The hidden vault where music lives forever

By Lauren Crimp

Deep in an arctic mountain, samples of the world’s crop collection are stored in the Global Seed Vault – also known as the Doomsday Vault.

“Project silica” engraves the musical data on thin glass blades the size of coasters.
Photo: Provided / GMV

It’s now set to save music for eternity too, and some New Zealand works have made the cut for the first filing.

The Global Music Vault uses Microsoft’s revolutionary technology, dubbed “Project Silica”, to engrave musical data onto thin glass slides the size of coasters.

Each can hold 100 gigabytes of data, with layers of tiny etchings that can be read by artificial intelligence algorithms. They will be kept in the vault of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago.

Kiwi music licensing consultant Nathan Graves is on the board of Global Music Vault and likened the technology to something a bit older.

“A bit like a floppy disk at the time, it read the information and then uploaded it to an interface.

“Then you can stream it, download it, do whatever you want with it.”

Graves said that right now the music of the world remains at the mercy of the elements.

“There are a lot of master tapes that were in basements or places where they were moldy, in some cases there were fires and the preservation of these precious items was lost.”

Virtually indestructible slides will solve this problem. They can withstand being baked, boiled, pickled, flooded and subjected to electromagnetic pulses.

There are also benefits for the climate. The vault is a cold storage solution – and not just because it’s near the North Pole.

Glass does not require power, as data is written into its atomic structure, making it a sustainable alternative to power-hungry data centers.

“It’s a fantastic idea, it’s a bit of sci-fi, but it’s also an amazing new format,” Graves said.

The first slide is a proof of concept and has not been populated yet.

Michael Brown, curator of music at the Alexander Turnbull Library, among the holdings of the National Library's music collection.

Michael Brown, curator of music at the Alexander Turnbull Library, among the holdings of the National Library’s music collection.
Photo: Mark Beatty / National Library of New Zealand

But thanks to Graves, New Zealand has already secured its place with six pieces by composer Douglas Lilburn, considered the grandfather of New Zealand music.

It includes the iconic Opening: Aotearoa which was written in 1940 for New Zealand’s centenary.

The Alexander Turnbull Library’s curator of music, Michael Brown, helped choose the works and said Lilburn was an obvious choice.

“Lilburn is one of our most iconic songwriters.

“Really, we’re trying to put something culturally significant in there as an initial deposit, and Lilburn has that level of national significance.”

Brown said Lilburn was also a pioneer of music archiving in New Zealand.

Douglas Lilburn

Douglas Lilburn.
Photo: Supplied / Chris Black

He said Maori and Pasifika music would be among the first considered for the next entry, but no date has been set for this.

Brown is keen to work with other libraries, universities, rights holders and kaitiaki to make further selections.

“There are many areas of New Zealand music to explore.

“Our popular music history is now quite long, a vast array of artists and music groups have been recorded over the years, which means a lot to people.”

Alongside the music of Lilburn on the first glass slide, there will be pieces by Beatie Wolfe from the UK, the International Polar Music Prize, the International Library of African Music, the Argentine Orchestra of Indigenous Instruments and new technologies, Fayha Choir from Lebanon and Ketebul Music from Kenya. .