THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

5 posts from July 2018

20 July 2018

Mrs Boulton and the woodland warbler

Have you ever noticed how some animals are named after people? Hume's Partridge. Lady Amherst's Pheasant. Waller's Starling. I come across this quite a lot when cataloguing new collections and have often wondered who these people were.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that these species were named after the naturalists who discovered them. Now, there are no rules that say you can't name a new species after yourself, however it's generally regarded as bad form in most taxonomic circles. Helps keep the egos in check etc.  It's perfectly acceptable to name a species after somebody else though. Most names are given as a declaration of admiration or love, however a few have been chosen out of spite. What better way to insult a critic or a rival than by naming a disagreeable specimen after them? Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was the king of the nomenclature slap down. Mess with Linnaeus and you could be sure that a smelly weed or a boring nettle would soon bear your name.

In this particular example we're going to look at Mrs Boulton's Woodland Warbler, Seicercus laurae. Now more commonly referred to as Laura's Woodland Warbler, this little songbird can be found in the dry forests and swamps of central Africa. The species was discovered in 1931 by the American ornithologist W. Rudyerd Boulton (1901-1983) who specialised in the avifauna of Africa. While assistant curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Boulton made several research trips to Africa accompanied by his first wife, the ethnomusicologist Laura Crayton Boulton (1899-1980). It was with Laura that he discovered this previously unknown warbler which he named in her honour.

Laura's Woodland Warbler, recorded at Mount Namba, Angola by Michael Mills (BL ref 163291) 

The Boultons continued to explore the ornithological and musical treasures of Africa until the mid 1930s when their marriage began to fall apart. The couple finally divorced in 1938 and, though Laura continued in the field of ethnomusicology, Rudyerd's professional life took an entirely different turn. In 1942 he joined the African branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the US intelligence agency formed during World War Two, where his knowledge of the landscape, people and politics of central African countries was put to good use. In the same year he married his second wife, the socialite, poet and psychic Inez Cunningham Stark. Though mainly based out of Washington DC, Boulton was heavily involved with operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, most notably the procurement of uranium ore for the Manhattan Project.

At the end of WWII, Boulton continued working in intelligence for several years, including a stint with the CIA, until, apparently at least, turning his back on espionage in 1958. A year later he created the charitable Atlantica Foundation with his third wife, the wealthy widow Louise Rehm. The remit of this foundation was broad but ambitious, aiming to establish and support research into zoology, ecology, fine arts and parapsychology. The couple based their operation out of Zimbabwe and were by all accounts generous supporters of research and education in the area until their deaths in 1974 (Louise) and 1983 (Rudyerd).

But what of the woman who inspired the name of our woodland warbler? Laura Boulton became a renowned field recordist, filmmaker and collector of traditional musical instruments from around the world. During her life she embarked on almost 30 recording expeditions throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and North America, amassing tens of thousands of sound recordings, photos, films, books and instruments. She experienced first hand advancements in recording technology, beginning her career with an Edison phonograph before progressing to a disc cutting machine and eventually a portable reel to reel recorder. Her legacy can be found in various institutions across the United States, from the Center for Ethnomusicology at Columbia University to the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University. 

Boulton LP  One of Boulton's published collections of ethnographic field recordings (BL Shelfmark 1LP0247765)

When beginning my research I never imagined that two such colourful characters would be behind the name of this rather inconspicuous little warbler. Two years after the discovery of Laura's Woodland Warbler, Rudyerd was himself taxonomically immortalised by the American herpetologist Karl Patterson Schmidt, who named a new species of Namib day gecko, Rhoptropus boultoni, in his honour. And in case you're wondering, Schmidt must have liked Rudyerd. Rhoptropus boultoni is a pretty cute gecko.

Follow @CherylTipp for all the latest wildlife news. 

19 July 2018

Classical Podcast No. 2 - Rob Cowan shares his passion for the artistry of violinist Bronislaw Huberman

Biddulph photo
Bronislaw Huberman (courtesy of Biddulph Records)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Welcome to another in the occasional series of podcasts showcasing treasures from the classical collection of the British Library Sound Archive.

A veteran broadcaster, Rob Cowan currently presents Cowan’s Classics on Classic FM.  From an early age he was exposed to classical music in recordings by the greatest performers of the twentieth century and has spent a lifetime listening to, commenting on and promulgating these vital recordings that enshrine the greatest music interpreted by the greatest artists.

Rob CowanRob Cowan (photo by Jonathan Summers)

Extended recordings used with permisison of Biddulph Records.

