Monday, July 21, 2014

Cold war vaults and robots: AV preservation at the Library of Congress

As many of you know, a very large percentage of the audio and visual recording made in the late 19th and early 20th century are on the brink of extinction. Either they are decaying, lost, or unplayable. The Library of Congress is attempting to stem the tide of disappearing AV media. With some large gift funds, they recently opened a new facility in Culpeper, Virgina whose exclusive mission is audiovisual preservation. A clip on PBS Newshour from last year explains the basics of the facility and its mission (7 minutes):

One of the most interesting tools the Library of Congress has for audio preservation is IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc), a tool that basically takes a visual picture of the sound groove in an analog audio disc, such as a vinyl or lacquer record, and then reproduces the sound from the picture without ever having to touch the disc with a needle. IRENE can do this imaging and analysis almost in real time. IRENE has also been developed for the 3D imaging of wax cylinders (whose sound information was stored vertically instead of laterally), though it is much slower—it takes 80 hours of imaging to get 2-4 minutes of audio. However, since wax cylinders are so fragile that even a couple of playings can damage them, this type of non-invasive extraction is very important. You can read more about IRENE here. This method of capturing sound recording is of course time-consuming and expensive, but what other choice do we have if we want to preserve the past for future generations? Now if only the Library of Congress had more time and money, they might be able to save more of the nation's national sound and visual treasures. But at least they will do what they can.

Meanwhile, a toast! This is SSF's 100th post. Sorry it's not quite as exciting as this 100th.

P.S. If you are interested in the preservation of video games, which is arguably much more difficult than even audio/visual, you should watch this.

Vocab: analog, vinyl, lacquer

Monday, July 14, 2014

The complications that electronic media creates for libraries

Sometimes things just don't line up. From Wikimedia Commons.

I recently gave a presentation about the music and audiovisual librarianship and I've decided to share part of my presentation here. This slightly edited section is about how the advent of electronic mediums complicates music and audiovisual librarianship.

How much does the preservation of physical media matter if "everything is going online"? You can check out e-books and now even e-movies from libraries, Netflix is moving away from physical DVDs and concentrating on streaming services, and who buys physical copies of albums anymore?

Physical media: dead or dying?

My answer to such questions is that physical media may be declining, but it is not yet dying, especially in academic libraries. Electronic scores have yet to be standardized, and even academic e-books are scarce, especially in the humanities. And some physical media is on the upswing, for example the (modest) resurgence of interest in vinyl recordings. And physical storage remains the best way to preserve and lend materials. Digital storage, although often the best way to preserve old media (or as the Library of Congress calls anything produced in the 20th century, "New Media"), digital storage takes a lot and care and feeding to keep the data from becoming lost or unreadable.

Personally, I still buy physical copies of CDs, because I like the added value of art and liner notes and as a backup for digital files. I value the added information. At the same time, though, for space and financial reasons I often don’t purchase movies that 1) I’m not going to watch more than once a year, and 2) are readily available on Netflix or another streaming service, or the library. I, however, am not an institution that needs to plan for preserving the collected media of the generations.


One of the most troubling problems of the digital revolution is release of e-only music and movies and restricting licenses that accompany them. This deployment of e-media means that libraries often cannot even own it, much less preserve it or lend it. A recent court case ruled that in order for someone to resell mp3s, they had to sell the actually hard drive on which they were downloaded. This is frankly ridiculous. First Sale, the legal idea that makes libraries possible, has not been well clarified for digital material. This e-material debate is not over and needs to be addressed in the law. We’ve seen from past experience that publishing companies have little or no incentive to store and catalog their own recordings or music. For example, Capitol records was going to throw away their archive from the 1950s and 60s, including original Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole recordings and manuscripts, and would have done so if Brigham Young University's library had not spoken up and claimed the collection.

However, streaming is not going away, either. Sometimes, especially for small libraries, subscriptions to Naxos and Alexander Street Press are an easy way to get a lot of content. I’m sure a similar model of movie databases marketed to academic libraries will happen soon, but who knows how much it will cost? These streaming databased don’t have everything users need, either, and their catalog can change at the drop of a hat. And streaming does not solve the space issue. We may be able to move items available through streaming to offsite storage, or adjust acquisitions models so we don’t buy them, but with the flood of items produced each year, there will be plenty of resources to take their places.

