Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Accidental Archivist: a Ramble

By first week of August it became clear to me that I would no longer be teaching music appreciation at Lake Land College. The single course that I had left did not have enough students to warrant the meagre salary that I made as an adjunct. I could see that this lack of interest in music appreciation was not going to turn around, so I took the plunge and purged my file cabinet of music appreciation course notes. I thought it would be nice to use the space for something useful.

On August 9th I got the call about my brother's accident, and on the 10th Michael and I found ourselves in Horse Cave Kentucky emptying my mother's belongings and Marshall's belongings into our car. Marshall's mission was to remove our mother's paintings and family stuff from her apartment so that when the time comes to sell it we won't have to worry about getting things out in a hurry. Marshall did this all with our mother's blessing (she is in a care facility), and he told her that he wanted to arrange for her paintings to be exhibited. My thought was to use the photographs our mother took of her work (which she had previously given to Marshall) to make a blog.

Perhaps I inherited the gene for archiving from my mother. Before she lost her vision her files were beautifully organized. After she lost her vision all that organization was worthless. She is proud of her work as an artist, and took pains to preserve it while she could. In the set of slides she gave Marshall was also the work that she had sold.

I spent the endless days of Marshall's stay in Intensive Care going through letters and photos, and I distributed photos digitally to family members. I also went through Marshall's laptop and extracted PDF files from his Sibelius files, which I put into the IMSLP. It is oddly ironic (perhaps the height of irony, considering the circumstances) that in July a violist friend who is getting her doctorate in library science asked me about the idea of doing her dissertation on my music. I suggested that it might be more interesting to do something about our family, and I told her about Marshall's claim to being the second most prolific writer of viola music (Rolla is the first). Then there's my father; I'm always interested in getting people who don't know him to realize what a great player and musical thinker he is. My friend changed her plan, and opted instead for an admirable project concerning the viola music that people had written for Emanuel Vardi.

I became Marshall's archivist, at least for the music that was available to me digitally. I hope that some real archivists will take care of his manuscripts and make them available as PDF files in the IMSLP.

I am in the process of archiving my mother's work. I have photographed the paintings Marshall had in the van he was driving, along with paintings that we had hanging on our walls (which I have replaced with paintings of hers that I hadn't seen before). You can see all her work here. Some of her paintings are really nice, but all of them show her love of painting, and I enjoy seeing that love. I am grateful that I am "wired" to derive feelings of love from works of art and pieces of music. Archiving and sharing our mother's work has helped me through a lot of grief.

Tonight I take the overnight train to Memphis for Marshall's memorial service, and I will be bringing back more family stuff, including that box of slides of all my mother's work, which I will digitize and add to her blog.

Where am I in all of this? For more than a month I have felt like the center of a wheel, constantly reaching out in all directions. It has helped in some ways to expend my energy outward during this time of fresh grief, but ultimately it is emotionally unhealthy for a creative person to get into the habit of living through others. Unlike a real archivist, the work of archiving does not give me pleasure.

One thing has lead to another in our household, and I have been using the time I would be preparing classes and teaching to do some serious house cleaning (yes, it is a bit obsessive). The other day I spied a box in one closet marked "Elaine's Pre-1988 Files." The box contained an accordion file full of letters from friends I corresponded with during my years in Austria, Hong Kong, Boston, and my first years here in Illinois. There were hundreds of letters. I didn't organize them, but I did store them safely in high-quality plastic. There were other pieces of a life I hadn't thought about in a long time in that box as well.

Now I have finally started organizing my music. I did it once, back in 1985 when we moved to Illinois. I made some wooden window boxes with file hangers in them, and that's where I kept my music. A few years later we bought a nice big legal-sized file cabinet, and I blindly transferred those files to the cabinet. After I knew I would no longer be practicing my flute music (which I gave away), I organized my violin music in that file cabinet, but during the past 20 years my music has migrated into various camps all over the house. My father's music was still in the plastic crates I used to move it from Newton to Illinois. Too much of my music sat everywhere, and in various stages of disorder.

I love thinking about the fact that one of these days it will no longer be in disorder. I love the fact that once this is over I will have a clear path to get on with my real work, cleaning up intonation and articulation, and getting rid of wrong notes.

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