Stanford University
Department of Music Presents:
April 6-8, 2018

2018 Reactions to the Record Symposium

Testimonials | Reviews

The 2018 Reactions to the Record symposium will take place April 6-8, 2018 in Braun Music Center on the Stanford University campus and will focus on The Player Piano Project. The symposium will include presentations, panels, concerts, and demonstrations highlighting the latest work being conducted on historical performance documents, especially player pianos and piano rolls. The symposium is hosted by the Stanford Department of Music in conjunction with the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound with support from individuals and institutions around the globe. 

Reactions to the Record highlights work in performance practice that engages historical recordings as vital source material. Central to this interest are performances inspired by historical models and efforts toward revival. Presentations in related areas include cultural studies in performance, methodologies of performance analysis, technologies of performance, and performance in historical narrative.

The Stanford University Department of Music and Archive of Recorded Sound in conjunction with Stanford Arts Institute (formerly Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts) convened the first Reactions to the Record symposium in 2007 as an interdisciplinary meeting of the world's finest scholars and performers interested in the legacy of historical recordings.
The emergent and long-overdue acceptance of historical recordings as vital documents for research has spawned a fascinating and diverse field that touches upon all aspects of musical performances and the contexts from which they arise.  Recordings preserve a ‘living’ history of nineteenth-century style that scholars now consider to be the ‘Rosetta Stone’ of historical practice, offering us a key to deciphering performance in the pre-recorded era and exposing what Clive Brown has called the “yawning chasm” between current practice and the historical evidence.

While stories of Thomas Edison and his phonograph have become the stuff of American legend, the content of early music cylinders and discs has remained largely outside the purview of serious study.  Recordings are, and always have been, ‘wonderment and magic’, and their spell has not worn off.  Nevertheless, when pioneering scholar Robert Philip considered a more serious academic study of early recordings in the 1960s, he was rebuffed with the claim that his topic was “not appropriate for research” – this at a time when attitudes to performance history bordered on absurdity: “Researchers were confident in recreating the unknowable sound of an early performance of Messiah, and yet dismissed the actual sounds of Elgar’s own performances as irrelevant (if they even knew of their existence).”  

Charles Rosen observes that “when recordings replaced concerts as the dominant mode of hearing music, our conception of the nature of…music itself was altered.”  While this is easily acknowledged, it is less easily remedied, demanding as it does the suspension of prejudices that are by now deeply ingrained.  Expressing a parallel problem in ethnomusicology, Stephen Cotrell writes, “in order to appreciate the significance of particular performance cultures, we need to discard, or at least modify, the kind of perceptual and conceptual approaches which feel most natural to us.”  If “the past is a foreign country” (Hartley), the study of historical recordings will require a substantial opening of our sensibilities.

Reactions to the Record events aim to harmonize work in three areas: 1) musicology, in particular the interpretation, analysis and contextualization of performance; 2) performance practice, the practical considerations of historical execution and stylistics; and 3) archival research, which brings to light historical artifacts (in particular, recordings) and technology not yet effectively utilized by musicologists and performers. This interdisciplinary interaction is achieved through the work of archivists and enthusiasts who search out rare sound documents, musicologists who explore their content and contexts, and performers who engage the material ‘hands-on’, yielding critical insights and interpretations.

Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound
Reactions to the Record has been established in conjunction with the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound, one of the largest sound collections in the country whose holdings include a rich assortment of early recordings, phonographs, piano rolls, memorabilia, discographies and special collections that span all aspects of sound history.

The growing interest in sound documents has focused efforts towards preservation and access of archival resources. The United States Congress took a step in this direction by passing the National Recording Preservation Act (2000), which lead to the opening of the two-hundred million dollar National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, Packard Campus (2008) in Virginia to hold the collections of the Library of Congress.  

Reactions to the Record events have been directed by George Barth and Kumaran Arul with the support of Stanford faculty and staff and a growing team of collaborators at institutions around the world.  The goals include the following:

  • To foster communication and interaction between those who are working in the field,
  • To create a forum for discussion of new discoveries in historical recordings,
  • To encourage performance that engages historical practice,
  • To transmit the perspectives of current scholarship to the wider public,
  • To promote the development of curricula in this area.

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Testimonials for Reactions to the Record

• Robert Philip (Open University, London): “The symposium was an absolute triumph – such an interesting group of people, thought-provoking presentations and concerts, lively discussion….  Your organisation was impeccable… – indeed I’d say it was the best and most enjoyable conference I have ever been to.  …You obviously have good and seriously committed students, and the study of recordings is embedded in your teaching in a way that is far ahead of us in Britain (and in the rest of Europe, as far as I know).”

