Inspired by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who is best known for his field recordings of folk music throughout the 1900’s, The 78 Project travels the globe to film and record music in various spaces and environments. Equipped with “just one microphone, one authentic 1930’s Presto direct-to-acetate disk recorder, and one blank lacquer disc, musicians are given one take to cut a record anywhere they choose,” according to the organization’s website. Previously, the project made it’s way to Philadelphia to record Joe Jack Talcum in 2015.
On the latest chapter of the project, The 78 Project returned to Philadelphia to record the Penn Arab Music Ensemble Trio. Originally recorded in 2016 at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Music, The 78 Project released its latest installment to the world earlier this month. The trio of Hanna Khoury, Hafez Kotain, and Kinan Abou-afach performed two tracks live to fit the two sides of the acetate. The trio performed ancient muwashshah “Lamma Bada Yatathanna” on side A and “El Helwa Di” on side B. Continue reading →
Back in those halcyon days when vinyl was the only way to record music, the stakes were much higher. With the stylus pressing every sound into the vinyl, there was no room for error. Now when we listen to a song, it very well could have been stitched together from hundreds of distinct takes. This might allow today’s recordings to be more nuanced and complex than their older predecessors, but they lack a certain element of authenticity. Continue reading →
There was an ominous silence at the International House earlier this month as Joe Jack Talcum of Dead Milkmen prepared to play “Railroad Bill.”
On Jan. 15, the International House in Philly screened the documentary The 78 Project, a film in which New York-based folk music and field recording enthusiasts Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Wright traveled the states capturing performances by various musicians in gardens, bedrooms, and other non-traditional locations.
After the screening, the 78 project team did a live recording and pressing of Philly-based Joe Jack Talcum playing the Bob Dylan cover on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Continue reading →
John Lomax Sr. and his son Alan traveled throughout the 1930s recording blues and ballads on farms, in prisons, and rural communities. New Yorkers Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Wright were fascinated by the Lomax family’s work in field recording, and teamed up in 2010 to create The 78 Project, where they traveled the country field-recording and discovering America’s contemporary musicians. They used a 1930s Presto direct-to-record recorder, which is the same technology Lomax family used in their travels: one microphone, one 78 rpm disc, and one three-minute take. Continue reading →
Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Wright can’t quite pinpoint where they first heard the name Alan Lomax.
There was Wright’s father, who would tell her stories about The Cherry Tree, the West Philadelphia club where he worked; many of the blues musicians and folk singers who performed there were first recorded by Lomax. There was also the time Steyermark, a filmmaker and native of Wilmington, dug into the Lomax Archives first-hand when researching music for Ang Lee’s civil war period piece Ride With the Devil. But for each, those weren’t the first moments of discovery – they were already well aware and versed in the legendary folklorist.
“I feel like he’s always been present,” muses Steyermark.
For the past two years, Lomax has directly influenced Wright and Steyermark’s lives as they run The 78 Project, a music documentary series showcasing intimate field recordings of contemporary singers and songwriters, from Adam Arcuragi to Loudon Wainwright III. Using a 1930’s Presto direct-to-disc recorder and a single microphone – the same technology Lomax worked with when he traveled the country in the 1930s documenting blues singers and bluegrass ensembles – they record one-take, straight-to-acetate performances, film the artist playing, and film their reaction when they listen back to the hot-off-the-press record.
The collaboration began as a web video series, is raising money through Kickstarter to fund a feature-length documentary, but had its genesis in something more personal.
“We’re just huge junkies for folk music, roots music, the blues,” Wright said. “Alex and I started talking about our mutual passion for field-recorded music, and we realized this was a really grassroots approach we could take to exploring it.”
This year, Arcuragi recorded an a capella performance of “How Can I Keep From Singing” for 78 Project in a converted church in Harlem; Dawn Landes of the band Hem played her song “The Brown Girl” in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and mystical Maine duo Arborea performed “Red Bird” a porch near the Philadelphia Folk Festival. There’s a sense of immediacy and spontaneity to these songs – an unfussy, unrehearsed, genuine vibe. But before the project got to this point, the two running it had to learn how to use their antiquated equipment through an intense process of trial and error.