THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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37 posts categorized "Collection"

20 February 2018

Percy Grainger's collection of ethnographic wax cylinders

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The British Library is pleased to make available online around 350 English folk songs recorded by composer Percy Grainger in different regions of England between 1906 and 1909. Thanks to the generous support of the National Folk Music Fund, these sound recordings have been catalogued and indexed by librarian, researcher and folklorist Steve Roud, author of Folk Song in England (Faber & Faber, 2017). Roud has also married them up with Grainger's transcriptions of the songs, where these exist, on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website, thanks to their digitisation of the Percy Grainger Manuscript Collection. Links have also been included on the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website to corresponding sound recordings featured on British Library Sounds. Listeners are able to hear the songs whilst following Grainger’s unique transcriptions of recordings by singers such as Joseph Taylor, Joseph Leaning, George Gouldthorpe, Charles Rosher, William Fishlock, Tom Roberts, Dean Robinson, and many more. All recordings have been catalogued to include Roud numbers (this number refers to songs listed in the online databases Folk Song Index and Broadside Index), Grainger’s Melody numbers, and the numerical references to the discs and wax cylinders these sound recordings existed on previously. 

Percy Grainger
Percy Aldridge Grainger, composing 'Lincolnshire Posy' at reed organ, 1937 (British Library reference: MS Mus. 1771/1/PR1301). Reproduced by kind permission of the Estate of George Percy Grainger.

When the Gramophone Company released a small portion of Grainger’s recordings of English traditional folk songs on a commercial 78 rpm record in 1908, Grainger pointed out in the liner notes that “These records are not folksongs sung at second hand.” Perhaps he wanted us listeners to know that what we would hear on record was not only the voice of a folk singer, Joseph Taylor of Saxby-All-Saints, North Lincolnshire, but also the echoes of time: “the very men who have passed such songs down the centuries to us.” Grainger insisted on this fidelity whilst also acknowledging that folk singers were individual creators, capable of creatively impressing their personality on their versions of inherited tradition. He was able to capture and analyse the individuality of folk singers in England thanks to the novel phonograph technology and his musical transcriptions of these sound recordings, which were meticulously detailed. 

To celebrate the publication of these unique sound recordings and their interlinking with Grainger’s manuscripts, we asked Steve Roud to write a short article exploring the importance of these resources. In the following piece he also explores Grainger’s position in the English folk collecting scene as well as the nature of his collaboration, in the making of these sound recordings, with women such as Lady Winefrede Cary-Elwes or Miss Eliza Wedgwood.

In correspondence files held at the Music Division of the Library of Congress, kindly made available to the project by Judith Gray from the The American Folklife Center, we find a letter from Grainger, from October 26, 1939, in which he says,

"I have the Edison Bell phonograph [cylinder machine] on which these records were made and can play them on this machine.  But there is a good deal of scratch (partly mould?) on these old records.  In copying them, can you get rid of part of this scratch by eliminating (filtering out) certain frequencies?  If your Music Division has facilities for making such copies from wax cylinders I would be happy to let your Division keep copies of all my folksong phonograph records if you would provide me with copies in return.  I could bring the phonograph (Edison Bell) and the wax cylinders to Washington (perhaps at the time I play with the National Symphony Orchestra in March?) or wherever needful."  

The digital copies of Grainger’s sound recordings now publicly available via British Library Sounds, were digitised from one of three existing sets of lacquer disc dubs of the contents of the original wax cylinders, made at the Library of Congress c. 1940. Whilst we could consider these digital versions ‘second hand sounds’ it’s also true that the different generations of carriers condensed into them have rendered unique the texture of the folksingers' voices who once ‘sang so sweetly’ to Grainger and his collaborators.

This project was realised thanks to the collaborative effort of many people in the sound archive and music department at the British Library; Steve Roud and Andrew Pace who catalogued and uploaded the sound recordings to the British Library’s catalogue and Sounds website; Judith Gray at the Library of Congress for making the Grainger correspondence accessible; Barry Ould of The International Percy Grainger Society in White Plains, NY, for granting us permission to use it; John Bird for contextualising these sound recordings within Grainger’s biography.

