AHRC Online Conference

Classical Music Hyper Production and Practice As Research


A useful thought exercise, because it gets at the issue of layers of representation and meaning in recordings of acoustically generated music, is to consider what reverberation is. Is it the representation or signature of a room within which the performance occurs, necessary for authenticity and comfort? Or is it time(/frequency) and space smearing which acts directly on the sonic material to amplify, homogenise, blur, obscure etc.? To what extent are the acoustics of St Suplice, Notre Dame etc. part of the text of Marcel Dupre's organ compositions (which often began as extemporisations within those buildings), and to what extent are they spaces within which the music is housed? (Of course this is to ignore for the time being another hugely important issue of authenticity connected with this scenario, which is the instruments themselves which are unique to each building).

Of course, these questions are also relevant to the experience of live performance but when we attempt to answer them in relation to audio production then it reveals something about what it is that we think is being created and presented. If we are in the business of time-smearing then I think we are engaging much more closely with the sonic material, than if we are focussed on the evocation of space which is also related to the history and function of what we are hearing. It is also important because, certainly as far as stereo recording is concerned (unless we are considering binaural recording, which is quite niche and does not work as well as is often assumed, particularly for sounds arriving from in front of the listener), the capture and reproduction of reverberation is problematic. If we're going for the impression of the 'best seat in the house' then we often need to get microphones far closer to sound sources than the notional seat that we want to put the listener in. When recording in spaces like Notre Dame or York Minster it's always a little deflating to return to the listening room from the space itself and hear the fully three dimensional soundfield (with all the extra clarity it permits via binaural release of masking and spatial grouping) collapsed into two speakers.

Bregman talks about the 'auditory chimeras' that seem to exist within much music: the use of our auditory grouping mechanisms to create an illusory auditory scene rather than a realistic one (e.g. two instruments with different timbres fusing to create a new, fantastical sound, because they are playing in exact unison). If that is the level at which we are responding to sound we really don't need the concert hall at all (in fact seeing the two instrumentalists making gestures at the same time will mitigate against this chimeric effect). Likewise, why would we need 'realistic' reverberation? We would need 'suited' reverberation, in terms of its perceptual parameters, sure, but not necessarily realistic reverb. In this case unrealistically diffuse reverberation coupled with an unrealistically long pre-delay might enable us to have our cake ​and​ eat it: smearing combined with audibility of temporal definition. Practically this can be problematic, because performers within acoustic ensembles typically wish to be able to be able to hear themselves and their colleagues so as to attend to issues of timing, intonation etc. and I'm not sure that they would be well-served by being pushed wholesale into the 'isolation and headphones' that is the norm for pop performance in the studio; but it's a good argument for getting microphones closer and using whatever high-quality technological interventions are available to reduce the level of captured reverberation so that this element can be better controlled at a later stage of production. Of course there's nothing new in augmenting recordings with artificial (and artificially diffuse) reverb, but I'm interested in motivations and philosophies of its use. When I recorded Nicky Losseff's Pianthology I used close recording in a dry space with long and diffuse reverb (albeit quite low in level) to simultaneously present clarity but also the glow and support of time smearing. Thinking about how and why we do such things might illuminate some ways forward and help us to understand as practitioners what we ​​mean when we make recordings in certain ways: was I placing the piano in a large enclosed, yet only subtly present, space or bathing and colouring the events within the music?

It is perhaps a subtle point, but one that gets to the heart of whether recordings are representations of events or presentations of music. It might be a helpful conceptual and philosphical bridge between current production practice and that of the future.

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