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

The AHRC-funded research network “Redefining Early Recordings as Sources for Performance Practice and History” is pleased to present its fifth and final symposium, “Vocal recordings and new beginnings”, to be hosted on 19th and 20thJanuary at City, University of London. The programme includes six papers by leading experts, a wax cylinder “concert” curated by collector Dominic Combe, and a phonograph recording session. 

Attendance is free. Please e-mail Inja.Stanovic@city.ac.uk if you’d like to book a place.

The symposium will not be streamed but the workshop will be filmed and recordings will be made available online on the project’s Youtube channel.

Please find a detailed programme below.

Thursday, 19th January

14:00 – 15:30 – Dr Karin Martensen (Technische Universität Berlin): Anna Bahr-Mildenburg: a new voice type in front of the recording device; Dr Simon Heighes (BBC): ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ – The struggle to record choirs acoustically (1888-1924); Dr Elodie Roy (Northumbria University): Between the spectral and the specular: An attempt at (re)capturing the phonographic voice.

15:30 – 16:00 – Coffee break

16:00 – 16:45 – Dominic Combe: Wax cylinder concert

17:00 – 19:00 – Workshop with Duncan Miller: Daniele Palma, Eva Moreda Rodríguez and Fatima Volkoviskii (voices); Kate Bennett Wadsworth (cello). Recording session on 2-minute wax cylinders, repertoire includes both classical and non-classical repertoire. 

Friday, 20 January

9:00 – 10:30 –  Dr Kai Koepp (Bern University of the Arts): There and Back Again – Musical Reenactment and the Concept of Authenticity; Dr Aleksander Kolkowski (independent researcher): Phonographies – an audio archive of contemporarily recorded wax cylinders; Dr Adam Stanovic (University of the Arts, London): Trust in Early Recordings: documents, performances and works

10:30 – 11:00 – Coffee break

11:00 – Round table discussion

12:30 – Close.

Abstracts for the talks

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

The talk deals with the dramatic soprano Anna Bahr-Mildenburg (1872‒1947), who was engaged at the state operas in Hamburg and Vienna under the direction of Gustav Mahler. Thanks to her brilliant voice, her vocal and personal expressive powers and her dramatic intelligence, she was, in the eyes of Mahler, the ideal “singing tragedian” who fulfilled his demands for emotional depth in music-dramatic interpretation. It was these extraordinary vocal abilities that made her voice suitable for sound recording. Especially Thomas A. Edison was interested in such dramatic voices, because good sound results could be achieved with them. The lecture will deal with these circumstances of early sound recording and would like to answer the question why Bahr-Mildenburg made only one recording, which came to the market in 1905. 

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

 Of all the challenges facing early acoustic recording engineers, one of the trickiest was the battle to capture the character and scale of a choir. This paper briefly compares recordings spanning four decades, revealing changing techniques and growing aspirations. Case studies will include chapel and cathedral choirs, choruses by Handel, and Joe Batten’s pioneering recording of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (1924).

Dr. Elodie Roy (Northumbria University): Between the spectral and the specular: an attempt at capturing the phonographic voice

This paper will resituate the phonograph within a wider genealogy of scientific devices for direct recording and practices of self-recording, emphasizing the centrality of the voice in early phonographic experiments and imaginaries (long before the idea of recording music – or the musical voice – was conceived). Many theorisations of recorded sound, coloured by Edison’s and Berliner’s necro-romantic imagination, insist on its spectral quality, highlighting its troubling ability to conjure up the dead, over and over again. My suggestion is that we need to pay equal attention to the specular quality of recordings. Accordingly, my paper will ask what we can learn from the potent metaphor of the ‘mirror of the voice’ (to reuse a motto coined by the Pathé firm). I will propose that a specular – rather than strictly spectral or hauntological – reading of phonography may offer us complementary ways of understanding the relationship between sound-reproduction and the fashioning of identity, as well as between listening and seeing. Throughout, my discussion of the phonographic voice will draw from archival accounts of early home recording practices – with a focus on Europe and the US. 

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

The label of authenticity, assigned by 20th century promoters to performances of the Early Music Movement, has long been dismissed: The so-called authenticity debate around Richard Taruskin’s criticism revealed that the esthetics of these performances were quite contemporary. However, in a nostalgic culture, the concept of authenticity is still very attractive among listeners of all genres and seems to imply the notion of originality.  

