THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

10 posts from December 2016

31 December 2016

Recording of the week: the first New Year's Eve radio message

This special New Year's Eve selection comes from Paul Wilson, Curator of Radio.

On New Year’s Eve of 1922, just six weeks after the first official BBC radio broadcasts were aired, the first ever New Year’s message was transmitted, generating a mixture of awe and some wild speculation about what this new medium might mean for the future.

Leeds Mercury 1 Jan 1923

The Leeds Mercury, 1 January 1923

Whereas the Leeds Mercury was ‘bewildered’ at the thought that ‘hundreds’ of people might be listening, the Falkirk Herald predicted that by 1950 ‘men about town will be carrying a listening-in set in their waistcoat pocket’ and that ‘probably we shall be in touch with other worlds’.

Meanwhile, in Lincoln sixteen year old Alfred Taylor made a brief but more down-to-earth note of what he heard on 2ZY (the BBC's Manchester station) and 2LO (London) in his personal Wireless Log, along with the names of some neighbours who dropped by to ‘listen-in’ with him:

Alfred Taylor Radio Listening Log 1 Jan 1923

Alfred Taylor's Wireless Log entry for New Year's Eve, 1922

A decade later, producer Lance Sieveking was making a feature to mark the end of the BBC’s first decade but found there were virtually no surviving recordings with which to illustrate it. He therefore set about reconstructing some of the key radio moments of the 1920s by asking the original speakers to re-read from their original scripts. Today they give as accurate an impression of what the BBC sounded like in those first years as we will ever have.

This is one of them – a reconstruction of that first New Year’s Eve message broadcast from Marconi House on 31 December 1922. Now, as we move from a bewildering year into one which promises to be even stranger, the Reverend Fleming’s message seems as apt as ever: 

BBC First New Year's Eve Address 1922

Happy New Year from all of us here at the sound archive!

25 December 2016

Recording of the week: A Christmas Day in Taiwan

This special Christmas recording of the week comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

This poem was written and performed by Maurice Rooney, thought to be of the 288th Field Company, Royal Engineers, 18th Division, who was a British Prisoner of War held at Kinkaseki camp in Taiwan from 1942 - 1945. The poem evokes the physical context and lived experience of the POWs in the Japanese prison camp over the Christmas period. It highlights their resilience and optimism for the future.

A Christmas Day in Taiwan_Maurice Rooney

Advent-80125_1920

This recording is part of the Roy Palmer English Folk Music collection which features 140 hours of field recordings featuring soldiers' songs and folk drama.

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

 

22 December 2016

Christmas and everyday making

Michael Brennand Wood
‘Burst’, 2009 by Michael Brennand-Wood (Machine embroidered blooms, wire, toy soldiers, fabric and acrylic on wood base). Photograph by Peter Mennim.

National Life Stories’ long life history interviews all ask questions about the interviewee’s childhood, seeking to capture something of their family history, their early memories, and the interests, influences and accidents that led them to take up their chosen careers. In interviewing for Crafts Lives we ask particularly about family members who made things and a childhood interest in making. The 1940s and 50s, when most of our interviewees grew up, provide rich material. The interviews are full of grandfathers with workshops, fathers bodging up greenhouses and garden gates, go-cart making and sewing, knitting and cooking. It was an age of make do and mend when ingenuity was required even though the results were sometimes surprising. Here textile artist Michael Brennand-Wood recalls seeing his treasured green teddy bear return from being mended by his grandmother.

Michael Brennand-Wood

It is difficult, as the person being interviewed, to recall the detail of everyday life and the making that went into feeding, clothing and homemaking that was so habitual that it formed part of the unexamined texture of childhood. One way to help the interviewee is to ask questions about the details. In this clip textile artist Michele Walker initially says that no one in her family made anything but careful questioning reveals interesting nuggets of information about the jumpers that were always knitted as Christmas presents with wool from a yarn club and leads on to her talking about the things she made herself as a child.

Michele Walker 

Questions about Christmas in general are often fruitful as people tend to have clearer memories of the heightened atmosphere of high days and holidays. In addition it is a time when people particularly invest time in making: - in cooking special food, making presents and creating decorations. Here jeweller Andrew Logan describes the Christmas tree fairy made by his mother, which is still a prized family possession.

