THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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76 posts categorized "Archives"

20 December 2017

Two very small records

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God-save-the-king

At the Wembley Empire Exhibition of 1924, one exhibit that caught the public eye was a dolls’ house, specially created for Queen Mary, which contained a fully-working miniature gramophone complete with six tiny records made by His Master's Voice.

Around 35,000 miniature discs were produced for sale as souvenirs, at sixpence each. Despite this far-from-limited edition, copies are hard to come by now, perhaps because they could so easily be lost or mislaid. The souvenir discs featured a 22-second rendering of ‘God Save the King’ by the popular Australian singer Peter Dawson. At just 34 mm (1 and 5/16th of an inch) in diameter, this is the smallest 78 rpm disc ever made.

A copy is currently on display in the British Library's free Entrance Hall exhibition LISTEN: 140 Years of Recorded Sound.

This is not the world's smallest playable record however. A contender for this coveted title arrived at the Library just a few weeks ago, courtesy of Michael Ridge.

One-inch-lathe-cut-disc

This 1" diameter 33 rpm lathe-cut disc by GX Jupitter-Larsen and Zebra Mu (each contributes an 8-second piece) is cautiously described by issuing label Quagga Curious Sounds as 'likely to be one of the smallest lathe cut records ever released'! Sadly, the limited edition of 110 copies is already sold out.

16 December 2017

Christmas carols from Turing's computer

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Following the viral response on the internet to Jack Copeland and Jason Long's 2016 blog concerning their restoration of the world's earliest surviving computer music recording, the pair's follow up is in two parts: (1) they explain how they resurrected the authentic sound of Turing's long since dismantled Manchester computer, by reconstructing two Christmas carols that the computer played in a BBC Radio broadcast in December 1951, and (2) they examine and clarify the competing international claims to the title of World's First Computer Music.

Jack Copeland FRS NZ and Jason Long write:

Listeners to BBC radio heard an utterly new sound in 1951 — a computer playing music. Among its Christmas fare the BBC broadcast two melodies that, although instantly recognizable, sounded like nothing else on earth. They were Jingle Bells and Good King Wenceslas, played by the mammoth Ferranti Mark I computer that stood in Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory, in Manchester.

According to Ferranti’s marketing supremo, Vivian Bowden, it was "the most expensive and most elaborate method of playing a tune that has ever been devised". Bowden may have kicked himself for predicting, at this seminal moment, that computer-generated music had no future.  

Turing (standing) at the Ferranti Mark I console (Courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science)
Alan Turing (right) at the console of the Ferranti Mark I. Photo courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science

Seemingly nothing remained of the computer's short Christmas concert, apart from Bowden's brief description in his 1953 book Faster Than Thought. We realized, though, that we had everything needed to recreate the computer's historic performance of these carols, thanks to our recent research into other music played by the Ferranti computer.

Previously we restored a 1951 BBC recording of the Ferranti playing three pieces of music. One of the engineers present at that long-ago recording session, Frank Cooper, had squirrelled away a BBC disc, and this is believed to be the earliest surviving recording of computer-generated music. The three pieces on the disc were God Save the King, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and In the Mood.

The performances on Cooper's disc contained between them a total of 152 individual computer-generated notes. By manually chopping up the audio, we created a palette of notes of various pitches and durations. These could then be rearranged to form new melodies. It was musical Lego: endless new structures could be produced from these basic building blocks. The process of recreating the carols was not always straightforward, however. Sometimes the notes we needed were missing from the palette, since they did not appear in the three reference pieces. Missing notes had to be manufactured, first by calculating the closest frequency that the Ferranti computer could generate — it wasn't always able to hit a note exactly — and then shifting the frequency of one of the specimens in the palette to achieve a match (while trying, moreover, to keep the specimen's spectral signature the same, so as to maintain a natural sound). Another problem was duration: sometimes a note needed to be shorter or longer than the specimen in the palette, so we either pared the specimen down, or pieced together copies of it by hand.

