Considering they had recently been duped into thinking that a Martian landing was underway by an Orson Welles radio play, you wonder quite what Americans made of Leopold Stokowski’s alternative future for sound recording, as mapped out in his 1943 book Music for All of Us. “The first step is to make music [sound] exactly like the original,” he wrote. Nothing controversial there. But then a prophecy that, to Average Joes everywhere, could only have sounded like a fantasist’s pipedream: “The next step is to surpass the original and, through the future possibilities of recording, to achieve the dreams of musicians – of making music still more beautiful and eloquent, music they heard within themselves but which was unattainable in the past.”
And if Stokowski’s dream sounded like a future, the Classical Establishment has proved curiously reluctant to wake up. In the parallel universes of rock and jazz recording, studio-specific techniques like overdubbing, flipping material between tracks, tape reversal and manufacturing instrumental shadings not possible acoustically is common practice. Producers Teo Macero, George Martin and Phil Spector (working with Miles Davis, The Beatles and The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson respectively) wired the process of recording into the circuitry of the music itself. Miles Davis’s 1969/70 album Bitches Brew was finely structured and “orchestrated” at a mixing desk after his musicians had already left the building, Davis and Macero puréeing hours of source recordings into a 90-minute montage of abstracted blues forms which triggered the jazz-rock revolution. As it appeared on vinyl, Bitches Brew could never have been re-played live.
As the composer and onetime Henry Cow reedsman/keyboardist Tim Hodgkinson put it in the 2007 Awards issue of Gramophone: “Rock music was born along with the idea of exploring what you could do creatively with recording. If you’re going to record your piece, how are you going to record it? Even today classical musicians don’t think that way and the idea that a recording could be more than just documentation of a piece seems alien to that culture. There are sharp people like Pierre Boulez who have explored having instruments in different places from where they should be in the stereo, but that’s been the exception rather than the rule.” So why does the culture of classical music regard recording as a secondary, functional activity? And what of musicians who are thinking through Stokowski’s future possibilities of recording? This music that was unattainable in the past – is it really more beautiful and eloquent than what went before?
Well, imagine music suddenly liberated from physical, bodily realities – from the topography of lungs and fingers operating instruments producing those recognisable contours of ‘music’ on which Bitches Brew, for all its state-of-the-art plumbing, still relied. Imagine music constructed from infinite sustains, from immeasurably subtle nuances of tuning or hairline rhythmic ratios too complex for the human brain to add up. Imagine a whole new syntax and gestural language. Imagine recording not just capturing the moment in a studio, but the process of recording as music.
When the German electronic music composer Florian Hecker released Acid In The Style of David Tudor on the Editions Mego label in 2009, his title provoked puzzled amusement. David Tudor, John Cage’s pianist of choice, a composer himself later, put against Acid House, the sonic heartbeat of rave culture – druggy hedonism in the style of the master interpreter of the non-intentioned piano piece? The connection is…? As it turned out, Hecker’s title was more perceptive than anyone thought, encapsulating as it did the development of electronics from first generation pioneers like Cage, Stockhausen and Pierre Henry towards a new wave of electronic composers like him, who had arrived at their art via electric pop and rock, and the rave scene.
Plugged into their natural habitat, Acid beats spew out of a Roland TB-303 synthesiser, but Hecker generated his sounds from a Buchla, an ancient early ‘60s modular synth, which he meshed through a 1968 Comdyna GP-6 computer: 1968, the year Tudor created his seminal Rainforest installation where objects suspended from the ceiling dripped vibrations onto loudspeakers. Pour Acid In The Style of David Tudor into your CD player, and you’re drawn into a similarly uncharted sonic ecosystem that might require some re-acclimatisation. A shrill, acidic blast nails itself to your senses. But Hecker’s studio alchemy reveals this crude assault, in fact, has hidden depths. Hecker drills inside his beat to reveal intricate inner mechanics: what you’re hearing is built from an overlay of tremulous “feeder” beats which, as they burn themselves out, collapse into a pile-driver roar.
Individual beats loop around themselves; the loop itself is looped is looped is looped is looped to mould fractalising growth spurts. But loops tend to be a blunt structural device, and Hecker has the studio sharpen their architectural clout. Before dovetailing back into itself, each loop abruptly fades to silence. Not silence, though, in the sense that, when an instrumental soloist stops playing, the background atmosphere continues to resonate. The studio allows Hecker to plunge a lever down to zero, shaping his wall of sound with a punctuating comma of nothingness. It’s enough to make you forget that music ever existed in the concert hall because Acid In The Style of David Tudor doesn’t occupy any physical space, or venue or place. This music only exists on disc. It sucks you in precisely because of its virtual reality. No matter how vividly Sherlock Holmes dwells in our imagination, really he only lives on the page – and the only place Hecker’s virtual sonic sculpture has to unfold is inside your head. Like all the music here, it’s an example of what’s been termed “immersive listening”.