Take-away: the jack of all trades

What does this mean for libraries? First, digital objects need care and feeding just like physical objects. Second, and more troubling, librarians need to plan for an digital electronic future but shouldn't abandon the physical objects. As time consuming as it sounds, we need to function in an online resource world as well as a physical resource world, shouldering the new forms while keeping up with the old. I hope these extra responsibilities comes with greater pay, but I'm not holding my breath.

Do you physical media is going to become obsolete?

Vocab: First Sale, streaming, vinyl

Monday, July 7, 2014

Slideshow from the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Saturday, I had a chance to visit the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which ended yesterday. If you've never been, the Folklife Festival is a huge outdoor event featuring food, crafts, dance, talks, demonstrations, and (of course) music. As I mentioned in last week's blog post, this year's two featured countries were China and Kenya. Here's some short glimpses of what I saw:

1. Musical marionettes

Not your mother's lonely goatherd...
The first group I saw was a Chinese marionette troupe, the Quanzhou Puppet Troupe. These puppeteers did some amazing feats, such making a marionette do tricks while riding a bicycle. I think one of the most amazing things about the group, however, was that it had a seven-piece Chinese orchestra, which you can see in the above picture: three percussionists and four other players that switched between melody instruments. There were almost as many musicians as their were puppeteers, which I think says something about the importance of music to their tradition. The instrument you can see best in this picture is the pipa, a four-stringed lute. The four melodic players pretty much played the melody without harmony the whole time, but varied who was playing and adding their own ornamentation particular to their instruments. This type of musical texture (many instruments playing one melodic line) is sometimes called heterophony.

If you look closely at the marionettes in the picture above, you'll see that they are playing instruments, too—and the puppeteers were very good about playing when their corresponding instrument was playing.

2. Inner Mongolian awesomeness

This guys
The next group I saw was Ih Tsetsn, a Beijing-based group of Inner Mongolian musicians (Inner Mongolia, by the way, is part of China while Outer Mongolia is what we call the country of Mongolia). This group was made up of three horse-head fiddlers, a percussionist, and three guitar-like strumming folk instruments. All of them also sang. And not just your normal singing—they were throat singing, which is a style of singing that allows men to produce more than one note. For example, you might hear a high, clear whistling sound from this group, and you might look around for some sort of flute, but then you realize the man in blue on your left is actually making the sound with his throat (along with another note). The high whistling sound is actually an overtone, or a vibration already present in the vocal sound at a different frequency from the normally-heard fundamental note. The singer is able to bring forward that note so it sounds out from the fundamental. Besides singing more than one note, Ih Tsetsn were great instrumentalists, too, using their horse-head fiddles to sound like actual horses and sometimes mixing in some samba beats into their staple horse-trotting-influenced rhythms. They weren't sticklers to tradition, but didn't abandon it, either.

3. Dancing with a mouth organ

American marching bands need these
The Leishan Miao Dance and Music group, representing an ethnic group that lives in the southern Chinese mountains, played and danced at the same time with their lusheng (a type of mouth-organ), an instrument that has a very distinctive sound.

4. Kenyan (rock?)

They got mad at you if you didn't dance
I obviously spent more time in the Chinese tent then the Kenyan one, and that's because the Chinese music was more different than American music. This was true at least about all the Kenyan groups I saw. The bands were very much guitars and percussion with a lead vocalist, with music built around dance grooves (and had accompanying mosh pits, as you can see). Of course the style differed some and there were as many percussionists as guitars, but nothing really surprising or different or amazing. 

It's a shame more people can't visit the festival, as it can be a very eye-opening event. Hopefully, I'll be able to attend another one myself in some future year.

Vocab: pipa, ornamentation, texture, heterophony, overtone, lusheng

Monday, June 30, 2014

Zhejiang Wu: Chinese opera visiting D.C.

Waiting for the performance in the Kennedy Center

Last Friday, the Smithsonian Folklife festival (link) began in Washington, D.C. This yearly summer festival than takes place on the National Mall and highlights cultures from around the world. The two cultures highlighted this year are China and Kenya. 

