THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

13 posts from September 2018

26 September 2018

What's that? Surely music - The Gerald Cavanagh Collection

IMG_0825Magid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh Collection

By Edison Fellow Magid El-Bushra,

counter-tenor and Assistant Content Producer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Sudanese boys growing up in Willesden Green tend not to fall in love with opera. But an encounter with Miloš Forman’s classic film Amadeus was to awaken a passion which has, in many ways, guided my life. I searched out scraps of information for myself about the art form until eventually, in my early teens, I arrived at two cultural waterfalls – the Royal Opera House, and BBC Radio 3. So, when I recently discovered that there was a collection of recordings in the British Library of Covent Garden broadcast performances on Radio 3 from the Golden Age of opera, the 1960s-70s, I knew that I had to get my hands on it, and I am eternally grateful to Jonathan Summers and the British Library Edison Fellowship scheme for allowing me to do so.

Gerald (‘Gerry’) Cavanagh, the owner of this collection of recordings, was, like me, an opera fanatic. He died in 2016 at the age of 87, leaving behind a house, two bedsits and a storage unit crammed full of opera-related paraphernalia, which attested to a lifetime dedicated to music and concert-going. Stephen Conrad, a family friend who was charged with the unenviable task of clearing out these properties, told me that in disposing of Gerry’s collection, he had managed to sell 45 feet of LPs! He was an avid collector – what we might now call a hoarder – but we have to remember that Cavanagh was part of a generation starved of culture during the war; music was a vital means of relaxation – something to be held onto.

ROH-SOU-3-012 - Donald Southern - Midsummer Nights Dream - 555 folder - 29BThe Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1961) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1961. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.  Cavanagh was present at the first London performance on 2 February 1961

As a young man in the 1950s, Cavanagh would spend his evenings in his favourite seats in the Upper Slips, (high at the top of the Royal Opera House, but with the best acoustic), with a BOAC shoulder bag hiding a clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder at his feet. (I was desperate to get my hands on those recordings, but unfortunately they seem not to have survived the house clearance!) He loved the core German and Italian 19th century repertoire most of all, but was a child of his time, and took a great interest in the musical developments in opera which occurred during his era. After retiring from a career in scientific research at Imperial College, Cavanagh and his wife Flo increased their cultural excursions from East Croydon, seeing more operas and concerts in a month than most people probably see in a lifetime. If a performance they were attending was being broadcast, they would set their recorder to tape it from the radio.

The Cavanagh Collection (C1734) that has made its way to the British Library consists of 302 reels of such recordings, mainly of broadcasts of live opera performances. There are also a few broadcasts of song recitals and orchestral concerts. In any case, the majority are of performances given at the Royal Opera House, but there are also many from ENO, Sadler’s Wells, the Proms, and from much further afield.

I set about beginning to catalogue the collection over the winter, but with my fellowship coinciding with a busy new day job at none other than the Royal Opera House, I always knew I wouldn’t have time to log every reel. Therefore, I decided to set particular emphasis on the recordings of operas from the ROH itself, as well as the recordings of contemporary operas, and to see where and to what extent there was an overlap between the two. My aim was to get a picture of what the collection can tell us about the context in which Gerald Cavanagh was consuming this operatic content.

As the majority of the recordings are taken from BBC broadcasts, I knew that the possibility that some would already exist in the British Library archive would be quite high. There are duplicates, but this does not mean the exercise has been a waste of energy. For example, the ROH broadcast of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten conducted by Georg Solti from 17 June 1967, which already exists in the archive under the shelf mark 1CDR0028477, notes that ‘[the] recording has heavy distortion’, so it’s gratifying to know that backup now exists in Cavanagh C1734/044-045 for anyone who, like me, loves this opera. 

ROH-SOU-4-038 Roll 4  Strip 2  Frame 4Donald McIntyre as Barak and Inge Borkh as Barak’s Wife in The Covent Garden Opera Company production of 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (1967) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1967.  Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House. Used with permission.

With few exceptions, each reel is accompanied by a clipping from the Radio Times with details of the performance, and the date helpfully written in Cavanagh’s neat hand. I say helpfully, but sometimes one has to account for human error; for example, he dates the first broadcast performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Taverner (C1734/210) as 15 July 1962, when the opera wasn’t premiered for another 10 years.

