At first glance, the nearly room-width, ceiling-high filing cabinets that fill an impossibly compact corner of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park suggest a repository of dry academic records.
But the items neatly stored on these shelves are alive with the sound and significance of music -- specifically keyboard music, and a full century's worth, at that.
Welcome to the International Piano Archive at Maryland, or IPAM, as it's known on campus.
Here, you'll find an estimated 97 percent of all commercially released piano recordings ever made, plus a lot of the other 3 percent preserved on tape.
In addition to 11,000 compact discs, the repository holds what now seem to be almost ancient artifacts -- not just 26,000 LP vinyl records, but an additional 8,500 of those smaller-in-diameter, easily breakable shellac objects called 78s, which first brought recorded sound into homes in the early 20th century.
There's room, too, for thousands of reel-to-reel tapes, vintage piano rolls, music scores, books about the piano and keyboard artists, concert programs, diaries and other manuscripts.
"We provide a safe haven for everything that is out there that we can get our hands on," says Donald Manildi, the soft-spoken curator of IPAM. "I assume that anyone who has made a piano recording may be worthy of study at some point down the road."
Stellar pianist Santiago Rodriguez, who is artist-in-residence at Maryland and head of the school's piano department, readily vouches for the collection's scope.
"If Manildi doesn't have it, it must be hiding somewhere in the world where it can't be found," says Rodriguez, who is chairing the jury for the 2007 William Kapell International Piano Competition that gets under way this week at Maryland.
Rodriguez invited Manildi to serve on that jury as a means of bringing fresh perspective to the deliberations for what has become a major competition since its founding in 1970.
"Not only does Don play the piano -- he studied with very reputable teachers -- he knows the piano backward and forward," Rodriguez says. "And I don't think I would be at all going overboard to say that he is the leading expert on the history of piano performance."
Manildi, 61, began to develop that expertise early on, with his first record purchases.
"From the age of 7 or 8, I started collecting," he says. "And when I was quite young I figured out that [Arthur] Rubinstein sounded different from [Vladimir] Horowitz. I was fascinated by the immense variety of piano music and piano playing."
The San Francisco-born Manildi, who grew up in Spokane, Wash., also began playing piano as a child. He went on to earn degrees in piano performance from the University of Washington in Seattle and the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Deciding against a concert career, Manildi wrote about piano music for a variety of publications and went into broadcasting. He worked for 17 years as music producer for Minnesota Public Radio and had his own long-running weekly series, The Romantic Piano, drawing largely from his own collection.
In 1993, Manildi was hired as curator at IPAM, an archive he knew well before it was relocated to College Park from New York. (The founders of the archive, which originated in Cleveland in 1965, gave the material to Maryland in 1977.)
"He has taken the archive to a whole new level," Rodriguez says. "It's a required pilgrimage to IPAM for anyone interested in the piano."
There is always something at the archive that needs to be researched for students or scholars, always something to add to the shelves -- like a rare recording of the great Spanish composer Enrique Granados playing his own music on a 1912 Spanish Odeon release.
"It may be the only surviving copy," Manildi says. IPAM recently paid a private collector $3,500 for the record. The archive, part of Maryland's libraries, has an acquisitions fund supported by the university.
There are older items in the collection, including a disc made in 1900 by Alfred Grunfeld, the first pianist to make a 78 rpm record. Many other now-obscure pianists have a slot on the shelves -- names like Schafer, Scheja, Schelling, Schick and Schioler.
And in these days of record-
company conglomerates, it's interesting to note the extensive variety of labels represented, like Muza, Mewa, Tono and Ultraphon.
It all adds up to a specialist's paradise.
"You can easily get sidetracked here," Manildi says. "The temptations are great. I've by no means heard or looked at everything."
Some of what the curator keeps a close eye on are what he calls "endangered species of recordings." These include reel-to-reel tapes that preserve many pirated performances that have never been issued commercially. "Some of them are deteriorating," Manildi says.
In a processing room at IPAM, staffers transfer fragile items onto CDs to ensure their posterity. These include "instantaneous transcription discs" -- shellac records made live in radio stations during broadcasts, four minutes or so to the side.
The archive, which has two listening rooms, regularly attracts three groups of users. Manildi describes them as "practicing pianists, musicologists and, with all due respect, piano nerds."
Among the latter was a man who asked to hear every recording of a particular Chopin etude.
Manildi offered him a hefty sampling of 107 different recordings.
"I never heard from him again," the curator says. "Maybe he became completely nuts after hearing the same piece 107 times."
Manildi recalls a young woman walking past the door. "She said, 'Oh, boy, International Piano Archive. I bet you have a lot of Billy Joel recordings.' I had to disappoint her.
"Our focus is on classical piano music repertoire, just to keep the collection within manageable limits. For jazz and pop music, you have to go elsewhere, although Fats Waller and Art Tatum snuck in."
Although Maryland students can usually stop by unannounced to dig into the material, everyone else needs to make an appointment. "We're not open for browsing," Manildi says.
When he does jury duty for the Kapell Competition, Manildi will be drawing on decades of comparative listening, and his own high standards for what constitutes pianistic taste and skill.
"You always hope a young [Vladimir] Ashkenazy or [Martha] Argerich will emerge -- someone who stands out from the crowd," he says. "But the very top, most exalted level of pianism is as rare as it has always been."
The contemporary piano world does not fare terribly well in Manildi's view.
"We don't have anyone today on the level of the pianists in the 1920s and '30s," he says. "That's not just an old fogey wallowing in the past. You could not match the level of memorable, individualistic piano playing we had then, when [Josef] Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, [Josef] Lhevine and [Alfred] Cortot were all active pretty much at the same time."
Manildi is nothing if not demanding when it comes to hearing music made on the piano.
"I keep a list of pianists whose recitals I have walked out of," he says. "Some of them, if I hadn't left at intermission, I would still be there asleep on the floor."
To hear audio clips of rare piano recordings from 1911 to 1930, go to baltimoresun.com / classical
William Kapell International Piano Competition
Contest -- Preliminary rounds Tuesday through Thursday; semi-final solo rounds Friday through July 15; semi-final chamber music rounds July 17-18; final concerto round July 21.
Guest-artist concerts -- Pianist Garrick Ohlsson (Thursday); cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han (July 17); pianist/composer Philip Glass (July 18); pianist Anne-Marie-McDermott (July 19); jazz pianist/composer Ahmad Jamal (July 20).
Other events -- Several guest artists discuss music-making and careers (various dates); "Open Piano Night" for amateur pianists (Friday); "Grand Piano Party" of free activities and demonstrations (July 15); Donald Manildi presents "Treasures from the Piano Archives" (July 19); pianists Steven Mayer and Nathan Bello present music composed or influenced by jazz great Art Tatum (July 20).
All events at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Stadium Drive and University Boulevard, College Park. Prices for ticketed events $15-$50. Call 301-405-2787 or go to claricesmithcenter.umd.edu.