THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

9 posts from October 2016

31 October 2016

Why do people sound funny in old recordings?

One of the pleasures of listening to old sound recordings is the ability they give us to peek through the glass at another time. Re-experiencing another moment in time, in real time, is immersive and gives us an intimate sense of what life on the other side of the glass was like. Can we take this at face value though? Does our modern perspective affect what we perceive on the other side? I had the opportunity to test this recently, in a wonderfully maintained 1947 Voice-o-graph disc recording booth, located in the Songbyrd Café in Washington DC.

 

The voice-o-graph recording booth


Before magnetic tape recording technology came of age in the mid-1940s, very few people had the means to make a sound recording of their own, and nothing more than a gramophone to play one on. Disc recording booths appeared in the 1930s, and were commonly found wherever people might have free time & spare money, such as fairgrounds, piers and railway stations. During World War II they were often used to send audio letters to and from armed forces personnel, providing an innovative morale boost to separated families and friends.

The British Library has several such discs, some of which appeared in the recent BBC Radio 4 programme Keepsake For My Lover. Listening to them, there’s often a stiffness or formality which we frequently attribute to the times they were made in. Is that a fair reflection though? While I was fascinated by the technology, I was just as keen to understand the experience of the person making the recording, to peek through from the other side of the glass.

I decided to make a recording for my daughter, who hates being praised, and also has no particular interest in discs or recording (or this blog post, probably). By the time she’s old enough to be curious about the disc, I reckoned, she might also be willing to hear a kind word from her dad, especially if he’s not in the same room at the time. I turned up at the booth with a couple of friends who were as curious as I was about the process, but I was reluctant to let them in the booth with me, and a bit nervous about telling them so. One suggested filming me from outside the booth, which didn’t altogether calm me down, plus I hadn’t actually prepared anything, other than a lullaby I used to sing to her when she was a baby (and, incidentally, was itself learned from an old British Library sound recording, here, from 30 seconds in).  

  How to make a recording

The booth itself was very warm, the machine noisy as it readies itself to record you, and a giant black cloud of my own expectation hung over me. I had three minutes to fill, with no pause button, and no second chance if I mucked it up. I sang & then mumbled, with no clear idea if I was too loud or too quiet, too near or too far away from the microphone, desperately hoping that no-one could hear me while I poured my heart out. At the end I was literally shaking.

I could have prepared better I suppose, but didn’t want simply to read something out, and the rhythm of the preceding morning hadn’t allowed a moment of quiet contemplation before piling into the booth. All of which, I suspect, would be typical of anyone making this kind of recording back in the day. What I ended up with then, is a recording sounding just like it was made in the 1940s: reticent, a bit shy, sincere. As the radio programme and my experience made clear, it’s not that the people being recorded have changed, so much as the context and technology of sound recording. Life on the other side of the glass isn’t so different after all, it’s just the glass that makes it look that way.

25 October 2016

Black History Month – Cullen Maiden

Gray Chapel

Cullen Maiden in performance at Gray Chapel, Ohio Wesleyan University

Photo: Cullen Maiden collection British Library

In March 2015 I acquired for the British Library the archive of singer Cullen Maiden from his widow Christine Hall-Maiden.  In 1964 she was working in Italy as secretary to screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin, co-creator of TV series Z-Cars and scriptwriter of The Italian Job (1969), when she met Cullen who at the time was studying with Luigi Ricci of the Rome Opera House.

Born in 1932, Cullen Maiden was an African-American who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio but at the time of his graduation he was already following many pursuits – singing in various choirs, forming his own R ‘n’ B group The Caspians, and, as well as acting on the stage, he was also trained as a boxer by Tiger Fann.  Maiden studied singing at Ohio Wesleyan University from where he received his Bachelor of Music degree and continued his studies at Juilliard School of Music in New York.  The Rockefeller Foundation Opera Voice Scholarship afforded him the opportunity to study in Munich.