To demonstrate the breadth of the collection, I have included some entries from further afield, such as Szymanowski’s Hagith (C1734/128), which appears rather exotically in a live performance in Italian with the RAI Symphony Orchestra. Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto’s modernist masterpiece Juha (C1734/252, previously unknown to me) is also in the collection. The latter sounds a bit like Schoenberg orchestrating an opera written by Bartók to a libretto that Janáček would have been drawn to (young woman in small town is married to lame old man but gets seduced by dishy merchant. Tragedy ensues).

There are also opportunities to hear broadcasts which one would expect either to already be in the archive, or to already have been released commercially, such as Turandot, starring Birgit Nilsson and James King, broadcast on 15 January 1971, (C1734/282), and the world premiere of Tippett’s King Priam from 29 May 1962 (C1734/018). This performance was given by The Covent Garden Opera Company at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, ahead of its subsequent premiere at Covent Garden, and I am delighted to have been able to identify these and add them to the Sound and Moving Image (SAMI) catalogue.  Indeed, the works of Michael Tippett feature prominently in the Gerald Cavanagh Collection.  Here is an extract from Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage from 22 April 1968 with the following cast - Alberto Remedios, Joan Carlyle, Raimund Herincz, Elazabeth Harwood, Stuart Burrows, Helen Watts, Stafford Dean and Elizabeth Bainbridge with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

Whats that? Surely music

Equally prominent are the key works of the 19th century Italian operatic repertory.  This excerpt, from Bellini's La Sonambula, broadcast on 20 March 1971, has the cast of Renata Scotto, Stuart Burrows, Forbes Robinson, David Lennox, Heather Begg, George Macpherson and Jill Gomez with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario.

La Sonnambula

But what was always most interesting to me in this venture was not so much the process of cataloguing the collection. What really captured my imagination was more what the collection itself says to us as a piece of historical evidence. Because C1734 is more than just a collection of old tapes – it’s actually a snapshot of a cultural attitude which speaks volumes about how the process of listening to opera is shaped by our cultural institutions, not only in the 1960s and 70s, but also today. Who gets to decide what we listen to?

Despite the many transformations BBC Radio has undergone since the BBC’s foundation in 1922, the guiding principle of Inform, Educate, Entertain is one which can still be perceived today. The decisions and cultural objectives of a handful of men during those early days (from BBC founder John Reith, to BBC Music Directors Percy Pitt and Adrian Boult) would go on to shape public attitudes towards music and culture for decades to come. The Third Programme (forerunner to BBC Radio 3) ran from 1946 – 1970, and quickly established itself as one of the major channels for the dissemination of culture in Britain, with its commitment to the erudite exploration of the fine arts for six hours every evening.

The period covered by Cavanagh’s collection of tapes broadly corresponds to that of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music (1959 – 1972). Under Glock, the Third Programme sought to define the BBC as an internationally recognised central point, from which the very newest music at the cutting edge of compositional trends would be broadcast into the living rooms of ‘ordinary’ people just like Gerry. During Glock’s tenure, those six hours every evening were expanded by 100 hours a week to a full daily schedule, which provided fertile ground for Glock (avoiding what he referred to as “the danger of musical wallpaper”) to support and nurture new music and new artists. This fit in squarely with the BBC’s lofty educational goal of forming and edifying the cultural taste of the nation.

The Royal Opera House, on the other hand, was then, and is now a completely different kind of cultural institution to the BBC, and with a completely different set of objectives and values. While there had been a recognised need to establish an opera company of international calibre at Covent Garden after the Second World War, music publishers Boosey and Hawkes (who acquired the lease for the building in 1944) and new Chairman and economist John Maynard Keynes all agreed that the fledgling permanent ensemble had to be run above all by a businessman. That businessman was David Webster, who had started his career in retail. Although the utopian dream was to create “a national style of operatic presentation which would attract composers and librettists to write for it” (according to John Tooley, Webster’s successor), “there were factors at work which would inevitably take Covent Garden down other paths”. In other words – the business objective of selling tickets took over from the cultural objective of nurturing new, indigenous work.

