Stephanie Conn

writer, researcher, producer



Personal archives

demos the reetoreel machine
My article about the tape collection of my late friend Peter MacLean‘s will be published early in 2017 in a new Open Access journal, The International Journal of Traditional Arts (Open Access Online Journal).  I’m thrilled to be accepted into the inaugural issue of what looks like a vibrant, quality journal that will be available to everyone.

Peter’s  collection certainly is special, but all of my musical friends in Cape Breton have their own pile of audio treasures, and I’ve been musing on their significance. I, too, have a personal archive of Gaelic singing, with over seventy tapes amassed since 1995 when I began to first began to visit Cape Breton.  These came to me in various ways: in some cases, I sought out a recording of a song I wanted to sing, either from archives or from the equally voluminous tape collection of my fellow Gaelic enthusiasts. In other cases, a friend gave me a tape thinking I might like to learn one of the songs on it. In 1998 I began to record at milling frolics and Gaelic song workshops, and then, as I got to know Gaelic singers, I began to visit them at home and ask them to sing specific songs for me, or songs of their choosing. In 2003, the year in which I lived in Cape Breton for seven months, I recorded with the most intensity, filming video interviews and performances for a future documentary. Like Peter’s collection, these tapes now provide me with a sort of virtual Gaelic community during the months between visits to Cape Breton, and support my memory of millings, ceilidhs and visits.

In his essay, “Unpacking my Library”, Walter Benjamin writes of the “spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories”.[1] He is referring to private book collections, but his observations on their embedded meaning resonates with my experience of the collections shown to me by my friends in Cape Breton. These collections include printed volumes and recordings but also scrapbooks and notebooks, photographs, and other souvenirs. There are several public archives in the province, which are increasingly important as the number of Gaelic native speakers declines.[2] The collections I have seen in private homes, however, are perhaps even more vital. In this essay, Benjamin suggests why this might be so. He writes,

One thing should be noted: the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter.[3]

As Benjamin indicates, collected objects are most meaningful when viewed as part of a social process; his books are meaningful not just for their content, but also because of the act of their collection. Why did they choose to keep these tapes? Which ones are most beloved, most played, and which are shoved to the back of the shelf?

[1] Walter Benjamin: “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”, in Illuminations, ed., Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 60.[2] This is discussed in greater detail in my dissertation, Chapter 4, Song and the Archive.  [3] Benjamin, 67.






Ondaatje, music and archival inspiration

With typically intriguing introspection and detail, Michael Ondaatje talks about his writing inspiration and process in video interviews recently released by The Lousisiana Channel of Denmark. In one he compares poetry to novel-writing. But in the second, he talks about his relationship with music. “The rhythm of music has been the biggest influence on my writing — it’s not Wordsworth, it’s Ray Charles,” he explains. This is no surprise to me; he’s my favorite writer mainly because of the cadence of his prose.

Screenshot 2015-06-21 13.29.20

In that interview, Ondaatje explained that music and writing are so connected that they must sometimes be separated. Continue reading “Ondaatje, music and archival inspiration”

Peter’s Tapes

demos the reetoreel machine

A highlight of my visits with Peter MacLean were sessions at his reel-to-reel machine. As we meandered thorough hours and hours of his recordings of Gaelic and English song, violin and piano, I felt like a time traveler eavesdropping on house parties, quiet visits, concerts and radio shows. Once we had fallen into that rabbit hole where long-vanished sounds came back to life, we were not likely to surface for many hours.

Peter MacLean’s collection of 48 multi-sided reel-to-reel tapes stand as a significant piece of Cape Breton musical history. They are a connoisseur’s collection of songs in Gaelic in English, fiddle music, party chatter and radio shows; an example of a personal archive; and a source of songs that sustained his own practice and along with other tape archives, which will aid in the future transmission of Gaelic song in CB.

When he moved into hospital Peter asked that we help to preserve his tapes, and so Paul MacDonald made digital copies of the precious ribbons. Coming soon on this blog: a preview of my article about this remarkable collection.

Blog at

Up ↑