Preserving Historic Sound Recordings by Henry Sapoznik


[Music Plays] The process of preservation and technological
continuity is critical to our job as carriers of tradition and culture. The first thing
we have to do is really to determine what exists. And our job in determining what exists
is to really understand what came before on a deep level. I think the best example for
what came before us is really in the classical musical work where an entire body of music,
that of Johannes Sebastian Bach was single-handedly revitalized by one person, by Felix Mendelssohn.
And this whole thing of creating a powerful continuity of past and present is the model
that we as archivists and preservationists undertake.
So that’s really the critical form. What came before us, how can we create a bridge from
the earlier era through contemporary technology and delivery systems to a completely new generation
so that that culture and that literacy can be interpreted by a new generation.
John Philip Sousa, who was the first great star of early recordings, hated recordings.
In fact, he coined the term “canned music.” He saw this as a degradation of culture, of
us as a society. What he didn’t realize, what no one then realized is that these tabulas,
these tabula rasas, these recordings document an incredibly vibrant part of our collective
history as a society and are a gift from an older generation to a contemporary generation.
The process whereby we actually do the archaeological work of determining what exists happens to
a variety of received media. For example go through old record catalogs that were published
at that time in order to sell the recordings. We look through old newspapers to see advertisements
of what was being sold directly to the public, record reviews of the period.
The best of course are the actual records which have survived from previous generations.
We look at these records long before we actually listened to them. There is so much information
on here that tells us who it was, when it was, what they were doing, what was the context
of this material. All of this stuff before the moment that the needle slips into the
groove. So we create an entire biography of these recordings. And then the researcher
is armed with the deep context to understand how to approach the recording and then to
frame it in a way to understand what was the original intention, and then to do the necessary
subsequent work of interpreting this music as part of a scholarly and musicological pursuit.
3. Ensure Preservation through Archival Practices I think regardless of which archives, which
library, which collection we’re talking about, processes are very much the same. That is,
one collects the recordings and creates a process whereby they are preserved, and transferred
for the subsequent generations. Here’s the thing, that we know that with each change
in technological innovation, the previous era of technology is shunted aside is probably,
I would guess maybe only 40% of recordings that were made on cylinders or ’78s which
were then commercially issued, reissued onto new technologies, LPs and then subsequently
to CDs. That is, that’s the consideration of commercial interest. Libraries and archives
cannot make that sort of judgment. Our job is to preserve the entire corpus of the previous
generation of technology in order to make it available to future generations.
How is this accomplished? Again, this is a pretty standard procedure. A record shows
up in an archive and the determination first is made to create a catalog taking all of
the information from the label that allows us to then find that recording. Record is
then prepared for the transfer process. The record is clean. The proper size stylist which
will fit into the groove enabling us to read out the information that is housed in these
grooves is critical. The better the transfer from the original recording to a new medium
means that you could then prepare that record for an easy listening for the subsequent user. [before and after music plays] So how do we give people the access to this
kind of music? Given restrictions technological restrictions, legal restrictions, restrictions
of even simple things of who has internet access and who doesn’t. Libraries and archives
are in the forefront of coming up with policies, which challenge issues of micromanaging these
materials where in fact all of these recordings, everything that was recorded and issued to
an American listening public is part of our national heritage and something that is critical
to us as a people if we expect to be informed, if we expect to be really insightful about
who we are as a society. 4. Ensure Access for All Via Public Domain
Laws In some ways, the technological issues which
face the preservation and transmission of these recordings of the new generation are
simple because it’s just technology. The real problem comes in determining ownership of
these recordings. Originally, these recordings overwhelmingly were the domain of commercial
record companies. They would hire a particular performer to
come in, pay them. It’s called a work for hire and then the record company would own
that recording. Most of these record companies went through dozens and dozens of owners over
their long business lives. So the issues of ownership become a little murky. And in the
United States copyright laws have been, though created in the earliest days, during the post-revolutionary
war period to protect the creator of a particular innovation, copyright has subsequently come
to protect not the creator of the art but of the mechanical reproduction of that art.
So we become sort of derailed from its original intention about the artist who created this
work and instead to the business aspect that owns it.
The history of commercial recording is a very forward moving one. For the most part, record
companies did not live off their vaults. They didn’t live off their crude recordings. They
constantly move forward. Certain artists like Caruso were constantly kept in the catalog
long after he died. He lived way beyond his actual life on earth. It really wasn’t until
the 1950s that a Grassroots Mass Movement of looking back at an entire genre of recorded
music in an attempt to hold bring it fully formed from an earlier period into a contemporary
period. This was people who were interested in New
Orleans and Dixie Land jazz who really looked in the 1950s back to the 1920s and began as
a Grassroots Movement to take those old records and to reissue them on new technology, which
at that time was LPs, microgroove records. Well this was not the original idea of record
companies. This was the fans, the carriers of the culture. The grassroots, the people
who took the music into their lives on a visceral level. That really set a model for all other
music communities which started with jazz then moved  into early Hillbilly music, early
blues, early Broadway and vaudeville music. Our copyright laws in the United States are
restrictive in that they do not allow free and open access for a variety of non-commercial
uses for these materials. This has meant that an entire cadre of people have emerged who’s
job is to in essence liberate this music from the hold of restrictive access to returning
it to its rightful place as part of our birth right as Americans with a lush and meaningful
cultural history. We’re now involved in an ongoing struggle
of the democratizing not only of these materials but to enable us as a society to gain access
to these materials on an as demand basis. Not to for everyone to turn a buck on this
but this is part of our cultural literacy. If this is lost to us then we lose an important
part of who we are as a society. So it’s hoped that with these major changes that have happened