Previous Classical podcasts can be heard here.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

16 July 2018

Recording of the week: have you eaten yet?

This week's selection comes from Rowan Campbell, former PhD placement student who worked on the VoiceBank collection.

The greetings used in different languages can reveal a lot about what is important to their respective cultures. And as someone who is always thinking about the next meal, this Singaporean phrase is close to my heart (or stomach):

汝食饱未 (lí chia̍h pá buē)? You eaten already? (C1442/6296) 

When I lived in Hong Kong, my friends would use a similar phrase in Cantonese, and variations of it it crop up in other East Asian countries too. I like how it operates on two levels: first and foremost, it allows you to immediately plan to go have dinner if you haven't already eaten! But behind that is an expression of consideration for the other person's wellbeing - because what better way to show someone you care than to share a meal with them.

Dumplings-2392893_1280

This recording comes from the Evolving English Wordbank, an extensive collection of recordings that capture English dialect and slang from around the world. The collection was created between November 2010 and April 2011 by visitors to the British Library exhibition, Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices and includes local, regional and vernacular forms and idiolectal expressions used within families or friendship groups.

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

09 July 2018

Recording of the week: exploding seed pods

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

The soaring temperatures of summer can have explosive results, especially if you happen to be standing near a gorse bush. This thorny, evergreen shrub produces an unmistakable sea of bright, yellow flowers from January to June. As the flowers begin to fade, a mass of black seed pods emerge to take their place. Slowly but surely, the heat of the summer sun dries out these downy carriers until the structures burst open, expelling the tiny seeds enclosed within. The force of this explosion produces a sharp, popping sound, as can be heard in the following example recorded on the Isle of Wight by Richard Beard.

Exploding seed pods (BL ref 212269)

24921214482_051c505a74_bGorse seed pods (Photo credit: Starr Environmental on VisualHunt / CC BY)

This recording was chosen in memory of the field recordist Richard Beard (1953-2018) whose work in the wildlife section helped process hundreds of unpublished collections for more than a decade. Richard also contributed many thousands of his own recordings to the British Library, some of which can be heard in the Weather and Water collections on British Library Sounds. An oral history interview with Richard, conducted in 2013, can be found here.

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

02 July 2018

Recording of the week: Nar Sur - a little known music genre from east Baluchistan

This week's selection comes from AHRC Collaborative PhD candidate, Christian Poske.

An unknown recordist captured this Baluchi folk song with a cylinder phonograph in Dera Bugti in Baluchistan in the winter of 1911. He noted down some information, including place and time of recording, topic of the song and instruments, but no names of performers or music style. The cylinders were later received by Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941), author of The Golden Bough and regarded as the greatest of ‘armchair anthropologists’, who acquired a collection of about 2100 ethnographic wax cylinder recordings from all parts of the world throughout his life.

In the course of the current collaborative project involving the British Library Sound Archive and the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology in Gurgaon, it became clear that the recordist documented the regional music genre Nar Sur. Named after the naḍ flute and the word sur for tune or melody, songs of this genre support the oral transmission of Baluchi history among communities. A notable feature is the throaty, drone-like singing style, while the flute player varies the melody. In the recording, the singer narrates the story of the battle between the Marri and Bugti people, the two largest ethnic groups of Baluchistan.

Song in Nar Sur style about battle between the Bugtis and Marris (C663/530)

Mohammad and Allah Bakhsh QaisraniMohammad and Allah Bakhsh Qaisrani, photograph from Suttar, D.G. Khan district, Punjab, Pakistan (Photo: Nicholas Pierce)

Another recording from September 1984, made by Nicholas Pierce in Kot Qaisrani in west Punjab, now Pakistan, features the singer Allah Bakhsh Qaisrani and the naḍ player Mohammad Bakhsh Qaisrani performing other folk songs in the Nar Sur style. The genre is practised along the Sulaiman mountain range in east Baluchistan till the present day and as literacy is still low in the region, the songs remain important means for the maintenance of Baluchi culture.

Many thanks go to Dr Janet Topp Fargion of the British Library and Shubha Chaudhuri of the ARCE for enabling this research, and to Dr Sangeeta Dutta for her support in the evaluation of recordings.

Christian is currently conducting his PhD, jointly supervised at SOAS and the BL, and is one of the researchers on the collaboration between the BL and ARCE, supported by the Rutherford Fund via BEIS. See International research collaboration on South Asian audiovisual heritage  for details of other work done during the project.

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