We had to re-score each carol to fit the computer's needs, especially in terms of key and complexity; and our scores mirrored the three reference pieces in length and tempo. Then we selected notes from the palette and pieced them together to fit the scores. Some handcrafting was required to create a realistic performance. For instance, a fake-sounding "machine gun effect" was liable to set in if the score required the same note to be repeated several times, so we achieved a natural sound by piecing together different specimens of the same note, taken from different places in the restored recording. Every time we stitched a new note into the melody, we cross-faded manually: fading out one element while fading in the next gave the optimum sound quality when piecing the notes together.

Slowly, the computer's gutsy renditions of the carols reappeared. Play them and enjoy! But beware of occasional dud notes. Because the computer chugged along at a sedate 4 kilohertz or so, hitting the right frequency was not always possible. It's a charming feature of this early music — even if it does in places make your ears cringe.

At about this time, other primeval mammoth computers were also starting to find their voices. Bowden mentions that the Whirlwind computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology played Bach fugues at Christmas time — 'much more highbrow' than the Ferranti's carols, he said.  

The pilot model of Turing's ACE in London, 1952
The pilot model of Turing's ACE in London in 1952. © Crown Copyright and reproduced with permission of the National Physical Laboratory

In London, too, the pilot model of Turing's Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) played Bach, possibly earlier than Whirlwind, using a loudspeaker set into its control panel. The pilot model ACE first came to life in May 1950, and by about February 1952 it was also "composing" — in a sense — its own music, using some special equipment designed by engineer David Clayden. The rising arpeggios of ACE's atonal music "gradually became more complex and faster, like a developing  

David Clayden
David Clayden. Photo courtesy of The Turing Archive for the History of Computing

fugue", until they "dissolved into coloured noise as the complexity went beyond human understanding", explained Donald Davies.[1] (Davies, originally Turing's assistant, was a driving force in the ACE project after Turing went to Manchester.)

For a long time, the history of early computer music was muddled. Reference works such as The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music stated that “the first computer to play music” was the Australian CSIRAC (pronounced "sigh-rack"). However, recent research has shown that this was most definitely not so.[2] We discovered that a predecessor of the Ferranti computer also played musical notes in Turing's Manchester Computing Machine Laboratory. This was the university-built prototype on which the Ferranti Mark I was based (and it was itself an enhanced version of Manchester's primordial "Baby" computer). Turing called it the "pilot machine", not to be confused with the pilot model of his ACE in London. The Manchester pilot machine was operational in April 1949, well ahead of the Sydney CSIRAC, which was partially operational in late 1950 — several months after Manchester's note-playing pilot machine had been switched off for the last time, in fact. 

CSIRAC: A CSIRO image
CSIRAC and its creator Trevor Pearcey in Sydney in about 1952. A CSIRO image

Unlike CSIRAC, though, the Manchester pilot machine seems never to have played a conventional melody. Turing used the synthetic musical notes as aural indicators of what was going on with the machine, like the beeps and bongs of today's mobile devices — whereas CSIRAC played honest-to-goodness tunes. It turns out, though, that CSIRAC can't even claim the distinction of being the first computer to play conventional music.

Our research has shown that an American computer called BINAC was making music before CSIRAC ran so much as a test program. BINAC, built by the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia, was the forerunner of the famous Eckert-Mauchly UNIVAC — the Ferranti Mark I and the UNIVAC were the first electronic computers to hit the market, both in 1951. 

BINAC. Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum
BINAC played music in Philadelphia in the summer of 1949. Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum

When BINAC was completed, in August 1949, Pres Eckert and John Mauchly threw a party for the programmers and engineers. This featured a musical offering from BINAC itself. One eyewitness — a partying engineer named Herman Lukoff — described the event: “Someone had discovered that, by programming the right number of cycles, a predictable tone could be produced. So BINAC was outfitted with a loudspeaker … and tunes were played for the first time by program control.” 

The programmer responsible for creating BINAC's music-playing program — the first in the world, so far as we know — was Betty Snyder, later Betty Holberton. Recalling her intensive work programming BINAC, Holberton said: “I was on the machine 16 hours [with] 8 hours off and I slept in the ladies' room.” 