in the technology with the internet in essence of macro-democratizing access, this will force
a change in the more restrictive ghetto-izing interpretation of copyright law.
5. Provide Technological Access to Historical Content
It’s the role of each generation to come to grips with the place and relationship of itself
to the technology which it has at its disposal. The earliest generation of recordings were
available to people through Nickelodeons. People would go to a place, put a nickel in,
put on headphones and have that singular relationship to a recording. Other places restaurants,
cafes, clubs would play records for their patrons. When the technology was able to be
put into people’s homes, you really localized the relationship to the recordings. Someone
would buy a record, take it home and can play it at any time.
It’s been determined that something like maybe 35 or maybe as much 40% of previous technological
media, let’s say ’78s you know sort of like this one, very, as much or as little as 40%
have ever been transferred into a successive technological media, which means that the
vast majority of the culture of the previous generations is lost to us because we don’t
have a way of interpreting the, the information on those recordings. It’s a huge, huge loss.
So now we’re at a point in terms of the overlapping of contemporary technology that we are capable
of really creating more continuity between these earlier technologies and contemporary
application of these. And I’m not talking just about the idea that we have better record
players today than we did when Thomas Edison first invented it. I mean back in the old
days, you would play ’78s with essentially a sewing machine needle. Today the technology
is far more accurate. We can hear stuff better on these old recordings than they could hear
in the era which they were created. [before and after music plays] Well we now see that we’re on the cusp on
yet another great technological surge not using a physical form of the music. That is,
taking a record and then making a copy on to another record but by placing it on the
internet so that instead of a single disk, people will have this music as a waveform,
as a file. And suddenly we have an entirely new set of issues about the access to of these
materials through new technology. 6. Analyze and Contextualize Preserved Content
The most interesting element in this entire process of preservation and cultural continuity
is how we ascribe a deep and lasting values to these materials. We think about it in its
original context. These recordings and again any technology of that period reflected a
culture that was inventing itself. It was a popular culture that was coming out of the
self invention of America society. For the most part, popular culture is seen as a transient
disposable media. And so on a certain level, people will say, well why would we be interested
in that? I mean we’re not interested in wanting to say, OK, we should have Stanley steamers
now, we should have gas lights because that’s what they used at that period.
These recordings are critical to us now. This is something that could not have been understood
by the original inventors of the technology nor by the purveyors of these recordings.
We couldn’t possibly know that these recordings would do two things simultaneously. They would
preserve forever the sound of this culture as it invents itself and as it morphs into
the future versions of itself. But in creating these recordings, it also in a way helped
to destroy the previous generation of this culture by superimposing from the top down
a new technology that says something, hey, this is on a record it must be good. It must
be important because somebody invested in this.
Suddenly these records in a way displace earlier forms of music and speeds up a process of
folk transition and folk process that would take ordinarily generations for that to happen
but the recordings, recording film, radio, any of these mass produced technologies would
speed up that process. So what happens is these recordings every single ’78 is like
a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that without each of these individual pieces to give us that
full picture of the generation which invented this culture, we lose a critically important
piece of the ability to interpret why is this important? Who are we today by understanding
who we were a century ago. This sound document is vital to us as a society
because we then can recreate our entire history in this real time. We’re in essence eavesdropping
on our ancestors as they amused themselves as they entertain themselves and as they invented
a culture that has been sort of a birth right and handed to us in full form. They could
not know this then that these are an essence three-minute shellac messages in a bottle
but for us today this is a vitally important gift to us to understand ourselves as a dynamic
society and in a culture that really out of whole cloth invented this entire industry
and gave us a culture that we could then really understand and be a vital part of.
A lot of times laws and the intention of the “the original owners” lagged far behind the
changes that technology really create but this just means that there are still a thirst,
there’s a hunger, there’s a real need for each generation to feel that sense of continuity,
the baton passed, the technological baton from the previous generation to the new generation.
And we’re just seeing only the most contemporary example of that. This will no doubt continue
to change as we move forward in new ways of storage of sound media and other media into
the next generation. Conclusion: Preserving the History of Mass
Culture For the most part, we are a society of received
texts. That is before the 19th century, the only way things were transmitted were through
books. And I think the invention of institutions like libraries and archives in universities
are very “Urtext.” They’re very about the book and the book has been really about a
select few. Writing was kept to a minimum. It was kept to a particular class of people
who could both read and write. That control of the message has been vital to issues of
entire city states, entire civilizations controlling their populations.
What happened in the 19th century was the invention of mass culture, the invention of
recording, the invention of film, the invention of radio took the control in essence away
from the few and gave it to the many. And there’s still a real conflict between mass
culture. People will look at mass culture and they say how good can it be? I mean we
talked about today Jersey Shore and American Idol.
We look at this kind of stuff, we say, why is this important? But this is critical to
us understanding ourselves for, to us, to hear us as a society speak to ourselves, the
democratization of technology and the message that it carries takes us out of the realm
of the Middle Ages and puts us squarely into a contemporary modern society, where for better
or worse, we all have access to ways of documenting ourselves and representing ourselves as members
of a dynamic society for future generations. It creates an awful lot of materials that
we have to find space for but that’s a small price to pay for our ability to each have
a say in preserving our society into the future. [Music Plays]
video by www.mediaplusyou.com 4

2 Replies to “Preserving Historic Sound Recordings by Henry Sapoznik”

  1. bluenazz says:

    Thank you very much for uploading this. I found it fascinating!

  2. manthasagittarius1 says:

    "ta-BOO-la's?"
    Starting to look like Sokolow there, Henry.

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