THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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88 posts categorized "Arts, literature & performance"

26 May 2017

The first British ‘blues boom’ - and the reception of African American music and dance in 1920s Britain

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Blues trot003

British Library VOC/1923/GILBERT

Guest blog by Lawrence Davies, current Edison Fellow and PhD student at King’s College London. Lawrence has contributed a chapter on British Blues to a forthcoming volume of the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World and writes about the history of blues music at allthirteenkeys.com.

Mention ‘British blues’ to anyone interested in popular music, and they will likely think of the early 1960s and the music of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, or the Animals. These bands’ interpretations of African American blues and R&B attest to the global popularity of blues music after the Second World War.

In fact the blues has a much longer and more complex international history. Britain had its first brush with the blues forty years earlier, in the autumn of 1923. As part of my Edison Fellowship, I have been examining the British Library’s extensive collections of commercial sound recordings, printed music, early record catalogues, and historical newspapers to better understand this early phase of blues appreciation and performance in Britain. I’m interested to know how much audiences understood about the blues’s origins and character; how it became part of the nation’s musical life; and what audiences’ encounters with the genre can tell us about the history and meaning of African American popular music outside the United States.

One fascinating item I’ve encountered during my research is a tune called ‘The Blues Trot Blues’. Written in 1923 by British songwriter Joseph George Gilbert, it was recorded in September of the same year by Jack Hylton’s Orchestra. Both sheet music and recording were produced to publicise the introduction of a new dance, the ‘blues trot’, to the British social dancing scene. The sheet music contains a detailed description of the dance by its creator, Morry M. Blake.

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‘The Blues Trot Blues’ recorded as ‘Blue Trot Blues’ September 19, 1923 (1CS0057220)

Blues Trot Blues

It’s quite hard to know what to make of this piece. It certainly doesn’t sound like the blues as we know it today. Many of the common stylistic traits appear to be absent: the song comprises a sixteen bar verse followed by a sixteen bar chorus, rather than a conventional twelve bar blues sequence. The Hylton Orchestra’s performance is clipped and straight-laced, lacking the earthy vitality that we associate with 1920s ‘classic’ blues singers like Bessie Smith or Ida Cox, or with rural blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Charley Patton.

We might be tempted to discard a recording like this as a mere imitation of ‘authentic’ blues, at best a misunderstanding of the genre’s essential features, at worst an attempt to cash in on a new fad. At the same time, it’s worth trying to situate the piece in its historical context, relative to what listeners at the time thought the blues sounded like. The dance instructor Natalie Spencer, who had played the piano with the American Southern Syncopated Orchestra during its British tour in 1919, described in 1923 blues music having ‘gently but unmistakably syncopated’ melody, a ‘soft sobbing accompaniment’, and ‘sleepy, flattened-out’ triplets. Other contemporary writers highlighted the blues’s noticeably slower speed relative to other dance music styles, such as the foxtrot. These elements are clearly audible in Hylton’s recording.

Gilbert’s lyrics, although not included in Hylton’s recording, reveal an awareness of the many contemporary vocal blues that were becoming available in Britain, both on record and in print. Songs like ‘You’re Always Messin’ Round With My Man’, ‘Aggravatin’ Papa’, and ‘Down Hearted Blues’ encapsulate Spencer’s description of vocal blues as ‘wailing songs of a “Complainin’” order; usually with an underlying cynical humour.’ In ‘The Blues Trot Blues’, the female protagonist describes being captivated and cast adrift by the blues’s rhythmic and melodic allure, but by the end of the song it is apparent that she is equally captivated by her male dancing instructor, whom she needs to ‘come and drive away’ her blues!

But we get the best sense of how British audiences related the blues to contemporary African American expressive culture when we look at how the blues was adopted as a dance style. The genre’s slow tempo made foxtrot steps – the most widely used dance step at the time – unsuitable. Morry Blake’s choreography calls instead for a distinctive ‘rhythmic walk’ every two beats: ‘Stretch the foot well forward or backwards’, Blake instructs, ‘…before allowing the foot to take the ground, as if you were stepping from sleeper to sleeper of a railroad track.’ More popularly known as the ‘camel walk’, this dance step originated in African American ragtime and vaudeville routines.

