THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

76 posts categorized "Arts, literature & performance"

16 February 2017

Leafscape: an exhibition

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Botanical artist Jess Shepherd has spent the past few years immersed in the world of leaves, both from a visual and sonic point of view. In this special guest post, Jess writes about how field recording became an intrinsic part of her creative process.

As a botanical painter, I specialise in painting very large watercolours of plants and am always working to surprise the viewer. Between 16th and 25th February, I will be holding my first solo exhibition of over 30 new watercolour paintings in Bloomsbury, London. For this exhibition, I explore my vision of a botanical dystopia, challenging our own sense of scale, its value and how we measure it.

Twitter_graphic

The story began when I picked up a leaf from a London pavement in July 2014. At the time I was moving house and felt that the condition of the leaf told my own story. It had been scuffed by the streets of the city and was no longer attached to the tree, but blowing across the floor in the wind. Like me, it was on the move.

After carefully painting this leaf larger than life size I was drawn to paint another and another. Eventually, after months of painting these leaf portraits, all from different moments in time and place, I have created a visual story. Some of these leaves measure over a meter in length.

041120151210Leaf 041120151210, Cercis siliquastrum, Watercolour on paper, 760 x 560mm

For the past two years I have also collected the environmental sounds from where each leaf was growing using an Olympus LS-14 recorder. These sounds document a journey from the East End of London, through the avenues of Hyde Park and streets of Chelsea into the deep rural countryside of Granada in Spain where I now have a second studio. I started collecting these sounds because I became interested in documenting the elements of our existence that I could not capture with paint. I also began to wonder how leaves would interpret their spaces if trees could hear. By recording the sounds from the precise locations of my source material, I feel I have been able to add a new dimension to botanical art; that I am able to communicate the importance of plants and our environment more poignantly. It is my way of catapulting botanical art into the 21st Century whilst also looking at topics close to my heart such as what is reality and what it means to exist.

Spain_birds and rain

Spain_goat bells

All of these environmental sounds have been skilfully arranged by musician Derek Thompson (Hoodlum Priest) who, through a process of both precise and random digital manipulation, has created a composition where place, time and space become intertwined. This multimedia journey is our vision of a botanical dystopia; the natural world in a state of decay through interaction with the encroaching urban environment.

Leafscape extract

The idea of recording sound introduces a completely new element to botanical art and I hope that this interpretation of both the natural and human worlds will encourage listeners to be as aware of the diversity and beauty of sound in the city as much as that of the countryside.

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Leafscape will be on show at Abbott and Holder from 16th-25th February 2017.

A copy of the accompanying book & soundtrack has been donated by the artist to the British Library and will soon be available in our Reading Rooms.

Audio clips and images courtesy of Jess Shepherd.

06 February 2017

Recording of the week: Linton Kwesi Johnson on dub poet Michael Smith

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This week's selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary & Creative Recordings.

In this recording, poet and reggae artist Linton Kwesi Johnson gives a lecture on the late Jamaican performance poet Mikey Smith (1954-1983), author of 'Me Cyaan Believe It'. The talk is based on his personal knowledge of the poet and the obscure circumstances of his death.

Remembering Michael Smith_Linton Kwesi Johnson

Linton-Kwesi-Johnson

The recording was made live in Cambridge in 2012, at the conference 'The Power of Caribbean Poetry: Word & Sound'. Linton Kwesi Johnson's oral history interview, made for the British Library project 'Authors' Lives' 2014-2015, is available to listen to at the Library by appointment.

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

18 January 2017

Music for a President

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The inauguration of the 45th President of the United States made me think of the music written by the great American composer John Philip Sousa. 

John_Philip_Sousa_cph.3b35816

John Philip Sousa in 1911 (Library of Congress)

Born in Washington in 1854, Sousa’s father was of Portuguese and Spanish origin and his mother was German.  Their son’s musical fame led him to became one of the few enshrined in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1976.

Sousa is famous for his patriotic marches, the most well-known being Stars and Stripes Forever, written in 1896 and made the official national march of the United States by an act of Congress in 1987.  Here is a recording performed by the Sousa Band more than a century ago in extremely good sound for 1909.  The fidelity of the piccolo solo is remarkable.

