Sound and vision blog

9 posts from October 2017

16 October 2017

Recording of the week: soul midwives

This week's selection comes from Holly Gilbert, Cataloguer of Digital Multimedia Collections.

Friends, Vanessa and Felicity, talk about their work as soul midwives which involves working with people who are dying to ensure that their death is personal and dignified. They describe the different ways that people approach and experience death and how their work has changed the way that they view life and think about their own death. They discuss at length the mysteries that surround death, how other people react to what they do and the gift of insights that they feel are given to them by the people they work with. They also describe the experiences of death that made them want to do this job, they talk about how much they enjoy what they do and say that, contrary to what people might think, it actually involves a lot of joy and laughter.

The Listening Project_soul midwives (excerpt)

Vanessa and Felicity

This recording is part of The Listening Project, an audio archive of conversations recorded by the BBC and archived at the British Library. The full conversation between Vanessa and Felicity can be found here.

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

12 October 2017

LISTEN: 140 Years of Recorded Sound

Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound is the Library's new free exhibition in the Entrance Hall Gallery.

This exhibition also inaugurates the Library’s Season of Sound which, includes happy hour listening sessions, a series of talks, late-night shows and a ‘Super Sonic’ day of audio adventures.

What would you find?


100 Sounds

In the exhibition space we present 100 sounds from the archive, amounting to nearly seven hours of playing time, dating from 1889 to 2017 and covering music, drama, oral history, wildlife, environmental sounds, accents and dialects, and radio.

Many of the selections are rare and unpublished and they can be accessed from any of the exhibition’s listening pods, which have been designed for a secluded and prolonged listening experience.


 Some of my favourites…

  • Radio drama: a musical excerpt from an off-air recording of a radio play by Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin - The People in the Park made in 1963. This is an example of a radio drama which was not saved by the BBC and which the British Library has preserved from an off-air recording. The chosen musical excerpt is representative of the humour and the strong feminist message of the piece.
  • Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan live at WOMAD recorded by the British Library in 1985. The Library has 2500 hours of recordings made at the WOMAD Festival by a team of volunteer staff from 1985 till the present.
  • Brendan Behan singing ‘The Old Triangle’ in 1954 from his play The Quare Fellow. This is a private recording donated by the Theatre Royal in Stratford East.
  • An excerpt from an oral history interview with chef Cyrus Todiwala, interviewed by Niamh Dillon in 2008, recalling his reaction to first encountering Indian restaurant menus when he arrived in the UK from India in the 1990s.
  • A wildlife recording of a Turkish soundscape at dusk made by biologist and field recordist Eloisa Matheu in 2010.
  • Hugh Davies performing his composition ‘Salad’ on a variety of egg and tomato slicers in 1978.

Also… the voice of Florence Nightingale; James Joyce reading from Ulysses; the voice of Brahms; Maya Angelou live in Lewisham; the earliest recording of British vernacular speech; bird mimicry; whale songs; …

‘Mystery tracks’

To put you in the zone we have installed five ‘mystery tracks’ at the very front of the exhibition space. If you are curious to know the ‘when’, ‘where’ and the ‘who’ of the mystery tracks, the details are revealed in a hand-out available elsewhere in the space.

Mystery tracks 1blog Timeline

For reference there is a timeline listing key developments in the history of recorded sound (including radio), and illustrating how the effect of recordings and recording technologies has changed our relationship to sound over the years.

Listen timeline_blog


The British Library has a collection of rarely seen audio players and other artefacts. For this exhibition we have taken a few out of storage. Players include an Edison home phonograph from 1900 and a Nagra SN miniature tape recorder from 1970. The artefacts include a colourful selection of picture discs and the original nickel-plated stamper used to press a disc version of Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' in 1890.

Listen to Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'

Edison Diamond Disc phonograph_blogEdison Diamond Disc phonograph (c.1919)

Boy Wireless

To illustrate how archival sounds can inspire new works in the 21st century, composer and sound artist Aleks Kolkowski has created a unique sound installation.

Boy Wireless was inspired by a diary kept by a sixteen-year old radio enthusiast, Alfred Taylor, writing in 1922-23, at the dawn of broadcast radio. The original diary is also on display in the space.

