A Musical Finding Aid – The Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenewalt Collection


As alluded to in a previous blog entry, we have been working on the creation of a musical finding aid for the Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenewalt collection.  I am happy to announce that this finding aid is now complete and available for use!

In case you’re not familiar, a finding aid is a descriptive, but purposely non-interpretive, tool used by researchers to help identify and locate material within an archival collection.  Anyone who has done research in an archive has used a finding aid in order to give them a guiding point for their research with collection materials.  For many collections, the finding aid and organization of the collection is broken down into series; groups of materials that share a theme, format, or some other similarity.

Our goal with this project was to take a collection with a well developed finding aid, in this case the Greenewalt collection, and create an interpretive supplement through music that could serve as an emotional guide to materials within each series.  Five artists, Andrea Clearfield, Willhem Echevarria, Ted Houghtaling, Max Lawrence and Maurice Wright, participated in this project. Each pulled inspiration from materials in the different series and created music and video based on the experience.  Their pieces were then tied to a finding aid generated by Archivists’ Toolkit, resulting in the musical finding aid.

I hope that anyone interested in using the Greenewalt collection for research finds this supplement useful in their research.  This was the perfect collection for such a project considering Greenewalt’s background and interests in life. Greenewalt, a Lebanese woman born in the late 19th century, was a pioneer in the arts with her interests in music, light and color.  She developed a color organ for displaying colored light scored to music and a notation system for this art which she called nourathar.  In order to fulfill her musical pursuits, Greenewalt had to enter the engineering world and was awarded several patents, including one for an improved rheostat (you may know this best as the light dimmer switch).  In the 1930s she spent much of her time in court, suing others for patent infringement.

As this project and its product is an archival experiment, I encourage readers to please comment and discuss the project via the comments section of this post.  HSP will also be hosting a composers’ panel for this project starting at 6pm on the evening of April 5th, 2011 where we will bring the artists together, have a discussion about the project, listen to the music created and have the Greenewalt collection on display.  More details on this event will follow when they are available.

Below is the music and video created for this project, as well as notes about the pieces primarily by the artists.  The musical finding aid itself can be used by following this link.  I would also like to thank the Heritage Philadelphia Program, without which this project would not have been possible.


Series 1 – General Files
Music by Willhem Echevarria

Reviewing the papers of Mary Hallock Greenewalt, as well as the finding aid by HSP staff, I noticed several “characteristics” of Greenewalt’s personality and work that I thought could be translated well to a study of musical contrasts. I decided to focus on contrasts instead of colors since I find the concept of colors in music a very subjective way of “looking” at music. Greenewalt being a pianist herself , once I got involved with the project I wanted to write for the piano. I picked some of the “characteristics” that I found reflected in the papers-piano music, Impressionism, the waltz from Chopin’s perspective but also a little bit of Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, pulse-rhythm studies, her Middle-Eastern background-and started to combine different ideas in several different sequences in order to achieve the contrasts that I wanted. I want to offer my special gratitude to Jay Fluellen, pianist and a notable composer himself, for understanding my vision and translating it beautifully with his performance.

Willhem Echevarria was born in Puerto Rico, studied at University of the Arts under John Swana and Dennis Wasko, and worked for years as a trumpet player, arranger, and composer in a commercial studio setting. Always wanting to work in libraries in general, and music libraries in particular, he finished a Master in Library Sciences and worked at the University of Puerto Rico as a librarian before returning to Philadelphia in 2007. A professional librarian/archivist during the day, he still dedicates his evenings to music (performance, arranging, composing, and a little bit of ethno musicological research on the Caribbean).

Series 2 – The Color Organ
Music and Video by Maurice Wright

The above video, entitled “Light-Color Play,” utilizes a painted board by Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenwalt which can be found in Box 12, Folder 3 of this collection.

Maurice Wright was introduced to the craft and technology of film when he met Director Gene Searchinger in 1976 and contributed an electronic score for an unusual film about recycled aluminum, “Metallic Tales: The Social Life of a Non-Ferrous Metal,” which received a Golden Eagle Award. Over the next two decades Wright continued to work with Searchinger, most recently contributing music and special sound for the three-program series about linguistics, “The Human Language,” broadcast in the United States and Japan. You can learn more at www.mauricewright.org

Series 3 – Legal Materials
Music by Ted Houghtaling

0163_0019_004In the writings of Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenewalt, great length is taken to explain that there is no direct correspondence between sound and color. According to her, they “speak in different ways” and are always subject to the interpretation of the artist and the experiences they bring to each piece. I’m not certain if Mrs. Greenewalt was a synesthetic. This piece, instead of relying on historical verisimilitude assumes she might have been. If not, I can only wonder what drives someone to spend the majority of their life exploring the bridge between the worlds of the seen and the heard. I thought it would be an interesting idea to put aside any pressure to provide a strict textual interpretation and instead attempt to explore the dream world of Mrs. Greenewalt. The very place where her thoughts, with all their meanings, resonances and impressions would have gestated and found themselves expressed in the light of day. She would later take these ideas and call her art, nourathar, derived from Arabic and literally translated as ‘essence of light’.

Ted Houghtaling is a sound designer working in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. You can learn more about him and his music at tedhoughtaling.blogspot.com.