In the early 1950s, while still studying at the Ohio Wesleyan University, Maiden won the vocal section of the Cleveland Music and Dance Festival.  He was invited to appear on local radio where he performed his winning selection Il Lacerato Spirito from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.

Simon Boccanegra

Like many artistically talented African-Americans, Maiden found he could get far more work in Europe than the United States so, in the late 1960s, he joined the Komische Oper Berlin where he gained a favourable reputation for his portrayal of Porgy in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. He also worked in Scandinavia and finally settled in London.

Porgy

Cullen Maiden as Porgy in Porgy and Bess

Photo: Cullen Maiden collection British Library

During his military service he made goodwill concert tours for the American Embassy and the Army in Korea during 1957 and 1958 and sang opera concerts with the Seoul Symphony Orchestra.

Highlights of his career include a tour with the Katherine Dunnan Dance Company as a singer soloist and a tour of the US with the Harry Belafonte Folk Singers.  Cullen appeared with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur and in many of the opera houses of Germany.

Here is an extract from a 1973 concert performance of I got plenty of nothing from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess with Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

I got plenty of nothing

Cullen Maiden was also a composer, writer and poet.  He provided the score for the 1970 German documentary Strange Fruit.  In New York at the Seven Arts Art Gallery he performed with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and in April 1966 appeared on a BBC radio poetry programme with Seamus Heaney.  In 2008 Maiden published Soul on Fire,  a collection of his poems and writings.

24 October 2016

Recording of the Week: Temporary Home

This week's selection comes from Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World and Traditional Music.

This recording of Tristan de Cunha islander Mary Swain was made by Peter Kennedy and Maud Karpeles in Calshot, Hampshire, in August 1962. Tristan de Cunha islanders were evacuated from their homes after the 1961 eruption of Queen Mary’s Peak took place and temporarily housed in an old Royal Air Force camp outside of Hampshire, in the United Kingdom. Most families returned to Tristan de Cunha in 1963.

One of the singers of great repute was Frances Repetto; and her daughter, Mrs. (Mary) Fred Swain, still remembers several of her mother's songs. She was our chief informant. Mary (age 67) is a delightful person: warm-hearted, gay, overflowing with vitality and a wonderful talker. She sang several songs, which together with others were recorded later by Peter Kennedy. He also recorded much of her conversation, telling about life on the island where they are 'just one big family' - actually about 260 souls.

This quote describing Mary Swain, who we can hear in the recording, was taken from a report published in the English Folk Dance and Song Society's Journal by Maud Karpeles. In the report, she explains her and Kennedy's experience making the recordings and why they felt it was important to document the folk songs and dances of the islanders whilst they were temporarily housed in the United Kingdom.

            Mary Swain, Calshot, Hampshire 1962 (Tristan de Cunha islanders). Tape 1

PK-674

Treasures of the Black Country

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English writes:

We were delighted recently to welcome acclaimed novelist, scriptwriter and actor, Meera Syal, to the Library to explore the accents and dialects of the Black Country for a forthcoming episode of Treasures of the British Library (Sky Arts, 21.00 Tuesdays). Born in Wolverhampton, Meera grew up in Essington, a small mining village in Staffordshire and went to school in nearby Walsall, my mom’s home town (hence she’s my mom, not my mum, mam or ma). So it was a particular pleasure to introduce Meera to the Library’s unique sound recordings that capture the distinctive voices of the area.

Meera Syal

Like me, Meera has moved away from the West Midlands, but we’ve all probably experienced the way in which language or a familiar accent immediately re-connects us with a favourite place or childhood home. The Library holds several collections that capture regional speech across the UK and across time as demonstrated by a remarkable recording of a World War One soldier born in Wolverhampton and recorded in a German Prisoner of War camp in 1916, an interview with a farm worker recorded as part of the acclaimed Survey of English Dialects in Lapley in 1955 and a conversation with Black Country poets and dialect enthusiasts recorded in Dudley in 2005.