“In the fifty years since reopening after the war”, wrote Tooley in 1999, “less opera has been composed for Covent Garden than was originally hoped for”. Indeed, although contemporary opera is given space in The Royal Opera’s annual programming, the list of operas given their premiere at the theatre reads like a roll call of works which either met with critical disapproval, or simply sank without trace. Britten’s Gloriana (C1734/010, the Coronation gala premiere of which Gerry attended in 1953) was played to a “largely uncomprehending and unsympathetic audience”. Henze’s The Bassarids (C1734/192) was touted as an option for The Royal Opera but never made it (instead being recorded by Cavanagh from a concert performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), as Webster was unenthusiastic. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory (C1734/136) and Tippett’s The Knot Garden (C1734/227) were both premiered by The Royal Opera “and ideally should have been repeated, but unfortunately our limited resources made that impossible”. The commitment to contemporary opera during this period seems half-hearted, more like a secondary consideration.

ROH-SOU-1-0207 Roll 2  Strip 6  Frame 1Anne Howells as Lena and Donald McIntyre as Axel Heyst in The Royal Opera production of 'Victory' (1970) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1970. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © Royal Opera House.  Used with permission.

Although there is a great deal of traditional operatic fare in C1734, what is fascinating to me is the sheer breadth and range of new opera that leaps out from the collection, most of which we simply do not hear any more. In the selection I have catalogued, there are four versions of Tippett’s King Priam alone, not to mention the four separate recordings of Britten’s Billy Budd. Among many other examples, Robin Orr’s Hermiston (C1734/238), Henze’s beautiful and witty Elegy for Young Lovers (C1734/280), and Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (C1734/213 – another new addition to the SAMI catalogue, I’m pleased to add) all rub shoulders with classics such as La Fille du Régiment, Otello and La Clemenza di Tito, painting a picture of a wonderfully eclectic and richly informed musical taste.

The irony is that Glock’s key policy of programming challenging, contemporary opera – the policy which seems to have done so much to shape Cavanagh’s musical interests – seems to have dwindled in recent decades. Conversely, since the refurbishment of Covent Garden, and the resulting addition of the Linbury Theatre nearly 20 years ago, The Royal Opera now has more space to devote to experimental work than it ever did. Glock’s idea that at the independent BBC, change should be preferable to stability, and that novelty guarantees value, has arguably been replaced by a ratings war with Classic FM, diluting the station’s content with what the Daily Mail calls “phone-ins and presenter chatter”.

The relationship between the two institutions, although necessarily symbiotic, has often been fraught by financial contretemps, usually, according to Tooley, when BBC budget constraints have forced the ROH to seek relationships with other broadcasters. But there still remain strong ties, with the BBC’s current chief Tony Hall having arrived direct from the equivalent position at Covent Garden being a prime example of this. These ties hint at my original question about who gets to decide what we listen to. It was a network of men from a certain background who assumed responsibility for curating the content which shaped Cavanagh’s musical horizons. Perhaps today we find something slightly distasteful in the idea of an Oxbridge-educated elite deciding what the cultural diet of an ‘ordinary’ listener should consist of, and yet it is possible to perceive that this is changing, and that people from more diverse backgrounds are now contributing, bit by bit, to the landscaping of the operatic ecology.

Nowadays, our musical resources exist digitally, to the extent that C1734 seems like an anachronism. I imagine most people under the age of 30 would regard one of Cavanagh’s reel tapes as an artefact from another planet. But there’s something hugely pleasurable about the process of setting up a reel-to-reel player, sitting back, and entering into Gerry’s analogue sound world. Maybe one day someone will catalogue the boxes of millennial minidisc recordings in my attic of the broadcast performances I used to record before the advent of online streaming. It’s comforting to know that there might be a place for them, in the same way that it’s comforting to know that Gerald Cavanagh’s collection – forged over a lifetime of discovery, shaped by a cultural landscape which valued investment both in operatic tradition and in operatic innovation – is now safe in the archives of the British Library, not surviving precariously in a damp storage unit in south London. The collection is a real treasure trove for anyone interested in opera, but more than that, it’s a window into another life, glimpsed through the prism of opera.