Another element of the ‘blues trot’ was a sideways ‘blues step’. Blake instructs the dancers to ‘stretch the left foot well to the side…at the same time twisting on the ball of the right foot…[to] allow the body to sway slightly rearward’ to create what Blake described as ‘a gentle rippling motion’. Combining a sideways step with a rearward shift of balance was a marked departure from British ballroom conventions of the time; in his 1923 book Modern Ballroom Dancing, champion dancer Victor Silvester emphasised that dancers should always maintain their balance in line with their leading foot. This modified posture evoked a range of dance steps originating in African American expressive culture, such as the ‘black bottom’ of 1919 or the nineteenth century ‘cakewalk’.

Importantly, dancers’ appetite for ‘unbalanced’ posture and movements that went against the grain of European dance conventions illuminates the extent to which dances associated with African American expressive culture were viewed as exotic or alien. Press coverage of early blues dancing contained noticeable undercurrents of excess and moral panic: The Manchester Guardian likened the spread of blues dancing to a weed, observing that ‘those who spied on [the blues’s] introduction…[as] an evil growth can claim now that it has shown all the hardihood of vice.’ There were particular misgivings around the variations that some dancers were incorporating into the blues, which were deemed too risqué for the British ballroom. Warning against the addition of the ‘eagle rock’ (another dance step of African American origin), critic Philip Richardson declared that musical rhythm ‘transferred to the upper part of the body…appear[s] not only grotesque, but positively unpleasant.’

Although ‘The Blues Trot Blues’ is musically a far cry from our modern idea of the blues, it can tell us a great deal about the early reception and performance of the genre in Britain. It reveals how the British ‘blues boom’ of 1923 was a multimedia phenomenon. The blues arrived in Britain through recordings and printed music, but it was the resultant dance craze that appears to have brought the genre to popular attention. This ‘connected history’ of the blues has been largely overlooked in more recent histories that only approach the genre through the prism of recordings.

And while anxieties surrounding the blues bore all the hallmarks of prevailing attitudes to race, reading between the lines of these accounts can also reveal much about the popularity and visibility of African American expressive culture in Britain at this time. The nation’s first ‘blues boom’ paved the way for the many visiting African American performers and composers who would gain an increasing foothold in British entertainment throughout the 1920s, both on record and onstage. Conscious of their audiences’ attitudes to the blues, they would tread a fine line between their own creative aspirations and their need to fit prevailing stereotypes of black music and dance. But that would be the subject of another blog post…

Further Reading

‘The Blues: English Adapter Explains the Latest Dance’, The Manchester Guardian, July 31, 1923, 14.

Rye, Howard, ‘Southern Syncopated Orchestra: The Roster’, Black Music Research Journal 30/1 (Spring 2010), 19-70.

Silvester, Victor, Modern Ballroom Dancing (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1927 [1923]).

Spencer, Natalie, ‘“Blues” From the Musical Standpoint’, The Dancing Times (October, 1923), 23.

Platt, Len, Tobias Becker, and David Linton (eds.), Popular Musical Theatre in London and Berlin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

04 May 2017

Beecham in Hollywood

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Baja California and the West Postcard Collection. MSS 235. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego

A few weeks ago I received a telephone call from John Lucas, author of Thomas Beecham: An Obsession with Music.  In the past John had donated some Armed Forces Radio Services discs of a Beecham concert broadcast on 21st April 1945 from the Ritz Theater in New York.  Now he had spotted some lacquer discs for sale on ebay of a Beecham concert in Hollywood and wondered if the British Library had the recording.  A quick search on our Sound and Vision catalogue showed that we appeared to have this recording on an Armed Forces Radio Service shellac disc but something was amiss: our single disc had 15 minutes of music on each side, labelled 1 and 3, but sides 2 and 4 were not in the collection.  The new discs comprised four sides and included Voices of Spring by Johann Strauss which did not appear on our catalogue entry. ‘I’ll bid on them, and if I get them, you can have them!’

A few days later an email told me that John’s bid was successful.  He kindly brought in and donated the four 14-inch discs to the Library which our engineer dubbed using a special sized turntable.

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Programme for 'Symphonies Under the Stars', 7th week (Courtesy of John Lucas)

The background to the concert was this.  Under the heading ‘Beecham will conduct here’, the Los Angeles Times informed the public on 11th August 1944 that ‘Sir Thomas Beecham will replace Artur Rodzinski as conductor of six concerts at Hollywood Bowl, beginning August 22nd, it was announced last night.  Illness in Mr Rodzinski’s family makes it impossible for him to travel west.  Beecham is now in Mexico City.’

Beecham was in Mexico City conducting a three-week festival of Mozart opera so was in an ideal location to act as a last minute substitute.  In the end he conducted four of the six concerts given by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, their summer home since 1922, in the 'Symphonies Under the Stars' series. The last minute change in conductor was made in time for the correct name to appear on the programme, but the actual works performed were changed. 

