes.[2]

The illustration from the recording's 1975 vinyl release gives some idea of the setup – vocal soloist Gunther Reich is behind conductor Pierre Boulez, who has the wind instruments to his right (where the strings would usually be),while another session photograph shows the harps and percussion behind Boulez:

Myers concluded that 'those listeners who have a chance to compare the stereo record with the quadraphonic will perhaps be surprised by the additional power and volume of the chorus in quad, possibly because it is spread, between back and front, on either wall'.[3]

On the face of it, then, we have here the technologies of modernity supporting the aesthetics of modernism: the seldom-heard work of a radical composer has become more fully audible than ever before, in a commercial recording which was reviewed positively, achieved modest sales success, and has often been reissued.[4]

Well, yes and no.

Yes - in the sense that this was part of a significant attempt in the early 1970s by the major record labels to promote the more 'difficult' music of the twentieth century. Decca issued a 5-disc set of Schoenberg's complete chamber music. Deutsche Grammophon released a 5-disc box set of the complete string quartets of Schoenberg and his pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern – complete with a 150-page book of essays and documents. DG then put out a 4-disc set of orchestral music by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, conducted by none other than Herbert von Karajan (who, it was rumoured, had helped to fund it – at all events his reputation helped to ensure that this set, too, has stayed in the catalogue).[5] It was reported that the Karajan set's production team, led by producer Hans Hirsch, had also used an unusual orchestral layout in order to achieve greater separation for the wind instruments (and with the assumption that a quadraphonic mix would be released at some point), both in the very large orchestra necessary for Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande, op. 5 and Berg's Drei Orchesterstücke op. 6, and in the dry, minimalist soundworld of Webern's Symphony op.21.

And no – whatever the intent of this cultural investment in modernity and modernism, there was no payoff. Both projects failed, at least in the medium term. Whatever the success of a couple of recordings, a grateful public did not queue up buy recordings or to attend concerts of modernist music. Myers' reflection on the success of Gurrelieder – and the relative lack of success for the recording of Schoenberg's later, much colder, opera Moses und Aron, which the same forces recorded during the same sessions – remains apt:

Schoenberg's later music has long struck terror in the hearts of average concertgoers, whose tastes run (and why not?) to more easily distinguishable melodies and readily familiar harmonies. His music may inspire and delight professional musicians, but its austere dissonances dismay audiences and empty box-offices. Only Verklärte Nacht, another early work from the same period as Gurrelieder, has attracted listeners with its instantaneous beauty.

Quadrophonic sound also failed. Very few recordings, alongside Gurrelieder, really used the quadrophonic format to offer an immersive experience, and by and large those that did weren't classical – Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was of course envisioned for multichannel sound; there were some interesting jazz albums on the Impulse! label.[6] But by and large quad just meant main signal at the front, the same plus a bit of reverb at the back. Meanwhile unresolved format incompatabilities led to a very rapid fall-off in major-label support; DG never did release quadraphonic recordings, and EMI stopped; the early-1970s classical recordings released in the various formats are oddities sought after by collectors, as are the original decoders by JVC et al.The new music which might have been best served by quad – Stockhausen's tape pieces for example – remained available in stereo only.

What has changed? Forty years on, there is arguably a somewhat larger audience for new classical music, though Arnold Schoenberg's music still doesn't headline popular concerts. The earnest modernism evangelised by Boulez among others has been diluted: few composers pursue the post-Webernian austerity that seemed the norm in the 1960s, and the Warp-label end of techno has as much right to be considered avant-garde as anything in the classical concert hall (as the London Sinfonietta realised in its collaborations with the label's artists Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, in 2006).[7] Meanwhile classical recordings are often released in quad's technological successor, SACD, though this has to compete with various download formats which are either free, cheap and cheerful, or promise high fidelity at a price; and few seem to offer the immersive experience which Myers' Gurrelieder seemed to deliver. Which in a way is why this conference and its project are important interventions.

[1] The article appeared in Studio Sound in June 1975. It is reprinted here http://www.stereosociety.com/Gurrelieder.shtml [2] ibid [3] ibid [4] the original stereo release was CBS 78264 [5] Schoenberg, Complete Works for Chamber Ensemble, London Sinfonietta conducted by David Atherton: Decca SXLK 6660-4 1974; Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, The String Quartets, Lasalle Quartet: Deutsche Grammophon 2720 029, 1971; Schoenberg, Berg, Webern Orchestral Music, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan: Deutsche Grammophon 2711014, 1974 [6] try the excellent Pharoah Sanders, Love in Us All, Impulse! ASD 9280 (1974) [7] Warp Works and Twentieth-Century Masters, The London Sinfonietta et al, Sony Classical 2006


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