Digital archives

Phyllis Tate’s Nocturn for Four Voices 3″ 1/4 inch reel to reel tape transfer

We have recently transferred a previously unpublished 3” ¼ inch tape recording of British 20th century composer Phyllis Tate’s Nocturn for Four Voices. The tape is a 2-track stereo recording made at 7.5 inches per second (in/s) at the Purcell Room in London’s Southbank Centre in 1975, and was broadcast on 16 September 1976.

When migrating magnetic tape recordings to digital files there are several factors that can be considered to assess the quality of recording even before we play back the tape. One of these is the speed at which the tape was originally recorded.

Diagramme of track widths on magnetic tape, and the relative thicknesses of 1, 2 and 4 track recordings

Generally speaking, the faster the speed the better the reproduction quality when making the digital transfer. This is because higher tape speeds spread the recorded signal longitudinally over more tape area, therefore reducing the effects of dropouts and tape noise. The number of tracks recorded on the tape also has an impact on how good it sounds today. Simply put, the more information stored on the tape due to recording speed or track width, the better the transfer will sound.

The tape of Nocturn for Four Voices was however suffering from binder hydrolysis and therefore needed to be baked prior to play back. EMI tape doesn’t normally do this but as the tape was EMI professional it may well have used Ampex stock and / or have been back coated, thus making the binder more susceptible to such problems.

Remembering Phyllis Tate

Nocturn for Four Voices is an example of how Tate ‘composed for unusual combinations of instruments and voice.’ The composition includes ‘Bass Clarinet, Celeste, String Quartet and Double Bass’, music scholar Jane Ballantyne explains.

The tape was brought into us by Tate’s daughter, Celia Frank, who is currently putting the finishing touches to a web archive that, she hopes, will help contemporary audiences (re)discover her mother’s work.

Like many women musicians and artists, Phyllis Tate, who trained at the Royal Academy of Music, remains fairly obscure to the popular cultural ear.

This is not to say, of course, that her work did not receive critical acclaim from her contemporaries or posthumously. Indeed, it is fair to say that she had a very successful composing career. Both the BBC and the Royal Academy of Music, among others, commissioned compositions from Tate, and her work is available to hire or buy from esteemed music publishers Oxford University Press (OUP).

Edmund Whitehouse, who wrote a short biography of the composer, described her as ‘one of the outstanding British composers of her generation, she was truly her own person whose independent creative qualities produced a wide range of music which defy categorisation.’

Her music often comprised of contrasting emotional registers, lyrical sections and unexpected changes of direction. As a writer of operattas and choral music, with a penchant for setting poetry to music, her work is described by the OUP as the product of ‘an unusual imagination and an original approach to conventional musical forms or subjects, but never to the extent of being described as “avant-garde”.’

Tate’s music was very much a hit with iconic suffrage composer Ethel Smyth who, upon hearing Tate’s compositions, reputedly declared: ‘at last, I have heard a real woman composer.’ Such praise was downplayed by Tate, who tended to point to Smyth’s increased loss of hearing in later life as the cause of her enjoyment: ‘My Cello Concerto was performed soon afterwards at Bournemouth with Dame Ethel sitting in the front row banging her umbrella to what she thought was the rhythm of the music.’Open reel tape and box

While the dismissal of Smyth’s appreciation is tender and good humoured, the fact that Tate destroyed significant proportions of her work does suggest that at times she could have doubted her own abilities as a composer. Towards the end of her life she revealed: ‘I must admit to having a sneaking hope that some of my creations may prove to be better than they appear. One can only surmise and it’s not for the composer to judge. All I can vouch is this: writing music can be hell; torture in the extreme; but there’s one thing worse; and that is not writing it.’ As a woman composing in an overwhelmingly male environment, such hesitancies are perhaps an understandable expression of what literary scholars Gilbert and Gubar called ‘the anxiety of authorship.’

Tate’s work is a varied and untapped resource for those interested in twentieth century composition and the wider history of women composers. We wish Celia the best of luck in getting the website up and running, and hope that many more people will be introduced to her mother’s work as a consequence.

