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The sounds of New York to be re-created in Leeds Beckett music studios


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A new research project – bringing to life the practice and history of mid-20th century New York-based Latin music – has launched at Leeds Beckett.

Dr Sue Miller

Dr Sue Miller and Dr Paul Thompson, Readers in Music in the School of Film, Music & Performing Arts, are investigating the original recording studio techniques and performance aesthetics of this traditional style of dance music.

Sue explained: “Performance aesthetics is a complex idea that I am writing about in my new book – performance of this style of music involves the complex interaction between the band members, a dancing public and an African-derived organising timeline known as clave. A studio recording therefore has to exhibit a live sounding aesthetic. Many mid-20th century recordings reflect this live aesthetic most clearly, with more modern recording techniques failing to do so.”

Building on Sue’s previous historical, ethnographic and performance work on Cuban and Latin music, and Paul’s ethnographic work in recording studios, the team are devising experiments using an ‘experimental archaeology’ technique to re-create the sounds of commercial studio recordings of Cuban music made in Havana and New York.

Paul said: “We’re combining traditional academic research (ethnography, music history, performance studies and analysis) with methods that are used in the areas of experimental and experiential archaeology. This involves conducting historically informed recording experiments which will give us a better understanding of the culture and tradition of recorded Cuban music and the ways this culture informed some of the logistic, creative and aesthetic decisions to produce its distinctive sound.”

Sue and Paul are collaborating with specialist professional performers from Charanga del Norte and New York-based Orquesta Broadway, music technologists and producers. These include Leeds Beckett Lecturer Barkley McKay as recording engineer and Latin Grammy artist and producer Nestor Torres (Cachao Master Sessions) as project mentor.

Sue said: “By bringing together a team of experts, using some of the tools and technologies that are as close to those used in the past, we are attempting to recreate the conditions of the original recording sessions, which will help us to explore specific aspects of the recording process that have not been analysed before.

“The aim of the project is to gain new insight into the history, performance and production of this influential dance music tradition, with consideration for how technological constraints and innovations can influence musical performance and practice. The development and wider application of the experiential and experimental archaeology methods within musicology will also be outcomes of our research project.”

The team has received a British Academy Leverhulme Small Research Grant of just under £10,000 to fund the project.

Next year, a documentary film and audio recordings created as part of the project will launch on the Leeds Arts Research Centre website – coinciding with the release of Sue’s new book Improvising Sabor: Afro-Cuban Dance Music in New York published by the University Press of Mississippi. The work will also be available for streaming on Sue’s website.

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