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A fond farewell to Dunelm Records (as we know it)

The bad news is that Jim Pattison of Dunelm Records is retiring. The good news is that the label he founded in the early ‘90s is being subsumed into Divine Art and that its interesting and varied catalogue will live on.

I first came across the Dunelm label in late 2004 when I requested for review a disc of cello music by Drakeford, Williamson and Holmboe. I was both impressed with the disc and surprised to discover that Williamson was not the composer I had expected (Malcolm) but Mancunian John R. Williamson. Since then I have heard several more Dunelm/Williamson discs encompassing music for woodwind, piano and songs and come to regard what Dunelm has done for his music as a major achievement. A particular favourite is the disc of 24 Housman songs originally issued in two batches of 12 (review 1, review 2) but latterly available on one disc (DRD0257).

Most Dunelm discs and the associated paperparts and label, have been made to order by Jim Pattison on CD-R stock but, in the future, those that are re-issued will be commercially pressed. Certainly the Williamson discs mentioned should be high on the Divine Art priority list, along with the series of Erik Chisholm’s piano music which Murray McLachlan has recorded. This well-known Manchester-based Scottish pianist has made quite a few records for Dunelm, including a Beethoven sonata cycle. But Dunelm has also championed up and coming artists, for example pianist Kathryn Page who has made a splendid recording of the composer’s piano reduction of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring with Murray McLachlan (review). Organist Ronald Frost has also featured frequently on the label and Jim has recorded several Shostakovich symphonies with the London Shostakovich Orchestra in live performances. I have not yet heard these but one of his live recordings I did admire was a recital given by baritone Stephen Foulkes called Shropshire Lads (DRD0262). These are all Housman settings, most notably a cycle by Somervell and three songs by Moeran.

In the middle of 2006 I was trying to arrange a recording of the music of Judith Bailey and approached Jim. The recording was made in December 2007 and I have written elsewhere about the sessions. Suffice it to say here that working with Jim and his wife Joyce was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. In early 2007, Jim had a heart attack and decided, at the age of 76, it was time to wind down so this will be one of his last recordings. It will be issued on Metier (one of Divine Art’s labels) in June.

I asked Jim to provide some information on how he had set up Dunelm Records. The first thing he did was to send me two discs – recorded mostly in the early 1980s and featuring him and his wife Joyce as singers in a variety of roles, for example from various Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. I was impressed with their voices, and the discs were great fun to listen to and extremely well-recorded for the time.

Jim also provided me with the photograph below and answers to the following questions:

How did you come to be interested in recording music?

I have always been fascinated by recorded music and can remember – when a child of about 5 years of age – having a toy gramophone and four records, a favourite being “Good morning, merry sunshine!” As a youngster I was allowed – under adult supervision – to explore my grandfather’s record collection which was a mixed bag of gospel songs, vocal selections, the arias from Handel’s “Messiah” and a real gem, Amelita Galli-Curci singing Una voce poco fa from “The Barber of Seville” by Rossini. The problem with this ‘78’ was that someone had “taken a bite out of it” so I only heard the last minute-and-a-half of the aria. It was several years later before I heard the whole piece.
In 1943, as a reward for gaining a place at the grammar school, my parents gave me a second-hand portable gramophone (as there was a war on, they had scoured the salerooms of Hartlepool for it) and, by diligent saving up of pocket money, I began to build up my own record collection. I read all that I could about the history of recording but it was only when Grundig consumer-use-type tape recorders became available after the 2nd World War that I was able to experiment with the actual process of recording. At that time, such tape recordings could be transferred to a shellac-on-aluminium ‘78’ from which several copies could be made by sending off the ‘78’ to EMI for processing. This was the only way of making copies for standard gramophones at that time.

I learned the basics of recording in physics lessons at grammar school supplemented by brief instruction on a general science course at university. The practical aspects have been honed over many years by being willing to “jump in” and work out the details on location and then, as one text book aptly advises, “Trust your ears!”.

