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Feature Article by Peter Stokely

Exploring Fanfare, from Archlute to Zheng
Introducing the Fanfare Web Archive

Every Serious Collector has at some point noticed that Fanfare is not merely a magazine. It is an experience. The traditional Fanfare experience has two basic phases. The first is triggered by the arrival of a new issue, or possibly, more recently, by the posting of new, pre-publication articles on the Web site. We are then likely to enter a period of deep immersion, during which we neglect family, friends, pets, and household chores. This phase can be expensive, but is at least explicable. There are new things out there, and we may need to buy them. What could be simpler? The second phase is harder to explain. It begins when we place a just-read issue alongside a stately procession of companions upon what is now a very long shelf. For some reason, we Serious Collectors never throw back issues away. Our loved ones, perhaps coveting the shelf, perhaps genuinely curious, ask why. We try to answer. We’ll need them some day. New recordings are great, but a lot of the best—most necessary—recordings are not new at all. We go on to explain:

The legacy of recorded performances of classical music is vast and rich, indeed one of the 20th century’s finest bequests. Fanfare, at one time or another, has provided distinguished coverage of an impressive proportion of it.

The great recordings have been reviewed many times as they have passed from reissue to reissue.

Even the not-so-great recordings, ones that got dismissive reviews and are now happily extinct, are worth checking out. They often got treatment in Fanfare containing nuggets—sometimes full-blown essays—about the composer, the work, the performers or the times. These are no less valuable today.

Are even the pre-CD volumes still valuable? Of course! Many of the recordings we now can buy in CD budget boxes were historic first recordings in the vinyl era. Fanfare’s coverage of their first appearances lets us appreciate anew the magnitude of these achievements, and, often, the sheer bravery of the musicians and producers who made them possible.

In short, all those Fanfare back issues are a treasure trove! Each is full of lore every Serious Collector wants—needs—to know.

There has been a rub, of course. In practice, finding what one is looking for in that long procession of print volumes usually doesn’t work out very well. The treasures are there, but most are effectively buried treasures, at least to those of us with normal attention spans.

Over a decade ago, at the time of the advent of the World Wide Web, I began to mutter about this. What I need to do, I would mutter, is get a scanner, scan all this in, and put it on a Web site—with a really good set of indices. An electronic Fanfare archive! Now that would be an amazing resource! It was a great dream, and wouldn’t actually go away. Until recently, I was simply too busy to do anything about it.

So things stood until early this past June. That was when I wrote my very first letter to the Editor. It was, in fact, my first letter to any editor. In it, I rashly proposed to do exactly this: build a Fanfare archive for the Web—a comprehensive database that would be easy to search in all sorts of ways that simply weren’t possible with print editions. It would take a long time, probably several years, but I was finally ready to start. Even if nobody else wanted it, I wanted one for myself. I expected my letter, a rather long and rambling one, to be tossed out as crank mail. Instead, the next day, the Editor said, “Do it.”

Now, several months, several-dozen computer programs and hundreds of e-mail messages and ZIP files later, we have something to show Fanfare Readers.

It is a true pleasure to announce that phase I of the Fanfare Web archive is now open for viewing. It is on Fanfare’s regular Web site, www.fanfaremag.com. It contains thousands of articles drawn from the period of time (roughly Volume 26 to the present) of Fanfare’s “electronic era” of document preparation.

Simply loading this many articles onto the Web represents progress of a sort, but doesn’t make the collection particularly useful. We also need fast and easy ways to explore the collection. So an initial set of indices is there, too. There are over a dozen of these. They have been designed with three principles in mind: (1) Searching for something you are trying to find should be easy; (2) Exploring the Archive with no particular goal in mind should be delightful; (3) Nobody should have to spell Janáček.

To make searches powerful, everything has been comprehensively cross-linked. All the Bartók is under Bartók, no matter whether the various articles originally appeared in the alphabetical listings by composer, or in a collection, a feature article, a Want List or in the Hall of Fame. Performers are treated similarly; all the Vienna Philharmonic articles can be found in one place, as can all articles about Rostropovich, as cellist or conductor.

To make exploration a delight, we have constructed indices of a sort you won’t find anywhere else. Each index provides a different portal into the archive. If you wish to explore chronologically, you can do so by issue and department of the magazine. Should you wish to explore cumulatively, there are several places to start. All the Vocal Collections are gathered together, for example, as are all the Want Lists and Hall of Fame entries. If you are interested in specific composers or performers, there are, of course, indices that will take you quickly to them. So far, all this is just what you would expect.

We decided not to stop there. So there is a family of indices whose sole purpose is to open pathways through the collection that even the most Serious of Collectors cannot have possibly traversed before. These we extracted from the fine print of the headnotes that precede each review.

