The great unknown: discovering unrecorded musical gems

As a student, Dan Shilladay hunted for obscure vinyl in the back shelves of local record stores. Now as a viola player in the Berkeley Ensemble, he’s taking that approach one step further, scouring the British Library for unheard and unrecorded music.

When I was an undergraduate, Wednesday afternoons were kept free of lectures. The idea was that students were able to attend union clubs and sports, but I always went record shopping with my friend Pete. We had a rule that every week we would each buy something by a band whom we had never heard before.

We’d hurry back to halls and eagerly listen to our new acquisitions. Some were dreadful, some not to our taste, others more brilliant than we could have hoped, but there was no way of knowing until the needle traced its way across the vinyl or the CD spun.

My work as a member of the Berkeley Ensemble allows me to relive some of my record collecting experiences. The group was formed in 2008 with the aim of exploring the wealth of little-known 20th and 21st century British chamber music; hunting down seldom-performed and unrecorded repertoire is at the heart of what we do.

I can’t deny that some of the lustre of the obscure bands I coveted as a student lay with the hipster-cool they conferred and I was hypersensitive to acts selling out, gaining mass appeal or losing their mystique. With the Berkeley Ensemble, the reverse is true: we search for music with the aim of doing all we can to find it as wide an audience as possible.

Our research often leads us to the British Library, where the papers of many composers are kept. Underexplored and sometimes cursorily catalogued, the records abound with tantalising hints of what lies undisturbed. Occasionally, commercially unrecorded works may be heard in the old BBC broadcasts kept at the British Library Sound Archive (often on gloriously unwieldy reel-to-reel tapes) as well as deleted commercial recordings.

Berkeley Ensemble © Louise Mather
Berkeley Ensemble © Louise Mather

Whilst an archive recording may settle the question of a piece’s worth, unrecorded works (especially those for large ensemble) invariably require playing through. For me, this is the most exciting part of the process. It is a singularly curious experience to play and hear a piece brought back to life after perhaps decades of neglect (and nerve-wracking, too, if it is one I’ve brought to the ensemble’s attention). 

Not every unrecorded piece is a lost masterwork, and we’ve had many lively debates within the ensemble over the merits of newly discovered pieces. Whilst we don’t always agree, a new piece requires the strong advocacy of a majority of the group before we’ll perform it publicly.

Working on previously unrecorded music is similar to learning contemporary pieces, in that there is no performance history to draw upon with regard to interpretation. Our debut recording, Clarion Call, contains both types of premiere; Charles Wood’s Septet was written in 1889 whilst Michael Berkeley’s Clarion Call was written especially for the ensemble in 2013.

Understanding and interpreting the latter piece was made simpler through working extensively with its composer. Whereas Charles Wood, although writing in a familiar idiom, was not on hand to answer questions about his personal preferences regarding, for example, the bars he bracketed in the manuscript for optional performance.

Dan Shilladay © Louise Mather
Dan Shilladay © Louise Mather

If the process from discovery to public performance or recording is a long one – far longer, even, than the old-fashioned pursuit of going out and buying records – the sense of achievement is correspondingly greater.

During the editing of our recording and the endless times I listened minutely to the various takes, I often found myself whistling themes from Wood’s Septet, melodies over a hundred years old that no-one who overheard me could have ever heard before. In the future, I hope many more will.

The Berkeley Ensemble’s debut album, Clarion Call, will be released on 3 March.