(Re)constructing Early Recordings


Early recordings, a valuable primary source within various music research disciplines, offer insights into the aesthetic tendencies and preoccupations of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century performance. “(Re)constructing Early Recordings: a guide for historically-informed performance” is a Leverhulme-funded research project that concerns the production of such recordings; through a reconstruction of mechanical recording methods, musical performances are captured, analysed, and made available to the international community of musical researchers. Results, which integrate creative practice and theoretical research, illuminate both performance and recording practices of the past, and elaborate a method for future research into early recordings.

Year 1

A pilot case-study started with a practical experiment; through a simulation of the mechanical recording process, a series of performances were captured using both mechanical and digital recording technologies.

Three recordings reconstruct wax cylinders made by Julius Block (1858-1934): Anna Essipova (1851-1914) playing Godard’s Gavotte in G, op.81 no.2 (C136, 15 November 1898), Anton Arensky (1861-1906) playing his own Nocturne in D-flat, op. 36 no.3 (C114, 25 November 1894) and Leonid Kreutzer’s (1884-1953) cylinder of Chopin’s Mazurka in G minor, op. 67 no. 2 (C141, 1915). This reconstruction was supported by information from Block’s personal diary and the digitised transfers made by Marston records.

The mechanical recording equipment included: an Edison Cylinder Phonograph from 1906 (the same model as Block used, but a slightly later edition); various recording horns (in order to test different sound qualities); a Bechstein piano (1882, fully restored by a specialist piano maker from Besbrode Pianos in Leeds, UK); and wax cylinders as a recording medium. Digital equipment included: a pair of AKG414 and a pair of Neuman 184 microphones; a Steinberg UR22 soundcard; a DAW and a wave-editor; bespoke sound analysis software.

The case-study aimed to answer the following research questions: 1) What is the value of early recordings in performance practice research? How can such recordings be used in research and to what extent might they be relied upon as research sources? 2) How might one reconstruct an early recording process, using a wax cylinder, to understand how the original recording was made? Does such a reconstruction allow for a greater understanding of the original recording process? 3) Are there certain methods for the analysis of early recordings, derived from the process of reconstruction, that allow performer-researchers to develop a greater understanding of other recordings, and the types of performances they preserve?


The recordings

Links to the three recordings will be made available soon.

Project news

The research findings from the first year will be presented here soon – stay tuned!