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128 posts categorized "Arts, literature & performance"

23 May 2018

Sounds from beyond the Iron Curtain: Soviet classical recordings at the British Library Sound Archive

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SEOM 20002HMV SEOM 20 (BL Collections 1LP0144447)

Guest blog by British Library Edison Fellow Evgeniya Kondrashina

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear of ‘Soviet music’? Is it the Red Army Choir with their military band songs, or the enigmatic symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich? The British Library holds a large variety of Soviet and Russian music recordings, from different Western record labels as well as the official Soviet (now Russian) state record company, Melodiya.

My PhD research, supported by the Edison Fellowship at the British Library Sound Archive, explores Soviet and Russian classical music recordings in the West during the Cold War. I am investigating Soviet music recordings available in the UK from the 1950s to the 1980s.

From the 1950s, technological advancements in music recording led to a widespread practice of listening to and collecting records. Three key technical innovations triggered accelerated growth in the record industry after the Second World War: the development of magnetic tape recording, the invention of the vinyl long-playing disc and the introduction of stereo sound reproduction.

The LP remained the main format for classical music listening in the home between the 1950s and the early 1980s, when it was gradually overtaken in terms of sales volume by cassettes and then CDs. The establishment of the LP format also led to an important repertoire phenomenon: all major classical music repertoire in the back catalogue of the main record companies was very quickly re-recorded during the 1950s for the LP format. This meant that the record consumer now had access to a huge variety of interpretations of the same music. Hence, by the late 1950s the Western classical music market was saturated with recorded interpretations of works from the traditional Western canon and listeners were hungry for new performers and repertoire.

Finally, the introduction of stereo sound in 1958 dramatically improved the quality of the listening at home experience, which for classical music was a much more significant factor compared to other music genres. The market for high-quality LPs of classical music took off, with music lovers investing in high-quality listening equipment and paying a premium for stereo vinyl releases.

By the mid-1950s, the largest Western markets for records were the USA, UK, France and West Germany. In Europe, the two record companies that were in the best position after the war were EMI and Decca in Britain. At this time, after the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union changed its attitude towards the West. An active programme of cultural exchange was established with a crucial role given to Soviet musicians of showcasing the excellence of Soviet and Russian performing arts to the West during their tours. Musicians’ tours could only cover several major cities, while recordings sold in shops and played on the radio reached far and wide across geographical territories. The 1950s saw a medley of Western labels issuing miscellaneously licensed Soviet recordings. A selection has been digitised for British Library Sounds, on a variety of Western labels, all taking advantage of the thaw in Western-Soviet cultural relations and the interest in Soviet classical performers.

A recording of the pianists Emil Gilels and Yakov Zak playing the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos with the Moscow Radio Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin was issued by Period Records, a respectable US classical label, before going bust in 1957.  Here is an extract.

Mozart K365

Another US label, Concert Hall Records, released some recordings of the violinist David Oistrakh and conductor Alexander Gauk with the State Radio Orchestra of the USSR.  Here is an extract from the slow movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto.

Beethoven Concerto Oistrakh

Monarch Records also released Oistrakh and the State Radio Orchestra of the USSR with Kondrashin in 1954.  Here is the opening of the last movement of Brahms' Violin Concerto.

Brahms Concerto Oistrakh

In the mid-1960s the Soviet Union decided to concentrate on one exclusive partner in each of the capitalist countries.  These were handled by Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga (MK), the book foreign trade organization of the USSR.  The chosen Western partners were Angel (a Capitol Records label, being a subsidiary of EMI Group) in the USA in 1966, HMV (an EMI Group label) in the UK and Australia in 1967, Ariola-Eurodisc in West Germany in 1965, Chant du Monde in France and Victor in Japan. The Soviets did not want to have one partner for the whole of the capitalist world as this would have been too restrictive.

My research on the Edison Fellowship focuses on the UK partnership agreement between EMI and the USSR from the late 1960s to early 1980s. This exclusive licensing agreement allowed EMI to release over 200 LPs in the UK.  These recordings comprised a vast and varied repertoire of Soviet and Russian music performed by the great Soviet artists of the day as well as some less well known musicians. Melodiya made the recordings in its studios in the USSR and then provided EMI with lists of the recorded master tapes, from which EMI chose the ones it wanted to release in the UK. The recordings from the Melodiya master tapes were then pressed on high-quality vinyl at EMI’s main production facility in Hayes, Middlesex. They were released on the Melodiya/HMV label especially created for this Russian series of music.

