All I Need to Know about Archival Work I Learned from Choral Singing

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Having just finished singing a concert with the Duke Chapel Choir, it seems appropriate to continue my irregular series looking at archival work from a variety of perspectives.  I suggest three ways that choral singing parallels archival work:

Accountability.  There is both an individual and a corporate accountability in a choir.  Many rehearsals come before any service or concert performance, and singers have a responsibility to attend these rehearsals in order to learn the music — but also to put in the time outside of rehearsal to learn any parts that are not mastered during rehearsals.  Anyone who chooses not to do so will likely be called out by fellow singers as well as by the conductor.  Similarly, in many archival shops, archivists have discrete tasks to perform that come together to preserve and provide access to collections.  The work of arrangement and description, preservation, and reference are all necessary, and if any person along the way doesn’t complete a job, the whole product suffers.

Being part of a whole.  Unlike the work of soloists, choral singing demands a consistent tone and volume from all singers.  A singer who has too bright a tone or who sings more loudly than anyone else will stand out in an inappropriate way for choral singing.  I argue that archivists also need to see the bigger picture, from records creation to accessioning to preservation to access.  Especially for archivists in government positions, it can be useful to encourage conversations about how records are created and maintained rather than merely waiting around for the occasional deliveries of archival materials.

Protocols and procedures.  Just like archivists are fond of protocols and procedures for everything from donor agreements to finding aids, choral singing demands a uniformity from all performers.

  • Singers walk onto stage carrying music in the hand away from the audience.
  • When accompanied by an orchestra, singers rise when the concertmaster enters.
  • The oboe is usually the instrument that plays the A pitch to which the other instruments tune.  Absolutely no talking should occur during this tuning.
  • And just as archivists expect patrons to follow certain rules when they visit our repositories, musicians for a formal classical concert expect the audience to remain quiet during the performance and to clap only at the end of the piece, when the conductor lowers the baton.

These sorts of rules allow both performers and audience members to have certain expectations that can transcend locale, just like writing finding aids with certain metadata standards allows for the creation of union catalogs of archival materials.


The Tempest

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We all were sea-swallow’d, though some cast again,
And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what’s past is prologue, what to come
In yours and my discharge.

These lines belong to Antonio in Act 2, Scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, written in the early 17th century.  Antonio tries to convince Sebastian to murder his brother and assume the throne as the King of Naples.  Antonio had previously usurped his own brother’s position as Duke of Milan — so Prospero retaliates by using his powers of sorcery to create a storm that causes Antonio and King Alonso of Naples to believe they are shipwrecked and marooned on the island.  Spoiler alert: Antonio and Sebastian don’t succeed in killing King Alonso.

Where Antonio was suggesting some sort of fated destiny, these lines have been embraced over the years by archivists who who interpret them as evidence of the value of history as a springboard for later events.  These words are inscribed on Future, Robert Aitken’s 1935 statue located on the northeast corner of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2

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I’m taking my dive into context in a slightly different direction this week.  Several times, I’ve had the pleasure of singing Gustav Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, known as the “Resurrection” symphony.  While it is primarily an orchestral work, in the final movement, the chorus along with soloists give voice to the words of resurrection.  I knew the text isn’t biblical in origin, so I set out to discover the story.

Mahler began working on parts of what would become his Second Symphony in 1887, but he struggled to conceive a work that would not be merely seem imitative of other great composers.  In 1894, Mahler heard a poem by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock set to a chorale tune at the funeral of Hans von Bülow, a well-renowned German conductor and pianist.  He recognized this text of “Die Auferstehen” (“The Resurrection”), which had first been published in 1758 in a collection entitled Sacred Songs, as the frame that could bring form to his symphony.  Several years later, he wrote to an arts critic, Arthur Seidl:

“I had long contemplated bringing in the choir in the last movement, and only the fear that it would be taken as a formal imitation of Beethoven made me hesitate again and again.  Then Bülow died, and I went to the memorial service. — The mood in which I sat and pondered on the departed was utterly in the spirit of what I was working on at the time. — Then the choir, up in the organ-loft, intoned Klopstock’s Resurrection chorale. — It flashed on me like lightning, and everything became plain and clear in my mind! It was the flash that all creative artists wait for — “conceiving by the Holy Ghost”!  What I then experienced had now to be expressed in sound. And yet — if I had not already borne the work within me — how could I have had that experience?”

Mahler did not incorporate the entirety of Klopstock’s poem (only the first two stanzas), but for the sake of context, here it is (as translated from the German by William Lind in 1848):

YES! thou wilt rise, wilt rise as Jesus rose, / My dust, from brief repose. / Endless to live / Will He who made thee give. / Praise ye the Lord.

Again to bloom the seed the sower sows. / The Lord of harvest goes / Gathering the sheaves, / Death’s sickle reaps and heaves. / Praise ye the Lord.

Oh! day of thankfulness and joyful tears, / The day when God appears! / When ‘neath the sod / I have slept long, my God / Will wake me up.

Then shall we be like unto them that dream, / And into joy supreme / With Jesus go. / The pilgrim then shall know / Sorrow no more.

Ah! then my Saviour me shall lead in grace / To the Most Holy Place, / If Him I serve / This side the veil, nor swerve. / Praise ye the Lord.

Mahler was born Jewish, though he did not publicly practice any religion and secretly converted to Catholicism in order to become conductor of the Vienna Court Opera.  He did have a lifelong interest in spirituality and philosophy, and he penned the remaining words for this final movement:

O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing is lost to you!
Yours is what you longed for!
Yours what you loved, what you fought for!
O believe: you were not born in vain!
You have not lived in vain, suffered in vain!
What has arisen must pass!
What has passed must rise!
Cease to tremble!
Prepare yourself to live!
O pain! You all-pervasive one!
From you I am wrested!
O death! You all-conquering one!
Now you are conquered!
With wings I have won for myself
In love’s ardent striving, I will soar
To the light to which no eye has penetrated!
I will die, so as to live!
Rise, yes, you will rise,
My heart, in an instant!
What you have defeated
Will carry you to God!