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Programme for 'Symphonies Under the Stars', 7th week (Courtesy of John Lucas)

Beecham probably agreed to conduct without knowing the programme beforehand.  Changes were made so that on the programme of 27th August soloist Amparo Iturbi played the second and third movements from Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major instead of her brother’s Fantasia for piano and orchestra while Handel and Delibes were dropped in favour of Johann Strauss and dances from Smetana’s Bartered Bride.  The only works retained on the printed programme were the Overture to Mignon by Thomas and the ballet music from Gounod’s Faust.  Because the Sunday Standard Hour was only on air for that limited time, the Grieg Piano Concerto was not broadcast, but a short review of 28th August proves that it was performed.

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Beecham in the US in 1948

Here is an extract from the Overture to the opera Mignon by Ambroise Thomas (1811-1896), a work Beecham never recorded commercially.

Mignon extract Beecham

The curious thing about the discs is that they turned up not in the United States, but in Devon.  Thanks to the eagle eye and generosity of John Lucas, they are now preserved for the nation.

Follow all the latest news @BL_Classical

23 April 2017

Cry ‘God for Harry! England! and Saint George!’

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 Although I am curator of Classical recordings at the British Library, I have a fascination with the oldest extant examples of both sound recordings and photographs.  Both are a window, albeit sometimes very misty, allowing us a view into the past.  St George’s Day made me think of two early recordings – The Yeoman of England from Edward German’s hugely popular comic opera Merrie England of 1902 and actor Lewis Waller’s speech from Henry V

Merrie England opened at the Savoy Theatre in April 1902 and only a month later Henry Lytton, who created the role of the Earl of Essex, recorded selections from it for the Gramophone Company.  Of more interest on many levels for me however, is the Shakespeare recording by Lewis Waller.

Since the days of LP reissues in the 1960s, this famous recording has been included on almost every collection of historic recordings of actors.  While sometimes derided today for its perceived ‘over the top’ or ‘histrionic and old-fashioned’ style of acting, a few points need to be remembered when listening to it.  Firstly, and most importantly, is the playback speed.  Many early recordings rarely play back at the later standard of 78rpm.  If the Waller is reproduced at the standard 78rpm it can make his natural vocal vibrato sound comical.  Another point to remember is that the recording was made at a time when theatres (and indeed recording studios) had no microphones.  Actors had to project their voices in a way that today can sound artificial, but they were ideal for the fledgling acoustic recording process, as were singers.  One final element is the visual.  We can no longer witness a performance from Waller, but he evidently had great stage presence and was something of a heart-throb prompting the creation of fan clubs.  Being in his presence during the declamation of a speech such as this would have had a much greater effect than the historic recording can possibly offer.

Brutus Julius Caesar 1893

Lewis Waller as Brutus in Julius Caesar 1893

Born William Waller Lewis in 1860 he became a leading figure on the London stage and of provincial tours in the 1880s becoming an actor-manager until his death in 1915 at the age of 55 from pneumonia.  In 1895 he created the role of Sir Robert Chiltern in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband

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Lewis Waller as Sir Robert Chiltern in An Ideal Husband 1895

He had popular success in contemporary plays by Conan Doyle and Booth Tarkington, but his great love was Shakespeare and he often played roles in lavish Shakespeare productions by his friend Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917) at London’s Haymarket Theatre.  The famous speech from Henry V was recorded for the Gramophone Company by Waller on 4th August 1911 (when he also recorded the St Crispin’s Day speech from the same play and Tennyson’s 'Charge of the Light Brigade').  It can be heard on our British Library Sounds website here.  However, when researching for this blog I was delighted to find that Waller had previously recorded the same speech over four and a half years earlier on 3rd January 1907.  To hear a different performance of a recording I knew so well was thrilling.  Although the sound quality is inferior to the later recording, Waller announces the extract and overall gives a faster reading – a delivery vastly more modern than that of Beerbohm Tree who can often sound ponderous and affected.  He makes the same small cut in the text and a few word substitutions, but the main difference is that in the 1911 recording he gets the order of the first line mixed, saying ‘Once more unto the breach, once more, dear friends’ but on the 1907 recording quotes the first line correctly.

Waller Henry V 1907

Henry V Act III Scene i

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'

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19 April 2017

Live Art in the UK: Lois Keidan interview - part 2

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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.

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

Playing_Up_Tate_image_Seraphina Neville blog
PLAYING UP, Tate Modern. Photograph by Seraphina Neville.

