- February 28, 2016
Audio recording is a miracle most of us take for granted. Dave Berry doesn’t. He’s the coordinator of Sarasota Music Archive, one of the largest collections of its kind in the southeastern United States.
He meets me in the lobby of the Selby Public Library. We head up to the stairs to the second floor where the SMA makes its home.
Berry notes that history has many fault lines. The invention of audio recording is one of the steepest. A scratchy 1860 phonautogram of “Au Clair de la Lune” is probably the earliest song to be captured. Edison’s more reliable wax cylinder technology came along in the 1890s. Too late for Franz Liszt’s piano playing. Or an original cast recording of “Pirates of Penzance.”
“That’s not the real tragedy,” he says. “The real tragedy is all the recordings that were made and lost.”
A look of determination crosses his face. It tells me Berry’s here to keep that from happening. Along with a formidable army of board members and volunteers. That’s the reason SMA exists, after all.
Morning light floods in through the windows up on the second floor. It’s early in the day, but audiophiles have already filled the SMA listening booths. Headphones over their ears; intense looks of concentration on their faces.
Berry opens the door to the heart of the archive. At the front: colorful mobiles made of old vinyl records. Walls filled with album covers and Alex Steinweiss’ vintage music posters. Beyond that—
A treasure trove of sound. A long row of metal stacks filled with recordings of all descriptions.
“Our collection spans the gamut of musical genres,” he says. “We’ve got several hundred thousand recordings of classical, opera, jazz, popular, folk, and international music. It’s all cataloged and cross-referenced in a searchable database.”
Berry tells me SMA’s musical heritage is preserved on every kind of recording media imaginable, including Edison wax cylinders, one or two-sided shellac disks, long-playing vinyl records, 45s, 78s, reel-to-reel tapes, cassette tapes, 8-track tapes, compact discs, digital audio tape, laser discs, Betamax tapes and VHS recordings. But what good is an old music recording if you can’t listen to it?
“Good question,” he says.”
He leads me to a workstation filled with turntables and gear—including a hard-go-find digital converter that transfers videotape to DVD. Right now, a highly patient volunteer is going through a box set of five VHS tapes from the early 1990s: James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera in a complete performance of Wagner’s “Der Ring Des Nibelungen.” When the transfer is complete, contemporary music lovers can see and hear it for themselves on DVD. The box set is out of print now. And it’s one of many treasures SMA has saved.
“Conversion is a never ending process,” he says. “SMA moved to the library in 1992. Several audio formats have been born, lived and died since then. We take recordings from obsolete and deteriorating formats and put them in an accessible digital form that people can enjoy.”
Behind the music, there’s a lot of hard work. The music doesn’t save itself, of course. SMA volunteers do all the copying. And that’s not all.
According to Berry, more than 40 volunteer music lovers donate countless funds and energy to run SMA. Their wide-ranging backgrounds include finance, academia, medicine and, yes, music. Their work is anything but glamorous—and absolutely necessary. They tirelessly catalog SMA’s material; create and maintain its computer databases; stock the shelves; organized mailings; answer phones; plan programs and events; and provide assistance to the public.
“Volunteers are super important,” he says. “The work is all up to them, because we’ve got no paid staff.”
An unpaid cadre of experts.
Music is an art. But archiving music recordings is a science.
It’s all about information management. And Berry’s clearly the right man for the job. He’s a software engineer with his own business. He works in the archive part time, often side-by-side with Jack Berry, his son. Another dedicated volunteer.
The Sarasota Music Archive is basically one big database. Old recording formats. And a state-of-the-art digital server filled with music files. With a backup, of course. Berry made sure of that.
But he’s also sure of what the archive is for.
“Sharing the music is the whole point,” he says. “If we just held onto this stuff, we’d be glorified hoarders. The music only matters if somebody hears it.”
Who’s the audience? According to Berry, everything from young people with a taste for vinyl (like his son Jack), to academic researchers, to music lovers of every genre imaginable.
SMA has a clear strategy to get the music out there. Donations of recordings come in. (“This is an amazing arts town,” says Berry. “People donate world class collections on a regular basis.”) Volunteers sift through the recordings. If SMA has a duplicate in its archive, the redundant copy goes for sale at the front office. On top of expanding its CD lending system, the archive has added more listening booths.
Music lovers get a lot of joy as a result.
But also music creators.
Berry leads me past the stacks of recordings to more stacks of rare programs and music magazines. And hundreds of thousands of copies of sheet music. Single sheets. Or entire scores for operas and musicals.
“Original period sheet music is an invaluable resource for professional musicians,” says Berry. “Much of this material is available online—but it lacks notations for individual instruments.”
SMA’s sheet music collection is so vast, they have a temporary moratorium on new donations. I spy boxes of sheet music from the estate of the late Paul Wolfe. In Wolfe’s case, they made an exception.
“An archive is not a static thing,” he says. “We get a constant in-flow and out-flow of music material. Cataloging, preserving, and updating our database is a never-ending job. We never forget what that job is for. Making everything open and available to our members and the general public is what it’s all about.”
Berry adds that music mavens can also enjoy live piano concerts by area virtuosos, thanks to area philanthropists Phyllis and Saul Lowitt’s recent gift of a Yamaha grand piano.
SMA also promotes music understanding and appreciation with its 2017 Lecture and Performance Series. This popular weekly series encompasses six performances of opera, classical, jazz, or folk music, and informative talks on a host of musical topics.
Sylvia Eckes, the series’ coordinator, notes that, “Our loyal and supportive audience knows our performances are extremely high quality.” She adds that SMA’s ‘Close Up On Opera’ series is presented by John Goodman, a well-known expert on the subject and SMA’s president. “John chooses operas that are presented during the current season by the Sarasota Opera and the Metropolitan Opera’s ‘Live in HD’ program,” says Eckes. It draws near-capacity audiences. These outreaches are our musical love letter to the community. We’re happy to share what we love!”
IF YOU GO
SMA 2017 Lecture and Performance Series; Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m., in the Geldbart Auditorium at Selby Public Library, 1331 First St., Sarasota. Call 861-1168 or visit sarasotamusicarchive.org for more information.
January 11: Close-up on Opera: Charles-François Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet”
January 18: Close-up on Opera: Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly
January 25: Standard Songs in Jazz, Country, Blues and Folk Music with singer and songwriter Mindy Simmons