I was most fortunate to be an invited speaker at the International Seminar on Preserving Endangered Audio Media in Berlin last week. The conference’s unique focus was captured in its subtitle: “Rethinking Archival Strategies for Conservation of Analogue Audio Carriers.” Oftentimes, due to the rapid degradation of modern media and the obsolescence of playback technology, “audio preservation” is simply taken to mean “digitization.” But as Paul Banks observed in his Ten Rules of Conservation, “The physical medium of a document contains information” and “No reproduction can contain all of the information contained in the original.” These concepts are true in audio media as well as in books and paper. This conference addressed the conservation of audio carriers in addition to their content, and in so doing offered a refreshing perspective on difficult issues in new media preservation.
Why should we care about tapes, records, or cylinders as physical artifacts instead of just source recordings for mp3s? Several presenters offered perspectives. Susanna Belchior of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa (Portugal) discussed how original discs, with their labels and packaging, are helping researchers construct a history of the Portuguese recording industry. The discs offer invaluable information about when and where the recordings were made. By pairing these primary recorded resources with available ledgers and account books, researchers can begin to understand how the practice and economics of recording evolved in Portugal. Belchior also suggested that chemical analysis of the physical discs might yield information about specific shellac or vinyl formulations used by particular institutions or in particular regions. This talk reminded me a lot of a National Archives talk given at the American Institute for Conservation 2011 meeting in which artifactual evidence in book bindings enhanced existing understandings of book binders and their work in revolutionary America.
Silke Berdux and Nadia Wallaszkovits, respectively of the Deutsches Museum and the Austrian Academy of Sciences, discussed a fascinating preservation project focused on the open-reel tape recordings of electronic music innovator Oskar Sala (here is some basic info in English.) As an experimenter in the recording studio, Sala used many unconventional techniques, such as switching among tape speeds, changing the number of recorded tracks, and splicing many different tape types together. Sala’s work reminds me a great deal of fellow electronic music inventor Raymond Scott, on whose materials I was fortunate enough to work at the Marr Sound Archives. I imagine Sala’s tapes would also share commonalities with those produced by the musique concrete innovators, as well; all of these individuals worked in audio tape as a primary medium. As a result, the physical tape shows as much about the experimentation process as does the recorded content. In order to better preserve both the visual and sound information in the Sala archive, high-definition video of the tape was taken during playback and paired with the tape’s digitized audio. The resulting audio / video file is an elegant preservation solution that captures far more information than would the audio or video alone.
At the conference’s conclusion, George Brock-Nannestad raised the following (paraphrased) question: How can we argue for the preservation of physical recordings when interest in them as artifacts seems like a fairly niche, academic pursuit? This is a great question, and one that often bothers me at conferences. More broadly, how can we argue for the importance of physical things in a world that is increasingly digital and intangible? I think one answer is this: heritage caretakers, historians, and other allied professionals can conduct research that contextualizes material studies within broader trends in history, art, and the humanities. For example, what can types of paper fibers tell us about trade routes? What can binding styles tell us about the economics of a region? What do tape splices say about the creative process?
As a final note, I recently purchased a copy of Trade in Artists’ Materials: Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700, edited by Jo Kirby, Susie Nash, and Joanna Cannon and published by Archetype Publications. Most of the materials discussed in this volume are much older than anything I encounter at the Texas State Archives. However, I hope the book will offer a model for the type of conservation research described above: a blend of material evidence with history, trade patterns, economics, and the arts. So here’s to future research rooted in physical heritage, research that makes the argument for preservation implicitly.