Andrew Logan

The making that characterised many interviewees’ childhoods in the 1940s and 50s was on an everyday, almost unconsidered, level. Much of it was borne of necessity but listening to the interviews also reveals the care, skill, creativity and talent for improvisation that went into everyday making. It was from this landscape of practical intelligence that the studio craftspeople and designer makers of the 1960s and 70s emerged to take craft in new and unexpected directions. Even if making is not as universal as it once was, Christmas is still the highpoint of the calendar.  Whether it’s Christmas cakes or cards with glue gun and glitter, happy making and Happy Christmas.

By Frances Cornford

NLS Project Interviewer

19 December 2016

Recording of the week: Bad cough? Try a fried mouse

This week's selection comes from Dr Rob Perks, Lead Curator of Oral History.

In this 1967 recording oral history pioneer George Ewart Evans interviews Susan Mullenger (b.1878) about some old Suffolk remedies for children's illnesses, including inhaling fumes from a gas-works or eating fried mice to cure whooping cough. 

Susan Mullenger interviewed by George Ewart Evans

Mouse-1733265_1280

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

13 December 2016

Artists’ Lives Exhibition at Tate Britain

From now until Autumn 2017, selected audio recordings from National Life Stories’ Artists’ Lives project (C466) will be on display at Tate Britain, London, as part of the free exhibition, ARTISTS’ LIVES: SPEAKING OF THE KASMIN GALLERY.

  172 kasmin on phone 118Kasmin in his gallery at 118 New Bond Street, c.1966. Photograph courtesy Kasmin.

Celebrating the history of the Kasmin Gallery, a Mayfair gallery that played a key role in the art scene of 1960s London, the exhibition brings together artwork originally shown in the gallery (subsequently acquired by Tate), including the works of Jules Olitski (1922-2007) and Robyn Denny (1930-2014), together with related audio extracts from Artists’ Lives (available via touch-screens in the exhibition’s seating area) that allow visitors to explore the history of the Kasmin Gallery and developing art market through the voices of those directly involved, including artists, curators and Kasmin himself.

To mark the launch of the exhibition, a conversation event was held at Tate Britain on Friday 9 December 2016, which saw gallerist Kasmin, Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate, and biographer and cultural historian Fiona MacCarthy reflect on their own personal experiences of life story interviews, as well as the content of the exhibition itself. A one-day conference entitled The Voice of the Artist was also held at the Courtauld Institute of Art on Saturday 10 December 2016, which brought together artists, curators, art historians and oral history experts to explore the importance, relevance and complications of life story interviews in the context of art studies and art education. Novelist William Boyd gave the conference’s keynote lecture, which discussed his 1998 fictitious biography Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928–1960 and the centrality and importance of life stories in his work.

 

74390004Kamsin gallery exteriorKasmin outside the Kasmin Gallery on New Bond Street, 1960s. Photograph courtesy Kasmin.

Over 200 Artists’ Lives life story recordings are now freely available on BL Sounds, the British Library’s online sound resource. To explore Artists’ Lives interviews not online please search the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue.

Artists’ Lives is run by National Life Stories at the British Library in association with Tate. The Henry Moore Foundation, The Henry Moore Institute and the Yale Center for British Art have supported the project since its inception in 1990. National Life Stories is grateful to all its sponsors in relation to the exhibition ARTISTS’ LIVES: SPEAKING OF THE KASMIN GALLERY, particularly the Gubenkian Foundation UK and the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation.

Dr Cai Parry-Jones

Curator, Oral History

12 December 2016

Recording of the week: 'Winter' by Vita Sackville-West

This week's seasonal selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary & Creative Recordings.

Listen to Vita Sackville-West reading 'Winter' from her book-length poem The Land, excerpted from a two-disc set published by the International Educational Society in 1931. Following the format of the book, each of the four 78 rpm sides is titled after one of the four seasons. The poem is in the traditional pastoral mode, taking the natural world and its rustic denizens as its subject. The print version had been published by Heinemann in 1926 and had won the following year's Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature. In 1933 Sackville-West was to be awarded the prize a second time, for her Collected Poems.

