Sunday, 19 August 2012

Surroundsound Gurrelieder

Pierre Boulez brought Schoenberg's Gurrelieder into the mainstream with his three performances at the BBC Proms. Thanks to his work at IRCAM, he understood the potential of technology.  No surprise then that in 1974 "in one of the most complex sessions London has hosted, Arnold Schoenberg's Gurrelieder was recorded by CBS for stereo and eventual quadraphonic surround release. The musical, production and engineering background is covered, from both stereo and quadraphonic viewpoints." 

 Read about that recording session here in articles collected by the Stereo Society. Gurrelieder was chosen because it's huge and complex, and balances are hard to achieve. Extremes of volume too, to challenge recording technology. Though I'm not at all a technical person I can follow this because my closest friend for 22 years was one of the pioneers of the mathematics behind sound capture. He wasn't impressed by some surround sound concepts. "We listen with two ears", he'd say, "the brain processes masses of data, but it goes in thru two channels". Some of his work was so advanced that even now its potential might not be realized. Indeed, his work in pure mathematics is so advanced that only the best mathematicians (such as at Oxford in the 60's and 70's) can grasp it. Michael was too ill to take his degree. It was granted anyway because the University recognized his work. He got into sound engineering because there was a demand for what he could do (viz Boulez's Gurrelieder in 1974).

What was Michael Gerzon doing with a techno klutz like me? We met at the Mathematical Institute at Oxford, and the Oxford University Tape Recording Society which met at Ruskin House. Needless to say that was an all-male environment, many of them as socially inept as they were technically adept. When I said I mixed reel to reel tapes splicing with scotch tape they all howled with laughter.  Michael had a voracious appetite for life, squirrelling away all kinds of information, making connections, sparking new ideas. Encyclopaedic knowledge, formidable powers of analysis.  He talked non stop, but always let you get a word in, however dumb you might be.

Once he was in New York,  so he phoned ny father, whom he had never met, though of course they both knew lots about each other through me. What started as a courtesy call went on for 8 hours, each of them taking planned breaks for food, drink and toilet. "This is expensive" said my Dad. "X corporation is paying" said Michael. And so they should, for Michael didn't operate on corporate schedules. If a company wanted the best from him, they gave him room.

For a techno person, he was amazingly empathic. Once, he got lost in the Bronx and walked further and further into territory so decrepit it looked like a war zone. A 6 foot tall hooker confronts him. "You not from round here". Michael's illnesses and lifestyle meant he had a concave chest, deathly pallor and complete indifference to things like haircuts. Giant Hooker could have snapped him in two with bare hands. "I'm lost" he tells her/him. and they start to chat. Finally Hooker walks him back to the train station, to make sure he isn't roughed up by anyone, and they wave goodbye like old mates. Another time, a gang fight started to break out in London. Michael goes up to the two gang leaders and cajoles them out of fighting. All leave not knowing why they stopped, but happy that they did.

For ten years I would speak to Michael several times a day. I'd visit his various homes and we'd picnic in the Oxford Parks, which his techy friends would not believe, since he was such an indoors person. We used to go hear his favourite new music people like Evan Parker, Fred Frith,  But my circumstances changed and I couldn't keep up the intensity.  Then one day out of the blue he phones at 9 am which was strange, since he was a night person, rarely in bed before dawn. He said he's been up all night waiting to call, to tell me how much our friendship meant to him.  "But you are always sick" I said (he had chronic health problems). "This time it's different". Three hour conversation, full of affection and shared memories.. I had a terrible week ahead and didn't call back for a few days. The phone rang on, no answer, which was totally out of character. But I knew even before ringing the hospital.

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