BoyWireless_B Boy Wireless sound installation by Aleks Kolkowski

Aleks Kolkowski_blogAleks Kolkowski at the British Library cutting souvenir voice recordings on the exhibition’s opening night. You can have your own voice recorded too at our Super Sonic one-day event on Saturday 25th November

Save Our Sounds

The Library’s sound archive is one of the biggest on the planet. It contains six and half million audio recordings from all over the world in over forty different formats. The preservation of recorded sound is at the heart of our work. In 2016 the Library launched the Save Our Sounds Programme to digitise the most vulnerable items in our collection and in other collections across the UK. Donations to support the programme are welcome.

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for more news.

11 October 2017

James Gowan on the Engineering Building at the University of Leicester

"The building committee we were dealing with wanted to make a statement, and indicate their presence, and make a splash, and I think that was probably successful" - James Gowan

47958155_bebd6e3385_bThe Engineering Building, Leicester University by Steve Cadman at Flickr

James Gowan on the Engineering Building design

The Leicester building did involve a lot of drawings but not as many as one would expect because most of the time we were sorting out options rather than doing working drawings.  Because we were in the dark really, we didn’t have a model to work to, not like a Corbusian model, we were shaping the thing up from scratch.  So we were trying out various types of roofs, various arrangements for the front, and that was done at a smaller scale.  … One of the things that fixed the building was that, the fact the hydraulic tank had to be 60 feet up in the air to get the pressure ….and we had a lot of pressure from the building committee to have a tower facing Victoria Park and having a presence that could be seen by the wider public. ….The building committee we were dealing with wanted to make a statement, and indicate their presence, and make a splash, and I think that was probably successful. 

JGowan&JSterling_0266_10James Gowan and James Stirling, Gowan in the foreground (© Sandra Lousada)

The building proved ground-breaking in its form, construction and use of materials and aroused huge interest nationally and internationally with many younger architects recalling site visits while under construction.  However, it was the last project Stirling and Gowan worked on together.  Subsequently, James Gowan focused on housing for both private clients and for the public sector and James Stirling became known for large scale urban projects such as the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart, the Clore Gallery at Tate Britain and No. 1 Poultry in the City of London.

Niamh Dillon, Project Interviewer, Architects' Lives

Listen to James Gowan's full interview at British Library Sounds

10 October 2017

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 2: Electricity

Dr Tom Lean, Project Interviewer on An Oral History of the Electricity Supply Industry, chatted to David Govier for our second National Life Stories podcast. Tom takes us back to 1950s Lancashire when Granville Camsey (born 1936, shelfmark C1495/09) was about to become a power station apprentice.

021I-C1495X0009XX-0004M0Granville Camsey collecting the prize for student apprentice of the year from the Lord Mayor of Manchester, 1958

Granville eventually became a senior manager at the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) in the 1980s and a Director of National Power in the 1990s, but in 1952 he was a craft apprentice from a working class family:

“I was introduced to the power station because my mother had a weaving friend in the mill, Mrs Ashworth, and her son had got a student apprenticeship at the power station and she said: ‘You'll never believe it May, they gave him two pairs of overalls.’ And I can remember my mother saying ‘you should go to the power station, they give you overalls...’”

Listen to the podcast to find out how Granville's career (and fashion sense) developed from his early years in overalls to managing power stations in the age of privatisation. Along the way, Tom explains what the oral history project set out to do, how he recruited his interviewees (by rolling eighty-year-olds down a mountain, seeing as you wondered), and what happens when the interviews are finished (he puts them next to the magna carta, apparently).

National Life Stories podcast episode 2 - Electricity

You can hear Tom and Granville, among many others, speak about An Oral History of Electricity Supply Industry at ‘The Life Electric’, a British Library event on Thursday 19 October. Book your tickets now!

09 October 2017

Recording of the week: computer programming and motherhood in the 1960s

This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

Like many women in the 1960s, Stephanie Shirley left her job in the computer industry after becoming a mother. At the time, women were expected to cut short their professional careers and stay at home to raise the family, but this was not quite what Stephanie Shirley had in mind. In 1963 she started a company named Freelance Programmers, to allow women who had left the computer industry when they had children to continue working as programmers from home. In time, Stephanie Shirley's company grew to a major business employing thousands of people. However, at the start, with sexism rife, Stephanie Shirley had to go to rather unusual lengths to create a professional image, not least calling herself "Steve", as she recalls in this interview from An Oral History of British Science.