Betty Snyder. U.S. Army photo
Betty Snyder. U. S. Army photo 

And the title of the first music played by a computer? "Everybody was going to come to the party at the end of creating the BINAC", Holberton remembered; "Well, I thought I'd do something special for them ... an interpretive routine that would play music. All I could get out of that machine was an octave, so I played For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow."[3]

Our timeline for the origins of computer music places BINAC in the limelight, in mid 1949. The Sydney CSIRAC played its first tune a year or two later, and the Bach-playing ACE in London may have preceded it. In Manchester, the Ferranti computer performed its first melody in 1951, when Christopher Strachey wrote a program that blared out God Save the King (see our blog 'Restoring the first recording of computer music'). But as to the starting point of it all, the very first experimental computer-generated musical note was probably heard in Turing's Manchester laboratory.

References

[1] Davies, D. "Very Early Computer Music", Resurrection: The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society, vol. 10 (1994), pp. 19-21: http://www.computerconservationsociety.org/resurrection/pdfs/res10.pdf

[2] See Copeland, B. J., and Long, J. "Turing and the History of Computer Music", in Floyd, J., Bokulich, A. eds Philosophical Explorations of the Legacy of Alan Turing, Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, 2017.

[3] Frances Elizabeth "Betty" Holberton in interview with Kathy Kleiman, part of "Oral Histories of the ENIAC Programmers", ©1997, by Kathryn Kleiman and the ENIAC Programmers Project, www.eniacprogrammers.org. Quoted by permission.

The authors

Jack Copeland

Jack Copeland is Distinguished Professor in Arts at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His recent book The Turing Guide is a comprehensive and easy-to-understand guide to Turing and his work, and it contains further information about the Manchester computer and its music (Oxford University Press, 2017, pbk).


Jason LongJason 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.

 

30 November 2017

Is there such a thing as an “old” sound recording?

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Age is relative of course: Compared with Roman coins or Stonehenge, even the oldest sound recordings seem young. This matters when you are arguing for the means to preserve sound recordings, which are seen by some as being too modern to warrant the status of cultural heritage. With that in mind, we’ve just passed a small but interesting milestone.

Contemporary illustration of the recording of Israel In Egypt

The oldest surviving recording of a public musical performance dates back to 29 June 1888, made at the Handel Festival in Crystal Palace, London, held to celebrate the work of the composer who wrote for both King Georges I and II. It features an excerpt from Handel’s Israel in Egypt, performed by an orchestra and choir of literally thousands, and earlier this year was rightly added to the US National Recording Registry in recognition of its cultural, artistic and historical importance. Today, the original wax cylinder resides in the hugely important Edison National Historical Park collection.

The recording was made a little over 129 years after the death of Handel, and so must have seemed at the time like a performance of music from a distant, remote age. As of right now however, an even greater period of time has passed since the recording was made. In other words, the recording itself is now closer to Handel’s time than it is to ours. As more years, decades and centuries pass, it will come to seem more representative of Handel’s era than the era of the listener. Will this change our perception of its age?

Stonehenge was only 129 years old too, once. Part of its cultural value comes from its age, and its age is a by-product of having being preserved throughout its life. Sound recordings on many legacy formats are now critically endangered, due either to degradation, or to the obsolescence of replay equipment. Funding to digitise them isn’t easy to find, and is often contingent on making them available online, which is difficult or impossible when the life of copyright is longer than the shelf life of the physical artefact. The problem is not the duration of copyright; it’s our limited ability to recognise the long-term value and vulnerability of what we have.

We can’t care for old things if we don’t care for them when they are younger. Our sound heritage deserves the chance to grow truly old.

12 October 2017

LISTEN: 140 Years of Recorded Sound

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Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound is the Library's new free exhibition in the Entrance Hall Gallery until 11 May 2018.

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

What would you find?

  Gallery_blog

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.

Hand-out_blog

 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

Artefacts

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.

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.

26 September 2017

Sounds of London

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Pinar-Cevikayak-Yelmi

In this guest blog post Pınar Çevikayak Yelmi describes her recent audio recording projects.

