THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

68 posts categorized "Archives"

28 February 2017

Stanley Glasser: South African music recordings

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Mr Rummutla's dipila [lamellaphone] researched and photographed by Stanley and Elizabeth Glasser in Limpopo province, South Africa, 1975

Stanley (‘Spike’) Glasser (b. 28 February 1926) is a South African-born composer and academic. He has been based primarily in London since the 1950s. One of his many major achievements, and one he is perhaps best known for, is his role as music director of the South African jazz musical, King Kong. With music primarily written by Todd Matshikiza – Stanley composed some of the songs – and played by the likes of Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Kippie Moeketsi, the all-black cast and band first performed the show in South Africa in 1959. It was moved to the Prince’s Theatre in London’s West End, where it opened on the 23rd February 1961. Many of the cast never returned to South Africa after the run, starting an exodus of musicians who became instrumental in raising international awareness of the injustices of the apartheid system.

Stanley is also well known for his pioneering contributions to the development of the music department at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he spent most of his working life having become head of department in 1969 and Dean of Humanities in the 1980s. During his time there he was responsible for the creation of the electronic studios (named after him and in collaboration with fellow composer, Hugh Davies).

His compositional and academic activities were underpinned by his life-long love and connection with South African indigenous music. Introduced to local Zulu music as a teenager by the family’s much-loved housekeeper, Shikelela, Stanley spent time as a young man working with Hugh Tracey at the African Music Society (started in 1948 and still in existence under the International Library of African Music). Hugh and his son Andrew (ILAM’s director from 1977 to 2005) guided Stanley to making an ethnomusicological field trip to what is now Limpopo province in the northern-most region of the country, to study the music of the Pedi people.

Stanley was particularly interested in a kind of lamellaphone the Pedi played called the dipila. He was right to be – the instrument was not much known outside the area. It had not been recorded or studied. The 18 reel to reel tapes he recorded on his first field trip in 1975, with the help of his wife, Elizabeth, remain some of the only recordings of this instrument in existence.

RAMMUTLA DIPILAFingering for Mr Rammutla's dipila. [Drawn by Elizabeth in a field notebook.]

Perhaps more intriguing than the dipila, however, was Stanley’s introduction to the haripa an autoharp played by a Mr Mohali Ramathlo. Mr Ramathlo’s 45-stringed, zither-like instrument had 25 carved wooden puppets attached to it with a piece of wire. “Standing, he sings a song and while playing the haripa he moves the instrument around thus making the puppets dance with disturbing realism”, wrote Stanley in a paper for the International Folk Music Council conference at Goldsmiths in 1976.

Scan0001Mr Mohali Ramathlo and his haripa with puppets

The pentatonic tunings of both the dipila and the haripa come from the lenaka pipes. These were made from bits of curtain rod or other industrial piping and were normally of 10 to 37cms in length. Each player played a single note together making up the melody. In Stanley’s recordings there were 9 pipe parts, doubled up, with 4 drums.

Scan0003Pedi lenaka pipe dancers at Tzaneen

Listen to Pedi lenaka pipe dancers from C1671 original tape 14

Stanley and Elizabeth’s second field trip took them to study Xhosa music in the Transkei, now in Eastern Cape Province, in 1981/2. There they recorded 8 reel to reel tapes with a variety of performances and instruments including Christian church hymns and young men’s circumcision rituals; indigenous instruments such as the uhadi and isitolotolo musical bows and indigenous music played on guitars and concertinas.

Scan0005Umphumo [circumcision] celebration at Qhaka village. Those covered in the blankets are emerging from days of isolation during the circumcision rites.

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Kostini’ [concertina] player at Qhaka village for Umphumo celebration [circumcision]

 

Stanley’s collection of recordings, selected photos and notes are housed at the British Library with the reference C1671.

 

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

09 December 2016

British Composer Awards 2016

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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.

28 November 2016

The changing landscape of radio

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The Changing Landscape of Radio is the title of a report commissioned by the British Library into the future of UK radio and radio archiving. The report was commissioned from Rosina Sound with the aim of informing the Library’s developing plan for a national radio archive, which is one of the key strands of the Save our Sounds programme, the goals of which are both to ensure that the Library's existing sound archive is properly preserved, and that there are adequate systems in place for the acquisition of future sound production in the UK. Future heritage matters as much to us as past heritage.

