“Steve’s Bedroom Band” – A Justification

By Matesic aka Steve Jones

I’m conscious of having contributed a disproportionate number of recordings to IMSLP lately (disproportionate to my musical ability, that is). Definitely not “performances”, because there’s only one player involved and the “cello” is a really a viola in digital drag, these are intended to be realizations in sound of just a few of the previously unrecorded scores that proliferate daily on this amazing site.

The printed notes are one thing, but how many of us are really able to “hear” scores in our head? To make matters worse, the majority of string chamber pieces are preserved not as scores (if a score was ever published) but as individual parts, calling for stupendous feats of simultaneous reading or memory. A sound picture is surely worth a thousand blobs on the page. Having got my head round the basics of the Audacity program and learnt how to play the viola in a variety of clefs (just the one for the violin), I couldn’t resist the temptation to “realize” some of the pieces that seemed to have little or no chance of performance, let alone recording, by professional musicians.

It’s a time-consuming business (Wilm’s nonet was something of an epic), but what astonishes me is how few of the pieces I’ve tried have ultimately struck me as not worth the effort. My top recommendations have to be the string quartets by Maximilian Steinberg (classmate of Stravinsky) and Alexis de Castillon. Amongst my countrymen I feel I should give a special plug to Henry Rowley Bishop, John Lodge Ellerton and George Alexander Macfarren, but the man who stimulates the most affection is the even more obscure Percy Hilder Miles, whose composing career seems to have stuttered and slowly died after he failed to win the hand of his pupil, Rebecca Clarke.  If only he’d managed to complete his cello concerto in time for the 1908 Proms…

Encouraged by certain of your editorial brethren (Eric, please stand up), my target for 2011 is to record and upload a “new” piece every week. For goodness sake don’t expect immaculate performances – just something that will give interested parties an impression of what the piece sounds like, hopefully without too many wrong notes and “train-crash” noises. There must be others out there who could do a similar thing for different sectors of the repertoire. Go on!

27 thoughts on ““Steve’s Bedroom Band” – A Justification

  1. Dear Steve:
    I live in Mexico. I saw and listened few of your works. Gernsheim op 91 and string quartet number 3 of Godard. Your work is very important. There are a lot of works forgotten!!!! I hope soon listen more works from your, for exqample Cui quarttet 2 and Castillon. All your work is in software??? excuse me the question. I want listen one day the Blumenfeld quartet, his Sinphony op 39 it’s wonderful!!!! I had worked piano scores in Sibelius. Works by Fuchs, Dubois, Lazzari, Castro, Juon, etc. All the best for you. Please I hope some day that you write me to e-mail.

    Angel Ramirez

    1. Hi Angel
      Many thanks for the encouragement. Yes, this is all recorded onto my hard drive using Audacity software, a cheap electret condenser microphone and the Griffin iMic connector. I did have a go at the Blumenfeld quartet a while ago, but found it rather disappointing. Still, it often happens that I completely change my mind about a piece with more acquaintance (e.g. the wonderful quartet by Sinigaglia), so I may come back to it later. There’s just too much choice!
      All the best
      Steve

  2. Hi Steve,
    glad I found this article, as your “bedroom band” rendition of Percy Hilder Miles’ sextet made me really curious. You’re doing an amazing job! I’m a viola player myself and also am the proud owner of a digital (Zoom H4) recorder and a laptop with Audacity installed. Could you please publish more (or send me a mail -> myfirstname (below) at xs4all dot nl) about how you go about mass-producing these recordings? I’m not so hot at reading the bass clef yet, but with a bit of practice, I cannot quite get rid of the delusion that I could do OK in time. I spent last Christmas break digitising Prince Heinrich XXIV zu Reuss’ string sextets in Sibelius, so I now have (almost complete) scores & MIDI-soundprints of those. But your approach seems more direct & faster…
    cheers, Kristofer