Initiated in July 2017 during my research at the British Library, the London Soundsslike Project aimed to collect symbolic sounds of London. A list of the most characteristic sounds of London was informed by public participation - British Library staff and others responded to a questionnaire I circulated. Then I recorded a representative selection of these sounds and archived them on the Soundsslike platform. The London Soundsslike Project remains a dynamic crowd-sourced sound archive which is open to further contributions.

The London project is a sub-project of the Soundsslike Project which aims to raise public awareness of urban and cultural sounds and to create a global crowd-sourced sound archive. The Soundsslike Project was initiated to expand the Soundscape of Istanbul collection which was created during my doctoral research at Koç University, Istanbul. The Soundscape of Istanbul project approaches everyday traditions and daily urban life from a sonic perspective and aims to increase public awareness of cultural sounds, e,g. through public exhibitions.

Sound is part of our daily lives and our cultures, and is of great importance in terms of intangible cultural heritage. Sonic cultural heritage is twice endangered due to the physical characteristics of sound itself and the dynamic structure of intangible culture. Sounds that are not protected or archived get lost forever. In a dynamic city such as Istanbul, daily life and urban sounds change rapidly. Therefore, it is necessary and worthwhile to conserve cultural soundmarks of the city so as to sustain cultural identity and cultural memory. The Soundscape of Istanbul collection is now archived at Koç University’s library, on the Europeana Sounds platform and on the global database WorldCat. 

Here are some sound samples from the London Soundsslike Project, with accompanying images:

Big-Ben-Chimes

Big Ben Chimes

Tower-Bridge

Tower Bridge

Free-Evening-Standard-Man

Free Evening Standard Man

Ferry-Horn

Ferry Horn

20 June 2017

A conversation: celebrating the donation of the Hay Festival archive

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

Digital-Audio-Tape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 April 2017

Live Art in the UK: Lois Keidan interview - part 1

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Lois Keidan is co-founder and co-director of the Live Art Development Agency (LADA), an organization based in London dedicated to the support and promotion of live art in the UK and abroad.

The British Library’s long relationship with LADA has resulted in a substantial collection of video recordings of performances, talks, symposiums and discussions programmed by LADA at different venues in London and the UK. The collection is available to view at the British Library premises and at LADA’s Study Room research library.

This interview with Lois took place at the British Library, 20 January 2017. Lois discussed the history of live art in the UK, the work of LADA, and how live art can help us to understand contemporary Britain.

Lois Keidan_image_Alex Eisenberg blogLois Keidan. Photograph by Alex Eisenberg.

What’s the difference between live art and performance art?

Performance art is live art. We talk about live art at the Live Art Development Agency (LADA) as an umbrella term that covers a wide range of performance or live practices. It’s a spectrum of practices from experimental theatre at one end right through to conceptual art at the other, and performance art is within that spectrum.

Performance art is probably best understood as a practice of visual artists. Its history is contested but you could say it emerged in the 1960s when visual artists turned to their bodies as their artistic material and as the site of their practice. They were rejecting the art market and the commodification of art and they were more interested in ideas, experiences and embodied actions.

Those kinds of approaches were also paralleled by artists who were working at the edges of theatre - rejecting the idea of the play, rejecting the idea of the fourth wall, and rejecting the idea of people pretending to be somebody else. They were looking at theatre as a space, and as an area of practice where they could re-write the rules and look at what kind of language they could use, what kind of relationship they could have with audiences, and what they could do theatrically with spaces.

Live art is a way of talking about such approaches to the nature and role of art and to the experiences of art by audiences, and a way of thinking about what art can be, how it is made, where it is made, who it is made for, how it is experienced and increasingly how it is written about and - in relation to where this interview is taking place - into how it is recorded and archived.

So performance art is an aspect of live art, and one of the reasons why we talk about live art and why there is this slight distinction between these two terms is to do with the kinds of practices and the kinds of artists that performance art represents.

Many years ago, in the very early 1990s, the Arts Council of Great Britain, as it was at the time, was looking at performance art and asking why it was such a Eurocentric and white area of practice - it was concerned that performance art didn't seem to be reflecting the diversity of the UK. And so it commissioned research to look into this that was undertaken by the artist and scholar Michael McMillan. One of things he suggested was that we should widen the frame of practices that we might consider performance art, and look at other practices within other cultures, which share the same sort of tenets of performance art but were not recognized by the art establishment or the mainstream art world.