Perhaps best known for her comedy, Meera rose to fame as co‐writer and star of Goodness Gracious Me, a series credited with popularising the British Asian word chuddies [= ‘underpants’] as confirmed by the dictionary entry below:


CHUDDIES

Dalzell & T. Victor (eds.) 2015. The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

so she was, I hope, reassured to discover the Library’s sound archives document the emergence of new voices and fresh influences on British English as demonstrated by this explanation that locals have adopted a Punjabi word, thandā [= ‘cold’], albeit wonderfully anglicised to a Black Country pronunciation, and by a conversation recorded by BBC Asian Network in Birmingham in 2005. Alongside this story of evolution and change, the Library has numerous recordings that capture the endurance of established dialects as confirmed by a recording of Mr Tickle (© Roger Hargreaves) submitted by a visitor to the Library's Evolving English exhibition in 2010, in which you can clearly hear a real sense of pride in the local accent.

Evolving English VoiceBank [C1442X1477] Mr Tickle in a Dudley accent

20 October 2016

Remembering Aberfan 50 years on

Having grown up 20 miles south of the village, the name ‘Aberfan’ and the tragedy that bestowed this coalmining community in the south Wales valleys fifty years ago this Friday have long been familiar to me. Before 1966, Aberfan was a place unknown to most people, but in October that year the whole world began to speak its name.

On the morning of 21 October 1966, after several days of heavy rain, a colliery spoil tip (waste from the National Coal Board’s nearby Merthyr Vale Colliery) situated 500 feet above the village of Aberfan collapsed with over 40,000 cubic metres of coal debris engulfing the Pantglas Junior School and destroying several terrace houses and a farm. 116 children and 28 adults perished that day in what was to become one of the worst disasters in modern British history. Although an official inquiry blamed the National Coal Board for extreme negligence, no NCB staff were ever demoted, sacked or prosecuted as a consequence of the disaster.

Aberfan_and_old_coal_tips_-_geograph.org.uk_-_673825

Aberfan and old coal tips, August 1968 ©Tudor Williams.

Listen to Civil Engineer, Robert Mair (1950-), discuss the cause of the disaster and the impact that this tragedy had on the discipline of ‘soil mechanics’: 

Robert Mair on the causes of Aberfan

In the immediate aftermath of Aberfan, the British public demonstrated their sympathy to the residents of the village by donating and raising money. Within a few months, approximately £1.5 million was raised for what was to become the Aberfan Disaster Fund. While the management of the fund has caused considerable controversy over the years (the residents of Aberfan ended up having to use £150,000 from the fund to assist the British government in the removal of other coal tips above the village, for instance), for the last fifty years it has been used to help support the regeneration of Aberfan, both physically and emotionally. As well as donating money to bereaved families, the fund has paid for the construction of a memorial garden on the former site of the Pantglas Junior School, house repairs, holidays for villagers, the upkeep of the cemetery where many of the victims are buried, a community hall and local school projects.

Aberfan_Cemetery_geograph-3377917-by-Stephen-McKay

Some of the headstones of the 116 child victims of the disaster, Bryntaf Cemetery, Aberfan. ©Stephen McKay

Listen to the former Electricity Council Industrial Relations Adviser, Roger Farrance (1933-), discuss how he fundraised for the Aberfan appeal:

Roger Farrance on fundraising for the Aberfan appeal

A minute silence is being held across the United Kingdom on Friday 21 October 2016 at 9.15am to remember those killed in the disaster.

Dr Cai Parry-Jones

Curator, Oral History

13 October 2016

Sir Neville Marriner – an interview

Neville_Marriner

Photo by Werner Bethsold (CC BY-SA 4.0)

When Neville Marriner died on 2nd October at the age of 92, it made me think of the time that I visited his home with Norman Lebrecht to interview him for the British Library.

A wonderfully charming and unpretentious man of extraordinary modesty, he talked for two and a half hours about many aspects of his life including his experiences with Albert Sammons and Benjamin Britten.  He began his career as a violinist and formed the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 1958 in which he played violin and conducted.  Later, with encouragement from the great conductor Pierre Monteux, he left his violin and took to the podium as conductor.