Thanks to Jane Ballantyne and Celia Frank for their help in writing this article.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, 0 comments

Digital preservations, aesthetics and approaches

sony half 1 inch video tape

Digital Preservation 2014, the annual meeting of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program and the National Digital Stewardship Alliance is currently taking place in Washington, DC in the US.

The Library of Congress’s digital preservation blog The Signal is a regular reading stop for us, largely because it contains articles and interviews that impressively meld theory and practice, even if it does not exclusively cover issues relating to magnetic tape.

What is particularly interesting, and indeed is a feature of the keynotes for the Digital Preservation 2014 conference, is how the relationship between academic theory—especially relating to aesthetics and art—is an integral part of the conversation of how best to meet the challenge of digital preservation in the US. Keynote addresses from academics like Matthew Kirschenbaum (author of Mechanisms) and Shannon Mattern, sit alongside presentations from large memory institutions and those seeking ways to devise community approaches to digital stewardship.

The relationship between digital preservation and aesthetics is also a key concern of Richard Rhinehart and Jon Ippolito’s new book Re-Collection: Art, New Media and Social Memory, which has just been published by MIT Press.

This book, if at times deploying rather melodramatic language about the ‘extinction!’ and ‘death!’ of digital culture, gently introduces the reader to the wider field of digital preservation and its many challenges. Re-Collection deals mainly with born-digital archives, but many of the ideas are pertinent for thinking about how to manage digitised collections as well.Stop Rewind

In particular, the recommendation by the authors that the digital archival object remains variable was particularly striking: ‘the variable media approach encourages creators to define a work in medium- independent terms so that it can be translated into a new medium once its original format is obsolete’ (11). Emphasising the variability of the digital media object as a preservation strategy challenges the established wisdom of museums and other memory institutions, Rhinehart and Ippolito argue. The default position to preserve the art work in its ‘original’ form effectively freezes a once dynamic entity in time and space, potentially rendering the object inoperable because it denies works of art the potential to change when re-performed or re-interpreted. Their message is clear: be variable, adapt or die!

As migrators of tape-based collections, media variability is integral to what we do. Here we tacitly accept the inauthenticity of the digitised archival object, an artefact which has been allowed to change in order to ensure accessibility and cultural survival.

US/ European differences ?

While aesthetic and theoretical thinking is influencing how digital information management is practiced in the US, it seems as if the European approach is almost exclusively framed in economic and computational terms

Consider, for example, the recent EU press release about the vision to develop Europe’s ‘knowledge economy‘. The plans to map and implement data standards, create cross-border coordination and an open data incubator are, it would seem, far more likely to ensure interoperable and standardised data sharing systems than any of the directives to preserve cultural heritage in the past fifteen years, a time period characterised by markedly unstable approaches, disruptive innovations and a conspicuous lack of standards (see also the E-Ark project).

It may be tempting these days to see the world as one gigantic, increasingly automated archival market, underpinned by the legal imperative to collect all kinds of personal data (see the recent ‘drip’ laws that were recently rushed through the UK parliament). Yet it is also important to remember the varied professional, social and cultural contexts in which data is produced and managed.

One session at DigiPres, for example, will explore the different archival needs of the cultural heritage sector:

‘Digital cultural heritage is dependent on some of the same systems, standards and tools used by the entire digital preservation community. Practitioners in the humanities, arts, and information and social sciences, however, are increasingly beginning to question common assumptions, wondering how the development of cultural heritage-specific standards and best practices would differ from those used in conjunction with other disciplines […] Most would agree that preserving the bits alone is not enough, and that a concerted, continual effort is necessary to steward these materials over the long term.’

Of course approaches to digital preservation and data management in the US are largely overdetermined by economic directives, and European policies do still speak to the needs of cultural heritage institutions and other public organisations.

What is interesting, however, is the minimal transnational cross pollination at events such as DigiPres, despite the globally networked condition we all share. This suggests there are subtle divergences between approaches to digital information management now, and how it will be managed in coming years across these (very large) geopolitical locations. Aesthetics or no aesthetics, the market remains imperative. Despite the turn toward open archives and re-usable data, competition is at the heart of the system and is likely to win out above all else.

Posted by debra in Audio Tape, 0 comments