AHRC Online Conference

Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice As Research

Reflecting on collaborative practice

Firstly, many thanks to Simon for inviting me to participate in this online conference, and thanks also to all the other participants for their stimulating blogs and comments. Last year, Simon and I have collaborated in recording a couple of examples from the classical piano repertoire (Mendelssohn's Song without words Op. 30 No. 6, titled 'Venetian Gondola Song', and the Allemande from J. S. Bach's French Suite No. 5 in E major) and I would like to reflect here on some of the aesthetic-critical issues that emerged during our collaboration, as two distinct practices – classical piano performance and pop music post-production – came into contact. Simon and I came to the project from very different artistic realms, without any shared artistic vision of what the final artistic product might be like; we did not set out to produce pop-sounding classical recordings, but wanted to explore if and how we can enhance or bring out, through various studio techniques, meanings that we perceive in classical pieces of music. Consequently, our collaboration had to start by thrusting ourselves out of our individual comfort zones and suspending, as much as possible, our 'authoritative' artistic voices in our individual areas of expertise so as not to limit creative possibilities from the start.

As some other participants have already noted, since the earliest days of sound recording technology, aesthetics of classical music recording has been based on the principle of documentation, aiming to store and reproduce a truthful 'document' of what transpires in a live performance. While the recorded artefact requires some kind of collaboration between the classical musician(s), the recording engineer and the producer, its creation is nevertheless driven by this single, shared aesthetic, which aspires to render technology transparent by creating the impression of unmediation in the final product. We still assume that listeners want to experience a classical recording as providing access to a 'real' performance that was given at a particular space and time – what Nick Cook has referred to as the ideology of 'the Best Seat in the Hall'.Listeners also want to know, it appears, that this 'real' performance has been artistically authored by the performing musician whose name appears on the cover of the CD, etc.­­– that they are listening to the named artist's – say, Brendel's – interpretation!

During the 20th century, the development of more advanced sound recording technologies that would allow sound capture through microphones, multi-track recording, editing, etc. prepared the material conditions for the emergence of a substantially different recording philosophy: Recording as Artwork. In the classical genre, this philosophy has not been adopted to any significant degree and in a sustained manner by any performing artist except Glenn Gould. In another genre, however, that of popular music, the aesthetics of Recording as Artwork quickly became the norm. In this genre, recordings do not standardly aim to document, or faithfully reproduce, a performance that took place at a given spatio-temporal location. Instead, the performances that listeners hear on the recordings are constructed in the studio. It is perfectly acceptable to regularly transform the recorded sound, and there is no requirement to create the impression of a realistic, unified original spatio-temporal location for the performance: the construction of virtual acoustic spaces that could not exist in reality is quite common. The record producer and musician George Martin described this radically new recording philosophy by noting that 'the recording of a concert performance at the Albert Hall may be the same as a recording of a live stage play but making a record in a studio is much more like making a film'. According to this philosophy, anything is permissible in the studio as long as the result sounds 'good'; and a certain sound manipulation that would be regarded as 'cheating' in the classical genre, for example, might become 'creative' practice.

Now, while it might be possible for pop music producers to be able to tell – in advance and based on their practical expertise – what kind of production techniques will produce results that sound 'good', at least to their ears, this becomes practically impossible when they start producing classical repertoire. The 'inner ear' of the producer is no longer a reliable and adequate guide, not least because there are no established norms for evaluating what might be considered 'good' when pop music production techniques are applied to classical repertoire.Hence, creative collaborative practice, or artistic research,becomes the only means of investigating the musical and aesthetic function and value of this palette of possibilities offered by the recording studio. In my view, the main issue, in practice, is not so much the resistance of the classical music culture to change, but the absence of aesthetic references when it comes to exploiting the creative potentials of the recording studio to produce classical repertoire.

One of the interesting issues that preoccupied me during our collaboration with Simon had to do with authorship – not only as an abstract-critical concept, but also with regard to its phenomenology. Already during the first recording session, it was startling to experience a weakening sense of authoring my own performances, as I had to record parts separately so that they can be manipulated afterwards. This involved not only playing the right and left hands separately, but picking out some musical lines from within the texture. The feeling of authoring a process is, in my view,very much related to the phenomenology of doing – or of first-person agency; and in my pianistic practice, I normally do not learn the left- and right -hand parts separately; and a piece I know well will have acquired a distinct embodied bimanual dynamics.Consequently, taking away the experience of bimanual freedom of movement, and with it the sense of refined kinaesthetic control has the effect of weakening my sense of agency and of authoring the total performance.In addition, it was totally disconcerting to have to play along my own pre-recorded part (for example, playing to the left-hand part), as classical musicians are trained and used to play with someone and not to a recorded track! What I wish to emphasize here is that the research process itself began to generate a new sense of authorship in connection with my affective investment in it, and my experience of artistic creative agency arising from becoming more involved in the artistic choices of post-production. I would argue that in experimental collaborations that cross over genres as in this project, a sense of authorship becomes athoroughly dynamically emergent phenomenon related not only to a sense of ownership of the artistic product, but just as significantly, ownership of the processes behind it – very much related to the workings of artistic research in music.