Below is an excerpt where he talks about advice he received from Pierre Monteux - and one difficult journey to Maine where Monteux taught.

Marriner on Monteux

One of the most recorded conductors, Marriner made more than 600 recordings of over 2000 works from pre-baroque to contemporary music.  Most of these are held in the British Library’s Sound & Vision collections complimented by numerous broadcast recordings from his long career.

10 October 2016

Recording of the Week: Please don't call me a koala bear

This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

If somebody were to ask “what does a Koala sound like”, what would you say? It’s difficult to even hazard a guess as these cuddly, tree-loving marsupials are so unlike any other animals. Found only in Australia, they belong to the same class of mammals as kangaroos, wallabies, possums and wombats and, contrary to popular culture, are not related to bears at all!

Australia-1068578_1920

With a cuteness factor that's off the chart, it comes as a bit of shock when they open their little mouths and produce this – a low, grating bellow more suited to a braying donkey with a sore throat.

The natural world is always full of surprises!

Follow @CherylTipp and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

 

06 October 2016

The future of radio: no. 4 - Nicky Birch

The British Library is working with the UK radio industry to develop a national radio archive and has invited experts from across the radio and music industry to consider what the future of radio might look like.

Nicky Birch
Nicky Birch

Nicky has been working in the radio and audio industry for 20 years, as a senior exec at UK indie Somethin’ Else, a director at Sound Women. In 2015 she founded radio and technology agency Rosina Sound, which has been leading a project for the British Library to explore the future of radio to help inform the launch of the National Radio Archive in 2017.

The future of UK podcasts

Much has been written about the rise and dominance of podcasts in the US. Meanwhile many producers and listeners in the UK believe our output is not up to the same standard – that American shows are better funded, better made and better distributed (although those who have discovered home-grown successes like Kermode and Mayo, the Football Ramble or My Dad Wrote a Porno might disagree).

There are several reasons why the UK podcasting industry hasn’t grown as fast as in places like America or India.

The main issue is the dominance of the BBC, which offers a high standard of speech content on its radio stations and simply converts this output to podcast format, thereby dominating the podcast charts with licence-payer-funded content.

There is also the fact that UK speech producers have traditionally not worked with advertisers so closely – they don’t have the same commercial background as US producers. In the US producers are more adept at working with brands creatively to sell a product and don’t feel uncomfortable doing so.

Finally, the strength of the BBC and commercial radio in the UK combined has meant many listeners haven’t needed or wanted to look elsewhere for their audio content.

But times are changing. During our research with the British Library we have spoken to many producers and business leaders from across the radio and audio sector, including content discovery platforms. The word is that in the UK, our podcast revolution is coming. We put this down to four reasons:

  • Commercialisation

In the US, podcasting is in a start-up frenzy – people are rushing to invest because the advertising spend is increasing quickly. There was a 48% increase in 2015, and Edison Research is estimating $150million will be spent in 2016. This isn’t a huge amount in advertising terms, but it’s the rapid growth that has excited people there and made producers and advertisers here look up.

The problem for UK podcasters has been the inability to sell their own advertising space or market their programmes successfully, being reliant on iTunes as their shop window where few shows are visible at any one time.

Companies like Acast are now offering a service that includes hosting and ad sales, and recently Audioboo pivoted its business to rebrand as Audioboom, a podcast advertising sales company, and the big US network Panopoly has just announced it is opening a UK arm.  Most podcasters using such services are still not making their fortune or indeed financing the time spent producing the content, but these are still early days. Ruth Fitzsimons from Audioboom believes podcasters need to invest now to grow their audiences in order to reap the rewards later, and she expects things to change significantly in around two years time when more advertisers realise the value of podcasting.

One of the big changes in the commercialisation of podcasts has been the introduction of dynamic advertising, where a chosen advert can be placed within the audio for a period of time and then replaced with an alternative advert at a later date. This means a large archive can have great value. Unlike linear radio, more like Netflix, podcast consumers tend to explore back catalogues so old shows can continue to make money for as long as new shows continue to be released within the same series.

