Remembering Camden at 78 rpm
Stefan Arnarson, music instructor and a co-curator of the "Sounds of Camden" exhibit at the Stedman Gallery at Rutgers-Camden, puts a record of his grandmother´s onto a Victrola record player. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Kevin Riordan, Inquirer Columnist
Posted: Sunday, November 9, 2014, 11:59 PM
Stefan Orn Arnarson gently places his grandmother's Victor Red Label 78 on the turntable and under the stylus of the Victrola.
The bittersweetness of Fritz Kreisler's violin pours from the machine, which – like the original recording itself – was made in Camden nearly a century ago.
"Goose bumps," says Arnarson, a sound designer who first heard Kreisler's haunting rendition of "Deep in My Heart, Dear" at his grandmother's home in Reykjavik, Iceland.
"The technology for recording, and playback, that was developed here was revolutionary," adds Arnarson, 45, a Collingswood father of three who joined the Rutgers-Camden faculty in 2005. "Camden was the Silicon Valley of its time."
The ingenuity, artistry, and manual labor that made possible millions of records and players – and helped develop radio, TV, and film audio technology as well – are the heart of "The Sounds of Camden" exhibit at the Stedman Gallery.
Sponsored by the Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts, the show includes spoken-word recordings of work by Camden poets such as Nick Virgilio; listening stations for samples of vintage musical recordings; and a mini-studio where city students and other visitors can digitally record a brief message.
It's as if "they're inserting themselves into the history of the city," says Cyril Reade, director of the Center for the Arts. Adds museum educator Miranda Powell: "Some students have read prepared statements and poems. . . . Others have rap and freestyle a bit."
The exhibit also features "Camden Rounds," a new electronic piece by Rutgers associate professor of music Mark Zaki that includes PATCO trains and other ambient sounds of the city.
An original musical-theater production titled Hand Me Down the Silver Trumpet, with live interpretations of classic Victor recordings, was produced at the Gordon Theater on campus in October; the Stedman exhibit continues through Dec. 18.
"This exhibit is just a little taste. It should be 10 times as big," says Arnarson, a self-described "geek" who is also a classically trained cellist.
"Microphones like the 'crooner mike' were developed here," he adds. "The quality of the technology developed here was better. The first television test signals in the world were sent between Camden and Collingswood. This story needs to be told."
For much of the 20th century, the sprawling downtown complex of the Victor Talking Machine Co., later RCA-Victor and finally GE, was a hub of innovation. At its World War II peak, the operation included 31 buildings on 56 acres and employed 20,000.
World-class recording studios, including one in a former Cooper Street church, attracted luminaries such as Enrico Caruso and Duke Ellington.
"Some of these records and record players are 100 years old, and they still work perfectly," Arnarson says, showing me the vintage Victrolas, radios, and TVs in the exhibit. "The craftsmanship is gorgeous."
At one point, he notes, 400 cabinetmakers worked for the company in Camden. "I seriously doubt," he wryly adds, "whatever technology we're using to listen to music 10 years from now will be around in 100 years."
Although a proposal to build a "Museum of Recorded Sound" on the Camden waterfront went nowhere a decade ago, Arnarson believes it ought to be revived. I agree.
Sound – not just musical, but of all sorts – is "such a part of American culture," he adds. "It deserves a permanent museum. In Camden."
For more information on the exhibit, go to rcca.camden.rutgers.edu.