It Sounds Like an Edit!

Welcome to my new blog, where I’ll be telling some of the stories from my research into Britain’s classical music recording industry! For my first post, I want to recount the story that gives this blog its name—which is also probably the story that I’ve told most frequently when presenting my research.

I was in Zurich observing the Tonhalle Orchestra record Mahler’s 10th Symphony. (This is a poignant work for Mahler fans: left unfinished at his death in 1911, it has been “completed” several times. On this occasion, conductor David Zinman had chosen to use the edition by Clinton Carpenter, rather than the more famous—but much less musical—version by Deryck Cooke.)

These sessions were remarkable for a number of reasons, not least of which was the high level of subtlety and polish by the orchestra. But what captured my attention most was the intuitive relationship between Zinman and the producer Chris Hazell. They had worked together many times before; in fact, as I later learned, Hazell and engineer Simon Eadon had been recording Zinman’s records since he was conductor of the Baltimore Symphony. Over time, the recordists (producer and engineer) had developed a close relationship with the conductor, to the point where they were able to sense and anticipate each others’ feedback and musical preferences.

On the first night of the session, the group was recording the symphony’s substantial second movement. There is one moment when the music speeds up a few clicks while changing dynamic from a mezzo-forte to piano. It’s not an easy transition for the orchestra to make: there are more than a few musicians playing and there is no clear relationship between the two tempi, so the only thing for the orchestra to do is to watch the conductor and learn the feel of the transition from rehearsal. And on this snowy Zurich night, the orchestra made the tempo change absolutely perfectly. It was stunning.

Chris, seated at the table next to Simon and the mixing board, took a moment to process and appreciate what he had just heard.

Then he yelled, “It sounds like an edit!”

Chris new immediately that he couldn’t put that take of the tempo change on the final record. It sounded so perfect, with nothing even a hair out of place, that listeners wouldn’t believe that it was real—even though we all had just heard the orchestra do it in real time.

I have frequently used this event as a synecdoche for my research because here, in this one performance that was too perfect to appear on a record, we have the state of modern classical recording in a nutshell. Making a classical recording is not a matter of simply setting up your microphones and capturing a great performance; the nature of recording changes the way we think of the music, and has incrementally done for more than a century of classical music records. Those of us in the control room in Zurich heard a profound musical statement in that tempo and dynamic transition.

But a perfect performance does not necessarily make a perfect record. Classical records are routinely made with substantial patching and editing, removing flawed elements and pasting in corrections. This has been true for decades, ever since the introduction of magnetic tape made editing possible and, with the advent of digital recording, trivial. As a corollary, listeners are often skeptical of moments that sound too perfect. That moment in the Mahler recording, for instance: it would sound to many listeners like Chris had awkwardly spliced together two takes that had happened at separate moments. That it was actually played in real time was completely irrelevant to the realities that recordists and musicians confront when they make records.

Thus why I present this small moment as a stand-in for the main theme that will tie together many of the posts on this blog: my observations in classical recording studios have led me to the conclusion that not only is the art of record production in classical music far more sophisticated than most people realize, but that we also need to radically reimagine what we even consider a “performance” or a musical “work.” For a long time, the classical music world has been relatively content to let a conservative notion of performance lie at the heart of its musicianship and its scholarship. But while this was happening, the world of classical music has been infiltrated, Trojan horse-like, by creative producers and engineers who were remaking the idea of performance before our eyes. We no longer live in a world of easy, coherent performances. As we see in Zurich, and whether we like it or not, performances of classical music are now only intelligible with reference to the technologies that chop them up, reassemble them, and distribute them to listeners around the world.

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