Below are photos from the dinner EMI held at ‘The Compleat Angler’ hotel at Marlow on the River Thames in August 1975 for Igor Preferansky of MK who was responsible for licensing Soviet gramophone recordings abroad.  The top picture is of Tony Locantro (EMI business manager responsible for Soviet licensing agreement within EMI) and Lev Ershov (representative of the Soviet Trade Delegation).  The picture below is (from left to right) of David Finch and Ken Butcher (both from the International Sales Division of EMI Records UK) and Igor Preferansky.

Russian Party Marlow005(Courtesy of Tony Locantro)

EMI chose the front cover image and back sleeve notes for the UK-distributed discs, which were different from those chosen by Melodiya, to accompany the same recordings for distribution in the USSR. For instance, many of the Shostakovich recordings were released by Melodiya for its domestic Soviet market with a simple photograph of the composer on the cover. EMI took a much more imaginative approach to its classical covers and interpreted the music of Shostakovich, especially his symphonies, with a variety of illustrations, providing visual cues about the music to the listener.One particular symphony is worthy of further discussion, his Symphony No. 13 or Babi Yar, which is based on the poems by the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko about anti-Semitism and the massacre of Jews during the Second World War in Russia. Shostakovich composed the work in the spring and summer of 1962, just six months after the poems were published. These works were read as condemnation of anti-Semitism that existed in the USSR at the time, thus receiving a divided reaction within the critical circles. Consequently, finding a soloist and conductor for the premier of the symphony was not a straightforward matter: both Shostakovich’s first choices, the bass singer Boris Gmirya and the famous conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered many of the composer’s symphonies until then, refused to take on the roles possibly due to pressure from the authorities. The Ministry of Culture was displeased with the strong Jewish content of the texts but the first performance went ahead on 18 December 1962 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Kirill Kondrashin. After the premiere, the composer and poet were persuaded to change the text to reflect that not only Jews, but Russians and Ukranians died at Babi Yar. The new version was conducted by Kondrashin on 10th and 11th February 1963. Further performances of the work took place in cities across the USSR but it was actively discouraged from public performance until the early 1970s.

Melodiya recorded Symphony No. 13 in 1971 and issued it with a neutral photography of Shostakovich on the cover. There was no reference to any Jewish content in the music whatsoever. EMI, however, releasing the licensed recording in the UK in 1973, chose to make a very vivid and explicit reference to the Jewish content of the Symphony: the cover shows a forlorn field where someone has dug a huge hole with scattered stones and a large Star of David in the background. This produces a much stronger visual impression than the straightforward portrait of the composer, as in the Melodiya case.  Such a difference in approach to cover design is not surprising, if we remember that Melodiya was a state-supported company, while EMI was a private profit-oriented business with a strong marketing acumen.

Melodiya Shostakovich 13Melodiya CM 02905/6

ASD2893001HMV ASD 2893 (BL Collections 1LP0140861)

The Edison Fellowship has been instrumental in giving me access to materials and people who have helped conduct my research. In addition to studying a wide variety of books and periodicals, I have looked at the LPs in the Melodiya/HMV series that were released by EMI in the UK over the 15-year period of the agreement.  I have also studied the images and sleeve notes on those records in order to investigate the perception and presentation of Soviet music in the West. This crucial information helps us understand what kind of vision of Soviet and Russian music EMI, as the key distributor, was creating in the minds of British listeners during the Cold War. I was also able to listen to and compare the HMV/Melodiya recordings with Western recordings of the same repertoire, all held at the Sound Archive. The advice and explanations of the Classical Music Curator, Jonathan Summers, were instrumental in shaping my understanding of the broader classical music industry developments in the West at the time, of which Soviet and Russian recordings were a part. Jonathan also introduced me to important past employees of EMI, who provided information on the relationship with the USSR from the British point of view.

