By Lily Troia
“‘Do we want to preserve this art or keep it alive?’ The former approach treats a work of variable media like a musical recording, locking in time some masterful performance. The latter approach treats the work more as a musical score, the same piece open to future iterations. Because these works don’t self-record, self document, or exist in a stable medium, preservation is an interpretive act. Both recordings and scores are valuable resources for the future: recordings keep the radical performative intentionality intact for future exhibitions, and scores keep the patina of history and provenance intact for future research.”
– Richard Rinehart, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, in Permanence Through Change: The Variable Media Approach, 2003
A chilly rain misted the eager faces of those waiting in line outside Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg, NY on Saturday, October 3, 2015, yet the weather would not diminish the current of excitement bubbling across the crowd. The second night of a three-night concert run by Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) had been sold out for months, yet hopeful fans walked down the line of ticket-holders, a finger in the air, inquiring to anyone and everyone about extras.
Who was this act with such a fervent draw? Some new Pitchfork-blessed hipster rock act? Hardly. You would not hear JRAD on the radio, or likely know of their existence were you not part of an extended scene of post-jam music fans known as the New York City Freaks. The grassroots, decentralized NYC fan group (and accompanying listserv) had ultimately been responsible for launching the band in 2013, when JRAD played their first show at the Freak’s 13th annual private party, the Freaks Ball. JRAD is a Grateful Dead cover band, for all intents and purposes—but to describe them as merely such ignores the reality that the band is, in fact, a super group. Some musicians in its lineup have played with members of the Grateful Dead—including Joe Russo—yet none of these musicians are known primarily for that work. Russo (drummer) and keyboardist Marco Benevento have long been musical collaborators, known under the moniker The Duo, under which they have been touring internationally, performing progressive, instrumental jazz-funk/experimental music for over a decade.
Both Russo and Benevento are notorious in the NYC club scene, creating new and one-off projects weekly when not on the road. When I lived in New York City from 2004-2006, their current incarnation was Bustle in Your Hedgerow, a rock/jazz fusion group performing all instrumental Zeppelin covers, featuring searing garage-psych guitarist Scott Metzger (RANA), and Dave Dreieitz of Ween on bass. Their shows were frenetic—intimate, raucous events that engaged the entire audience in a surreal time- bending encounter.
Now here I was, ten years later, waiting outside Brooklyn Bowl to see this new Russo/Benevento/Metzger/Dreiwitz amalgam, and the anticipation amongst my fellow fans was palpable. Brooklyn Bowl, which opened in 2009 by Peter Shapiro (longtime NYC Freak) is a green-constructed bowling alley and concert venue in the heart of Williamsburg, was named the best rock club in the country by Rolling stone in 2013. The club now boasts locations in Las Vegas and London, and is known among music fans to support top-quality audio and lighting concert experiences in a non-arena/non-theater setting. In layman’s terms—the room sounds great, with space to dance, and the ability to get up as close to the stage and performers as you desire.
JRAD did not disappoint that October Saturday. The first set featured nearly ninety minutes of non-stop music. The band weaved in and out of Dead classics like “The Other One” and “Truckin,’” performing favorite covers like “Dancin’ the Streets,” featuring the vocal styling of Jersey-indie starlet Nicole Atkins, harkening back to a 1970s-era Dead with Donna Godchaux on back up vocals. While the idea of a Dead cover band may sound tired and cliché, JRAD transforms the music into a palette both fresh and contemporary—teases of Radiohead, electronica-tinged jams—this is not your dad’s Grateful Dead. It is as if Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Stevie Wonder’s band decided play Jerry Garcia tunes. It cannot be understated what phenomenal musicians these are—and for many Deadheads, (at least those whom I know who are mostly under the age of 50), the Grateful Dead shows they saw—mostly in the 1990s—were during an era in which the band, and especially Jerry, were declining. JRAD never puts on a subpar show for its audience, and because of that, the audience gives back, adding to this collective, vibrant live experience.