Driverlesscar

Ford patent for an autonomous vehicle entertainment system (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, via Jeff McMahon, 'Ford Turns The Driverless Car Into A Driving Movie Theater', Forbes, March 2016, http://bit.ly/2e6TOFM)

The report has been published online on a new British Library project page, The Future of Radio,  along with project blog posts and a podcast in which radio experts debate the present and future state of the medium. The report is, we think, an entertaining reading, with stimulating ideas on how radio might evolve in the future which should engage anyone who listens to sounds, whether for pleasure or study. The Library's interest is, of course, primarily in sounds for study, and the report looks at the needs of researchers, and the issues the future archivist of radio will need to consider.

The report considers audiences (who are they? when do they listen? where do they listen?), devices, content, the industry, technology and legal considerations, as well as those researcher needs. Will radio become all catch-up or will the traditional 'linear' mode of broadcasting endure? What is the future for podcasting? What happens to in-car radio if we all end up in driverless cars and feel like watching video instead? In what ways will we be able to interact with radio in the future? Will innovations such as immersive audio change how we think of radio? Will we continue thinking of radio as 'radio', or will it turn into/be absorbed by something else? In ten years' time, what exactly is it that the radio archivist will be archiving?

Here are some snippet observations from the report to whet the appetite:

  • "The overall radio audience is stable. The majority of radio listeners have not changed the way they consume their content. Radio audiences are not, at present, being affected as dramatically by the digital revolution as audiences for music, newspapers or television."
  • "While linear listening is likely continue, there is a trend for media to be consumed in ever-smaller chunks. Shorter segments do not necessarily result in less linear listening or less listening overall. The shareable, ‘snackable’ nature of segments means they can be used for promotion alongside linear broadcasts, or to reach different audiences."
  • "Alongside the car, the home – and in particular the kitchen – remains the place where British people listen most to the radio. This helps explain why breakfast shows tend to have the biggest audiences and budgets, and therefore why these shows should be high on the priority list for inclusion in a national radio archive."
  • "Radio apps compete for people’s attention with all the other mobile apps available on a device – audio and otherwise. Streaming audio will quickly burn through most people’s data allowances, a problem that content downloaded over Wi-Fi avoids."
  • "The medium of radio is about emotional connection. People like radio for its companionship and for the connection it provides with the wider world. For these reasons the availability of music streaming services has not and will not kill off radio."
  • "Content that is related to radio output but provided on other media is becoming increasingly common and important in driving audience behaviour. A national radio archive would ideally include such content (e.g. web pages with further information, social media or live video streamed from the studio)."
  • "Increased choice means listeners can turn towards content that is more personal to them. The larger number of DAB stations increases the likelihood that one will be tailored to a specific need. The logical progression is for modular delivery of content to provide highly-personalised stations curated for individuals."
  • "Modular delivery mechanisms provide the building blocks for new ways to deliver radio: more personalised, more interactive, more contextually relevant. The BL should note that modular delivery could see the demise of the linear radio channel but we believe this will not be for at least ten years."
  • "A key factor for the success of a national radio archive will be accessibility, both in terms of how and where the system can be accessed as well as how easy it is to use the interface. Many archive projects have failed because potential users cannot get to them or if they can they do not understand how to operate them."

The British Library cannot guess the future for radio, but it does want to be informed about the options and the possibilities. Our next step is to start building a pilot national radio archive, the development work for which will begin next year.

31 October 2016

Why do people sound funny in old recordings?

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One of the pleasures of listening to old sound recordings is the ability they give us to peek through the glass at another time. Re-experiencing another moment in time, in real time, is immersive and gives us an intimate sense of what life on the other side of the glass was like. Can we take this at face value though? Does our modern perspective affect what we perceive on the other side? I had the opportunity to test this recently, in a wonderfully maintained 1947 Voice-o-graph disc recording booth, located in the Songbyrd Café in Washington DC.

 

The voice-o-graph recording booth


Before magnetic tape recording technology came of age in the mid-1940s, very few people had the means to make a sound recording of their own, and nothing more than a gramophone to play one on. Disc recording booths appeared in the 1930s, and were commonly found wherever people might have free time & spare money, such as fairgrounds, piers and railway stations. During World War II they were often used to send audio letters to and from armed forces personnel, providing an innovative morale boost to separated families and friends.

