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Performing To The Red Light

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Emma Kingsley Emma Kingsley | 11:27 UK time, Friday, 29 May 2009

The antics of pop musicians in the recording studio are the stuff of legend. There are articles and books based around studio experiences - who stormed out, who came to blows or how long it took to put down one bar of a song. Maybe we hear so much about pop musicians because the studio is often a place where they come to compose and experiment.


But classical solo artists don't usually use the studio for this. For them, recording is a process of reproducing music which is already composed and, in many cases, has been recorded hundreds of times before. This puts huge pressures on them - and very few people who listen to the end result on CD will have had a clue about what it took to make it.

I'd not really been aware of the demands that recording makes on classical musicians until Terence Curran got in touch with me last year. He's studied how they cope in a studio situation and his initial findings were fascinating. People he'd spoken to talked of the need for stamina because they might have to do 10 takes of the same difficult octave passage. Some felt a loss of control because they had to take instructions from a producer and some couldn't get used to being without a live audience.

Both Terence and I felt that the subject would be a fascinating one to explore in more depth and we were thrilled when Radio 4 commissioned two documentaries. We drew on Terence's original research and widened it, talking to a range of performers and producers.

It was also crucial for us to get to an actual session, to see at first hand how performers cope in a studio environment. We were allowed in to record the pianist Kathryn Stott and cellist Christian Poltera, who were working on sonatas by Saint-Saëns. We were also able to tape the Takács Quartet as they recorded some Schumann. To watch players of this calibre doing retake after retake to get a phrase just right was an inspiring experience.

We also recorded a newcomer to the recording process - the soprano Ilona Domnich, who was making her first CD with a varied programme of songs and who learned quickly to get used to hearing herself back in the control room.

There were so many new questions that kept arising. How much of a performer's breath does the producer leave in? What happens when soloists play chamber music and each prefers a different take? What happens when it's the last hour of a session and a performer is having an off-moment. And do musicians listen to their own recordings?

If you want to find out the answers, then do tune into Performing to the Red Light on Radio 4 , on Tuesday 2 June and Tuesday 9 June 1.30pm.

If you've had experience in a recording studio yourself leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Note - Ilona Domnich's album Le Secret has now been released on the Quartz label. You can find out more at the Quartz Music website.


  • Comment number 1.


    this is a very interesting article and subject. I'm a singer/songwriter who draws from many kinds of music, including jazz and classical, in my music, though I do not have the piano technique of a good classical or jazz musician, maybe a mediocre jazz one...I also play acoustic guitar and bass....
    I have spent many hours recording and what I experience there is the way that every little sound is heard, things out of tune, the noise of one hitting against one's instrument, etc. there is a strange pressure on one one too in such a situation...the things this writer mentions ring true..
    now for the shameless self-promotion...
    Please look for my music on the Internet...videos, web sites, etc..
    Some video (song) names are...Avenging Annie, Love Insurance, Fun In the First World. Who Will be My Friend,

    Blessings forever to all

    Andy Pratt

  • Comment number 2.

    A very interesting and thought-provoking programme - excellent!

    I have suffered from "red-light fever" myself - the process of recording is an artfrom itself and obviously not as simple as sticking a mic in front of even the most able performer.

    Capturing the essence of a performer and performance is not at all easy, as the programme demonstrates. Look forward to the next installment!

    (Also reassuring to know that even the greats feel insecure about their recordings!)

  • Comment number 3.

    I buy a lot of CDs and probably very naively never give it a thought as to how these actually get made.

    I was interested to find out about the process and very impressed that the musicians and producers allowed their studio time to be broadcast. The more I learn about the mysterious and magical process of making music at this supreme level (that's how it seems to me, as a non musician) the more it amazes me that people are capable of such artistry and technique.

    I hadn't realised either how much input the producer seems to give.

    When is the Ilona Domnich CD coming out as I particularly enjoyed her voice and personality in the first programme. It will be fascinating to hear the final recording having heard a little bit of what went into it during this programme.

  • Comment number 4.


    I've contacted Ilona Domnich about the CD release date.

    She replies: "What a wonderful response to the programm. The CD will be released in 2-3 weeks. Meanwhile, if someone wants to get a copy before it is released, they can e-mail me via my web-site and I will post it to them with a personal note."

    Ilona's website is

  • Comment number 5.

    Ilona's album has at last been released. More information is here - Quartz Music: Le Silence


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