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Miss the Hiss of Voices on Vinyl?

In the early sixties, Harry and Lynne Sharon Schwartz published the Calliope Author Readings: eight individual recordings, each on its own seven-inch vinyl disc, of writers such as James Baldwin, Philip Roth, and John Updike reading from their fiction. The records provided a rare opportunity to hear, in their creators’ own voices, excerpts from the early work of authors who would become colossal literary successes. Now, more than half a century later, the couple has rereleased the material in digital form for a new generation of listeners.

The original project was launched for a very simple reason: The Schwartzes, both lovers of contemporary fiction, wanted to hear up-and-coming young writers reading their own work. They approached Baldwin first, in 1962, after attending a reading by the then thirty-eight-year-old author, and offered him three hundred dollars to read from his novels Giovanni’s Room and Another Country. Baldwin then put the couple in touch with William Styron, who read from his novel Lie Down in Darkness; Styron contacted James Jones, who recorded an excerpt of his novel From Here to Eternity. Roth, Updike, Bernard Malamud, and Nelson Algren followed.

The Schwartzes worked with the writers to choose selections that could be read in less than eighteen minutes—the total length of both sides of the record. A sound engineer captured the readings on ten-inch reel-to-reel tapes, and edited the tracks using a razor to splice the tape. The Schwartzes printed fifteen thousand records, and sold copies in bookstores throughout the United States and England.

Two years later, the project was put on hold as the couple relocated to Rome on Harry’s Fulbright scholarship. While they long knew of the discs’ appeal, the Schwartzes did not consider rereleasing them in an updated format until 2013, when digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media announced plans to issue an unexpurgated version of Jones’s From Here to Eternity as an e-book. Lynne thought the excerpt of Jones’s novel that she and her husband had preserved would make a valuable accompaniment to the new release, but decided it would be simpler to digitize it themselves.

A recording engineer transferred the vinyl pressings to digital files; stray clicks and other imperfections were cleaned up using the latest software, though a faint background hiss was preserved to retain the original ambience.

“The voices always give me the shivers,” Lynne says, “as if they’re coming out of the ether.”

Six of the writers who participated in the Calliope readings are now deceased, and Lynne believes that for all except Updike, the recordings represent the only commercially available audio of the authors reading their fiction.

The newly digitized Calliope Author Readings were released in February and are available on CD through Amazon and Audio Editions; MP3 files can be purchased and downloaded at www
.calliopeauthorreadings.com.

The Schwartzes hope to build upon the project by tracking down and reissuing historical recordings of more midcentury greats. In particular, they plan to add women writers to the mix, having been “properly chastised” for the all-male lineup of the original Calliope series. (To their credit, the couple did make some initial efforts to recruit women: Carson McCullers was ill, and Marianne Moore was not interested.) But before tackling the next chapter in the Calliope series, Lynne says she and her husband are taking a much-needed break. “We’re giving ourselves a chance to breathe.”

Jonathan Vatner is a fiction writer in Brooklyn, New York. He is the staff writer for Hue, the alumni magazine of the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Credit: Rachel Schwartz

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Miss the Hiss of Voices on Vinyl? (July/August 2014)
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