The British Library has several such discs, some of which appeared in the recent BBC Radio 4 programme Keepsake For My Lover. Listening to them, there’s often a stiffness or formality which we frequently attribute to the times they were made in. Is that a fair reflection though? While I was fascinated by the technology, I was just as keen to understand the experience of the person making the recording, to peek through from the other side of the glass.

I decided to make a recording for my daughter, who hates being praised, and also has no particular interest in discs or recording (or this blog post, probably). By the time she’s old enough to be curious about the disc, I reckoned, she might also be willing to hear a kind word from her dad, especially if he’s not in the same room at the time. I turned up at the booth with a couple of friends who were as curious as I was about the process, but I was reluctant to let them in the booth with me, and a bit nervous about telling them so. One suggested filming me from outside the booth, which didn’t altogether calm me down, plus I hadn’t actually prepared anything, other than a lullaby I used to sing to her when she was a baby (and, incidentally, was itself learned from an old British Library sound recording, here, from 30 seconds in).  

  How to make a recording

The booth itself was very warm, the machine noisy as it readies itself to record you, and a giant black cloud of my own expectation hung over me. I had three minutes to fill, with no pause button, and no second chance if I mucked it up. I sang & then mumbled, with no clear idea if I was too loud or too quiet, too near or too far away from the microphone, desperately hoping that no-one could hear me while I poured my heart out. At the end I was literally shaking.

I could have prepared better I suppose, but didn’t want simply to read something out, and the rhythm of the preceding morning hadn’t allowed a moment of quiet contemplation before piling into the booth. All of which, I suspect, would be typical of anyone making this kind of recording back in the day. What I ended up with then, is a recording sounding just like it was made in the 1940s: reticent, a bit shy, sincere. As the radio programme and my experience made clear, it’s not that the people being recorded have changed, so much as the context and technology of sound recording. Life on the other side of the glass isn’t so different after all, it’s just the glass that makes it look that way.

22 September 2016

The Future of Radio - a special British Library podcast

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Where are the current trends in radio and online audio leading to? What will radio be, and what might it sound (and look) like in its 2022 centenary year and beyond? Some leading figures in UK radio today, with very different perspectives, came together at the invitation of the British Library, for a discussion on the future of radio. These are issues of importance not only to the industry, but to the Library which is planning to increase the amount of radio that it archives.

Find out what they had to say about radio today and tomorrow in this special podcast:

While one strand of our Save our Sounds programme is concerned with preservation of our existing sound collections - the sounds of the past - other strands  are addressing the sounds of today and tomorrow. One of these has the objective of a more extensive, representative record of radio broadcasting around the UK.

Future of Radio session. Photo by Paul Wilson

Recording the Future of Radio podcast. L/R Femi Adeyemi, Matt Deegan, Helen Boaden, Miranda Sawyer, Ruth Barnes.

Incredibly, despite the fact that recording, storing and sharing of digital audio has never been easier or cheaper, over 90% of the UK's radio output today, from as many as 700 licensed stations, is not being permanently archived and may never become available for study or research unless action is taken. Next year, the Library therefore plans to implement the first stages of a pilot project aimed at assembling the equipment, technology and processes which should finally allow us to record radio output selectively from all sectors of the radio industry and from all corners of the UK.

But what to record, and why? Today the radio industry is once again in a period of transition, with a host of new digital audio platforms and playback devices, and some very different approaches to programming and live broadcasting emerging.

Allanah Chance and Nicky Birch at the Future of Radio session. Photo by Paul Wilson
Producers Allanah Chance (L) and Nicky Birch (R). Nicky is working with the British Library on its study into the future of radio.

Our podcast launches a debate on where radio is going, and how we keep it. The participants are leading podcaster and broadcaster Ruth Barnes as chair, and a panel comprising Matt Deegan (Creative Director of Folder Media and co-founder of the Next Radio conference), Helen Boaden (Director of BBC Radio), Femi Adeyemi (founder of Internet station NTS) and journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer. 

The podcast will be followed by a series of blog posts presenting individual specialist opinions on where radio is going, published to coincide with the Radio Festival, which is taking place again at the British Library on 26 September.

Please listen, and tell us what you think about radio's future - and archiving that future - through the Comment link at the head or end of this post.