Stephanie Shirley_Programming at home (BL ref C1379/28)


This clip is part of Voices of Science, an online resource which uses oral history interviews with prominent British scientists and engineers to tell the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century.

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

Tom Lean will speak about the related An Oral History of Electricity Supply Industry project at ‘The Life Electric’, a British Library event on Thursday 19 October. Book your tickets here

06 October 2017

Ralph Turner 1936 – 2017

National Life Stories is saddened to learn of the death of Ralph Turner, gallerist, curator, author and critic of crafts. As a founding member of the advisory committee for Crafts Lives, Ralph provided his invaluable advice and expertise to the project for almost a decade.

Photograph of Ralph Turner - cropped
Ralph Turner, “Wonder Boy Soprano”

Ralph was born in Maesteg, South Wales in 1936 and was drawn to the arts from an early age. An acclaimed soprano until the age of fifteen, he sang at concerts across Wales and further afield with the Midland Symphony Orchestra. In fact the British Library holds a recording originating from around 1949 of Ralph, the “Wonder Boy Soprano”, singing Four Classic Songs by Handel and others.

C960-72 Ralph Turner - treating every maker’s work with respect and meeting Noel Coward

After studying at Cardiff College of Music and Drama, Ralph came to London to pursue a life in theatre and art. At galleries including Electrum, which he co-founded with Barbara Cartlidge, and as the first Exhibitions Officer for the Crafts Council between 1974 - 1989, Ralph curated exhibitions that brought renewed attention to the crafts, and in particular contemporary jewellery.

Download1Flyer for the Arts Council’s The Maker's Eye exhibition (1982) featuring Ben Nicholson's painting, Mugs (1944), and Jug by John Davies (1981) © Crafts Council

His successes include the groundbreaking Maker’s Eye exhibition (1982) in which fourteen makers were asked to define the idea of craft through a selection of objects, Pierre Degen: New Work (1982) a challenge to existing concepts of what jewellery could be, and The New Spirit in Craft and Design (1987) a controversial look at the influence of youth culture on crafts.

 C960-72 Ralph Turner - Maker's Eye exhibition & Michael Cardew

Ralph was at the forefront of promoting and documenting a radical shift within jewellery during the 1970s and 80s. Work emerging during this period shifted perceived notions of jewellery by using unconventional materials, inventive forms and exploring the relationship between jewellery and the body. Ralph published a number of important texts on this subject, notably The New Jewelry: Trends + Traditions (1985), a survey of the movement at its height co-authored with Peter Dormer, where the expression, the new jewellery, originated as the term for this body of work.

Cover of The New JewelryCover of the first edition of The New Jewelry: Trends + Traditions by Peter Dormer & Ralph Turner (1985) featuring a neckpiece by David Watkins

As with most of National Life Stories’ collections, Crafts Lives documents not only the firsthand experiences of individual interviewees but also traces a network of influences across generations within the archive. Ralph was interviewed for Crafts Lives by Hawksmoor Hughes in 2006 but his impact as a supporter and champion of craftspeople is evident more widely. He is mentioned by Gerda Flockinger in the very first interview for Crafts Lives recorded by Tanya Harrod in 1999 and played an important role in the careers of the makers whose work he exhibited, including David Poston, whose jewellery was shown by Ralph at Electrum.

C960-136 David Poston on Ralph Turner’s support for his work as a jeweller

Ralph’s specialist knowledge and understanding of the wider landscape of studio crafts helped to shape and define the Crafts Lives collection, which now includes over 150 interviews. Committee meetings were enlivened by his sense of humour and spirited contribution to debates, and he was greatly missed when he stepped down from the committee due to ill-health in 2013.

The full life story interview with Ralph Turner (C960/72) can be heard at the British Library and will be available online at British Library Sounds in November.