In parallel, I worked on materials of the Soviet Ministry of Culture held in Moscow, Russia, at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI) and Russian State Archive (GARF). Bringing the British and Russian sides of the story together allowed me to construct a multifaceted view of events and helped understand the motivation and decision-making process on both sides of the agreement.

The licensing agreement with the USSR was crucial in making EMI a key decision-maker on which Soviet and Russian classical music recordings to bring to the British listener, how to present them through the choice of sleeve image and cover notes, and where to sell them across the country. It presented new repertoire and performers to the British public and, to a large extent, influenced the perception of Russian and Soviet music in this country for at least a generation of listeners.

 For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical

09 May 2018

Lady Speyer - a forgotten violinist

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Lady_Speyer_by_John_Singer_SargentLady Speyer by John Singer Sargent

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Leonora von Stosch was born in Washington D.C. on the 7th November 1872. Her father had been born in Germany but immigrated to the United States as a young man where he married an English woman.  Leonora first studied music in Washington with Joseph Kaspar, and at the age of sixteen, she and her mother went to Brussels where Leonora studied under Cornelis at the Conservatory of Music.  Upon graduation two years later, she played for the great Joseph Joachim in Berlin and at nineteen continued her studies in Paris with Martin Pierre Marsick (1847-1924) whose pupils included Carl Flesch, Jacques Thibaud and George Enescu.  Leonora also studied under Arno Hilf in Leipzig.  At this time she performed the Rondo Capriccioso by Saint-Saëns with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Arthur Nikisch.  She was already twenty-seven years of age when she first played in London in 1899. The Morning Post wrote of her performance, ‘Saint-Saëns’ Andante and Rondo Capriccioso for violin was played with much lightness and vivacity by Madame Leonora von Stosch, a remarkably clever performer, who ought to make her mark.’ 

Leonora had one daughter by her first marriage to American Louis Meredith Howland but the marriage failed and in 1902 she married wealthy banker Edgar Speyer.  She was thirty, he was forty.  After her second marriage, Leonora did not perform much in public and took up poetry, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1924 for her book of poetry Fiddler’s Farewell.  However, the list of famous musicians who visited the Speyer’s new home in Grosvenor Street, where Edgar had converted two houses into one, was impressive.  The music room was graced by a portrait of Lady Speyer by the greatest portrait painter of the day, the American John Singer Sargent, and the visitors included Percy Grainger, Richard Strauss and Edward Elgar.  In 1906 Grieg visited England to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University and stayed for a few days with the Speyers at Grosvenor Street where the elderly Norwegian composer was greatly impressed by their home and hospitality. 

In January 1910 when Elgar dined at Grosvenor Street, Leonora and Elgar read through the slow movement of the new violin concerto he was writing.  She was the first to play it (albeit in private) and during May she and the composer rehearsed the first movement.  Robert Newman had founded the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and the Proms but by 1902 was getting into financial difficulties resulting in bankruptcy.  Edgar Speyer offered to underwrite the losses and by 1914 had invested £26,000 in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra Company Ltd.  Speyer also financed the premiere of Elgar’s Second Symphony and enticed Debussy to visit London in 1908 and 1909.  He invited Richard Strauss to London to conduct the first performance of his great tone poem Ein Heldenleben in 1902 and three years later Strauss dedicated his opera Salome to Speyer.

It was in 1909 that Leonora made some discs for HMV.  As far as I know, these have not turned up on LP or CD anthologies of violin playing, particularly The Recorded Violin (Pearl 1990) or The Great Violinists 1900-1913 (Testament). It is probable that her husband paid for the recordings as Leonora was by this time not performing much in public and the discs would not have sold well. Indeed, they are rare today and of the three published sides, the British Library holds only one.  Leonora had two sessions for HMV, at their pre-Hayes location, not far from the British Library in City Road probably playing one of the two famous violins owned at the time by the Speyers - either the 1699 Stradivarius, known as the ‘St. Vallier Sikorsky’ which the Speyers owned from 1903-1911, or the 1742 Guarneri, the ‘Lord Wilton’, which they owned from 1902-1921.  At the first session on 26th March 1909, of the five sides recorded, only one was issued – the Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor by Brahms arranged by Joseph Joachim. 

