What Might Happen To Your Music After You Die (and What You Can Do About It)

The International Digital Electroacoustic Music Archive (IDEAMA), a pioneering effort founded in 1990 and initially spearheaded by Max Mathews, was a collaborative effort between Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) and Stanford University‘s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA). The following institutions were collaborating as Partner Institutions: Groupe de Recherches Musicales (INA/GRM), Paris; Institut de Recherches et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), Paris; National Center for Science Information Systems (NACSIS), Tokyo; Groupe de Musique Experimentale de Bourges (GMEB); Stiftelsen Elektro-Akustik Musik i Sverige (EMS), Stockholm; New York Public Library (NYPL), Instituut voor Sonologie, Den Haag and Instituut voor Psychoakustika een Elektronische Muziek (IPEM), Ghent. Although the NYPL was listed in this CCRMA web posting as a collaborative agent, the IDEAMA materials have not yet been cataloged, due to their being originally formatted on what, in hindsight, appears to be inaccessible or obsolete configurations.

An initial target collection of 700 electro-acoustic works and auxiliary materials of the early days (up to c. 1970), selected by boards in the USA and Europe, accompanied by a database catalogue, was established and transmitted to the affiliated institutions. On the North American side, CCRMA has been able to contribute approximately 220 works to the IDEAMA, substantially less than the anticipated 400 works that had been targeted. As a “paperless” archive, IDEAMA stored all materials entirely in digital form. The IDEAMA collection was to be publicly accessible, but, because of lack of funding and interest, is now distributed only sporadically in Europe and not at all in the USA, the only American repository being at CCRMA of Stanford University with its access severely limited due to its metadata being formatted on obsolete equipment (NeXT computer) and software (FileMaker Pro on floppy diskettes). In corresponding with some of the principals involved, it appears that all further work on this project was halted indefinitely in 1996. This must be a frustration for those who dedicated so much time to the project. The initial funding from the Mellon Foundation was substantial, supplemented subsequently by funds from the NEA and CCRMA.

What went wrong? My best guess is that they bit off more than they could chew in this pioneering time of the early 90s. Although they succeeded in finishing and digitizing the basic reduced collection, a heroic effort in itself considering the low funding amount for such a large project, the critical point of bogging down came with its organization and dissemination. For example, just consider their mission regarding this second stage as stated in a Web posting:

“Specialists at ZKM and CCRMA are developing a machine-readable database that will be linked with library retrieval systems and accessed by remote locations world-wide. The technology at IDEAMA is based on existing commercial hardware (computers, recording media, etc.), with programs designed for public access. Scholars, researchers, and those interested in electro-acoustic music can browse through IDEAMA’s on-line catalog, which is being designed to be consistent with international cataloging standards. Semiautomatic access to archive contents will enable music selections to be heard via jukebox or CD players.”

None of this ever happened, at least in the USA, despite the tireless dedication of some of the staff directly involved in implementing the project. The following narration may be instructive to all those who rush into an archival project without a clear vision of the end game. Marcia L. Bauman, who was most closely involved with the actual implementation of the project, recently tried to access the IDEAMA files and music after a two-year hiatus. Upon arriving at Stanford, she “was ready to log onto the NeXT machine (NeXT had been CCRMA’s platform for development during the archive years). Unfortunately, the NeXT machines had mostly been replaced, the facility is now PC/Linux based, and it seemed as though access to the online archive data was lost. But fortunately a grad student had a NeXT of his own, so we ported the text over to it, de-gibberrished it, and voilà, here it is. It is scary, as well, because the database, using FileMaker Pro, and all the information, lists of works, etc. are on floppy discs, which are becoming obsolete… I guess it’s not enough to preserve music in an archive; one has to preserve the archive with all the changing technology!!! Perhaps in the spring Jonathan will be able to get the key to the metal filing cabinet in which the archive is stored (you would never know what is in there, given how it is buried beneath old equipment and other debris in the basement!) I thought the plan to distribute it in a jukebox for the cost, which I forget, but it was very high, was not the best plan to interest other institutions…”

Other factors undoubtedly entered into the decision to halt the project, not the least of which may have been CCRMA’s institutional mission, which is more along the lines of developing software/hardware systems than fostering the resultant music. In the case of the IDEAMA program, it seems to me that the primary host institutions also lacked the structure of a collaborating library to implement the final phase of the project. My research shows that, no matter how careful the collection is assembled, it is crucial to plug into a powerful library structure at some point. This was done at one point here, when the Stanford Library advised IDEAMA on the MARC format, which is a standard archival format adopted by the Society of American Archivists. The intention to scan information such as program notes and LP jackets was abandoned, as was the original intention to use MARC format. MARC format is designed to catalog physical objects, such as a disk or text, on which information resides. However, in the case of the IDEAMA, it was the information itself that was to be cataloged, although some of the MARC format fields could be used to catalog IDEAMA information. Ultimately, the commercial database FileMaker Pro was selected, with the IDEAMA now envisioned as a simple, stand-alone entity consisting of a computer terminal and a jukebox which could be activated via the computer terminal.

And so, at this crucial point the IDEAMA project decided to abandon the collaboration with the library access structure (MARC) and go on its own, partially due to financing and external circumstances. But this may have been a mistake. Even the AMC archival and the ACA custodial programs are now closely working with libraries and professional archivists. Only libraries and archival institutions are fully equipped to deal with the mind-boggling complexities of how the archive eventually interfaces with the public. As a composer it is important to know this in evaluating the ability of an organization to carry its archival mission to completion.

Preservation is only half the game. Access is the end game.

From What Might Happen To Your Music After You Die and What You Can Do About It
by Barton McLean
© 2001 NewMusicBox