Can we talk about who are your audiences? Last year you had a very successful programme at the Tate with children.

Yes, that was great.

We work in all sorts of different ways - on our own curatorial initiatives and on programme partnerships, which set out to develop new contexts for art and for developing new audiences.

2016 was the first time we ever engaged with kids and that was through a collaboration with Tate Families Programme and the brilliant artist from Germany Sybille Peters of Theatre of Research. We were aware that there are a growing number of artists making interesting work for or with kids and a growing number of kids whose parents wanted them to be able to experience something unusual and different.

Susan Sheddan of Tate Families Programme was also interested in live art as a way of engaging with young people. So we jointly commissioned Sybille to create something in response and she came up with the idea of PLAYING UP -  a game that kids and adults play together, which draws on seminal live art works and on key live art methodologies and practices.

PLAYING UP was launched with a public ‘play-in’ in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern which was phenomenally successfully and certainly our most diverse audience programme in terms of age-ranges and cultural backgrounds. It was fantastic for us to see so many families engaged with live art and performing live art works.

After the successful play-in at Tate other venues and festivals wanted to host one, so we toured play-ins around the UK throughout 2016, with more planned for 2017. In this way we can now say that kids, young people and their parents are our audiences.

We think about audiences in lots of different ways at LADA. There are direct audiences that engage with our programmes and publications - artists, students, academics - and the adventurous and curious who come and see our work or buy a book that we published.

But we also think about audiences in other ways: for example, live art can offer different experiences to audiences and can engage audiences in the making of work and so we do a lot of work supporting the artistic development of artists and their thinking about their relationship with audiences.

We also think about audiences in terms of how live art can influence mainstream culture. Live art has led many of the developments in participatory, experiential practices and has influenced younger artists like Kate Bond and Morgan Lloyd of You Me Bum Bum Train who create extraordinary participatory events that absolutely capture a mainstream imagination and engage with mainstream audiences.

So we think about audiences in all kinds of ways from the very diverse audiences that come to see our work right through audiences who have never heard of live art, who have never heard of LADA but in some way are engaging with art that has been influenced by live art.

And you do a lot of international work as well…

We try to do a lot of international work. In the pre-internet days we did a lot of travelling, going to places and flying the flag for live art and helping to promote artists’ work by doing screening programmes and talks. And now, in this internet age, we can do all that without leaving our office in Hackney Wick. We have just done a screening programme at the 3rd Venice International Performance Art Week and as much as we would have loved to have been there we couldn't go - but in a sense we didn't need to be there because the work could be seen there without us. I’ve also taken part in various symposia around the world by Skype rather than being somewhere in person.

As well as international programmes, we are also part of a four-year EU-supported Collaborative Arts Partnership Programme (CAPP) which is particularly looking at collaborative practices and how they can engage with new publics.

So what would you say live art offers that other arts don’t?

In addition to some of the things I have already suggested I think it offers experiences which might be difficult to find in other art forms. For example, the idea of placing the audiences at the centre of the work so they become responsible for the making and the meaning of the work. In that sense it offers its audiences a form of agency that they possibly wouldn’t get with other areas of practice. It can also provoke audiences to think about things that they might not otherwise have thought about or they don't necessarily want to think about. It might not change their minds about things but it might make them at least reconsider, or reinforce their opinions in a way. So I think it offers interesting provocations as well as interesting cultural experiences.

Do you think that live art can help us to understand contemporary Britain?

Yes, I think we've ended up in a very strange place. Live art and the arts in the UK has been a very inclusive area of practice which has given voice to silenced or disenfranchised artists such as black artists, queer artists, and disabled artists. Live art has given a voice to marginalized artists and offered a practice which artists can make their own - they don't have to conform to dominant cultural narratives, or received ways of doing things, but can make work that reflects their experiences in all kinds of interesting ways.

Because so much live art is about experiences and conversations, I think it does have something to contribute to addressing the new schisms and divisions we’re now facing.

Can you tell us about events or projects that LADA has planned for 2017? We heard that you are moving to a different location this year?

We are relocating to Bethnal Green and moving there will afford us the opportunity to do lots of events and activities which we can’t do at the moment.

We are going to be doing more work with kids and young people, working again with Sybille Peters and Tate on KAPUTT: a transgenerational academy of destruction - the first academy that will bring together people of all ages.

We are going to be working with the artist Hester Chillingworth, as a thinker-in-residence, looking at different strategies and methodologies for engaging with young people, particularly genderqueer teenagers.

