Alec McLane: Wesleyan’s Unsung Music Man

Photo from The Wesleyan Connection, by Stefan Weinberger ’10

Do you know Alec McLane? You know, friendly face, works on the 3rd floor of Olin, plays a bunch of instruments, etc. (The picture might help you recall?) If you do, you might know that he is Wesleyan’s Music Librarian and the Director of the World Music Archive. You might also know his involvement in various CFA and Music Department activities.

I have known Alec since I took Chinese Music Ensemble the first semester of my freshman year. I remember being in awe as he juggled at least three, and might I add, very different, instruments with ease. I grew curious about Alec and his story with the Chinese Music Ensemble, as I watched an American play Chinese instruments expertly in this Chinese/Asian dominated ensemble. (Of course, I later realized how naive it was to culturally stereotype anyone at Wesleyan. Oh the things I’ve learned in the past five semesters.)

As it turns out, Alec is one of the first people that helped establish the Chinese Music Ensemble at Wesleyan. Alec came to Wes in 1998. He was offered, as he calls it, the “perfect job.” He is native to New England and has been searching for opportunities to get closer to home throughout his career. He is also an avid lover of ethnomusicology, which Wesleyan has one of the world’s best programs in. So when a music librarian position opened at Wes, it was a perfect match.

Alec helped start the current Chinese Music Ensemble in 2002 (after several previous intermittent attempts), but that is certainly not the only music activity he is involved with. He also plays with the Gamelan Ensemble and directs the recording and preserving of almost all Music Department and CFA events at Wesleyan. As the Music Librarian, he is responsible for the selection of music resources to include in our library. But the most important work he does is perhaps also the least known about – overseeing the World Music Archive at Wesleyan.

The World Music Archive is such an amazing and precious project that I can’t believe it has received such little attention on campus. It started off as a personal sound recording collection by Professor David McAllester in the 1940s. It included the largest Navajo Music collection in the world, and continues to grow as scholars and students contribute their research materials. After finding its permanent home at Wesleyan, the World Music Archive remains an astounding feat– adept at preserving rare sounds, and receiving national grants for its continuation.

Due to the high value of these recordings and their various copyrights, Alec makes sure that they are not loaned out freely. Some Native American recordings are legally owned by the tribes, and per their request, these recordings may not be checked out from the World Music Archive or be replicated even for research purposes. Those who want to access them would have to physically be in the World Music Archive and remain there for the use of the recordings. The complicated proceedings often occupy much of Alec’s time, but it is a “small price to pay” for the proper maintanence of this incredible resource. (If anyone is interested in the collection, shoot Alec an email and he’ll gladly help you out.)

Even with all these responsibilities, Alec is still involved in a number of activities in the music and librarian communities around the world. In fact, he told me that he’s currently working on an article for the People’s Music – the premier music commentary magazine in China dedicated to both professionals and music lovers – on archives and intellectual property and the legal and ethical considerations involved in the use and preservation of music recordings. It is a fascinating subject, exploring many issues that people do not think about, at least not often enough. For instance, to what extent can you use and alter a piece of native, ethnic, traditional music? If it is being used in a way that has dramatically deviated from the original intention, is it still ethical and/or legitimate? I very much look forward to reading the article once it comes out, and I hope you are interested too. (I’m promising a follow up as I believe it is both an important and interesting subject.)

Links for further reading:

Alec McLane interview [The Wesleyan Connection] World Music Archive
From Gamelan to The Grateful Dead [The Argus] Wesleyan Recording Accepted Into National Registry [Campus Newsletter]

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