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Reviving archives through remix: How a Dutch archival project is reinvigorating electronic music

Open Culture


What does it mean to listen to the past through a truly modern lens? This is the question the Dutch project re:vive seeks to answer. Working with renowned electronic and experimental musicians such as Lakker, Roly Porter, and Bas Mooy, the project from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision draws on global archives and museums to encourage legal, creative reuse of historic sounds.

In the words of Gregory Markus, coordinator at the institute, “Electronic musicians are probably the largest remix community in the world…DJs and electronic musicians usually are sound geeks who just love sound and they love learning and experimenting, and they’re the perfect match for audio archives.”

The perfect match between musicians and archives has turned into a prolific and fruitful project. This week, the project released another compilation with a companion photo book, all in the public domain, which is available for download via Fog Mountain Records.

What prompted this project? How have you defined the scope of what kinds of sounds and artists you want to work with?
This project was inspired by seeing Matthew Herbert do a Boiler Room session from the British Library. It made me think, if Boiler Room and Matthew Herbert, two of the coolest and most renowned names in electronic music, were excited to visit and celebrate an archive’s collection, who else would be interested? But I knew I wanted to run this project right. I wanted it to not just be a heritage institution trying to engage “creative” communities from the outside, I wanted it to be intertwined and accepted by the community. In my opinion, the only way to effectively and actively engage a community is to be a part of it. After bouncing ideas around between people involved in electronic music in Europe and the US, we developed a concept and framework and reached out to our first artists, Lakker. It has been incredible to see the response and excitement from so many different artists and fans. We keep learning and growing. Everyone is so encouraging and eager to contribute and help out that we actually can’t keep up!

When it comes to sounds we have two main criteria (in addition to being openly licensed!): The sounds must have context or a story. That’s what’s most exciting for me when it comes to archives: the stories and connections we find related to certain materials and the relationships the artists develop with this context. Some items have absolutely no metadata so we have to do some research but that’s also part of the fun. The sounds need to have enough sonic character so that they’re interesting to work with. Lots of openly licensed archival material like wax cylinders or old 78s have so much noise that they’re pretty useless for non-research purposes. Field recordings are most interesting sonically but not every archive has those or if they do they’re modern and still under a copyright.

When it comes to artists we have found ourselves in a niche of experimental electronic and techno but we’re open to everything!

How do you find the public domain sounds, in particular for the Sample Packs? What kinds of sounds are your favorites?
We tend to favor our own collections that we hold at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision because we have such extensive, openly licensed materials and the institute wants to keep that growing. But for other things, Europeana is a great tool if you know how to navigate it and then visiting various archive’s specific portals to see if they have content available online, openly licensed and for download. Few things are worse than finding material online for streaming, openly licensed that you can’t download. As noted above, field recordings are most interesting to work with from a sampling point of view because they’re so complex. But finding obscure 78s on the National Library of France’s portal, Gallica is always exciting!

Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

Cover of 010, Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

How do you choose the artists you want to work with? What is your method of working with artists to create projects?
We have a mix of people in the scene when it comes to artists. Working with these materials in a musical and conceptual manner is not for everyone- and it doesn’t have to be! We want to work with artists who will take this material, spend time with it and examine it in order to create a new work and own that work.

We come up with a curatorial theme and then work from there, reaching out to artists directly and personally. This project is close to our hearts – it’s not just a job anymore. I hope this puts us on the same level as the artists we work with whose music isn’t just their job, it’s their lives.

For some projects like the compilations we’ve done the process is based more on providing the sounds, footage, and images to allow artists to use their own experiences and knowledge to fill in the blanks and go crazy. But with the bigger sessions we’ve done we invite the artists to the Netherlands where they meet with researchers and academics to really get some context.

RE:VIVE tries to straddle the worlds of PR/marketing stunt, community outreach and academia. It’s been refreshing to also see how excited and curious academics are about the project and how willing they are to share their knowledge.

Lakker presenting Struggle and Emerge at the Hague's REWIRE festival, April 2015. Photo by Rene Passet CC BY-NC-ND

Lakker presenting Struggle and Emerge at the Hague’s REWIRE festival, April 2015. Photo by Rene Passet CC BY-NC-ND

How does licensing play into this project? You’re working with Public Domain sounds and licensing them under CC. How do you explain that to artists, collaborators, and the public?
We don’t only work with PD material simply because there isn’t enough audio material. We use a lot of Creative Commons material so long as it’s not “non-derivative”. But the most interesting thing we’ve learned from this project is just how unaware many artists and labels are of Creative Commons. I remember having a meeting with the editor-in-chief of a large music editorial platform and he joked “is that still a thing? I remember it was big in 2008…”. Our first release was planned to be released under Creative Commons BY SA NC but at the last minute the label changed that. They said they’d love to investigate Creative Commons more but they’re already so busy trying to stay afloat that it’s not on the agenda so for the time being they’re sticking to All Rights Reserved.