Gerald and Florence CavanaghGerald and Florence Cavangh at Glyndebourne.  Photo by Stephen Conrad

 For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

24 September 2018

Recording of the week: Toscanini and Beethoven

This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Arturo Toscanini was famous for his outbursts of temper on the rostrum and ruled his orchestras with a rod of iron. His style is well suited to heroic music and one of his best interpretations is of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, heard here with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936. The dynamism is most evident in the last movement where Toscanini uses driving rhythm to propel the music ever forward.

Symphony no. 7 op. 92 A major

Toscanini_8

To explore more Classical recordings, including over 400 recordings of Beethoven concertos, string quartets and symphonies, please visit British Library Sounds.

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

21 September 2018

Open House 2018 – Alexandra Road Estate, Camden

‘It looks inevitable, but it is a long process of trial and error’.
Architect Neave Brown on the Alexandra Road Estate

Tony Hunt Alexandra Road

This weekend London opens its doors to a range of fascinating buildings; many of which are usually closed to the public. They span a range of architectural styles and time periods – from grand public buildings to small residential spaces. Open House, established in 1992, encourages people to explore and interact with London’s architecture – and it is wonderful to see how it has grown in popularity. One of the highlights is the Alexandra Road Estate. It was built during the golden age of Camden Council’s architects department in the 1970s. Encouraged by Borough Architect Sidney Cook, the design by architect Neave Brown eschewed high-rise for high density using a horizontal street pattern. Concrete was used for both the structure and the form. Working as part of the team were a talented group of young architects: Benson and Forsyth, Eldred Evans and David Shalev. It was awarded Grade II* listed status in 1993. Neave Brown received the commission as a young architect after having designed small residential blocks in Camden, in his recording he recalls ‘it was the most astonishing brief ever’. Listen to his extract here:

Neave Brown on the Alexandra Road Estate (C467/113/13)

Architects’ Lives offers another way to explore some of the highlights of Open House. It has unique recordings with the creators of these buildings and gives a chance to explore the genesis of some of London’s landmarks. We now hold recordings with the architect – Neave Brown, but also the structural engineer, Tony Hunt, and the services engineer, Max Fordham. Together they form a rich tapestry of the context of the project. In this extract, Tony Hunt describes how the three of them, who had first worked together on housing in Winscombe Street in Camden, came together as a young team and responded to the challenge of the site which ran alongside a railway track:

Tony Hunt on the Alexandra Road Estate (C467/135/12)

Tony Hunt Alexandra Road 2

Blog by Niamh Dillon, Architects' Lives Project Interviewer. Architects' Lives was established in 1995 to document the life and work of British architects and their associates over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. Neave Brown's complete interview can be listened to online at BL Sounds. Both photographs in this blog post were taken by Pat Hunt, the second shows Tony Hunt and Richard Clack on site at Alexandra Road in the 1970s.

19 September 2018

Seeing sound: What is a spectrogram?

Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage writes:

In this digital age, most of us are familiar with audio waveforms, the ‘wavy’ images that represent the dynamic course of a particular sound recording. Waveforms are in fact a type of graph, with time on the X axis and amplitude (or loudness) on the Y.

Waveform exampleFigure 1: a waveform represents a sound recording by showing amplitude over time

Waveforms are very useful for conveying basic information about a recording e.g. where the loud bits are, where the quiet bits are, and how dynamic the recording is. If you were listening to an interview, a waveform can clearly show you where someone is speaking. Unfortunately, waveforms cannot tell us much about the pitch, frequency, or harmonic content of a recording. For that we can use a different visual representation of sound… say hello to the spectrogram!

How to read a spectrogram

Spectrograms keep time on the X axis but place frequency on the Y axis. Amplitude is also represented as a sort of heat map or scale of colour saturation. Spectrograms were originally produced as black and white diagrams on paper by a device called a sound spectrograph, whereas nowadays they are created by software and can be any range of colours imaginable!

