About this Recording
8.578072 - Artist Profile Series - SUMMERLY, Jeremy

A word from Jeremy Summerly…


A recording is a piece of magic. Quite apart from the technology—whereby the vibrations of a voice or an instrument are converted into an electrical signal, which is then converted back into a mechanical signal and is processed in the brain via the ear—there is artistic magic afoot. A piece of music is conceived in the ear and soul of the composer, scratched onto paper or inputted to a computer as a stylised sequence of symbols, decoded in the mind of the performer, and presented as an acoustical event. Some parts of this process we call science, other parts we designate as art. But it is all magic. To be able to listen to Josquin on an aeroplane, Handel in the supermarket, and Fauré in a swimming pool (and I have done all three) is, it strikes me, magical. It is also deeply inauthentic. The Sistine Chapel does not fl y; Westminster Abbey does not sell groceries; and The Madeleine is not underwater. Yet we live in a world where listening to music at thirty thousand feet, or while buying apples, or while swimming, is considered not just normal, but positively desirable.

For some musicians, the process of making a commercial recording is anathema. To perform the same passage of music over and over, halting because of extraneous noises and unreliable technology, is artificial and unpleasant. A police helicopter hovers above the chapel for two hours; the lawn is mown in an adjacent college; the producer’s car breaks down on the way to the recording venue; a fl y uses the microphone as a trampoline; a singer is taken ill during a session; the ‘Recording in Progress’ sign incites a tourist to bang on the door out of frustration during an otherwise perfect take; a power cut; the road outside the venue is being re-surfaced; it’s too cold to play; it’s too hot to sing; rain batters the roof; the wind howls; starlings burst into song; bells peal; clocks strike; alarms sound; telephones ring; and my tuning fork falls through the grating in the church floor.

But at best, the recording session offers the chance to experiment musically in ways that performing live doesn’t always allow. Alternative readings can be considered, appraised, and allowed to co-exist on the engineer’s hard drive until the editing process forces a decision. Ideal interpretations can be attempted in the knowledge that a safe version can easily be patched together if the ideal proves unattainable. And this vision of striving for a musical ideal can forge a very strong bond between the musicians involved.

Moreover, to perform a piece of music and instantly to hear it reproduced through loudspeakers is a lesson in itself. Many people can recall the shock of hearing their voice played back to them for the first time. The way that we hear ourselves speak is not the same as the way in which other people hear us. Most of the vibrations of our own voice travel through the bones of our face—only a small proportion travels from our mouth to our ears via the air. A similar effect applies to musical performance. Matters of balance, articulation, phrasing, dynamics, tempo, and synchronisation—to say nothing of emotional and intellectual engagement—sound very different from within the ensemble than they do from outside it.

All of the pieces included here have particular resonances for me. The freezing December darkness of the chapel during Gaudete (‘you’re not actually going to use that, are you?’ as I pulled out my tambourine); the sublime look on the faces of the singers (in spite of the demanding vocal lines) during the closing section of Missa L’homme armé; the final chord of Spem in alium as the huge circle of friends surrounding me arrived at the most exciting G-major chord I have ever heard; the optimistic, transcendent beauty of Weep, weep mine eyes; the shocking directness of the text setting in An den Wassern; the pride with which the choir surprised the orchestra with its first massive entry in Zadok the Priest; the string players coaxing their instruments to sing in imitation of Fauré’s choir in his Offertoire; the humility and poise of Carys Lane’s performance of The blue bird; and singers openly weeping during the Lament for Jerusalem. And all I had to do was to wave my arms around. Sheer magic.

Close the window