Liner notes
         Facsimile of HMV liner notes included in Leader release, 1972 (British Library reference: 1LP0157546)

Percy Grainger and English Folk Song by Steve Roud

Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961) was born, as George Percy Grainger, in Victoria, Australia, and first came to Europe to study music in Frankfurt in 1895. He settled in Britain in 1901, left for the USA in 1914, and lived there until his death, having taken American citizenship in 1918. In his time he was an extremely popular concert pianist, but is now chiefly remembered as the composer of over 400 classical pieces, many of which are still regularly played in the concert repertoire.

His 13-year period of residence in Britain coincided with the brief golden age of folk song collecting, which was the culmination of an interest in traditional music which had been building steadily during the late Victorian period. The novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, and the diarist Revd Francis Kilvert, for example, were both interested in seeking out songs in 1870, and by 1900, Sabine Baring-Gould, Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson, Marianne Mason, and W.A. Barrett had all published books of songs collected from ordinary people up and down the country. The Folk-Song Society (now subsumed in the English Folk Dance & Song Society) had been formed in 1899 to provide these enthusiasts with a network of contacts, and to further the cause of folk song collection, publication, and study.

It is not surprising that an up-and-coming young musician/composer like Grainger would catch the ‘folk song bug’, as the subject was very much in the air.

It was a lecture on folk song by Lucy Broadwood to the Royal Musical Association in March 1905 which prompted Grainger’s active involvement, and he accompanied her, and Frank Kidson, to the Musical Competition Festival, at Brigg, in Lincolnshire, which included a section devoted to Folk Song at which several local singers had been persuaded to perform. Grainger returned to Lincolnshire in July the following year to begin his fieldwork in earnest, and noted songs by hand, and was back again in 1907, armed with an Edison phonograph, the latest in sound technology.

Over the next three years, Grainger spent a total of 52 days in the field, and collected over 400 songs. About two-thirds of these were gathered in Lincolnshire, but he also made important forays into Gloucestershire, and a few other places. It is the wax cylinders made at this time which are now made freely available on the British Library’s Sounds website. Grainger was not the only collector to experiment with phonograph recording, but he quickly became convinced of its vital importance in the field of song gathering, and was its most vocal advocate, and he used it more than all the other English collectors put together.

Wax cylinders were not designed for long-term survival, so we are particularly fortunate that the originals survived long enough to be copied onto a more permanent format in 1940, and to still be available in the present day. Apart from a relatively small number of surviving cylinders recorded by other collectors - including Cecil Sharp, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Lucy Broadwood, amongst others, whose recordings also appear on British Library Sounds - Grainger’s recordings provide our only opportunity to hear what traditional singers from the Edwardian period really sounded like. Only one other collector made systematic sound-recordings in England before the Second World War; the American academic James Madison Carpenter, who collected in Britain between 1929 and 1935. His recordings are housed in the Library of Congress, and will very soon be available online through the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library website. We had to wait until after 1950, and the invention of the portable tape-recorder, for sound-recording to become the normal way of collecting folk songs.

What was really ground-breaking about Percy Grainger’s approach was that he quickly realised that it was not just the songs and tunes which were remarkable and worth preserving, but also the highly skilled and creative way in which traditional singers performed a song. He became fascinated with the minute details of performance and set out to devise a way of representing the nuances of pitch, rhythm, accent and so on, which a skilled singer brought to each rendition of a song. This approach was only made possible by the availability of recorded sound - the ability to play an otherwise ephemeral performance over and over again, and even to slow it down to really understand what the naked ear could only fleetingly register. But neither Grainger nor the others who experimented with the new technology saw the phonograph cylinders as a way to preserve the singers’ voices for posterity, as we would today. In those early days, the recordings were regarded primarily as an aid to analysis and transcription, and it was still the paper copies of the tune and words which mattered.

His attempts to replicate on paper what he heard on the cylinder were too complex for any but the most experienced musician to understand. Again, we are fortunate that his written material has survived. He used a hectograph (sometimes spelled hektograph) - a primitive but effective way of duplicating pages - which enabled him to make several exact copies of his transcriptions. One set of these transcriptions is in the British Library, and another in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, which be seen on their website.

In 1908, he persuaded the Gramophone Company to bring one of his favourite Lincolnshire singers, Joseph Taylor, into their studio, and nine of his songs were issued commercially - again a first in our field, and decades before any other attempt to issue real traditional singing on record for public consumption.

