" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Friday, April 22, 2016

NRR Project: Benjamin Ives Gilman Collection

"Parakansalak gamelan and dancers at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago" [Bancroft 1893]
The Benjamin Ives Gilman Collection Recorded at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago
Benjamin Ives Gilman, recorder
101 cylinders

In 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago was held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing in the Americas. This 600-acre fair entertained 27,000,000 visitors in its year of existence. It vaunted American scientific and industrial know-how, but included 46 pavilions showcasing nations from around the world.

As a part of this cultural exchange, musical performers came to America and shared their work with visitors. Benjamin Ives Gilman, psychologist and amateur cultural anthropologist, record 101 cylinders of music from the participants, including music from Fiji, Samoa, Java, and Turkey.

Like the recordings of the Passamaquoddy tribe, these recordings are unavailable to the general listener. However, whereas the Passamaquoddy have some say over their tribal heritage – where are the Gilman recordings? Do they also hold sensitive material not meant for casual auditors? Are their makers’ descendants being tracked down for permission to use the recordings? Not even the documentation telling us what’s there is available. Why?

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: The Laughing Song.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The NRR Project: Passamaquoddy Indian field recordings

Passamaquoddy Indian field recordings
Jesse Walter Fewkes, recorder
30 cylinders
March, 1890
For the first time in this survey, the audio material in an entry of the National Recording Registry is unavailable; however, it’s for a very satisfying reason.

It’s unclear how hard it will be find many of these recordings in advance. I have faced this problem once already in my older, similar “National Film Registry Project” at Film Patrol. (Here is the entry onthe missing item, the 1909 film “Lady Helen’s Escapade.”) Normally, I’d again be irritated that I couldn’t access and evaluate the recordings. I’m not. But, the back-story first:

Anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes was slated to join a folklore- and –life-gathering expedition to the American Southwest in 1890. He sought to test out his crank-powered cylinder recording device closer to home beforehand, so the Bostonian visited the Passamaquoddy people of the Maine/New Brunswick region. There, Noel Josephs and Peter Selmore told tribal tales, sang songs, and recited vocabulary, all in Passamaquoddy, for Fewkes on a set of 30 cylinders.

They represent the first field recordings, as well as the first recordings of Native Americans. Initially, the recordings joined the heap of other materials gathered from American natives, snatched from oblivion just as the “taming of the West” was completed. As such, they were the province of folklorists, ethnologists, and linguists – everyone but the people to whom the sounds belonged.

Finally, in 1985, the American Folklife Center completed its safety transcription of 10,000 cylinders-worth of data, and began repatriating the recordings to the tribal descendants of the respective recording artists.

It turns out there’s a lot of sensitive data on these recordings. There are sacred songs on these cylinders, never meant to be recorded, or even heard by the uninitiated. The Center staff visited more than 100 tribes, letting them know about the recordings, making them available, and turning over control of them as well. Here are two excellent essays about the process, one by Judith Gray of the American Folklife Center and the other by Peggy Bulger and Michael Taft of the same institution.

Today, permission from the Passamaquoddy is needed to access these recordings, as it should be. Do we have a right to peer into the secret souls of those around us? Nope. Nor should we. The fact that we can’t pore over these represents an evolution in the treatment of native people in the United States. Treasure your heritage, Passamaquoddy – there are many other songs to be heard.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: The Benjamin Ives Gilman Collection Recorded at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago.

Friday, April 8, 2016

NRR Project: ‘The Lord’s Prayer’/’Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’

Emile Berliner
The Lord’s Prayer
Emile Berliner
Ca. 1888

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star
Emile Berliner
May 16, 1888

This episode is not so much about the message, but the medium.

Emile Berliner was an inventor who came up with the innovation of the disc record. Until then, cylinders were deemed the best way to record analog sound, with grooves that transmitted signals vertically. Berliner’s idea in 1887 was to create a groove that spiraled inward around the surface of, first a hard rubber, then a shellac disc, transmitting signals laterally.

The chief virtue of this innovation was that it was cheaper to manufacture. As well, these new discs could be stamped out in mass profusion, without loss of sound quality. This was a big relief for performers who had to repeat performances over and over on cylinder, creating only 10 to 150 recordings at a time. Despite resistance from Edison, discs gradually overtook cylinders in popularity. Berliner’s Victor Records made money. By 1929, cylinders for recordings were no longer manufactured. The sound industry created its first obsolescent technology.

The two tracks featured here document the new technology. Again, content creators were trying to make records that would appeal to the broadest possible public – the well-to-do owners of record players as well as those who paid a nickel to listen to audio selections in “phonograph parlors” – a brick-and-mortar proto-Spotify.

Religious material was something that could be played for the edification of the entire family without raising objections – a perfect way for the technology to insinuate itself into the home. Nursery rhymes were a safe bet as well.

Berliner doesn’t have the most distinctive voice, but we can hardly begrudge him to leave his sonic mark. Thanks to him, collectors have piles of vinyl records, instead of stacks of cylinders.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Passmaquody Indian field recordings.