Of course, this live experience is mediated and enhanced by technology, unifying the immaterial with the material world. Liveness, a quality identified in mass media presentation studies, has seeped its way into computing, digital humanities, and user experience work recently, highlighting the intersection of human and technical in contemporary culture. “The study of liveness has . . . focused primarily on the experience of liveness, through which performances, art or entertainment are lived” (Schofield, et al, 10), and can also be understood in terms of concurrent computing processes which require continued progress amidst a cooperative ‘give-and-take’ arrangement of shared activity.
These connected concepts of liveness pique the archival mind: in terms of the October 3rd JRAD show described—can that quality of shared, collective exchanges, be preserved or captured? What aspects a live concert experience can be archived? Should any remain in the ephemeral realm? When art exists as a temporal event, what role does media materiality play in articulating and recording the “artifact?” In the Variable Media essay, “Performance Art Festival+Archives” by Thomas Mulready, the author discusses the challenges to accurately representing the original performance once it is over, pointing out that photo and video often fall short, prescribing limited perspective and scope (Mulready, 35). Using the JRAD performance event as a case study, I examine the parameters around archiving cultural activity, how the process both creates digital memory and shapes collective memory, and how it can move us “from a spatial notion of archives” to one in which “time-criticality” (Parikka, 54, 59) connects the ephemerality of human experience to that inherent to technology’s material constructs of code and algorithm-based structures.
I would assert, while never completely possible, the enhanced potential for interactive, digital encounters with media—including aspects of Drucker’s performative materiality concepts, Whitelaw’s generous interfaces discussed earlier in the course, and Parikka’s interpretation of Ernst’s operative media archaeology cited here—offers the preservation and cultural heritage communities exciting avenues for exploring ways to document and share the myriad instances of “liveness” in human activity. What would this entail exactly? Ippolito’s seven evaluative variable media criteria provide a good framework, albeit in an alternate order.
Reproduced. One of the benefits of the jam-band/Deadhead scene is its fans’ attendance to (and obsession with) high-quality, transparently sourced recordings of ALL live performances by the artists in their aesthetic canon. The Internet Archive’s Live Music Archive (LMA) includes a Joe Russo’s Almost Dead Collection of 156 live concert recordings of the band (and other Duo performances), including the JRAD show from October 3, 2015. New York Freak and audiophile/sound engineer at Brooklyn Bowl, Peter Costello recorded many of the shows (with help from partner/fellow freak Eric McRoberts) and gave permission to the LMA to host the digital collection.
Detailed source information about the equipment used to record and transfer audio are listed on each shows’ page within the collection. Among snobs in scene, Costello is considered to produce some of the highest-quality recordings. It should be noted that concerts recorded in other locations have different creators, thus there is some disparity across the collection.
The Live Music Archive is a partnership between IA and “etree.org . . . a community committed to providing the highest quality live concerts in a lossless, downloadable format.”
The LMA includes non-commercial concert recordings by “trade- friendly” artists (those that allow/promote free audience recording and distribution of said recordings), thus working to archive music that would otherwise not make its way into the cultural record. Etree.org is notorious for its strict audiophile (and metadata) standards, and functions under a system of self/community-policing to ensure only the highest-quality recordings are used as “seeds” for downloads and subsequent copies. These community-developed standards align with audio preservation standards, allowing for only lossless format uploads, and encouraging preservation-level 24-bit audio.
In a 2000 article from the International Journal of Digital Libraries, “Methodologies and tools for audio digital archives,” the authors identify two types or approaches to audio preservation (which share striking commonalities with the concepts of emulation versus migration): “(1) the sound preservation of audio history, and (2) the sound preservation of an artist” (Orio, et al, 203). The Costello/McRoberts JRAD recordings (like most contemporary non-commercial audio recordings in this subculture) are matrices of a soundboard recording and microphones recording from the stage. I would classify this approach as aligning with the second preservation type listed above, as it is a mix of both what goes through the artists’ inputs and the live version of the sound they hear onstage (and version heard through their monitors), and efforts to reproduce “with the intent of obtaining ‘the live sound of original performers,’ transcending the limits of a historically faithful reproduction of the recording” (Orio, et al, 203).
