How a remarkable archive celebrates the contribution of those on both sides of the microphone
This column often discusses the way technology has revolutionised both how music is recorded and how we listen to and buy it. The past decade has been one of profound change, such that it’s too early to understand fully its impact. But, then, perhaps it was ever thus? This month I was privileged to spend an afternoon at the EMI archive in Hayes, Middlesex. The original site of 150 acres, of which today’s archive occupies but a small corner, once welcomed 20,000 workers daily, employed in the many facets of the company’s business, from building wooden gramophone cabinets to pressing records. The archive stores a vast amount of irreplaceable recording media from classical to pop – masters, artwork, vinyls, 78s – in secure and climate-controlled conditions. Among them, we’re proud to say, is Gramophone’s old library of LPs and 78s, now named the Pollard Collection after the family so intrinsic to our own history as owners and editors across several generations.
Nestling inside all this is the EMI Group Archive Trust, an extensive collection of items that tell the tale of The Gramophone Company (EMI’s forerunner) from its foundation in 1897. Objects as diverse as the first recording made by British royalty (George V’s Empire message), gramophone cabinets charting changing trends in furniture design, the gramophone taken on Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the Antarctic, Alan Blumlein’s stereo innovations and even several versions by Francis Barraud of his iconic painting of Nipper and the gramophone, ‘His Master’s Voice’. While it’s not open to the public, the collection is available for research purposes and for loan to museums and exhibitions, and the Trust is keen for the wider world to know about this significant resource: you can find out more at emiarchivetrust.org.
Perhaps what the collection best embodies is the crucial contribution, the genius and the commitment, of all those on the other side of the microphone and far beyond it – the entrepreneurs and engineers, the acousticians and the accountants. Without them, we wouldn’t have the musical legacies that we celebrate month after month – something artists can themselves be the first to recognise. When I interviewed guitarist John Williams for the latest issue of Gramophone, his praise for his long-standing producer Paul Myers, who died last year, couldn’t have been more fulsome – a partnership which runs throughout the wonderful 59-disc set compiled by Sony Classical to celebrate the 75th birthday of this impressive musician. I'd be delighted if any readers felt moved to acknowledge our debt to the people behind the microphones by voting for those they most admire in our Hall of Fame.
Even more monumental in ambition than the John Williams set is the Yehudi Menuhin box released this month by Warner Classics to mark what would have been the great violinist’s centenary, and one which draws extensively on recordings, information and artefacts from the EMI archive at Hayes. We have one to give away - find out more here.
Talk of lifelong legacies brings us sadly on to Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who died on March 5 as we were preparing the new issue for the printers. A pioneer of period-performance practice, something which also naturally informed his work with modern-instrument orchestras, he was a hugely influential and inspiring figure for both musicians and audiences. We will pay tribute in our next edition - but in the meantime, we have published online a celebration of Harnoncourt's greatest recordings.
A version of this editorial appears in the April issue of Gramophone, on sale now