Brahms label

Brahms-Joachim Hungarian Dance in G minor

The second session was on 18th May 1909 when she recorded four sides (three being repetitions from the previous session) and two of these were published.  The Brahms title was issued from this second session replacing the previously released one from the first.  The Library holds the recording of this work from the first session.  The other published side has been loaned to the Library for digitisation by Jolyon Hudson.  The repertoire here is curious:  the label has Capriccio all‘antica and Capriccio by Bohm. 

Bohm label

Carl Bohm (1844-1920) was a prolific German composer of unabashed restraint whose vast output runs to nearly 400 works with opus number and many more besides, some of which contain a large body of works – his Op. 326 contains 143 songs while Op. 327 comprises 78 pieces.

The first work on the recording is actually not by Bohm but the Capriccio all‘antica Op. 25 No. 2 by Italian composer and mountain climber Leone Sinigaglia (1868-1944).  The second piece is indeed by Bohm but has been hard to track down.  The only Capriccio by Bohm I could find in the Music Library is from Op. 314, subtitled Papillon and it is not this work.  It sounds very much like the popular violin showpiece L’Abeille (The Bee) by Francois Schubert (1808-1878, no relation to the famous Franz Schubert) - No. 9 of his 12 Morceaux detachés for violin and piano, Op. 13 - but the key is wrong (G minor instead of E minor) and although the beginning is very similar, it is evidently not the same work.  It turns out to be the fourth movement from Bohm’s Suite in G minor which is titled Capriccio, but is also subtitled The Bee, The Gnat or La Mouche and therefore looks like pure plagiarism of the Schubert piece.

Sinigaglia and Bohm

In 1914 Leonora gave three evenings of violin sonatas (presumably at her home) by Fauré and Richard Strauss.  In each case she was accompanied by the composer.  The Speyers were then caught up in the catastrophe of the First World War and moved to the United States with their four daughters.  Edgar, born in New York to German parents, had become a British citizen in 1892.  He was responsible for the expansion of the London Underground system in the early years of the twentieth century and donated large sums of money to many charitable causes.  Although he was created a baronet and member of the Privy Council, anti-German sentiment and political intrigue in Britain during the First World War meant that in 1921 an investigation decided he was to be struck off the Privy Council list and have his British Nationality revoked. 

The Grosvenor Street house was sold in 1923 and the family lived in Washington Square in New York.  Edgar died in Germany in 1932, where he was on a visit, at the age of 69.  Leonora died in 1956 at the age of 83 but their daughters returned to England to live.

A forgotten name in the history of violin playing, Lady Speyer was not a celebrated public virtuoso but preferred the role of hostess in London's musical circles and wife to her illustrious husband.  Nonetheless, it is fascinating to be able to hear someone whose life touched so many important musicians at the turn of the twentieth century, notwithstanding that of her unfortunate, more famous husband.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

04 May 2018

Visual sound works from imaginary archives (part 2)

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Eva del Rey and Paul Wilson, co-curators of Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound present:

(Part two of a gallery of creative responses to the British Library sound collections by students from the Graphic and Communication Design department at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts).

Florence Macleod views the archive as a repository of memory and proposes a radically retro solution to preservation of the intangible in which sonic memories are encapsulated in pods and dispensed by vending machines! Nanami Otomo proposes a memory based approach to archiving, which uses visual cues to stimulate the recall of the sounds of the past and their relationship to those other senses which informed their creation. Chika Kusumahadi is concerned about the archive’s approach to selection and its insistence on valuing the extraordinary over the everyday. Brad Gilbert imagines an archive in which lyrics from different eras are collated onto cassette tapes to provide new analogue insights into our digital past. Adam Wright proposes a gallery installation in which high volume sounds warn the listener of the dangers of a world in which big data is increasingly being used to control people’s lives. Finally, Ethan Spain leaves conventional notions of sound archiving firmly on Earth and instead looks to the Universe as the ultimate repository of broadcast sound – and the distant scene of our first contact with other worlds.      