  • Democratisation

The fantastic thing about podcasts is that anyone can make them, and a lot of people do. This has parallels with video where we’ve seen the rise of the YouTubers who have no fear about embracing brands and making money.

The young audiences who watch YouTube are prime for conversion into audiences for podcasts. They are used to searching for their content and used to their stars selling to them – it is totally normal. In the world of audio we’ve yet to see any mainstream celebrities grow out of podcasting, but the medium is waiting for a young presenter who isn’t constrained by old-fashioned broadcasting to tear the rulebook apart.

  • Mass niche

Podcasts are a success because they fulfil a need to hear more of what people love. Listeners make an active decision to search out and subscribe to a feed. You are unlikely to stumble upon a podcast (I’ll talk more about discoverability later) so they tend to be driven by user interests.

For example, I love cycling so I listen to the Cycling Weekly podcast, and it’s even better during the big tours, because they can put out extra editions of the show which radio can’t always fit into a limited schedule. They serve my needs when I most want it.

While a cycling show may never be mainstream, there are enough fans of most minority sports to make such podcasts viable. When you advertise on a cycling podcast, you are guaranteed to reach thousands of committed cycling fans – that’s pretty attractive to a Wiggle, Evans or Cycle Surgery – which makes the value of the sponsorship greater.

Some sales houses like DAX are starting to understand this power. It sells programmatic advertising space to agencies across all audio platforms, including podcasts, so on-demand audio can now be part of a wider campaign across radio and streaming services.

A mass niche programme that knows its audience well can provide lots of user analytics to help sell those spots. Programmatic adverts in podcasting are unlikely to cover the full costs of producing a quality podcast on their own just yet, but combined with host sponsorship readings, funding drives and branded events are turning mass niche brands into stable long term offerings with growing audiences and increasing potential.

  • Discoverability

Finding podcast content is the biggest hurdle. The user journey around most podcast players is pretty challenging. There simply isn’t enough room in the shop window for the many thousands of new programmes being created every week.

This means listeners are driven by what the platform tells them is popular and hence the top 100 chart becomes self fulfilling. This is a big design challenge, and technology is rising to overcome it.

If each programme provided a richer set of data – such as fully automated transcripts, key topics and mood – this could be linked between programmes to help users discover similar shows they might like and should lead to an explosion in discovery. This is akin to the successful Spotify Discover playlists that look at what users have listened to and create a new playlist each week accordingly.

Bigger platforms, like Amazon, Spotify and Pandora, have good experience of personalised algorithm driven content selection that they will use to their advantage as they move into the speech radio game.

Technology aside, the BBC understands one can’t rely on algorithms to serve up the hidden gems listeners never knew they wanted. The personalised service myBBC will rely on a mixture of serendipitous discovery, curated content and algorithm driven discovery.

If the BBC get this right – and listeners feel like they are taken on a journey being offered on-demand content to suit their mood that they didn’t realise they would like – they will have cracked the holy grail of on demand content. Many others will follow suit.

These are exciting times for audio producers in the UK. Brands, technology companies and the BBC are all looking to content creators to tell compelling stories to their audiences. Podcasts are just one of the many ways to deliver these messages but there is a great opportunity to play to the strengths of the audio medium being cheaper, simpler and quicker than video, film and emerging multimedia.

For creative British audio producers and presenters now is the time to experiment, to create better and bolder content ideas, to show that an idea that begins with a podcast could grow into something much bigger. Now is the time to invest in those ideas, build those audiences and the commercial support will follow.


The views and opinions in these blog posts are those of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the British Library.


Other blogs in this series:

The future of radio: no. 1 - Charlie Phillips

The future of radio: no. 2 - Matt Deegan

The future of radio: no. 3 - Paul Bennun

Listen to a special British Library podcast discussion of The Future of Radio