Baking ‘Big Nose’

This post was co-authored by Nick Guy, Audiovisual Conservator at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Jack Body (1944-2015) was one of New Zealand’s most influential composers, music teachers and cultural entrepreneurs. Where composers before him looked to Europe or the New Zealand environment for inspiration, Jack looked to the rest of the world – especially China and Indonesia – and encouraged everybody to come along for the ride.

Jack was also an avid supporter of the Alexander Turnbull Library’s Archive of New Zealand Music. Commencing in 1980, he delivered regular donations of scores, papers, and recordings into the safe-keeping of the Library. His collection (MS-Group-0141) now provides a rich trove for future music researchers to explore. Some material, however, has presented challenges from a preservation point of view. As you will read below, his audio-visual recordings in particular have required extensive treatment.

Photographs of Jack Body. Watkins, Gareth, 1972-: Photographs. Ref: PADL-000850Photographs of Jack Body. Watkins, Gareth, 1972-: Photographs. Ref: PADL-000850

The Turnbull collection reflects the full diversity of Jack Body’s music, ranging from vocal, chamber, orchestral, and electroacoustic compositions through to soundtracks and epic theatre shows such as Alley (1997) and Songs and Dances of Desire: In Memoriam Carmen Rupe (2012). Jack also composed the memorable theme for the television series Close to Home (1975-1983).

A fascinating subset of Jack’s collection relates to the three months he spent in China from December 1986 to February 1987. He was there to work on the documentary film ‘Big Nose’ and Body Music (1988) in collaboration with producer/director Patrick McGuire. Their guide and interpreter was Hong-Yu Gong, now a senior lecturer at Unitec Institute of Technology (Auckland).

Stills from ‘Big Nose’ and Body Music (1988). Courtesy of Yono Soekarno and Patrick McGuire.Stills from ‘Big Nose’ and Body Music (1988). Courtesy of Yono Soekarno and Patrick McGuire

The documentary records Jack’s encounters with everyday music-making in the Sichuan and Guizhou provinces of southern China, especially the traditions of minority peoples such as the Yi, Miao, and Ge. The music include street singers, aerial music created by whistles attached to birds, and performances on the intriguing lusheng: a six-piped bamboo mouth organ. As he later recalled: “I was fascinated… this was unknown territory, very difficult to find out about outside China.” The completed film can be viewed here on Jack’s wide-ranging website.

Stills from ‘Big Nose’ and Body Music (1988). Courtesy of Yono Soekarno and Patrick McGuireStills from ‘Big Nose’ and Body Music (1988). Courtesy of Yono Soekarno and Patrick McGuire

Included in the Turnbull collection are forty video tapes of raw footage from the ‘Big Nose’ and Body Music expedition. These are of special importance. Not only do they contain a far more extensive ethnographic record of the musical traditions than appears in the finished film, but provide fascinating glimpses of the world’s largest society in a time of historical transition. For a Westerner to be allowed to undertake field research in mid-1980s China was itself a rare opportunity, and the tapes capture some delicate negotiations between the New Zealand film crew and local Chinese officials.

Challenges lay ahead however. Nick Guy, Conservator of Audiovisual Media at the Turnbull Library, now takes up the story:

In early 2015, I met Jack when he came to the Library to deposit some of his recordings and was immediately interested in the box of bright red Ampex Betacam video cassettes from the trip to China in 1986-1987.

Preserving these kind of audio-visual (AV) recordings for the future is much more involved than accepting a box of recordings and putting them on a shelf. All AV media are prone to physical degradation. Worse still, the playback equipment for older formats is no longer manufactured and disappearing fast, along with the parts and expertise to maintain existing machines. In fact, many experts believe we only really have ten years left to preserve magnetic tape recordings held in archives.

In response to this challenge, to keep the extensive music collections of the Turnbull Library accessible to future generations, we are working to digitise all AV collection items at high resolution. Following file format and preservation standards means that all the fine detail of the original recordings can be conserved in perpetuity.

JBC Tape. Photograph by Michael BrownPhotograph by Michael Brown

Getting back to Jack’s bright red Ampex Betacam tapes. As these documented Chinese musical traditions not well-known amongst younger generations, I gave them top priority: this was important content recorded on at-risk magnetic media in an obsolete format.

