Wax cylinders retain audio from a century ago. The library is listening.

The first recording, enveloped in layers of distortion, was nevertheless recognizable by a child’s voice — small, nervous, encouraged by his father — wishing a very Merry Christmas to whoever was listening to it.

The second recording, while still loud, adequately captured the finale of the second act of “Aida”, performed by German singer Johanna Gadski at the Metropolitan Opera House in the spring of 1903.

And the third recording was the clearest yet: the waltz from “Romeo and Juliet,” also from the Met, sung by Australian soprano Nellie Melba.

Accessible via laptop in a lecture hall at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the recordings had been excavated and digitized from a much older source: wax cylinders, an audio format popularized in the late 1900s. 19th century as the first commercial means of recording. his. These particular documentations originated with Lionel Mapleson, an English-born Metropolitan Opera librarian, who made hundreds of wax cylinder recordings, capturing both the turn-of-the-century opera performances he saw in the framework of his work and the minutiae of the family. life.

For decades, Mapleson cylinders, as archivists and audiologists call them, have been a valuable but fragile resource. Wax cylinders were not designed for long-term use – early models wore out after a few dozen plays – and are particularly vulnerable to poor storage conditions. But with the innovation of the Endpoint Cylinder and the Dictabelt Machine, bespoke equipment specifically designed to safely transfer audio from cylinders, the library embarks on an ambitious preservation project: digitizing not just Mapleson cylinders, but about 2,500 more in possession of the library.

The machine will also allow the library to play a handful of broken Mapleson cylinders that no one has ever heard. “I have no idea what they’re going to look like, but the fact that they were broken a long time ago has kept them from being played too often,” said Jessica Wood, assistant library curator for music and recorded sound. “It is possible that the sound quality of these allows us to hear something totally new from the earliest moments of recording history.”

Some of the Mapleson cylinders were already part of the library’s collection, but another batch was recently provided by Alfred Mapleson, the Met Librarian’s great-grandson. This donation was accompanied by another valuable resource: a collection of diaries, written by Lionel Mapleson, which carefully chronicled his daily life and the schedule of the Metropolitan Opera. The diaries provide additional context to Mapleson’s audio recordings and the wider world of New York opera. A New Year’s Day entry in 1908 noted the “tremendous reception” for a performance by Gustav Mahler. Another described the time “angry” Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini fired his orchestra over the noise on the roof.

“Keeping this journal consistently is far more important than just the music,” said Bob Kosovsky, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts in the New York Public Library’s Music Division. “It’s such an incredible insight into life in New York and England, as he would go back to the family every summer.”

The library acquired the Endpoint machine from its creator, Nicholas Bergh, last spring, as NPR reported at the time. “Western music at that time was recorded in studios, so it’s very unique to have someone documenting what was actually going on there in the theater,” said Bergh, who developed the machine as part of it. of his work on audio preservation. .

Alfred Mapleson soon contacted the library about his great-grandfather’s journals and cylinder collection that had been waiting for years to be rediscovered in his mother’s Long Island basement. In November, they were packed in coolers and transported by air-conditioned truck to the library, where they are now stored in acid-free cardboard boxes to mitigate the risk of future degradation. (On Long Island, they had been kept in Tuborg Gold beer caddies.)

These particular cylinders were previously available at the library in the 1980s, when they were transferred to magnetic tape and released as part of a six-volume LP set compiling the Mapleson recordings. After that they were returned to the Mapleson family, while the larger collection remained in the library. But, said Wood, “there are people all over the world who are convinced that a new transfer of these cylinders would reveal more audio detail than the previous ones.”

Wax cylinders were traditionally played on a phonograph, where, similar to a modern record player, a stylus followed the grooves in the wax and translated the information into sound. The Endpoint machine uses a laser that puts less stress on the cylinders, allowing it to take a detailed impression without sacrificing physical integrity and adapting to how certain cylinders have deformed over time. The machine can recover information from shards of broken cylinders that cannot be read in the traditional way, which can then be reconstructed digitally into a complete record.

Over the next few years, the library hopes to digitize both the cylinders and the journals and make them available to the public. Non-Mapleson cylinders in the library’s collection can also be digitized, though Wood said the process will be determined based on requests for certain cylinders. Library engineers are split between departments, and with a backlog of thousands, she says, “We have to wait our turn.”

The wax cylinders are just one aspect of the library’s ongoing audiovisual archive projects. Its tape archive was recently digitized through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. And curators are in talks with Bergh about a new machine he is developing that can play wire recording, a mid-century format that captured audio on thin steel wire. Wood estimated that around 32,000 lacquer records – a predecessor to the vinyl record – at “very high risk of deterioration” are also in the digitization queue. These discs contain all types of audio, including radio snippets, early jazz music, and amusement park recordings.

“Libraries, in general, are very focused on books and paper formats,” Wood said. “We’re getting to a point where we’ve had to argue less about the importance of sound recordings, and that allows us to get more traction to invest resources in digitizing them.”

Alfred Mapleson said he was just happy to put his family heritage to good use. The cylinders were formerly part of the Mapleson Music Library, a family business that rented sheet music, among other things, to performers. But the company was liquidated in the mid-1990s, and the bottles have sat untouched in her mother’s basement ever since.

“There is a significant obligation to history that must be maintained,” he said. “We don’t want them to remain in our possession, where they could be lost or damaged.” He ruled out selling them to a private collector, where they might find no public use: “It’s not something that would sit well with my family.”

His great-grandfather’s archives had given him food for thought. His wife had scoured the journals, he said, and pointed out similarities in behavior between living family members and their ancestors. He noted, with some admiration, how much the voice of his grandfather – the one wishing Merry Christmas – sounded like the voices of his own children. But it was time to hand it all over, and he said he had no interest in repossessing the materials once the library finished digitizing everything.

“It’s in better hands at the New York Public Library,” he says. The recordings were from the Metropolitan Opera; now they would reside nearby forever. “Let’s keep it in New York, because that’s where it all happened. I like that idea.”


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