This origin may be traced back to the composer but even more to the first performers. While it was impossible to record performances in the 18th century, numerous recordings by famous musicians born in the first half of the 19th century survive, allowing for the concept of authenticity to be applied to later styles. Indeed, a large body of documented performances, preserved on cylinders, piano rolls, or records, is available to be investigated, despite challenging issues of source criticism. To analyze these documents, Bern research teams have developed tools described as “historical embodiment” and “musical reenactment”, which aim at deconstructing the (conscious and unconscious) performance decisions that produced the documented results. New knowledge from these analyses can be applied back to contemporary practice, for which the Bern researchers coined the term “early recordings informed performance”.  

As a result of my presentation, I will discuss if increased knowledge about performance decisions will result in more authentic performances or in a more authentic experience of the hearer. 

Dr. Aleksander Kolkowski: Phonographies – an audio archive of contemporarily recorded wax cylinders

“the recordings in this archive don’t have much to share with nostalgia or a return to origins; rather, they bring sound inscriptions to life, they are a statement on the protean quality of a listening experience as it’s actualised in every other today.”[1]

Compiled between 2006 and 2012, the Phonographies archive consists entirely of acoustically recorded wax cylinders featuring over a hundred contemporary musicians, artists, writers and poets. Each contributor is represented by a cylinder record that is digitally transcribed and stored as an online audio resource – a supplement to the physical archive, where it becomes available for anyone to listen to or download as an MP3 sound file. Phonographies is a disparate collection of voices, noises, and instruments, with songs, vocalisations and poetry readings alongside electronic music and improvisations. It was initially conceived as a symbolic response to the end of the epoch of physical sound storage media (which has since seen a remarkable revival), but quickly developed into a more exploratory project that examines the potential of the wax cylinder as an experimental recording medium for making new artistic works. This presentation will feature some of the recordings made, discuss the archive as an artistic practice and touch upon the role of obsolete media and technology in contemporary music-making. 

1 Daniela Cascella, Phonographies, Frieze Blog, London, U.K. 15.12.2011

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

Over the past few years, I have arrived at the conclusion that one should feel genuine sympathy for any researcher that is misfortunate enough to study early recordings. This is not because their area of research is so bewilderingly broad. Nor is it because researchers of early recordings are required to read so many different kinds of texts. Rather, it is because no matter how far their scholarship advances, and no matter how significant their findings appear to be, scholars of early recordings are constantly questioned about the legitimacy of the very thing that they study. The precise nature of the questions varies, of course, but the overarching sentiment remains the same: to what extent can we really trust early recordings? In this talk, I consider the trustworthiness of early recordings. I survey three of the main ways in which such recordings may be described and understood; firstly, as a form of documentary evidence, secondly, as performances, and thirdly, as works of arts. I find the third option the most convincing, and conclude that early recordings are studio productions that come into being through multiple agents, in the form of recording musicians, technicians, engineers and producers who, combined, maximise the affordances of their technologies for the purpose of creating expressive works of art. Through an examination of such works, I believe that we do not only encounter historic performances, but have the opportunity to explore a broader artistic sensibility that reveals the individual and collective values of the time. 

Workshop details

Daniele Palma, voice

G. Donizetti: “Una furtiva lagrima” from Elisir d’amore

R. Leoncavallo: “Mattinata”

P. Tosti: “Mattinata”

G. Verdi: “Questa o quella” from Rigoletto

Fatima Volkoviskii, voice

J. Valverde: Clavelitos

S. Yradier: La Paloma

Eva Moreda Rodríguez, voice

C. Gounod: Ave Maria

R. Chapí, “Ay de mí” from the zarzuela El rey que rabió

M. Fernández Caballero, “Canción del espejo” from La viejecita 

Kate Bennett Wadsworth, cello

F. Schubert: Ständchen

C. Gounod: Ave Maria

F. Schubert: Du bist die Ruh’


Kate Bennett Wadsworth is a cellist and gambist devoted to historical performance of all periods, with a special research interest in 19th-century performance practice. She is currently a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the Guildhall School, with a project entitled “The Flexible Text: reuniting oral and written traditions within 19th-century music”.

Simon Heighes is a broadcaster, academic and collector of early recordings. After teaching at Magdalen college Oxford, he moved to the BBC as a presenter for Radio 3, Radio 4 and the World Service. He is a Baroque specialist with a particular interest in Handel’s English contemporaries and Bach’s church music (his edition of Bach’s lost St Mark Passion was published in 1993). As a critic he’s a regular contributor to Radio 3’s ‘Record Review’ and the BBC Music Magazine. His most recent research appeared in British Music, Musicians, and Institutions 1630-1800 (Boydell, 2021), and in 2020 he released the premiere recording of Francisco Valls’ Missa Regalis (1740) with the Academy of Ancient Music.

