THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

5 posts from June 2017

20 June 2017

A conversation: celebrating the donation of the Hay Festival archive

To celebrate their anniversary the Hay Festival, led by Director Peter Florence, has generously donated the archive of some 5000 audio recordings, 2000 video recordings, and many folders of correspondence. Here, Head of Contemporary British Collections Richard Price reflects on the Festival and its archive.

Digital-Audio-Tape

Thirty years ago, the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts began life as a conversation round a kitchen table. Actors Norman Florence and Rhoda Lewis were talking with their 23-year old son, Peter Florence, about the possibilities of live literature, of the extra life books can have when their authors are discussing them with a live audience. Was there room in the literary calendar for a new literature festival? They thought probably yes, and they thought right: thirty years later, from its modest beginnings in improvised spaces in the Welsh borders town of Hay-on-Wye, the Hay Festival is now one of the largest literary festivals in the UK.

You can go too far with the word ‘conversation’ – it has become a cliché of cultural criticism that a book is ‘in conversation’ with another earlier book, this painting ‘in dialogue’ with another. And is a reader really ‘in conversation’ with the book they are reading? -- this to my mind just slightly misrenders that mysterious relationship between a reader and literature.  Even interactive apps can’t really have a dialogue with their users, and a traditional book can’t really, either.  But that is one of the glories of a reader’s relationship with a book: the conversation is all in the reader’s head. One of the joys of reading is the peaceful stimulation of internal ‘voices’ which reading entails.

A festival is more clearly a two-way conversation -- or a series of ones . It is a gathering to share word and thought and enthusiasm, and to pass all that literate energy on, to learn through interchange (yes, authors do learn from their audiences – it’s not a one-way transaction); to inspire.  A festival is one of the few places where author and audience can actually meet and talk about the ideas a writer has dwelt with for many years, labouring to create their book. Members of the public will relish that opportunity (and the opportunity to meet other readers) but for many writers it is also a time when they can step out of their normal solitude and see at first hand the effect their writing has had on other people.

Over the years, the Festival has played host to almost every UK writer or public intellectual with a significant public profile. Writers featured in the archive are far too numerous to name but include Maya Angelou, Orhan Pamuk, Hanif Kureishi, Will Self, Karl Ove Knausgård, Dave Eggers, Ben Okri, George Szirtes, Germaine Greer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Carlos Fuentes, Laurent Binet, Ruth Rendell, Arnold Wesker, Margaret Atwood, Susan Sontag, Paul Muldoon, Doris Lessing, Edna O'Brien, Jackie Collins … and the list goes on.  Artists and musicians include Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Brian Eno, Billy Bragg, Grayson Perry, and Gilbert & George.

The Library holds many discrete collections of audio recordings of public and literary talks. These include talks recorded at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), the writers' organization PEN International, and the Royal Society of Literature. The Hay Festival collection, however, greatly exceeds in scale all of these collections put together.

Clearly, Hay is a major player in the literary part of the creative economy. Although the archive is bound to be used for the light it sheds on individual authors – and hundreds of authors have appeared at Hay - it is also likely to be a source for understanding how festivals can generate success and sales.

Researchers at the British Library will find the Hay archive a rich source in that regard, and they will also be able to use our other resources alongside the archive to get a fuller understanding of literary production. Fiction or poetry captured in a book has already been through all kinds of dialogue before it reaches the printed page. The writer’s real-life conversations with friends, family, other writers, his or her editor, mentors, school days teachers, new teachers, colleagues and even strangers past and present, all will have affected the production of a short story or a novel or a poem.

The Library’s Author’s Lives oral history programme (in partnership with National Life Stories) tries to capture the hidden life of the writer and their work. We interview acclaimed writers at length – the interviews take place over several days – taking them back through their lives in a way that can sharply elucidate the work they would later produce. In our contemporary manuscripts collections we acquire authors’ notebooks, diaries and letters to, again, build a richer picture of the writer and their world.

And then finally there it is: the finished published work, going out multiply to readers of all kinds. Our Legal Deposit collection of UK and Irish books, in which a copy of almost everything published in these territories is held at the British Library, helps preserve the immense creativity of these islands as represented in those literary traditions.

The Hay Festival archive will complement these collections by focussing on the continuing life of the book after its physical entity – Hay is about readings of the work itself and discussions of the feelings and ideas literature and other works conjure. The Hay archive bears witness to authors who have shaped the literary landscape of recent times – Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, James Kelman, and Beryl Bainbridge, to name just a few. Politics and science are also part of the Hay worldview, and so Jimmy Carter, Mary Warnock, Germaine Greer and Mo Mowlam are there – all figures who in their various ways are fundamental to an understanding of modern times, and, no doubt, to the continuing conversations of future generations.

19 June 2017

Recording of the week: language and identity

This week's selection comes from Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English.

This short exchange during a conversation between two young females talking about life and relationships offers a fascinating glimpse into how our linguistic choices reflect our identity. One of the speakers, a British Muslim, uses the phrase bringing home the bacon which instantly sparks off giggles as, culturally and linguistically, it somehow encapsulates her reflections on her joint British and Muslim identity. The phrase she chooses could not be more quintessentially English - the first citation recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the 1924 PG Wodehouse novel, Ukridge.

Bringing home the bacon

021I-C1500X0088XX-0001A0Photograph of participants

This extract is taken from the Listening Project - a collection of over 1000 conversations contributed by members of the public on a variety of topics of their own choosing. Listen to the full conversation between Afshan and Olivia here

Follow @soundarchive for all the latest news.

