The Importance of Recordings and How They Happen

21st September 2021

Features NMC Recordings

Terry Sinclair, a member of our Board and long-time fan of NMC's work, on the importance of recorded music. This article was originally published in our Friends Newsletter in 2019. Our quarterly Friends Newsletter is packed with behind-the-scenes updates on recordings and education projects, as well as invitations to see our work in action plus opportunities to meet composers and artists; find out more about becoming a Friend here.

We are incredibly lucky to live in an age when so much great music has been recorded – but not nearly enough. NMC is at the heart of what I listen to.

If I could finally fix up my time machine its maiden journey would take me to the first performance of Beethoven’s late Bb quartet in March 1826. But even if I blagged my way into what must have been a rather small room this would have been a one-off. The Schuppanzigh quartet would have followed all the repeats but otherwise few present would ever have had the chance to hear any of the notes twice. In fact for most of history the only way we could have encountered the most wonderful music more than once would have been to play it ourselves. I don’t have the talent or the patience. But in a world with recordings….

I’ve been addicted to music since I was about 6. I asked my brother to teach me how to read and write music so I could notate the nonsense I was playing on my toy xylophone. Inevitably listening meant records since no-one was going to take me to a concert when I was too young to sit still. So that meant the record library and the music library for scores.

Far more frequent cultural highlights have been close-up encounters with greatness, with wonderful music emanating from small circular things rotating really fast

My tastes have grown up but recorded music has stayed at the heart of my life. I have a 40-minute commute. I know I should take the tube but I choose the less green option of driving so I can listen to Rossini or Rihm. A girlfriend complained I used to put music on before I said 'hello' to her when I got home. She wasn’t making it up.

I am lucky that I earn enough to go to concerts and opera as often as I want in the same way I go to the cinema. But perhaps only half a dozen opera evenings and as many concerts have made an impact I will remember for the rest of my life – a Tennstedt Mahler 2, Roger Norrington conducting the Eroica the first time I heard those clashes with natural horns, a Rite of Spring that Boulez conducted in semaphore, a Rattle & Nina Stemme Parsifal.

I need recordings to help me get inside music that won’t unlock on the first listen

Far more frequent cultural highlights have been close-up encounters with greatness, with wonderful music emanating from small circular things rotating really fast. Some of these experiences are about the visceral. I won’t forget the first time I heard the Pavarotti Sutherland squeezed into my college bedroom to sing Turandot or Andre Previn’s Turangalila (in Messiaen’s better first version before he slowed he last movement down). But it’s not all about music that throws you against the wall. I need recordings to help me get inside music that won’t unlock on the first listen – Patch, Schumann chamber music, John Sheppard, Varèse, Hugo Wolf.

Often it’s the complexity that requires repeats to open up. Bach’s Art of Fugue wasn’t love at first listen. Ferneyhough is impossible at first go and Sam Hayden’s Substratum was the most recent piece I downloaded which made the notes per minute counter go into the red. But sometimes I need a few repeated sessions to get past austerity or the veneer of simplicity. Arvo Pärt isn’t always interesting on a single outing. I keep quiet about it but I needed dozens of outings before I “got” Chopin and I am still struggling to get my inner philistine to appreciate Schubert piano sonatas.

We need new music to be mainstream. That means repeated playing, really great quality and plenty of recordings

NMC does amazing things for the popularity and accessibility of fresh music.  It needs a bigger reach. To get that reach and into more homes we all need to support the NMC by buying its CDs and downloads – every each one unheard and through donations and gifts. Every £1 turns the giver into a philanthropist, every £100 pushes more music to more listeners and every £1000 smoothes the path for composers to explore and delight.

Why do art galleries sell-out shows with contemporary art, why do novels have such an audience but not contemporary music?  We are all busy but no-one tries to read a new novel in an hour, but you can be excited by fresh, inventive music in a few minutes. It can’t be that people only want to hear C major chords in root position or that music needs song lyrics; neither held back Fats Waller or Miles Davis from hitting the big time. Think how shocking Richard Strauss, Debussy and Stravinsky sounded 100 years ago.

One day half the NMC catalogue will be mainstream and the music more popular than Reger or Schoenberg. We need new music to be mainstream. That means repeated playing, really great quality and plenty of recordings. We need to get the cheque book out.

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