Practitioner listening 1

Parallel session B1 (Chair: Tania Lisboa)
24 Oct 2015
10:15 - 11:15
Parry Room 2

Practitioner listening 1

‘From where they sat’: listening experiences of 20th-century British wind players

Dr Ingrid Pearson, Royal College of Music

In 1956 in his Clarinet Technique, clarinettist Frederick Thurston remarked: ‘All the books, all the articles and technical advice in the world are of little note unless you have in your “mind’s ear” the particular sound you wish to make. Presumably you will have decided this by listening to various fine players, if possible at public performances, because even nowadays the radio and the gramophone cannot reproduce tone quality completely faithfully’.

Fellow clarinettist, Jack Brymer, confirms the inadequacies of 1930s broadcast technology to reproduce realistic musical sounds: ‘Not even all the wonders of the BBC could really make contact with us then because although symphony concerts were a daily part of the broadcast menu, the wireless sets of the day were incapable of delivering anything like the sound of an orchestra. I feel sure that anyone who had actually been in the presence of a great orchestra could reconstruct the sound from the attenuated version which came from the tinny horn-speakers of the day… .’

Both these views suggest something of the importance of a player’s own need to conceptualise an ideal sound, one which has obviously developed from their own listening experiences. Furthermore they remind 21st-century listeners of the tremendous fidelity with which we are now able to listen to music, post hoc.

Continuing earlier work of mine, this paper seeks to reconcile experiences of 20th-century British wind players, particularly those who were clarinettists. It draws upon autobiographical evidence as well as contemporary performance practices, as well as experiences documented up until the third quarter of the 20th century. This was an era before globalisation began to homogenise national performance practices and erode idiosyncrasies, and these players’ careers blossomed at a time when the recording industry was enjoying a golden age.

‘A listening boy’: a case study of the young Benjamin Britten 1928-1938

Simon Brown, Royal College of Music

This paper will draw extensively on the listening experiences of Benjamin Britten between the years 1928- 1938. This is the only period of his life during which Britten kept a daily journal. As such his listening experiences are mentioned in almost every entry. John Evans noted in the preface to his 2010 published edition that, ‘the entries grow in length, complexity and private reflection; intimate thoughts were committed to a succession of pocket and desk diaries, [during] a period of self-reflection’. After 1938 Britten’s only first-hand accounts of his listening experiences are available through his letters. His diaries therefore provide a unique and valuable insight into the unsolicited testimony of a practitioner.

Dating from the composer’s fourteenth year, Britten’s diaries trace his development from Gresham’s School in Holt, North Norfolk, to his time studying at the Royal College of Music, through to his early career working for the General Post Office Film Unit, the Group Theatre and the BBC. By the end of 1938 Britten was on the brink of establishing an international career. His personal accounts enable us to explore a period of his life that would have a profound influence on him. Britten frequently comments on listening to his own music as a composer, but also the effects of listening to others. His responses include different listening environments; such as during rehearsals, live at concerts, via radio broadcasts and on the gramophone player. Britten often records valuable details of the performers and the repertoire, in addition to his reaction to it, along with that of the audience.

This paper will also aim to provide a case study for the AHRC-funded Listening Experience Database (LED). What can we learn by entering a practitioner’s experiences into a resource such as LED? What types of findings can be extracted when entered in this way that perhaps were not immediately apparent beforehand? Does it offer us new insights into the life and career of such musicians, and/or possibly even confirm existing assumptions, which have never been tested in this way? Within this paper, I will assess the extent to which LED might benefit the study of practitioner listening within the Digital Humanities framework.