Wave form v spectragramFigure 2: waveform and spectrogram of the same recording. An oscillating low frequency buzz dominates the waveform, only the spectrogram reveals where the bird is calling

Spectrograms map out sound in a similar way to a musical score, only mapping frequency rather than musical notes. Seeing frequency energy distributed over time in this way allows us to clearly distinguish each of the sound elements in a recording, and their harmonic structure. This is especially useful in acoustic studies when analysing sounds such as bird song and musical instruments. So not only do these graphs look really cool, but they can tell us a lot about the sound without even listening.

Spectrogram example (whooper swan)Figure 3: a spectrogram showing the harmonically rich calls of whooper swans

Whooper Swan calls recorded by John Corbett (BL shelfmark WS1734 C5)

In the above example, we can see the calls of a Whooper Swan represented in a spectrogram. The fundamental frequency of the calls is at about 750Hz, which is the frequency with the most energy (usually the lowest frequency of a sound), and gives the sound its perceived pitch. Above that are the harmonics - additional, quieter frequencies that give the sound its ‘colour’ and make up a sort of sonic signature – a Whooper Swan singing a perfect ‘G’ note will have a very different harmonic structure to a piano playing that same note. This information could be used to analyse bird songs and calls in different locations, or to understand the vocabulary of a species.

Creative uses for spectrograms

Clearly spectrograms can tell us a lot about the acoustic elements of a sound, but they are not just used for scientific studies. Audio editing is most often performed with waveforms as it's easier to make cuts or process a selected time range. When editing software uses spectrograms however, it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities! With this spectral editing, we are able to look into the microscopic details of a sound and apply processes to very specific time and frequency ranges. For example, an obtrusive footstep, or car alarm could be identified and removed from a recording, just like ‘photoshopping’ sound!

Spectral repair exampleFigure 4: a recording of a robin singing was ruined by a dog barking and some low end noise – a spectrogram reveals the unwanted noises and allows the recordist to remove them.

Spectral repair BEFORE

Spectral repair AFTER

Musicians can also use spectral editing to compose and generate sounds that could not be made any other way. Patterns and shapes can be ‘drawn’ into spectrograms and played back as frequency content. In some cases, detailed graphic images can be hidden within spectrograms. Aphex Twin used this technique to hide an image of a face within the second track of his ‘Windowlicker’ EP (1999).

Aphex Face

You can find some more examples of images hidden in the spectral content of popular songs here: https://twistedsifter.com/2013/01/hidden-images-embedded-into-songs-spectrographs/

So now you know what spectrograms are, how to read them, and some of their many scientific, creative, and bizarre uses. Keep an eye out for our #SpectrogramSunday @BLSoundHeritage tweets, starting this weekend!

  UOSH_Footer with HLF logo

18 September 2018

Recording of the week: Whistling to the bujɔk - Batek fishing techniques

Coleridge Research Fellow Dr Alice Rudge writes:

The Batek are a hunting and gathering people who dwell in the lowland rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia. When visiting recently, I accompanied Batek friends on a fishing trip and was taught some new techniques.

We left early in the morning, as the river they wanted to get to was a long way from the camp, around three hours walking up and down very steep hills. As we set out, they noticed elephant tracks very close to where we were going, and when we got to the river confluence, ʔEyKtlət went ahead, and found the elephants bathing just upriver from where we had planned to go.  We changed our course and instead of following the main river, we followed one of its smaller tributaries.

DSCF5462Resting and preparing fishing rods after the long walk to the river

Batek people usually make fishing rods (bawɔl) en route to the river by scraping the leaves off palm fronds, leaving only the supple, strong stems. Fishing line and a hook is then attached to one end. For bait, people dig worms from the sides of the riverbank.

With the Batek, fishing trips usually consist of a lot of walking. Having reached the river through the forest, you then wind your way back to the camp via the water, either upstream or downstream, by wading and scrambling up and down the banks. As you walk, you fish in any suitable places that you spot.

DSCF5468Klis and NaʔBɛ̃p walking up a waterfall en route to a new fishing spot.

