Counting the Digits

The National Library has taken on an ambitious project of digitizing Jewish and Israeli music to remain accessible for years to come.

national library 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
national library 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Researchers, musicians and plain old music fans will be gaining user-friendly access to a veritable treasure trove of material in the not-too-distant future.
The guardian of said musical gems is the National Library in Jerusalem, which is in the middle of an extensive digitization project, largely funded by the Legacy Heritage Fund. In the state-of-the-art facility that is the centerpiece of the project, the Bella and Harry Wexner Libraries of Sound and Song, will ultimately incorporate some 30,000 hours of music sourced from all manner of formats, covering around eight decades of recording enterprise. The digitized material will be made available to interested parties the world over via the project website.
When the digitization work is complete – sometime toward the end of 2012 – the website will store and offer an unprecedented range of Jewish and other music from this neck of the woods, with plenty of associated material and links to generically relevant topics.
“We have one of the finest and largest collections of Jew-ish music and Israeli music in the world,” states National Library director Oren Weinberg. “That applies to all genres and styles.”
According to Weinberg, the library obtains important musical material through a variety of channels: “We receive bequests from people whose parents or grandparents have died, and they have come across a box or two of LPs, reel-toreel tapes or music in other older formats, and they offer them to us.”
But the library doesn’t just wait for the music to arrive on a silver platter.
“We are proactive in our work,” says Weinberg. “The special thing here is that we initiate documentation work. We go out and make field recordings of Jewish music, Arabic music, Beduin music and Circassian music. We take in music from all areas of our society.”
Some of the artists whose work ends up at the library are approached by the staff of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Jewish Musical Research, and some are brought to the library to record at its studios.
It seems that there are no holds barred here and that the library will take almost anything it considers to be genuine and representative of some area of local culture.
“It can be hassidic music or cantorial music or anything that is Jewish, or that comes from here,” Weinberg adds.
In fact, it doesn’t even have to be music, and the documentation event doesn’t have to be premeditated.
“The other day we discovered there was an old-style badhan [entertainer] from the US in Israel,” says Dr. Gila Flam, who heads the National Library Music Department and the Legacy Heritage Fund project.
“An employee of the library just happened to be at a wedding where the badhan performed. She told us about it, and we brought him to our studio the next day and recorded him just before he returned home. Badhanut is a dying art, so this was a rare opportunity, and we grabbed it with both hands.”
Weinberg says that the digitization project has a twofold objective. “One is preservation, and the other is making the material accessible to the general public. Music media formats are very delicate – cassette tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, wax recordings, recordings made on metal discs and even on X-ray discs – all these weird and wonderful formats are stored here, and are sensitive and likely to end up being unusable.
We are aiming to transfer the music to formats that can be maintained over time, and can be periodically updated in order to stay abreast of technological developments.
That will also help us to offer the material to the public in an easy-to-use way.”
Not all the material that will be eventually stored on the website will be available to users all over the global village.
“There is the matter of authorization and copyright,” explains Weinberg. “If we have legal authorization and there are no copyright issues, the music will be readily available on the website. In other cases, we will only offer samples of each work, and here in the building, users will be able to listen to anything they want.”
The library's musical content is used by all kinds of people, and for a variety of reasons.
“The earliest material we have here, of researchers who came to this part of the world from Europe and left the material here, dates from the end of the 1920s,” says Flam, adding that some of the researchers had “ulterior motives.”
“The first area of interest was eastern music, including Arabic and Beduin music. The researchers were looking for the roots of the music that came from the Temple,” she says. “They were very interested in discovering what the music from the Temple sounded like.”
Besides getting to see some of the musical- historical gems hidden away in the music library and sound archives, I enjoyed a sneak preview of things to come on the website. Weinberg launched a page from the embryonic database, and the room was immediately infused with the evocative sounds of hassidic chanting. A list of songs appeared on the left side of the screen designed to run as a sequential playlist. The middle European vibes were replaced by more staccato singing from Yemen – the rudimentary repetitious “lyrics” of “alef, bet, gimmel, daled, heh, vav,” presumably originally serving as an entertaining form of education.
Site users will be able to surf to a catalog with details of each song or tune, including the artists involved, the history of the work, and referral to other renditions.
There will also be an abundance of associative items to lead the surfer through a potpourri of material from all sorts of cultures and epochs.
Despite the plethora of musical material available in today’s cybernet global village, Weinberg believes the new digitized library service will offer considerable added value: “There are lots of things on the Internet now, some open and others not, but the extent and strength of our collection, and the way the material is presented, are far more meaningful. And there will be links to archival material.”
Serious researchers and professional musicians will find plenty to interest them in the new service. “There will be links to sheet music, letters and other historical documents,” Weinberg points out, adding that the music at the library is not only consigned to the ethereal domain of the database, but is also performed at the institution.
“We hold events based on the collections we have here, in order to expose them to the public,” he says. “We also organize multidisciplinary seminars, lectures and other seminars for serious researchers from all sorts of fields, all based on the collections and materials we house here.”
The archive-based concerts are often held to mark some milestone or other, and to break new ground.
“This year, for instance, is the year of [20th-century German-born Israeli composer Paul] Ben-Haim,” explains Flam.
“We asked a string quintet to perform, here, a quintet by Ben-Haim that has never been performed in public before.
The work was written by Ben-Haim in 1929, before he came to Palestine. We try to revive forgotten compositions.”
Flam notes that, as a national institution, the library enjoys the rare privilege of being able to put material out there, free of commercial or financial considerations.
“We don’t compete with commercial enterprises. We can, for example, put on an evening of music by [composerlyricist] Moshe Wilensky and use 10 of his songs which almost no one has ever heard before, which were never released on a record or performed in a concert.”