13 September 2016

Restoring the first recording of computer music

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Jack Copeland and Jason Long
Fig. 1: Jack Copeland and Jason Long

Jack Copeland FRS NZ and Jason Long write: 

A key problem facing audio archivists is how to establish the correct pitch of a historical recording. Without some independent means of knowing how the original sounded, it can be very difficult—or even impossible—to tell whether an archived recording is playing at the right pitch. An important case in point is the earliest known recording of computer-generated music. In 1951, a BBC outside broadcast unit in Manchester used a portable acetate disc cutter to capture three melodies played by a primeval computer. This gigantic computer filled much of the ground floor of Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory.

Today, all that remains of the recording session is a 12-inch single-sided acetate disc, cut by the BBC's technician while the computer played. The computer itself was scrapped long ago, so the archived recording is our only window on that historic soundscape. What a disappointment it was, therefore, to discover that the pitches were not accurate: the recording gave at best only a rough impression of how the computer sounded. But with some electronic detective work it proved possible to restore the recording—with the result that the true sound of this ancestral computer can be heard once again, for the first time in more than half a century.

Frank Cooper's original 'acetate' disc (Photo courtesy of Chris Burton)
Fig. 2: The original 'acetate' disc was saved by Manchester University engineer Frank Cooper (Photo courtesy of Chris Burton)

Alan Turing's pioneering work, in the late 1940s, on transforming the computer into a musical instrument has largely been overlooked: it's an urban myth of the music world that the first computer-generated musical notes were heard in 1957, at Bell Labs in America.1 The recent Oxford Handbook of Computer Music staked out a counterclaim, saying that the first computer to play notes was located in Sydney, Australia.2  However, the Sydney computer was not operational until the end of 1950, whereas computer-generated notes were emerging from a loudspeaker in Turing's computing lab as early as the autumn of 1948.

The Manchester computer had a special instruction that caused the loudspeaker—Turing called it the 'hooter'—to emit a short pulse of sound, lasting a tiny fraction of a second. Turing said this sounded like 'something between a tap, a click, and a thump'. Executing the instruction over and over again resulted in this 'click' being produced repeatedly, on every fourth tick of the computer's internal clock: tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click. Repeating the instruction enough times like this caused the human ear to hear not discrete clicks but a steady note, in fact the note C6, two octaves above middle C.

Turing realized that if the 'hoot' instruction were repeated not simply over and over again, but in different patterns, then the ear would hear different musical notes: for example, the repeated pattern tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick produced the note of C5 (an octave above middle C), while repeating the different pattern tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick produced the note of F4, four notes above above middle C—and so on. It was a wonderful discovery.

Turing was not very interested in programming the computer to play conventional pieces of music: he used the different notes to indicate what was going on in the computer—one note for 'job finished', others for 'digits overflowing in memory', 'error when transferring data from the magnetic drum', and so on. Running one of Turing's programs must have been a noisy business, with different musical notes and rhythms of clicks enabling the user to 'listen in' (as he put it) to what the computer was doing. He left it to someone else, though, to program the first complete piece of music.

A young schoolteacher named Christopher Strachey got hold of a copy of Turing's Programmers' Handbook for Manchester Electronic Computer Mark II (the Mark II computer had replaced the prototype Mark I, which also played notes, early in 1951).3 This was in fact the world’s first computer programming manual. Strachey, a talented pianist, studied the Handbook and appreciated the potential of Turing's terse directions on how to program musical notes. Soon to become one of Britain's top computer scientists, Strachey turned up at Turing's Manchester lab with what was at the time the longest computer program ever to be attempted. Turing knew the precocious Strachey well enough to let him use the computer for a night. 'Turing came in and gave me a typical high-speed, high-pitched description of how to use the machine', Strachey recounted; and then Turing departed, leaving him alone at the computer's console until the following morning.4

Christopher Strachey, 1973
Fig. 3: Christopher Strachey sunbathing in the garden of his cottage 'The Mud House' in 1973, two years before his untimely death. (Photo courtesy of the Bodleian Library and Camphill Village Trust)

'I sat in front of this enormous machine', Strachey said, 'with four or five rows of twenty switches and things, in a room that felt like the control room of a battle-ship.'5 It was the first of a lifetime of all-night programming sessions. In the morning, to onlookers' astonishment the computer raucously hooted out the National Anthem. Turing, his usual monosyllabic self, said enthusiastically 'Good show'. Strachey could hardly have thought of a better way to get attention: a few weeks later he received a letter offering him a job at the computing lab.6

The BBC recording, made some time later the same year, included not only the National Anthem but also an endearing, if rather brash, rendition of the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep as well as a reedy and wooden performance of Glenn Miller’s famous hit In the Mood. There are unsettled questions about the authorship of the three routines that played these recorded melodies. In the wake of Strachey's tour de force a number of people in the lab started writing music programs: even the routine that played the National Anthem in the recording may have been a retouched version of Strachey's original.