Tribute by Liz Wright, National Life Stories Project Interviewer

05 October 2017

‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells:’ RP, the BBC, and language attitudes in modern Britain

Rosy Hall is an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections. She writes:

At the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library (2010-11), we asked visitors to submit recordings of their voices in specially designed telephone booths. Around 15,000 speakers took part, and the outcome is the Evolving English VoiceBank and WordBank – a collection of accents and words from all different communities, all over the UK, and all around the world.

Participants could also give additional information, including any other languages they speak at home, and thoughts about their own accents. This resulted in thousands of fascinating recordings in which speakers shared the life stories and family histories that have shaped their speech. There’s the North Londoner born to Eastern European immigrants, for example, or the native Romanian who grew up in America, but lives in New Zealand and now speaks like a Kiwi.

At this stage, participants often volunteered their own opinions about language. Rather encouragingly for the curators, these were usually very positive; more often than not, speakers expressed affection for their regional accents, or regret for having lost them:

speaker (b.1952) started in Newcastle upon Tyne, but I’ve lived most of my life in the South, so it’s mainly Southern. And also I had elocution lessons which buggered up whatever Geordie accent I had.

This positivity is actually fairly surprising, given the prevalence of linguistic prescriptivism in the mainstream media. Our hopeful, tentative interpretation is that the exhibition may have in some ways improved the language attitudes of its attendees, by celebrating the diversity of English and debunking popular myths that there is only one correct way to speak. By the time they reached the recording booths at the end of an exhibition which rejoiced in dialect, perhaps participants felt able to rejoice in it, too.

Inevitably, however, a number of the responses reflected all-too-familiar negative attitudes towards so-called ‘non-standard’ speech:

speaker (b.1932)

The words I dislike – uh I like what I suppose is uh the English that used to be spoken on Radio 4 but we have so many regional accents now, that I I dislike, I dislike people who say ‘but’ [pronounced to rhyme with ‘put’] and people who say ‘tuh’ when they mean ‘the’ or going ‘to’…um, uh it’s it seems to me that Radio Four, sadly BBC Radio Four uh has many more uh accents on it than it needs to {LG} if I can put it like that that’s a prejudice I know, {BR} uh I’m not too wild about these Scots, strong Scots voices, or Welsh voices the sing-song Welsh voices, I accept that’s what they’re like, but I like things in moderation. Not excess.

By ‘the English that used to be spoken on Radio Four’ it’s likely the speaker is referring to ‘Received Pronunciation’ or RP for short – the regionally neutral, (but social class-specific) accent that has come to be the prestige ‘standard’ in England. RP isn’t better or worse than other types of English, and is no less susceptible to change (just listen to some old recordings of the Queen if you don’t believe me), but it has come to enjoy disproportionately prestigious status – partly because it began life as the language of boarding school pupils and Oxbridge students, and partly because, for many years, it was the only accent you could hear on public broadcasts.

In fact, BBC newscasters still represent only a very narrow range of accents – the ‘national’ varieties of middle-class educated Scotland and Wales are present (think Carol Kirkwood and Huw Edwards), but the English of listeners from Tyneside, Merseyside, the West Midlands, the South-West and so on are almost nowhere to be heard. One notable exception is BBC Breakfast Business presenter Stephanie McGovern, whose Middlesbrough accent regularly attracts complaints and indeed abuse from the public. Even today, then, we are only accustomed to hearing regional accents occasionally on-air, and predominantly this is on sports and music programmes. Their absence from news and more ‘serious’ programming only strengthens the myth that they shouldn’t be there in the first place – an idea that threatens not only diversity but social mobility too.

TV announcer Russell Evans made this point recently in an article, having been slammed only last week for pronouncing ‘thunderball’ with an f sound when reading the National Lottery results. This is a common linguistic phenomenon called ‘TH-fronting’; it is hated by some, but it’s also a process so common that linguists estimate we’ll all be doing it by 2050. So if we’re talking about ‘moderation rather than excess’ there’s no doubt that it is RP that’s over-represented in broadcasting, rather than regional accents.

The idea that there is a “correct” way to speak is the sibling of the perspective which says there is a correct way to look. My detractors have been bold enough to vocalise their perspectives, but generally these views are held in silence – declining the interview candidate, rejecting the university application and opposing the promotion. The impact? The homogenous groups deemed as most valuable to the workforce remain prevalent, and we all miss out on the diverse insights, alternative perspectives and talent which numerous studies show aid our collective productivity.

