Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Distant music

I find this image fascinating. It's on Todotango here and I don't have permission to use it. I'll have to remove it if this is a problem with Todotango. I hope not.

The recording horn and the recording lens face each other across a small wooden room. The dark funnel of the recording horn is the focus, the central point. Down it the music will vanish to reappear now, or at any other point in time when we desire to listen to it. The image has disappeared into the unseen lens of a dark camera, invisibly onto film or a glass plate to be made visible chemically, and to reappear now and in the future. Another kind of record, a written score, is on the piano.

The horn dominates the layout. Some serious carpentry has gone into ensuring that the musicians are at the right height from the floor, and in the right place, for optimum balance of sound. Perhaps the producer would have run sound checks, listening through the horn (which appears to lead through a wood panel into an adjacent room) to get the right balance of sound. Three violins; two stand on little platforms and one on the floor, a little further from the horn. The fourth person at the middle of the central group and closest to the horn is probably the singer, although he could be holding, but not playing, a flute. Dominating the image, on the right, is Roberto Firpo at the piano, his left arm a strong diagonal into the central group of musicians. He's the leader, but I assume he's higher than the other musicians because the sound balance requires it, the back of the piano to the horn. Two bandoneons, perched on chairs with little footstools, complete the orquesta. The layout is neat and well-organised.

Presumably it's a small wood-panelled room, the photographer in the doorway, holding a magnesium flash at arm's length in his left hand. The other three sides of the room (there doesn't appear to be a corner behind the musicians) would help to retain and focus the sound into the horn. The horn means the date is probably pre-1928, when electrical recording became available. After that date there would be a familiar microphone on a stand, but the musicians would still have been arranged in relation to it for balance of sound.

It's odd and wonderful, this image of musicians at work, not only because this technology is so distant now. It's a photo of the musicians but it's also a photo of a process, the process of making a record, then a recent technology and industry. It's odd because it's relatively informal, in an age when photographs tended to be a formal record. You'd expect musicians to want to be seen in suits and bow ties on the bandstand. Here, instead, they seem proud to be seen at work in the recording studio, tieless, shirt sleeves rolled up, but looking clean and neat nevertheless, trousers neatly pressed, the gloss of brilliantined hair clearly visible.

Photo and film of the process of recording sound, two recording technologies together, have stayed with us. An obvious example is Jean Luc Godard's 1+1, a film of how the Rolling Stones developed and recorded Sympathy for the Devil, starting with just the words and an outline melody. The recording studio is immediately recognisable, with booths and baffles, microphones and cables everywhere.

The sound from Firpo's recording would have been relatively imperfect, but the image makes me want to know more: where was the studio, how did the musicians get there, what was the weather like? A day in Buenos Aires long ago, a tango recorded, and some sweet, slightly distant music we can still hear.

PS. I keep looking at the third violin, the one standing nearest the piano, who looks familiar. I wonder if it's Julio de Caro. I think he played with Firpo briefly in 1917; he would have been 17 or 18. Later he established his own orquesta.

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