    1. Hi Kristofer,
      At last Percy Miles has another listener! I find some passages of the sextet very haunting, although it sure is hard to play off the score.
      It took me a while to learn the tricks, but I always start with a click track, usually at constant tempo although sometimes put together in sections. After roughly recording every part to get a feel for the piece (usually starting with the first violin, the cello mostly recorded an octave higher on the viola and dropped 12 semitones using the pitch change option of Audacity) I go through it altering the tempo at constant pitch wherever it’s dictated by the music. I then mute each track one at a time and re-record everything from the cello up with many many stops and starts to get everything more or less note-correct. Very nasty passages may go down almost one note at a time! Then I go through it again making patches and tweaking the dynamics by a few dB to correct the balance. If the whole thing sounds a bit tired I find I can get away with boosting the tempo by up to about 8% without it sounding too artificial. Finally I mix it to stereo, add some reverb and convert it to mp3. The whole process takes maybe 6-12 hours for a 4-movement quartet – much quicker than creating a MIDI soundprint and possibly also more musical…
      Apart from that, I located a stash of Percy Miles’s manuscripts in the London Royal Academy of Music and am slowly transcribing them. Unfortunately the stupid copyright law prevents them being published until 2039! Hoping to find a way round this eventually.
      All the best and thanks for the kind words,
      Steve

      1. Hi Steve,

        Excellent work!
        Do you have a score available (in addition to the string quartet parts) for your 4tet arrangement of Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye?
        I would love to use it for my students in my conducting class.

        Thanks!

        JM

  3. Hello Steve,

    I can’t but thank you and congratulate you for your work. Believe me, i totally understand what you do for i’ve done the same thing for years (a one- man string quartet recording), except in my case it’s me doing recordings of my own arrangements of pieces by not so known composers, or, pieces i love and think work great in the string quartet format by well known composers. Also, i use Pro Tools and a different equipment. Anyway, the point is, i know how it is to play with yourself, and it’s not an easy task, specially considering the fact that you do pieces that are probably being recorded for the first time and there are no refference recordings available, wich of course is absolutely fantastic. I’m sure thanks to your recordings many of these pieces will start getting noticed. It would be great to share with you some of the pieces i’ve done, specially the ones by latinamerican composers such as cuban composers Ignacio Cervantes and Ernesto Lecuona, and the few i’ve done by Béla Bartók.

    Greetings from México,
    Alex

    1. Hi Alex.
      I’d love to hear your recordings and maybe we can swap tips. Why not upload them here? Alternatively you could email steve@sandrock.fslife.co.uk. For me the satisfaction comes from the feeling of receiving a coded message across the ages, and these guys practically all had something to say. The first look is frequently daunting (not so much technically as working out how the thing is supposed to go) and I sometimes get a bit punched out by the more complicated ones, but like building a model from a kit of parts the instructions are all there on the page!
      All the best,
      Steve

  4. Steve,

    This is terrific stuff! I really appreciate your hard work. They are much better than MIDI realizations, and they allow us to hear so much fine music that has gone (and likely will go) unrecorded.

    It seems presumptuous to make requests, but perhaps you could sniff around the quartets of Rubinstein. Only the first two have had commercial recordings.

    May I also be a bit presumptuous in making a suggestion? I would use less reverb on the finished product. The decay time is very long, like an empty cathedral. Beyond that, I can’t tell you enough what a neat project this is!

    Best of luck!

    John B.

    1. Hi John

      Very gratified to get your appreciation. I believe I’m on target to average one “new” piece per week in 2011. Of course that still leaves plenty of gaps, e.g. Rubinstein, although I have to say so far I’ve found his quartets and quintet a bit bland.

      Reverb seems to be a very personal thing – another of my correspondents reckoned I should apply some! One day I hope to find out what all the options available on Audacity are supposed to do.