Florence Macleod_Memory Capsule Project

Florence Macleod - Memory Capsule Project 🔊

    This project is about archiving memories through the use of individual sound capsules that play when opened. The purpose of this archive is to make intangible memories physical and forever lasting. Access to making your own sound capsule would be global, with vending machines and memory cabinets located in major cities. The archive could be both personal as well as open-access with the option to deposit your sound capsule into a memory cabinet which opens to the public so that people can take the capsules home. Either way, you are creating an archive.

Nanami Otomo_Memory Snap

Nanami Otomo - Memory Snap 🔊

    A postcard-based archive, in which you can store sound and revisit nostalgic memories through audio-visual means. It aims to create an empathetic auditory communication between sender and receiver through the sharing of personal experience.  

7D0A195F-E245-4D32-82F5-6930A972A8EB

Chika Kusumahadi - The Everyday Archive 🔊

    ‘The Everyday Archive ‘is home to a collection of household sounds and sounds of other mundane activities which often go unnoticed. Capturing the sound of everyday life, the archive is an initiative to record the ordinary.

 

Brad Gilbert_Captivation of music

Brad Gilbert - Captivation of Music 🔊

    The idea behind my work, which took its initial inspiration from listening to music, was to capture moments and moods from periods of time by collating key excerpts of lyrics that stood out to the listener, and packaging them in cassette tapes. Through having these lyrics collated together we should see a narrative forming, giving us an insight into how someone may have felt in that particular moment.

ADAM WRIGHT - UTOPIA

     The company UTOPIA delivers perfect education, but, in attempting perfection, this education creates a dystopia.

    The sound and visuals are an artistic endeavour to raise awareness of the accumulation and use of data companies like Google and Facebook. The amount of information we idly allow these companies to access is something we should be more aware of and cautious with. Capturing this compliance, this project aims to challenge these themes through the uncomfortable sound of a server room. The sounds here are designed to rise and fall like waves. The second sound is designed using the server room sound, but combined with the sounds of a Quantum computer. When listened to on high volume it is a very uncomfortable experience, and sounds almost piercing.

    The aim is to make people think more about how dangerous this amount of data could be if not cared for properly. Juxtaposed with each other, the two sounds would be situated in an open gallery as a permanent free exhibition with the visuals projected onto a black sheet of plastic. They would also be available online as a comment on the permanent nature of our digital footprint.

Ethan Spain_Fermi Paradox Archive

Ethan Spain - Fermi Paradox Archive 🔊 

    Fermi’s Paradox is the apparent contradiction between the high probability of the existence of extra-terrestrial civilizations and the lack of contact with such civilizations.

    The Great Filter is the disturbing suggestion that there is some kind of absurdly difficult step in the evolution of life - one that precludes it from becoming interstellar.

    This sound piece explores the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter. Imagining that these hypotheses are fact, what if the only form of contact the human race ever has with extra-terrestrial civilizations is through the electromagnetic waves of each interfering with one another in the cosmos? The sounds consist of a number of broadcasted events that echo the human race's demise while gradually intensifying with sound wave interference.

With thanks to Abbie Vickress, Platform Leader, Environment and Experience Design, Central Saint Martins and Library colleagues: Vedita Ramdoss, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist, Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Listen; 140 Years of Recorded Sound and Cheryl Tipp, Curator, Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

Go to part 1

Listen:140 Years of Recorded Sound exhibition ends on Sunday 13th May.

You can follow us on  @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for more news.

Visual sound works from imaginary archives (part 1)

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Paul Wilson and Eva del Rey, co-curators of Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound present:

Since 2016 the British Library sound archive has been hosting show-and-tell and listening sessions for students from the Graphic and Communication Design department at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts.

This year we offered the students a tour of our free exhibition Listen:140 Years of Recorded Sound along with an introduction to the Library’s Listening and Viewing Service.

Guided by a brief from tutor Abbie Vickress, we hoped to inspire the students to develop projects in response to the sound archive collections. The brief asked students to reflect on the role of the archivist; on how sound is used in exhibitions; and how one might attempt to ‘archive the intangible’.

After two weeks of work the creative responses emerged in the form of one-minute sound pieces and video works with accompanying visual art, and one online performance. What follows is a mini-gallery of ten sound works and one video, each presented  with notes provided by the respective artists.

