Friday, March 4, 2016

Joyful noise: The National Recording Registry Project

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one avid listener and writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order.

INTRODUCTION

What sounds do we want to remember?

For many years, the National Film Registry has drawn attention to its annually-expanding list of movies deemed culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. A few years ago, in addition to all the other writing I’ve done, mostly about the arts, I began what I thought was a unique pursuit – to find, see, and review every film on the list in chronological order. As of 2015, 675 films are on that list.

Of course, in my research I found Daniel Eagan’s admirable and comprehensive 2009 book “America’s Film Legacy,” which is precisely that. His monumental effort notwithstanding, however, I decided to press on. Just cussed, I guess. I am still forging ahead – you can track my progress at Film Patrol, through my NFR Project. If nothing else, it’s providing me with quite an education and a lot of food for thought.

The National Film Registry began in 1989. Little-known, though, the National Recording Registry has been pursuing the same path since 2002. Each year, it selects 25 recordings for its list, with input from the public, just as the National Film Registry does. They “showcase the range and diversity of American recorded sound heritage in order to increase preservation awareness.”

What better way to do that than wade through them, in order, as with the National Film Registry? The recordings are well-documented by the Library of Congress, and each is given a brief but insightful description by a scholar – an excellently curated project.

So why continue? Just cussed, I guess. I think that this kind of journey through time will be another enlightening one. I haven’t looked through the list extensively. I don’t know what I’ll find, or what I’ll think of it. What will I hear? Why is it there? What does it mean?

More practically – where can we find these recordings, if at all? Why are they not compiled and collected in a public digital space so that everyone can learn about them, exchange ideas about them, and let them inspire new work?

The fact that the Film Registry gets all the press begs the question as to whether we are primarily a visual culture or not. Film has its own universal language of sign and gesture, but what about sound? Does it resonate with us as deeply as image?
  
Let’s listen and find out.


 Tune in Fridays at noon for new chapters. Up first: Haunting phonautograms from 1860.