April 1, 2009
Stanford's 50-year-old archive celebrates sound
Composer Kurt Weill's Railroads on Parade was one of the most popular attractions at the 1939-40 World's Fair in New York City. It has never been performed since.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. The 70-minute pageant had a singing cast of 250, with horses, cattle, Pullman cars and 12 real steam locomotives onstage as part of the production. Not exactly the kind of show that can be revived even by the most ambitious university repertory company.
There's only one known recording, and Stanford has it. The 16-inch LPs are in the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this academic year. The archive contains about 350,000 sound recordings and 6,000 print and manuscript items, documenting all aspects of 20th- and 21st-century culture. It's one of the five largest sound archives in the United States.
Open from 1 to 5 p.m. weekdays, the archive is secreted in a hard-to-find corner in the basement of Braun Music Center. You know you've landed in a different world when you see the archive's signature piece: a 1908 Aretino phonograph, with a bright green horn, facing its dark twin, the black-horned 1906 Standard phonograph.
Both are nestled among a number of large, closed wooden boxes containing mysteries of sound. A 4-foot-high 1890s treasure, with curved legs supporting a mottled wood box with several keyholes, is a music box that has five large interchangeable cylinders, each playing six tunes. Pull the hand crank on the left, and the brass cylinder turns, with seven bells chiming an additional layer to the tune. Another, smaller music box with an inlaid wood lid featuring a music motif and tiny, hand-painted ivy leaves twining the square of glass inside, plays Gounod, Sullivan and Verdi. The brass cylinder is about 15 inches longabout the size of a roll of aluminum foil.
Gray cardboard boxes against the wall contain gifts from violinist Jascha Heifetz (1901-87), including his never-released recordings. Others contain the earliest tape recordingsof German vintage, circa 1930s. American servicemen returned home with them and founded Ampex to duplicate the technology.
The holdings "go back to the very earliest recordings, on cylinders," said Jerry McBride, head librarian for the Braun Music Library and the archive.
The archive made waves nationally when it was the venue for last year's premiere of the newly discovered "world's oldest recorded sound"an 1860 phonoautograph recording of "Au Clair de la Lune."
Clearly, however, the archive is not just a place for music lovers: It also includes broadcasts of Eleanor Roosevelt's radio program "Over Our Coffee Cups"; in her clear, upper-crust inflections, she counsels American women on the evening following the Pearl Harbor attack, saying, "Whatever is asked of us I am sure we can accomplish it; we are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America." It holds the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and Adolf Hitler.
Among the prizes is the Stanford Program for Recordings in Sound, including readings of the "Stanford Poets," a group of poets who were influenced, directly or indirectly, by the late Yvor Wintersan eminent tribe that includes Thom Gunn, J. V. Cunningham, Donald Davies, Edgar Bowers and others.
For many, however, the crown jewels of the collection are the recordings for the Monterey Jazz Festival, the world's longest continuously running jazz festival (it started in 1958the same year as the archive). Featured are some of the most significant jazz musicians of our timeLouis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Velma Middleton, Billie Holiday, Paul Desmond and John Lewis.
The festival collection occupies more than 130 linear feet, including 1,400 sound recordings and 500 moving-image items. The project has attracted major funding: The Grammy Foundation, the Save America's Treasures program and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, among others, have provided support. More than $350,000 in grant funds have been awarded to digitize the fragile, aging and degrading media and to improve storage of the festival recordings.
Shellac and vinyl discs, acetate and aluminum transcription discs, analog, digital and audio cassetteseven Edison label wax cylinder recordingsare all housed in the archive. It has, moreover, the rare equipment to play them: crank-up gramophones, turntables, quarter-track and half-track tape players.
Stanford faculty have recommended some of the purchases. For example, the landmark Weill find was recommended by Stephen Hinton, a professor of music and senior associate dean for the humanities. Weill is the focus of Hinton's research.
"He knew through the Kurt Weill Foundation that a collector had discovered the recordings, and would we be interested?" recalls McBride, who negotiated the purchase.
"The discs of Railroads on Parade were a real find," said Hinton. "Many still pictures and even some movie footage have survived of the pageant, but until now we have had no sound to go with them. The discs Stanford acquired appear to be the only ones available and fill an important gap in our knowledge of Weill's career, particularly of his use of folk song."
Moreover, Railroads on Parade has a special connection to Stanford: A highpoint of what Weill termed his "circus opera" includes the character of university founder Leland Stanford, former governor of California and president of the Central Pacific Railroad, as he pounds the "golden spike" that completed the first transcontinental railroad in Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869. Although Stanford's first swing of the silver maul missed its target, word flashed immediately around the nation by telegraphin that sense, it was one of the first nationwide media events.
"It seems only appropriate that one of the principal documents of a work that includes mention of Leland Stanford as a pioneer and dreamer be housed here at his own university," Hinton said.
A few minutes of Railroads on Parade can be seen on YouTube. But to hear it, go to the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.
To watch video of Sound Archives, visit http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/april1/videos/481.html. High resolution photos can be downloaded at http://newsphotos.stanford.edu/ARSound50/