The Wire

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In Writing

An ambient embrace of studio sounds. By Philip Clark

August 2017

Philip Clark delves into the sounds of the Study Room and London's V&A museum to see how the recording space itself can “speak as eloquently as the musical notes”

In the Prints and Drawings Study Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum in West London, mounted on a wall above three appropriately museum-aged personal computers, is a screen print by the British artist Liz Collini, whose work aims to tease out visual metaphors for the inner workings of language. As she explains on her website: “We live in a world saturated with written language. Sometimes we need to slow reading and writing down and to edit language to its essentials. The written word is often provisional; that which it represents is absent, ‘elsewhere’, deferred in space and time.”

An aphorism of Collini’s own invention – “Among the indescribable sounds of paper, moving” – sits at the foreground of her V&A screen print, words that she floats against a pastoral backdrop and her piece casts a discernible spell across the space, especially if “indescribable sounds” happen to be your thing. I’d been in the room a couple of years ago, acting on a tipoff that the sound fabric of the space was worth investigating. In those days access was strictly through prior arrangement, but, retracing my steps last month, I found a refurbished room with once boxed in windows restored, making the room’s acoustic bounce ever more present; and now anyone, Tuesday through Friday, can walk in from the street.

The Study Room is where you go if you want to plunder the V&A’s collection of works on paper and I’ve gazed in marvel at music manuscripts from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and artefacts from the tradition of English music hall and material relating to John Cage. Extended wooden tables bunched in the centre of the room create a core of muffled reverberation inside an acoustic that otherwise displays cavernous depth. Leafing through manuscripts has a hypnotic effect that isolates your senses from the tick-tock plod of clock time and it is the sound of the space, and the randomness of its patterns, that acts a point of orientation. The bleeping of digital cameras as researchers prepare to take a little of what they need home fills the high register; iPhones and iPads add a middle range of unpredictable rhythmic commotion as their faux-camera shutters click dryly. And the clarity of the acoustic allows your imagination to map out the proportional dimensions of the space, camera bleeps in the far-flung distance smudging in perspective against the urgency of more proximate snappers.

Next to me a woman who is forensically investigating ancient maps keeps removing thin rubber gloves as she types on her laptop, an action that produces a staccato smack as she snaps them off her fingers. The shuffling rhythmic motion of papers in, papers out of grand archive boxes; the dainty percussive munch of protective tissue paper; the slow drag of boxes being moved against the table all add up to a haphazard conference of sound underpinned by an unexpected fundamental: the faint buzz of strip lighting which acts as a harmonising drone. As I attempt to hear the music of ancient manuscripts in my head, my musical instincts perplexed by the antiquity of the notation – no clefs, melodic contours worming their way around a four rather than five line stave – the surround-sound of the room creates another music cast entirely in the present.

Illuminated manuscript by Cristoforo Cortese,14th century or 15th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Recording is where the process of archiving music starts, and sometimes the aura in which the music is presented, stewed in its own history, can speak as eloquently as the musical notes themselves. The trend in some classical recordings to cushion music inside an antiseptic studio backdrop can bleach its character; the warm ambient embrace of the CBS 30th Street Studio would become integral to the recordings Glenn Gould made in New York, that same mood-music colour and intimacy audible in other recordings produced there including Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue, Simon & Garfunkel’s Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, the first recording of Terry Riley’s In C and early Dylan. And those moments when recordings break their fourth wall can feel unusually revealing. The beautifully poised opening of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No 1 in Arturo Toscanini’s 1951 recording with the NBC Symphony Orchestra is punctured by an extraneous car horn securing its place in history. Lou Reed’s 1979 live album Take No Prisoners doesn’t just capture the songs; sweaty crescendos of heat, the rattle of furniture, the accents and vocal gymnastics as Lou trades barbs with his heckling audience in the pokey Greenwich Village Bottom Line club make their presence equally felt.

Liz Collini’s words about words being provisional, representing that which is deferred in time and space, also feels like an apt metaphor for recording. An absence is filled as something of note is documented; but the recording hands us more than the music. Whole stretches of time are unavoidably captured too. Strange, unforeseeable alliances are formed: Glenn Gould’s Bach and Miles Davis’s modal jazz are united by the tinting of a specific studio sound and car horns jostle alongside French horns in Beethoven – that absent elsewhere made tangible.

*With thanks to Olivia Horsfall Turner at the V&A.

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