Stars & Stripes 1909

Hail to the Chief is the official Presidential anthem of the United States which is played at public appearances.  This was a song written around 1812 by a little known London theatre conductor James Sanderson to verses from Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake.  After being published in Philadelphia it was played firstly to honour George Washington and then at various occasions including the inauguration of the eighth president, Martin van Buren.

It was the 21st President, Chester Arthur, who requested a new musical work to be written specifically to be associated with the President of the United States because he did not like Hail to the Chief.  Sousa’s offering was Semper Fidelis (Latin for ‘Always Faithful’) written in 1888.  It is regarded as the official march of the United States Marine Corps and here they are playing it in 1909.

Semper Fidelis

These marches, along with The Liberty Bell and The Washington Post will keep Sousa’s name alive, but he also wrote a number of operettas – El Capitan having 112 performances on Broadway in 1896.  His march of the same name uses music form the score and is here performed by the Sousa Band.

John_Phillip_Sousa_-_De_Wolf_Hopper_-_El_Capitan

A poster for the original production of John Phillip Sousa's operetta El Capitan (1896), starring DeWolf Hopper (Library of Congress)

El Capitan

The reason so many early recordings of Sousa’s works exist is because the primitive acoustical recording process was best at reproducing the sound of loud performances - something an opera singer or a brass or military band could provide.  Indeed, some of the very earliest recordings are of bands.  Here is a London recording of Stars and Stripes Forever when it was hot off the press, made by the London Regimental Band 120 years ago somewhere between 1896 and 1900.  Certainly, it has a more primitive sound than Edison was later to achieve; the piccolo solo on this recording is barely audible.

Stars & Stripes 1896

1893sousaband

The Sousa Band at the St. Louis Exposition in 1893 - each member sporting a moustache

Sousa believed that the phonograph would put musicians out of work stating in 1906 that it would prevent music being made at home and that ‘they are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.’  For this reason he would not enter a recording studio although allowed his band to do so.  Therefore, he is not conducting these early performances.  However, he did conduct a few recordings and broadcasts later in life.

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12 December 2016

Recording of the week: 'Winter' by Vita Sackville-West

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This week's seasonal selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary & Creative Recordings.

Listen to Vita Sackville-West reading 'Winter' from her book-length poem The Land, excerpted from a two-disc set published by the International Educational Society in 1931. Following the format of the book, each of the four 78 rpm sides is titled after one of the four seasons. The poem is in the traditional pastoral mode, taking the natural world and its rustic denizens as its subject. The print version had been published by Heinemann in 1926 and had won the following year's Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature. In 1933 Sackville-West was to be awarded the prize a second time, for her Collected Poems.

Winter, from The Land by Vita Sackville-West

Winter-mood-113325_1920

All four parts of Sackville-West's "The Land" can be found in Early Spoken Word Recordings on British Library Sounds

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

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.

06 December 2016

Messiaen and the songs of wild birds

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This guest blog comes from Delphine Evans whose Master's thesis explored the manuscript notations of birdsong made by the French composer Olivier Messiaen during the 1950s, in relation to the early wildlife recordings that inspired them and to the musical compositions in which they feature.

This year, there has been something of a revival of interest in birdsong and natural soundscapes. In particular, a series of programmes devoted to birdsong  appeared on BBC Radio 3. This included a birdsong mixtape, new interpretations of birdsong-inspired music (perhaps most notably Pierre-Laurent Aimard's day-long performance of Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux at the Aldeburgh festival), and debate on the topic ‘Is birdsong music?’ Also of interest was the weekly birdsong segment on Radio 3’s Sunday Breakfast show, where the remarkable field recordings of different species of birds by Chris Watson were paired with excerpts of music from a variety of composers, from Ravel to Respighi.

The British Library’s sound archive is home to a unique collection of over 200,000 wildlife sound recordings from 1889 to the present day. Of all these, the work of Ludwig Koch (1881-1974) is remarkable in that it represents a pioneering attempt to document the natural sound world using recording technology.