      Cheers

      Steve

  5. Hi Steve,

    thanks a lot for 30 minutes of joy! I did a lot of work on the quartets of Friedrich Ernst Fesca which I then only knew by horrible midi-“performances” or by barely less horrible attempts on the piano. So I’m so happy to hear my favourite quartet (d minor, op. 12) in your really astonishing overdub recording. Maybe your “Viola-Cello” is a little weak ;-), but all in all it’s precious, since you undoubtedly understand what you are playing.

    Thanks again and keep on playing!

    ps. what about trying the quartet in B minor op. 2,1?

  6. Hi Markus,

    Quite a piece, isn’t it? So far nothing else of his I’ve looked at seems so interesting, but I’ll keep looking. Recently it’s been late romantics I’ve found most rewarding, but Ferdinand David’s sextet was exciting too.

    All the best,

    Steve

  7. Hello Steve. Your work is commendable. We have made ??available music in the score but otherwise separate parts. Being Italian, I hope I’ll hear the quartets of Cambini and Bartolomeo Bruni (of which I’m editing all the quartets were 48 of 60). Could you explain how do you get sound from the other parts? Is there any software that reads scores??

    1. Hi Giuseppe
      I don’t think I fully understand you but thanks anyway! Some notation software like Finale Printmusic is supposed to be able to read scans of printed scores which can then be converted into parts and played synthetically, individually or all at once. I didn’t have any success when I tried it, but that could just be me.
      Obviously you can only get a rough idea of a piece from synthesised audio. All my mp3 recordings are played the old-fashioned way (i.e. using real instruments!) from the pdf parts displayed on the screen. I use free Audacity software for the multitracking, editing and mixing.
      I haven’t tried any 18th century quartets yet, but maybe one day soon?
      All the best
      Steve

  8. What a great contribution! Back in the late 80’s, I used to make one-man quartet recordings with the technology of the day (I DO play all four instruments.) I was always frustrated trying to get the expression in at the earliest possible point; perhaps I’ll try again now that the “software” has improved so much.
    Please keep it up. You’re a very fine violinist. I too am enthralled with the Merton “collection,” and have begun adding at least one piece per concert to my monthly recital series here in Portland Maine. My best to you!

  9. Thanks Jon, I really appreciate the encouragement. After the first hack-through to a steady click track I’ll usually spend an hour or two bending the tempo by a few percent here and there before recording the final version. Sometimes it works better to incorporate the tempo variations in the click track from the start. With Audacity the stops, restarts and patches can be virtually inaudible, and with as many chances as it takes to get a passage more or less acceptable this is SO much easier than real performing!
    Cheers
    Steve

  10. Dear Steve,
    Nicolai von Wilm is my great grandfather’s halfbrother. Therefore I am interested in getting to know more about him since years. More of him is published in the Internet lately and now I even found your record of the nonet. I was very pleased aubout it.
    I do not exactly unterstand what Steve’s bedroom band is and how the music – the nonet – is produced. And who are you?
    I am a 67 years old man and have some problems to cope with the side IMSLP of the Internet.
    Best wishes from Luebeck (Germany)
    Helmut Voss

  11. Hello Helmut,
    I’m not sure how much I can add to my “justification” at the top, but I’m glad you enjoyed the nonet. I’m a retired scientist, a few years younger than yourself, who has worked out a few digital tricks necessary to record all the parts of pieces like this, to superimpose them and add some reverberation that you don’t get in my “studio”, properly called the bedroom. I don’t actually play the cello or the double-bass, but after playing the notes on a viola at higher pitch I can drop the pitch artifically to produce a reasonable (I hope) simulation of the intended sound. The band therefore consists only of me, 9 times over. I expect the nonet has been played somewhere recently (maybe in Riga), and that one day it will be commercially recorded, but until that time I hope you will think my attempt better than nothing.
    Very best wishes
    Steve

    1. Hello Steve,
      just now, September 17, 2012 at 5:30 pm, I received your Mail and my letter of September 10 appears again.
      Thank you very much. It’s all o.k. and I am happy.
      Helmut