We are going to be producing a whole bunch of new publications - a  major new title on the artist Kira O’Reilly, and books with the artists Martin O’Brien, Zinzi Minott and the Serbian artist Tanja Ostojić amongst others.

We are also going to do more podcasts for the Live Art UK network we coordinate. Live Art UK has also just been awarded an Ambition for Excellence award from Arts Council England for Diverse Actions, a four-year programme with all 28 members of the network looking at the next generation of black artists, producers, thinkers, and activists in the UK.

We will are also going to be working on different programmes and partnerships internationally and here in the UK, including the Folkestone Triennial, and running our annual DIY scheme - a professional development scheme run in partnership with 20 organisations across the UK in which artists conceive and run unusual and often outlandish workshops and research projects for other artists.

And what is going to happen with the study room in the new building?

The Study Room is moving with us and as we will have a much bigger space in our new premises and we are going to be doing even more Study Room events and activities.

And more study room guides?

Yes, more Study Room guides. Since 2006 or so we have commissioned over 30 Study Room guides around themes ranging from Live Art and Journeys to Live Art and Food to Live Art and Motherhood, and we have around ten new guides in the pipeline.  

How do you see the climate of live art in 2017 in comparison with what it was 20 years ago when you were programming performance at the ICA, or with the early years of LADA? How have things changed since?

In some ways the climate of live art today is unrecognizable, and in other ways its identical. For example in a recent gathering with a group of emerging artists from the SPILL Showcase which was  part of last year’s SPILL Festival of Performance in Ipswich a lot of the issues that came up and that artists were concerned about were similar from the ones that artists were discussing 20 years ago.

But in other ways it is unrecognizable because there is so much more policy in provision now and live art is recognized and understood as an area of practice. 20 years ago when we  talked about live art we always had to explain what it was and why it was important. Now we don't always need to explain it, and here we are talking about it at the British Library.

So live art has a much higher profile nowadays. Technology has liberated live art in all kinds of ways and enabled all kinds of advances. We can now publish books and DVDs because the technology is there to do it.  Technology means that artists can produce and distribute their own titles without having to depend on the gatekeepers of culture. Artists can also disseminate information about themselves through Facebook and social media and make connections across the world and with like-minded people. Technology enables lost histories to be reclaimed and new forms of online research to be undertaken.

So technology has made the conditions in which live art is happening completely unrecognizable from what they were 20 years ago. There is more recognition and more provision and more opportunities for artists. But a lot of the fundamental problems and challenges for artists are still there.

So in a way live art is in a better place…

Yes, a better place but it can still be tough.

Well that’s all from me Lois, if you would like to add something else…

The only thing I would like to add is how brilliant the British Library has been in its recognition and support for live art.

We started working with the British Library when I was running the programme at the ICA and you came along and documented everything. And that means that those kinds of histories are kept here for posterity and they have been afforded a cultural value by the British Library and that is unbelievably important to us so just huge thanks to the British Library for their support for live art.

Go to part one.

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.

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

31 March 2017

Plucked from obscurity - reassessing Denis ApIvor

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Guest blog by Thomas Schuttenhelm, current Edison Fellow and author of  The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett, (Faber) a contributing author for the Tippett Cambridge Companion and monograph, also for Cambridge University Press, on The Orchestral Music of Michael Tippett: Creative Development and the Compositional Process. His book Vision and Revision: Michael Tippett’s Fifth String Quartet will be published by Routledge in 2017.

The composer Denis ApIvor (1916-2004) led an uncommon life.  He was a sensualist among scientists and an individual in the era of ideologues.  ApIvor’s music survives in various musical subcultures and is highly regarded in these circles, even if it is infrequently performed.  Although ApIvor’s music is not particularly well known, the Sound Archive at the British Library has proved to be a powerful tool for discovery and preservation of significant work and as an Edison Fellow I have devoted my time to exploring and appreciating this material.  Most of the excerpts used in this blog come from the larger collection of recordings donated to the British Library by the composer and are representative of the resources found in the Sound Archive.

Portrait

Source: MusicWeb International

Denis ApIvor was born in Ireland to Welsh parents.  In fact, ApIvor means son-of-Ivor in Welsh.  As a youth ApIvor learned the piano and sang in various cathedral choirs and by 1925 he was studying at Christ Church, Oxford on scholarship.  In 1928, after discovering Peter Warlock’s Three Carols in the new Oxford Book of Carols, he had “no doubt whatsoever that I wanted to know this musician.”  Despite his aptitude for music his parents were opposed to him pursuing it as a career and he matriculated at the University College London for medical studies.