During his lifetime, Koch devoted himself to collecting the sound phenomena he heard in the world around him. In 1889, as a child in his native Germany, he was given an early Edison phonograph which he used to make one of the first known recordings of birdsong: his pet Indian Sharma. When he arrived in England in 1936, Koch began to travel all over the British Isles, capturing birdsong and the sounds of natural environments on wax discs before transferring these to shellac. This was a long and laborious process, often requiring hours or even days of observation of a particular bird before beginning to record its voice. 

Koch’s first British recordings were published as Songs of Wild Birds in 1936, in partnership with the ornithologist E.M. Nicholson. This was followed by More Songs of Wild Birds in 1937. These unique collections combine textual descriptions of the songs and habitats of a variety of species, illustrations of the birds themselves and excerpts of their recorded songs and calls. Koch described Songs of Wild Birds as ‘the first sound-book of British birdsong’ – an early multimedia document that combines text, image and audio.

Songs of Wild Birds box set coverFront cover of Songs of Wild Birds (1936) by E.M. Nicholson and Ludwig Koch

What is remarkable about Koch’s recordings of birdsong is how skilfully he manages to isolate the songster within the recording, yet still captures elements of its surrounding environment - rather like a soloist performing to the backdrop of an orchestral accompaniment. This provides the listener with a clear sense of the habitat in which the featured bird lives: in other words, the recording presents a particular ‘soundscape’. These ‘backdrops’ comprise of many different sounds, from the songs of other neighbouring birds to the fortuitous sound of a passing aircraft.

Grey Heron calls with background birds (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

Curlew bubbling song with overhead aircraft (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

Koch’s recordings were a source of inspiration to another celebrated musical figure whose interest in birdsong is well known. Throughout his life, the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) notated birdsong and other natural sound phenomena. Like his German contemporary, Messiaen had also started to collect the songs of birds as a child – yet, as a musician and (later) composer, his preferred method was to write them down using musical notation. The earliest surviving examples of Messiaen’s autograph notations date from 1951: today, they belong to a collection of over 200 manuscripts that are housed in the archives of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. These are the cahiers de notations des chants d’oiseaux – the composer’s pocket notebooks that he used to carry around with him and capture birdsong at every available opportunity.

[Recueil_Photographies_Portraits_de_Olivier_[...]Cande_Daniel_btv1b9083761jPortrait of Olivier Messiaen at the 1987 Festival D'Avignon by Daniel Cande (source: Gallica -Bibliothèque nationale de France digital library)

Interestingly enough for a musician who experimented with avant-garde techniques, Messiaen didn't choose to write down what he heard using a progressive form of notation, but instead preferred to use the more traditional stave. He does this in a highly personal and sensitive way, by adding textual descriptions of the quality of a bird’s song, onomatopoeia to evoke its calls (a tried-and-tested ornithologist’s method), and symbols that provide an additional layer of detail to the notations. All of this provides a remarkably thorough depiction of the sounds that he encountered.

Le Courlis Cendre scoreLe Courlis cendré, Catalogue d'oiseaux XIII, p.4. Leduc editions, © 1964

As well as notations made outdoors in the heart of nature, Messiaen’s notebooks also contain a great number of musical sketches that were made from recorded birdsong. These sources were ornithological collections that were commercially available on record – such as Ludwig Koch’s Songs of Wild Birds (1936) and Songs of British Birds (1953)!

Messiaen’s ability to replay time and again the sounds captured in these recordings (something that is obviously impossible with ‘live’ birdsong) doubtlessly enabled an astounding level of precision in his notations. The songs of several birds that feature in Koch’s recordings subsequently found their way into Messiaen’s compositions, as the latter turned to the notations he had made as a source of musical material. For instance, in the final piece of the great piano cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux of 1956-1958, entitled 'Le Courlis cendré', we can hear a direct 'quotation' of the curlew’s call that features on More Songs of Wild Birds:

Le Courlis Cendré (extract)

Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen: piano & organ music (2008). Decca 478 0353, British Library shelfmark 1SS0006222

Curlew calls recorded by Ludwig Koch (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

As well as using bird songs and calls recorded by Koch as a source of musical ideas, it may well be that Messiaen was also inspired by the unique way in which his contemporary captured 'images in sound' of birds within their natural habitat. The notion of a 'soundscape', as pioneered by Koch in his work, finds a lasting legacy in Messiaen’s music. This great French composer similarly presents his listeners with a catalogue, or an inventory, of birds – not only of their songs, but also of the specific environments in which they live. In this sense, Messiaen’s birdsong pieces are like musical pictures: designed to document a particular scene almost as faithfully as the sound recordings from which they take their inspiration.