The Wexner Libraries archives also contain some priceless materials recorded in fleeting windows of opportunity, before external influences left their imprint on the authenticity of the source music.
“We have, for example, recordings of Beduin singing in the West Bank, in 1967, made by two researchers straight after the Six Day War. And we have recordings of Yemenite songs performed by Yemenite Jews straight after they landed in Israel in 1950. We also have recordings of Ethiopian kessim [spiritual leaders] before they were taken to be taught Israeli-style rabbinical studies.
We have things here you cannot find anywhere else,” says Flam.
The database will also be constantly updated, to reflect contemporary sounds and musical directions here.
“We try to keep up with the new things as they come out,” says Flam.
The upcoming service will also have a flavor-of-the-month slot. “We will take composers whose work is not so well known, or musical phenomena that don’t normally come to the public’s attention, and we will focus on them on the website for a while,” explains Weinberg.
“In that way, we can put the spotlight on more marginal things that would otherwise escape the notice of music fans and researchers.”
That will help to unearth little-known works and artists, and may even pave the way to more wide-reaching media exposure.
Flam says it is a healthy two-way street, with the library taking little used materials from the radio archives, often recorded in antiquated formats, and converting them to a more user-friendly medium. “We work closely with the Voice of Israel. If, for example, I need some classical music work we haven’t got here, I’ll get the recording from the radio and digitize it here.”
That is a particularly valuable exercise given the poor financial condition of the state radio service. “They [at the Voice of Israel] are very happy to work with us on this,” Flam continues. “After we digitize a recording, we make it available here, and they do the same at the radio.”
The digital conversion work is being carried out in-house and also via an outside operator. As Flam and I arrive at the National Phonotheque section of the National Sound Archives (NSA) we pass by a pallet groaning under the weight of several dozen large blue plastic crates.
“These are about to be shipped to the outside studio for digitizing,” explains Flam. “We’ve already reformatted about 6,000 hours of music, so we still have some way to go.”
After the digitizing work is complete, there will still be plenty for Weinberg, Flam and their cohorts to do before the website is fully up and running.
“The digitizing stage should be complete by mid-2012,” says Weinberg, “and then we start the process of uploading, adding descriptive information, segmenting the data and cataloguing, especially for non-commercial material, ethnomusic material.”
Stepping into the inner sanctum of the NSA, I feel like a child in a candy store. The old-fashioned premises are loaded with filing cabinets and shelving, with museum-piece musical appliances lying around. The latter include gargantuan reel-to-reel tape recorders, record players and an LP cleaning apparatus, which looks like a standard record player with some added contraptions.
“These contain liquids which are sprayed onto the vinyl,” explains Flam, “and this has a brush which gets rid of all the dirt, including from inside the grooves.”
Ruti Freed is a volunteer at the NSA, after working there as a salaried employee for several decades.
“We have data from around 1950,” she says, proudly opening one of the polished wooden filing cabinet drawers.
“There are all sorts of details of the music, including the name of the piece, the composer, the artist or artists who performed it, and we sometimes have to add the length of each track.”
“The staff here are very devoted,” beams Flam, “and they are very proactive in finding and recording all sorts of music – in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, you name it. Everyone who works here wants this very important work to continue.
They all caught the bug of collecting ethnographic material. If you don’t collect it now, who knows whether it will still be around tomorrow? It’s almost an emergency situation.”
According to Freed, “there is a strong tradition of music within the Jerusalem Iraqi community. We had a researcher who, with a team of sound technicians, spent a whole year recording all the Iraqi bakashot [liturgical material] at the Mount Zion Synagogue in the 1950s. Since then, two of the cantors have died. We don’t record on Shabbat, so they performed the bakashot on Thursdays, just for us. The style of singing has already changed since the 1950s, so that is a very important piece of documentation.”
However, some musical traditions do slip through the NSA net.
“There are some which have disappeared,” Freed continues, “like liturgical material of Egyptian and Libyan Jews. I feel this is really sacred work.”
Down one floor in the Music Library, I was allowed into the heavily air-conditioned archive room, where I was able to leaf through books of sheet music and other sizable tomes from the 19th and early 20th centuries, from countries like France, Germany and Russia. Many of these are precious remnants of communities that no longer exist, largely as a result of the Holocaust, with members having perished or escaped to the US, Britain or Israel.
“We have books, sheet music and recordings,” says Flam. “We have commercial recordings and music on magnetic media from the 1950s.”
Much of the latter was collected and documented by New York-based businessman Jacob Michael, who employed a team of people to document music and to build an enormous collection of books and manuscripts. These he brought to Israel in the early days of the music department, in 1965. In 1968, the recorded part of the collection was sent from New York to Jerusalem. It includes commercial records of Jewish music and tapes of rare recordings, as well as Jewish broadcasting material. The Michael collection encompasses 3,000 records and 480 tapes, especially of Yiddish radio material from the 1950s and ’60s.
“Jacob Michael was born in Germany, but he got out in time, so he was able to bring out all this priceless musical material to New York and then send it here,” notes Flam. “It is thanks to him that music from different places in Europe, like Bucharest and Moscow, from the 1930s and 1940s, survived while most of the people who performed and listened to the music at the time did not survive the Holocaust.”
The music manuscripts contain precise instructions regarding the instrumentation and required vocal ornamentation.
The idea is to scan much of the printed material and place it on the website. That will offer surfers valuable information and help them cross-reference the data, and even allow a glimpse of some of the artistic LP label designs of yesteryear.
Once up and running, the joint Legacy Heritage Fund and National Library music site will offer the world a wealth of aural and visual delights including, wherever possible, video clips of the artists in question.
“People keep bringing us music on old crumbling formats,” says Flam. “We do our best to preserve as we can because it is all so precious.”