On 14 March 1934 ApIvor heard a concert performance of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, in the Queen’s Hall, conducted by Adrian Boult, which left a lasting impression on him and would later influence his decision to turn to serialism, a system of composition most commonly associated with the Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, in the late 1940s.  Here is an extract from that 1934 broadcast, the first performance in England, with Adrian Boult conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Wozzeck 1934  

While living in London ApIvor shared a flat on Marchmont Street with John Scott through whom he met the composer and critic Cecil Gray whose biography of Peter Warlock, A Memoir of Philip Heseltine (Jonathan Cape Ltd 1934) ApIvor greatly admired.  With Gray's assistance ApIvor took private instruction from Patrick Hadley and subsequently with Alan Rawsthorne.

 ApIvor’s connections with Gray and Rawsthorne led him into contact with Constant Lambert, whose book Music Ho!—a study of music in decline (1934) he read when he first came to London.  It was probably through this publication that ApIvor first came into contact with the poetry of T. S. Eliot.  ApIvor was immediately attracted to Eliot’s “romantic pessimism of the nineteenth century expressed in the music-hall technique of the twentieth-century lyric writer” and he allowed this to direct his next large-scale composition. [See Lambert, Music Ho! (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1934), 207.]  For this ApIvor chose Eliot’s The Hollow Men, which became the basis for his eponymously named Op. 5, for baritone, male chorus and orchestra (1939). The Hollow Men was not heard until 1950, when Lambert conducted it for a radio performance.

Music and Letters reported: “here is intensely interesting music of complete technical competence, showing an unhesitating sense of declamation and of colour, with a powerful melodic sense.”  [See Vol. 32, No. 3 (July, 1951), pp. 288-89.]  Colin Mason noted: “The greater significance of the work seems to me to lie in the evidence it offers that the composer has really profited by the example of the ‘great’ composers of the early twentieth century, particularly Stravinsky.  This is true of so few modern English composers that it puts Denis ApIvor among the very few who are likely, when their mature works can be heard, to earn themselves a lasting international reputation.”  [See Colin Mason, ‘London Contemporary Music Centre’, Musical Times, 91 (1950), 110.]

At the time ApIvor’s career appeared to be on the rise.  He received a commission from Sadler’s Wells Trust for his opera Yerma Op. 28 (1955-59); completed three highly successful ballets: The Goodman of Paris Op. 18 (1951), A Mirror for Witches, Op. 19 (1951), commissioned by the Royal Ballet and first performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1953, and Blood Wedding Op. 23 (1953), produced at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre; a Promenade Concert was produced in 1958 featuring his Piano Concerto Op. 13 (1948)—where he first started to experiment with serial techniques, and a retrospective concert of the composer's songs and chamber works was given at Wigmore Hall, which included Crystals Op. 39 (1965) for Hammond organ, amplified classical guitar, marimba, contrabass, and 2 percussion.

The ensemble configuration is certainly unique within twentieth-century music. Its antecedents can be found in works like Schoenberg’s Serenade Op. 24 (1921-3), Webern’s Op. 18 (1925) and Op. 19 (1926), and Berg’s Wozzeck (1914-22), all which feature the guitar, and the latter left a lasting impression on ApIvor that continued to resonate throughout his creative development.  Another work that might have influenced him was Le Marteau sans maître (1953-4), by Pierre Boulez, which received its British premiere in 1957 with Cornelius Cardew (a cellist by training) performing the guitar part.

 Crystals, a Concert Miniscule (1965), is an evocative work that is comprised of sensuous timbres.  It is caste in a geometrical design - a five movement ‘arch’ form, befitting its geological title.  It can be heard in a live recording from March 1984 made at the Royal Northern College of Music, conducted by George Hadjinikos.

Crystals B4808/1

ApIvor had a keen ear for the guitar and he was in complete command of its resources.  Unlike other composers, whose compositions for the guitar are often a catalogue of clichéd techniques, ApIvor gives careful consideration to the construction of the musical material and matches it to the expressive potential of the instrument.  Prior to composing the Concertino, ApIvor sought instruction from John Roberts who was a pupil of the guitarist and noted pedagogue Emilio Pujol (1886-1980).

The Concertino for Guitar and Orchestra Op. 26 (1954), which is often given the distinction as being the first post-war British guitar concerto, was first performed in 1958 by the BBC in Scotland, with Julian Bream as featured soloist.  Bream later commissioned the Variations Op. 29 (1959) for solo guitar, and both scores were eventually published by Schott, but neither have found their way—yet—into the standard repertoire.

