New visitors to the Scores and Recordings collection on the third floor of Olin Library often feel like they’ve stumbled upon hidden treasure. The library’s vast store of LPs, CDs, cassettes, and musical scores is enough to keep explorers enthralled for days.
But even those who peruse these shelves don’t realize that just a few feet away, tucked in a small room behind a locked door, lives an internationally renowned and constantly expanding collection of recordings with a bountiful history of their own.
The World Music Archives is home to thousands of audio tapes, CDs, and videotapes of musical performances and rituals from around the world. The core of the collection consists of field recordings collected by ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and other researchers. More recently, though, the Archives have taken on an additional role: they are now the University’s own sound bank, storing all of the recordings of the musical performances that have taken place at Wesleyan over the years.
“In the ’80s and ’90s, it began to be the repository for all concerts at Wesleyan: all the student recitals, all the orchestra concerts,” said Director of the World Music Archives Alec McLane, who has been working as a music librarian at Wesleyan since 1998. “And that’s the state of things now. It’s primarily the University sound archives, which means all of our legacy recordings and all of our ongoing ones.”
Included in those recordings is one of the Grateful Dead’s 1970 concert at Wesleyan.
“The fact that we have a Grateful Dead concert from 1970 is very interesting, and the fact that I was able to give a talk [to the class of 1973] at last year’s commencement and play excerpts of this recording was kind of neat for me, but it happens to be a very bad recording,” McLane said. “In a way, the bad quality makes it more interesting, because it was the class of ’73, which means that they were freshmen at the time of the concert in 1970. So they were hearing these kind of scratchy sounds, which sort of enhanced the haze of their own memories of having been at Wesleyan in the early 1970s, I’m sure.”
The original collection of field recordings, however, continues to be their main draw for researchers, many of whom travel long distances to access the music on the Archives’ shelves. In some cases, the recordings on file are the only ones of their kind in the world.
“What is probably most unique and valuable are the field recordings from around the world, especially the older ones, because performers have died, traditions have changed, so those are a unique historical record,” said Archives Assistant Jennifer Hadley, who works to maintain the collection along with McLane and fellow Archives Assistant Jody Cormack. Hadley and Cormack have both been working at the library since 1991.
From its tapes of student recitals to its records of Ghanaian drumming, Javanese gamelan, and Navajo ceremonies—not to mention its one-of-a-kind collections of jazz and folk music—the Archives act as a living record of Wesleyan’s rich musical history.
David McAllester and the Archives’ Beginnings
The World Music Archives initially stemmed from the efforts of the late David McAllester, an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist who taught at Wesleyan from 1947 to 1986. In addition to spearheading the establishment of the Anthropology Department, McAllester co-founded Wesleyan’s World Music Program in the 1950s.
“David was possibly one of the most important people in music at Wesleyan in the whole 20th century, and certainly the most important ethnomusicologist at Wesleyan—the one who actually began the program,” McLane said. “And he was also one of the most important American ethnomusicologists because he was one of the founders of the Society for Ethnomusicology.”
Internationally recognized for his work with Native American music and culture, McAllester started the World Music Archives with his personal collection of field recordings of Navajo and Comanche music. As Wesleyan’s World Music Program grew, so did its supply of original recordings from around the world. Students, professors, and researchers with connections to the University began donating their fieldwork to the Archives, causing the collection to expand rapidly.
“You had music coming from Indonesia, South India, Japan, the British Isles, Africa, China, et cetera,” McLane said. “And the collection just grew and grew and grew, and it was moved around campus, and it was shelved in basements on campus like in the Anthropology building, where they had floods. But somehow it survived in reasonably good condition, and in the mid-1980s, it came to the library. And that’s when the librarians at the time thought, ‘Maybe we should do something about preserving this.’”
With the help of grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Hartford Courant Foundation, the huge task of cataloging and preserving all of these recordings began to take off. Hadley and Cormack, along with a group of graduate students in the Music Department, continue with that endeavor to this day.
Because of the high volume of recordings donated to the Archives, and because of the varying conditions in which they arrive, preservation is an ongoing and challenging project.