Kai Köpp, professor of musicology and interpretation at the Hochschule der Künste Bern, studied musicology, art history and law in Bonn and Freiburg and holds a habilitation degree from the University Mozarteum Salzburg. With an additional viola diploma from Freiburg and three years at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis he was a member of leading German period ensembles with over 40 recordings. Teaching in Bern since 2008, he established the research field “Angewandte Interpretationsforschung” and directs a growing number of funded projects. Numerous publications on the history of interpretation, on methods of performance research and on Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner (shortlisted for “Prix du Livre France Musique 2021”).  

Aleksander Kolkowski is a violinist, composer and researcher with an interest in late nineteenth and early twentieth century sound recording and reproduction apparatuses. Since obtaining a PhD from Brunel University, London in 2012, he held Research Associateships at the Royal College of Music, Science Museum, London, University of Luxembourg and was a visiting scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin. Aleksander was appointed as Sound Artist-in- Residence at the Science Museum, London and Composer-in-Residence at the British Library Sound Archive. He is currently an Honorary Research Associate at the Science Museum, London. His co-authored book Doing Experimental Media Archaeology – Practice, is published by De Gruyter.

Karin Martensen had studied musicology at the University of Hamburg. Spring 2012: PhD with a dissertation on Anna Bahr-Mildenburg’s prompt books about Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. 2016 to 2019: Research Associate in the DFG funded project “Technologies of Singing” in Detmold. 2019 to 2022: Research Associate in the DFG-project “Sound recording as a discoursive space“ at TU Berlin/Audiocommunication. Since 2022: Research Associate in the DFG-project “Cultural Data Analysis of Production Cultures in Classical Music“ at TU Berlin/Audiocommunication. Karin Martensen has published several articles on Anna Bahr-Mildenburg, on sound recording and on the construction of body and voice. She gave lectures on these topics in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA. 

Eva Moreda Rodríguez (University of Glasgow) is Reader in Musicology at the University of Glasgow. A specialist in Spanish music of the twentieth century, she is the author of the monographs Music and Exile in Francoist Spain (2015), Music Criticism and Music Critics in early Francois Spain (2016), and Inventing the Recording: The Phonograph and National Culture in Spain, 1877–1914 (2021). The latter monograph was completed with the support of an Arts and Humanities Council (AHRC) Leadership Fellowship. She has also co-edited the volumes Phonographic encounters. Mapping transnational cultures of sound, 1890-1945 (Routledge, 2021) and Early Sound Recordings. Academic Research and Practice (Routledge, forthcoming 2023).

Daniele Palma is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Bologna, working on evidence of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas performance practice in 19th century music periodicals. His research concerns voice cultures in the 19th and 20th centuries, media archaeology of opera, and amateur music practices, from children records to mental patients.  On these topics, he has published articles in scholarly journals (Rivista Italiana di Musicologia, Palaver, Acusfere, Mimesis Journal) and book chapters (Guerini, Neoclassica, Routledge). In 2019, he has been awarded an Edison Fellowship by the British Library. He is co-editor of Sounds of the Pandemic: Accounts, Experiences, Investigations, Perspectives in Times of Covid-19 (Routledge, 2022).

Elodie A. Roy is a media and material culture theorist, with a specialism in the history of recorded sound. She is the author of Grounding the Groove: Media, Materiality and Memory (Routledge), Shellac in Visual and Sonic Culture: Unsettled Matter (Amsterdam University Press, forthcoming) and the co-editor (with Eva Moreda Rodriguez) of Phonographic Encounters: Mapping Transnational Cultures of Sound, 1890-1945 (Routledge). Elodie currently works as a Research Follow at Northumbria University. 

Adam Stanovic composes and performs electronic music. His works have been: performed in over 500 international concerts; awarded in competitions across four different continents; and published on fourteen different albums, with three solo albums accounting for Adam’s major outputs. Alongside composition and performance practices, Adam writes about music on a fixed medium. His publications have considered the philosophical and cultural ramifications of music in recorded form, and most recently have considered ways in which early recordings began the same trend of experimentalism that have since characterised recording practices. Adam is currently Head of Department for Sound and Music at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts. 

Fatima Volkoviskii will be defending her dissertation within the doctoral program of Musicology at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid in March of this year. Her research is focused on the vocal practices and singing style of early Flamenco in cylinders and pre-electrical recordings. As a singer, she began her studies at the Universidad Veracruzana Conservatory in the classical tradition, and in recent years she has furthered her practice through alternative approaches to vocal development, including studies in voice and the Alexander Technique and singing in the Roy Hart Theatre tradition. She currently lives in Toledo, Spain.

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