In conjunction with the festival, the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage (a program that features daily free shows at 6pm) put on a short, hour-long exhibition of the Zhejiang Wu Opera company, which had flown out from China especially for the Folklife festival. The Millennium stage series records all their concerts, and you can stream this concert for free here. Seriously, watch it.

Chinese opera is different from Western opera in a few ways. First, there is not only scenery and spectacle and singing, but also acrobatics. Additionally, the action is more stylized than with Western opera, the singing style is very different (Western audience might think it very nasal, with varied vibrato, and lots of sliding ornamentation), and the action is accompanied by Chinese traditional instruments. Wu-style opera, featured here, is a little different than Peking-style opera, its more famous relative.

As the performance is only an hour long, you can get a taste of Wu opera from the few members of the company who were able to make the trip to D.C. There are six acts:

  1. The Dragon Dance - pretty amazing choreographed dance an acrobatic feat. If you watch nothing else, watch it this.
  2. Solo Female Dance.
  3. A suona (bamboo flute) solo.
  4. Changing faces - Leaves you wondering "How did he do that!"  and at the out-of-place Chinese-ish rock music accompaniment.
  5. Operatic scene: "The Legend of the White Snake" - a traditional scene, gives a great introduction to what Chinese opera is like.
  6. Huihu solo - an traditional Chinese string instrument. It's interesting to see how a huihu player can express more with their face than a violinist because the instrument is not tucked under a chin.
  7. Kung fu performance - while entertaining, I got the idea that this scene was made up recently for tourists, and doesn't have the cultural weight of the previous acts—though I have no grounds for this suspicion, as martial arts performers are an important part of Wu opera.
The Folklife festival runs through July 6, if you are in the area.

Have any of you seen a Chinese opera before?

Vocab: suona, huihu, vibrato, ornamentation, Chinese opera

Monday, June 23, 2014

Public music: the U.S. military bands

The US Army band warming up before a concert at the Capitol

Each of the five branches of the U.S. military has a main band organization, and four of the main (or "premier") bands have their homes in the D.C. area. But these groups are not just the traditional concert or marching bands—they often encompass many other ensembles: choirs, a jazz bands, orchestras, rock groups, country music groups, or even a Celtic ensemble. Since the bands are paid for with public money, all of their concerts are free, and there are many of them. For example, over the summer on every weekday at 8pm there is some form of military music concert on the west steps of the Capitol building, a short walk from the Library of Congress where I work. So far, I've been able to see the Air Force band and the Army band (I tried to see the Marine band, but that concert got rained out; I'll have to see them and the Navy band later).

I also went on a special tour of the Marine band complex and their music library, which may be the biggest performance library in the world. 

That's a lot of music!

The Marine band has the special responsibility to provide music for anything the White House orders, and that means the Marine band has to be able to do anything at the drop of a (presidential) hat: chamber orchestra, marching band, sting quartet, various other chamber groups, or even a bluegrass ensemble. The Marine band library needs six librarians to keep track of all their music. The library also serves as an archive for John Philip Sousa's personal papers, and even some historical instruments.

Some historical drums and other instruments

Who plays in these military bands? If someone wants to be a professional classical musician, they quickly find out there aren't many openings for them. And the spots that do open up in the professional orchestras often do not pay very well. Professional wind players especially have a difficult time finding jobs The military bands, however, pay well with guaranteed retirement benefits (something being cut recently in major orchestras), and a member can retire after only 20 years. Like any major orchestra, a potential member does a blind audition, but unlike the orchestras, they have to go through basic combat training, too. But these groups aren't just for wind players—most of the bands have strings associated with them, and Air Force band has two cellos and two basses that actually play with the band.

If you want to know more, the Army band records many of their concerts and makes them available on YouTube. The Marine band also tours around the United States. The Marine band records an album every year (they are recording this year's pretty soon), but it is hard to get the recordings, because the band can't sell them, just like they can't charge for their concerts. I had some friends who would go to military recruiting centers and sit through a presentation just to get the free music. If you are ever in the D.C. area, I suggest you should go and see one of these bands.

The US Air Force band at the Capitol. Notice the cello player on the right.

Vocab: orchestra, concert band