Inspired by artist and writer Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Michael suggested that if we begin to change our terminologies and our language, then performance art could be a more inclusive area of practice. And so it was agreed that the Arts Council should change its terminology away from performance art to this more inclusive language of live art.

I was working at the Arts Council at the time and this was something that was very significant to me and the art and ideas I was interested in, and something I took to the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) when I went to work there in the early 1990s and then onto the formation of LADA in the late 1990s.

I would like to ask you about the formation of LADA in conjunction with how you first became interested in the kind of work you promote in LADA since you have been working most of your working career in live art.

Pretty much most of my working career. I started working in independent post-punk music, running independent record labels and managing bands and stuff like that, and then I went to work in community art, at Edinburgh’s Theatre Workshop. Theatre Workshop was interesting in terms of the projects being made there, who was involved in those projects and what they were about. And it was through these I became aware of, and inspired by, performance art.

One of the reasons it excited me at that time was its relation to punk. I recently wrote something about the relationship between punk and performance art for the British Council’s website on the 40th anniversary of punk. Performance seemed to me to relate to punk and post-punk music in the sense that it was a sort of DIY aesthetic, low-tech, and could happen anywhere. It was very inclusive of audiences, non-hierarchical, and I got really excited by it as an artistic approach and by the kinds of issues and ideas that were being addressed by performance artists concerning politics, the politics of the body, activism and changing the world and just basically being awkward and disruptive, which is what I was and I still am I hope.

So how did you get to co-found LADA?

Well I was lucky to be able to work at the ICA in London in the late 1980s and then again in the 1990s. The 90s was very much the golden age of performance art and live art in the UK and internationally, and when I was working at the ICA with Catherine Ugwu the programme we ran tried to reflect that.  

In those days a lot of work was being created in the UK as a reaction against Thatcherism. All kinds of artists who had been excluded from society and public discourse and made to feel that they didn't seem to matter under Thatcherism saw performance art as a rich area to be working in, and the same was happening with fiercely politicized artists in the United States.  At the ICA we were able to work with many of those artists and create a context to represent the different issues, experiences and ways of working they were exploring, and also to work with an exciting new generation of audiences who were thirsty for new ideas and experiences. 

The leadership changed at the ICA in the late 1990s and many of the programming staff left, Catherine and myself included. By then there were many great artists leading great initiatives, with a whole new generation of artists making work, as well as an older generation still making very radical works. The Arts Council in London was aware of how exciting live art in London had become and had developed great policy and provision for new ways of working, but was also concerned about how live art was being supported as they didn't necessarily have the capacity or the expertise to be able to offer more direct support.  

At the same time the Arts Council in London had started to look at delegating responsibilities for a range of art forms by setting up different agencies. As part of this they put out a tender for people to set up a live art development agency – Catherine and I applied and we got it, and that was how LADA was formed in 1999.

What are some of the areas explored by practitioners of live art?

Live art represents lots of different ways of working: from artists who work theatrically to artists who work more conceptually; to artists who work with audiences in participatory practices. I think within all of that live art offers an interesting context or platform for artists to look at many different issues. Some of the ideas that continue to be explored by artists working with live art practices include the politics of the body and issues of identity, such as representations of race, gender, sexuality and disability.

Live art has been an important and powerful platform for artists working with issues of social and environmental justice such as the Vacuum Cleaner, or Liberate Tate, and there are rich relationships between live art practices and political activism. It's also a ripe area for artists who are interested in conversations with audiences and in participatory immersive practices, as much live art is about the experience of art and the ways that artistic frameworks can give agency to audiences.

It’s also about the idea of working outside the received sites for art. Live art is very site-responsive and context-specific - its an area of practice that doesn’t have to take place within a gallery or theatre, but can be located in all kinds of public contexts and that can be exciting for artists, and for audiences who encounter that work.

It’s also an interesting area of practice for artists interested in issues of science, biomedical research and ethics, and the mechanics of the body.