“If they were made on older media, we need to transfer them to preserve them before that medium disintegrates,” Hadley said. “Or sometimes before people donated them to us, they had been stored in not-ideal conditions, so they could be moldy or have some other stress. So those should get priority.”
Originally, most field recordings came in on reel-to-reel tape, which the World Music Archives staff would transfer onto mastered dubs and cassettes. Since then, as recording technology has developed, the staff began transferring the recordings to CDs and, in some cases, streaming them on the library’s website.
“We’ve moved from analog to digital,” Hadley said.
From South India to Upstate New York: Current Projects at the Archives
There’s always work to be done to maintain and update the Archives, but a few projects in particular are currently at the forefront.
One such project involves sifting through a vast store of South Indian music, largely from the collections of Cormack and her late husband T. Viswanathan PhD ’75, a master of the South Indian flute who joined the Wesleyan faculty in 1975.
Working with Viswanathan was Jon Higgins ’62, MA ’64. PhD ’73, who went on to become the only American famous in South India as a South Indian singer. Even following his death at a young age, he remained legendary in India for his talents. Huge numbers of his recordings remain in the Archives.
“It’s a large mix of stuff,” Cormack said. “My husband—that whole family—was also very interested in North Indian music, which is a different tradition. So a lot of North Indian connoisseurs gave us recordings, too. And then graduate students who have been through this program have also given us their tapes.”
The project of cataloging and preserving these recordings is a priority for Cormack and the rest of the staff.
“It’s been ongoing forever, and it needs to come to some kind of a conclusion,” Cormack said. “That, right now, is my primary focus.”
The Archives recently completed the preservation and cataloging of the music of Bill Barron, an eminent jazz saxophonist who taught at the University for more than a decade. After he died, his widow left all of his recordings—including both concerts and studio sessions—with the Archives.
A project with a less definite endpoint requires the processing of a huge collection a bit different from what one might expect to find in the Archives.
“We have the complete 30-year recordings of a restaurant/coffee house in upstate New York called the Towne Crier Café,” McLane said. “It’s in Pawling, New York, and it’s all the folkies from the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, all the Seeger family, Arlo Guthrie, and a whole host of folkies who played there.”
These recordings are the only ones of their kind in existence.
Online Access to the Archives: A Growing Concern
McLane noted that there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of organizing and processing the Towne Crier collection. One of their goals is to make the recordings available for streaming on the Internet, but they have faced many obstacles in pursuing funding to do this, mostly because of issues with receiving permissions from the performing artists.
“We’re trying to get [permissions], slowly, but it’s hard to do that because there are so many performers involved,” McLane said. “One of the initiatives we had briefly was to focus on a really high-profile name, Pete Seeger, digitize all his recordings, send copies to him, and ask him what he thinks of them.”
The idea was that, if a high-profile artist like him were to agree, other artists would follow suit and eventually clear the way for the staff to stream everything online.
In the meantime, the World Music Archives staff continues to organize the Towne Crier recordings, as they remain a point of interest to a variety of people—researchers interested in American folk music, for instance, or artists who want copies of their own performances.
The funding issues with the Towne Crier collection speak to a larger problem that the World Music Archives faces: the question of offering online access to archival materials.
Winslow-Kaplan Professor of Music Mark Slobin, who has been involved with the University’s ethnomusicology program since 1971, said the World Music Archives, and researchers interested in the materials, would benefit from having more available to stream.
“I would say what this thing really needs is a serious online presence, and then everybody in the world could tap into what we have,” he said. “But then, of course, there are permissions and licensing issues.”
Due to the proliferation of online access to world music in general—through YouTube, for instance—the World Music Archives are in some cases being used less frequently as a resource. Occasionally, though, the Archives contain a recording of particular interest to a class or instructor that can’t be found online.
“For the gamelan, we may be asked to find a piece that was on one of our earlier concerts from years back,” McLane said. “So we’ll find that, and we can make that available for students to listen to. But just as often, the director of the gamelan is likely to find a commercial recording of it or send people to YouTube because that’s the one he wants people to use.”
Balancing the Global and the Local
Another ongoing issue at the Archives deals with striking a balance between the field recordings of world music and the University’s recordings. This concern dates back to when the Archives and the World Music Program were initially established at the University.
