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Lasting Lacquer

Today—April 30, 2014—marks the 98th birthday of renowned American conductor Robert Shaw. Since this notable event also happens to fall in the middle of American Library Association (ALA) Preservation Week (April 27–May 3), we’d like to honor both occasions by sharing the news of Carnegie Hall’s participation in an innovative new project aimed at preserving fragile historical sound recordings, to which the Carnegie Hall Archives contributed an early recording that featured Robert Shaw on the Carnegie Hall Recording Company label.

Shaw Hindemith 1946

Robert Shaw and Paul Hindemith with the original score of When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd taken in 1946.
Photo Credit: Photo 196, MSS 86, the Robert Shaw Papers, Gilmore Music Library, Yale University.

As the Hall nears the close of its 123rd season, the Archives is wrapping up year two of our multi-year Digital Archives Project. Last year, we shipped 833 video recordings and 1,294 audio recordings to The MediaPreserve, an audiovisual reformatting laboratory located near Pittsburgh. These materials included a collection of 38 lacquer discs that date mostly from the 1940s and early 1950s. A relatively fragile media once used for recording radio broadcasts, lacquer discs consist of an aluminum core coated with a thin layer of black lacquer, which can dry out and crack over time, making the recordings unplayable. Although Carnegie Hall’s lacquer discs were in fairly good shape, some were showing signs of deterioration, making them top-priority candidates for digitization.

At about the same time that these discs were being digitized at The MediaPreserve using a standard playback method on carefully calibrated turntables, Carnegie Hall was asked by the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) to participate in a state-of-the-art sound preservation project. NEDCC has partnered with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, developers of IRENE/3D, a system that uses digital imaging to safely retrieve sound from historical recordings made on discs and cylinders without endangering the original carriers. They hope to develop an economically viable version of IRENE/3D that could move the technology out of the laboratory and into wider use by libraries, archives, and museums with collections of fragile historical recordings. IRENE/3D creates a high-resolution digital image—essentially a map—of a disc or cylinder without touching the object’s surface. NEDCC and Carnegie Hall realized that the Hall’s lacquer discs made perfect test materials for IRENE/3D; since they had already been digitized using regular technology, those digital files could be used for a side-by-side comparison with transfers made using IRENE.

One of the more significant items among Carnegie Hall’s lacquer disc collection is a June 30, 1946, recording by the Carnegie Hall Recording Company of Shaw conducting the CBS Symphony, chorus, and soloists in a performance of Paul Hindemith’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Hindemith’s work, commissioned by Shaw, sets the complete text of Walt Whitman's poem to music. The world premiere of the piece had taken place just a few weeks earlier on May 14, 1946, at New York City Center with Shaw conducting the Collegiate Chorale.

The Carnegie Hall Recording Company is one of the most interesting and elusive aspects of Carnegie Hall's history. It was founded by Len Frank in the 1930s in Carnegie Hall Studio 305-6. Frank had access to CBS microphones hanging in Carnegie Hall that were used for radio broadcasts from which he recorded various artists performing at the Hall. We believe he obtained access to the microphones through his associations with CBS or Bell Telephone Laboratories. There was no official agreement with Carnegie Hall nor did Carnegie Hall receive payment for the recordings, and to date nothing in writing has been located that explains in full the company or its relationship to the Hall. The Carnegie Hall Recording Company studio at Carnegie Hall existed from the 1930s until 1960.

Watch this 1956 documentary on how a lacquer disc is made.

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