Conference Review: Mechanical Technologies and their Transfers, Berlin, April 2022

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

Technical University Berlin, 7 April 2022

Conference report by Jörg Holzmann (Bern/Salzburg)

On 7 April 2022, the third of five symposia within the research network “Redefining Early Recordings as Sources for Performance Practice and History” funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council took place at the Technische Universität Berlin. This project is led by Eva Moreda Rodríguez (University of Glasgow) and Inja Stanović (City, University of London), as well as Karin Martensen (Technische Universität Berlin) as international partner.

The project brings together researchers, performers, curators, technicians and collectors from around the world who are concerned with early sound recordings. The first symposium of the network took place in Huddersfield in September 2021, with a focus on the application of historical recordings in practice-based research, while the second, held in Glasgow in January 2022, looked at the great methodological diversity required to define them as a complex source. The symposium in Berlin was dedicated to historical mechanical technologies and their transfers, with a total of six researchers addressing the possibilities of their utilisation for interpretive research in five lectures.

Karin Martensen (Technical University Berlin) opened the round of lectures with a discussion of the effects of the technical conditions of the studio on early vocal recordings. The contribution discussed how the fact that the aesthetics of a sound recording were inseparably linked to the practice of singing and the history of the use of the body was first illustrated by the vocal experiments conducted by Edison and his colleagues over decades. Martensen used documents from the archives in Hayes (EMI) and New York (Sony) to discuss how these processes took place in the studios committed to Emil Berliner and what results were achieved there. In both cases, it was shown that even the early sound recording and its sonic result differed considerably from the musical events on stage, since not only the sound recording equipment and its components had an influence on the sonic result, but also the people involved in the recording itself.

In his lecture, Kilian Sprau (Berlin University of the Arts) pursued the question, to what extent the transition from bel canto to the aesthetics of verismo represent an appropriate parameter in the evaluation of historical sound recordings and located Enrico Caruso’s singing within this stylistic change. According to Sprau, the bel canto tradition is characterised by the primacy and integrity of the vocal line, the fusion of text articulation and the sound of the voice, and the elaborate use of ornamentation. In the course of the “veristic turn”, this receded into the background in favour of the emphasis on strong contrasts and the use of naturalistic effects such as sobbing, which results in a stringing together of thoroughly interesting but isolated musical events. This change in style was traced on the basis of three recordings of the same recitative: “Se quell guerrier io fossi!” from the first act in Verdi’s Aida. The chosen criteria for analysis were deviations from the notated pitch and whether sung consonants were voiced or not. Whereas with Enrico Caruso (1911) the musical line was in the foreground, with Mario del Monaco (1951) individual effects were more clearly emphasized. In the recording with Francesco Merli (1926-30), on the other hand, the two stylistic principles balanced each other out.

Frithjof Vollmer (Staatl. Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Stuttgart) and Boris Bolles (Erich-Thienhaus-Institut Detmold) reported on their search for the “phonograph effect”. Based on Mark Katz’s assumption that the original violin sound in historical recordings was modified to such an extent that the violinists inevitably had to react to it in their playing, a recording of Fritz Kreisler’s “Liebesleid” from 1911 was re-enacted, whereby the original chains of modifications (impulse responses) to 20 historical gramophone setups were first digitally determined and then applied to the re-enactment. In addition to articulation and timbre, special attention was paid to vibrato and portamento. Moreover, the effects on the perception of those “played violin gestures” were measured in a small pilot study with music students, whereby it turned out that both the historical increase in vibrato and the decrease in portamento could have predominantly psychoacoustic reasons, while changes in articulation and timbre were to be classified as directly physically influenced.

Johannes Gebauer (Hochschule der Künste, Bern) discussed some fundamental considerations on the balancing act between science and art in musical reenactments in general and those of historical sound recordings. In archaeology, criminology and numerous other disciplines, these re-enactments of the past have become an established method for various scientific research approaches and are also increasingly used in interpretive research. In the case of artistic events, however, the concept raises fundamental questions and problems, such as the ways in which re-enactments are distinct from the creative process in itself. However, if the re-enactment of historical recordings is carried out in a controlled environment as an attempt to recreate the original process, it becomes, according to Gebauer, a method of scientific truth-telling. As such, it can furthermore continue to be seen as a preparation for a more creative approach, but can also be used purely to test scientific hypotheses and to understand otherwise inexplicable phenomena of historical performances. Gebauer’s explanations were vividly underlined by his own experiences as a violinist in the project “Chasing Dr. Joachim”.  

The conference was concluded by João Romão (Humboldt University, Berlin) who spoke about Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I (Microphony I), which was created in 1964/65 and is considered one of his most important works and a pioneering step in the production of electronic music outside professional studios. In this recorded performance, Stockhausen did not use the microphone to merely record sounds, but as a tool for actively manipulating them. In his contribution, Romão questioned Stockhausen’s “self-adulatory narrative” and showed how it brought practices and expertise more traditionally associated with the palette of a sound engineer back into the hands of the composer, as it were. Starting from a cultural and media-historical perspective, the analysis focused on the transfer of technical skills, the resulting abolition of strict genre boundaries and the influence of this process on the soundscape of (West) Germany in the decades after the Second World War.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *