Gramophone guest blog

How do you record the three orchestras required for Stockhausen's Gruppen?

Alan DaveyFri 29th June 2018

Alan Davey explains why BBC Radio 3 are pioneering new recording techniques for a very special broadcast

It is almost 10 years since I last heard a performance of Stockhausen’s monumental and profound work for three orchestras, Gruppen. That was on August 2, 2008 - Stockhausen day at the BBC Proms. The tubes were on strike and I remember getting on the top deck of a bus from Victoria to the Royal Albert Hall and being struck by the quiet intensity of the fellow passengers. I then realised I was on a bus full of Stockhausen aficionados, an experience not repeated before or since. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was performing, conducted by Martyn Brabbins, David Robertson and Pascal Rophé. It was a pretty glorious day, ending with Stockhausen’s Stimmung, performed by Paul Hillier and the Theatre of Voices in the strangely intimate acoustic that the Royal Albert Hall adopts late at night when in the presence of still, intense music.

So, when Simon Rattle announced he would mark his beginning with the London Symphony Orchestra with an ambitious concert of Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum and Stockhausen’s Gruppen in the vast Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, it was a BBC Radio 3 schedule-clearing moment. We programmed a powerful evening on Radio 3 for Saturday, June 30; Gruppen preceded by Opera on 3, Janáček’s From the House of the Dead from the Royal Opera House, and succeeded by our NHS Symphony - a soundscape with specially-commissioned music marking the 70th anniversary of the NHS, and concluding with Ian Venables’s blistering opera based on Sara Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. Whilst this might not be a night of casual listening it is most certainly a night of great reward, with Gruppen at the heart.

Gruppen, that glorious masterpiece whose sounds follow the profile of mighty Swiss mountains is a piece which is suited to the adventure of a live performance, and being in the audience with sounds coming from all directions around you is a key part its artistic impact. It is a unique musical achievement which can induce, in equal parts, an intellectual and visceral reaction on the part of the audience. It's a significant work of art from the 20th century, so being the home of 20th century visual art, Tate Modern is an appropriate place for it to be and, much like a Rothko should ideally be seen in person to appreciate its full depth, perhaps Gruppen is a piece that needs to be heard in a live performance to experience its full daring, complexity and jeopardy. With this in mind it’s up to us at Radio 3 to embrace that technical challenge, using binaural sound to transmit the live experience to listeners across the airwaves.

The technical challenge of capturing three orchestras in the resonant setting of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall is not to be underestimated. We will initially broadcast the concert live in finely honed stereo, providing a brilliant and accurate sound picture. At the same time, however, we will be working on a binaural mix which will be available on iPlayer Radio from Wednesday, July 4.

The binaural mix is created via a process which needs to be done by hand and human ear. Last year at the Proms, Radio 3 pioneered live binaural recording, but for the unique experience that is Gruppen we felt the live binaural technique, which relies on software helping the ear of the engineer, may not suffice. So, the BBC Research and Development team have worked closely with our Radio 3 sound engineers to develop techniques for creating spatial audio mixes directly from the microphones used in stereo mixes. New signal processing techniques allow us to position each of the microphones in three-dimensional space, and apply the filters that give the listener the impression of the sound coming from a particular direction. By combining all the microphones this way, and adding the sound from a special 3D microphone array, we can build up a binaural mix which to the listener will mimic the three dimensional aural experience of actually being in the Turbine Hall.

Gruppen is not performed often, but on this occasion we will give many thousands of people the chance to experience it - many more than can be there at the concert itself. It’s important a new generation have the chance to hear Stockhausen’s important work performed anew. Every performance should have the newly minted feel of a fresh interpretation and Rattle and his fellow conductors Matthias Pintscher and Duncan Ward will provide that incisive freshness that will lead to profound discovery for the audience. It is going to be an exciting night - challenging for the performers and Radio 3’s production crew alike. If you can’t be there, pop on your headphones and listen live or on catch up with Radio 3. Tom Service and Robert Worby will be your hosts and guides through this immersive binaural experience of Stockhausen’s Gruppen.

Gruppen from the Tate Modern will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 8.10pm on Saturday, June 30.

A binaural sound recording will be available on iPlayer Radio from Wednesday, July 4.

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