A big breakthrough came when I was able to afford an Akai D-4000D stereo open-reel tape recorder that was four track (= two stereo tracks ‘on each side-pass’) that ran at a speed of 7½ inches per second (ips). Quality at last! It was on this machine, and working in the realm of slide/tape programmes on industrial safety (long before the Health & Safety at Work Act was in place) that I learned how to edit and “splice” tape.

The exciting parts of recording are being on location, meeting the challenges of each job and producing a limited number of CDs or cassettes on a bespoke basis. This keeps production costs at a low level and obviates the need to have a storage facility for finished CDs.

Did you make recordings of yourself singing?

Improvements in consumer-use cassette recorders incorporating limiters, if used judiciously, meant that I could record myself whilst performing. A number of recordings were made in this way in the 1970s and 80s. Unfortunately, at the beginning of the 90s, the small 4-channel mixer unit broke down and I was directed to a company that dealt with professional equipment. Guided by its excellent technicians, I gradually built up the equipment necessary to record professional performers and, with the introduction of CD-recordable blanks, was able to transfer those recordings so that they could be heard on a CD player. By this time, editing had become computerised and non-destructive, but the techniques learned in the razorblade-and-sticky-tape era proved to be invaluable.

How does Joyce assist you in making recordings?

Now, for location recordings, transport of the equipment is by estate car. At the venue, it all fits into a purpose-made stand and the equipment rig is erected on location by both of us. Joyce makes the connections and, when the microphones are in position, lays out the sound cables. Hers, too, is the responsibility for the commissariat and, at the end of the recording session she dismantles the rig whilst I disconnect and pack up the microphones. In addition to this work on location Joyce, as a qualified company-secretary and bookkeeper, has been invaluable in keeping the financial side of the recording exercises well controlled.








How did Dunelm Records start up?

In mid-1991 there were tentative enquiries from potential customers. The first challenging recording opportunity came on 16 February 1992, when a local group, “The Pennine Singers” asked Jim to record a CD of a number of its songs. The programme was first issued on cassette (CD-R blanks at that time being quite expensive) and entitled “Gathering up the roses”. That it was recorded at all was amazing; the heating system of the Manchester church in which the singers had gathered to make the recording had failed completely and it was freezing cold! Only the recording engineer and his assistant had thought to bring flasks of hot drinks! Not an entirely conducive environment in which to make a session recording which necessitated repetitive singing!

That was the beginning; soon Dunelm Records began to receive invitations to record at such places as The Malvern Festival. A long association began with the Royal Holloway Symphony Orchestra – comprising music students and graduates of the Music Dept of Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, Surrey, the Kensington Symphony Orchestra, and the London Shostakovich Orchestra, followed by Chetham’s School of Music and St. Ann’s Church, both of these in Central Manchester, among others.

What particular challenges have you faced?

We were expected to be able to tackle anything. We recorded an orchestral and choral concert in Surrey in which the choir sang in Russian; we recorded the complete cast, with orchestra, for a CD and cassette to promote a new musical to potential “angels”; as well as works for bizarre combinations of instruments such as one for soprano, recorder, harpsichord and percussion! We have coped with intrusive bird song – particularly starlings and seagulls –, refrigerated lorries, noisy students, a shooting gallery in the basement of one venue; buses; aeroplanes; lawn mowers; builders – the list just goes on and on. Today’s world is a very noisy one for the recording engineer! However, there are quiet venues too, and it has been a pleasure to record the organ in The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester and the piano in the concert hall of The Michael Tippett Centre at Bath Spa University, Newton St. Loe, Bath.

The last 17 years of recording have been full of challenges, some pitfalls, and many triumphs. Now in our 76th year, we have a number of physical capability and health problems, not least of which is the heart attack I suffered in 2007, and so we believe it is time to move on.

The great thing about making recordings must be that your work lives on. I for one will be keeping a close eye on Divine Art’s releases as there are quite a few Dunelm records still on my wish list.

There are many people – composers, artists and listeners who have reason to be grateful to Jim and Joyce Pattison. I am sure I will not be alone in wishing them a long and happy retirement.

Patrick C Waller


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