Surely, I cannot be the only Serious Collector who has stared at the very long shelf and wished it could yield answers to questions like these:

Who are singers who have sung Norma, or Wisdom, or the Wood Dove?

Who are instrumentalists who have had solo roles on the archlute, or the xylorimba, or the zheng?

What recordings have parts for trebles or mezzo-sopranos?

Where are all the reviews on ensembles that employ period instruments?

Where can I find all the organists?

What else has this reviewer written, or that label recorded?

The archive invites you to ask all these questions and more. In all cases, the answers are available instantly and painlessly. We have aimed to make the archive easy to use, even for the spelling-impaired. You can find everything in the archive simply by clicking; there is no need (or opportunity) to type Janáček, or anything else.

Fair warning: this is pretty addictive stuff. The archive has just begun, but you can get lost for hours in it already. I can attest that there is plenty here to rouse the Serious Collector beast that lies within each of us. Many are the times I have had to sharply remind myself that I’m supposed to be building this collection, not basking in it.

A final point about the archive design: you can lose yourself in the archive, but you can never get lost. The Master Index appears on every page.

Where do we go from here? Basically, in two dimensions: we expect continually to expand the collection, into the future and the past, and to improve the ways readers can explore it. To expand the collection into the future, we will add new articles as soon as they become available for publication. You will be able to access new reviews in the archive shortly after they appear on the Fanfare Web site, and well in advance of their appearance, in their paper-and-ink incarnation, in your mailbox. To expand the collection into the past, we will shortly launch phase II of the archive project. Scanner in hand, we’ll finally approach that very long shelf containing all those back issues we could never bear to discard because we might need them. We need them now, and their time has finally come.

This is a big job; we’ll likely be at it for at least a year, probably longer. Our general goal is to retrieve all the articles that are likely to be of interest to Fanfare readers today, from as far back in time as is feasible (ideally, all the way back to inception). Some things, like reviews of ancient audio gear, will be omitted, but we’ll try to err on the side of inclusiveness. How easy or hard this will be to achieve in practice will be revealed to us only once we plunge in. As we learn more, we’ll post progress updates on the Web site. Once we learn how to manage the scanned material, we’ll begin adding articles you probably haven’t seen for a long time to the archive, as fast as they can be indexed.

Meanwhile, we also aim to improve the ways we Serious Collectors can explore the archive. Fanfare readers can help us greatly here. The archive is new in two senses. In the trivial sense, it wasn’t there until very recently, and now it is. In a more profound sense, it is new because none of us have ever seen anything like it before. The ability to explore Fanfare from all these different perspectives is truly a new form of the Fanfare experience, revealing things that have long been, if not exactly hidden, certainly widely scattered.

Figuring out how to present all this effectively has required a certain amount of conjecture. We very much want to hear suggestions from Fanfare readers about what works well, what not so well, and how the capabilities could be made more useful and more enjoyable.

If my very first letter to the Editor was a (totally uncharacteristic) rash act, and my first guess at a schedule was a (totally characteristic) study in laughable optimism, the consequences have in fact been a source of surprise and delight—qualities I hope you will discover also.

Some of the surprise is just discovering (or rediscovering) so much good writing about so much good music. Some comes from discovering just how much material there is. We always knew Fanfare packed a lot of information into a very compact package, but the true scope is really quite astonishing.

For example, the archive, even in this early stage of its development, contains reviews covering over 9,000 works by over 2,000 composers. These are performed by over 8,000 different performers. Who knew? That’s at least 1,000 more composers and 7,000 more performers than I had imagined were in there. This has led me to a renewed appreciation of just how much worthy music there is far outside the canon of established masterpieces, how much of it is performed by extraordinary musicians we’ve never heard of but should, and how essential Fanfare is, and has always been, in letting us know about it.

Yet another discovery, based on hundreds of e-mail discussions with Fanfare people, is just how much work, dedication and—there can be no better word—love goes into each issue of Fanfare. We Serious Collectors may not, for example, truly appreciate what a marvel of compact precision the seemingly simple Fanfare headnote is. It is by no means simple, and contains all sorts of crucial information. Every keystroke conveys significance. Were each of the thousands of these not prepared with enormous—to me mindboggling—care, superscripts and all, a project like the archive would simply not be thinkable.

Beyond this, the members of the Fanfare staff have unfailingly supported this archive project in every possible way. Janet Waggener, Ruth Varney, and John Story have patiently answered dumb questions and provided vital materials.

To them, and especially to Joel Flegler, I extend my deepest thanks, both as a Serious Collector and in my newfound role as Archivist.

So, check it out! And do let us know what you think.

The Fanfare experience has grown into some entirely new dimensions. I hope you will enjoy exploring them at least half as much as I am enjoying building them.

Peter Stokely

peter@stokely.com

This article originally appeared in Issue 29:3 (Jan/Feb 2006) of Fanfare Magazine.