AHRC Online Conference

Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice As Research

ambience on recordings

Ambience has been a powerful interpretive tool in recorded presentations of musical texts. Many of Arturo Toscanini's recordings, even those done at about the same time RCA made excellent early stereo tapes in Chicago and Boston, still puzzle listeners with their dryness. We know that Toscanini emphasized textural clarity above all else, and after the introduction of tape insisted that instrumental lines — on occasion, even individual notes — be dubbed in if the orchestral textures weren't as clear as they were in his inner ear. Abetting that impression was NBC's infamously claustrophobic Studio 8H, originally designed for spoken radio productions. The RCA records didn't present music resounding in a particular space so much as — to use Decca producer John Culshaw's description of other productions of the time — a "transcription of the notes" into acoustic terms. The description Walter Toscanini gave of his father's recording philosophy recalls Shakespeare scholar W.W. Greg's substantive-accidental dichotomy, perhaps no big surprise considering the conductor and the textual critic belonged to the same generation. Walter claimed that his father "liked the unresounding acoustics of Studio 8H in which the purity of orchestral tone was not marred by hall reverberations and echoes." But RCA deserves part of the blame for the unflattering sound:some have questioned just how well their commercial releases represented Studio 8H, since the only "sweet spot" in the hall was just above and behind the conductor's head and the recording crew was too frightened of the maestro to explore such acoustic issues thoroughly.

But all this talk of aural aesthetics ignores the fact that Toscanini was a practical man working in an especially impractical profession.He owed his single-minded emphasis of the substantive over the accidental to his early life in the trenches — namely, his work in the 1890s with undisciplined and provincial Italian ensembles, where getting people to play clearly and together must have taken priority over sonic beauty. The advent of the recorded acoustic mise-en-scène was thus a generational matter, a sensibility that followed standardization of instrument construction and playing styles, and the modern notion that mechanical reproduction could turn out art as well as documentation. Whatever its origin, Toscanini's basic disinterest in "sound for sound's sake" was aided and abetted by Studio 8H, according to Mortimer H. Frank. In this respect, we could contrast Toscanini with his slightly younger colleagues Leopold Stokowski and Serge Koussevitsky, both of whom reorchestrated some scores for sonic effect. "Toscanini might alter a bowing to modify timbre or redistribute voices to enhance clarity," Frank writes, "but such changes were founded on a structural or expressive point that transcended sound for its own sake." By the same token, Studio 8H ruthlessly exposed the kind of ensemble shortcomings that Toscanini had once battled in his home country. Critic Olin Downes described how 8H gave the impression that "you listened to each instrument under a microscope" and that it thereby demanded that "the orchestra must be a particularly good one, exceptionally accurate."

Such platonic divisions between musical sound and musical acoustics soon disappeared, especially with the arrival of stereo techniques and virtuoso conductors who were not only record-savvy, but also good businessmen who understood the commercial potential of recording.Musicians take the acoustic into account both in concert and during recording, of course. But a few luminaries, Herbert von Karajan and Stokowski among them — men who stood in front of great orchestras while only in their 20s — consciously manipulated the sense of ambience while recording for musical as well as acoustic effect. For them, ambience became a substantive; or, to borrow D.F. McKenzie's statement on "the non-verbal elements of… typographic notations," Karajan and Stokowski used ambience as "an expressive function in conveying meaning."

Karajan would likely claim ambience as a "substantive" part of the recorded performance in a way that it is not in concert. Like Stokowski, he had such firmly defined conceptions of musical sound that on records he bent any sense of acoustic space to the music-making, and not vice-versa. Starting in autumn 1973, he recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic in the Philharmonie — Hans Scharoun's hall-in-the-round, a fairly radical design for its completion date of 1963. The increasingly dry sound of these Philharmonie records led many record critics to complain about the acoustic, when in fact some of the orchestra's tapings in this hall — usually with other conductors and record labels other than Deutsche Grammophon — enjoyed a wetter ambience. We can only conclude that Karajan, perhaps with input from his producers, made the conscious decision to control acoustic impressions for playback at home, as dictated by the music being played. Occasionally — in exceptions that proved the rule — Karajan made a record in the Philharmonie that ended up sounding just as "wet" as if it had been made in their earlier recording location, the reverberant Jesus-Christus-Kirche in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem. One such is the Philharmonie recording of the Fountains of Rome and Pines of Rome, where Respighi's luxurious and coloristic — perhaps "accidental-ridden"? — orchestration must have encouraged a pullback of the microphones.

