When you walk into a sound archive, you hear something totally expected, yet somewhat foreign: silence.
During his opening lecture on “Sound, Memory, and the Psychoanalytic Century” for the Belfer Audio Archive at 50 anniversary, Paul Théberge described the significance of this silence in the heart of the archive. It relates in part to the concept of “schizophonia,” the disembodiment of sound from its source that is captured by the phonograph.
In archives, we store recorded vestiges of sound from people and times long gone. The silence of the archive is emblematic of the fact that history happened outside the archive—it’s this external context that makes these recordings important. During the Belfer at 50 events, the archive sprang to life with the sounds of history that happened there.
Belfer at 50 comprised a series of events celebrating the achievements and evolution of the Belfer Audio Archive over the past half-century. Under the guidance of Walter L Welch, the archive began in 1963, in part as a laboratory that developed important techniques for preserving audio materials.
The archive has grown to include more than 340,000 items (making it the fourth largest archive in the United States), including 22,000 wax cylinder recordings dating from the late 19th century.
Over three days of events, Belfer at 50 encapsulated a variety of snapshots of its collection in action, from Freudian psychoanalysis to film scores. I managed to catch some of the events—regrettably missing the musical performances and film screenings. Even still, I greatly enjoyed lectures and demonstrations as a window into the inner workings of the audio archive and the research projects that utilize their materials.
Seminar: Cultural Implications
John and Susan Harvith gave a lecture titled, “For the Record: A Joint Exploration of the Arts and Technology.” Weaving through their relationship with Belfer and its founder, Walter Welch, they discussed Thomas Edison’s involvement in early sound recordings.
An active participant in producing early recordings of musicians, Edison grappled with the fundamental differences between live music and the new recorded medium he helped to create. Intriguingly, Edison abhorred vibrato and reverb—preferring acoustically dry recordings that sounded as much like their source material as possible when played back in different acoustic environments.
William Brooks offered a glimpse of current research being done at the archive in his lecture, “Crossing the Boundary Line: Music and the Nation in 1915.” Brooks’s research centers on a particular song, “America, I Love You,” by Archie Gottler and Edgar Leslie, which he tracked through successive versions and performers. Tracing the evolution of the patriotic, unifying sentiment of a singular song, Brooks took advantage of Belfer’s retention of multiple versions of recordings. Looking inward on this song, Brooks sees outward to a music industry in transition and a complicated America on the verge of World War I.
I was able to obtain an even deeper view into the Belfer Audio Archive–and it was anything but silent. Rather than touring the hushed stacks, the audience got a unique demonstration of the lifecycle of sound, from recording to preservation and distribution.
Gerald Fabris, museum curator at the Edison National HIstorical Park, captured a live brass trio performance of a short composition using an Edison recording phonograph to produce a wax cylinder record. The recording process was itself an art form, requiring careful positioning of performers in relation to the horn, and the delicate removal of wax shavings from the cutting knife.
Next, Robert Hodge, Belfer’s audio engineer, demonstrated the process of playback, digitization, and noise-removal using the wax cylinder recording Fabris had just produced. Remarkably, the recording had sounded clearer when replayed on a century-old Edison phonograph—digitization produced a more accurate copy, warts and all.
Finally, Jim O’Connor discussed his work in producing Sound Beat’s 90-second radio episodes using Belfer’s digitized recordings.
Due to the complicated ambiguity of the public domain for audio recordings, included clips must be carefully selected and short enough to fall under fair use. Therein lies the crux of Belfer’s digitization efforts—even as these fascinating historic recordings should be easier than ever to share with the world, rights holders are resisting their entry into the public domain, consequently limiting their distribution.
In all, these events painted a fascinating soundscape of the important work being done at Belfer. While the archive’s stacks may be silent, the intellectual climate of research and historical curiosity surrounding Belfer remains lively and engaging.
See more pictures and impressions on Twitter #belferat50.
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