I just read a marvellous article about Peter Dennett, someone who spends his professional life pursuing his private passion for finding and reissuing Sun Ra material. It’s a great read, and chimes of self recognition were ringing in the background as I went through it.
Let me also introduce Exhibit A, top left. This is the CD of “Hey Manhattan!”, UK release. You’ll notice it has a golden colour rather than a more usual silver, which is because a chemical reaction in the substrate, possibly based on the acid in the card sleeve, has caused “bronzing”, making it progressively unplayable. So a medium which to all intents and purposes seems immortal, isn’t.
Even if the bronzing doesn’t happen, which in most cases is thankfully the case, the medium eventually becomes obsolete. Famously the BBC Domesday project which recorded information on laserdiscs became impossible to access. VHS is slipping away fast. CDs are likely to go before too long. Paradoxically, our generation records gazillions times more data than any previous one, but our ephemera will likely disappear on old hard drives. I can read my grandparents’ love letters. My grandchildren probably won’t be able to read mine.
In the title for this piece, I’m quoting a line from “I Trawl the Megahertz”, which continues “as a compassionate side effect teach us that nothing is ever lost”. But unfortunately that isn’t true. The effects of time, chemistry, neglect, laziness, or indifference take our cultural legacy from us forever, every day.
And often the artists themselves are the worst guardians of their work anyway. From another context, there’s a story about how when Turner had bequeathed the contents of his studio to the nation, the grateful recipients found it spread on the floor, wonderful sketches stuffed into cracks in the window frames to keep out the cold or creased and screwed up. For Turner these scraps had no intrinsic value, they were rough notes only.
You might look to the family, but often that doesn’t help either. The material becomes clutter to a family, something they don’t know whether to preserve or dispose of. In the art world, artists have usually gone out of fashion at the time of their death, so mementoes are distributed, and the rest is chucked. To take one particularly painful example, I have a family connection to the wonderful but little known English artist, Samuel Palmer. In the early 20th Century, his son Alfred took most of his father’s collection of sketches, placed it in a large bonfire, and destroyed it, suggesting it was “not sufficiently masculine”. And in one spiral of glowing sparks was lost an entire career, or most of it. The rare jewels that remain make the loss all the more difficult to bear.
There are those of us who fight that cultural tsunami, and emerge every now and then from the waves bearing a pearl or splendid branch of coral. Dennett is one, on a fairly small scale I’m another. There are many of us.
So where I am of course a collector, the passion is really for archival and preservation. I guess you can probably link that on a psychological level to fear of personal insignificance: in preserving something, you are probably deep down expressing the fear that your own life will disappear without trace.
But whatever, what we are about as archivists is finding and preserving things that would otherwise be lost. Dennett expresses this well “There’s releases which I have put out which have gone unnoticed – perhaps because the music is inaccessible, or that particular gig had a lot of percussion involved, or whatever factor. To me these are important historical documents, and the important thing is a lot of this work has to be done now, before the tapes get lost, they deteriorate, and the music’s gone forever.” And the compassionate side effect is that the material is as far as possible made available for other people to enjoy.
The state of being an audio archivist is one of eternal worry too: you are perpetually concerned about the durability of physical media – what does happen when I play a 40 year old cassette for the first time in years? – and even the reliability of digital copies and longevity of formats. Who preserves this when I lose interest or die? You do swing from utter euphoria when something wonderful emerges, to something approaching despair as you worry about getting absolutely the best preserved state to retain and carry forward. Much of the time is spent figuring out backup and storage strategies.
Day to day, it’s serendipity and searching. Usually the best things arrive unexpectedly because you’re randomly following your nose. A lot of the reason for this site existing is to maintain a presence so that people contact me: there isn’t exactly a steady flow, but it does happen, so that the Salford recording came directly from someone seeing the gigography. And then there are the long term projects, for example refining and refining the quality of recordings of the BBC In Concert from 1985, finding the best off air FM, getting hold of the best quality 6Music downloads, and tracking down copies of the transcription disk. Not that the BBC aren’t archiving that, but they have disposed of similar material already, and you can’t take any chances.
So anyway, there we go: have pity on the archivists, and help us where you can. If you have something in the back of a cupboard or loft that might interest one of us, dig it out and see if you can find a friendly obsessive who can preserve it. Usually there will be someone.