• Malcolm Bilson (Cornell University): “I think this was one of the best and most interesting conferences I have ever attended, and was absolutely delighted to meet some of you in the flesh for the first time. I was teaching in Dublin and London this past week and quoted you all incessantly!”

• Joseph Horowitz (author and director, PostClassical Ensemble): “The conference was exceptional.  …As academic conferences go, the papers were unusually fresh and pithy. …The event was keenly focused.  …I am someone who quickly grows restless, bored, and intolerant. I was engaged.”

• Jonathan Bellman (University of Northern Colorado): “It was perhaps the best meeting I’ve been to…a superb, superb event.…  Universities, as a rule, don’t enable special things like this to happen, and I feel deeply fortunate to have been invited to participate.”

• Anatole Leikin (UC Santa Cruz): “Thank you so much again for the symposium.  I’ve heard so many fascinating things and heard so many fantastic performances that I am still trying to sort out all the impressions, facts, ideas, concepts, etc.  That was easily the best conference I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to dozens and dozens of them.”

• Sandra P. Rosenblum (author, leading scholar in performance practice): “A fascinating conference.  I learned a great deal and felt honored to be part of it. You and Kumaran brought an interesting, diverse group of people together and ran the proceedings with a comfortable, deft touch in a way that encouraged a collegial atmosphere. What more could one desire?”

• Jonathan Summers (British Library Sound Archive): “Thank you so much for giving me such a wonderful experience at Stanford.  I thoroughly enjoyed giving my talk and concert and found the other lectures fascinating.”

• Allan Evans (Mannes College The New School for Music): “The Symposium was a most stimulating and informative experience. …It is a rare chance to share ideas and methodologies in this field.  Trekking from the hotel to the theater every day with new colleagues provided a great chance to mingle.”

• David Breckbill (Doane College): “…My gratitude at having been invited to participate in your symposium is quite overwhelming.  On scholarly, personal, and musical grounds those were among the most pleasant days of my life.  How wonderful it was to meet some old friends and make new ones, to not be required to choose between papers/sessions, to have everything that occurred be of potential interest and relevance to my own work.”

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Reviews for previous Reactions to the Record symposiums:

• Lisa Hirsch (San Francisco Classical Voice, April 2007)

“One Musician’s ‘Reactions to the Record’”

All hail the organizers, Professor George Barth and Lecturer Kumaran Arul, both of whom teach piano at Stanford, where Barth is head of keyboard programs. The two brought together a diverse group of academics, performers, and individuals interested in this subject matter: What can be learned from the performance styles found on old recordings, most of them made before World War I. This report is too brief to comment on all the sessions, nearly every one of which riveted me. See my blog, Iron Tongue of Midnight for more, much more, about the symposium.

Barth’s own presentation, with the misleadingly dry title “Embodied Knowledge vs. ‘Source Worship,’ “ was anything but dry. He discussed changes in the philosophical stance of musicology and criticism toward the score and performance, interweaving that discussion with an account of his path as a performer. Composer and Stanford faculty member Jonathan Berger spoke about the Brahms cylinder and his part in analyzing and reconstructing it. He
played that reconstruction and also what he calls “the ghost of Brahms,” a re-creation of the entire First Hungarian Dance based on the performance practices indicated by the fragment recorded on the cylinder. Writer and conductor Will Crutchfield discussed how we might learn and internalize older performing styles. He then conducted a master class with two young singers, in which he proved himself a master teacher in every way: patient, positive, encouraging, and able to show the singers what they were capable of. He was a pleasure to watch.  Donald Manildi, of the International Piano Archives at the University of Maryland focused on the Liszt tradition on record. He compared a number of recorded cadenzas in two Hungarian Rhapsodies and discussed the extent to which there is a Liszt school of playing. SFCV’s own Anatole Leikin analyzed Scriabin’s piano-roll recording of the composer’s Op. 11, No. 2 Prelude. And in one of the two concerts, he extrapolated the performance style to Scriabin’s Op. 2, Two Poems.