Disc-0002_copy
                               His Master's Voice, 6-2238 (British Library reference: 9CS0028758)

Grainger failed to persuade other folk song collectors to follow him in his quest for more detailed investigation of singers’ performance, and nor did his radical re-thinking of the technical aspects of the music find favour with others in the field. He did no more collecting in Britain after 1909, and within five years he had left for America. But the heyday of folk song collecting in England was over anyway, and even if he had stayed it is unlikely he would have done much more fieldwork here.

Grainger published very little on folk song, although he continued to use the tunes in his compositions throughout his life. The 1908 volume of the Journal of the Folk-Song Society was dedicated to his work, which included two articles by him, ‘Collecting with the Phonograph’ and ‘The Impress of Personality in Traditional Singing’, along with his transcriptions of 26 songs. He also contributed an article to the Musical Quarterly in 1915, also listed in the bibliography at the end of this article. These tell us something of his thoughts on the subject, and along with his manuscripts, published letters, and several general biographies, we can get a pretty good idea of what made him tick. But in the folk song research world he remains a controversial figure and there is still much more to be learnt and said.

Without wanting to detract from the achievement of the great collectors of the Edwardian era, it is only fair to say that they often had significant help from other folk song enthusiasts, often women, whose contribution often remains unacknowledged and thus forgotten. All collectors faced similar problems if they were moving outside their own immediate circle and locality. How to find singers at a distance was a particularly knotty problem, and they were always concerned to arrange things to make the most efficient use of their limited time and resources. They needed someone on the ground who could find singers, organise trips, and arrange itineraries. These collaborators often provided a base of operations and a place to stay, and also wrote down the words while the visiting collector noted the tune. But most importantly, they had to be someone that the singers would trust and be comfortable with, even if they were normally shy of singing in front of strangers.

Grainger’s reliance on a not-very-portable, fragile and temperamental phonograph, which even needed a certain ambient temperature to ensure that the wax remained at the right consistency, meant that he required a highly static and controlled environment in which to operate. Not for him the bicycling round the country lanes collecting from road-workers and farm labourers met on the way, like Cecil Sharp did, or popping into cottages or rowdy pub sessions on the off-chance.

In Lincolnshire, it was Lady Winefrede Cary-Elwes who provided the necessary local contacts and gave him a place to stay, and he was invited to Gloucestershire by Lady Elcho of Stanway. But the most important figure in Gloucestershire was Lady Elcho’s friend and neighbour, Miss Eliza Wedgwood (1859-1947), the last surviving granddaughter of the famous eighteenth-century master potter Josiah Wedgwood. For much of her long life, Miss Wedgwood lived at Charity Farm, Stanton, and was long remembered for her extremely active participation in village affairs and local philanthropy. She also had a wide circle of friends which included the painter John Singer Sargent and his sister Emily, the novelists James Barrie and H.G. Wells, the ex-Prime Minister Arthur Balfour (who leant his car for one of the collecting trips), members of the Guild of Handicraft, and many others involved in the cultural and artistic life of the region.

Grainger wrote in a letter (published in Kay Dreyfus’ volume of his correspondence):

“Miss Wedgwood who prepared the folk song ground for me was quite splendid. I am so certain of her gift for collecting that I hope to get her to collect in other places as well. Everything was faultlessly prepared for me. I phonographed without interruption all the days through.” (9 Apr 1908)

And it is clear from the evidence of the cylinder recordings themselves that Miss Wedgwood’s role was not simply administrative, because her voice is clearly heard telling the singers when to start, and it is clear she was actually operating the machine. Eliza also helped Cecil Sharp with contacts and local knowledge. For more on Eliza Wedgwood, see the article by Paul Burgess listed in the bibliography.

1LP0157546
                                 Leader Records, LEA 4050 (British Library reference: 1LP0157546)

A note on the numbering of the Grainger recordings

Several numbering systems exist within the Grainger collection, and they present quite a challenge to the cataloguer, and the user. The three main sequences are Cylinder number, Disc number, and Melody number, which are explained below. It is also helpful to distinguish Performances from Parts.

Grainger started collecting with pencil and paper, but in 1906 he acquired the phonograph which recorded onto wax cylinders, and from then on this was his preferred method of noting songs. Armed with the phonograph, he re-visited some of his early singers, and recorded them singing the same songs, and he subsequently transcribed these cylinder performances onto paper. He also made multiple recordings of some songs, so that the same song from any particular singer can appear more than once - on paper and on more than one cylinder. He documented these multiple recordings as ‘1st performance’, ‘2nd performance’, and so on.