Delphine Evans is a pianist, musicologist and music educator. Her research is focused on birdsong and the natural sound world, and as a pianist she specialises in 20th Century French music. She has gained musical and academic experience in Canada and France, studying at the universities of Montreal and Paris-Sorbonne. She is currently based in Manchester where she teaches Music and French. 

02 December 2016

Yehudi Menuhin Centenary

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This year of 2016 will be remembered for many reasons, but as it draws to a close it is worth recalling that it was the centenary year of the birth of the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Hepsyba_en_Yehudi_Menuhin_(1963)

Hephzibah and Yehudi Menuhin in 1963 (Photo: Joop van Bilsen / Anefo)

Although he was the star of the family, his two sisters were also very talented – Hephzibah often acting as his accompanist in recordings and performances.  Much has been written about internal family relationships.  His mother, described as being cold, taught the young Yehudi never to show his feelings.  Producing three prodigies was certainly something unusual to cope with, but it seems that the parents exercised a considerable amount of control over their children’s lives.

Menuhin made his first recordings as a boy in 1928 accompanied by his teacher Louis Persinger (1887-1966).  These were made in California where the family was living at the time.  His fame led to touring and further recordings were made in Paris and London.  It was at the newly opened Abbey Road Studios in London in 1932 that Menuhin made his famous recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto with the composer conducting.  A few years later he returned to record some solos on 28th November 1934 with his father Moshe (1893-1983) and sister Hephzibah.  Someone had the idea to record a sound letter for their mother but all are embarrassed and lark around – Hephzibah sings ‘cuckoo’ and Yehudi plucks his violin, but most notably the father Moshe takes the limelight singing the opening of Sarasate’s Romanza Andalusa Op. 22 No. 1, a work Menuhin recorded that day.

Menuhin Family at Abbey Road

Most interesting is the inclusion of the speaking voice of producer/engineer Fred Gaisberg who had joined the Gramophone Company in 1898.  Apart from the father, none of them want to get near the microphone but, ever the experienced recording engineer, Gaisberg says to the children ‘You’re absolutely stymied, frozen…..it’s amazing how you get paralysed when that red light goes on…..what you could do is give your experience of something, I don’t know what…your experience of making gramophone records’.  Yehudi says, ‘couple it with this last one we did’.  Unfortunately, a lot of the recording is distant and it ends at this point.

Celebrity Concert 151154

Exactly twenty years later in November 1954 Menuhin recorded a thirty minute television recital with Gerald Moore as accompanist.  The sound from discs is not good but probably better than the TV film soundtrack, if it survives. Here is the Prelude from the E major Partita by Bach.

Menuhin Bach Gavotte 1954

Follow @BL_Classical for all the latest Classical news.

13 October 2016

Sir Neville Marriner – an interview

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Neville_Marriner

Photo by Werner Bethsold (CC BY-SA 4.0)

When Neville Marriner died on 2nd October at the age of 92, it made me think of the time that I visited his home with Norman Lebrecht to interview him for the British Library.

A wonderfully charming and unpretentious man of extraordinary modesty, he talked for two and a half hours about many aspects of his life including his experiences with Albert Sammons and Benjamin Britten.  He began his career as a violinist and formed the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 1958 in which he played violin and conducted.  Later, with encouragement from the great conductor Pierre Monteux, he left his violin and took to the podium as conductor.

Below is an excerpt where he talks about advice he received from Pierre Monteux - and one difficult journey to Maine where Monteux taught.

Marriner on Monteux

One of the most recorded conductors, Marriner made more than 600 recordings of over 2000 works from pre-baroque to contemporary music.  Most of these are held in the British Library’s Sound & Vision collections complimented by numerous broadcast recordings from his long career.