In one spot that we reached, NaʔSrimjam started whistling. I initially thought nothing of it. Then her sister, NaʔAliw, started whistling the exact same melody… I asked what they were whistling, and they said that they were calling the bĩl fish [unidentified] to them. We had been catching bĩl earlier, and so, knowing that they were biting that day, the sisters were whistling to attract more! They also told me there are other sounds you can do to attract certain fish to you. One of these is a kind of clicking sound made at the back of the throat, which can be used to attract bujɔk (Malay bujuk, of the family Channidae).

NaʔSrimjam evocatively described this process thus:

mɨm ʔajak bujɔk mɨʔ tɔt ʔoʔ haw prmcəm… cɨ̃t! taʔcawɔt kə=mɛt kayil, mɨʔ saŋkɛt

‘when you attract bujɔk you see it coming to get your bait, you see tiny bubbles rising to the surface of the water, then cɨ̃t [expressive of the sudden sound or feeling when a fish bites your bait]! The fish will accidentally hook itself onto your fishing hook, and you lift it out’.

I didn’t manage to record the sound while they were making it in the forest that day. I was busy fishing myself, and trying not to fall over on the slippery rocks or sink into the mud. So, the next day I went to NaʔSrimjam and asked if she would make the sounds again so I could record them.

DSCF5466Sitting down for a moment to fish

She agreed, but when she tried to whistle, the sound wouldn’t come out, and we both cracked up laughing in hysterics. She kept telling me to just do it because she was laughing too much to whistle, but I said no I wanted to record her, because she was the one who knew how to do it - I had no idea! Eventually she managed to get the sound out. I then asked her to do the clicking sound made in the back of the throat that is used to attract the bujɔk fish. After she made the sound, she then tried to teach me to do it. This meant it was my turn to make a fool of myself as I couldn’t make the sound at all. When I eventually got some sound out, we joked that it was so bad that the fish would just swim away. This whole exchange can be heard in the recording.

Sounds used to attract fish (AR_201808_STE-020)

The Alice Rudge Collection of Batek recordings is currently being deposited and catalogued, and will be held under the shelfmark C1773.

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

14 September 2018

Mary Jane Long

MJ Long, who died recently, was one of the key architects of the British Library. Together with her husband, Colin St. John Wilson – known as Sandy – she spent much of her career working on the development and construction of the project. Born in the United States, she studied for a Masters degree at Yale – during an era when British architects such as Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Eldred Evans were also at Yale. She came to Europe on a study trip in the early 1960s and began working with Colin St. John Wilson shortly afterwards. Alongside her early work on the British Library – which initially was going to be in Bloomsbury – she worked on artists’ studios for Frank Auerbach, Peter Blake and R.B. Kitaj. The latter was commissioned to create a tapestry for the foyer in the British Library.

BL MJ LONG PIC

These two extracts were taken from an interview she made in 1997-98. In the first, she discusses the change of location from Bloomsbury to its current one in the Euston Road and the implications of this to both the design and the construction process. She also references the necessary collaboration of the key architects working in the practice at the time, and how architecture of this scale is rarely the hand of one person.

MJ Long describes the move from Bloomsbury to Euston (C467/26/11)

In the second, she reflects on the elements which influenced the design, and addresses challenges from those who argued that the project was so long in its gestation that the initial design originated in a different time and context.

MJ Long reflects on the design of the British Library (C467/26/09)

Blog by Niamh Dillon, Architects' Lives Project Interviewer. Architects' Lives was established in 1995 to document the life and work of British architects and their associates over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. MJ Long was interviewed by Jill Lever for Architects' Lives in 1997-98 and her full interview can be listened to online at BL Sounds.

13 September 2018

Listening to mammals with the Batek

Coleridge Research Fellow Dr Alice Rudge writes:

The Batek are hunting and gathering people who dwell in the lowland rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia. During my fieldwork with them, I played  some recordings of mammal sounds which are held at the Library. Batek people have extremely detailed ecological knowledge of the rainforest, and this is reflected in their in-depth understanding of its soundscape. I therefore played them these recordings with the idea that hearing these sounds might inspire people to give additional vocabulary or information about these sounds, based on their extensive knowledge.

