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I wouldn’t give a Plugged Nickelback for that Archive: “Capital Ideas” in Music, Part II

June 13, 2015 Leave a comment

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Since today’s posting focuses on Canadian music archives and contemplates notions of canonicity in popular music, it somehow seems like kismet that today also happens to mark the 20th anniversary of Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette. It therefore seems wholly appropriate to include her very much culturally significant, affectively electrifying, and well-crafted first album to start, and to counterbalance another not-quite-so-renowned representative of Canadian culture later.

The day after taking in presentations for the Canadian University Music Society (MusCan), I attended talks (and gave one myself) for the Canadian Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentations Centres (CAML). My talk, about musical omnivorousness, recommender systems, genres, and my study of listener perceptions of similarity, was the odd one out in relation to the others, as they focused quite a bit on archives. That said, I could see some parallels with my own work to varying degrees, in particular during a talk about the prejudices that some professional archivists seem to have against popular music.

The first two talks related to digitization projects for specific collections, including one at the University of Toronto for Canadian violinist Kathleen Parlow (1890-1963), presented by Suzanne Meyers Sawa, James Mason, and Houman Behzadi. The other collection, for French tenor Louis Delaquerrière (1856-1937), is housed at the University of Western Ontario, and described in a presentation by Lisa Philpott and Joanne Paterson. To many, the idea of a French tenor’s archive appearing in Canada (and in “dull” London, Ontario, to boot) makes no logical sense at first glance. However, it turns out that Delaquerrière’s granddaughter ended up in London and, through a series of fortuitous events, entrusted her grandfather’s materials to the university. A similar story is true for the large Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) archive that also resides at UWO, as Mahler’s nephew (through his sister Justine) ended up teaching there, and his widow donated a collection of Mahler-related materials to the school in the 1980s.

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The two collection-specific talks lasted approximately 20 minutes each, with the remaining 10 or so minutes for questions. However, the morning session’s final presentation, given by Isabelle Ringuet and Maureen Nevins of Library and Archives Canada (LAC), lasted an hour. The second half of that talk, presented by Nevins, consisted of samples from the collections in a variety of media. My personal favourite was a series of clips that consisted of the always independent-minded Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) arguing with some sound engineers. The first half of the presentation, given by Ringuet, covered the parameters of the collection, as well as its current charges to become more visible and broader in scope overall, whether in terms of increasing the diversity of musical styles, making access to materials easier to the broader public (especially through digitization efforts), and trying to reach out to Canadian musicians to secure “legal deposit.” This is particularly thorny, and not just because of the rather threatening-sounding name attached to securing materials that reflect Canada’s cultural heritage. As Ringuet mentioned, not only are a number of musicians (and possibly their representatives) unaware of legal deposit, but LAC has to figure out how to contact musicians them when they’re on tour and not at the “home bases”; deal with the sound recording practices of independent bands whose albums may be limited in number (in part due to their own budgetary constraints); and figure out how to deal with or leverage the ways in which various forms of technology (social media, relatively affordable recording tools, access versus ownership models, etc.) have changed music-making and recording practices. And all this is to be done as Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has slashed LAC as a whole, and as “austerity” dictates that the arts are frivolous and not worth studying.

After my talk in the afternoon, the presentation (or rant, I believe he called it) by the University of Toronto’s Brock Silversides pertained to “The Professional Archivist’s Fear of Popular Music” (which, as he explained, ties in with the tendency to stick with materials related to “classical” and “experimental” music due to their “seriousness”). It seemed an apt segue from my own presentation, whose primary leitmotif, and initial impetus from years ago, pertained to thinking about music categorization and recommendation beyond the confines of genre. Certainly, Silversides’ talk also tied in with the LAC presentation from that morning… how can an archive that collects music-related documents in a diversity of formats, whether at a national or local level, whether in Canada or elsewhere, be a truly good one if it flat out refuses anything related to popular music, especially if there are ties that make sense?

Of course, one must take practicalities into account, such as the ability to provide proper housing and care to such materials, which may come in a variety of formats requiring different methods of preservation, as well as the financial resources required to start and maintain a dedicated collection (which may include navigating thorny and constantly changing rules regarding copyright). As well, how does one assess the potential value of such a collection, at least in terms of potential value to researchers and cultural significance? Although these seem like legitimate concerns, many of the others mentioned by Silversides did strike me as amusing (and, it bears repeating, that Silversides’ main point was to express skepticism about their validity):

* Popular music is too ephemeral and not serious enough to merit serious value; it’s too “simple and inane.”

* Popular music is not an art. Its primary purpose it to make money.