Despite the commissions, and many high profile performances, ApIvor never achieved a “lasting international reputation,” and his music, while exquisitely crafted, remains almost entirely unknown, and none of it is available on commercial recordings.  In fact, Bream never recorded the Concertino and while performances of it are rare, it was captured on a live recording of the first concert performance, which took place at the Royal Northern College of Music Orchestra in March 1984, with James Woodrow performing the solo guitar.  This recording has been preserved in the Sound Archive at the British Library.  In a letter to the Sound Archive curator from July 1988, ApIvor writes: “There is the Bream recording in your collection; but the orchestral sound is much better in the RNCM tape.”

Concertino B4809/1

ApIvor’s compositions for the guitar deserve special consideration because they are among the most unique in the repertoire and they can occasionally be found on a recital programme.  For example, his next work for the guitar, the Discanti Op. 48 (1970), published by Bèrben Edizioni Musicali, is listed alongside Richard Rodney Bennett’s Impromptus, Lennox Berkeley’s Sonatina, and William Walton’s Five Bagatelles, as a Grade 10 example of 20th and 21st century repertoire in the Royal Conservatory Guitar Syllabus.

This was followed by El Silencio Ondulada Op. 51 (1972)—“The tremulous silence”—for guitar and chamber orchestra, which is inspired by the poem “El silencio” by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936).  ApIvor had a longstanding interest in Lorca.  His Six Lorca Songs for voice and piano Op. 8 (1945-6), which he subsequently arranged for voice and guitar, were the first pieces to use Lorca as an influence.  ApIvor’s Yerma, Blood Wedding, and his very last composition, Lamentations de la Muerte Op. 100 (1996) all use Lorca as a basis for the music.  The performance heard in this live recording of El Silencio Ondulada also took place at the Royal Northern College of Music in March 1984, with James Woodrow performing the solo guitar part.

El silencio Ondulada B4809/1

ApIvor’s next solo work for the guitar was Saeta Op. 53. (1972).  A “specimen of the commercial recording of ‘Saeta’ for guitar solo, as part of a Whitetower recordings tape,” performed by Simon James, was appended to recordings the composer sent to the British Library in 1988.

Saeta B4808/1

ApIvor’s unique approach to composition makes use of all available pitches, presenting them in increasingly original combinations, and regulates their impact on the listener through careful and nuanced control of the expressive potentialities.  ApIvor’s treatment of musical materials bear some relationship to his occupation as an anesthesiologist as the two disciplines were not as distantly related as some would have us believe.  In fact, the merging of these two seemingly incompatible areas is entirely in keeping with the modernist mind.  It is only the most conservative cultural critics that adhere to an outdated paradigm that requires all composers to begin piano lessons at a young age followed by early attempts at composition, attendance at prestigious schools that include a long list of distinguished teachers, awards and accolades from even more prestigious institutions, performances by the best orchestras, and a home in some urban capital.  For those who have difficulty accepting the accomplishments of the creative artists who have skewed this stereotype would benefit from a reminder Charles Ives and Wallace Stevens were both highly successful insurance executives; William Carlos Williams was a practicing physician, and Edward Hopper spent many years working in advertising creating cover designs for trade magazines.

During the war ApIvor was posted abroad, including a period of time in India and this too had a considerable but not necessarily acknowledged influence on his compositional development, especially on his adaptation of the serial technique.  In his book An Introduction to Serial Composition for Guitarists (London and Suffolk: New Music Services Ltd, 1982), ApIvor found parallels between Indian ragas and tone-rows.  He explained that a tone row was “based on a succession of scale-like ‘ragas’, one of which has to be chosen for the piece, and which can only contain some of the available tones.  This brings the system very close to one aspect of the final systematized Schonbergian departure of ‘twelve tone’ music, in that the Indian musician must choose his notes or row or raga for each piece and stick to them.”  ApIvor was the not the first to demonstrate the similarities between these two systems but his desire to integrate them into a personal, if somewhat non-systematic, method of composition certainly placed him far ahead of the ‘world-music’ trend that has become a dominating aesthetic in the years since he made these observations.

ApIvor’s music can be difficult to classify and although it presently exists only on the fringes of classical communities (and the guitar world has been one of the most accepting) there is an expressive potential that is quite powerful and which these examples demonstrate.  Performers and audiences will be amply rewarded when they endeavor to take the time and effort to explore this fascinating music.

*The author wishes to thank Dr. Mark Marrington for his editorial assistance in preparing this blog.