Each cylinder has a number (1 - 216). Phonograph cylinders last a little over two minutes, so one cylinder can include several short songs (e.g. one verse from each), or the same short song sung more than once, or, most commonly, half of a longer song, with the rest of it continued, if we are lucky, on the next cylinder. The sections of these songs split onto different cylinders were designated ‘part 1’, ‘part 2’, etc. These numbers can be combined with the repeated renditions already described, so that we can get ‘1st performance, part 1’, ‘2nd performance, part 1’, and so on.

In 1940, the surviving cylinders were copied onto lacquer discs at the Library of Congress, and it is copies of these discs which were digitised to create the sound files offered on British Library Sounds. These discs also have numbers, and two sides, designated A and B. They can take up to five minutes of sound on each side, so the most common scenario here is for two cylinders to be dubbed onto each disc side. Occasionally the transfer from cylinder to disc did not go well, or, even more infrequently, the engineer made a mistake, so some tracks appear twice on the discs - usually with one track labelled ‘poor copy’ or ‘incomplete’, and the other ‘good copy’ or ‘complete’. We have not included these substandard transfers online when a better one exists.

When Grainger organised his collection, he assigned numbers to the songs. He gave the same number to all versions of a song from a particular singer, so that, for example, all versions of ‘Brigg Fair’ by Joseph Taylor are assigned the number 200. These are usually referred to as ‘Melody’ numbers, and are included in our catalogue, for reference. Unfortunately, they are not always as helpful as they might be. Grainger started re-organising, but never finished and some items were re-numbered, and others were left un-numbered.

025I-1LL0010255XX-AAZZA0
                                                Image of disc label (British Library reference: 1LL0010255)

The Library of Congress disc labels, shown above and included on British Library Sounds, show the disc and side number. They typically also show the titles of the songs, the name of the performer, and the year of recording, plus the relevant cylinder numbers, and Grainger’s melody numbers. The disc series starts at 12, because numbers 1-11 are assigned to his Danish recordings. Also included are dubs of the 78rpm records of Joseph Taylor’s singing issued by the Gramophone Company in 1908.

The best way to see a comprehensive listing of the whole English collection, organised by Grainger’s Melody number, is to consult Jane O’Brien’s published catalogue, Grainger English Folk Song Collection (University of Western Australia Music Dept., 1985).

Roud numbers

One more set of numbers appears in our catalogue entries, the ‘Roud number’. This number refers to songs as listed in the online databases Folk Song Index and Broadside Index (both available on www.vwml.org). Because folk songs can appear in many places (books, records, manuscripts, and so on), and because the same song can appear under a multitude of different titles, the Roud numbers are designed to help researchers find ‘other versions’ of a song. So, for example, all the versions of the song variously called ‘The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies’, ‘The Gipsy Laddie’, ‘Gypsy Davy’, ‘Seven Little Gipsies’ (and more than 50 other titles and spellings), are assigned the number Roud 1. By searching for ‘Roud 1’ in the Folk Song Index, the researcher can find all the available versions, including those now published on the British Library Sounds website.

Bibliography -

There has been a great deal written about Percy Grainger’s life and works, but the following references concentrate solely on his folk song collecting in England. For the Grainger items included on the Vaughan Williams Memorial (VWML) website, see: https://www.vwml.org/archives-catalogue/PG

By Grainger himself -

‘Collecting with the phonograph’ and ‘The Impress of personality in traditional music’, Journal of the Folk-Song Society 3 (1908) pp.163-169.

‘The Impress of personality in unwritten music’, Musical Quarterly 1:3 (Jul 1915) pp.416-435.

By others -

C.J. Bearman, ‘Percy Grainger, the Phonograph, and the Folk Song Society’, Music & Letters 84:3 (2003) pp.434-455.

John Bird, Percy Grainger (Rev. edn., Oxford Univ. Press, 1999).

John Blacking, A Commonsense view of all music. Reflections on Percy Grainger’s contribution to ethnomusicology and music education (Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Gwilym Davies, ‘Percy Grainger’s Folk Music Research in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, and Warwickshire 1907-1909’, Folk Music Journal 6:3 (1992) pp.339-358.

