The Importance of UCSB’s Cylindrical Record Library (by Jake Bellissimo)

EdisonThe Importance of UCSB’s Cylindrical Record Library


(by Jake Bellissimo)

The University of California at Santa Barbara library has done something truly incredible. Boasting an outstanding collection of cylindrical recordings from the late 19th and early 20th century, the library has uploaded said collection to their digital catalogue (a remarkable 10,000+ digitized cylindrical records) for free download.

This is kind of a big deal. To be able to sift through and listen to recordings from over 100 years ago at your own leisure is pretty extraordinary.

As classical musicians/composers it is easy to take documentation for granted. The art form, the history, and the music still exist because the main distribution method is through sheet music. Add in the societal, class-based reason for preserving classical music (read: “high art”, aristocracy) and you have a pretty reliable system. This differs a lot from non-classical traditions, as precise documentation wasn’t available until recordings were popularized, and—even then—recording and distribution still aren’t the most accessible markets.

I think it’s important to be consistently cautious about how we document music (see my first post on this blog ). But right behind those ethics is my love to listen to recordings of music that only existed in a certain place and time. Music is a force that influences and is influenced by culture, so simply passing it down aurally might eliminate certain nuances of the time.

There’s not much more I can say about this, though—it really speaks for itself. Keep in mind that there are still over 2,000 cylindrical recordings left to be digitized, and you can “adopt” (donate $60 for) one to be digitized here.

Here are a few highlights from the collection:

“You will never miss your mother until she’s gone”
o “was her head that touched my brow/I can almost feel it now/You’ll never miss your mother ‘til she’s gone”

“There’s a mother always waiting you, at home, sweet home”

“Under the bamboo tree”

• [Animal noises–cat, chicken, rooster, cow bird, followed by announcement by unidentified male voice].

Selected Tahitian field recordings

Jake Bellissimo

Composer and Arranger, Violist, Music Producer