When we ask artists or tell artists that their new works have to be released under Creative Commons they’re pretty open to it since it’s a special project but I don’t foresee anyone we’re working with adopting it as their norm. Artists are easier to convince than labels but labels need to see financial impact use cases etc.

The other big thing we’ve been confronted with about licensing and Creative Commons is that people just don’t understand it. All Rights Reserved is crystal clear. It’s going to be tough for RE:VIVE to change mindsets but we can at least talk to artists one at a time and let them know what’s up and what Creative Commons stands for, what it means for them and their work and why they should consider adopting it.

Electronic musicians are probably the largest remix community in the world. They share music at an alarmingly fast rate with mixes and DJ-sets online all of which feature uncleared, copyrighted material, but most don’t care. They sample from everywhere and anywhere, they don’t clear these samples, they just hope that they don’t get caught. Most make so little money and have warped the samples to the point where they’re unrecognizable so they think they’ll never get caught. RE:VIVE can’t work in this manner because we are part of a public institution. We play by the rules and we want to play by the rules so that we can see what’s working and what’s not and initiate change at a policy level.

There are a few collections we want to work with that are based in the US that are available for personal, non-commercial reuse, but it’s hard to approach music labels and say, “We want to use this collection, tell its story, and give it some attention because it’s incredible material… and there’s no commercial reuse so there’s no financial value in it for you.” If they could sell the music or press it to vinyl or stream it more doors would open and these collections hidden in corners of the web could get the love and attention we feel they deserve. But rights clearing takes time and money which artists, labels, and archives really don’t have.

Do you see this initiative as translatable to other languages, record labels, and types of music? What other projects influence you? Where do you look for inspiration?
I certainly hope it’s translatable. We’d love to see more archives get directly involved because we already have artists and labels lining up out the door. RE:VIVE is an initiative from an archive first and foremost and our job is to promote archives and reuse. We don’t want to just take content from the web and reuse it, we want the archives to get involved in the process, meet the artists, and impart their knowledge and love for their collections on them. If they can see the excitement we’ve encountered when bringing people to our depots, watching them explore the thousands of old record players, sifting through thousands of records. You really see the connection. DJs and electronic musicians usually are sound geeks who just love sound and they love learning and experimenting, and they’re the perfect match for audio archives.

Other labels and genres of music are definitely an option too! That’s the beauty of starting with audio and music. It’s so much easier to build on top of it with texts, images and footage.

I like to refer to archives as one-stop shopping – they have sounds to sample, images for artwork, footage for music videos and context for inspiration. It’s fantastic and transferable to so many genres. We focus on sample based music so we can have the most direct reuse.

In terms of other projects that inspire us? I am always inspired by our resident tour guide at Sounds and Vision, Rob de Bie. His love for sound and history of recorded sound and moving image is contagious, the British Library’s Cheryl Tipp and Will Prentice from the sound archive are also wonderful. The National Library of France’s Gallica portal, the Rijksmueum and National Archive of the Netherlands open collections remind me of all the possibilities. And then of course all the artists and labels we work with. But I think I get the most inspiration from my old friends in Iowa City who run a music festival and label called Mission Creek Music Festival. Their love and support was so unyielding. They just saw that something was missing in the town and wanted to fill that gap but they did not want to do it in an isolationist way. They brought in everyone in the community and made everyone feel involved and supported. I cherish that and I think that emotional connection might be missing too often in projects. We try to channel that somehow!

After this release, what’s next for your project? What do you hope to make and discover next?
We have quite a few releases planned for the first half of 2017 already that we’re really excited about. What Sound and Vision, the institute that started the RE:VIVE project, hopes for is to set a leading example for other institutes much like the Rijksmuseum did with their public domain dump in 2013, which changed the game.

It’d be great to see more institutes open up or at least add clarity to their rights statements. Even just in the Netherlands we have so many stories we want to share I think we’ll be pretty busy for a while. We’re on the hunt for funding for these!

In a perfect world we’d love to get the point where doing a RE:VIVE session is the same as doing a Boiler Room session, a kind of right of passage for electronic musicians, but we have a lot of work to do to get there!

In the end though, if we can just get a few more people interested in their local archive and see the archives equally get engaged with their local arts scene then our job is done.

Posted 14 December 2016