A Type I approach to audio preservation aligns more with a classic Deadhead taper ethos which glorifies the raw, unedited recording captured by a taper embedded in the audience at a show (though this version is certainly still mixed and minimally processed after transfer for best sound output). I posit—which method comes closer to capturing the “liveness” of the event? For instance, the Costello/McRoberts recording includes snippets of the deejayed music playing over the PA before and after the show, and at set break, but it does not capture the raucous funk dance party that seamlessly extended from the band’s closing strains, led by beloved New York-based, New Orleans- inspired DJ Cochon de Lait. For nearly two hours after the official end of the show Benevento, Dreiwitz, and Russo joined audience members on the dance floor in a unique, memorable merging of the audience/performer boundary, yet this part of the cultural event is missing in the high quality soundboard matrix recording.
Another example: towards the end of the first set, around 5:45 into the timeless classic “Fire on the Mountain,” the band dropped out to allow keyboardist Marco Benevento to carry the crowd along on an expansive solo, delving into Gershwinian moments of bliss for over 3 minutes, until the band finally rejoined leading into a triumphant conclusion. I was standing on the floor only 10 feet from Benevento at the time and can still acutely recall the complete, ecstatic sense of jubilation that exploded across the crowd at that moment. In a review of the show by collection creator, Costello, he affirmed my experiential memory, noting “I’ll spare you all the hyperbole, but I want to add one final thought: I’ve worked at Brooklyn Bowl for nearly 6 years, & I have never heard a crowd react louder in their appreciation for a band than the reaction tonight to Marco’s solo in ‘Fire on the Mountain.’”
Does the LMA recording of the show share this “perpetuation of the sound . . . as it was initially reproduced and heard by the people of the era” (Storm, 27)? At the close of the song, the recording clearly captures bandleader Russo’s acknowledgement of the singular, cultural anomaly that had just occurred, as he extols extemporaneously, “Marco- fucking-Benevento, Jesus Christ. Where did we even find this guy?” Yet at the very moment when the crowd erupted, the recording barely hints at the ridiculous decibel achieved by applause and cheering; and, while the concert’s archival record on LMA includes a typically meticulous setlist (best practice in Deadhead fan culture), it fails to mention the solo or crowd response.
We must ask, what is the archival object the LMA is actually reproducing? The collection item includes extensive encoded metadata, files in various formats, and even image files of the concert-run poster, but this is ultimately an audio archive. The LMA FAQs pragmatically explain their reasons for only collecting audio materials, stating, “…unlike audio, where we actually have a shot at archiving the vast majority of any given band’s live concerts (in very high quality format), video is scarce and, unless made by the artist (in which case, it’s typically for commercial purposes), is not of particularly good quality.”
Performed. As the Variable Media questionnaire discusses, cultural heritage materials that involve explicit performance add many complexities to the preservation paradigm. In a proposed collection archiving the sound recording of JRAD 10/3/15 that also attempts to curate and preserve its “liveness” and broader existence as a temporal, reflexive cultural event, I would suggest adding images of the paper set lists (and any notes) used by the musicians onstage, any recordings or notes (or emails/messages) surrounding the process of planning for the event, and extensive photographic and video information providing evidence of the band setup, audience positioning, lighting, etc.
Installed. A live music event might not be viewed traditionally as an installation piece, but in fact, the technical parameters—ranging from lighting patches, input lists, to hospitality riders and security provisions—all comprise of the historical record. These elements can be viewed as both contextual information, and as components of the artifact’s media archaeology. In Parikka the author describes how “modern technical media are media of mathematical codes, and in their execution they become processes defined by patterns of signals unfolding in time” (59). Thus, the liveness of the concert experience is an amalgam of organic, human interaction with mechanical, computer- generated activity. Documenting the event would require documentation of the unique technical parameters, including the computations required to support the live production’s digital technology.
Contained. While the contained criteria does not directly related to the JRAD preservation plan, if ephemera or non-digital materials were added to the object—the paper set list, printed photos or posters, a Russo drumstick, a signed t-shirt—concerns regarding long term storage and maintenance of these items would be useful.