Michelle Lim draws inspiration from the exhibition’s display of historical recording devices and suggests that in our rush to digitise our sonic past we’re in danger of losing something equally precious – our tactile relationship with the physical world. Chang Liu and Julie-Anne Pugh both envisage therapeutic applications in which future ‘sound hospitals’ blend sound and memory to create bespoke treatments. Andrea Li seeks to preserve the endangered sounds of a once leisurely world, now being swept away in the headlong rush toward faster technology. Yuen Wai Virginia Ma and Alice Lin re-enact the ‘hit and miss’ nature of archival selection/survival, and its equally arbitrary neurological counterpart, the human brain.

Michelle Lim_The Archive of Tactile expression 

 

Michelle Lim - The Death of the Button 🔊

    The Archive of Tactile Expression exists in a future where our relationship with technology has become so intimate that it acts as our intermediary with the physical world. Everything has been virtualized, thus, we have forgotten how it feels to touch. Physical objects have been modelled and re-conceptualised into digital space. All of our motions have been reduced to the limited gestures between our fingertips and the screen.

    The Archive includes The Death of the Button - an audio-narration of the history of the push-button, an artifact that sits in the Archive. It narrates the push-button's transition from an object of wonderment in the 20th century to an intangible idea in an era of 21st-century touchscreens.  More from Michelle Lim

 

Chang Liu _ Sound Hospital

Chang Liu - Sound Hospital  🔊

    The ‘Sound Hospital’ is a place that archives coloured noises. Different coloured noises have different functions. For example, white noise can help people with concentration while pink noise can help people to sleep well….

    So, what I want to do is to provide an experience room for people in this hospital.

Julie-Anne Pugh_Music Remedies

Julie-Anne Pugh - Music Remedies: The Hangover Cure 🔊

    Music Remedies challenges modern attitudes toward well-being and the many new health trends we are adapting to, through an attempt to heal physical illnesses like hangovers without the need of painkillers.

    This 60-second sound piece is a sample of a longer composition designed to guide one out of the depths and into the light through a series of specific layered sounds.

Andrea Li_Obsolete interactions

Andrea Li - Obsolete Interactions  🔊

    ‘The Collection of Obsolete Interactions’ is one of the sound categories within the slow archive that showcases everyday forgotten ephemeral interactions that have become redundant due to developments in technology and the drive for consumers wanting things faster, stronger and better. These interactions relate to the entertainment, service and communication areas of consumers’ lives.

364F50E4-77D7-4F9C-A80F-EA84A98973BC

Yuen Wai Virginia Ma & Alice Lin - Brain as an Archive 🔊

    Brain as an Archive is a performance that shows our minds’ selective archives of memories, conversations and emotional baggage. The main objective of this project is to give authorship to the viewer in creating their own narrative. The sound of this piece is composed of a combined mix of different narratives.

Go to part 2

02 May 2018

Oral History and the Library of Ideas

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Oral History was one of the British Library's show-and-tells at the Library of Ideas, an afternoon event on 22 April aimed at students and artists interested in using the Library's collections in creative ways. All over the library stalls sprung up, covered in interesting-looking stuff. I felt a bit under-dressed to be honest. All we had on the Oral History stall was a little speaker. But I dimmed the lights and laid out some seats around the room. You listen differently when your eyes, and body, are relaxed.

Undercurrent poster

When many people think about history, they think about books and documents. And there were a lot of them on show. But history is all around us, in our own families and communities, in the living memories and experiences of people. Everyone has a story to tell about their life which is unique to them.

The first clip I played was Alfred Crundwell (C1398/022: copyright the Estate of Alfred Crundwell; used under review exemption). He's one of my favourites. He was born in Shoreditch in 1849. Alfred was 51 years old when Queen Victoria died. He was 102 years old in 1952 when he was interviewed by the woman from the BBC Home Service about Tunbridge Wells...

Alfred Crundwell on Tunbridge Wells

Alfred clearly doesn't feel comfortable being interviewed. He seems to have problems hearing the interviewer's leading questions. He isn't given any time to answer. This is an example of a terrible interview. Imagine the things Alfred could have related to us about the technological changes he had seen his lifetime and what it was like to outlive his four siblings by over 60 years. The amount of social change this man had lived through is staggering. Yet nothing useful came out of it – apart from a really good teaching tool on how not to interview. Alfred had so much more to give.

