Archive and Survive, or How To Make Your New Minimal Post-Hardcore Inspired Hyperpop Adjacent Chicago Juke Meets Early Gabber Project Last For A Thousand Years (In Four Easy Steps!)

Written by Maxwell Neely-Cohen

A few weeks ago, I saw a string quartet at Carnegie Hall play an arrangement of a hymn by the 12th century nun, mystic, medical writer, and composer, Hildegard of Bingen.

Now, this is a normal occurrence. The orchestras of the world measure their lives in centuries. The Royal Danish Orchestra was founded in 1448. The New York Philharmonic has been playing continuously since 1842. This is not limited to European traditions; ensembles of Thai, Indian, Chinese, and West African musicians routinely play works and instruments that have outlived entire social and political orders.

So how did classical music accomplish this? It's easy to think that most music just survives, that libraries of the state or academic institutions are infallible – but this is not the case. Even when fanatically popular, the music of entire decades and centuries is lost with incredible ease. What we think of as traditional classical music is not some overdetermined canon, but rather the result of hundreds of years of decentralized effort, up to this very day. Last month, Apple Music released a new app for classical music listeners. The largest company in the world determined enough people listen to classical music that it is worth investing in a dedicated app for them. This is not an accident, but rather the result of a small group of people figuring out how to make something survive. It’s all part of a plan that we can steal from.

This is not simply a concern for the enjoyment of some far flung future listeners. In an age where digital preservation is a disaster, where huge predatory mega platforms are doing everything they can to devalue the labor of music making, we have to learn to make the music we love survive, or else the end can come very quickly.

Step One: Save Everything!

Before the middle of the 20th century, Antonio Vivaldi was an obscure footnote, a once successful composer who faded from favor and history. Vivaldi is now one of the most popular and regularly played music makers in the world of any genre. How did this happen? In the early 20th century, a half-dozen music nerds (including the poet Ezra Pound) decided that the little they had heard by Vivaldi was incredibly good. They scoured Italy for his manuscripts, threw concerts, made new music in his style, and would not shut up about it until academics started paying attention. They got their rich friends to buy every fragment they could. In 1926, a group of researchers found half of a massive set of fifteen bound volumes of Vivaldi’s work hidden in a monastery library in Piedmont, long ago thought to have been destroyed during the Napoleonic Wars. They found the other set in the library of descendants of a Grand Duke. By 1950, musicologists annoyed record executives enough that the first recordings of The Four Seasons hit stores. Everyone freaked out.

The story of Vivaldi is not unique. Composers are still being “rediscovered” to this day. Florence Price’s 1945 Symphony No. 4 was discovered in an abandoned house in Illinois in 2009, along with a whole trove of her papers. This master work came staggeringly close to annihilation, and after premiering in 2019, it now graces stages worldwide.

The lesson is simple: If there is music you love, save it. Save it in any form and format you can. Fill hard drives and crates. Steward and care for your collections. Do not trust any company or service to do this for you. Even if your collection is small, if your time is limited, preserve whatever you can from every scene you are a part of that you think is good. Assume everything around you is about to ignite and be lost forever.

Step Two: Reperform!

There are plenty of great Elizabethan era playwrights filling libraries who are not William Shakespeare. What keeps Shakespeare alive is not the carefully kept volumes on the shelves, but the fact that these plays are continually reperformed. Every middle school in the US contributes to Shakespeare’s archiving by reperforming his work. Reperformance can mean whatever makes the most sense for the material you love. Sometimes a DJ playing records is just as effective and authentic a re-performance than a group of musicians trying to recreate something live on instruments. Sometimes the opposite is true, and we should show someone how something was created on original equipment. No matter the form, the key is to keep reperforming the musical forms that you want to survive—even in small groups. Some works of chamber music survived for centuries only by being played and heard by intimate friends in living rooms. Ignore the market and keep reperforming.

Step Three: Collaborate With Other Forms!

Dance, film, theater, video games, and visual art—the alliances between music and other mediums are a major factor in resilience. I have never heard the orchestral works of Adolphe Adam performed in a concert hall, yet every ballet company in the world plays his score for Giselle. Bach’s famous cello suites were originally intended as dances, even though the dances are lost, we know they existed because the suites remain. Just as drum and bass found a home in video games in the late 90s and early 00s, whole genres and styles are preserved through their presence in other mediums. Even graphic design can do this, as the coffee table book collecting rave flyers is a valuable piece of archival work.

Step Four: Make Your Rich Friends Buy Instruments For You!

There’s a lot of very well-intentioned discourse that music makers shouldn’t be buying gear we don’t need. Yet I would argue we should actually be encouraging those who have the means to buy as many physical instruments as possible, and to let us use them whenever we want.

Look on the stage of any major orchestra and you’ll see millions of dollars in ancient instruments, meticulously cared for and now loaned out to players by their owners—a smattering of trusts, corporations, rich weirdos, and institutions. A huge part of musical longevity comes not in the preservation of music itself, but the preservation of the tools that make that music possible. And unfortunately it costs money to preserve cool shit.

We only have the Stradivari and Guarneri string instruments still around played today because of fuccboi nobles who bought violins they weren’t very good at playing. It may sound radical, but we should not be making fun of the trust fund synth bros! We should instead be cheering them on and teaching them how to write a good estate plan and how to found healthy institutions in which others can access their collection and utilize it in ways in which a rich kid with a massive toy collection could never come up with alone. Have them buy modules instead of index funds, and then lend out those modules to budding musical geniuses. We will name the gear library after your Dad and thank him for his generosity, don’t worry!

Maxwell Neely-Cohen is a writer, electronic musician, and dancer living in New York City. He is the publisher of The HTML Review.