5. Vocal recordings and new beginnings (City, University of London, 19-20/1/2023)

The fifth and final symposium of the network, “Vocal recordings and new beginnings”, took place on 19th and 20th January 2023 at City University London, and it included six papers, a phonograph recording session featuring four performers, and a “phonographic concert” given by Dominic Combe.

Dr Karin Martensen (Technische Universität Berlin): “Anna Bahr-Mildenburg: a new voice type in front of the recording device”

Dr Martensen’s paper exemplified how, as we begin to understand some of the underlying principles of voice recording in the early recording era, it is crucial that we refine and problematize conclusions through the engagement with the careers, voices and performing styles of a range of individual figures, beyond the well-known celebrities of early phonography, such as Caruso and Patti. In her paper, Martensen presented her research on soprano Anna Bahr-Mildenburg (1872-1947), a protégée of Mahler, known in her time for her performances of Isolde, but performing a range of other repertoire too. Martensen discussed how Bahr-Mildenburg as an example of a singer who had to learn how to use the technology, and who struggled in doing so, perhaps because her strong stage presence did not translate well into the medium.

Dr Simon Heighes (BBC): “‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ – The struggle to record choirs acoustically (1888-1924)”

Dr Heighes’ paper focused on the little-explored topic of early choral recordings on both wax cylinder and disc. As was the case with the previous paper, Dr Heighes’ illustrated how the celebrities and celebrity recordings through which the history of early recorded music has often been told only reveal a small part of the story: indeed, Dr Heighes discussed the well-known 1888 Handel recording allegedly featuring a 4,000-voice choir recorded with a phonograph over 100 yards away, but highlighted how this recording tells us little about either choral performance practices or about how choirs were recorded on phonograph and gramophone. Dr Heighes surveyed the earliest recordings of Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’, appearing in the second half of the late 1900s; highlighting that it is known that it was difficult to record choirs but it is less obvious what the actual problems were, Dr Heighes also discussed the results of a phonograph-recording session with a choir that he conducted in Oxford together with Duncan Miller.

Dr Elodie Roy (Northumbria University): “Between the spectral and the specular: An attempt at (re)capturing the phonographic voice”

Dr Roy’s paper offered a glimpse into the possibilities that more sustained engagement with Cultural and Sound Studies could offer to scholars studying early recordings from a Musicology or Performance Practice perspective. Roy’s paper asked the fundamental question of why was the human voice so central to early phonograph experiences and practices, highlighting how the materiality of records and recording technologies fitted within nineteenth-century discourses (which actually had roots in earlier centuries) concerning death and the self. This in itself opened up some potentially fruitful connections with the previous two papers – for example, the significance of the multi-sensory in early recordings posed questions with respect to how this multi-sensoriality might have played out in live performances (e.g. with Bahr-Mildenburg not having been able to transfer her stage presence to the phonograph).

Dr Kai Köpp (Bern University of the Arts): “There and Back Again – Musical Reenactment and the Concept of Authenticity”

Dr Köpp’s paper came in at a particularly relevant time, i.e. on the morning of the second day of the symposium, following the phonograph-recording workshop that closed the first day. Köpp addressed the sense of spontaneity, being “in the moment”, that sometimes seems to pervade early recordings (and that participants in the network’s recording sessions reported as well) – rather than meticulously planning each aspect of the performance, some aspects of nineteenth-century performance practice such as tempo dislocation, portamento or tempo modifications seem to play out better if undertook spontaneously, in turn re-casting the idea of the musical work as not composer- but performer-driven. Drawing upon primary sources as well as on practice-led research conducted by his team, Dr Köpp illustrated how such approaches are in reality a combination of spontaneity and planning ahead, e.g. with conductors giving orchestras some coaching on how to achieve dislocation with respect to the soloist. Dr Köpp also suggested that a closer focus on these features might help re-cast interpretation as “reverse co-composition”.

Dr Aleksander Kolkowski (independent researcher): “Phonographies – an audio archive of contemporarily recorded wax cylinders”

Dr Kolkowski discussed some of the projects he has been conducted during the past several years under the label phonographies.org; these involve using the phonograph to record in modern settings, engaging a range of musical genres and audiences. Dr Kolkowski discussed how the recording of contemporary musics allowed the wax cylinder to be re-cast as a palimpsest containing different layers, and also how the phonograph recording process brought the audiences he engaged a sense of alienation from the musical material; these were topics that had also emerged in the phonograph-recording workshop held the day before and in other phonograph-recording projects discussed by other participants (i.e. performers being surprised by their own voice), but the fact that in this paper they were presented in connection with present-day musics opened up questions about how phonograph-recording might be used to ask and answer broader questions about listening practices and performance beyond those pertaining to the phonograph’s own historical period.

Dr Adam Stanovic (University of the Arts, London), “Trust in Early Recordings: documents, performances and works”

Dr Stanovic’s paper closed the symposium by going back to fundamental ontological questions concerning historical recordings. The paper argued that recordings should not be regarded as documents of “once upon a time”, or as performances in themselves. Instead, Dr Stanovic argued for regarding early recordings as works of art in themselves, crafted through the collaboration of a multiplicity of individuals including technicians and recordists. The paper resonated with the difficulties that some of the participants articulated in terms of interpreting and researching early recordings.

Phonographic concert and workshop

Collector and author Dominic Combe offered a “phonographic concert” in which he played back a dozen cylinders from his very extensive collection. Particularly relevant was the fact that the recordings were mostly of non-classical repertoires: this offered a timely reminder that much of the musicological research on early recording – particularly that on performance practice – has tended to focus on canonic repertoires, and it also provided a nice transition to the recording workshop, in which repertoires on the margins of the canon were well-represented.

The workshop, led by Duncan Miller (Vulcan Records) provided an opportunity to focus on vocal music to a greater extent than past workshops had allowed; it was felt by participants that the variability of the human singing voice makes it a particularly fascinating, yet challenging, object of study for future empirical and practice-led research. Performers included Daniele Palma (tenor), Fátima Volkoviskii (soprano) Eva Moreda Rodríguez (soprano) and Kate Bennett Wadsworth (cello) (with the latter two both performing Gounod’s “Ave Maria”), accompanied by Adam Cigman-Mark and Ian Pace on the piano.

Due to the fact that practical hands-on explorations of the recorded voice have been scarce and that the workshop focused on vocal music, much of the discussion was dominated by matters of singing technique and how it is captured on the phonograph. Topics and discussions that the workshop brought to light included:

  • Repertoire and the dynamics of the recording studio: some performers felt that switching between rather different repertoire in a short period of time posed difficulties and did not allow for optimal performance; however, in the studio, singers often did exactly that, so this opens the question, how they navigated these transitions, or did they feel this was a transition at all.
  • Relationship with the accompanist: as was the case with previous workshops, it soon became obvious that the piano accompanist needed to be playing fortissimo to be heard on record. This posed questions as to how the singer and pianist would have been able to hear and interact with each other in a recording situation.
  • Vibrato and timbre: it was felt that vibrato came out relatively well in the singers’ recordings (with potentially an influence on how clearly the vowels were formed), whereas not so well in the cello. The extent to which the phonograph was able to capture the timbre and “body” of the voices also varied, confirming primary sources that suggest that some singers were seen as recording well and others not so well, and highlighting the need for further research that might allow a greater understanding of what exactly made a voice record well.
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