Listening With Your Ears

Listening With Your Ears (5)

I suppose this might seem an odd title for a blog. 'Listening With Your Ears'. Well, what else do we listen with? I suppose you would have to ask a profoundly deaf person that as we know there are other ways of 'hearing'. The most obvious example is the percussionist Evelyn Glennie who claims to feel the vibrations of the music through her body and able to interpret them into some sort of sense. This maybe more common than we perhaps think. I mention this in a blog not written for some time, as I have just been listening with interest to a new arrival of some re-mastered recordings of the great Australian Prima Donna Dame Nellie Melba. The are many recordings and re-issues of Melba, most of them difficult to assimilate as the sound quality is often less than splendid, and indeed, I have all of Melbas issued work, both on original shellac 78s, and various CD compilations. What attracted me to this new disc, released on the Australian branch of Decca records - their Eloquence label, (which for the most part it is) was the fact that the re-mastering has been adjusted to French pitch around 420hz which Melba apparently favoured, that being slightly lower than our standard A 440hz that modern orchestras tune to.

This, at first thought seems spurious. Melba had great power and sway in her peak of fame, but it seems highly unlikely the pianos and orchestras across London would be re-tuning just for the great diva. In any case pitch in different countries was mostly variable, and London  between the 1890s to the early part of the twentieth century was invariably higher than European counterparts in Paris or Milan for example. Indeed, pitch wasn't made uniform until 1939 when A was set at the familiar 440hz. I remember when I was very obsessively collecting 78s and finding Gramex, a wonderful emporium in Waterloo of 78s, vinyl and compact disc run by eccentric and brilliant proprietor Roger Hewland, whose knowledge of his stock, artists and most importantly the matrix recording numbers is quite extraordinary. He is a very forthright character, and quite happy to expound the virtues of his opinion, which is for the most part most entertaining. I took a pile of rare Melba to the counter and was peered at austerely.

"I don't like Melba, I prefer Tetrazzini" (Luisa Tetrazzini was an Italian coloratura soprano and great rival of Melba. Melba won every one of their operatic battles!)  Anyway, Roger continued, "Still, it's not for me to decide what my customers should buy, so let's see what you've got," and with that he whisked the discs from my arms and at once started looking at the matrix numbers and then scribbling on the cardboard covers like a mad accountant.

"What are you doing Roger?"

"Marking the correct speeds for these discs" I looked puzzled and he replied, "Most of Melba's discs shouldn't be played at 78, mostly they were recorded in the region of between 70 and 72." I continued to look puzzled and he rolled his eyes Heavenward. It makes the pitch more acceptable as Melba didn't record well at 78 rpm you see? I did see and that explained why there could be a somewhat tinny and thin sound to her tone, which in the theatre was legendary for its clarion quality, beauty and flexibility. Armed with my precious discs, I boarded a train home as quickly as possible to test this theory out for myself. Disc on the turntable, spring motor wound, I sat to listen to the great Nellie with the new speed set at 72 rpm. The sound that greeted me nearly knocked me over. There was a vibrant soprano filling the room and I at once understood something of the mystique of her legendary tone. The rest of the evening was spent enjoying my new found sounds. No longer did Melba sound like a twittering soprano a la Snow White! Now, listening to my new and very enjoyable disc, I am delighted to hear a similar quality, but it does occur to me that the recording boys at Decca have got their facts slightly askew. I would suggest that the original recordings were made at the speeds Roger set for me, and the piano and orchestra was tuned to whatever the pitch was at that particular time - London was invariably a half tone higher than the continent, and there would be no need to alter the original masters still further. However, that is only my slant on the whole endeavour, and of course, recording companies are always trying to gain more income via this means of 'new realisation'.

Having spent half of my life listening to ancient and scratch recordings (eggs and bacon we call 'em!) I am always irked when people are desultory about them, with such quotes as "Of course, if they were around now, they'd get nowhere, we wouldn't put up with such sounds", or "They all sound so thin and so out of tune". These of course, are the ramblings of the ignoramus. Puccini called Melba the 'Mimi of my dreams' when she appeared as the heroine of La Boheme, and she was on friendly terms with Verdi, Saint-Saens, Gounod, Massenet, Thomas, Sullivan & Tosti, and it's unlikely they would have tolerated anything than the best. No dear reader, you have to listen through the murk. It takes time, but the rewards are manifold, and I almost feel like I shouldn't be eavesdropping on the past. I am glad I do, as it's invaluable as any sort of reference for modern singing, which is so often about shouting rather, and not having any style whatsoever. In Melba's day even the basses had enviable trills and cadenzas at their disposal. As to singing loudly, all of these 'Golden Age' singers knew whether they were in Grand Opera, Light Opera of the Music Hall, the importance of allowing the voice to just be as it is, freely produced and then filling the auditoriums; something our erstwhile modern counterparts should take heed of. You can bark your head off onstage at Covent Garden, and close to would sound a large and magnificent sound no doubt. But does it get further than the back of the Orchestra Stalls? I very much doubt it.

So, 'Listening With Your Ears' may not be such a strange title after all. How many of us actually listen to the person they're talking to? I should hazard a guess that not one in fifty really listen. Do try! It's one of our greatest sensual attributes, and without it, the world would be a much duller place.

Thursday, 24 April 2014 09:18

An Artistic Thought...

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'......It has been suggested to me that I write a blog – “What for?” I hear you cry, and I cannot say that I am entirely sure, but anyway, here goes...

It occurs to me, as I sit here diligently tapping at lightning speed on my laptop’s long-suffering keyboard, that the effects of the local hostelry; delightful though it may be, is probably not the best preparation for writing something lucid or indeed, interesting. It is something I have never fully understood or managed to work out in my head. That being, the feeling that catches you unaware from too much embication. Sometimes I can sit in the pub from the middle of the afternoon until closing time and have no ill or lasting effects. On other occasions, a couple of pints is enough to send me to bed in a state of rabid torpor and practically comatose! Not only do I consider this to be completely unfair, but it also means that, rather than avoid the inevitable consequences, I go back time and time again, with the excuse ringing in my ears that I know completely what I am doing, and it will all be ok. I speak as a complete buffoon!

This sudden bit of writing is also an excuse. As I have remarked, I was feeling less than brilliant on waking, and have a large and complicated canvas to finish which has only six days before it is unveiled. I peered at said canvas and was at once fascinated and repulsed by the whole thing. Painting is not something I find particularly easy or enjoyable. It is something that is inside me and must be done – it’s comparable to singing. I don’t much care for the process, but I do like the end result. I suppose this is the outcome of yesterday's drink-fest? That was an excuse to escape from the canvas that wasn''t behaving as I wanted it to, and with a muzzy brain this morning, applying paint to canvas just isn''t going to cut it. Thankfully, there are always other chores I can do to put off painting, but will in due course realise that I must give myself a jolly good talking to and a ticking off, and get back to the job in hand. If I am honest with myself, I can see the painting is going well, and I think will be a success. There is, of course, the lurking doubt at the back of any creative person’s brain that one is a failure, and the piece of work, be it painting, sculpture, composition; whatever it may be, will not be worthy or worthwhile.

That is the dichotomy of such tasks I suppose.

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