Guest Editorial: Proposal of Types of Holdings for An Electro-Acoustic Music Archive,
Proposal for categories of holdings for an archive of electro-acoustic music,
Journal of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the US, Vol. 1 #2, Oct. 1986

An Open Letter to the SEAMUS Community: Proposal for an Electroacoustic Music Archive

by Laurie Spiegel
Aug. 25, 1986

I wanted to suggest an idea regarding the SEAMUS archive which I have not seen mentioned or discussed for it. I've discussed this idea with several friends and colleagues, and they all think it definitely should be done, somehow, somewhere, by someone.

Electronics has so thoroughly pervaded the field of music, in so many functional ways (sonic realization, and acoustic post-processing, compositional processes) that pretty soon the vast majority of music will probably qualify as electro-acoustic in some respect. As electronic and digital audio techniques become increasingly common, most such music will be archived, reproduced, and proliferated with or without SEAMUS, through established means (the Copyright archive, at the American Music Center, in sync with film, on records or tapes, on purchaseable, recordings, etc.) and through new electronic distribution media (such as digital telecommunications networks). There is no question as to the value of an archive for early (through the present) ground breaking electro-acoustic music, but as time goes on, the importance of such archival activity may diminish and the quandaries of selection for inclusion multiply. Many techniques which are now still rare or experimental, and repertoire which validates their musicality will doubtless become mainstream to our musical culture. I would anticipate that it will not be long before the vast majority of music made in this country involves electro-acoustic processes.

In contrast to the musical repertoire itself, there is a vast and vital area for which no archive or organized documentation center exists at all: the history and specific knowledge of how this music actually came into being, how it was created, conceptualized and realized, especially with regard to tools and technical procedures which may not be mainstream, lowest common denominator, or lasting. I would like to propose that the collection and archival storage of the technological, procedural, and conceptual side of electro-acoustic music may be at least as important to pursue as that of the specific music produced using such means and that it be seriously considered for inclusion in any archive which is undertaken.

Many of us are exploring, inventing, and/or using unprecedented or alternative means of musical creation. Some of these techniques and tools imply entire aesthetic, theoretical, or procedural domains. We have documentation which deserves collection and may be of great value in the future to music historians and to those trying to understand this extraordinarily active area of 20th century musical creativity, as well as to those who will continue to creatively evolve this work in the future.

Types of material which are randomly located and rapidly and unnecessarily disappearing include:

1. Composers' writings and notes describing specific processes of creation or realization (program notes, patch diagrams, software listings, schematics, personal notes about the composition of specific works, logs of historically important studios, etc.)

2. Material describing the general conceptualization or specific usage of electro-acoustic musical tools, which, although common knowledge at this time, may be impossible to understand a century from now (instruction or operation manuals, pictures, diagrams, commentaries, unpublished teaching materials, regarding classic studio and music concrete techniques,early modular analog synthesizers, overall studio configurations, computer music systems, etc.)

3. Photographs, videotapes, user notes, manuals, schematics, and possibly working models of specific instruments

  1. already obsolete (Telharmonium, Hellertonian, ...)

  2. rapidly disappearing (Melotron, Scalatron, early modular Buchla and Moog modules, Minsky "Muse" box, Mathews electronic violins, ring modulators, input or control devices, post-processors such as the Echoplex, etc.)

  3. one-of-a-kind (early home-made or unique performance or compositional instruments of made by individuals) which may embody unique orientations or ideas

  4. presently common and perhaps even dominant right now, but not necessarily to remain so for long (mass made synthesizers - dominant, culturally and publicly concept-forming, and important to the music of our times)

4. Published works which are not locatable in any centralized archive or which may disappear if not actively collected

  1. books about electro-acoustic music, which may quickly be obsolete or go out of print if not sufficiently mass marketable

  2. collected editions of periodicals (CMJ, Polyphony, ElectroNotes, etc.)

  3. specific clippings and articles from periodicals not specialized in this area

5. Plans and ideas for instruments and tools thought out and designed but not realized, for whatever reason ( lack of time, money, or that they required technological means not yet developed in order to be realized)

6. Theoretical writings about the relationship of technology and expression, musical process and structure, psychoacoustic, or other relevant topics

7. Information on the lives, backgrounds, and work of individuals who have served as important inventors, pioneers, musical utilizers, theorists, and establishers of electro-acoustical music and musical means, to shed light on their work and thinking and also the contexts of their work, including writings about them, journals of thoughts and ideas by them, sketches, notes, drawings, photographs, oral history (such as audio or video cassette-recorded interviews, memoirs, demonstrations), etc.

8. Others which will doubtless come to mind.

A lot of what is happening at any point in the history of music technology may seem so obvious or well known that appears not worth recording at the time. But ideas and understanding are transcient if not recorded. Other parts of what's going on may appear to be evolutionary dead ends at the time. But some such things may be the fore-runners of the dominant developments of the future. (For example, musique concrete never became a dominant technique in our musical culture, but now that sampling instruments are proliferation like Hammond organs did in the 1930's, it would be a good idea to make it easier, through one central archive, for their users and designers to study the full range of earlier concrete transformations and procedures, to compare, gain food for thought, and possibly perpetuate or revive what would otherwise be lost.)

The musical revolution currently in progress signifies more than a change in methodology. As methods change, so does the music produced, and how it is experienced and conceptualized. It is likely, therefore, that the current period of extreme, varied and extensive change in musical means will be an important subject of historical study for an indefinite period to come.

My feeling, and that of those with whom I've discussed this archival idea, is that it would be invaluable to document and collect as much information and artifact as possible while we're still in the midst of the most important period of musical technical innovation since the development of mechanical musical instruments or music printing.

- Laurie Spiegel


Copyright ©1986 by Laurie Spiegel. All rights reserved.

back to Laurie Spiegel's writings page | go to Laurie Spiegel's home page