Anthony Robb

During this enforced lockdown there has been a plethora of different offerings online by various arts organisations, to try and maintain their public profile whilst live interactive performances are not possible. These range from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra opening up access to their Digital Concert Hall, through to live streamed performances on social media by individual artists. Some of these are purely for entertainment; a noteworthy example is a multi-tracked version of the “Birdie Song” played by a heckelphone (worth looking up). Others attempt to recreate the feeling of a live performance with a dedicated streaming time on various platforms. The success of all these projects as a substitute for live concerts is variable to say the least.

When BCMG asked me to film/record Varèse's Density 21.5 as an alternative way of allowing our audiences to hear the piece on the same day as it had originally been programmed, I accepted the project with very little idea of quite how much of a challenge it would be – I have been playing professionally for more than 30 years (performing, recording and broadcasting).

Performing musicians are used to two different modes of performing these days: live concerts, usually in front of an audience, and recording in a studio either for CD or broadcast. It is extremely rare to record these days without editing being possible, unless it is a "live" recording, which is usually done in front of an audience.

Performing live has its own adrenaline rush that can enhance a performance and give a sense of spontaneity and excitement. Whilst performances done like this often have a few minor blips and errors, they have an energy that is palpable to the listener. Recording in a studio environment means that technical perfection is possible, and gives the opportunity to edit small sections. The end product can be enhanced with editing to allow the most exciting/musical parts of each "take" to be used giving what can still add up up to the feeling of a live performance.

The first problem with this project was to solve was where to record. The Varèse is a short piece (just over 4 minutes) but it explores the full range of the flute’s dynamics, ranging from piano to triple forte, and it uses the entire compass from bottom C up to top D (more than three octaves above). Ideally, one would perform the piece in a large space to allow the louder dynamics to be heard without discomfort for both the performer and audience!

We are fortunate to have a detached house, so soundproofing was not an issue, but modern houses are not designed for recording and acoustically, there are very few places with any ambient resonance. There is a reason people enjoy singing in the bathroom. However, I didn’t really feel it would be appropriate to film in our bathroom, no matter how good it sounded! We have a small studio in the garden which has a reasonable resonance, so my first attempts were recorded there. However, the size of the room meant that the phone was too close and the sound was distorted. Time to think again. Our kitchen was the next choice, and after some serious furniture removal (which our dogs found most confusing) I was able to set the phone in a position that gave a reasonable backdrop and where the sound was more flattering.

Doing a "live" recording, at home with no audience and no editing means you have to concentrate on doing a take as near perfect as possible, knowing there is no chance to edit. In many ways this harks back to the early days of recording where it was normal to do complete takes of a piece many times until an acceptable version was achieved. There was no adrenaline, and the experience felt sterile and dead. In order to compensate for this, I found myself actually having to visualise a performance environment to make each attempt as good and musically vibrant as possible. 

Knowing that the end product was going to be used as a professional quality performance (even if the the actual production values were limited by what was available at the time), and one that could possibly be in the public domain in perpetuity, added to the pressure I felt in doing this short project.

My daughter (17) had the unenviable task of operating the phone, and listening to the four separate takes - for me, she was the ‘audience’. The gratifying feedback from her was that each take she listened enabled her to understand the piece better. She has an excellent ear for classical music (though has no desire to go into this field) and was able to spot moments where each take had not gone quite as well as before. At the end of the final take, she caught my eye and gave me a thumbs-up. We had to get the BCMG editor to clip out the rather goofy grin I gave her at that point, as it rather spoilt the atmosphere of the film; but for me, that was the much-needed audience reaction that I was missing so much.

It has been a real pleasure to do this recording. I hope that the end result will be as interesting to the people who view it, as it was to me learning how to perform under these restrictions.

The picture next to me is actually a pictorial representation of the Eurasian Golden Oriole from Messiaen's "Catalogue d'Oiseaux" by artist Mark Rowan-Hull.