Leopold Stokowski, too, intuited that implications of the recorded environment were well worth trying to understand. If an orchestra is to be recorded, what now is its “natural” sound? “Some years ago,” Stokowski wrote, “there would have been many waiting to answer in terms quite definite, but enlarging the concept of sound, and new possibilities of controlling and modifying it, inevitably lead us to distrust the certainties of years not long past. The whole sphere of sound has become vastly freer.” Anticipating Hecker’s voyage inside recorded sound, Stokowski had his NBC engineers rig up a mixing board next to his podium so he could artificially mix sound as he conducted. But by all accounts Stokowski’s flavas were musically risible: deafening Wagnerian fortissimos were pushed into the red and quiets disappeared off the radar altogether. The NBC radio engineers were scrambled to control these volatile swells in volume – but eventually they’d enough, and disconnected Stokowski’s mixing board without telling him.
Stokowksi’s miscalculation was as fundamental as now it is understandable – this was, after all, 1943. By exaggerating the dynamic spectrum of music designed to be internally balanced anyway, he unwittingly wound up with a caricature of the original. But imagine if Stokowksi had been prescient enough to take his interest in recording to the next logical step, commissioning pieces where recording and realtime sound manipulation was embedded inside the rationale of the music! Sixty years later, in the South Yorkshire city of Sheffield, Simon Reynell thought through the same issues of matching music and recording. And the result – his Another Timbre label.
Another Timbre serves up a bountiful feast of improvised music – artists like saxophonist Seymour Wright, trumpeter Axel Dörner, harpist Rhodri Davies, guitarists Keith Rowe and John Russell – and composed music too…well, sort of. Reynell determined the label he wanted to run by listening into what the music he wanted to record was telling him. “Everything we release is either improvised or a realisation of an indeterminate score,” he explains. “Every recording documents a unique event, recorded in a particular location at a particular time. The music doesn’t pre-exist the recording session in the way, say, a Beethoven quartet does. Conventional recordings attempt to deny the specificity of the recording context. People buying classical music on CD want to hear a Beethoven quartet in an ideal form, rather than focusing on the particularities of the acoustic where it was recorded. But improvised and semi-improvised music belongs to the environment in which it is created. The environment inevitably affects the music as it is made, so it’s not generally a good idea to try to abstract it from that context in the recording process.
“So, for instance, the [improvising] violinist Angharad Davies has built a huge vocabulary of sounds by playing parts of her instrument that are normally avoided, or by exploring the small squeaks and scrapes that inevitably, and accidentally, occur but which are suppressed when you play the violin ‘straight’. You really only hear these sounds if you place a microphone closer than normal to the instrument. So very close-miking is central to most recording I do.”
Midhopestones, the first Another Timbre disc I heard, felt instinctively different from any other recording of improvised music previously encountered. As the microphone is switched on, the musicians – Rhodri Davies (harp), Michel Doneda (soprano saxophone), Louisa Martin (laptop), Phil Minton (voice), Lee Patterson (objects) – are located in space, like the aperture of a lens patrolling a landscape and then zooming into intriguing local detail. Only then are notes sounded. With its pockmarked ambience and granular beauty, this recorded environment clearly isn’t a neutral “ideal” backdrop – more like the music becomes part of the grain like circles and knotholes in a woodcutting. When Reynell issued his recording of John Cage’s Electronic Music for Piano, again the process of recording was integral to the creative act. John Tilbury’s realtime studio performance, with Sebastian Lexer operating the electronics, was itself treated to a randomised edit that folded Cage’s instructions not only into the music, but into the recording.
This release, for me, was a highlight of 2010: in the August 2010 issue of Gramophone, I suggested the Another Timbre Electronic Music for Piano was more an objectified view of a recording than a “record” per se. And still I’m mesmerised by its smart use of silence. By counterpointing silence harvested during the recording against silent disc-space, our ears become über-sensitised to different shadings and timbres of silence. Cage’s ideas about silence take on fresh significance, and Reynell’s next project, five CDs released as Silence and after, includes a performance of Cage’s late period Four4.
