4. Phonograph Sessions Revealed: Using Early Recording Technologies in Practice-Led Research (Guildhall School of Music and Drama, 30th September 2022)

The fourth symposium of the network, “Phonograph Sessions Revealed: Using Early Recording Technologies in Practice-Led Research”, took place on 30th September at the Guildhall School of Music in London, organised by Eva Moreda Rodriguez (University of Glasgow, PI), Inja Stanović (City, University of London, Co-I) and Kate Bennett Wadsworth (steering committee member, Guildhall School of Music). The symposium consisted entirely of a workshop in which several performers recorded on phonograph under recording engineer Duncan Miller. The aim of the day was to ascertain how these first-hand experiences with phonograph recording might animate written, visual and aural historical evidence, allowing us to ask and answer new questions about nineteenth-century performance practices and how they were captured on early recording supports.

Each performer or group thereof recorded their chosen piece, which was then immediately followed by playback of the wax cylinder on the phonograph, and then by a variable number of takes (typically one to three), which allowed performers to experiment and adapt to the medium. Such adaptations concerned both the performance itself as well as more pragmatic matters, such as the type and number of horns being used, or the positioning of the performers with respect to each other and with respect to the horn (this was particularly obvious in the pieces involving several instruments). The small size (ca. 20) and mostly expert nature of the audience (most were experts in either performance practice or in early recordings) allowed discussion and feedback to flow freely between takes, and was complemented by a small group discussion followed by a plenary discussion at the end of the day, from which the points below have been summarized.

Previously used in the context of the network and in individual research to ask and answer questions about performance practice, the “phonograph recording” workshop revealed itself as an invaluable tool to engage our historical imagination in stimulating questions and answers that go beyond the realm of performance practice and pertain to the broader shifts introduced by recording technologies on a musical and cultural level. Further practical engagement with technologies might be an important tool for researchers of early recordings to interpret and establish connections between visual, aural and text sources, such as those presented in papers from the previous symposia. Topics of discussion during the day included:

  • The mechanics and practices of home-recording in the phonograph era, and the ways in which home recordings might have replaced, complemented or expanded beyond music-making practices in the home (i.e. whether home recordings intended to showcase the person’s music skills, or rather simply to try out the technology, with limited concern to performance practice issues.
  • The mechanics and dynamics of the recording studio, and how the learning curve might have looked like for some of the earlier singers to attempt recording: it was noted how quickly all performers seemed to adapt to the phonograph: is this simply part of the adaptative skills every musician would be expected to have, in most times and places, or do modern musicians benefit from having previous experience of recording in other formats?
  • The historicity of the work concept and how this is expressed in performance. It was felt by several of the performers that the adaptation of their technique to the medium led to some expressive parameters being obliterated or severely limited – for example, piano dynamics need to be consistently loud; tempo might need to be slowed down to minimize the risk of an unstable, tinny sound; the dolce quality of some instruments (such as the French horn) or the vibrato (in the cello) was almost taken away by the phonograph. The whole piece therefore needed to be rethought, and the risk of making mistakes increased, but these became less important as the “performance concept” (taking performance decisions “in the moment”) took precedence over the “work concept”. It is not out of the realm of possibility that similar adaptation and experimentation processes took place in original phonograph recordings, with recorded results therefore perhaps being different from how a performance might have sounded like in other contexts. 
  • Inclusion and exclusion in the canon and repertoire. Several of the pieces recorded, while highly popular and frequently recorded in their time, have by now fallen from what is normally thought of as the canon. During the symposium, performers discussed how the “performance concept” (as above) might breathe new life into repertoire that was frequently recorded in the early 20th century but has now fallen from the canon: performance approaches inspired by recording experimentation might help us understand how the canon took shape and, conversely, what was excluded from it.

Repertoire recorded during the day included:

Neal Peres Da Costa (piano) – L. van Beethoven: Ecossaise in E flat

Krzysztof Potocznik (piano) – F. Chopin: Mazurka Op. 24 No. 2

Inja Stanović (piano) – D. Scarlatti: Sonata K. 14

Ana-Maria Rincon (soprano) and Neal Peres Da Costa (piano) – J. Haydn: Mermaid’s Song

Joanna Staruch-Smolec (violin) and Krzysztof Potocznik (piano) – H. Robie/G. Rice: Dear Old Pal of Mine

Jeroen Billiet (horn) and Inja Stanović (piano) – C. Gounod: Mélodie N°1 from ’6 Mélodies pour le cor à pistons

Joanna Staruch-Smolec (violin) and David Milsom (violin) – L. Spohr: Violin duo Op. 67 No. 2

Ana-Maria Rincon (soprano) and Hilary Metzger (cello) – G. Handel: Figlio d’alte speranza

Hilary Metzger (cello), Ana-Maria Rincon (soprano) and Neal Peres Da Costa (piano) – G. Lucantoni: Ave Maria

Job ter Haar (cello) and Inja Stanović (piano) – R. Wagner: Morgenstern; J. Massenet: Élégie

Joanna Staruch Smolec (violin), Job ter Haar (cello), Neal Peres Da Costa (piano) and Inja Stanović (piano) – J. Brahms: Hungarian Dance No. 1

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