My colleague Shirley Read has been interviewing photographers for almost twenty years for the Oral History of British Photography collection. One of Shirley's more recent interviewees was the Turner Prize-winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (C459/220: copyright Wolfgang Tillmans; used by kind permission of Wolfgang Tillmans). In this clip, Shirley asks a huge question: why was young Wolfgang taken with the photographic image?

Wolfgang Tillmans on why photography and what it means to be alive

It is so difficult, as an interviewer, to bite your tongue at such moments. The pause is a really long one at around 30 seconds, but it feels even longer because of the weight of the silence. I can almost feel Shirley's discomfort – her job is silent but it involves an awful lot of non-verbal communication and empathetic eye contact. Shirley gives Tillmans the time and emotional space required to allow him properly to consider his answer. The oral history interview they are creating together means a lot to both of them – it's an example of shared authority, of performance even – and as a result it is a tremendously valuable historical document. The full-length interview is available in the Library Reading Rooms.

Livia Gollancz (C468/03) was a professional musician – she played French horn in the Hallé Orchestra. She died at the age of 97 in March this year. Dental problems forced her to curtail her musical career abruptly in 1953. She then spent 36 years working in her father Victor Gollancz's publishing firm, running it successfully for 17 years in an overwhelmingly male industry...

Livia Gollancz on Emmeline Pankhurst

In this clip Livia is still at the stage of her life story of talking about her childhood. Notice the introduction - 'I can't remember many details...' - and the pregnant pause after it which interviewer Louise Brodie allows. What follows is a story about Livia's grandmother, the suffragette Henrietta Lowy, who resembled Emmeline Pankhurst. The two women would swap clothes after suffrage meetings and Henrietta would go out of the public entrance, so that Emmeline could evade arrest by leaving in disguise via the back way. You might recognise a similar scene from the 2015 film Suffragette. The full interview is online.

Alexa Reid (C963/47) was interviewed for the Lives in Oil project. In this clip she remembers what it was like to be the only woman working her cleaning shift on the Merchiston oil platform...

Alexa Reid on the Merchiston Platform

When National Life Stories attempts to document an industry in an oral history project, we try to capture the life stories of all aspects of the field. The stories of oil rig support workers are every bit as important as those of the roustabouts, the drillers, the engineers and the executives. Only that way can we capture what an industry was like to live through. You can listen to Alexa's interview at the Library.

What does the word ‘workhouse’ make you think of? Victorian poverty? Poor law textbooks? This clip, from an oral history held at Manchester Central Library, is a woman being interviewed by Paul Graney in 1960 about the six months she spent in Salford Workhouse in 1920.

The woman remains anonymous because her son or daughter may still be alive. That baby would be 98 years old, and could for all I know be sitting in a Prestwich care home listening to this clip right now. The woman reads a poem she wrote in the workhouse to cope with her experience of being pregnant there, and then breaks down. It is a difficult listen. A lot of oral history is emotionally difficult, or repetitive, or boring, or annoying. Basically it’s human.

Other kinds of history – the ones people think of when they think of a library – are generally the results of already decided courses of action. A committee makes its decision, a photographer snaps his moment, even a private diarist frames her day for her very personal audience of one. Whereas oral history is simply one human being talking to another. With all the randomness and kindness and stubbornness that entails.

Oral history proves that history doesn't just mean words on a page. Our often contradictory interviews prompt creative responses as much to the emotion and personality revealed in the voices as to the historical details they document. They are the ultimate primary, unmediated, source. And people have used them in a variety of creative ways: theatre productions, films, creative writing of all kinds, sound art and many other things in between.

If you are interested in using oral history as a source for your creative work, the best place to start is our collection guides. You'll find lots of links there to our catalogue – this is searchable by name, occupation, place or date of birth. Most interviews have text summaries – these can be word-searched to pick up references to places, people or topics. Over 3,000 are available online at British Library Sounds; the rest you can make an appointment to listen to at the Library.

Drop us a line at nls@bl.uk if you have any questions, and before you re-use any of our oral history collections. We'll need to check on rights and permissions to make sure that you can re-use the material in the way you want to. There may be licensing and supply fees involved, but we are keen to help you use our collections.

