2022 May 02—Folk Music Data, Or, The Celestial Monochord and the Global Jukebox

the computational imaginations of harry smith and alan lomax @ the getty research institute, los angeles.

Harry Smith.
Alan Lomax.

“It’s a way of programming the mind,” the artist, collector, and compiler of the 1952 Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music Harry Smith once remarked of his alchemical methods for rearranging cultural ephemera into patterned forms. Even though Smith did not use a computer, he believed his technique turned material into, as he put it, “a punch card of a sort” for the mind to process. The relationship of Smith’s artistic practice to computation and information theory during the 1950s and 60s invites more attention than it has previously been given. Another figure from the folk music world, the folklorist Alan Lomax, provides a valuable comparison to Smith. Working in roughly the same time period as Smith, Lomax actually did use computers extensively in his folk music research when he embarked on a multi-decade project beginning in the late 1950s through which he sought to categorize and analyze global song performance styles statistically. Smith imagined “programming the mind” as if it were a punch card. Lomax quite literally fed punch cards through an IBM mainframe to process the data of folk song for what he called his “cantometric” system. How each figure investigated folk music as data is suggestive of a “computational imagination” that spread far beyond the emergent computer industry itself in the United States during the years after World War II. Moreover, the quandaries they faced in trying to handle music as fragmented bits (and bytes) of data resonate with vexing contemporary dilemmas of treating culture and human expression computationally. From issues of race, class, gender, and region to the question of how to approach the technological sublime when it comes to large scales of data and cultural complexity, Smith and Lomax offer us ways of better understanding both the postwar era and today’s digital era.

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