Jonathan Bellman of the University of Northern Colorado presented a complex discussion of what, exactly, “vernacular performance” is, as well as what it means in presenting classical works derived from vernacular styles such as mazurkas and gypsy music. Pianist José Bowen, who serves as dean of the Meadows School for the Arts at Southern Methodist University, talked about “Paraphrase as Performance Practice,” using many performers’ versions of James P. Johnson’s Carolina Shout as the basis of discussion. Jeffrey Treviño presented a subtle and important paper about performers’ changing relationship to notation in the 20th century, as composers sought greater control over performers through notational specificity. Along with these riches came two splendid concerts, and every performance was distinctive and richly nuanced. Andrew Rangell’s interweaving of Bach’s French Suite No. 1 with Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op. 25; Malcolm Bilson’s gorgeous performance of Schumann’s Waldscenen on a beautiful replica of a Graf piano, c. 1830; and Kumaran Arul’s gripping Chopin and Schumann set were special highlights — but I call them out with some hesitation because everyone was so good.


• Jonathan Bellman (Dial M for Musicology, April 24, 2007)

“Reactions to the Record”

I, too, was gone for the weekend, at a Stanford symposium titled “Reactions to the Record.” The basic idea was to examine not only early recordings themselves and what they document about changes in performance style, but also how recordings and recording culture have changed the musical consumer culture, music making itself even, and how the study of recordings has changed academic musical study. Ultimately, the idea of “reactions” to the record implies a kind of interaction between listener and recorded performance—How do we learn from what we hear? How do recordings change our approach to performance?—more than passive listening, or consumption. Many people there were both performers on some level and writer/researchers—a lively, lively community.

This was a real party. Lots of intense conversation, in meetings and over meals, about topics of mutual concern. Now, this is not academic chit-chat about salaries and so on; we are exchanging as much information as possible, as fast as possible, about topics that hold the most burning interest for us. Those present included a vast majority of performer-scholars, including conductor and NY Times critic Will Crutchfield musicologist Richard Taruskin, the pianists Anatole Leikin, Kumaran Arul, and George Barth..., all three superbly intelligent and sensitive musicians,Malcolm Bilson, Andrew Rangell, Jazz historian and composer (and Dean at SMU) José Bowen, recording historian Robert Philip, and quite a few others. Cool people to hang with! What is particularly enjoyable is a gathering of souls interested in the same general subject, an interaction of performance and performance history and criticism that excludes so many interested in only one of the areas. Whatever was played, you knew people were really, I mean really, listening—listening intelligently, with thoughts and reactions and real appreciation. Yeah, the stakes were punishingly high (I played first on the first concert, without having touched the piano that day), but it was extremely rewarding to be part of that.
There were two concerts, and I enjoyed everyone. A talented and razor-sharp young graduate student from UC San Diego named Jeffrey Treviño played Henry Cowell’s The Banshee, the first time I’ve heard that inside-the-piano classic live. Anatole Leikin played some Granados and Skryabin, two composers whose piano-roll recordings he has studied, so his approach to these composers’ rhythmic inflections as pianists comes directly from them. George Barth played Brahms and Chopin with real eloquence (especially the Chopin Barcarolle, Op. 60). Three performances in particular, though, will illustrate how a conference like this can work, and the kinds of doors it can open.

Malcolm Bilson is one of the real pioneers of fortepiano performance, and has built a long career playing Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven on various fortepianos, carefully noting how various pieces reflect the capabilities of the pianos for which they were written, and acknowledging the complications of playing such works on different instruments. Bilson played Schumann’s Waldscenen on a Graf piano…like an absolute god. Querulous entry into the forest, haunted spot, hunting song, you name it; we were plopped down in the middle of a nineteenth-century German forest-tale, with all the ghoulies and beasties, evocative images, and delicious terrors one might expect to find therein. So, here we had a wonderfully effective performance of a historical work on an appropriate historical instrument.

Kumaran Arul played, among other things, Chopin Mazurkas, and he has clearly internalized the composer’s celebrated Polish agogic rubato, in which the beats of a measure in three-four time are inflected so that they seem to be in duple. This is a terribly difficult thing to do persuasively, because it is a style that was extraordinary long ago, worth comment even in Chopin’s time. So, while in a sense a historically inappropriate instrument (a big, modern, 350-horsepower Steinway is a far cry from Chopin’s preferred Pleyel of the 1830s), the historically appropriate technique absolutely sold the playing, making the pieces vibrant via access to the old rhythmic vocabulary.

