Kate Bennett Wadsworth records G.P. Marie’s La Cinquantaine

Kate Bennet Wadsworth recorded G.P. Marie’s La Cinquantaine during the first symposium of the network (12th September 2021, University of Huddersfield) with recording engineer Duncan Miller.

Listen to Kate’s cylinder in a digital transfer:

Kate’s commentary on the experience:

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

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.

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

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.

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

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!

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

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!

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