Engaging with Sound Archives: A Practical Guide

The recent and ongoing digitisation of sound archives has opened what was once a heavily fortified door onto a lost world of instrumental music, song, story-telling, and poetry. Now there are literally thousands of hours of recordings freely accessible at the click of a mouse (or tap of a screen), covering a wide range of dates, locations, and genres. However, being faced with such a wealth of resources can be daunting, and, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with simply browsing at random, there seems to be a need for a guide to getting the most from sound archives. This blog post is intended in the same vein as my previous post on playing from old collections of music, and will be a practical guide to finding and getting the most from recordings in sound archives. As usual, my focus will be on Scottish fiddle music, but the guide will be of use to any traditional musician keen to engage with recordings in sound archives.

Sound Archives

Since the advent of recorded sound, fieldworkers have been amassing sound archives in an attempt to preserve customs and traditions they believed to be in danger of dying out. The classical composer, Béla Bartók, famously took to the hills of Hungary and Romania to record the folk songs of peasants which inspired many of his most famous works. In a Scottish context, fieldworkers were making recordings long before the School of Scottish Studies was established in 1951, with John Lorne Campbell and James Madison Carpenter, among others, preserving on record (or wax cylinder) the sounds of the ‘folk’ from the 1930s onwards.

Step 1: Finding Recordings in Online Archives

Websites

There are an increasing number of websites coming online which host sound archives. I’ve already written about the three main ones for Scottish content (Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o Riches, The Alan Lomax Archive, and BL Sounds) but there are many others, including Stuart Eydmann and the late Derek Hoy’s Rare Tunes, and (in a non-Scottish context) the Library of Congress’s National Jukebox, and Alan Jabbour’s Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier.

Searching

It’s important to spend time getting to know how each site works, as no two are the same! The advanced search function on Tobar an Dualchais is really powerful, allowing you to search across a variety of fields, but other sites are not so user-friendly and require you to spend time sieving through recordings by date, place, or performer. Do persevere, as there are some really super recordings to be found! Rare Tunes usefully tags each recording; for instance, you can find all the fiddle music featured on the site here.

Step 2: Finding Recordings in Non-Online Archives

In a day and age when it seems you can find anything and everything online, it’s important not to forget that the vast majority of information remains in a non-digital format. The same is true for archive recordings. For instance, the School of Scottish Studies has been unable to make many of its recordings accessible through Tobar an Dualchais due to restrictions created by the original contributors. As such, it is important to recognise the potential in visiting physical archives, such as the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh. Significantly, anyone is welcome to search the physical archives (housed in a battery of card indexes) but it is necessary to make an appointment in advance.

Step 3: Engaging with Recordings

While sound archives used to be the exclusive preserve of academics, now that they are online they can be accessed by anyone, and used for a variety of purposes.

As a PhD Researcher, I still engage with the archive in quite an academic way: for my current project I’m combing through sound archives systematically, making a note of all relevant fiddle recordings which I will go on to analyse in pain-staking detail in an attempt to learn about performance styles. Such work is not hard to do, but it requires a considerable amount of time and concentration.

Peter Cooke’s Scottish Tradition series of cds was an attempt to facilitate the engagement of non-academics with the School of Scottish Studies Archive in an age before audio streaming via high-speed internet. Categorised by genre and location (e.g. Gaelic Songs from the North Uist Tradition), the series made what are wonderful recordings available for anyone to buy and hear. Online archives go a step further by making them freely available to anyone with an internet connection.

As early as 2000, Shetland fiddler, Catriona MacDonald, was engaging with the sound archive. She included a track on her debut album, Bold, which begins with an archive recording of Gibbie Gray, a fiddle player from Shetland who lived from 1909 to 1989, playing the tune, ‘Three Drunken Fiddlers.’ In the beginning, the archive recording is accompanied by MacDonald’s band, before she herself takes up the tune and the archive recording fades out. What is immediately apparent is the disparity between her’s and Gray’s performance style, yet at the same time, the track also highlights the roots and vibrancy of the Shetland tradition.

More recently, a collaboration between the School of Scottish Studies and Edinburgh Youth Gaitherin has seen eight young traditional musicians exploring the School’s Archive. The Archive Project began in June 2012 with the aim of creating ‘innovative new traditional music.’ Significantly, they didn’t limit themselves to the specifically musical content of the archives, but found inspiration in the stories and factual information, also.

Sound archives can also be used to research local or family history. Only last week I came across a contributor on Tobar an Dualchais who I believe to be a distant relative of mine! (See Andrew Gibson on Tobar and Dualchais). Tobar an Dualchais also makes it possible to search for recordings by place, enabling searchers to find recordings made on their doorstep!

In summary, sound archives can be used for a variety of purposes, including but not limited to: learning new tunes, studying performance styles, as inspiration for composition, and for local and family history. The only requirements are engagement, spending time getting to know the archive, and searching effectively! While there’s nothing wrong with browsing at random, with an aim or idea of what you want to find there’s huge potential to achieve something great. What’s stopping you?

Ronnie Gibson (30 August 2013)

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