Wilder McCoy (C’20) conducts a Bossa nova listening session in the Ralston Room. Photo by Robert Mohr (C’21).
By Robert Mohr
On Friday, September 13, students received the first in a series of weekly emails in their inboxes. The subject line read: “MUSIC: NEXT WEEK IN THE RALSTON ROOM.” Sent at the request of Balazs Borosi (C’19), the email drew attention to one of Sewanee’s most unique resources, the William Ralston Listening Library and Archive. Borosi, who has been a head curator since August, hoped the emails would help the Listening Room “get a little more publicity.”
Borosi added that, “A lot of students don’t know about this resource and we wanted to make sure we had some more exposure.” The strategy seems to be working; over Family Weekend, the room had over 400 visitors.
The room, which opened in 2011, is managed with the aid of seven work study students and 15 volunteer hosts, along with two head curators: the aforementioned Borosi and Caitlin Berends (C’20). Berends began hosting in the listening room as a sophomore, eventually becoming a work study and since August, a head curator. As a music major and soprano singer, Berends cites “a desire to learn the repertoire” of her discipline as “a driving force” for her involvement with the room. Borosi, on the other hand, began volunteering out of his love for film scores.
Pictured: Caitlin Berends (C’20) in Ralston Room. Photo courtesy of sewanee.edu.
The room itself is measured to be acoustically uniform, meaning no matter where the listener sits, they can hear the same quality of sound. However, underneath the carpet there is a marked spot for optimal listening. Shelves throughout the room contain 15,000 of the estimated 25,000 records belonging to the library, while the other 10,000 records are distributed across various storage units around campus. In addition to the LP collection, there is a 15,000 strong CD collection also available for listening.
Sound in the room comes from a pair of Wilson Alexandria XLFs. Each speaker weighs 655lbs and measures 70in tall. Together they displace as much air as a small symphony orchestra. The Groovemaster DP7 turntable features an uncommon twin tonearm design, in addition to a copper platter, which eliminates noise from the turntable motor.
While the room is built around the vinyl collection, high quality digital streaming is also available. Currently, the Ralston Room utilizes the French service Qobuz, which launched in the United States in February 2019, however in the past the room has used streaming services such as TIDAL and Spotify.
In addition to playing songs requested by guests, which Berends and Borosi both agree that Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is the most frequent request, hosts organize weekly listening sessions ranging in theme from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to “Frank Night: Frank Sinatra, Frank Ocean, and other Franks.” Wilder McCoy (C ’20), a natural resources and international and global studies double major, has been hosting weekly Bossa nova listening sessions for the past two years. McCoy said that a former work study student who knew about his love for the genre encouraged him to begin volunteering in the room.
Annie Bowers (C’20), a violinist and music major, who has been volunteering since her first semester at Sewanee, enjoys the room’s expansive collection because it allows to her easily stumble upon new music: “I’ll be looking for a composer’s string quartets and find a trio for flute, clarient, and bassoon simply because the albums is right beside it. And then I’m able to read about the piece and the performers right there on the cover of the insert.”
However, the sense of community that the room provides is even more of a draw for Bowers, she said, “The very best part of the Ralston Room, however, is getting to experience all of this in the company of fellow music lovers and listeners! It’s an educational experience that also builds community.”
The Ralston Room is open from 3-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 3-6 p.m. on Fridays, as well as by appointment through firstname.lastname@example.org. On Thursday, October 31 at 5:30 p.m., Dr. Kerry Ginger will host “Sirens of Song: Women in Opera” as part of the 50 Years of Women celebrations.