It was a challenge to write routines that would keep the computer tolerably in tune, since the Mark II could only approximate the true pitch of many notes: for instance the true pitch of G3 is 196 Hertz but the closest frequency that the Mark II could generate was well off the note at 198.41 Hertz. We found there was enough information in Turing's wonderfully pithy Programmers' Handbook to enable us to calculate all the audible frequencies that the Mark II could produce. However, when we ran a frequency analysis of the 1951 BBC recording (using the British Library's digital preservation copy, tape ref. H3942) we found that the frequencies were shifted. The effect of these shifts is so severe that the sounds in the recording often bear only a very loose relationship to the sounds that the computer would have actually produced. So distant was the recording from the original that many of the recorded frequencies were actually ones that it was impossible for the Mark II to play.

Alan Turing (right) at the console of the Mark II computer
Fig. 4: Turing (right) at the console of the Mark II computer (Courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science)

Naturally we wished to uncover the true sound of the computer. These 'impossible pitches' in the recording proved to be the key to doing so: our computer-assisted analysis of the differences in frequency—between the impossible pitches and the actual pitches that the computer would have played—revealed that the recorded music was in fact playing at an incorrect speed. This was most likely the result of the mobile recorder's turntable running too fast while the acetate disc was being cut: achieving speed constancy was always a problem with the BBC's standard mobile recording equipment at that time.7 So when the disc was played back at the standard speed of 78 rpm, the frequencies were systematically shifted.

We were able to calculate exactly how much the recording had to be speeded up in order to reproduce the original sound of the computer.8 We also filtered out extraneous noise from the recording; and using pitch-correction software we removed the effects of a troublesome wobble in the speed of the recording (most likely introduced by the disc-cutting process). It was a beautiful moment when we first heard the true sound of Turing's computer.

Here is the complete recording of our restoration:

Authors

Jack CopelandJack Copeland is Distinguished Professor in Arts at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His recent biography Turing, Pioneer of the Information Age contains more information about Strachey and the Manchester computer music (Oxford University Press, paperback edn. 2014).

Jason Long

Jason Long is a New Zealand composer and performer, focusing on musical robotics and electro-acoustic music. He has carried out musical research at the University of Canterbury, the Victoria University of Wellington, Tokyo University of the Arts, and the Utrecht Higher School of the Arts.

References

1 See, for example, Chadabe, J. 'The Electronic Century, Part III: Computers and Analog Synthesizers', Electronic Musician, 2001, www.emusician.com/tutorials/electronic_century3.

2 Australian composer Paul Doornbusch writing in R. T. Dean, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music, Oxford University Press, 2009; see pp. 558, 584.

3 A. M. Turing, Programmers' Handbook for Manchester Electronic Computer Mark II, Computing Machine Laboratory, University of Manchester (no date, circa 1950); a digital facsimile is in The Turing Archive for the History of Computing, www.AlanTuring.net/programmers_handbook. Turing's Mark I/Mark II terminology was eventually superseded when the engineering company that was contracted to build and market the Mark II, Ferranti, called it the Ferranti Mark I.

4 Christopher Strachey interviewed by Nancy Foy in 'The Word Games of the Night Bird', Computing Europe, 15 August 1974, pp. 10-11.

5 Strachey in 'The Word Games of the Night Bird', p. 11.

6 Letter from M. H. A. Newman to Strachey, 2 October 1951 (in the Christopher Strachey Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford, folder A39).

7 BBC Recording Training Manual, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1950.

8 We describe in detail how we did this in our article 'Turing and the history of computer music', in J. Floyd and A. Bokulich, eds, Philosophical Explorations of the Legacy of Alan Turing, Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, Springer Verlag, 2017.

