Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Producers

When I began reading George Martin’s 1979 memoir All You Need Is Ears, I immediately thought of an earlier book which covers some of the same ground, generally speaking, John Culshaw’s 1967 Ring Resounding: The Recording of Der Ring Des Nibelungen. The common ground is one of profession, since both Martin and Culshaw were record producers during the post-war period, but the two shared as well a certain type of Englishman: well-read and cultured but not highly educated or of anything but the solid and stolid middle-class, modest but not unassuming, since each was well aware of his special talents.

The two really did have parallel lives. Culshaw was born two years before Martin, and while they both attended Grammar Schools, Culshaw in Southport and Martin in Bromley, World War II interrupted what might have been stints at University. As teenagers both ended up in the Fleet Air Arm, in 1942 (Culshaw) and 1943 (Martin), though neither saw combat service. After the war both began long stints with record companies, but by different routes. The musically self-educated Culshaw became a classical musical journalist and went to work with Decca in 1946 as a writer. Martin had a more academic musical education at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and he took a job with EMI in 1950.

The creative partnership between Martin and the Beatles is, of course, the key story in Martin’s book, and he has lots of interesting stories to tell about the work he did with the group from 1963 to 1971. The problem is that we’ve heard pretty much all of those stories so many times. Even so, I never complain about Beatles stories. I’m one of those people nagging Mark Lewisohn on Twitter to for God’s sake hurry up with the 2nd book of his Beatles biography. But the period before, when Martin worked with people like Peter Ustinov, the Goons, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, and Michael Flanders & Donald Swann, is fresher and the stories are just as interesting. The post-Beatles period is interesting to me mainly for Martin’s break-away from EMI along with the most talented of his colleagues. It’s a great story, akin to Don Draper’s new agency start-ups in Mad Men, and just as entertainingly told.

Culshaw’s book isn’t quite the same as Martin’s, since it’s the story of a particular recording project rather than a memoir. For that you need to read his posthumously published 1981 autobiography Putting the Record Straight (as do I: I’m waiting for it to arrive on Interlibrary Loan; I’ll report on it here after it arrives). But the story of the ground-breaking stereo recording of Wagner’s Ring in Vienna from 1958 to 1966 is fascinating. Culshaw is a much more accomplished writer than the team of Martin and his co-writer, the journalist Jeremy Hornsby.  Culshaw’s cast is every bit as interesting as Martin’s: Georg Solti, Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Hans Hotter, Gottlob Frick, Wolfgang Windgassen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Régine Crespin are all amazing artists, but their human foibles and frailties result in many entertaining stories. There’s a really interesting connection between Martin’s experiments with new recording technologies and the creation of new sounds with the Beatles, and the work of Culshaw in the previous decade. Martin’s experiments were mainly ad hoc, and came out of the Beatles' musical curiosity, while Culshaw’s were based on his idea of recordings as “a theatre of the mind.” Martin may have revolutionized popular music recording with his work on Revolver, Rubber Soul and Sergeant Pepper, but as Edward Greenfield said in his Gramophone obituary in 1980, Culshaw “… transformed the whole concept of recording.”

Understanding the world of music will always be a challenge for non-musicians. Learning about the technologies of sound production and reproduction is an important piece of the puzzle, while descriptions of the interactions between musicians and musical technicians give important musical issues a human face. Both Culshaw and Martin have given me a much better appreciation for and understanding of the great music I listen to every day.

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