Karajan devoted part of his essay "Technische Musikwiedergabe" — written in 1974, shortly after he and the Berliners changed recording location — to a rather enigmatic concept that he called Raumgefühl. Raumgefühl might be translated as "sense of space," "feeling of space," or "feeling for a space." In invoking a form of Gefühl, Karajan stressed sensibility over science, one's personal response to the sound of a space. He thereby used it in specific contradistinction to the more mainstream and institutional word "acoustic." So a Raumgefühl is — unlike an acoustic — subjective and immeasurable; a comparable linguistic term, Sprachgefühl, refers to the native speaker's internalized knowledge of what is right in an expression and what is not. One might expect an internationally known conductor to limit himself to concert halls when discussing sonics, but Karajan introduces a startling array of sound-spaces. At one point he lists four unusual electro-acoustic situations and describes their distinct Raumgefühle in affective terms :a voice heard in a resonant catacomb seems "strange and ghostly"; the same voice in a clothes closet will sound "like someone suffocating"; heard over a walkie-talkie with the high frequencies removed, it will become "incomprehensible noise"; hearing someone over a high-quality stereophonic telephone, "we experience the voice and the actual person with a warmth and nearness that seem almost physical." Karajan's Raumgefühl is not ambiance, which would be Umwelt or Umgebung. It might relate conceptually to Akustik, but is not synonymous with it nor with the interior of any particular building:he mentions acoustics in the essay, but declares it only one among many important factors and suggests he is less interested in such institutional and rationalized ideas than he is in an individual, subjective response to sound. The essential and fundamental acoustic, in short, is the one formed within the individual listener's ear and brain:

"Very important in a hall is the Raumgefühl it lends to the music.This depends greatly on the reverberation time.But many other factors have to be involved before the wonderful impression arrives of the music supporting itself [daß die Musik sich selbst trägt], that the space is boundless and that for instance a wind solo seems not two meters distant but, embedded in a warm string sonority, as if coming from infinity."

Thus Karajan, but the master of the recording as "determinant of meaning" was of course Glenn Gould. Like Karajan, Gould made drier and drier-sounding recordings as the years went by — so determinedly arid and close that they seem to propagandize against sonic causes.Given his general need for control and his dislike for surprise, which even led him to script his own interviews, one might think Gould resisted ambiance as an encroachment on his own domain as musical organizationist. He wrote little about acoustics per se, though in his 1966 essay "The Prospects of Recording" he did invoke a "cathedral of the symphony" and hypothesized a link between quasi-religious conceptions of absolute music and classical music lovers' interest in "acoustic splendor." But that was past practice, in Gould's view, a practice we have largely left behind "as our dependence upon [music] has increased."That increasing dependence has made it necessary for us not only to secularize music but also to domesticate it: "The more intimate terms of our experience with recordings have since suggested to us an acoustic with a direct and impartial presence, one with which we can live in our homes on rather casual terms."In a letter he wrote five years later, Gould displays a more obviously substantivist philosophy as he refers to "the relatively close-up, highly analytical sound which has been the hallmark of our recording at CBS and which reflects, not only my own predilection in regard to piano pick-up but, more significantly, a continuing persuasion as to the validity of the recording experience as a manifestation divorced from concert practice."

This shows a Toscaninian anxiety over ambiance as an uncontrolled variable. Further details of Gould's acoustic apprehensions emerge in a short diatribe against Manhattan Center that he slipped into his 1978 essay "Stokowski in Six Scenes."Manhattan Center became a favorite recording locale for CBS Records in the 1950s and 1960s.But Gould scarcely hid his sarcasm when he attributed "only one natural blessing" to the place, "a generous decay which adds ambient interest to music that is neither contrapuntally complex nor intellectually challenging." Strictly differentiating between music as conceived and music as sounded, Gould here declares himself a formalist and platonist. He sees acoustics as accidentals:acoustic luxury, an accessory to music as a craft of substantives, might help compensate for compositional poverty. Any other apologies for such an ample space, and the demands it placed on musicians, he dismissed as so much romanticist mumbo-jumbo: "One's natural tendency while playing there, I felt, was to surrender to the Center's 'wet' sound and settle for a diffused and generalized approximation of ensemble — sometimes referred to in jacket notes as 'sweep and grandeur.' I had, in fact, vowed never to work there again…"