Andy Rangell, a Boston-based pianist, did a fascinating experiment: he played the Bach D Minor French Suite and Schoenberg’s Suite Op. 25… trading movements from each, dovetailing them so to speak. As the composers intended? Of course not; impossible. Yet, threads appeared. Hearing Schoenberg after Bach highlights the German heritage that underscores Schoenberg’s work, especially in terms of rhythmic impetus, and to hear Bach again after Schoenberg is to have your aural palate cleaned. To hear them alternate in dance-suite mode was just a banquet, and Rangell plays both superbly. These interlineated suites made for some of the most refreshing and thought-provoking listening I can remember. The piano was more or less appropriate for the Schoenberg; of course, historically utterly inappropriate for the Bach. Rangell plays Bach incomparably, and I am in complete agreement about Bach belonging on the piano, but I bring up historical appropriateness to point up the varieties of approach we encountered at this meeting (no orthodoxy or narrowness, please).

This is academic life at its highest point. Hail, George and Kumaran, who put the meeting together! Being involved was a real privilege. 


• David Bratman (San Francisco Classical Voice, January 20, 2009)

“Pedals, Portamentos, and Pianolas”

The battle of the musicologists broke out on Friday afternoon in Stanford University's Campbell Recital Hall. Joseph Horowitz, noted author of several books on the history of classical music in America, played a 1932 recording of Leopold Stokowski conducting the slow movement of Beethoven's Fifth. Horowitz described the performance as transformed from "Beethoven's Andante" into "Stokowski's Adagio," not only for being played unusually slowly
but also for added pedal points, distinctive string sonority, and other changes.  He found the result very attractive. Some listeners agreed. Others called Stokowski a charlatan and his interpretation inhuman or even nauseating.  Charles Rosen, the much-honored musicologist-pianist and author of The Classical Style, disputed Horowitz's whole thesis that Stokowski was "a frustrated composer" in a century that liked its performers uncreatively literal. Rosen argued that tension between the composer's will and the performer's expression has always been part of music.  All this was part of Reactions to the Record II, a five-day symposium on the place of recording in our understanding of musical style.  Its predecessor,
two years ago, focused on what early recordings can teach us about long-abandoned performance style. To that rich topic, this year's symposium added the theme of applying those lessons to today's performance.  Alongside research presentations and panel discussions, the symposium included seven concerts, five of which I was able to attend.

…Keyboard improvisation is one old performance practice not much preserved
on recordings, but the symposium took a stab at recreating it anyway. On
Friday afternoon, audience members called out names of themes — mostly
popular songs — that they hoped pianists William Cheng and Genadi Zagor
knew, as each in turn prepared to play an improvised medley of the
suggestions. Cheng's was mostly slow and gentle, in alternating styles of
Chopin and Art Tatum. Zagor blew away the competition with his faster, more
openly jazzy transformations, a bit Ivesian at times, concluding with shameless
runs all over the keyboard.…

Though I missed Rex Lawson's pianola concert on Saturday evening, the talks
and demonstrations he and Denis Hall gave that afternoon were the most
interesting part of the symposium. Unlike a full player piano, the pianola is not
self-contained. Place it carefully in front of a normal grand piano, and the
mechanical fingers sticking out of the back of the pianola will play the piano's

Lawson and Hall vigorously swept away various myths about pianolas and
piano rolls. They denounced — as strongly as their polite British manner would
permit — a lot of "Great Pianists Play Again" recordings made by playing piano
rolls on ill-adjusted instruments at crude, thumping, unvaried volume. They
added that most piano rolls were not live recordings of actual pianists at all,
but were punched mechanically as transcriptions of the scores.
What could possibly be the musical value of these? Lawson showed us, with a
roll of Rachmaninov's W.R. Polka, what a real virtuoso pianola player can do.
Adjusting dynamics by the strength of his foot pedaling and tempo with a
lever in one hand, and controlling the piano's sustain pedal with a lever in the
other, he turned this plain roll into an artistically creative performance of the

There was much more to the discussion of performance tradition. The word
"grandpupil" kept reappearing in several presentations about the handing
down of performing practices from Chopin or Liszt or even Beethoven, while
Charles Rosen remained skeptical as to whether any such interpretive
connection could possibly be found after two or three generations.
Jonathan Bellman of the University of Northern Colorado raised the question of
audience response as an element in performance practice. Like stand-up
comedians, Bellman said, sensitive performers adjust their stage manner to
their audience. But this is difficult in the cold silence of the recording studio.
Many presenters worried over how best to transmit performance tradition: by
practicing style and technique rather than individual works, by studying old
recordings, or by trying variants out on audiences and seeing what works?
Judging by the concerts at the symposium, it's very difficult for performers to
break loose from the received styles of their own time.

And the argument over Stokowski? It was never settled, and the participants all
went out to continue the discussion over dinner. Musicological wars may never
end, but they can be civilized.

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