Because it's not a fixed form, live art can engage with all these issues in ways that are different from writing plays or painting pictures.

Live art also influences scholarly research.There is a fluid relationship between practice and thinking within live art and between artists, academics and researchers, and that is generating interesting new ways of writing about art, which is not necessarily scholarly writing or the usual critical ‘reviews’ - its more about the idea of writing with art, writing from art, and artists are increasingly seeing that as part of their practice.

So you are saying that it sits well with the academic community?

Yes, very well, and increasingly so. Perhaps this is not the case in other places, but here in the UK it is. Certainly in the UK when I started working in this area of practice there were only two places that you could go to study: Dartington College of Arts in Devon and Nottingham Trent University. In other institutions performance art might have been referenced and referred to, but it wasn't taught as a module or studied as something in its own right.

But now many universities and art courses engage with live art and there are all kinds of dedicated modules and dedicated research going on.

Globally there is an international network of performance studies (Performance Studies international: PSi) and I think it is increasingly understood and taught and researched in different countries. It might be called different things but certainly it is increasingly studied.

I guess this is part of the work you have been doing.

It’s a kind of an advocacy thing, yes. What’s great about the UK - but it will be disappearing very soon with Brexit and the kind of new world order that we find ourselves in - is that there were so many international students who came to study in the UK and got really excited about live art and then went ‘home’ and became either British Council officers, or artists and curators all over the world, flying the flag of live art. That’s has been really exciting to see -  the globalization of live art with a new generation of makers, doers and thinkers.

Go to part two.

Interviewer Eva del Rey

12 April 2017

By preserving our sound heritage now, in the future we can recreate the past

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Sound recordings freeze moments in time: music or theatrical performances, the words spoken by the famous or in everyday speech, or the sounds of our environment. When played back, they allow us to understand, to experience, to be immersed in - to relive - those moments.

Yet preserving sound recordings and making them accessible is a huge challenge, not least because sound recordings can rapidly decay and as technology marches forward, formats quickly become unplayable.

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Many thousands of archived magnetic tapes urgently need digitising

The British Library’s Save Our Sounds programme received a tremendous boost when in 2015 a £9.5 million grant was earmarked by the National Lottery. After months of preparation and assessment, prioritising the most significant at-risk sounds collections around the UK and building a network of 10 collaborating institutions, our ambitious project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is launched today.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage builds on the generous support of other donors and funders, meaning that the total project funding of £18.8 million is now in place. The funding enables the formation of the first ever UK-wide network of ten sound preservation centres. This network will now come together with the British Library to save almost half a million rare and unique recordings.

The funding allows the British Library to lead this major preservation and access project, sharing skills and supporting the ten centres across the UK in order to preserve their own unique and rare regional sounds and make them more accessible to the public.

The Library and its ten partners will invest in a schedule of public engagement activities, including well-being workshops, learning events for families, and tours, events and exhibitions. A vital element of the project will be a new website for listeners to explore a wide selection of recordings. This website is scheduled to go live in 2019.

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Cleaning a shellac disc before digitisation in the British Library’s sound studios

Dr Sue Davies, Project Manager at the British Library commented:

“This project has been a long time in development and, over the last 18 months, we have laid good foundations for the next five years. I am excited to be part of this HLF funded project which will make a huge difference to the care of and use of audio archives across the UK. I am particularly looking forward to working with the ten institutional partners, sharing our skills and making it easier for a wide range of people to engage with recorded sound.”

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, Headley Trust, the British Library Trust and the American Trust for the British Library and other kind donors.

The ten centres that will soon begin work on preserving their regional sounds are: National Museums Northern Ireland, Archives + with Manchester City Council, Norfolk Record Office, National Library of Scotland, University of Leicester, The Keep in Brighton with the University of Sussex, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, National Library of Wales, London Metropolitan Archives, and Bristol Culture.

Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision

More information: 
Save our Sounds
Unlocking our Sound Heritage press release 12/04/17
£9.5m boost from Heritage Lottery Fund for our Save our Sounds campaign
Save our Sounds: 15 years to save the UK’s sound collections