Campus & Community

Music library touts diversity

7 min read
David Ackerman works at the Loeb Music Library archiving rare recordings and other materials. Ackerman’s transfer of old acetate recordings to state-of-the-art DVD format is part of a much larger project to preserve the library’s collection of rare recordings and make them available to listeners. (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

In a windowless room in the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, David Ackerman sits amid an array of electronic paraphernalia that looks as if it might have been lifted from the bridge of a Klingon starship. The soundproof walls undulate with puckers of dark gray sponge. Intently tracking a sine curve on the computer screen before him, Ackerman lightly touches his keyboard. From somewhere in the darkness, music pulses forth: Duke Ellington’s “Sultry Serenade,” circa 1947.

Ackerman, an audio engineer who recorded local rock bands before coming to Harvard in 1997, is transferring the Ellington performance from the fragile 10-inch 78 rpm original to a DVD. In the process he filters out much of the surface noise from the half-century-old recording … but not all of it.

“I try not to take it all out. There’s something about an old recording that doesn’t sound right if you clean it up too much.”

Just to be on the safe side, Ackerman preserves on the same DVD a copy of the recording in its original state, plus notations of every electronic nip and tuck he has performed to produce the music’s aural facelift. He logs this information – known as metadata – using software he authored himself, and is currently working with the Audio Engineering Society, the Library of Congress, and others to develop standards for audio metadata which are expected to be useful to a wide range of institutions engaged in audio preservation.

Ackerman’s transfer of the old acetate recording to the state-of-the-art DVD format is part of a much larger project to preserve the library’s remarkable collection of rare recordings and make them available to listeners.

The recording of “Sultry Serenade” is from a unique collection donated to the Loeb Music Library by the estate of Joseph Jeffers Dodge ’40, artist, museum director, and jazz aficionado, who collected virtually every piece of music the Duke ever recorded. The collection encompasses more than 300 rare 78s, well over 1,000 lps and boxed sets, almost 300 CDs, more than 150 audio cassettes, plus videos, books, and articles – a treasure for any scholar of classic jazz.

Other rare, often one-of-a-kind music compilations that the Loeb Music Library has acquired include:

  • An extensive collection of Byzantine and other Orthodox Eastern church music recorded in the 1950s and 1960s by ethnomusicologist Laura Boulton;
  • Recordings of Ethiopian music collected in the 1970s by Harvard music professor Kay Shelemay;
  • The Sema Vakf collection of Turkish music, possibly the most extensive such collection in the world, assembled by Altan Güzey, a Turkish-American connoisseur of Ottoman classical music;
  • A collection of recordings and written materials on the music of South India collected by James A. Rubin between 1964 and 1987.
  • Recordings of the Harvard Group for New Music, the Harvard Music Faculty Tribute Concerts, and the New Music concerts sponsored by the Fromm Foundation.Some of these collections are in the form of reel-to-reel tape, which is not only easily damaged, but requires the use of equipment that may be unfamiliar to listeners raised on cassettes and CDs.”These are rare and unique things,” says Ackerman. “You can’t hand a reel-to-reel tape to a patron and say, here, play it. It has to be reformatted.”

    Ackerman’s project is part of an effort by Loeb Music Library Director Virginia Danielson to develop the library’s collections and to make those resources more easily available to patrons. An ethnomusicologist in her own right, Danielson has conducted research in the Middle East and in 1997 published a biography of Egyptian popular singer Umm Kulthum (“The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song and Modern Egyptian Society”). Formerly keeper of the Isham Memorial Library, a collection of rare books, microforms, and manuscripts within the Loeb Music Library, Danielson was appointed the Richard F. French Librarian in 1999.

    Her broad knowledge of music in its myriad forms helps Danielson to work closely with the Music faculty and students in support of Music Department programs of teaching and research. The resources that the library is able to bring to bear in this task are awe-inspiring.

    They include 170,000 books, 60,000 recordings, 25,000 microform sources, and 4,000 antiquarian volumes. The Isham Library houses microfilms of autograph manuscripts of most of the important European composers from the 16th to the 20th centuries, extensive holdings of original Bach family sources, and books of liturgical music from the eighth to the 15th centuries.

    Among recently acquired treasures is the Ruth N. and John M. Ward collection of 8,000 piano-vocal scores of 18th-20th century operas and operettas. The collection is rich in variant versions and contains some rare and unique items.

    New items, purchased through catalogues or at auction, come rolling into the library almost daily. Danielson points out some of the more remarkable examples, several of which are on view in the library’s small exhibition area: The score of an opera (possibly the only copy) by Gabrielle Ferrari, one of the 19th century’s few female opera composers; a Yiddish songbook from Denmark, printed in the 1930s; a book of transcriptions of 19th century Kashmiri folk songs written down by a British colonel serving in India.

    But however extraordinary these items are, their primary purpose is not to produce gasps of wonder, but to produce understanding.

    “These are not trophies,” Danielson says, “They’re for use in teaching.”

    Although Western classical music has been studied at Harvard for many years, popular music and the music of non-Western cultures have become legitimate objects of teaching and scholarship only recently. The library’s holdings reflect the fact that Chopin has been collected for a far longer time than Coltrane, but Danielson plans to reinforce these more recent collections while continuing to enhance the library’s already strong resources in Western music.

    “We want to be just as good in jazz research as we are in Gregorian chant,” she says.

    Danielson’s ambition received further impetus this past year with the appointment of Music Professor Ingrid Monson, a leading jazz scholar who has written on Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and studied trumpet with Woody Shaw.

    Studying jazz in a university setting may have seemed daring at one time, but there are indications that more recent trends in vernacular music are on the verge of scholarly attention. Danielson mentions that this past year, a graduating senior gave the library a gift to support the acquisition of rap and hiphop music.

    Expanding the library’s range comes at a price, however, since stinting on traditional areas in order to bolster more recent collections is not an option.

    “You can’t just take the budget for European classical music and continuously divide it,” Danielson says. “In a library, you always build from strength. You don’t say, we don’t need any more Beethoven, we’re fine.”

    Another budget item is the equipment needed for listening to all this music. In the past year the library has added DVD players, DAT (digital audio tape) players, plus four new computers with multimedia capacity. Among other things, these new machines allow students to follow a written score online while listening to a performance of the music. The library is also in the process of renovating older spaces to create more modern reading rooms.

    The profusion of high-tech equipment available today has forced Danielson to narrow her focus when acquiring new gadgetry.

    “We want to obtain equipment that is useful for scholarship and teaching and avoid commercial things with a minimum potential for use. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should.”