12 June 2017

Recording of the week: an encounter with an orangutan

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

Coming face to face with a wild orangutan is something most nature lovers can only dream about. In this evocative interview extract, wildlife sound recordist John Paterson vividly describes a chance encounter with a curious female in Borneo's Danum Valley.

An encounter with an Orangutan_John Paterson (C1627_3)

7971889392_0526870aab_hOrangutan illustration from Brehms Animal Life (courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

These critically endangered primates can only be found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra and are the subject of several conservation programmes whose work attempts to counter the effects of poaching, habitat destruction and the illegal pet trade.

More interviews with wildlife sound recordists, from scientists to hobbyists, can be found here.

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

08 June 2017

Franck's Prelude, Chorale & Fugue revisited

Label crop

Original disc label (BL shelf mark 9CL0043737-9CL0043738)

A previous blog on murdered Chicago pianist Marion Roberts garnered a considerable amount of attention.  One reader supplied information from a local Chicago paper stating that Roberts was a composer and also a pupil of none other than the great pianist Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938).  She performed his works, opening one recital in 1925 with Godowsky’s recently published transcription of Bach’s Cello Suite in C minor.

In order to put Roberts’ recording of the Prelude Chorale and Fugue by Cesar Franck into context I listened to contemporary recordings of the work.  I was familiar with those by Alfred Cortot, Blanche Selva and Marcel Maas but had not heard the one by Yvonne Lévy.  While musically not in the same class as the Roberts recording, Lévy’s is still of interest and makes for fascinating comparative listening.  However, the comparisons don’t end there – both were young women whose only solo piano recording was of the Franck work and it is possible that both were murdered, in Lévy’s case by the Nazis.  Extensive research has not been able to confirm this as there were a number of people with the same name born around the same time in France.

There is very little information on Lévy and she does not appear in the standard reference works.  Yvonne-Elisabeth Lévy was born in Paris on 24th July 1894.  From the age of fourteen she studied at the Paris Conservatoire in the preparatory class of Madame Chéné winning a troisième prix medal in 1908.  The following year she gained a premier prix.  Chéné, was a respected teacher of young students whose pupils include Blanche Selva, Marguerite Long and Jean Doyen.

Towards the end of 1911 Lévy was accepted into the piano class of one of the most famous professors at the Conservatoire, Isidor Philipp, gaining a deuxième prix in 1914 and a première prix the following year. 

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Résultais des concours de piano (femmes) Comoedia 28th June 1914

During the 1920s and 1930s she performed with violinist Edmond Bastide and the Bastide Quartet primarily programming modern French works.  At the Theatre Marigny in 1921 the Bastide Quartet performed the String Quartet by Ravel during the Festival de musique moderne française.  Later Lévy joined them in the Quintet in F minor by Franck and accompanied Bastide in the Violin Sonata by Lekeu leading a critic to describe her as an ‘excellente pianiste’.  In 1932 they broadcast the Franck Quintet but disappear from view around 1938.  An Yvonne Lévy died in Paris in 1977 and one hopes it is the same person.  If any reader has information on Lévy the pianist, please contact me jonathan.summers@bl.uk

The only other recording Lévy made, for the same label, was of the Piano Quartet in A major Op. 30 by Chausson with the Bastide Quartet. 

Nick Morgan, who had donated the Roberts recording to the British Library, also donated the Lévy recording which was published on the unusual Tri-Ergon label.  He supplies some information on the label here.

Shortly before the end of World War I, three German engineers invented a ‘sound on film’ system. Typically, early talkies used ‘sound on disc’ synchronised with the images. In the German system, sound waves were captured by an electrostatic ‘Kathodophon’, converted by a photoelectric transducer and written onto the film itself. Baptised ‘Tri-Ergon’ (‘Work of Three’), the system had a difficult birth amidst post-War inflation. The inventors found German and Swiss backers to launch the system in Europe, where it enjoyed some success. They also sold rights to an American entrepreneur, who waged prolonged commercial and courtroom campaigns against big US concerns such as Paramount and MGM – and lost.

Reportedly devised as a further money-spinner, ‘Tri-Ergon Photo-Electro-Records’ were made and sold in several European countries. Outwardly conventional, these 78s were mastered by transferring Tri-Ergon film strips onto wax at one hundredth speed, taking four hours per side. The quality was variable, but an ambitious catalogue was built up, mainly popular music plus a little folk, classical and speech. In France, Tri-Ergon’s talkie technology was unveiled in 1929, and adopted almost immediately by the great director René Clair. But the first locally recorded Tri-Ergon discs were apparently released only in 1932. Only two classical French Tri-Ergon sets are known, both with pianist Yvonne Lévy – a fascinating if flawed echo from an earlier age of technological innovation, competition and globalisation.

Lévy’s recording of the Franck Prelude, Chorale & Fugue can be heard here.

Yvonne Levy

05 June 2017

Recording of the week: surviving an oil rig disaster

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

In this moving testimony recorded for ‘Lives in the Oil Industry’ project, oral historian Hugo Manson talks to Bob Ballantyne (1942-2004), a survivor of the Piper Alpha North Sea oil rig disaster in 1988 which killed 167 people.

Bob Ballantyne - surviving the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster

Piper_Alpha_Disaster_Memorial_-_geograph.org.uk_-_681091

Piper Alpha Disaster Memorial (Elliott Simpson)

The full interview can be consulted at the British Library and is part of Lives in the Oil Industry, a joint National Life Story Collection/Aberdeen University project, begun in 2000, to record the major changes which have occurred in the UK oil and gas industry in the twentieth century, focussing particularly on North Sea exploration and the impact of the industry on this country.

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