To kick off a new year it seems fitting to look back and take stock of what we’ve done. This blog launched in 2021, as did the Music Alaska survey that will provide a clearer picture of who Alaskan musicians are, what we do, and why we matter. We heard from many of you in an end-of-the-year virtual get-together about the projects that have kept you busy, as well as the time you’ve taken to rest and recharge.
One of the updates we heard during that get-together came from a fixture of the Alaska music community, Kurt Riemann. Kurt founded the Alaska Music Archive–a monumental effort to collect all the music that has ever been recorded in Alaska. What better way to look back and move forward than to hear from Kurt about the Alaska Music Archives? Recording and archiving are, after all, primary means of preserving our creative projects and learning from them as we pursue new directions.
I got in touch with Kurt about his archive project last spring when I stumbled across a collection of Alaska Native songs recorded by John Coray near Tanalian Point. The entire collection was recorded in situ in the 1950s with remarkably high fidelity, given the state of field recording technology at the time and the remoteness of the location. The collection was compiled by John’s son, Craig Coray, and is titled They sing the songs of many peoples, for those who are interested. It was my search for an analysis of this collection and for similar field recordings of Alaska Native songs that led me to Kurt.
Although Kurt has a handful of similar recordings, Alaska Native songs aren’t a large percentage of his archive. Of the more than 10,000 recordings in his stacks, several thousand are classical, dating back to the 1950s and continuing through today. The earliest recordings date back to the 1940s, with shifts in the musical scene itself audible as early as the 1980s.
The archive is a treasure trove for listeners, musicians, and historians, which validates the colossal effort of compiling such a collection. Here’s how the idea was born in Kurt’s words:
“It all started about 10 years ago when I wanted to put everything I had ever recorded at Surreal Studios into one place. I started looking for all of the albums I had produced, because I know I have had a hand in over 800 of them. So it started literally in an attic and went through all forms of albums, tapes, CDs, DATs and videos, looking for copies of master tapes. While I was looking for music I was familiar with, I ended up expanding into finding all of the hundreds of albums that had been done outside of Surreal Studios.”
At present, Kurt is concerned about running out of time to build the archive before recordings are destroyed. As listeners trade in their hard copies for subscription streaming services, some great Alaska music that exists only in hard copy will be discarded and lost forever. The loss of the music itself would be tragic, and with it we would lose information about the Alaska music scene. Band members change out, bands come and go, styles shift, and recordings provide evidence of those changes.
Fortunately, Kurt has won funding that buys him time to invest in the Alaska Music Archive. He has also formed community partnerships that will be important as the archive develops. KNBA will be broadcasting Kurt’s Alaska Music Podcast as the Alaska Music Show on Thursday nights at 9 PM starting in February. Furthermore, the University of Alaska will host the entire archive in the future, which will extend the audience for music recorded in Alaska by putting it before an educational community.
With broader publicity comes the possibility of more musical contributions to the archives and a greater awareness of our own history. Alaska is a place music comes from, and Kurt is among those we can thank for proof of the fact.
Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange and a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient.