Your History Cannot Be Found
When I saw, the other week, that the Irish Traditional Music Archive had launched its new website, I should have known that a good morning’s work would be lost in the ether. Sure enough, a few hours after loading the first page in the new digital library, I emerged, glowing faintly, but wondering where the time had gone. ITMA’s vast collection of recordings, photographs, musical editions and films has been accessible via its Dublin premises and to a limited extent via its old website (as well as in these pages) for many years, but never has so much of the resource been so available to so a wide a public.
The collection is not just a document of more than a century of traditional Irish music; it’s as much a history of recording technology, and it’s a window into what it means to have the past on record. A series of recordings of County Sligo musicians made by the Parlophone label in 1930 caught my attention in particular. (Meticulously annotated as ‘black shellac; red on gold label’, browsing the ITMA’s archive still feels like pottering around a bricks and mortar library.) With the foreground of the recording crackling and spitting away, it sounds like the microphone was placed within a roaring fireplace of Jury’s Hotel in Dublin, where all of these recordings were made. The instruments themselves sound distant and secondary – as if the years have formed a protective layer around the evidence.
As Tim Rutherford-Johnson wrote in his article on the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa last week, we have come to consider the recorded medium as real as the living thing; when we hear a recording, it is as if the music is taking place in the present, though the musicians may be long dead. So there was a feeling of suspended time while listening to the Parlophone recordings, and the fiddle player Richard Brennan and flute player Thomas Hunt jaunting through ‘The Frost is All Over’. It made me think of another moment, not so long ago, in which I listened to Tony MacMahon and David Power play the same tune on accordion and uilleann pipes – an infinitely different performance, but the same husk of a melody. Later that day, listening back to both events in the most fallible of archives – memory – there was a sense of closeness across eighty-odd years, as if the two events were indistinct from one another.
It wasn’t the only experience that set me thinking about what it means to archive the past. It has been a week of wrestling with various computer hard-drives, having to decide what was worth keeping, and feeling the perverse elation of deleting files, gigabytes at a time. I remember vividly the same feeling of release, parked by a roadside in the West of Ireland, as I pressed the delete button on my laptop; we were touring a particularly tech-heavy show, and deleting my entire digital music collection, I was advised, was the best form of rescue for some now-forgotten technological emergency. The sense of loss was instantly outweighed by the buzz of having a clean slate and the freedom from history, if history can be an iTunes library. The danger is that people that know of this rush become serial destructors of the past, and make terrible archivists.
Thursday’s temporary suspension of the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP) due to a legal attack from the Music Publishers Association of the UK threw up another perspective on our attempt to archive everything. In one moment, over 90,000 scores disappeared from public view – an enormous amount of music if you stop to think about it for a moment. It reminded me of how, when you tell people you’re a composer, there are usually two responses: the classic, ‘And what instrument do you play?’ or else, ‘Surely everything has been done?’. There is a lovely quote somewhere by Harry Partch about everyone being an original being, which is a smooth way out of the latter corner, but it did occur to me, as I tried to refresh the IMSLP website in my browser: ‘What if? What if all of music history were wiped out by an overcautious internet hosting company, and we had to start again from the beginning?’
It’s a mad proposition, of course. Our history, in music and everything else, may be at times a weight to carry, but freedom from it is surely a temporary bliss. Whether joyous or macabre or simply uneventful, without a sense of history – as its stock defence goes – we have no adequate way of looking at the present. As musicians, the lines of tradition are essential in framing contemporary musical culture; as seen by the outcry over IMSLP’s temporary closure, archives that document our musical cultures are vital resources to musicians and students of music, most especially for those too reckless to hold on to things themselves.