1. Using early recordings in practice-led research (Huddersfield, 12th September 2021)

By raising then lowering his hand, Duncan Miller commands David Milsom (violin) and Inja Stanovic (piano) to start their performance for the phonograph

The first symposium of the network, Using early recordings in practice-led research, took place at the Phipps Hall of the University of Huddersfield on 12th September 2021, under the organization and chairing of CoI Dr Inja Stanovic assisted by PI Dr Eva Moreda Rodríguez. While practice-led research into early recordings as sources of performance practice has seen a substantial increase in recent years, researchers have enjoyed few opportunities to discuss and share methodologies and approaches. The symposium aimed at addressing this gap through the delivery and discussion of four papers/lecture-recitals covering specific case studies, as well as through a practical workshop which allowed performer-researchers to experiment with phonograph recording in real time.

1) Papers and lecture-recitals

Dr David Milsom/Dr Inja Stanovic (University of Huddersfield). “Setting the Record Straight: Violin and piano in disc recording session“

Dr David Milsom (violin) and Dr Inja Stanovic (piano) discussed their experience of performing together for the phonograph, collaborating on a recording that will be released through the label Pennine Records. Practical issues that came up included the preparation before the session (repertoire and organological choices, rehearsal process), during the session (conditions of the room: temperature, space, etc.) and after the session (the differences between what the musician thinks he or she is doing, then immediately listening to the recording on the phonograph, then listening to the digital transfers a few days later). These logistical issues raise some broader questions: for example, why do we do an acoustic recording, and what is it that we are trying to replicate? Stanovic commented that when she was playing she tried to recreate a general atmosphere of nineteenth-century performance practice, but not specific details; however, when listening to the recordings, it does become about specific details. In this respect, Milsom commented that these recording sessions underline that everything can be an expressive possibility, and – with the need to conduct research on various aspects of the context in which these recordings were originally made – the boundaries between “practice-led research” and “research-led practice” are blurred.

Milsom and Stanovic demonstrated some aspect of their talk in a performance of the Larghetto from Nardini’s sonata in D.

Dr George Kennaway (University of Huddersfield).  “Why Bach? Why not Tartini? Early recordings of 18th-century string music and the nineteenth-century canon“

Dr George Kennaway’s paper used early recordings of early music for strings as a starting point to delve into broader considerations about the shaping of the repertoire – touching upon editions as well, which both reflected the configuration of this repertoire and contributed to shaping it further. Kennaway suggested that looking at performance practices and early recordings from a wider cultural point of view is clearly a line to pursue, beyond narrow notions of specific traits vibrato or portamento. This includes critiquing the notion of musicality itself and understanding how it was understood in different contexts, and how early recordings transmit these understandings to us.

Dr. Jeroen Billiet, Royal Brussels Conservatory , “‘The instructive-pitoresque museum‘: The paradigm of instrumental tuition in Belgian Belle Époque horn studios, reflected in early 20th century recordings”

From a different angle, Dr Jeroen Billiet’s paper reinforced Kennaway’s (and Milsom’s) appeal for a greater consideration of contextual and cultural matters in practice-led research. Billiet contextualized early brass recordings within a very specific pedagogic tradition – the Ghent-Brussels tradition of horn playing, of which Billiet himself is part. He discussed discourses around music education in Belgium at the turn of the twentieth century, during which horn playing acted a form of social uplifting for  working class boys and young men, who were often actively recruited. Teaching took the form of masterclasses, with all pupils present in a lesson and the development of close-knit communities, and was highly influenced by organological developments at the time. Considerations around the canon made a reappearance in Billiet’s paper too: with most horn players being trained for ensembles like lighter orchestras rather than symphonies, canonic pieces were typically only learned after a student had obtained a first prize or another distinction. In the Q&A, Billiet reflected on the schism faced by those performers engaging in early recording research, i.e. the push to follow or adopt the “freer” approach to music exemplified in these recordings, and the need to teach certain skills and approaches to students as part of a conservatoire curriculum.