You can listen to more reflections on accent and linguistic identity recorded at the British Library on our One Language, Many Voices page.

03 October 2017

Zino Francescatti and Paganini

Last year I wrote a blog about the discovery of a live recording of pianist Mark Hambourg and how it had restored his reputation as an artist.  The recording was made in 1955 by Frank Hardingham whose collection of tapes I acquired for the British Library from his son.  Since then, Mr Hardingham’s daughter Gill has sent some biographical information about her father which gives an insight into why these unique early tape recordings are of such good quality.

Just before his fourteenth birthday, Frank Hardingham (1903-1973) left school and went to work in a shipping office in London for several years, travelling up by train from his home town of Romford, Essex.  He used the journey to read magazines like 'Practical Wireless' and after further study obtained the Diploma in the Theory and Practice of Radio and Television Engineering in 1938, which made him a member of the Incorporated Institute of Radio Engineers.  Also at this time he built his own crystal radio set.

Then he and his friend Eric joined the business of Mr Silcocks, Eric’s father.  They set up a small workshop and sold home-built radios through the shop. They later expanded the business from selling and servicing radios to dealing in television and other electrical goods, furniture, and records, where Frank’s knowledge of classical music was much appreciated by customers.

A man of many talents and interests, Frank learnt German, and travelled widely in Europe before and after the war.  Before he married in 1932, he went mountain walking in Europe with his younger brother.  He was a radio ham, and made contacts worldwide. 

Frank was also a keen photographer, and developed and enlarged his own photos, using his artistic talent to hand colour some of them.

Frank had a lifelong love of classical music, and recorded from the radio.  Often he would go to a concert, leaving the recording all set up for his wife to press the record button.  Frank had a happy retirement, pursuing many of his interests.  He continued to travel; indeed, in 1971 he visited many countries in South America, and reached Everest base camp in 1972.  He enjoyed family life with his children and grandchildren, working with his wife in their large garden, and savouring a glass of excellent wine.

Another gem from the Hardingham collection is the Proms debut of the great French violinist Zino Francescatti (1902-1991) who was born in Marseilles.  His father, Fortunato Francescatti (1858-1923) was a pupil of Camillo Sivori who had been the only student of the great Nicolò Paganini.  At the age of ten he played Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in Marseilles and made his first records in the same city at the age of nineteen for French HMV.

Francescatti gave his professional debut in Paris at the Palais Garnier in 1925 playing the technically demanding Violin Concerto No. 1 by Paganini.  The same year he played in London with Harold Craxton accompanying, and the following year toured with Ravel, who accompanied him in his own Berceuse at Cheltenham Town Hall.  Known as a good but not great pianist, Ravel had George Reeves accompany Francescatti in his rather more demanding Tzigane.  From 1927 Francescatti taught at the Ecole Normale in Paris.

Francescatti made his US debut in 1939 playing the Paganini Concerto with the New York Philharmonic and John Barbirolli.  The Second World War interrupted his progress, but the late 1940s and 1950s were the peak of his career.  During this time he made a series of famous LP discs for Columbia with the greatest conductors of the time including Dmitri Mitropoulos, Eugene Ormandy, Bruno Walter and Leonard Bernstein.  In 1947 American critic and composer Virgil Thomson wrote of him: ‘Everywhere there was beauty, dignity, repose and the authority of solid worth. If violin playing is in the way of becoming a noble art again . . . this artist is one of those responsible for the change.’  Ten years later Francescatti himself said: 'My philosophie is never to fight a piece. I only want to give the impression that music is poetic, beautiful and easy.'

In August 1951 Francescatti performed Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at the Edinburgh Festival with Dmitri Mitropoulos and then made his first appearance at the Proms in September with his calling card, Paganini’s Violin Concerto conducted by Malcolm Sargent.  The sense of occasion and the excitement of the audience can be felt during the first movement after which they burst into spontaneous applause.  This live performance took place in the Albert Hall sixty-six years ago and, thanks to Mr Hardingham's expertly made recording, we can relive the wonderful experience.  Here is the demanding cadenza and close of the first movement.

Francescatti Paganini

The complete recording will be released by Testament Records.

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