Heard it before

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Can we play "records" made before recording was invented?

Shouldn't it be possible, maybe using some hi-tech modern gizmo, to "play"

the grooves on an ancient vase, and recover the buzz of the studio, including the chat and the laughter and the risky left-wing jokes about Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain? It's a nice idea, balanced plausibly on the boundary between science and fantasy, and it's recurred time and again in literature for many years. Last year it was the subject of a hoax Belgian web posting that claimed the successful retrieval of voices from ancient pottery, www.zalea.orgarticle.php3?id_article=496 It was also recently used as a plot device in the popular US TV crime drama series CSI, when the fictional crime lab successfully used a laser to "read" a vase that had captured an incriminating conversation while it was being made.

Alas, as so often, real life disappoints, and it has definitely not happened yet. It is, however, a reminder of just how disarmingly simple the basic principle of sound recording is.


Recording, as it progressed, brought the possibility of producing perfect performances - mistakes edited out and the best bits of several attempts spliced together. Some welcomed that. Some hated it, and believed that it removed the exciting edge of a live, risky performance. Let three artists stand for the spectrum of opinion. Sergiu Celibidache, post-war conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, made hardly any recordings. He hated them, saying they were "like photographs of love-making".

US virtuoso pianist Glenn Gould gave his last live performance in 1964 at the age of 32. For the rest of his career he performed only in the recording studio, where he felt in total control of the music. A concert performance, he said was " like a competitive sporting arena".

Frank Sinatra was at home both in the concert hall and the recording studio, showing mastery in both. A pioneer of the themed album - something now taken for granted - he said of the hugely successful string of LPs he made for Capitol in the 1950s, "I get a shortlist of maybe 60 possible songs, and out of these I pick 12 to record. Next comes the pacing of the album... I put the titles on 12 bits of paper and juggle them around like a jigsaw puzzle until the album is telling a complete story." (Sessions with Sinatra by Charles L Granata, Chicago Review Press pound;17.50) Now, some sort of circle has been closed by a series of DVDs called "Classic Albums" - video recordings of how famous sound recordings were made. The other issue raised by recorded perfection is that of whether performers can reproduce, on stage, the painstakingly constructed sounds that made them famous on record, or whether they'll just mime or "lip-synch". Some - Ronan Keating for one, Will Young for another - insist on singing live. Often, though, it's just accepted that others can't, or won't, such as Britney Spears.

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