case study
Published: 08 April 2022

Mechanical technologies and their transfers. Theoretical considerations on performance analysis and its practical realisation

The third symposium of the series, Mechanical technologies and their transfers. Theoretical considerations on performance analysis and its practical realisation, took place on 8 April at the Technische Universität Berlin under the leadership and organization of Dr Karin Martensen (TU Berlin), who assembled an eclectic programme that illustrated n though-provoking ways the multiplicity of approaches that can be taken when studying performance through early recordings.

First to speak was Dr Martensen herself, with the paper entitled “In the Workshop of Edison and Berliner: Technical Influences in Sound Recording and their Repercussions on Singing”. From the premise was that the aesthetics of recordings are inextricably linked to technological uses, Dr Martensen proceeded to discuss a range of sources pertaining to Edison’s commercial recordings to shed light on the processes by which singers were selected and then, in some cases, instructed to sing in certain ways in the studio (e.g. in the Q&A, Martensen explained that singers generally had to reduce their vibrato in order to record). Dr Martensen’s paper (and her recent book) can therefore provide a valuable model for future researchers to reconstruct aesthetic priorities in specific contexts. To this, the caveat might be added that we do not always have the wealth of material that we do have for Edison, therefore making such reconstructions more difficult in some cases.

Dr Kilian Sprau’s (Universität der Künste Berlin) contribution, “Listening to Caruso. An analytical approach with regard to performance style”, illustrated how researchers might analyse a well-delimited set of recordings (in this case, recordings of Aida by Caruso, Merli and Del Monaco) through close listening, bringing in a range of contextual considerations as necessary. Indeed, Dr Sprau situated his analysis within the framework of the  transition from bel canto singing styles towards verismo, interrogating the role of Caruso as a stylist in these developments. Focusing on deviations from notated pitch (e.g. portamento) and the use of voiced consonants, Dr Sprau concluded that the stylistic decisions present in these recordings can generally be interpreted within the “bel canto to verismo” framework, with Caruso still privileging the continuity of the musical line, while Merli and specially Del Monaco disrupt it in favour of other expressive effects. Dr Sprau’s paper was illustrative of how some of the less technologically-mediated methods of analysing recordings are put into practice nowadays (see also Barbara Gentili’s work): rather than treating aspects of performance in isolation (portamento, ornamentation, voice quality, etc.), questions now  tend to go in the direction of how one or several of these aspects impact on expressivity, therefore allowing researchers to situate such recordings within the context of broader performance/music-historical trends.

Frithjof Vollmer (Staatl. Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Stuttgart) and Boris Bolles (Erich-Thienhaus-Institut Detmold) jointly presented the paper “In search for the „phonograph effect“: Performed violin gestures and their sound modification by early acoustic recording and reproduction devices (1901–1933)”, in which they attempted to provide, by empirical and innovative means, an answer to a question that many scholars of early recordings have been faced with: “How trustworthy are recordings with respect to the representation of performance practices, and are they representations of the technologies themselves?”. Vollmer and Bolles used digital impulse response simulation to answer these questions, starting with Fritz Kreisler’s 1911 recording of “Liebeslied” (Gramophone matrix A5699) which was re-enacted by violinist Johannes Brzoska. A comparative signal analysis of both recordings was carried out, as well as a small-scale comparative listening study involving Music Performance undergraduate students. Vollmer and Bolles discussed how, in comparison to psycho-acoustical evaluation (e.g. close listening) and signal analysis (e.g. through Sonic Visualizer), the signal evaluation methodology can offer researchers insights into a broader range of parameters, including dynamics, articulation, vibrato, portamento, timbre.

Dr Johannes Gebauer (Hochschule der Künste Bern) provided in his paper “Reenactment of historical Recordings – Science or Artistic Performance?” a critical evaluation of practice-led methodologies, and particularly those based on the concept of re-enactment.  Dr Gebauer established a distinction between artistic re-enactment (conducted as a recreation of the original/for better sound quality/for broadening artistic horizons), and scientific re-enactment (to understand the recording process and/or the performance) – with the caveat, voiced in the Q&A, that no re-enactment can be purely scientific, as contextualization remains extremely important. Drawing on his extensive practical experience as well as on work conducted by Kai Koepp at Bern, Dr Gebauer established the factors that a scientific re-enactment might take to successfully achieve its goal (the expertise of the performers; the contextualization of the performance and recordings within performance practice and a range of sub-texts; the analysis of the recordings following different methods). In the final part of his paper, Dr Gebauer provided an evaluation of what the future of re-enactment might be, referring to important work currently being done (by Jörg Holzmann) on filmed performance, which could add a new layer to re-enactment processes. Dr Gebauer ultimately qualified re-enactment as a good method to find an answer to very specific questions – but the question of how these findings might enter present-day performance styles remain open. All-in-all, the paper provided a thought-provoking summary of the “state of the art” of practice-led approaches to early recordings research, bringing up important questions about how one specific experiment of re-enactment might be more generalizable.

Finally, Dr João Romão (Humboldt Universität Berlin), in his paper “Stockhausen’s Microphone: Reclaiming Sound Effects”, took listeners to a later time period (1964, the year in which Microphonie I was composed), with a view to ascertaining how these later practices in experimental music might illuminate and in turn be illuminated by research into early recordings. Some thought-provoking continuities did indeed emerge throughout the paper. Firstly, the rigid institutional politics of the WDR, which extended to the conceptualization between different types of sound (e.g. Phantasie or sound effects, and Vorstellung  or music). While the institutional/business contexts of early recording companies were of course rather different, questions emerge regarding how such companies might have indeed helped shape definitions of (recorded) sound and music. Secondly, Dr Romão discussed the practice of microphoning, in use since the 1920s in early sound film and radio play, in parallel with the ascendance of the recording engineer. The development and emergence of these communities of expertise can also be tracked down to Stockhausen’s work, with the composer notating in the sketches the gestures needed to place the microphones during the process. Dr Romão referred to these communities as “media constellations” emerging since the 1900s and shaping modernity in various ways.

The symposium built up on the two previous events in helping participants identify broader challenges and issues in the field of early recordings research. For example, as was the case with symposia 1 and 2, the papers by Gebauer, Vollmer/Bolles and Sprau pointed to the need for contextual research on a range of factors pertaining broadly to both the performance and the recording process: indeed, it seems increasingly unusual for researchers to consider recordings in isolation, which is surely a positive development; of course, the difficulty might be in having access to sources as well as the ability to interpret them – which suggests that collaborative research with scholars looking at a range of contextual issues in early recordings might be a promising avenue in the future.  Martensen’s paper indeed provided an example of a scholar researching a particular aspect of the context in which recordings were made, and doing so with the aim of building an overarching paradigm that can then be applied by a range of researchers using different methods; in this sense, Romão’s hint at continuities and legacies within media constellations could be a promising avenue for research too. The papers presented in the day also revealed the new ways in which researchers – often armed with this contextual and critical knowledge – are rethinking performance parameters such as timbre, intonation, ornamentation, etc.  While detailed analysis, by whichever means, of specific performance parameters remains necessary, the day suggested that researchers increasingly contextualize such parameters within broader questions of expressivity, tradition, and mediatization, rather than considering them as mere components of “performance practices”. 

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