07 September 2016

One Hundred Singles

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Punk-singles

One of the more popular features of the current Punk 1976-78 exhibition is the wall of vinyl singles. This consists of 100 records from the period chosen from the BL’s sound archive. The selection includes the obvious hits as well as obscurities and curiosities and is not intended to be a ‘best of’, rather a selection of musicians and labels that in one way or another were associated with punk.

The rationale for inclusion varies - not many people might instantly recognise the single by Metal Urbain but appreciate its inclusion when they learn it was the first release on the Rough Trade label. In a similar vein, ‘Shadow’ by the Lurkers was the first release on the Beggars Banquet record label which is now the internationally-successful Beggars Group, releasing recordings by acts as diverse as the White Stripes, the Prodigy and Adele. The selection also includes first releases on Cherry Red Records and on the Factory label.

Lurkers-sleeve

Other releases involve people who went on to explore different musical directions – Birmingham punk band the Killjoys featured vocals by Kevin Rowland, later of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and bassist Gil Weston who went on to play in Girlschool. Liverpool punk band Spitfire Boys featured future Frankie Goes To Hollywood member Paul Rutherford and Nipple Erectors, formed by Shanne Bradley who was subsequently a member of The Men They Couldn’t Hang, included vocalist Shane MacGowan, later of the Pogues.

Killjoys-sleeve

There is an audio loop playing in the area but visitors can use headphone points to choose any of the 100 titles to listen to dubbed from the original vinyl. Visitors to the exhibition can often be seen counting off how many of the singles they have in their own (or recognise from their parents’) collections and arguing as to why certain records are not in the selection. Those that are not on display are available through the British Library’s Listening and Viewing Service together with hundreds of thousands of other recordings. Further details on the Sound page.

The exhibition ‘Punk 1976-78’ is at the British Library until 2 October. www.bl.uk/punk

04 August 2016

Theatre of Sound. An interview with Aleks Kolkowski

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Theatre of Sound is a nine-minute video which highlights the creative re-use of archival sound recordings in the field of sound art and music composition. It also touches on the use of early audio recording technologies in contemporary performance. These topics are illustrated with video documentation of two projects developed by composer/musician and sound artist Aleks Kolkowski.

 

Sound and Music

With Larry Achiampong, Aleks Kolkowski is one of two Sound and Music-Embedded Programme composers-in-residence at the British Library Sound Archive. This is a twelve-month residency for composers and creative artists, sponsored by Sound and Music, a national charity for musicians, and funded by The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

Besides being a composer and a musician, Aleks Kolkowski is an expert on historical recording techniques. He makes audio recordings on wax cylinders and on acetate discs, and creates public performances using these techniques, in collaboration with poets, musicians and artists. Many of the recordings are available to listen to online through his website Phonographies.

Save Our Sounds

The Library has embarked on a preservation programme: Save our Sounds, which is a 15 year project to digitize and preserve as much as possible of the nation's rare and unique sound recordings, not just from the Library’s collections but also from partner collections across the UK.

It is an aim of the programme to raise understanding, usage and public enjoyment of audio heritage more generally. And in this respect, the work of Aleks Kolkowski at the British Library Sound Archive supports the programme, by exposing the history of sound recording in a performative way.

Aleks's work is helping to create awareness and interest among different generations of new audiences. He has also contributed to the Sound Archive by adding his own collection of recordings made at the Library's studio, which will eventually be available online through the British Library Sounds website.

Performance Documentation

I have been documenting the performances and other creative outputs of Aleks at the Library since February to produce this video which I presented in Copenhagen at the performance archives conference SIBMAS 2016.

In addition the video features archival recordings and documentation from the Bishop Sound Company collection of sound effects for theatre, which dates from the early 1940s till the end of 1960s. The sound effects were recorded direct onto lacquer discs and then pressed to 78 rpm shellac for hire or sale. There are more than 3000 discs and hundreds of open-reel tapes in the collection. Aleks will be re-using this material in one of his future projects.

It has been very positive and enjoyable for me and other Sound Archive colleagues to work with our two composers-in-residence Aleks and Larry. Artists challenge people to see collections differently. They revive interest in collections and create awareness in ways that can't be done from inside the archive. They also contribute to reaching new audiences, who perhaps would not have come into contact with the collections otherwise.

Find more about the British Library's Drama and Literature Recordings and keep up with our activities on @BL_DramaSound.