The New Art of Old-Timey Field Recording


At the Independent Filmmaker Project’s recent film-week event, most people screened, well, films. Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright chose not to. Instead, they cut a live record on a 1930’s Presto direct-to-disc recorder, giving the audience at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center a chance to experience field recording firsthand. Timothy Mislock of blogosphere darlings the Antlers preformed a rendition of “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” while a device from 80 years ago etched his voice onto a lacquer disc with a ruby-tipped stylus. They then played back the 78-rpm record for the crowd.

The scene was emblematic of what Steyermark and Jones Wright’s the 78 Project does: anthropology captured in real-time. Inspired by the work of legendary field archivist Alan Lomax, they are a documentary team that records contemporary artists using technology from 80 years ago. The process is simple: A musician selects a song from the public domain, performs it in one take into a single microphone in a setting that is emotionally or artistically meaningful to him or her (i.e., not a recording studio), and the tune is recorded onto an acetate disc. “You actually get to hold the record in your hand immediately,” Mislock says. “It ends up being this really beautiful experience.”

Jones Wright and Steyermark attended the Independent Filmmaker Project’s week of meetings and events to explore opportunities for a feature-length documentary about the 78 Project when it is completed next year. Speaking with them in a shady courtyard above honking traffic, they say that their work is about the evolution of an idea. It was originally imagined as a television show, but finding that format too constricting, they decided to share content with people through an ever-growing online archive of video, audio, and text, available at On their site, you can hear Rosanne Cash perform a haunting version of “The Wayfaring Stranger,” listen to Richard Thompson sing “How Many Times,” or watch Reverend John Wilkins croon “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me” from his church in Mississippi.

The session with Reverend Wilkins happened during a trip they took down to Dixie last month. They plotted the journey around Memphis and Nashville, and in three and a half weeks recorded about two dozen musicians. “It was a wild frenzy of field recording,” says Jones Wright, who dresses like a punk-rock librarian. “We actually had the good fortune to work with next generations of people that [Alan Lomax] recorded,” adds Steyermark, who looks older than his teammate though neither care to give their ages. Steyermark jokes he is “timeless like a 78.”

Their trip, taken in a tiny Kia Soul, illuminates the surprising mobility of such an anachronistic process. In fact, during our interview, Steyermark sets up the recording device in less than five minutes out of the back of said Kia. Standing on Amsterdam Avenue, he has me touch the vibrating needle of the antique machine, geeking out at the absurdity of the situation, which, one suspects, makes perfect sense to him.

That’s the real architecture of the project, juxtaposing the old and new side by side. They have, of course, embraced social networking in their promotion. (Jones Wright tweets a humorous picture of our interview, complete with a punchline.) And in order to fund the next few months of shooting their film, they recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, allowing people to become a part of the project’s journey. They coax potential donors on their Facebook page with promises of record-shaped cookies.

Jones Wright and Steyermark’s hope is that by bridging so many years of technology through music, they can discover the connections between ourselves and our cultural legacy. Time in this context becomes secondary to the process and what it offers. For this reason, the project rises above simple vintage worship and does more than just glorify the past—it helps us experience it.