As I began to work on the tapes it became clear they had begun to degrade and were already unplayable, suffering from what is commonly called “Sticky Shed Syndrome” (SSS). This syndrome is not uncommon with older tapes that have been stored for a long time outside climate-controlled vaults. “Sticky Shed” refers to the symptoms exhibited when you try and play a tape with a degraded binder, the layer of tape in which the magnetic particles are suspended. Such degradation makes the tape sticky or tacky and the increased friction plays havoc with the precise mechanism of a video cassette player. In advanced cases you can get a screeching sound and the binder often sheds from the tape leaving a waxy residue that gums up the player until it stops, often after just a few seconds.

Cross section of magnetic tape. Credit: Council on Library and Information ResourcesCross section of magnetic tape. Credit: Council on Library and Information Resources

When I first tried to play one the Jack’s tapes the player stopped after just a few seconds. All sorts of error warnings flashed on the screen! There was no fault with the player, so I had to consider options for treating the tape itself. Although the causes of SSS are still not completely understood, all good AV archivists know that the symptoms can be temporarily reversed by “baking” the affected tapes for several hours at about 50°C.

There is an important “Please Do Not Try This At Home” message here. Magnetic tape is best cared for at stable low temperatures and humidity. The fluctuations of temperature and humidity in regular ovens are likely to damage tape, not to mention what would happen were the temperature to creep up too high. (1)

When successful, “baking” temporarily reverses the changes in the binder that are causing the stickiness. The binder surface regains its hard glossy appearance and plays back without any problems. We bake tape only when there is no other way to retrieve the content, using a precisely controlled and calibrated environmental chamber to ensure a steady temperature with no fluctuations or unexpected overheating. In most cases a single baking will restore the condition of a tape long enough to play it and digitise the content. However, frustratingly, after the usual baking process, Jack’s tapes had not responded: they still would not play. I had to think of something else.

Discussions with colleagues encouraged me to be braver. But I was not prepared to experiment with unique and valuable recordings. Here is where I give thanks to the person (Jack or one of the crew) that thoughtfully labelled the last two tapes in the collection “blank”. I was free to try different things without fear of damaging anything.

More research led me back to documentation from Ampex, the tape manufacturer. There I found the clue that I needed and with an adapted recipe, a third treatment on the blank tapes proved successful and had no apparent ill effects.

Ampex video tape being “baked” before digitisation. Photograph by Nick GuyAmpex video tape being “baked” before digitisation. Photograph by Nick Guy

The entire collection was then successfully baked, played and digitised. High quality (40GB per hour) mathematically lossless JPEG2000 Material Exchange Format (MXF) master files now reside safely in the National Digital Heritage Archive (NDHA). Researchers can freely view the recordings on demand in the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room.

Stills from ‘Big Nose’ and Body Music (1988). Courtesy of Yono Soekarno and Patrick McGuireStills from ‘Big Nose’ and Body Music (1988). Courtesy of Yono Soekarno and Patrick McGuire

Even after his death, Jack’s ties with China remain strong. Late last year, the Body Music 2015 – Jack Body Cross-Cultural Music Conference was held in Hangzhou at the campus of the Zhejiang Conservatory of Music. It featured performances of works by both Chinese and New Zealand composers.

Further donations have also recently been added to Jack’s collection in the Archive of New Zealand Music. These include more tapes from the 1986-1987 trip to China. Hopefully these are in better condition than the previous batch. If not, Nick may still have the right recipe for them to be saved.

1. For further reading, see ‘“Honey, I burnt the tapes!” A Study on Thermal Treatment for the Recovery of Magnetic Tapes Affected by Soft Binder Syndrome-Sticky Shed Syndrome’, IASA Journal 44 (2015): 53-64.^

We are grateful to Scilla Askew for her help with writing this blog. Thanks also to Yono Soekarno, Patrick McGuire, and Kathlin Smith (Council on Library and Information Resources) for their permission to reproduce some of the featured images.

By Michael Brown

Michael Brown is Music Curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

Post a Comment

(will not be published) * indicates required field
Wedding Music for Reception Melbourne July 7th at 6:01PM

Very Interesting Post. Thanks for sharing it.