You can listen to the recordings below:

Siamang duet recorded on Sumatra by Ashley Banwell (BL ref 62323)

White-handed Gibbon calls recorded in Malaysia by Reg Kersley (BL ref 06512)

Clouded Leopard calls recorded in Thailand by John Moore (BL ref 128288)

Binturong calls recorded in Thailand by John Moore (BL ref 61103)

Not only were people aware of what the animals were doing in the recordings I played, but they also accompanied this with cultural information, as well as talking about the emotions that hearing the sounds evoked.

For example, people said that the siamang and white-handed gibbon in the recordings are all running away from predators. In addition, they pointed out that in the siamang recording, the low sounds are the males, but the higher sounds are the females. 

In response to the siamang and white-handed gibbon in particular, people also exclaimed that they felt haʔip ­- an intense feeling of longing, yearning, love, or desire, which is often felt in response to things that are considered beautiful.

Photo credit: cuatrok77 on Visual hunt /  CC BY-SA
Siamang; Symphalangus syndactylus


The beauty of these mammal sounds is reflected in people’s musical instrument playing. The siamang is a favourite sound to recreate on the mouth harp, and the white-handed gibbon is a favourite sound to recreate on the flute. 

However, as well as feeling haʔip,  the white-handed gibbon recording also prompted people to tell the story of the gibbon, including the gruesome part at the end where evil cannibals cook and eat their mother-in-law, which resulted in everyone falling about laughing.

manfredrichter at Pixabay
White-handed gibbon; Hylobates lar

People recognised the sound of the clouded leopard as the yah bintaŋ - yah means ‘tiger’ in Batek, and bintaŋ (or bintang) is the Malay word for ‘stars’, referring to the pattern of its fur.

Photo credit: bobdole369 on Visualhunt /  CC BY-NC-SA
Clouded leopard; Neofelis nebulosa

In the binturong recording, they said that the female binturong is ‘trying to attract male binturongs to mate with’ (ʔoʔ ʔajak tmkal ʔom cycəy).

Photo credit: <a href="https://visualhunt.com/author/e39fc3">jinterwas</a> on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/re/f48d28">Visualhunt</a> / <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/"> CC BY</a>
Binturong; Arctictis binturong

As is also the case for recordings of birds, using wildlife recordings of mammals in the field can therefore be useful for anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, or others who may be interested to find out more about how these sounds are experienced!

The Alice Rudge Collection of Batek recordings is currently being deposited and catalogued, and will be held under the shelfmark C1773.

11 September 2018

Stephen Farthing's memories of 9/11

Cathy Courtney, Project Director and interviewer for Artists' Lives writes about her interview with Stephen Farthing and his memories of 9/11.

Painter Stephen Farthing was recorded for National Life Stories’ oral history project, Artists’ Lives. Because the recordings are life stories, they set each person’s career within a biographical account and capture a great variety of material, often of broad social history significance.

Stephen_FarthingStephen Farthing (Sourced from Wikipedia)

Here, Stephen recalls being in Manhattan on September 11 2001, the day New York’s World Trade Towers were hit by the two planes hijacked by terrorists, causing the towers to collapse with terrible loss of life.

Stephen’s account captures the shock of the attack but also an initial reflex attempt to carry on with the business of the day as if nothing had happened. It contrasts with the way many people worldwide watched the news unfold. Through extracts from the recording, one senses the need for those nearby to take time to understand what had happened.

In September 2001, Stephen was Executive Director of the New York Academy of Art. On September 11, he and a colleague were using rooms in a bank (MBNA) on New York’s 57th street to interview candidates for a job at the Academy.

Stephen Farthing describes the day of September 11 2001 (C466/298/37)

A later extract captures the first gathering of the New York Academy of Art students after the attack.

Stephen Farthing describes the first gathering of students after 9/11 (C466/298/36)

A local detail from Stephen’s recording illustrates how Manhattan was changed by the 9/11 attacks and the later financial crisis.

Stephen Farthing describes New York City after 9/11 (C466/298/37)

This recording is from Stephen Farthing's interview in the Artists' Lives collection. Artists' Lives is an ongoing National Life Stories project to document the lives of individuals involved in British art, including painters, sculptors, curators, dealers and critics. Full life story interviews from the collection can be listened to online at British Library Sounds.