Winter, from The Land by Vita Sackville-West

Winter-mood-113325_1920

All four parts of Sackville-West's "The Land" can be found in Early Spoken Word Recordings on British Library Sounds

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

09 December 2016

British Composer Awards 2016

On Tuesday 6th December the 2016 British Composer Awards ceremony took place at the British Film Institute in London. This annual event recognises the achievements of composers working in musical fields as diverse as jazz, choral and orchestral composition.

Though each area is fascinating in itself, our eyes were firmly fixed on the category of Sonic Art where composer and artist Claudia Molitor was nominated for her major audio work, Sonorama. Conceived as an audio companion for the train journey between London St Pancras and Margate, Molitor drew extensively on the resources of the British Library's sound archive during both the research and composition process. From cheeky music hall songs to tranquil woodland soundscapes, Molitor skillfully combined archival sound recordings with interviews, readings and original compositions to create a rich  soundtrack that vividly brought to life the social history of the otherwise silent landscape experienced by passengers from the train window.

All Aboard for Margate_Florrie Forde

Sonorama opens with 'All Aboard for Margate' sung by Florrie Forde and published c.1905 by the Sterling Record Company

Each track related to a specific  point or area along the train line and covered topics including visio-centricity, Roman history and hop-picking. The historian David Hendy  helped inform the project and artists such as flautist Jan Hendrickse, poet Lemn Sissay, Saxophonist Evan Parker and writer Charlotte Higgins lent their talents to the mix. 

Sonorama was an enjoyable and highly rewarding project to work on. It is a brilliant example of the creative reuse of archival sound recordings by contemporary composers and so we send a huge congratulations to Claudia for this fantastic achievement!

Claudia Molitor

Claudia Molitor, British Composer Awards 2016 Sonic Art winner for Sonorama (photo by Mark Allan)

Visit Sonorama.org.uk for more information about the project, including information on how you can access the audio work.

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Sonorama was curated and produced by Electra in partnership with Turner Contemporary and the British Library, with funding and support from Arts Council England, Southeastern Rail, Kent County Council Arts Investment Fund, Hornby, University of Kent. The Sonorama catalogue is published by Uniformbooks.

06 December 2016

Messiaen and the songs of wild birds

This guest blog comes from Delphine Evans whose Master's thesis explored the manuscript notations of birdsong made by the French composer Olivier Messiaen during the 1950s, in relation to the early wildlife recordings that inspired them and to the musical compositions in which they feature.

This year, there has been something of a revival of interest in birdsong and natural soundscapes. In particular, a series of programmes devoted to birdsong  appeared on BBC Radio 3. This included a birdsong mixtape, new interpretations of birdsong-inspired music (perhaps most notably Pierre-Laurent Aimard's day-long performance of Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux at the Aldeburgh festival), and debate on the topic ‘Is birdsong music?’ Also of interest was the weekly birdsong segment on Radio 3’s Sunday Breakfast show, where the remarkable field recordings of different species of birds by Chris Watson were paired with excerpts of music from a variety of composers, from Ravel to Respighi.

The British Library’s sound archive is home to a unique collection of over 200,000 wildlife sound recordings from 1889 to the present day. Of all these, the work of Ludwig Koch (1881-1974) is remarkable in that it represents a pioneering attempt to document the natural sound world using recording technology.

During his lifetime, Koch devoted himself to collecting the sound phenomena he heard in the world around him. In 1889, as a child in his native Germany, he was given an early Edison phonograph which he used to make one of the first known recordings of birdsong: his pet Indian Sharma. When he arrived in England in 1936, Koch began to travel all over the British Isles, capturing birdsong and the sounds of natural environments on wax discs before transferring these to shellac. This was a long and laborious process, often requiring hours or even days of observation of a particular bird before beginning to record its voice. 

Koch’s first British recordings were published as Songs of Wild Birds in 1936, in partnership with the ornithologist E.M. Nicholson. This was followed by More Songs of Wild Birds in 1937. These unique collections combine textual descriptions of the songs and habitats of a variety of species, illustrations of the birds themselves and excerpts of their recorded songs and calls. Koch described Songs of Wild Birds as ‘the first sound-book of British birdsong’ – an early multimedia document that combines text, image and audio.