Around the time of the premiere performance of this symphony, he wrote to a friend,

“We shall all return, and only the certainty of this gives meaning to our life.  It is immaterial whether or not we remember our previous incarnations.  This does not depend on the individual, his memory, or his willingness, but upon the great profession toward perfection . . . .”

After being on loan at the New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library for many years, the manuscript for this symphony sold at auction in 2016 and is now held in private hands.


P.S. If today’s post doesn’t fill all of your archival reading needs, take a look at my case study that was published this week by SAA’s Government Records Section about the functional analysis initiative at the State Archives of North Carolina.


Charles W. Chesnutt

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“Some time, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there is to be another golden age, when all men will dwell together in love and harmony, and when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a thousand years.  God speed the day, and let not the shining thread of hope become so enmeshed in the web of circumstance that we lose sight of it; but give us here and there, and now and then, some little foretaste of this golden age, that we may the more patiently and hopefully await its coming!”

I was introduced to the writings of Charles Waddell Chesnutt during a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored Landmarks of American History seminar during the summer of 2010.  I was in Atlanta to study the civil rights history of the region, and we read some of Chesnutt’s 19th century stories, which earned acclaim both for his conjure tales written in the vernacular but also for his stories that addressed the color line.  Probably his most famous story is “The Goophered Grapevine.”

The quote above comes from “The Web of Circumstance,” which was published in 1899 as part of a story collection entitled The Wife of His Youth.  Only recently have I learned more about Chesnutt’s personal history.  He was born in 1858 to free mulattoes, and his family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, after the Civil War.  He attended Howard School and taught in several places before becoming the principal of the new State Colored Normal School for teacher training in 1879.  In 1883, he moved north to pursue his writing dream, though he still set his stories primarily in the American South.  Although a number of his stories were published in The Atlantic Monthly, his foray into novel writing was less successful, and writing never became a full-time profession for him.  However, many credit him for laying the foundation for the success of the Harlem Renaissance.

Chesnutt wound up living in Cleveland, passed the state bar examination in Ohio, and established his own court reporting firm.  He died in 1932, and his papers can be found at Fayetteville State University — the successor to the State Colored Normal School — where the special collections are named in his honor.

All I Need to Know about Archival Work I Learned from Basketball

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I’ve previously looked at archival work from the perspectives of tennis and football, so now in honor of Final Four weekend, I’m going to do the same thing for basketball.

Preparation.  Successful basketball coaches and players spend time before games studying their competition, looking for weaknesses and trying to diagnose the best ways to approach the strengths of the opponent.  While archivists don’t have exactly have opponents, it is vital that we approach our projects only after thorough preparation.  Identifying low-hanging fruit can generate early buy-in by giving people easy successes, and planning how to handle the difficult parts of the project can give people confidence that the project won’t founder due to unanticipated difficulties.

Specialization.  The game of basketball is in a bit of a transition period.  Traditionally, there were well-defined positions within each team, complete with numbers for ease of depicting on a chalkboard the places each player should be located on the court for a particular play:

  1. point guard
  2. shooting guard
  3. small forward
  4. power forward
  5. center

The advantage of this system is that everyone has clearly defined responsibilities — on offense, on defense, while boxing out for rebounds.  Until the 1970s, girls’ high school basketball was even more specialized, with three forwards playing on the offensive end of the court and three guards playing on the defensive end of the court and no one playing full court.

In recent years, coaches both at the college and professional levels have begun talking of positionless basketball.  The basic idea is to build a game plan around the strengths of individual players and not constrain their play with any notions of what a particular position player “should” or “should not” be doing.  The Golden State Warriors employ this style of play.

Archivists have certainly embraced the idea of specialization.  You need look no further than the 45 sections found within the Society of American Archivists to realize that we like to define our jobs clearly and assume there’s something to be gained from focusing on a very narrow slice of the archival world.  But I find myself wondering if the profession wouldn’t be better off with more cross-pollination and less working in independent silos.  Probably the most obvious example is that many repositories handle paper and digital records separately — especially with arrangement and description but sometimes also with other archival functions.  Perhaps the lone arrangers of our profession could help us all learn something about the agility that could come from having a more positionless profession.

Points of emphasis.  For the last number of years, the NCAA has identified points of emphasis for referees of the college basketball game.  These are the rules on which referees are expected to focus — for instance, in men’s college basketball this year, one point of emphasis was making sure that all screens were set legally.  Sometimes these points of emphasis accompany tweaks to the rules, and sometimes they are designed to make games more interesting or protect players from unnecessarily physical play.  Archivists do something similar by having a particular focus for annual meetings — but this emphasis only affects those who are able to attend the meeting.  Perhaps the “One Book, One Profession” initiative will catch on and we can begin having some dialogues across the profession about important issues.

Reflection.  Athletes in general embrace the concept of “next play” — the idea that while involved in competition, it’s important not to dwell on past mistakes but instead to focus on what’s coming next.  However, great basketball players also spend a lot of time away from the court reviewing their play — analyzing what things were successful and what things were problematic.  Archivists would do well to do the same — keeping an eye on what’s coming up next but also taking the time to debrief, especially at the conclusion of projects, to determine what worked well and could be replicated on other projects and what caused problems and should be avoided at all costs.  We could certainly benefit from acknowledging our mistakes so we can learn from them rather than repeating them.