Gould's distaste for "sweep and grandeur" seems part and parcel of his disinterest in the "accidentals" of musical sound — as does his humming and singing while playing, making light of the quirks to his pianos, listening to and approving his final edited tapes over the telephone, apathy toward the authentic instruments question and, not least, emphasizing motivics over timbre and instrumentation in his own compositions. But in 1977 Gould made something of a reversal when he turned acoustics to interpretive use in his record of Sibelius's Op.67 Sonatinas and Kyllikki Op.41.Different ranks of microphones, ranging from close up to 40 feet away from the instrument, were cued in and out to reflect textural and harmonic changes in the scores.The published record was so avant-garde in this shifting aural perspective that producer Andrew Kazdin wrote a kind of caveat auditor on the sleeve, sheepishly trumpeting a technique of "acoustic choreography." In his jacket note, presumably written with Gould's consent and perhaps even his encouragement, Kazdin justified this practice by appealing to acoustic authenticity:"the acoustic ambiance must be 'right' for the music," he writes. "Debussy seems to require a more reverberant surrounding than Bach. Rachmaninov should be bathed in more 'grandeur' than Scarlatti." By bringing this statement in line with Gould's remark about Manhattan Center, we would have to conclude that in requiring a healthy acoustic Debussy and Rachmaninoff betray their contrapuntal and intellectual deficiencies. Kazdin then introduces the "acoustic choreography" notion, saying it contravenes an assumption of aural-aesthetic unity for each musical composition — an idea that I would claim derives from 19th-century werktreu cultures."…no cognizance ever seems to have been paid to the variations of mood and texture which exist within an Individual composition," Kazdin writes. "Why should the staccato articulation of an opening theme be wedded to the larger sense of space required by the lyrical second subject? Long intrigued by this subject, Glenn Gould offers here a bold and fascinating statement on the appropriateness of space to music."

Such a formalist division between music as conceived and music as sounded might seem to clash with Gould's embrace of recording — an embrace so passionate and progressive that he saw concerts disappearing by the early 21st century.But any such contradictions seem lesser if one believes a basic assertion of this book:that absolute music and its attendant cultures have in important respects been embodied — even encouraged — by recording.In the strange-bedfellow aspect of Gould's selective aesthetics, we find one key to this perpetuation.

Cued by what he saw in these Sibelius scores, then, Gould included ambiance as part of his expressive means, a performance aspect alongside dynamics and phrasing.He rethought the recorded text as thoroughly as Karajan did with his reseating of Schoenberg's Op.31. Stokowski did much the same with his creative use of multi-miking and the mixing desk, techniques he had prophesized with typical zeal already in the early 1940s. Karajan might well have spoken for all three musician-visionaries when he rejected shibboleths of "naturalness" and defended recordings from accusations of manipulation: "Manipulated? This is truly one of the most misused and misunderstood words of our time." He describes music-making as a process of constant manipulation, from the composer's transcription of her thoughts to paper, to the conductor's internalization of the piece, and the composer's and the musicians' interactions with the hall."What in life is not manipulated," Karajan asks? Indeed, he finds too much emphasis placed on imaginary and arbitrary conceptions of the listener's ear."According to the ear of which listener," he queries?" Even in a hall with a truly good acoustic, there are no two places with the same conditions. "In a good hall with two or three thousand seats, Karajan continues, only about three or four hundred listeners will be able to enjoy the optimal acoustic — the quality of sound drops perceptibly beyond that number."

Here Karajan hits on the central legacy of music's basis in scriptural ideals: the assumption that everyone "reads," or better said hears, the musical work in the same way. Recordings have grown out of and encouraged that idea, implicitly allowing new forms of auteurist control over musical "accidentals" and giving all listeners the same perspective — whether oriented to an idealized best-seat-in-the-hall or modeled on one specific musician's inner ear.Recordings, in other words, have been patterned more on an oral gospel model of transmission — the "Amen, I say unto you," Sermon on the Mount aspect — than on individualized modes of silent reading; they model themselves on the Mosaic Law before it was written down.But the three musicians discussed here were eager to get away from such centralized notions, and to develop new and individualized — in effect, written rather than oral — forms of literacy.

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