by Dan Cohen
Drawing of the set for John Taverner's opera Thérèse, designed by Alan Barlow, 1979, via the Victoria and Albert Museum's opera exhibit.
What would you save from 2020 to inform future generations about what we are going through? A number of formal and informal collecting projects have launched, and are worth tracking.
A Journal of the Plague Year: An Archive of COVID-19 uses the Omeka platform to accession and preserve text, images, audio, and video from the general public. (We are participating in this global effort at Northeastern University.) There are over a thousand highly diverse items in the rapidly growing collection:
Focusing on professional photographers and journalists, the COVID-19 Archive from Public Source already has numerous striking images that capture our current existence.
If you are looking for an impressive indoor craft project with an exceedingly high degree of difficulty, here's a short video on how to create a 3-D 18th-century mechanical theater. (via the Victoria and Albert opera exhibit)
In HI19 I talked about open access to museum and archival collections, but another nice—albeit temporary—open access initiative right now involves academic journals opening their doors. Since I'm at a university, I generally have access to many of these journals, but I've been using this full open access window to sample journals I don't normally read, and some who subscribe to this newsletter may not have regular access to these journals at all.
The University of California Press has done a particularly good job opening access to, and promoting, their journals, many of which could easily have a much broader audience if they weren't considered "academic." I've been enjoying the back issues of the Journal of Popular Music Studies, including a wonderful article by Megan Lavengood, "What Makes It Sound '80s?," on the strikingly similar sounds found in many 1980s pop hits.
Lavengood's convincing answer: the default settings on the inexpensive Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, which you can instantly recognize by listening to the short samples she includes in her article. Especially important to the pop music of the 80s was the DX7's electronic piano preset, called E. PIANO 1.
E. PIANO 1, the DX7’s vaguely Fender-Rhodes-like electric piano sound, was used in many iconic ’80s ballads beginning soon after the DX7’s release, such as “Careless Whisper” by George Michael, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” by Tina Turner, and “Hard Habit to Break” by Chicago, all three of which were released in 1984. If one were to listen to each of the #1 hit singles on the Billboard charts in 1986, the saturation of E. PIANO 1 in the charts in this year in particular would be conspicuous. In 1986, E. PIANO 1 is present in 39% of the Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit singles, 40% of the country #1 singles, and a staggering 61% of the R&B hit singles. Even in 1990, rather late in the life cycle of the DX7, E. PIANO 1 was still heard at the top of the charts in Michael Bolton’s “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” which reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in January of 1990 and #3 in the UK one month later. There are other presets that an average consumer of 1980s music might be able to recall: BASS 1 mimics a funky slap bass, and frequently opens a track with an aggressive riff, as in “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins (1986); the DX7 flute sounds, such as FLUTE 1, CALIOPE (sic), and VOICE 1 can be heard across Tina Turner’s Private Dancer album. Many DX7 presets quickly became ubiquitous in the music industry, but none more so than E. PIANO 1.
I just love how these famous, lavishly produced records relied at their core on a cheap synth on its default settings. Indeed, once those sounds became part of the fabric of pop music in the 80s, it probably became even harder to use other sounds on the DX7. A nice reminder that with technology, defaults are everything. (And also, that 1984 was the greatest year in the history of pop music.)
If you need some library sounds to help you work from home, the Bodleian Library helpfully provides the dulcet page-turning tones of four of their reading rooms as background noise. (via Katharina Simon and Pete Clarke)
On this week's What's New podcast from the Northeastern University Library, I talk with Steve Flynn, the director of the Global Resilience Institute, who studies how societies come back from devastating disasters—man-made or natural. Steve is a long-term optimist, although realistic about what is currently happening. Critically, he noted:
One thing we know about disasters is that they remind us why it's so important we're social beings. The only way we are really successful in dealing with risk and hazard is when we come together. If we fail to do that, we put ourselves at far greater risk and far greater jeopardy.
Steve sees some positive social developments to build on. If you need a little reassurance right now, please give "The Road Back to Normal" a listen.
I also wholeheartedly agree with Steve that we all need to stop using the phrase "social distancing," and use "physical distancing" and "social cohesion" instead.
"Time," IBM Poster, 1981. Image via Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.