From Athens to Zeibekiko

John Psathas (2011). Photographer: Gareth Watkins. Ref: PADL-000851John Psathas (2011). Photographer: Gareth Watkins. Ref: PADL-000851

May – New Zealand Music Month – is the perfect time to present a collection which I have been processing, off and on, since September 2016. The John Psathas Collection (MS-Group-2332) comprises over seven linear metres of papers and sound recordings that will give researchers a wonderful insight into the world and work of New Zealand composer John Psathas.

One of New Zealand’s most internationally acclaimed composers, John Psathas has been composing for nearly 30 years. Psathas is of Greek descent and this heritage has played a major role in his music. His highly rhythmic compositions, encompassing many musical styles and genres, have appealed to a wide audience.

Arrangement and Description (A&D) is the process of preparing a collection of unpublished material so that it is ready for researchers to access, including rehousing items and creating an online finding aid. One of the harder things I find about doing A&D on large collections such as John Psathas’, is knowing when to stop! You could keep going forever, delving deeper into the material, describing every folder of papers down to individual pages, and every recording down to the individual tracks on it.

The challenge is to find the balance, making good decisions about what level of descriptive detail to apply, so that it can be found, but still get the collection online and available for researchers to access and use. “Leave something for the researcher to discover” is a common refrain we use in the A&D team to remind ourselves that our role is to make collections findable – not to do all of the research ourselves!

Three volumes of printed scores with manuscript annotations for Zeal. Ref: fMS-Papers-12215-05Three volumes of printed scores with manuscript annotations for Zeal. Ref: fMS-Papers-12215-05

The Collaborative Muse

Before beginning this project, I knew only that John Psathas had written much of the music for the opening ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens. But through processing the collection I’ve since discovered just how varied his career has been. Psathas has collaborated with a wide range of international and local musicians on an exciting range of projects, some using new and experimental technologies. I will highlight just a few of these now.

Psathas’ own website describes him as “genre-crossing” but I was still struck by how many and what a wide range of collaborators Psathas has worked with: from Serj Tankian of metal band System of a Down, to Warren Maxwell of TrinityRoots and Fat Freddy’s Drop, Canadian violinist and musical maverick Lara St John, to percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie, and New Zealand percussion group Strike. The collection includes much correspondence between Psathas and these national and international collaborators, who also have interesting connections with other material in the Archive of New Zealand Music and wider Alexander Turnbull Library.

Pages from a music workbook. Ref: MSX-9548Pages from a music workbook. Ref: MSX-9548

It’s biiiggg!

The process of arranging and describing this collection started with a meeting between Music Curators, A&D staff and – because it included a huge amount of born-digital materials – Digital Materials librarians. It was always clear that this collection was going to take some time and planning. I needed a plan of attack and some milestones to measure progress.

Copy of John Psathas’ collection listing with my working notes.Copy of John Psathas’ collection listing with my working notes.

Psathas had provided a document with the collection which listed briefly what was in each box or folder (see above). The collection could thus be naturally split into parts, what in archival parlance are known as “Series”. I decided I would work on one series at a time. Organising the collection like this makes the collection manageable for researchers – and gave me a sense of achievement upon finishing each series. Psathas’ original listing formed the basis for my structure which ended up being 10 series and 27 sub-series.

The ten series in the John Psathas Collection, as displayed on our Tiaki database.The ten series in the John Psathas Collection, as displayed on our Tiaki database.

Plan of attack

Because of the size of this collection – over seven linear metres! – it was not possible to fit it all on a workbench and look at the collection as a whole, as I usually would do. Instead I worked on a box or a trolley-full at a time. The listing from Psathas gave a good overview, though, and ideas for where to start each part. For instance, when I started working on the Athens Olympic Games subseries I could see that there should be about 20 folders of material relating to this project.

The first series I worked on containing yearly appointment diaries covering the period 1987-2014 was a warm-up, this being a relatively small and straightforward set of material. These annual organisational diaries don’t require much description: they are just what they say they are. This was a manageable series to start with, completed within the first week, but components such as the sound and video recordings or composition projects, I could see were large and complicated. Eventually there would be 27 different subseries within the ‘Composition projects’ series alone.

Left: Annual organisational diaries from the ‘Diaries’series, ref: Series-6061; Right: Detail from 1987 yearly planner, ref: MSX-9485Left: Annual organisational diaries from the ‘Diaries’series, ref: Series-6061; Right: Detail from 1987 yearly planner, ref: MSX-9485

A&D work was interrupted for a while by the Kaikōura Earthquake of 14th November 2016 and subsequent disruptions. Even so, from that first meeting in September 2016, it took a hefty 16 months of work to complete processing of the analogue component. Thankfully, I wasn’t working on the project alone all that time. Just as I was beginning to worry I would never complete it, Melissa Bryant, who was on a six month secondment to the A&D team, helped us make huge progress.

Personal highlights: sound tracks for movies, museum exhibitions, and books!

One highlight of the process was learning that Psathas worked on music for a film described as “the first pavlova western”! Within the ‘Composition projects’ series is a subseries relating to the music scored by Psathas for the 2012 New Zealand Western Good for Nothing , directed by Mike Wallis.