As he explains: “Four4 is for four percussionists who play unspecified instruments, and we decided to have one player use a piano as the source of his percussive sounds. We ended up recording in a rehearsal room in London where several pianos were stored, which had to be kept at a constant temperature. But the temperature control system made a low buzzing sound, not a problem for most kinds of music, but a big problem for a piece which is often extremely quiet and contains a lot of silence. The venue agreed in the end to turn off the offending buzz for a couple of hours, and the recording was fine.
“An interesting issue came up with the mixing though. I proposed a mix which made no attempt to recreate the stereo panorama as it had been in the room. So each of the musicians’ sounds were potentially spread across the whole panorama – and in an inconsistent way. An instrument which at one point appeared centre left might be hard right the next time it came in. The idea was to immerse the listener inside the sounds, and abstract sound from the sense of the disc being a document of a performance. One of the musicians was unhappy with this ‘immersive’ style of mixing but the others approved, so won the day. I hadn’t planned this when I set up the microphones for each player, but it’s something I felt worked, and there’s an example of the ways in which the technical process can transform the listening experience, but I hope it works in a subtle way, and that no-one hearing the disc stops to think about why any particular sound comes from this or that direction.”
Of course most music has a beginning and an end, with a middle you find somewhere in between. Cage spent his life blowing apart these beginning-middle-end narratives, an obsession to which the anonymously authored electronic soundscapes by that enigmatic persona we know as Eleh gives a peculiarly 21st century perspective. He refuses all requests for interviews. In fact only recently was it confirmed that Eleh, a designer-androgynous name (pronounced, as it happens, “Ella”), is male. And the thinking behind this apparent subterfuge derives from a purist immersive listening mindset – the listener must focus on sound not on personality, although, inevitably, every fan is itching to know his real identity.
Until Eleh’s 2010 CD, Location Momentum, all his releases were on vinyl. The reason: titles like Floating Frequencies/Intuitive Synthesis I, Homage To The Square Wave, Meditations and Improvisations and Radiant Intervals (his next release, due in early 2011) symbolise a tactile engagement with sound matter. Eleh’s base material is almost laughably simple: drones, frequency waves, deep bass tones and analogue synthesis (i.e carving sound from pure electronic waves, not samples or digital synthesis), materials for which the digital CD would be symbolically inappropriate.
But listing techniques like analogue synthesis and drones is meaningless, like claiming Beethoven is all about C sharps and violins; it’s what Eleh does with his material that counts. The first piece from Location Momentum, “Heleneleh”, is constructed from a field of frequencies that, over a 20-minute span, morph and dissolve. Listeners experience sound working on their senses – and the deeper you listen to Eleh’s apparently seamless surface, the deeper minute fluctuations of frequency “wobble”, or a single shifting overtone, count. Then, out of nowhere, a crisis: low-frequency bass glissandi brutally crack the continuum, throwing open the space and sending your ears into a tailspin.
Is this more beautiful and eloquent that what went before? Who’s to say, but certainly Eleh’s music deals with the actualité – music as authentic to its own medium as Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was tied to the development of keyboard technology. And now, perhaps, the game is afoot: British electronic musician Matthew Herbert’s re-composition of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, released this year as part of Deutsche Grammophon’s Recomposed series, used studio techniques to do precisely the opposite of Deryck Cooke’s completion/performance edition. Herbert “de-completed” and fragmented Mahler’s uncompleted symphony, transforming it again into an open-ended work in progress, assembling a montage about Mahler’s Tenth that reclaimed its sound from its history. Herbert recorded himself playing Sinopoli’s legendary Philharmonia recording by Mahler’s grave, and in the cabin where the piece was written. “We filled the work with ghosts,” Herbert wrote, “the tension between the internal and the external, the living and the dead, the present and the past made real.” The symphony of a thousand…bits.
Should Mahler be recorded with essentially the same set-up as Haydn? Should a Beethoven piano sonata be recorded from the pianist’s perspective, or as though the listener is sitting in the stalls at the Royal Festival Hall? Immersive listening throws these questions wide open. For all those painstakingly argued ideologies of vibrato, instrument types and tempi thrown up by the historically informed performance movement, recording is rarely mentioned; then again contemporary composers, as Tim Hodgkinson suggests, remain oddly sanguine about how their music recorded. And if they don’t care, who does?
Log on to the Gramophone Player to hear an exceprt from John Cage’s Electronic Music for Piano, on Another Timbre (you need to be registered on gramophone.co.uk - click for more details). You'll find it at the end of the February Playlist.
Mahler Symphony X - Recommposed by Matthew Herbert - listen to excerpts from Deutsche Gramophon