Reel Music Review: The 78 Project Movie (2014, dir. Alex Steyermark)

The-78-Project-presto-Thumbnail2-w-LFF-1024x576Review by William Ham

The 78 Project, the web series kicked off in 2011 by director Alex Steyermark and producer Lavinia Jones Wright and Kickstarted into feature-length form, is a nifty homage to Alan Lomax, the legendary folklorist and ethnomusicologist who sought to preserving the folk tales and folk songs indigenous to every region of America. Steyermark and Wright pay tribute to Lomax’s methods, lugging a set-up identical to what Lomax used to capture his subjects’ songs and stories – an authentic 1930s microphone, a 10-inch black lacquer disk, and a Presto direct-to-disc recorder, a remarkable early piece of purely portable recording equipment.They meet their subject—which include a range of musical luminaries from John Doe to Victoria Williams to John C. Reilly—let them choose the place they’d like to play, and favor us with a song that could have been played by one of Lomax’ artists, with very rigid strictures enforced by the Presto: they have a limit of three minutes (the standard capacity of a 78) and a single take to get the whole thing down—no do-overs possible because the Presto’s stylus is embedding the music directly onto the disc.

The songs are invariably lovely, the performances strong and true, and, in most cases, we get the chance to sit with the artist as they listen to the lacquer they’ve captured. In between songs, we get to see where all this came from with visits to the Library of Congress’ Archive room joined by Todd Harvey, the current curator of the Lomax Collection, who can shine the light on all corners of the original process.

There are times that you wonder whether The 78 Project Movie exists as a sort of stick with which Steyermark and Wright intend to beat down our current age of digital media in the name of “authenticity,” that music-snob canard that the Greenwich Village crowd of the early ’60s offered up as a smug riposte to rock ‘n’ roll. But, of course, this project only exists because of the easy accessibility of web-based media and compact portable cameras – the means by which an entire, beautiful-looking motion picture can be constructed by only two people.

Then you consider that these Prestos were state of the art in Lomax’s day, and you may start peeling away the layers of history at work here, layers that will continue to accrue to undertakings of this sort for as long as they exist. You may also begin to consider the impermanence of the digital media. Compare the scratched up five-year-old CD-R you’ve laid some irreplaceable piece of work onto that skips and sputters in your laptop with those 80-year-old acetates that remain perfectly playable today. Listen to the recordings being played back of the songs we’ve just heard in full, and note how the lower fidelity and the surface noise transforms them, presenting them at a remove that seems so much farther away than the few seconds separating recording and playback.

If you’re struck by the way that medium changes what we’ve experienced, consider if someone stumbles upon one of these discs some record fair with no idea who recorded it or when? What would they hear and what would they assume it tells them? Where does that leave our understanding, and what will happen when an artifact like this film turns up 80 years from now? What would they assume about our lost moment?

[The 78 Project Movie screens at 2:15pm on Oct 12 at Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park; click here for tickets]

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