Among things I may not have considered unless I discovered them in Archival Management class came a story in the Archives in the News google group about a current literary scholar exploring acoustic space from radio to spoken word recording. Focusing on the 50s-70s, Lisa Hollenbach is spending her time listening to the zeitgeist of the recorded geniuses of yesteryear. Her description of her research experience is both haunting and gorgeous.
She wrote on her experience tuning into a WBAI recording in 1961, ” Listening through the layers of mediation that stand in for Blackburn’s own listening ear, I catch an interview with Allen Ginsberg, a broadcast of Blackburn reading translations of medieval Provençal poetry, a Mozart piano concerto, and a BBC production of King Lear. At one point Blackburn reads directly into the tape recorder from Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems before the next recorded broadcast cuts in. During the Mozart, I can hear a typewriter in the background, and suddenly I’m placed in a room with dimensions. I wonder, though there’s no way to know, if he’s working on a poem.”
Well, can I have what she is having, please?
In all sincerity, her exploration was a strong reminder of the treasures we have in past formats waiting to be moved from one technological format to the next. Whether we move from technology to technology as a scheme of planned obsolescence or because of sheer engineering ingenuity, I do not much care. I do care, however, about the massive amounts of history we have stored in formats past. And unlike the Ghost of Christmas Past, these formats will not be visiting us magically in our bedrooms on Christmas Eve ready to show us what has been as part of a dream. Instead, archivists have to put in hard work, earn grant funding, and then assign studious and determined upperclassmen or graduate student interns and maybe a trained archivist to the task of appraising radio collections and then moving them from tape to mp3.
But so worth it, I think, especially in reading Hollenbach’s description of the recordings she explored. She did not just hear the voices of the past, she also explored the ambiance based on sound. This is something I rarely consider as something captured by radio, but I suppose it is so true. The sensory memory of times gone (for a great read on sensory memory, check out Mark Smith) are captured acoustically on radio tapes.
According to the Radio Preservation Task Force, an even more important reason to recover old radio recordings includes “intervening in today’s media policy debates” to help serve the “historically disenfranchised.” I am not exactly sure how to interpret that statement, but I imagine that part of what they are getting at is the ability of independent radio to provide subversive acoustic space for marginalized voices to share creativity and ideas on social change, something WBAI has always been especially great at providing (I am late to discover this amazing radio station and lived in Queens/NYC for an entire year without knowing about it, but now it is my must-listen whenever I am circa NYC). How wonderful that Hollenbach is working on WBAI’s archival recordings. I cannot wait to hear more about what she discovers.