2. Interpreting early recordings: critical and contextual perspectives (Glasgow, 6th January 2022)

The second symposium, Interpreting early recordings: critical and contextual perspectives, took place at the University of Glasgow on 6th January 2022, organized by PI Eva Moreda Rodríguez with the assistance and support of CoI Inja Stanovic. The event was partly designed in response to the previous symposium, which highlighted the extent to which practice-led research needs to be informed by engagement with a variety of contexts (technological, commercial, cultural, aesthetic, etc.). The four papers in this second symposium indeed engaged with different types of contextual dimensions, which further confirmed that early recordings are complex artefacts are best approached with a range of diverse methodological tools. The symposium consisted of four papers, an “open mic” session and a roundtable.

Dr Barbara Gentili (Cardiff University): “Portraying a New Womanhood in the Early Recordings of Verismo Sopranos”

Dr Gentili contributed a little-explored methodological angle by bringing perspectives from gender history and women’s history into her discussion of recordings of verismo sopranos. Gentili first considered the profound changes in turn-of-the-century Italy that shaped new understandings of the role of women in society, crystallizing under the concept of “Donna Nuova” (new woman), exemplified by historical figures such as pedagogue Maria Montessori. She then turned to examine a number of recordings, guided by the question of how these new conceptualizations of women might be heard in the voices captured on recording, and specifically in their innovative approach to vocal technique and vocal timbre (homogeneity of registers, vowel modification). Gentili called for a more holistic and interdisciplinary perspective on such issues, drawing upon the history of theatrical declamation. Gentili’s paper showed some similarities in this respect with Dr Kate Bennett Wadsworth’s talk in symposium 1, which also drew attention to the productive paths that might be opened to researchers of early recordings by the study of contemporary speech and declamation.

Professor Chris Dingle (Royal Birmingham Conservatoire): “Old-fashion(ed) lessons: teaching performers through early recordings”

Professor Dingle’s talk drew upon his extensive experience of introducing early recordings in his teaching practice at a conservatoire. Dingle started his talk by questioning the mere existence of early recordings as a separate field of research and teaching (a topic that would then reappear in the afternoon roundtable). Dingle commented on how early recordings introduce students to new approaches to listening (e.g. the influence of technology on how the instrument sounds on recording, the differences between different styles or schools of performance), as well as open up questions about the repertoire and its shaping over the decades (e.g. most Bach cantatas were not recorded before the 1950s, and a surprising number were not recorded until the 1980s). The talk also drew attention to the potential tensions that might emerge between what students learn from their first study teachers (with whom they tend to have a very close relationship) and what can be gleaned from recordings).

Dr Simon Heighes: “Scratch and sniff: the unsung pioneers of ‘home’ recording”

Dr Simon Heighes provided a fascinating overview of a number of British home recordings (many of which come from his own private collection) made between 1902 and 1918. Dr Heighes started his talk by highlighting how ambitious home recordists were encouraged to be by a range of help materials (e.g. Edison Phonograph Guide books, Home Recording books) that were available to them. Dr Heighes set out some of the ways in which these materials might help us expand our knowledge of early recordings in ways that are not necessarily obvious from commercial releases. Home recordings, for example, provide a glimpse into how recording technologies were absorbed into family life, sometimes drawing upon established practices of domestic music-making. Home recordings also show an array of experimental techniques (e.g. short takes, warping, ghosting) that are not present in commercial recordings of the same era – illuminating how commercial recordings developed a range of conventions that were not necessarily shared by their amateur counterparts.

