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Tag: Audio Preservation Studio (Page 1 of 2)

Last Chance To See (But You Can Listen Anytime): Indigenous Siberian Fieldwork at the Loeb Music Library

The Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library’s Fall 2019 exhibition, Tree of Life: Cosmology and Environment in Yakutian Epic, features highlights from the Eduard Alekseyev Fieldwork Collection of the Musical Culture of Yakutia, 1957-1990. On display until Friday, January 24th are photographs and personal effects that document fieldwork in Yakutia (also known as the Sakha Republic) in the second half of the twentieth century by the ethnomusicologist Eduard Alekseyev, who was born there in 1937.

Dressed in a grey suit and holding a microphone on an extension stick, Eduard Alekseyev sits in a crowded auditorium. The date and location of this photograph are unknown.

Undated photograph of Eduard Alekseyev performing fieldwork. Image courtesy National Library of Sakha

Yakutia is located in the circumpolar region of Russia, straddling the Arctic Circle. Its capital of Yakutsk has the reputation for being the coldest city on earth. Dr. Alekseyev’s recordings of musical life in the region capture religious and cultural expressions of Sakha identity/nationhood that have survived Soviet repression, urbanization, and climate change. Also on display are musical instruments crafted in Yakutia and other locally made birchbark and metal handcrafts.

The Eduard Alekseyev Fieldwork Collection has been fully digitized and is available to stream. Among the different musical genres represented in the collection is olonkho, sacred epics sung by a narrator who differentiates between characters by alternating song and recitative. The texts traditionally describe a cosmography of lower, middle, and upper worlds, with the sacred tree, or tree of life, characteristically a larch, bridging across the layers. In the recordings, you will hear the khomus (also known as a mouth harp, jawharp, or Jew’s harp), the diungiur (shaman’s drum), and the bayan (button accordion). The collection also features musical traditions of Crimean Tatars recorded in Kiev, Ukraine. Listen here to Yegor Trofimovich Leveriev sing Siine tuhunan Toiuk (Song about the Siine River) in 1979, one of 689 freely available audio tracks in the collection.

Co-curated by Harvard graduate student Diane Oliva and Music Library staff member Christina Linklater, this exhibition marks the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, bringing special attention to indigenous language collections housed at Harvard Library.

The exhibition also details the process of preserving and digitizing sound recordings. Nineteen-sixties recording technologies relied on acetate and polyester audio tape reels and VHS PAL videocassettes: highly vulnerable for decay and breakage, these magnetic media are typically prioritized for preservation and reformatting. The original cases have been retained, which contain Alekseyev’s own annotations.

This reel case features handwritten notes by Eduard Alekseyev.

Loeb Music Library, AWM RL 16254


The Music Library holds several other audio and audiovisual fieldwork collections that capture musical expression around the world:

Lowell H. Lybarger Collection of Pakistani Music Materials

Stephen Blum Collection of Music from Iranian Khorāsān

Lara Boulton Collection of Byzantine and Orthodox Musics

James A. Rubin Collection of South Indian Classical Music

Marie-Thérèse, Baroness Ullens de Schooten Collection (Iran)

Kay Shelemay, Collection of Ethiopian Music

Richard Kent Wolf Collection of Fieldwork (India)

Virginia Danielson Collection of Field Recordings of Muslim Calls to Prayer

This post was contributed by Diane Oliva, a candidate for the PhD in historical musicology at Harvard University. Diane Oliva is the May-Crane Fellow of the Loeb Music Library for 2019-2020. 

Polish Solidarity Tapes Digitized

Andrea Bohlman, a doctoral candidate in Historical Musicology in the Harvard University Department of Music, works on socialist and post-socialist music cultures, European popular song and hymns, musical media, and music in politics. In this guest post, she describes some of her discoveries in the stacks of the Harvard libraries, and their importance to her research:

Though the bulk of my dissertation research brings me to archives housed in basements of private homes, government organizations, and academic institutions across Poland, generous support from the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, Houghton Library, and the Music Department at Harvard has helped to make some of the most unusual materials available on this side of the Atlantic: a selection of rare cassette tapes. The digitization of these materials, which were collected among members of the Polish opposition in the 1980s, makes radio programs, audiobooks, news montages, and more available to any user at Houghton Library. The creative sound documents recorded on the tapes had previously been inaccessible because of their fragile media. Now we have the opportunity to listen to the sounds of organized dissent and to understand the significance of music for Polish activists.

The Solidarity Collection itself (to which these tapes belong) is unique outside of Poland. It contains a variety of materials assembled from private collections of Polish-American supporters of the independent Solidarity trade union (Solidarnosc), and other dissident organizations from the late 1970s to the end of the Cold War. Members of Polish opposition depended on a variety of means of communication to organize meetings, discuss their demands, critique the ideologies behind the Peoples’ Republic of Poland, and create a culture of dissent. In scores of news bulletins and written documentation of organizational matters, “dissident culture” supported the publication of literature censored by the government and promoted its own agenda through stamps, posters, and other iconographic media.

The Solidarity Collection, because it represents not the record of a single organization, but the collections of individuals invested in the movements’ politics, speaks volumes about the way in which documents printed by the Polish underground presses—Polish samizdat—were actually disseminated and received. The Solidarity Collection offers a snapshot into the diverse means of expression at the heart of the Polish opposition, the local efforts in what came to be a nationally triumphant political party.

My dissertation concerns music and activism in Poland during the 1980s. It was when I was perusing the Solidarity Collection for songbooks that I noticed a reference to 38 cassette tapes. When I inquired about them, a Houghton librarian, Joseph Zajac, was kind enough to take me into the bowels of the stacks, where I got a sense for the richness of the sound materials. I began to talk with Richard F. French librarian Virginia Danielson about listening access, since Houghton has neither the digitization facilities nor the audio technology of the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library.

The tapes represent the bulk of the output of two major underground presses. From 1983-1990 these presses used cassettes as a primary means of disseminating political cabaret, political anthems, and audiobooks (such as George Orwell’s 1984), as well as editorial essays read by their activist authors. Cassettes not only recorded the sounds of the opposition, they afforded journalists, workers, and literary figures the opportunity to create a sound object. The digitization of these tapes has made the material more accessible and has transformed the nature of my work with the cassettes: I can return to listen to interviews and audio montages repeatedly. But, most importantly, engagement with their form and content can alter historians’ understanding of music in the Polish opposition by underlining the vitality of sound and music at a crucial moment of Cold War history in Poland.

– Andrea Bohlman

Notes: David Ackerman, Bruce Gordon, and Darron Burke, of the library’s Media Preservation Services, digitized the tapes, which are stored in the University Library’s Digital Repository Service, a state-of-the-art permanent digital storage facility.

The Music Library acknowledges the continued, valuable support from the Andrew W. Van Houten Audio Preservation Fund for our work with rare and unique electroacoustic and ethnomusicological recordings.

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