When musicologist and concert pianist Dr. Tom Beghin approached renowned producer Martha de Francisco about recording the complete solo keyboard works of the 18th-century composer Joseph Haydn, he had originally intended to play each piece from the repertoire on a contemporary keyboard from the period. However, with the suggestion of James McGill professor Dr. Wieslaw Woszczyk, the resulting project instead made use (for the first time) of Virtual Acoustic Technology (VAT) techniques that instead allowed the sonic characteristics of nine 18th-century rooms in Europe to be re-created in the CIRMMT laboratories at McGill’s Schulich School of Music. In combination with the seven historical keyboards used by Dr. Beghin during his performances, the resulting recording was released by Naxos on Blu-ray in 2009 and drew rave reviews both nationally and internationally, including a Juno nomination for “Best Music DVD of the Year”.
Dr. Beghin notes that part of the inspiration for the project resulted from his thoughts on who would have played these pieces during Haydn’s lifetime, where they might have played and who woud have been listening. Thus, the recording became more that just the rendering of the music in a neutral recording space, but rather the opportunity to tell different narratives, using the rooms as active participants.
The combined expertise of Ms. de Francisco and Dr. Woszczyk allowed the recording to be made in virtually recreated sound spaces. These were rendered through a hemisphere of speakers in CIRMMT’s Immersive Presence Laboratory and later used through a set of headphones worn by Dr. Beghin while recording, to remove possible feedback and allow for optimal post-production remixing. For every moment of what became fourteen hours of recorded music, Dr. Beghin was fully immersed in a virtual room, specially chosen to match his instrument and the Haydn sonata he was playing. However, The McGill team later applied the same Virtual Acoustic Technology to live concerts, were with the action of switching a button, the audiences were transported sonically to concert halls, salons and private studies in Europe.
During the recording process, the work of the Virtual Haydn team was filmed by McGill graduate student and recording engineer Jeremy Tusz. The documentary Playing the Room was first screened in 2009 at the official launch of the release at McGill University. The original four Blu-ray disc set has since been made available as a thirteen CD/DVD set. A monograph, The Virtual Haydn: Paradox of a Twenty-First Century Keyboardist, in which Tom Beghin explores the musicological dimensions of the project, is due from the University of Chicago Press in Fall 2014. More information can be found on the Virtual Haydn website.