07 March 2017

Michael Tippett: In the composer’s own voice

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Guest blog by Thomas Schuttenhelm, current Edison Fellow and author of  The Selected Letters of Michael Tippett, (Faber) a contributing author for the Tippett Cambridge Companion and monograph, also for Cambridge University Press, on The Orchestral Music of Michael Tippett: Creative Development and the Compositional Process. His book Vision and Revision: Michael Tippett’s Fifth String Quartet will be published by Ashgate-Routledge in 2017.

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Tippett at work (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Michael Tippett (1905-1998) was an English composer for whom the act of creating music was a constant obsession. His fierce commitment to composition resulted in works that were original in design and devastating in their expression. Each work by Tippett originated as a singular vision and resulted in a singular achievement and the consistency of his creative process allowed him to fashion artifacts of shocking originality. His oeuvre is comprised of works that are remarkably diverse especially when we consider that they were the product of just one composer. What is truly remarkable is that his compositional process remained so consistent throughout his many changeable creative phases.

Tippett was educated at the Royal College of Music and served as Director of Music at Morley College, London. In addition to his creative interests he was also active in broadcasting and television and his talks on music and musicians brought him widespread attention. Many of these have been preserved at the British Library Sound Archive and these will serve as a fascinating exploration into a hitherto unknown side of this dynamic creative artist. By referencing these remarks we are transported back into the historical moment and return to the most authentic source on Tippett’s music: the composer’s own voice.

Michael Tippett lived deep in the English countryside and his creative obsessions required him to live alone. This was both a choice and a necessity but this created a classic conflict between his social-emotional side and his creative side, and it left a deep ‘wound’ on his psyche as he told Dr. Antony Clare during a 1987 session In the Psychiatrists Chair.

1 Clare 23041987

In his interview with Dr. Antony Clare, Tippett continued: ‘The wound is something absolutely autonomous, something of its own …but the price, well, I was always willing to pay the price.’ Those most closely associated with the composer were well aware of his compulsion but some were unable to submit to the severity of his devotion to the creative act. Regarding his relationship with Francesca Allinson he remarked:

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Allinson eventually committed suicide, and in the same interview Tippett admitted:  ‘Another man whom I loved and lived with at times also committed suicide [Karl Hawker]. I may, perhaps, attract people, I don’t know.’

Similar to the poetry of William Blake and William Butler Yeats, Tippett’s music was created from a self-constructed mythology. It is, at times, eccentric, but it is never without a guiding narrative or an internal logic. Tippett created characters of fantastical proportions to render these narratives through intricate operatic plotlines and in his concert music he invented such unique timbres for his themes that they required a realignment of the planes of musical abstraction. These attributes often confounded the public and he was occasionally the target of sharp criticisms, but his singular devotion to the creative impulse allowed him to persevere, and with each successive work his creative identity became stronger and his music became more strikingly original.

Tippett spent a considerable amount of time contemplating the details of his compositions and the essence of his originality lay in the conceptual dimensions that were so uniquely conceived for each individual work. Multiplicities abound in his music but they always remain in the service of a strong integrated vision for the particular composition.  

Tippett’s solitary existence allowed him the contemplative atmosphere in which to envision some radical music but he firmly declared that he needed, always, to maintain a strong contact with the world in which he was a part. His compositional process would transform his experiences into the materials he required for his music. Tippett’s imagination was luminous and it radiated outward, through the splendor of Augustinian windows, onto panoramic vistas that resounded with otherworldly music.  He explained to John Warrack on Musical Influences broadcast on 21 May 1969. 

3 Warrack 21051969

Inspiration for specific works often came from some outside source but his creative impulse was internal and his allegiance to it was unwavering. This process was often a mysterious one, even to the composer but he had an implicit trust in his powers of invention to guide his ear towards the sounds that gave the strongest resonance to his fertile imagination.

4 Amis 01071977

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Tippett in later years by Jane Bown (Courtesy of Schott Music)

Throughout Tippett’s long life he witnessed many shifts in style but he was unaffected by these changes and remained committed to creating his own original music.  Here he talks to Natalie Wheen in one of his last broadcast interviews from 1995.

5 Wheen 021995

Tippett had an exceptional ability to capture the ethos of his time and he used this ability to create music where the hideous—‘mans inhumanity toward man’—and strongest visions of affirmation were placed into the strangest combinations. In the aura of its release, where chaos and brought into a convincing but temporary reconciliation, we are reminded how essential Tippett was to shaping the soundscape of contemporary music.

The Edison Fellowships are funded by the Saga Trust.  Three of the extracts come from recordings in the Alan Cooban collection (C1398) which was digitised with funding from the Saga Trust.

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