Songs of Wild Birds box set coverFront cover of Songs of Wild Birds (1936) by E.M. Nicholson and Ludwig Koch

What is remarkable about Koch’s recordings of birdsong is how skilfully he manages to isolate the songster within the recording, yet still captures elements of its surrounding environment - rather like a soloist performing to the backdrop of an orchestral accompaniment. This provides the listener with a clear sense of the habitat in which the featured bird lives: in other words, the recording presents a particular ‘soundscape’. These ‘backdrops’ comprise of many different sounds, from the songs of other neighbouring birds to the fortuitous sound of a passing aircraft.

Grey Heron calls with background birds (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

Curlew bubbling song with overhead aircraft (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

Koch’s recordings were a source of inspiration to another celebrated musical figure whose interest in birdsong is well known. Throughout his life, the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) notated birdsong and other natural sound phenomena. Like his German contemporary, Messiaen had also started to collect the songs of birds as a child – yet, as a musician and (later) composer, his preferred method was to write them down using musical notation. The earliest surviving examples of Messiaen’s autograph notations date from 1951: today, they belong to a collection of over 200 manuscripts that are housed in the archives of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. These are the cahiers de notations des chants d’oiseaux – the composer’s pocket notebooks that he used to carry around with him and capture birdsong at every available opportunity.

[Recueil_Photographies_Portraits_de_Olivier_[...]Cande_Daniel_btv1b9083761jPortrait of Olivier Messiaen at the 1987 Festival D'Avignon by Daniel Cande (source: Gallica -Bibliothèque nationale de France digital library)

Interestingly enough for a musician who experimented with avant-garde techniques, Messiaen didn't choose to write down what he heard using a progressive form of notation, but instead preferred to use the more traditional stave. He does this in a highly personal and sensitive way, by adding textual descriptions of the quality of a bird’s song, onomatopoeia to evoke its calls (a tried-and-tested ornithologist’s method), and symbols that provide an additional layer of detail to the notations. All of this provides a remarkably thorough depiction of the sounds that he encountered.

Le Courlis Cendre scoreLe Courlis cendré, Catalogue d'oiseaux XIII, p.4. Leduc editions, © 1964

As well as notations made outdoors in the heart of nature, Messiaen’s notebooks also contain a great number of musical sketches that were made from recorded birdsong. These sources were ornithological collections that were commercially available on record – such as Ludwig Koch’s Songs of Wild Birds (1936) and Songs of British Birds (1953)!

Messiaen’s ability to replay time and again the sounds captured in these recordings (something that is obviously impossible with ‘live’ birdsong) doubtlessly enabled an astounding level of precision in his notations. The songs of several birds that feature in Koch’s recordings subsequently found their way into Messiaen’s compositions, as the latter turned to the notations he had made as a source of musical material. For instance, in the final piece of the great piano cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux of 1956-1958, entitled 'Le Courlis cendré', we can hear a direct 'quotation' of the curlew’s call that features on More Songs of Wild Birds:

Le Courlis Cendré (extract)

Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen: piano & organ music (2008). Decca 478 0353, British Library shelfmark 1SS0006222

Curlew calls recorded by Ludwig Koch (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

As well as using bird songs and calls recorded by Koch as a source of musical ideas, it may well be that Messiaen was also inspired by the unique way in which his contemporary captured 'images in sound' of birds within their natural habitat. The notion of a 'soundscape', as pioneered by Koch in his work, finds a lasting legacy in Messiaen’s music. This great French composer similarly presents his listeners with a catalogue, or an inventory, of birds – not only of their songs, but also of the specific environments in which they live. In this sense, Messiaen’s birdsong pieces are like musical pictures: designed to document a particular scene almost as faithfully as the sound recordings from which they take their inspiration.

Delphine Evans is a pianist, musicologist and music educator. Her research is focused on birdsong and the natural sound world, and as a pianist she specialises in 20th Century French music. She has gained musical and academic experience in Canada and France, studying at the universities of Montreal and Paris-Sorbonne. She is currently based in Manchester where she teaches Music and French.