intermedia sound archive


iSAW’s intermedia sound archive documents well over 25 years of international experimental music and sound art in South Florida.


Miami, Florida—August, 2008
David Dunn

David Dunn at isaw / Sound Archive Assesment Project
David Dunn at isaw / Intermedia Sound Archive Assesment Project

An assessment was made of the SFCA/iSAW archive over several days, with particular attention paid to the audio and video recording collection. A range of observations and suggestions resulted.

Audio and Video Recordings:

There are approximately 450 hours of audio recordings in a variety of formats. Most of these are digital recordings made within the last decade but some date back to the 1980’s. The recordings all appear to be in viable condition due to their proper storage in an air-conditioned space. The majorities of these recordings have never been duplicated and have either not been played since they were recorded, or have received minimal playback. A survey of randomly selected items showed that they are currently in good condition.

The largest category of audio recordings consists of hundreds of hours of performances from the 19 Subtropic Festivals. These are almost all professional or semi-professional recordings of excellent quality. The extraordinary range of musical genre and the high level of the performances make these archival materials an invaluable resource that needs to be made public. Taken together, this part of the archive is not only a record of the Subtropics Festival as a major contribution to the culture of Miami over a 20 year period, it is also one of the largest archives of many of the most important figures of experimental musical and sound art activity that exists in North America. Unlike many of the recordings made at other festivals and related venues, such as academically sponsored events, these recordings are not casual documentation. They are of very high quality—both for their audio standard and their highly selective curatorial focus.

Of next importance are the 45 hours of composer and performer interviews in the archive. These are quite important and unique materials that document the ideas of many of the most important musical figures of the late 20th century American avant-garde. Many of the interviews are of extended duration and reveal aspects of the individual’s life and work in often surprising detail.

(CLICK HERE to listen to clips produced by Gustavo Matamoros for the Fishtank Radio Journal featuring excerpts from these interviews)

There are also 26 hours of field recordings of Haitian and Caribbean drumming and ceremonies documented in Haiti and Florida over various periods. The recordings are unique and the result of various historical documentation projects.

Also of particular interest are 20 hours of interviews of Balseros made during the production of Robert Ashley’s opera on the subject of these Cuban refugees.

An additional 50 hours of recordings are of miscellaneous events and research activities sponsored by SFCA/iSAW over its institutional life span and a variety of other valuable historical recordings that have been donated to the organization by various individuals.

In addition to the purely audio recordings in the archive, there are also over 200 hours of video recordings in a variety of formats. As is typical for this form of documentation, the recordings vary greatly and range from casual hand-held camcorder footage to professional quality productions. The video recordings include performances, lectures, workshops and other events presented by SFCA/iSAW over a 20year period. Like the audio recordings, many of these tapes are of singular historical importance in documenting many of the most important composers and performers of the past two decades, especially those artists whose performance or installation work had a strong visual element. Most of this material has also not been duplicated and is at risk of deterioration.


Of paramount importance is the need to have the recordings duplicated before any physical deterioration takes place. Most of the audio recordings are in DAT format that has been shown to have a limited shelf life due to the high metal content of the tape. Oxidation of DAT tape—along with its non-robust digital error correction—has proven the format to be a fairly vulnerable archival medium. Some recordings are in more esoteric formats (such as F1 Digital) and the survival of rare hardware necessary for their playback becomes less likely with each passing year. All of the recordings should be transferred to more stable digital formats that allow for ready duplication and distribution.

A variety of projects could be gleaned from these materials. Most obviously, various compilation recordings could be created for CD and DVD distribution. This could be organized through existing commercial publishing entities and/or a publishing branch of SFCA/iSAW could be created specifically for this purpose. Most of the recordings could eventually be made available for Internet streaming as either complete documents or as excerpts. An appropriately organized online database of the recordings should also be a priority as a research resource that would bring significant attention to SFCA/iSAW.

Transcripts of the composer interviews could be made into three or four volumes of edited books. The interviews are of sufficient intrinsic historical and artistic merit that the art and academic communities should welcome distribution.

All told, the SFCA/iSAW archive is of major historical and cultural interest. Serious attempts to attract foundation and private funding for the preservation of the archive must be sought to secure its survival. The tentative and vulnerable nature of time-based media has been shown over and over again. Without proper reproduction, storage, and access, such invaluable cultural resources will continue to tragically disappear.


This project was made possible through technical assistance grants from The State of Florida, Division of Cultural Affairs and from The Southern Arts Federation with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and with funds from the Hannibal Cox Junior program of the Department of Cultural Affairs of Miami-Dade County.