30 April 2018

Recording of the week: Debussy year

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

Claude Debussy died 100 years ago. Here is a recording made during his lifetime in 1915. It is a movement from his only String Quartet recorded by the London String Quartet.

Debussy String Quartet - Andante 

Claude_Debussy_ca_1908 _foto_av_Félix_NadarClaude Debussy ca. 1908

Founded in 1908, the London String Quartet initially had Albert Sammons as first violin, Thomas Petre, second violin, Harry Waldo Warner, viola (for all but the last four years when he was replaced by William Primrose), and Charles Warwick Evans, cello who remained with the quartet throughout its existence. The quartet disbanded in 1934.

This and thousands of other classical music recordings can be heard at British Library Sounds

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23 April 2018

Recording of the week: a continual symphony of sound

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This week's selection comes from Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archive & Administrative Assistant.

Oral histories are often nostalgic; interviews tend to take place towards the end of an interviewees life and in many cases they are speaking about aspects of their life for the first time. In that respect Michael Rothenstein’s (C466/02) longing description of growing up in the Cotswolds is not unique. But the way he expresses the sights, sounds, and colours of his childhood, as well as the connections he makes to his artistic practice, make it particularly engrossing.

Michael Rothenstein was a printmaker, painter and art teacher whose work often incorporated aspects of nature and rural life – and it seems there’s a good reason for this. In this recording he speaks fondly of growing up in the Stroud Valley, describing it as a wild place with “a continual symphony of sound” where you could be almost deafened by “the birds, the sawing of the grasshoppers in the grass”. Not only is this a wonderfully vivid description, but for us who work in sound archives and are constantly advocating for the importance of sound it’s fantastic to hear someone frame their memories in this way. Still, Michael does talk about other senses too. Specifically he draws attention to the sites of nature and describes how in the summer “the air shivered with the cloud of butterflies… It was glittering, you cannot imagine how beautiful it was”.

1280px-Frampton_Mansell_St_Lukes_Church

Frampton Mansell, close to Stroud in the Cotswolds (Sourced from Wikipedia. Image credit: Saffron Blaze, via http://www.mackenzie.co

Interviewed in 1990 at the age of 82, Michael laments the pace of change during his lifetime. For him “the fields have lost their voice” and the butterflies have “vanished”. Yet if the butterflies have vanished they certainly live on in Michael’s work. Many of his paintings contain butterflies and this interview helps us to understand where the inspiration for this came from. To quote Michael’s friend Peter Muller “they have flown out of the Paradise of your infancy”. A beautiful phrase in a beautiful recording. If you think you’ve heard all there is to hear on childhood memories, think again and give this a listen.

This recording is from Michael Rothenstein’s interview in the Artists Lives collection. Artists Lives is an ongoing National Life Stories project to document the lives of individuals involved in British art, including painters, sculptors, curators, dealers and critics. This extract was published on the CD 'Artists' Lives' in 1998 and you can access the full life story interview online at British Library Sounds.

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18 April 2018

Classical Podcast No. 1 - The first orchestral record made in Britain and the extraordinary story of Norfolk Megone, Nelson and Bonaparte

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By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Cecil MarchBerliner E500 Cecil March recorded 18th August 1898

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

Part one of the podcast details the background to the first orchestral recording made in Britain in 1898 by the Hotel Cecil Orchestra. 

Part two  pieces together the extraordinary story of the orchestra's conductor, Norfolk Megone.  Below are images referenced in the conversation.

 
Cecil front page-page-001Front page of the Hotel Cecil magazine (BL collections) 

Cecil back page-page-001Back page of the Hotel Cecil magazine (BL collections)

Bertini manager blurb-page-001Introduction by G. P. Bertini, manager and dedicatee of the Cecil Two-Step (BL collections)

Sheet music title pageTitle page of sheet music (BL collections)

Will Bates Schubert SerenadeBerliner E5009 Serenade by Schubert played by Will E Bates recorded 16th August 1898

 
Megone Bridlington(Courtesy Marlborough Rare Books)

Devonshire Park(Courtesy Marlborough Rare Books)

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