Dr Eva Moreda Rodríguez (University of Glasgow): “What did the public really think of the phonograph? Talking machines in Spanish commercial plays, 1885-1913″

Dr Moreda Rodríguez set out to explore how early audiences in the pre-commercial and early commercial era responded to recording technologies by exploring a range of zarzuelas (i.e. Spanish musical theatre pieces) which feature such technologies. Dr Moreda Rodríguez justified her choice by arguing that reports and advertisements of these early phonograph demonstrations are often heavily influenced by Edison’s own publicity, and personal accounts (e.g. in diaries) are otherwise difficult to track down; theatrical sources can therefore give us perspectives that might not be available elsewhere. Dr Moreda Rodríguez explored how these plays treat phonographs and gramophones as machines for group listening, without necessarily reflecting the solitary listening practices of which we have some limited evidence elsewhere; and tracked down the narrative of the phonograph as a machine to speak the truth (even the inaudible truth), which stayed prominent in the 1910s even after talking machines had evolved from mere scientific curiosities to entertainment machines. Dr Moreda Rodríguez considered what these findings might tell us about the listening practices and attitudes to listening of the early consumers of recordings, and hence about the expectations and pressures placed on recording artists.

Open mic

The open mic featured four presentations that expanded upon some of the questions hinted at in the morning papers, while opening up others. These include:

-the importance of national contexts in shaping practices and discourses around recording technologies (Dr Jelka Vukobratovic on the project “Record Industry in Croatia from 1927 to the end of 1950s”); 

-the use of an increasingly large range of sources to investigate the impact and significance of early recordings (Andreas Tsilikochrysos on the 1882 Greek-language theatrical play “The Phonograph”; Joerg Holzmann on early films featuring classical performers);

-the shaping of performing traditions, and how this can be gleaned from recordings (Dr Caroline Rae on Marius-François Gaillard’s 78rpm recordings of Debussy’s music).

Roundtable, conclusions and future directions

Participants at the roundtable included Gentili, Dingle, Heighes, Moreda Rodríguez (chair), as well as Inja Stanovic (City University London) and Georgia Volioti (University of Surrey). The roundtable was loosely structured around three questions:

1) Thinking about your experience about encountering and researching early recordings – what is the most important way in which they changed your understanding of music history and/or performance practices?

2) In your experience, are musicologists/performers/student performers sufficiently aware of early recordings as a potential source? Should specialists like ourselves do something to increase this awareness? 

3) What do you think is the main challenge and/or opportunity at the moment for researchers of early recordings as a community?

To a greater extent than the first symposium of the series, the present event – and, more obviously, the final roundtable – faced participants with questions about the very nature and existence and the “early recordings” research community, as well as its immediate and longer-term needs. As suggested by the “open mic” presentations, there is a considerable amount of researchers all over the world focusing on early recordings all over the world (often engaging with highly localized contexts and sources, to which they bring their unique cultural expertise). There was a consensus that this no doubt needs to be celebrated, but the question stands whether a community of early recording researchers exist as such. From the outside, early recordings research is still perceived to require very specialized skills: a “regular” musicologist might be expected to engage with a range of sources including scores, editions, written archival materials, etc., but they would not normally be expected to engage to the same extent with early recordings, which are still seen as the province of specialists. From the inside, there is a sense that, by virtue of the complexity and specificity of individual bodies of recordings (as illustrated by the papers presented during the symposium), research often becomes highly tailored and personalized, and perhaps not readily open to collaboration. Another challenge to the existence of this community is that interest in early recordings certainly goes beyond academia. Calls were made to collaborate with and engage with recording collectors as a matter of urgency; at the same time, it was recognized that such collaboration and engagement neds to develop from an appreciation of the unique ways of knowing that collectors bring to the study of recordings.Still, the four papers and subsequent discussions suggested that there are some key issues underlying much research on early recordings that would certainly benefit from more extensive exchange and collaboration between researchers, as they could provide crucial methodological groundings. One such issue concerns listening practices, with early recordings representing a pivotal moment drawing to some extent upon past domestic music-making practices and group listening, and at the same time acting as a locus for the development of solitary listening. Another such issue concerns home recordings, and the extent to which these disparate and fragmentary practices can expand our understanding of how musicians and listeners integrated recording technologies into their ways of making, listening to and thinking about music.

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