September 2, 2014

NYPL Crowdsources Interpretations of John Cage

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With works including the 1952 composition 4’33”—which calls for a performer to do nothing for the time specified by the title while the audience listens to ambient sounds—John Cage became one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century.

This month, the New York Public Library (NYPL) is celebrating the centennial of Cage’s birthday with a live event on September 27 and the publication of John Cage’s Prepared Piano, a new edition of their Point iBook periodical series. The evening event also offered NYPL an opportunity to highlight the ongoing development of John Cage Unbound: A Living Archive, a new website that showcases the John Cage manuscript collection housed at NYPL’s Library for the Performing Arts, as well as videos in which professional musicians, students, and others explain how they prepare and perform works by Cage.

The unconventional nature of Cage’s music and manuscripts lent itself to the development of this web portal, explained Jonathan Hiam, head of the Library for the Performing Arts’ American Music Collection.

“The manuscripts often don’t look like traditional musical scores,” Hiam said. “So we in the music division suggested ‘wouldn’t it be neat if we had some kind of resource where performers could inform researchers how they went about preparing these works, how they understood the works.’”

With these videos, NYPL was interested in capturing “not necessarily a performance of each work as concert footage,” Hiam explained. “We were also trying to capture as much of the preparation of the work as possible. That was the impetus for this site.”

Creating a website that blended these crowdsourced videos with digital copies of the library’s Cage collection—including music manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera, such as a receipt from a hardware store which shows materials Cage purchased to modify a piano—took “a little bit of time to get off the ground,” noted James Murdock, NYPL director of Multimedia Content. The concept began developing about a year and a half ago, and the site was soft-launched this spring.

“That’s one thing that the web is really good for—doing that kind of crowdsourcing work, and putting collections items in the hands of as many people as possible,” Murdock said.

Collecting Content

To seed the site, NYPL began by talking to researchers who were the heaviest users of the Cage collection.

“People who come in to use the Cage material are the frontline source,” Hiam said. “Many of those folks are also performers, composers, who have a lot of colleagues who would be interested in this. That was a good place to start shopping the ideas around, even soliciting things.”

In order to provide future contributors with a model for these videos, NYPL also reached out to musicians that had a reputation within the contemporary classical music community, and produced a few videos themselves with performers such as Margaret Leng Tan. In her video, Leng Tan explains how she studied with Cage and how she learned to prepare a piano, Murdock said.

NYPL later targeted performing groups, students, and professors in higher education music programs, and news about the site has since spread mostly by word of mouth.

During this time, NYPL’s vision for the site has expanded, Hiam said. “Ultimately, I think this will serve as a portal to John Cage resources at the NYPL.  I think the initial vision, at least from the music division standpoint, was that it would be a supplemental resource that we would be able to point to from our own catalog and from more traditional ways of introducing people to the Cage material. But as it’s shaping up, it certainly seems like a good place to use as a kind of entry point for Cage research.”

This creates a unique set of concerns. If the site will be maintained for this purpose long term, NYPL will need to ensure the stability of user-submitted content, much of which consists of links to videos posted on outside services, such as Youtube or Vimeo.

“Certainly for the materials that we’ve produced, where we have the footage, we can preserve more traditionally,” Hiam said. “But many of these other videos, for example, we will need to start thinking about how to keep a record of them. Whether or not the video will stay there forever, I don’t know, but [we will need] to keep an archival record of ‘this is what was there, here’s who was in it,’ and whatnot.”

As the site develops, the Library for the Performing Arts will likely come up with a policy regarding the collection and curation of user-submitted videos “that we think are most valuable” to record and keep as hard-copies on site.

Live Promotion

At the September 27 event, Leng Tan performed three of Cage’s works and then hosted an interactive discussion with Hiam and others. They presented a broad introduction to the project, and offered practical information about how to participate.

The site may also get a boost from the recently published iBook, the third in the NYPL’s new Point series, which was begun last year in Murdock’s Multimedia Content division.

“Cage’s work sort of lends itself to different formats,” Murdock said.  “And what’s really appealing about the iBook format is that it allows you to present things digitally—collections items, whether it’s pages out of a manuscript or photographs or things of that nature—But it also does allow you to bring in video…you can combine different kinds of media all in one format.”

Hiam noted that the grassroots nature of the project was due, in part, to the library’s desire to recognize the Cage centennial with something unique and special, despite facing resource constraints.

“It was important to create a project that was not going to be resource intensive at first,” he said, so a willingness to be flexible also became important. “In the spirit of John Cage, [we thought] let’s be very open about where this project is going to go. We had a pretty good idea of what we were hoping to accomplish, but we wanted to stay very open-minded about what we would present to the public.  We went into it with a very open palette, but I think we were rewarded for that. It really did develop as we went.”

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Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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