UCSB Library Launches Early Recordings Initiative with Public Event Featuring Live Performance of 1890s Music

At 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 7, the UC Santa Barbara Library will host a free public event reviving music from the 1890s with a live performance by Hancock’s California Orchestra in celebration of the launch of the Library’s Early Recordings Initiative (ERI).

Attendees will have the rare opportunity to witness a live cylinder recording demonstration and pop-up exhibit of late 19th century phonographs and wax cylinders. Guests can register to attend either in person or via Zoom.

The songs selected for performance were originally recorded on wax audio cylinders more than 120 years ago and will now be performed by musician and historian Colin Hancock and a 5-piece orchestra.

Hancock is a Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalist, historian, and recording engineer based in New York City who focuses on music and recording technology from the pre-microphone acoustic era (pre-1925).

First invented by Edison in 1877 and made of tinfoil, then commercialized as wax cylinders about the size of a soda can, cylinders were the earliest recording medium. The recordings are fragile and the majority of them have been lost due to their sensitivity to humidity and poor handling over the years.

This is why it is critical for institutions like UCSB Library to manage, store, and curate the ones that remain so this era of history is not lost forever.

UCSB Library has the most extensive collection of early recordings on the West Coast and began recording and digitizing its Cylinder Audio Archive in 2002. The archive has grown to become the largest online collection of downloadable historic sound recordings thanks to its staff who work in the Henri Temianka Audio Preservation Lab, housed in UCSB Library Special Research Collections.

The effort, led by Performing Arts Curator David Seubert, caught the attention of L.A.-based cylinder collector John Levin, who recently established the Early Recordings Initiative at the UCSB Library. It is the first public/private partnership to promote the preservation, access, understanding, and appreciation of pre-1903 sound recordings.

The ERI is based in the Performing Arts Collection at the UCSB Library and is anchored by the John Levin Early Recordings Fund. As part of the ERI, the Library will eventually receive portions of The John Levin Collection, featuring his extensive collection of rare, pre-1903 cylinder recordings along with Levin’s research on content and provenance.

The UCSB Library supports more than 25,000 students, over 1,000 faculty, and many visiting scholars and researchers. For more information, visit www.library.ucsb.edu or call (805) 893-2478. To make a donation, contact Heather Silva at heathersilva@ucsb.edu or (805) 893-5732.

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