“In the early 1960s, when they were inaugurating this new program, they spent a lot of time thinking about language—that is, what we would call this, what words we would use for things,” McLane said. “And they settled on ‘world music’ instead of ethnomusicology, because for one thing, they didn’t want to sound so scientific. They wanted it to be an all-encompassing thing where people came to learn music from various parts of the world.”
In choosing to call the program “world music,” and in extending that title to the Archives, they refrained from limiting the scope of the program to non-Western music.
“They assumed, maybe in a kind of unspoken or unexpressed way, that ‘world music’ meant literally everything in the world,” McLane said. “So even if you performed Mozart at Wesleyan, it was still world music, because in some way, you were participating in this kind of global music experience. And of course Wesleyan was the kind of place where you could have a concert that involved Mozart, South Indian, gamelan, and African drumming at the same time—one of the few places in the ’60s where you would actually hear something like that.”
Nonetheless, McLane noted, a distinction must be made between the field recordings and the documentation of the University’s musical scene.
“When Jennifer and Jody and I discuss the future of the Archives, we sometimes say, ‘Well, you know, we have so many student recitals, so many faculty chamber concerts, and that’s great, but we really would like to return our focus to field recordings from various parts of the world,’ as if to say that’s a more authentic definition of world music,” McLane said. “Nonetheless, deep down, we still consider it all world music.”
Hadley noted that because Wesleyan has such a large world music program, the categories often intersect in meaningful ways.
“I had a professor say to me that sometimes Wesleyan people perform these uncommon works and these could be the only recordings of that particular piece,” she said. “So it can provide benefit in that way.”
Not all of the Wesleyan-specific recordings are performances, though. Lectures and conferences have also been recorded and preserved and are available in the Archives. Hadley said that these recordings offer insight into how approaches to music have changed over the years.
“This is a record of musical thought and practice and research that they can look back upon and see what was going on at this time,” Hadley said. “And I think that certainly the library and the University are recognizing that this is a valuable resource that’s nowhere else.”
Slobin expressed a similar sentiment about the way the Archives can trace musical history over time.
“These things leave their traces,” he said. “It’s like a geological thing—you see the stratigraphy, you know, like you’re looking at the layers of when these things were laid down, and they’re all still there.”
However, not all history is easy to understand. One thing that often comes up in managing an archive of world music is the question of cross-cultural understanding and respect. This comes up especially often with McAllester’s Navajo collection, which is the largest in the world. Because the music is highly ceremonial, the World Music Archives staff make the call on who should be given permission to listen to it.
“For some of it, in fact, we advise people or we even prohibit people from listening without actually knowing what they’re listening to,” McLane said.
He brought up the example of one film made by McAllester of a Navajo ritual, currently available in Special Collections.
“The stipulation is that you can’t watch this film unless you’re in the company of someone who knows what’s going on, because it’s not the kind of thing you just watch casually,” McLane explained. “It’s a very serious ceremony, and it supposedly brings spirits up from the dead to heal illnesses. With Navajo music in general, you need to learn it. You need to know what it’s all about, I think, because otherwise it doesn’t sound like much.”
Reaching a Wider Audience
In part because it has so few staff members, and in part because of funding limitations, supporter of the Archives struggle when it comes to publicity.
“I dont know if there’s any clear awareness about the importance of the archive to the University,” Cormack said.
She added that people aren’t using the Archives aren’t getting as much use as often as they should.
“It’s a treasure trove of stuff,” Cormack said. “But it’s just not being used as much as it should be used at all. We’re not clearly defined in the minds of the Music Department or the University.”
Slobin said that budgetary constraints affect the staff’s ability to promote awareness of the Archives.
“With the budget that there is, there’s a huge backlog of digitizing,” he said. “There are inbuilt limitations in a small place like this that doesn’t have enough staffing to actually make itself heard the way it could be.”
Of course, because of the highly specific nature of the Archives’ contents, nobody expects that they will be of constant use to everybody. But, once in a while, a student searching for a glimpse into melodies past will stop by and find them there.
“Archives are there for when you need them,” he said. “It’s not like you’re going to use them on a regular basis. They’re there because somebody’s going to see that this is a real resource that’s really central to their work in some way. And then it’s going to be there for them.”