The New York Times reported last week on the discovery of a sound recording made in 1860, nearly twenty years before Thomas Edison first captured the sound of the words “Mary had a little lamb” on a piece of tinfoil. Oddly, this recording, made by Parisian typesetter Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, was never intended to be heard. The idea of audio playback had not been conceived, let alone by Martinville, and his intent, to create a paper record of human speech, related more to stenography than to phonography. We have come, of course, a very long way; the in-your-ear-in-an-instant .mp3 which accompanies the Times article is proof of that.
When the Key West Literary Seminar began in 1983 as a program of the Friends of the Monroe County Library, audio recordings were ubiquitous in the average American home. Vinyl records had been around for a generation, and cassette technology had made it possible to listen to your favorite recordings in the car or anywhere you and your Walkman, invented by Sony in 1979, might travel. Furthermore, cassettes were easily recorded upon, easily recorded over. One could now, with a minimum of equipment, affordably create audio recordings of any event. The Key West Literary Seminar did not immediately pick up on the possibilities afforded by this technology. The early years’ events were assembled on a nothing budget as a labor of love. Many of the organizers were remarkably young. Key West was a surface and a beneath-the-surface; an anonymity which implied assent toward myriad behaviors thrived and was prized. Posterity was on no one’s mind.
In 1988, KWLS stepped out as an independent organization. A board of directors was established, made up of local and semi-local literati, and an honorary board lent the symbolic heft of an unlikely assemblage of luminaries including Jimmy Buffet, Barbara Bush, and John Hersey. Whodunit?, the 1988 Seminar dedicated to “the art and tradition of mystery literature,” received national and state funding, and attracted major genre-writers including Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, and Mary Higgins Clark. It also atrracted the attention of Meg O’Brien, a producer at WLRN, South Florida’s National Public Radio affiliate, who volunteered to record the Seminar in its entirety. She produced eight cassettes and made them available to the public through WLRN’s Radio Reading Service. And so began the recorded history of the Key West Literary Seminar.
Two decades have brought us from cassettes to cds to .mp3s. The transformation is awesome. Today, an iPod, smaller and thinner than the single 90-minute cassette once held in a Walkman, can hold the entire 20 year-history of KWLS sound recordings. Or, rather, it, or something smaller, faster, better than it, will hold that history, once the project of digitizing that history is complete. Last year, KWLS began a substantial project to digitize hundreds of cassettes and compact discs, containing recordings of some of the best writers of our time, and to make them available for free to the general public. The first step was to locate the original recordings, which, with the exception of 1990, has been accomplished. The next step, underway, is to catalog these recordings, import them into our computers, and produce them for the web as .mp3s. This summer, Private Ear Recording Studios, KWLS’s audio-partner since the late 1990s, will begin to digitize the cassettes. In the meantime, they continue to master the 2008: New Voices Seminar and to offer production support. All along, KWLS has been producing and publishing podcasts. At this writing, twenty-five podcasts are available on the Podcasts page, as well as through the iTunes service, including readings by Ian McEwan, Junot Díaz, Uzodinma Iweala, and more.
We’ll release podcasts as they become available. Later this week, we’ll look back at our 2003 Seminar: The Beautiful Changes, with readings by John Ashbery, Sharon Olds, and James Tate. Soon, we’ll have the first Science and Literature podcasts from 2001. Deeper in the vaults await Octavio Paz, Harry Mathews, Joy Williams, Alison Lurie, and more. We can’t hope to know what advances the future will bring to audio recordings, but we have a fair idea of what the Key West Literary Seminar has in its audio archives. It’s something special.