Music from the pre-electric recording era brought to life using historic tech on new Pennine Records release

The ghostly sounds of pre-electric recordings can be heard on a new album issued by the University of Huddersfield Press. 

But Pennine Records’ Austro-German Revivals: (Re)constructing Acoustic Recordings are not the sounds of long-dead musicians, however, but new recordings made by two present-day researcher-performers.

Both are members of the Historical Performance Research Group in the Department of Music and Design Arts at Huddersfield: violinist Dr David Milsom, who heads up classical performance studies at Huddersfield, and pianist Dr Inja Stanović.

Inja’s Leverhulme-funded research project, (Re)constructing Early Recordings: a guide for historically-informed performance, brought the idea of using historic recording technologies to Huddersfield and was the catalyst for Austro-German Revivals: (Re)constructing Acoustic Recordings.

An essential innovative feature here is the use of historic recording technology in what Dr Milsom and Dr Stanović have hailed as a ‘game-changing’ project. This set of brand-new acoustic recordings were put together using rare equipment that uses the same processes for recording music as existed before the widespread adoption of the electric microphone after 1925. The music itself is a wide-ranging collection of shorter works by Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn, amongst others. 

It is the second release from Pennine Records, set up by David as a partnership between the music department and University of Huddersfield Press in 2020. The label’s purpose is to showcase a wide range of research-based ways of performing historical music. 

David and Inja are performance practice specialists in music performance of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and this project represented a chance to build upon traditional sound recordings research to produce something that is at the same time very old, and while also innovative and new.

“I had wanted the experience of making recordings this way for years, so when Inja and I got the chance towards the end of her Leverhulme project to make some recordings by the acoustic process, it was something we absolutely had to do and so we jumped at the chance,” says David.

“It has been an absolutely extraordinary, game-changing practice research experience and I hope that it will be a shop window on the current state of historical performance research. We are not only people who write about style in historical recordings, we are also professional, performing musicians.

“In this sense, the recording is another instance of why Huddersfield is such a vibrant environment for music performance research: many of us here are practicing musicians as well as lecturers and academics.”

Inja is a conservatoire-trained pianist from Croatia, who came to Huddersfield after following her PhD at the University of Sheffield by securing a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship.

Serendipity dictated that the equipment to make wax disc recordings (a tale of recording horns, cutting styluses, and the manufacture of wax discs themselves into which the vibrations are indented) – and, crucially, an engineer capable of making these recordings in a highly-skilled process widely thought to have been lost to history – were available in nearby Sheffield in the shape of the internationally-renowned Duncan Miller at Vulcan Records. “It was a case of the right people in the right place at the right time,” David adds.

Inja’s husband Dr Adam Stanović transferred the recordings from the wax discs into a digital form, allowing them to be available online. The project itself continues Inja’s previous research into how acoustic recordings can be understood as historical documents of an increasingly distant past.

“Musically it is extremely important to research this, but also to actually do them,” says Inja. “Research, in this context, is not only about listening and writing; it is also about playing, and putting yourself in the shoes of historical musicians, accepting the small imperfections that are an inevitable consequence of a one-take recording and a wax recording medium.

“This is the first-ever systematic study of these machines. Previously studies have been short-term and smaller projects, not an extensive one unfolding over a number of years. I started around six years ago, and have produced a huge number of wax discs and cylinders.

“Huddersfield was the ideal environment to do this because of its supportive performance culture, and a number of nearby or Huddersfield-based historical performance researchers.”