Trailer for Good for Nothing (2012).

Psathas also scored the sound for a “booktrack” to accompany Salman Rushdie’s short story ‘In the South’. This is not just an audio book, as I first thought. Instead, this e-reader technology adds perfectly timed sound effects to text as you read it: it is a soundtrack for a book. Booktrack Holdings Limited was founded in Auckland in 2011, and shortly after this Psathas composed the sound to accompany ‘In the South’. I was intrigued enough to download the BookTrack app and try it out for myself.

Yet another subseries relates to the sound that Psathas created for the interactive multimedia exhibition OurSpace Tō Tātou Ātea, at the national museum Te Papa Tongarewa from 2008 to 2014. Psathas had previously composed the ‘Te Papa Fanfare’ for the museum’s opening in 1998. In the same year he also composed the ‘Manurewa Fanfare’ to commemorate the opening of Manurewa High School’s new band room. Holograph copies of both of these fanfares are within the ‘Manuscript scores’ series.

Physical digital objects

The collection covers the date range 1984-2015, a period during which many composers around the world started using electronic or digital technologies as part of their practice. So it is not surprising that this collection contains a lot of born-digital material delivered in various forms: 1.52 TB from Psathas’ computer transferred to the library on a hard drive, plus over 200 optical discs of various types.

Folder of material related to Psathas’ 1995 work ‘Calenture’.Folder of material related to Psathas’ 1995 work ‘Calenture’.

These CD-ROMs, audio CDs, and DVD-Video discs contain material as extensive as the analogue components: for instance, images and sound files for the OurSpace Tō Tātou Ātea project; constituent parts of ‘View From Olympus’; and numerous discs labelled ‘IOC’ (presumably relating to the International Olympic Committee). Some discs are more mysterious and simply labelled ‘Nature Sounds’, ‘pdf’, or ‘For Lance’.

In order to best preserve and describe each disc, we need to find out what file types it contains. First we scan for viruses, to protect the Library’s network, then look at the file formats on each disc to assess whether it contains audiovisual files, or computer files. Two hundred and two discs in this collection were identified as being either Compact Disc Digital Audio discs or DVD-Video discs (aka audio CDs and DVDs).

Optical discs separated into those containing audio files, video files, or computer files.Optical discs separated into those containing audio files, video files, or computer files.

At the Library CDs and DVDs are processed differently to CD-ROMS even though they are all optical discs that store digital information. Files from a CD-ROM, for example, can be immediately extracted off their physical carrier to the National Digital Heritage Archive (NDHA) by the Library’s Digital Archivists. But nuances of the disc filesystems, data formats, and rendering software mean that audio CDs and DVDs need to be treated by the Library’s audiovisual conservation team and in many ways cared for like their analogue cousins, open reel tapes and cassettes.

Given the large number of optical discs we process at the Library we are not able to play every audiovisual disc (in the same way we do not read every letter in a large collection of correspondence). We use the processing information note “Description created from item label/housing. Item has not been previewed as part of processing” to explain this.

For the same reason, access copies are not immediately made of every audiovisual disc received by the Library. An access copy of a disc is made when a researcher requests to listen or view it. This is why you see the Access statement “Partly restricted – Additional processing required”.

Descriptive record for a CD ‘Made in New Zealand’ (ref: MSCD-2929), showing Access, Use and Processing Information statements.Descriptive record for a CD ‘Made in New Zealand’ (ref: MSCD-2929), showing Access, Use and Processing Information statements.

Many optical discs in this collection are within the series ‘Sound and video recordings’, but there are also some in other series where the disc was received with and relates to accompanying paper material. For example, some CDs and DVDs relating to Zeibekiko , the 2004 collaboration for wind ensemble and Greek folk musicians, are found within the subseries ‘Zeibekiko and the New Zeibekiko’.

A large number of the CDs containing audio files (and some video files) have now been processed. Yet to be described are the CD-ROMS, each of which has different storage and playback needs in order to be made available to researchers. These files will require technical appraisal and will present further interesting challenges for the arrangement and description of the digital component.

What’s next?

The exciting news: John Psathas’ analogue papers and sound recordings (including surrogate copies of audio CDs and DVDs) can now be viewed or listened to in the Katherine Mansfield Reading Room. Begin by requesting items from the main John Psathas Collection.

Library staff are continuing to process the born-digital files transferred from Psathas’ computer and CD-ROMs for ingest into the National Digital Heritage Archive. So far, 1.6TB (1.52TB from Psathas’ hard drive and a further 91GB from CD-ROMs) has been transferred to the Library’s secure storage for technical appraisal. That’s 145,405 individual files!

Technical appraisal will include identifying every file format in the collection, understanding what tools we need to provide access to this material, and identifying the long-term preservation needs of this data. Once this processing is complete the born-digital material will be described in Tiaki alongside the analogue and loaded into the NDHA where it will be permanently preserved and accessible. Watch this space!


Thanks to Flora Feltham, Digital Archivist at the Alexander Turnbull Library, for her assistance.

By Merryn McAulay

Merryn is a Librarian working with the Arrangement & Description team at the Alexander Turnbull Library.

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peter ireland May 28th at 4:54PM

Loved this, Merryn. Well done and what a great acquisition! Peter