Series 4 – Writings
Music by Max Lawrence


Maximillian P. Lawrence earned his BFA in painting from The Rhode Island School of Design. He is a founding member of Space 1026, an artists’ collective that focuses in silk-screening, painting, audio/video production and graphic design. His work has been exhibited at the The Institute of Contemporary Art, Spector Gallery and Vox Populi, Philadelphia; Jasmine Pasquill, Jonathon Levine Gallery, and DUMBO Art Center, New York City; Lump Gallery, NC; The Butcher Shop, Chicago; Mina Gallery, San Francisco; Antisocial, Vancouver; and in Europe. His work is featured in publications 8 ½ by 11, 55DSL Book; and Rockpile Magazine. His work is in the collection of 55DSL Corporate.

Series 7 – Artifacts, Scrapbooks, Paintings, Drawings and Blueprints
Music by Andrea Clearfield


I was inspired by writings and graphs by Mary Hallock Greenewalt, as well as one of her paintings with a fragment of a score by Claude Debussy (Volume 25). Ms. Greenewalt indicates “music for the ‘sigh’” under the sketch. My work is built around excerpts from Debussy’s “Soupir” (Sigh), for soprano and piano, set to the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé in 1864. The title of my piece is taken from a line in Mallermé’s poem.

The music from “Soupir” is alluded to throughout the work as well as Debussy’s “And the Moon Descends on the Temple That Was.”  I also recorded myself at the piano, playing the musical excerpt that she transcribed, a series of descending dream-like chords. In her writings, she references music with a “moon” theme: “Et La Lune” by Debussy and the “Moonlight” Sonata by Beethoven. Layered in the music are fragments of these works and others, including Ms. Greenewalt’s own performances of Chopin and Beethoven. Also woven through the texture are various sounds of organ music.

I wanted to create a luminous soundscape, reminiscent of the “jeweled world” that Ms. Greenewalt describes in her vision of a new art form: Nourathar (essence of light). She imagines people “sitting within a huge living every-color jewel” while this “spoke the music of one’s soul”. She also speaks of the “shifting tones of light and color”, the “now brightening, now darkening, now a Jasper sea on the warm water”. Moon, soul, pulsing rhythm, color, light, dream, gems and water are recurring themes in her writings.

This piece is a creative response to her words, sketches and vision. In addition to the elements above, my own synesthesia (seeing colors to musical notes) helped inform the musical “color” of the work. There is a fluid progression from Debussy’s sigh-like chords to a high female voice singing “mon âme” (my soul) appearing and retreating into the distance like fleeting memories, an hommage to Mary Hallock Greenewalt and her extraordinary vision and creation.

Andrea Clearfield is an award winning composer of music for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensembles, dance and multi-media collaborations. Her works are performed widely in the U.S. and abroad. She has composed 8 cantatas for chorus and orchestra and is working on a new cantata for premiere at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts this spring. Recent premieres include Kawa Ma Gyur, a chamber work inspired by her 2010 trek documenting the Tibetan music in the restricted northern Himalayan region of Lo Monthang, Nepal, commissioned by Network for New Music. She was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome last fall, where she composed this work. She serves on the composition faculty at The University of the Arts and is the pianist in the new music ensemble, Relâche. She is also the founder and host of the Salon concert series featuring contemporary, classical, jazz, electronic, and world music, celebrating its 24th year and winner of the Best of Philadelphia Award, 2008. More information at www.andreaclearfield.com

8 thoughts on “A Musical Finding Aid – The Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenewalt Collection

  1. Saw this link at the A&A list. Very interesting and well-done use of multimedia and web.
    But I would quibble with calling this a “supplement.” As you say, archival finding aids are not generally interpretive, and supplements are considered to be part of a larger work. In order to “respect du fonds” a true supplement to the original finding aid should be based on materials from the same creator. I think what you’ve done is more like creating a derivative work, a new work by different creators based on both original works – the fonds/collection and original finding aid.

  2. Very true, Michael. I chose supplement primarily because of the intent of use for the musical materials produced. Though the music may have been generated through inspiration of the collections materials, the impetus that drove its creation for this project was to assist researchers as an addendum to the original finding aid. What I am getting at is, how much effect does the music being interpretive have on its usefulness to researchers? Is it enough to qualify this solely as a stand alone work?

  3. I am really impressed by this integration of media with the finding aid. You all have done such a great thing for this fascinating collection!

    I’m excited to be able to listen to Willhem’s composition on my desktop. Congratulations on a fantastic job, Willhem, Matt, et al.

    Hope all is well these days at HSP.

  4. Being a musician myself, I would say that this does not enhance my experience of the collection. Having listened to the musical intrepretation for the first series, I have no better “context” with the music than I do without it. In fact, no offense to the partciular musician, but I find it an annoying distraction. There is no universal musical interpretation of anything, much less something that I am not able to view and formulate my own interpretation of. So while I salute you for trying something innovative, I just think music is too personal a vehicle with which to create some sort of context.

  5. Hi, HSP! Any more MHG-inspired events planned in the near future? Several years ago while working at HSP as a processor, I spent some time with this collection and am thrilled to hear about these projects! Please keep us posted!

    • Hi Kim! We had to cancel the Musical Finding Aid Event due to snow, but we are rescheduling it. We should be able to announce the date next week, which I will add to this blog post and make a comment about it. Check back then and hopefully you can make it out!

  6. The Musical Finding Aid Event for the Greenewalt collection has been rescheduled for Tuesday, April 5th! The event begins at 6pm and ends at 8pm. It will feature discussion by the artists and listening to their music; followed by a viewing of the Greenewalt collection along with other music related collections held by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

    Please go here to register for this Free event!


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