Networked. “Society in the digital age has become increasingly organized around the various ways to organize and diversify the intertwined or networked processes of production and consumption,” Deuze and Blank write in the recent piece, “A Life Lived in Media,” addressing the interconnected way we interact and exist both with and within media in contemporary society (11). Thus, the infrastructure supporting these networks becomes paramount, such as when working to preserve variable media requiring streaming digital content. If video were added, the bandwidth and storage needs would increase exponentially. Further, if we were to attempt to capture the full live experience, multiple viewpoints would be necessary, with professional and audience-sourced footage, offering a web of perspectives. I would also suggest creating a network with other fan sites and social media, expanding the collection items to include links to tweets posted during and after the show, photos shared, reviews written, and connections to the likely numerous other audience-sourced recordings, each of which would offer a unique aural reproduction of the concert.
The LMA culls metadata from MusicBrainz, a crowd-sourced recorded music metadata silo that provides records using an abstracted model, which offers a lot of potential in the future climate of Linked Open Data. What if our set list and audio/video files included in the digital JRAD collection hyperlinked to song or artist-listings with rich bibliographic information? For example, Nicole Atkins is identified on the LMA show page for 10/3/2015, but the user has to separately Google her to source any further information. What if this data was all networked to our proposed archive? What if you could also immediately connect to the lyrics of each song, and recordings of the same by other artists, including The Grateful Dead? The possibilities are limitless, if the not the technical capacity at this time.
Encoded. In the same respect, while the robust technical and descriptive metadata provided by the LMA is all encoded (and downloadable in that form), if we were to design and develop a rich, interactive archive of the concert experience, all additional media would need to be encoded. In the Orio piece referenced earlier, the authors present several tools for insuring the integrity of audio preservation—including digital fingerprinting and watermarking, digital image processing techniques applied to recording grooves, and the process of audio alignment, where algorithms are used to compare two alternative performances of the same work. If such a technique were applied to recordings of a live music culture where countless versions of the same song exist, the data re-use potential in musicology alone would be immeasurable.
Duplicated. One could certainly re-stage the concert event from October 3, 2015, but ultimately, any real duplication would be impossible. The very nature of a live, collective concert experience is one in which the audience and temporal components are as integral to the creation of the cultural object as the band on stage. Indeed, the ethos of Deadhead subculture centers on this notion that “being there” is the primary fan experience—though I would note, the advent of simulcast technology has challenged and expanded this principle, and is something I hope to investigate in future research.
The Internet Archive and LMA focus considerable energy and intellectual resources on storage and preservation. The IA is quite transparent about its data curation approach, stating the process includes “parsing, indexing, and physically encoding the data . . . stored on DLT tape and hard drives in various appropriate formats, depending on the collection.” In terms of preservation, IA describes the familiar practice of ‘many copies in many places,’ and long-term migration plans utilizing their own custom Petabox system in lieu of tapes. The reviews in the comments section indicate preservationists and archivists alike have lauded this system. In addition, the IA states they “will be collecting software and emulators that will aid future researchers, historians, and scholars in their research” to address long-term issues surrounding format and software obsolescence.
However, for the JRAD 10/30/15 show (or entire JRAD collection) hosted in the LMA, only audio, image, and metadata files are included in preservation planning. While the open access archive’s ingest allows for user-sourced contributions, the media formats are limited, and thus, the preservation scope as well. The simple upload of several files would become a much more complicated process if incorporating the other media elements discussed above that document the “liveness” of the cultural event. It should be noted that IA and the LMA have recently launched an initiative with Columbia University and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona to “run their code on the music collection to help their research and to provide new analyses that could help with exploration and understanding.” Other projects involve pilot runs with generating audio fingerprints, and use of image files showing the audio spectrum of a given musical record—both of which could prove highly applicable to the proposal discussed herein.
What is the digital object when dealing cultural materials such as these? Can our original model of content + metadata contain such content complexities? And are long- term storage systems prepared to handle the layered needs of variable media such as these? These dilemmas reflect the cross-disciplinary nature of cultural heritage archives which aim to document the artists’ works, and the cultural setting in which the same exists. The temporal and operational nature of computing means our cultural record now exists as electronic signals and calculations. Parikka points out, “archives are not even spaces any more but addresses: a necessary precondition for any data retrieval is addressability” (58). The existential idea of all information, all bits of culture being simply pointers to a location, is rather breathtaking, in my opinion. GLAM professionals face monumental challenges in the arena of digital preservation, certainly, but what an exciting time to be involved in cultural heritage curation.
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