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A Day for the Record

James Francis Brown writes about the recording process from the composer's perspective:

Most of us support the motto ‘keep music live’. We all recognise the special, sometimes thrilling presence of a living, breathing human-being giving their utmost and reaching deeply into the recesses of their imagination.

These are the moments when we connect with other minds and spirits in an experience that is essential to maintaining our faith in the imagination. But the corollary to ‘keeping music live’ isn’t to ‘stop recording it’.

As one of the least tangible art-forms it’s strange to reflect on the fact that for so much physical effort (there are eight hundred fingers at work in a standard symphony orchestra – if you count the thumbs.) we end up with something we can’t touch or even see and though this is one of the glorious, transcendent things about music, it also leaves a suspicion of something incomplete; there’s a tantalising need to bring it into real, physical existence – to hold something that proves it exists.

Getting a musical idea out and into the world is fraught with hazards and hurdles – so many that it’s a wonder new music exists at all. Aside from the difficulties of the creative process itself, there’s the elusive task of transmitting the nature of the music to the performer and then on to the audience. There are colds to be had, instruments to malfunction, public transport to upset things and publicity to misfire, and above all this hangs, enticingly but like the sword of Damocles, the prospect of THE PUBLIC PREMIERE. This comes and goes - the promoter’s box has been ticked (the one that says ‘do you support new music?’) and the carefully, lovingly-wrought fabrication of sound falls, like dust, through the gaps in the floorboards until the next performance. Whenever that might be.

A couple of weeks ago I had one of those days when the intangible approached the tangible. My wind quintet, Heralds of Good Fortune, was recorded, thanks to the kind support of the commissioners. It’s not a conventional quintet; to my knowledge, the combination of cor anglais (+ oboe) basset horn (+ clarinet), horn and two bassoons is a first. There are more basset horn players than one might imagine, but no professional ensembles specialise in this instrumentation. So a recording becomes a vital way of persuading others that this combination is in fact a delight - to say nothing of the notes.

On the day, some of the finest young wind players working in the UK (members of the Atéa Quintet and the London Myriad Ensemble– see below) as well as one of the most experienced producers, Michael Ponder assembled in a village hall in leafy Surrey. Conditions approached the ideal; no dog barked, no car-door slammed and the sun was shining. It struck me how close recording can come to capturing the essence of live music-making. A twenty-second take may collapse in disgruntled expressions of frustration or infectious giggles but with each take, the imaginative wings spread wider and the musical ideas take flight. Our day ended with a feeling that the attrition that affects so much in music was somehow held in check.

Glenn Gould was right about recording being an art in itself. Far from being somehow rigid, even inhuman to want to eradicate the errors and lapses in concentration that occur in live performance, it’s uniquely human to not only to have an artistic conception but to wish to refine and clarify it. This, to me, is more important than demanding fidelity to the means (the performance) of conveying the conception. But Gould concentrates mainly on the interpretation of otherwise widely available music from the classical canon. For contemporary composers, it’s a red-raw necessity to be recorded; it’s part of the struggle for a sense of imaginative existence.

It’s not just about satisfying the composer’s need for expression though. With the opportunity to listen repeatedly to a new work – sufficiently, let’s say, to establish its staying-power, the private listener can participate, to some degree, in what we hear – to engage in a spot of cultural sifting. Voting with feet at the concert hall isn’t a bad thing if we can do a bit of research.

The financial prospects for recording are pretty depressing –and that’s a huge subject in itself. Only the affluent can afford to entertain ambitious recording projects in the era of free-downloads and it’s disastrous to let money alone determine what makes it out into the world. A broad spectrum of philanthropy, whether public or private, is the only way I can see to avoiding this state of affairs. There’s a lot of luck in it too.

Paradoxically it may be time for a new motto – ‘keep recorded music alive’.

Heralds of Good Fortunehas now been published by Music Haven and was recorded by the following artists:

Fiona Myall - cor anglais/oboe

Anna Hashimoto - basset horn/clarinet

Chris Beagles - horn

Ashley Myall - bassoon

Daniel Emson-Jukes – bassoon



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