* Popular music has “unsuitable” content, like sex and violence.

* Popular music is created by ne’er do wells who indulge in sex and violence themselves.

* Collecting popular music can ruin the reputation of an archive, or its archivist.

To be fair, the last point might make sense if one thinks about the “austerity narrative” mentioned earlier. People in general enjoy popular music, but might not understand why related archives would be worth their tax dollars. Otherwise, the above points are also rather lame. As I told Silversides during the post-session break, I could immediately think of counterexamples as he was going through the list of archivist prejudices against popular music. And certainly, he mentioned during his talk how Franz Liszt (1811-1886) and Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840) were examples of classical musicians who didn’t have squeaky-clean reputations.

I also thought about how “rock and roll” has been around for 60 years (or, at least the mythologized history of it, with a canon all its own). How old are these reluctant archivists, anyway, and what are their frames of reference for assessing “greatness”? Have they been living under a rock, willfully avoiding anything that isn’t considered “great”? Have they heard absolutely no “popular” music, broadly speaking, that has value that one might consider akin to how they perceive classical music (and vice versa, considering that not all classical is great, and there’s quite a bit that could be considered fluff… especially compared to well-crafted popular music)? Have they shut themselves out from much of the standard operatic repertoire, and even some “story-based” tone poems, where sex and violence run rampant? Do they not know of Paganini, Liszt, or any number of “classical” musicians with “shady” reputations (depending on one’s tendencies towards judgmentalism)?

Of course, popular music may not be to one’s tastes, and that’s fine. I pretty much had that attitude when I was a teenager, but have since outgrown it (luckily by gradually finding popular music I did like, and being honest with myself that not all classical music is to my liking). But when one has the job of building an archive, especially to reflect culturally significant phenomena, that’s when one must leave one’s prejudices at the door. And I would imagine that in Canada, it’s even more important, given how much American culture (as well as certain political attitudes from about a decade ago) surges northwards… even if aspects of Canadian culture may riff on its southern counterparts.

Now, for instance, I’m not sure if there’s a Nickelback archive in the works, or if there’s one that’s completed already. But if I were placed in charge of a music archive in Canada, and if someone came to me asking if my archive would house various primary documents related to the band, I would jump at the chance to build a definitive Nickelback collection, if I had the proper support. Of course, I’m also aware of its reputation as a shining example of a band that sucks. Even so, for better or worse, Nickelback is also an example of Canadian musical culture. Despite its reputation, it has also become a major musical act, and perhaps an archive of Nickelback-related materials would help scholars who might want to discern why it has gotten such a bad reputation, while also having a fairly substantial fanbase.

In the final presentation I attended, Simon Côté-Lapointe of the Université de Montréal discussed usage of “non-text” archival materials to create new content. Of course, using pre-existing materials is nothing new, as Côté-Lapointe illustrated with hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa’s sampling of “Kraut rock” ensemble Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express” (1977) in “Planet Rock” (1982)

This, of course, is especially interesting if one thinks about the ties between Kraut rock and avant-garde musicians from the 1950s, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, and how avant-garde music is tied in with “legitimate” music. This illustrates how the lineages among various genres connect through a tangle of strings, wandering beyond seemingly strictly-structured silos. Côté-Lapointe went on to describe a multimedia project of his own, which drew upon archives within Montreal, and discussed a variety of factors (copyright, quality, availability, etc.) that both creators and archivists should consider in the creation of new works that draw upon older ones.

This is, of course, nothing new, but (as in the case of doing a professional-sounding recording one’s own music) it’s *relatively* easier to create such projects than in the past. Certainly, this has implications for deciding what to include for metadata; what documents (or excerpts thereof) are used in the creation of a new work, and (in whatever systems of descriptive cataloguing) what fields would be most appropriate to account for them? How and where would one account for the connections, in a manner that makes sense to users?

The diversity of archive-related issues discussed at CAML demonstrates the dynamic nature of a field that might strike the uninitiated, completely ahistorically-minded, and possibly unimaginative as rather “dull.” But, as demonstrated above, there is much lively ongoing work that occurs in archives, including figuring out the best ways to preserve historical documents, making them available to interested parties, and the impact that emerging technologies can have on handling collections. As well, there’s debate over what’s “suitable” to include in archives (whether in terms of cultural or “timeless” value), and there are interesting implications with regard to the ways one could use archival materials for one’s own creative projects. One can hope that, even in a time where financial “austerity” somehow maintains itself as the driving narrative behind practically everything, archives at all levels can continue to do the work necessary to maintain a healthy cycle of cultural understanding and creativity that keeps us alive, whether individually or as a society.

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