Dr. Kate Bennett Wadsworth, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, “Talking with your hands: early spoken-word recordings as a guide to string portamento”

Dr Kate Bennett Wadsworth opened up discussion to a further set of cultural and contextual aspects by exploring discourses around singing and spoken language, and how these can help us make sense of string portamento in early recordings. Bennett Wadsworth explored a number of elocution manuals from the nineteenth century, which explained in terms of intervals the expressive inflections of the voice, and used her findings to discuss some recordings (namely by Auguste von Biene and Adelina Patti), concluding that such elocution manuals do not always given all the answers, and their influence and usage must be contextualized further. Like Milsom, Bennett Wadsworth also reflected on the concept of practice-led research, conceptualizing it as a circular process in connection to research-led practice.

2) Workshop

Some photographs from the workshop. A gallery with more images can be found here.

The afternoon workshop was led by Duncan Miller, of Vulcan Records, and took an experimental approach – typically, participants first played a short excerpt of their chosen piece, with piano accompaniment by Inja Stanovic, and heard themselves back on the phonograph, repeating the process (and often shortening their chosen excerpt) as many times as time allowed. This section presents the recording sessions for each performer, the subsequent transfers, and a commentary from the performer about their experience. The questions we asked each performer were:

1. Did you have any experience of using mechanical recording technologies before?

2. How did you like the experience of recording on a phonograph?

3. Did you need to change certain aspects of your playing/singing? 

4. Did this experience influence the way you will listen to phonograph recordings in the future?

Barbara Gentili, soprano. F.P. Tosti, ‘Che dici, o parola del saggio?’

  1. Yes, I did use these technologies for listening to and analysing early vocal recordings since my doctoral study in 2015. I was fortunate enough to encounter people who would be playing early discs on restored gramophones. I befriended several collectors and the experience of listening via these technologies allowed me to hear some specific qualities (timbre, vibrato, specific gestures) of the singing voice far more clearly than is possible in the digitised transfers. 
  2. I am not sure I can respond to this question yet. It was such a rich and overwhelming experience that I need time to process it. I was certainly shocked at first! Not being able to listen to my voice, sucked away by the horn, and having a very loud piano playing right behind me was disorienting. I lost all acoustic reference points and had no idea of what I was doing. The feeling of being together with the accompanist was also gone. However, through several trials of singing in and out of the horn, some sense of control was restored.
  3. I tried to keep my projection as simple and direct as I possible. I found that the phonograph did not capture the richness of my tone – at least not the voice that I can hear when I make digital recordings. I exaggerated the dynamics because I wanted to test the sensitivity of the machine to piano and soft singing. To my amazement the horn does capture p and pp when one sings!
  4. All famous singers made 78rpms rather than cylinders, so I did not analyse cylinders and cannot respond to this question. It would be very interesting to make a disc though and see if that changes my way of listening to early discs! 

David Milsom, violin. L. van Beethoven: Minuet in G Major, WoO 10 No. 2

  1. Yes. Two sessions, the first quite brief and experimental, the second a more detailed follow-up session. One easily becomes accustomed to it, and for most musicians, adapting to the strange and far-from-ideal is a fact of life. Actually, I find it liberating, oddly: there is little possibility of neurotic pursuits of so-called ‘perfection’, so one simply plays as best one can, and as one means it. The discomforts help one concentrate.
  2. Not as much as making discs. I found that it was surprisingly sensitive to the granularity of tone. I was surprised at how different this was as a technology, and it makes one realise how little one can or should generalise about ‘acoustic recordings’. Perhaps there needs to be more of a meeting of minds between technical experts and analysers of so-called ‘early recordings’. It makes me wonder how stable many observations of what one hears on such recordings – including my own – stand up to close scrutiny. Perhaps we need to re-evaluate a lot of current scholarship and revisit conclusions which, to date, seem to have been made with a degree of certainty perhaps not deserved…
  3. Yes. After I heard the first tests, I realised that I would need to play in a more refined and less avowedly ‘projected’ way. In other words, I ended up playing more ‘as normal’ for the phonograph than in making the acoustic discs.
  4. Yes, although most recordings of violinists of note are not phonograph recordings. I think, almost inevitably, the experience of doing something changes how you hear others having done the same or similar thing. It is a very different form of understanding, and, I would argue, a deeper one.

Emily Worthington, clarinet. C. M. von Weber: Concertino in E-flat Major Op. 26

  1. I have not!
  2. It was fascinating – much more sensitive than I expected. It had strong implications for the tonal stability of the recorded instrument sound and also the legato – it will hugely inform the way I assess historical recordings from now on.
  3. I was able to use more nuance than I expected, but tone production and attack needed to be really strong and direct – any delayed or muffled note was much more obvious than in real life (as I perceived it).
  4. Yes definitely! It would be good to be able to do a longer session with digital comparisons to get a more detailed idea of what is picked up and what is distorted.