In the digital age, when listeners have access to a huge variety of reproduced sounds, and have been thoroughly exposed to overtly contradictory or unrealistic spatial and timbral acoustics, the assumption that classical music listeners require spatil-timbral consistency and the impression of unmediation in the recorded presentation of any given piece of classical music remains, in my view, an unsupported – and unresearched – assumption; we cannot prejudge the impact alternative studio productions might have on listeners. Furthermore, as Nick Cook has recently argued there is no reason why the practice of live performance and of studio recording in the classical genre should be based on identical aesthetic principles: it is conceivable for one and the same classical performer to develop independent – and even conflicting – styles of authoring classical pieces of music on the concert stage and in the studio. I believe that it is through artistic research projects exploring these ideas that we will be able to tell if the aesthetics of Recording as Artwork will have a sustainable future in the classical genre.

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  • Sorry to deprive you of what might have been the last word George, but...
    I don't think the intention is specifically to attract new audiences. Simon made clear in a post at the start of the conference that the intention was: “Not to make classical recordings more populist by making them sound more like popular music but to dare to re-contextualise these familiar texts to cast them in a different light.”
    What for me remains an open question is why it might be a good idea to do so if not to render the representation of acoustic music more approachable, engaging, appealing, or otherwise to accord it more closely to the contemporary taste for electronically mediated sound.
    With regard to the point in your previous post about orchestral videos; this type of film footage (a static orchestral concert hall performance) invariably seems oddly constrained and fails to resolve or even confront the conflict between the requirement for film constantly to refocus one's attention, and the requirement of classical music recording, to assume a fixed perspective from the ostensible best-seat-in-the-house. There's no easy solution to this paradox of stylisations without somehow overturning decades of film and or music recording practice and overcoming listeners' and viewers' predispositions. “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”
    [att McCluhan / Father John Culkin]

    Comment last edited on about 3 years ago by Andrew Hallifax
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  • Andrew, the point is, I did not want the last word at all, only it seemed to happen that way! Getting the last word means that one's preconceived notions prevail, and that is not healthy; I would not have learnt anything. Going away from a conference being fully confirmed is rather nasty.

    I am thinking about the balance between aural and visual input, because all experience tells us that the visual input has a force to distract our listening, but in watching human beings performing, it may certainly re-inforce our listening. But most likely we are being subjected to impression management, a term taken from anthropology. In the present conference we have been shown choreographed chamber music (music in motion), and that is an expression of art, just like that which we perceive by ears only. With a proper spatial perspective in the sound we would most likely actually hear the performers moving around if it were audio only. In other fields (aural and visual displays in fighter airplanes) information is coded aurally spatially (via HRTF -- Head Related Transfer Functions), so this feature might even be synthesized from a "normal" stereo pickup. Would it be good and desirable?

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  • I realise it wasn't really your aim to have the last word George. I was only joking – but it's tricky to convey humour in a written blog post. I too thought it a pity that the debate seemed to have georged-out. Happily it seems we were mistaken!
    Andrew Bourbon did in fact record the Shostakovich music in motion performance you mention. I'm not sure whether it's possible for him to make it available online but I'd certainly like to hear it. My impression was that the room in which the conference was held was too dry (lacking in resonance) for stereo imaging to work very well. But in principle, there's no particular reason why a carefully executed stereo recording shouldn't recreate the sense of movement in such a performance. Binaural and ambisonic techniques would also work well bearing in mind the usual caveats.
    Some years ago I heard an HRTF headphone system that Studer had developed as a prototype. It was truly remarkable and sounded for all the world like listening to surround sound speaker system, rather than headphones. I imagine this technology will become more widely available if it isn't already. But though this kind of experience certainly gives a more lifelike impression of real world listening, in most instances, it doesn't substantially alter the listening experience in as much as it still represents a fixed, immutable (best-seat-in-the-house) perspective. Combining HRTF with music and movement recording would certainly make for an interesting experiment though.
    My own (unsubstantiated and unresearched) opinion is that such a development would be unlikely to prove particularly appealing to a wider public that is becoming less engaged by recorded representations of actual acoustic space due to the ubiquity of artificial reverberation, which seems to use abstract spatiality to evoke aspects of interiority or other powerfully affective abstractions.

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