Ralston Library. Photo by Matt Hembree (C’20).
By Wesley Bailey
On the second floor of duPont Library, hidden away from the shelves of books, lies the Ralston Listening Room. Here, the music of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and countless other composers is exhibited in full glory.
Walk up to the first glass door of the Ralston Listening Room, and at first, nothing can be heard. Even with an ear against the door, not a sound, but open that door and sounds begin to filter through, and visitors can slowly exit the outside world as they begin to make out the wonderful world of Bossa Nova, mixing jazz and samba to create a unique genre of its own.
Open the inner door of the Ralston Room and visitors are greeted with its peaceful symphony, a full replica of the original composition. “It’s like a time machine,” Isaac Sligh (C’18), head curator for the Ralston Room said, commenting on the vinyl record’s ability to retain music. “It really is cool that they’re able to get that sound.”
Dedicated in memory of beloved Sewanee professor Rev. William Ralston (C’51) in 2011, the Ralston Room houses more than 20,000 records and possesses a state-of-the-art loudspeaker sound system, nationally acclaimed for its ability to reproduce “the full impact of concert music without strain or distortion,” according to the University website.
But the staff of the Ralston Room won’t stop there, Sligh said. “We love the equipment we have, we’re always trying to stay up to date and on the cutting edge of the high-end audio world. We’ll continue expanding in the sense that we’ll always be trying to push the boundaries of what sounds best,” he explained.
Recently, the Ralston Room received a very generous donation of more than 900 vinyl records from devoted alumni Adair Faust (C’77) and her husband William. The records include mostly classical and opera, some jazz and blues, and some popular music from the World War I era: calypso, rock and roll, and others.
About a month ago, Hayden Wetzel donated 1,000 records to the University. These consist mostly of Anglican Choir records that can be checked out by students.
“A student can go to the Choir room, on the second floor of Guerry, the music building, and they can find a record they want, and they can check it out there, and they can take it to the Ralston Room, and listen to it in the Ralston Room,” Sligh explained.
Though these donations are special, donations in general are fairly common. According to Dr. Tam Carlson, who spearheaded private fundraising efforts to create the Ralston Room, “We have about 15,000 uncatalogued records in storage right now.” That number is growing.
“We often get donations…usually we get anywhere from 50 at a time to sometimes a couple hundred,” said Sligh. “All the donations are incredibly appreciated…even if we do have the record, it goes to supporting the room in some way.”
Sligh and his tireless team of work studies and volunteers work to manage these donations. “We have a big team of workers, we have six work studies, working part time. And then we have probably twice that in volunteers,” he said.
The Ralston Room is notably a place for all music lovers around the Domain to frequent. With its famous Wilson Alexandria XLF Loudspeakers, it often attracts many people from out of town as well.
When asked about visitors, Sligh mentioned, “On an average day, we get about 20 to 30 [visitors]…I think we see out of town visitors every day. Which is really cool, usually a group makes a pilgrimage to see us almost daily. Sometimes from farther away than Nashville and Atlanta.”
Fall Party weekend and Homecoming weekend recently ended, and according to Sligh, those times are when the Ralston Room sees the most traffic. “We have really heavy traffic during Homecoming, Parents’ weekend…We usually see 300, 400, 500 people over a whole weekend.”
One can drop by any time during the week, with listening events happening almost every day, each put together by Sligh and his team of work studies and volunteers. If someone wants to stop by outside of listening hours or on weekends, they’re always welcome to make an appointment.
Whether for hip-hop, jazz, rock and roll, pop, or classical, the Ralston Listening Room is there, with its powerful and nationally renowned sound playback system and its extensive growing collection of more than 20,000 records. Be it Bach, Queen, or Drake – sit back and let the music wash over: The Ralston Room is waiting.