Jeroen Billiet, French horn. G. Puccini: Madama Butterfly – Finale of the 2nd Act

Click on the videos below to listen to Jeroen’s replies:

George Kennaway, cello. F. Thome: ‘Simple Confession’, from Romance sans Paroles

  1. I had no experience of using any mechanical technologies before
  2. It was fascinating because I instantly ditched the ‘sensitive’ aspects of the piece in favour of simple audibility
  3. Same as 2
  4. Yes, I’ll listen differently!

Kate Bennett Wadsworth, cello. G. P. Marie: La Cinquantaine

  1. Yes, I made an acoustic disc with Inja Stanovic last spring. Both experiences were really eye-opening, but what I found especially stimulating this time was seeing the same technology used to record different instruments, as well as a singer. If people in the early 20c really were adjusting their technique to suit the recording technology, then the technique must have gone in many different directions at once.
  2. I enjoyed it! For one thing, it’s fun to hear a turn-of-the-century version of my musical voice. It also reminds me that modern recording technology is not picking up an objective reality of my playing, although it is easy to get that impression because of the level of detail in the sound. Period recording technologies – like period instruments – bring out different aspects of sound, and therefore of music making. If modern recordings are the aural equivalent of looking at one’s skin under a magnifying glass, cylinders are like looking at oneself in a foggy bathroom mirror. One invites attention to detail, and the other invites an interest in the overall shape.
  3. For the cylinder recording, I needed to erase all sudden changes in the sound. Changes of timbre didn’t come through at all, and changes of dynamic and stress sounded messy on the gramophone. I also knew from my earlier session with Inja that most of the cello’s range does not come through well on the gramophone, so this time I was careful to play a piece that stayed within the first four positions on the A string. Finally, sitting directly in front of an upright piano meant that there was no chance of communication – aural or visual – between Inja and me. With the right repertoire, this was not really a problem, but I can now understand why we have no early recordings of the Brahms cello sonatas!
  4. I think I will have more patience with cello recordings that sound pressed or strained. Some of this may have been the performance situation (eg feeling drowned out by the pianist, who has to play very loudly to be heard at all), and some of it may have been caused by quirks in the way the horn picked up certain pitches and timbres on the cello. To make matters worse, the easiest way to listen to early recordings is online – eg a digital transfer compressed into an mp3 – which cannot match the warmth of the sound that comes out through an actual gramophone. I wonder if it would be worth re-introducing the old gramophone recitals, so that more people can hear this warmth!

Conclusions and future directions

The symposium clearly underlined that the boundaries between practice-led research and more theoretical approaches to early recordings that do not include practice are blurry: in fact, all participants in the symposium are practitioners who engage in critical and contextual research on a vast and diverse range of topics (repertoires and notions of canon; discourses around language and the voice; the history of music education; the history and ideologies of technologies). It remains to be discussed, however, how “theoretical” researchers might be able to include practice-led elements in their research – for example, through the collaboration with practitioners. The workshop provided participants with the opportunity to briefly engage in practice-led research in real time, through producing a phonograph recording of their own performance: while discussions and subsequent feedback understandably focused on practical and logistical considerations, and on how to deal with the feeling of estrangement while attempting to craft an expressive performance, future workshops and discussions might want to tackle questions about the gap between “macro” and “micro”: after a practice-led researcher has conducted various kinds of research about the context, how can this stored knowledge be activated and engaged with in real time, as the researcher deals with the practicalities of recording for the phonograph?

While the symposium had a clear focus on how early recordings can be interrogated as sources of historical performance practice, some contributions and discussions during the day (e.g. Kennaway, Milsom, Billiet) suggested that early recordings and the performance practices contained in them can challenge and expand broader central notions in musicology and music history, e.g. understandings of how the canon and the repertoire developed. This is also connected to the point about contexts above: it is not just that digging into the context can help us interpret what we hear in the recordings, but recordings can also challenge what we think we know about the context. Forthcoming symposia will provide opportunities for members of the network to discuss this bidirectional relationship.