  12. Hi Steve,
    I wrote to you recently (von Wilm, Nonet). Why did you delete my mail and why did you not answer it? My mail was meant seriously. Or are you afraid because of the copyright? That ist unfounded. There are – as far as I know – no heirs. And I do not know anyone who could or would assert such rights. I do not mind to mail with you directly, but I do not know your e-mail-adress by now.
    Greetings from Germany
    Helmut Voss

  13. Helmut,
    I’ll try again, but I suspect you aren’t reading this Journal. I don’t know your email either.
    Steve

  14. Hi Steve,

    I found out about your work through IMSLP’s Jean Hure page and I wanted to thank you for all the great work you’ve done. Have you any interest in obscure Soviet-era quartets? I’ve gathered up scores for quite a few composers (Golubev, Gaigerova, Melkikh, etc…) and would gladly send you some to peruse for your project. I’m not 100% sure how copyright works with some of these (since they were published by Soviet state publishing houses and have been completely out-of-print since then. I’d love to know what you think. I’ve pretty much been forced to make MIDI files to hear a lot of this work.

    Anyhow, I love your project and hope you keep finding good works to dust off,

    Best, Justin

    P.S. Has Roger-Ducasse’s first quartet been performed by any groups?

  15. Hi Justin,
    Sounds fascinating. Given that when you look up Shostakovitch here you get a warning that anyone uploading a file will be sent to the gulag, I guess the answer is that most Soviet-era composers are still under copyright. Why not make an inquiry with copyright expert Carolus? You’ll find him via “Help” and “Administrators”, then go to his Discussion pages and “add topic”.
    No reason why scores and recordings can’t be circulated privately though. If you have pdfs of a particularly interesting one would you like to email them (steve@sandrock.fslife.co.uk) and hopefully I’ll get back to you with a rendition. Of course scores are hard to play from, but the “Partifi” feature now available here sometimes works very well and can apparently be used independently of IMSLP.
    I must surely have looked at the Roger-Ducasse and put it away in terror. Amazon suggests his second quartet has been commercially recorded but not the first. Maybe if I did a big cheat with the tempo? Don’t hold your breath though.
    All the best
    Steve

  16. Is this the same Steve Jones who is the wonderful accompanist, tenor, and all around music technology maven from the Southwestern area of the US? Pardon the rather direct inquiry! Definitely enjoying the recordings in any case! Make it significantly faster than trying to read through the scores to get a feel of some of this music!

  17. No, there are lots of us! I’m in the SE of the UK and often confused with Steve Jones the violinist/Chinese linguist and Steve Jones the geneticist/popular science writer, both Brits associated with universities I studied and worked at. Good to hear from you anyway.

  18. Dear Steve Jones,
    I am full of admiration for the amazing work you are doing! There are many forgotton gems here and your dedication is remarkable – I can hardly imagine the effort involved in learning and recording all these pieces. I guess you are multi-tracking them. Actually your ‘cello’ playing is better than you describe! I found you on IMSLP where I was researching the Corder family. The Fred Corder Elegy is ravishing and really doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. As a composer and violinist (7 string quartets and counting) maybe I should learn how to do this process myself. So I might ask you for a few tips one day!
    Once again – many thanks for your work!
    best wishes,
    David Hackbridge Johnson

  19. Dear David,

    It’s great to get a little encouragement from time to time – thank you! Do get in touch again if you think I can provide you with any hints (steve@sandrock.fslife.co.uk). It was discovering the Audacity software that opened the door for me about 10 years ago, and I’m constantly amazed at the quantity and quality of near-forgotten chamber music that’s out there. Re Corder’s elegy, I expect you know the story of Victor Harris who came from New Zealand to study at the RAM and tragically died soon after. Quite a memorial for a young boy.

    I’m looking forward to exploring your web site – all the best.

    Steve

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