Paul Burgess, ‘Eliza Wedgwood and folk song collecting in Gloucestershire’, in David Atkinson & Steve Roud (Eds.), Proceedings of the English Folk Dance & Song Society folk song conference 2013 (Camsco Music, 2015) pp.22-34.

Kay Dreyfus (Ed.), The Farthest north of humanness: The Letters of Percy Grainger 1901-1914 (Macmillan, 1985).

Graham Freeman, Percy Grainger: Sketch of a new aesthetic of folk music (unpub. PhD thesis, Dept. of Music, University of Toronto, 2008).

Graham Freeman, ‘It wants all the creases ironing out: Percy Grainger, the Folk Song Society, and the ideology of the archive’, Music & Letters 92:3 (2011) pp.410-436.

Note: Percy Grainger’s legacy is scattered across the world in various repositories such as the Grainger Museum (Melbourne, Australia); The Library of Congress (Washington D.C., U.S.A.); The Grainger House / International Percy Grainger Society (White Plains, NY, U.S.A.); The UK Grainger Society (Huntly, Aberdeenshire, Scotland); the Royal Danish Library (Det Kgl. Bibliotek, Copenhagen, Denmark ) and the National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh, Scotland).

20 December 2017

Two very small records

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God-save-the-king

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

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

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

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

One-inch-lathe-cut-disc

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

12 October 2017

LISTEN: 140 Years of Recorded Sound

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

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

What would you find?

  Gallery_blog

100 Sounds

In the exhibition space we present 100 sounds from the archive, amounting to nearly seven hours of playing time, dating from 1889 to 2017 and covering music, drama, oral history, wildlife, environmental sounds, accents and dialects, and radio.

Many of the selections are rare and unpublished and they can be accessed from any of the exhibition’s listening pods, which have been designed for a secluded and prolonged listening experience.

Hand-out_blog

 Some of my favourites…

  • Radio drama: a musical excerpt from an off-air recording of a radio play by Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin - The People in the Park made in 1963. This is an example of a radio drama which was not saved by the BBC and which the British Library has preserved from an off-air recording. The chosen musical excerpt is representative of the humour and the strong feminist message of the piece.
  • Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan live at WOMAD recorded by the British Library in 1985. The Library has 2500 hours of recordings made at the WOMAD Festival by a team of volunteer staff from 1985 till the present.
  • Brendan Behan singing ‘The Old Triangle’ in 1954 from his play The Quare Fellow. This is a private recording donated by the Theatre Royal in Stratford East.
  • An excerpt from an oral history interview with chef Cyrus Todiwala, interviewed by Niamh Dillon in 2008, recalling his reaction to first encountering Indian restaurant menus when he arrived in the UK from India in the 1990s.
  • A wildlife recording of a Turkish soundscape at dusk made by biologist and field recordist Eloisa Matheu in 2010.
  • Hugh Davies performing his composition ‘Salad’ on a variety of egg and tomato slicers in 1978.

Also… the voice of Florence Nightingale; James Joyce reading from Ulysses; the voice of Brahms; Maya Angelou live in Lewisham; the earliest recording of British vernacular speech; bird mimicry; whale songs; …

‘Mystery tracks’

To put you in the zone we have installed five ‘mystery tracks’ at the very front of the exhibition space. If you are curious to know the ‘when’, ‘where’ and the ‘who’ of the mystery tracks, the details are revealed in a hand-out available elsewhere in the space.

Mystery tracks 1blog 

Timeline

For reference there is a timeline listing key developments in the history of recorded sound (including radio), and illustrating how the effect of recordings and recording technologies has changed our relationship to sound over the years.

Listen timeline_blog

Artefacts

The British Library has a collection of rarely seen audio players and other artefacts. For this exhibition we have taken a few out of storage. Players include an Edison home phonograph from 1900 and a Nagra SN miniature tape recorder from 1970. The artefacts include a colourful selection of picture discs and the original nickel-plated stamper used to press a disc version of Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' in 1890.

Listen to Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'

Edison Diamond Disc phonograph_blogEdison Diamond Disc phonograph (c.1919)

Boy Wireless

To illustrate how archival sounds can inspire new works in the 21st century, composer and sound artist Aleks Kolkowski has created a unique sound installation.

Boy Wireless was inspired by a diary kept by a sixteen-year old radio enthusiast, Alfred Taylor, writing in 1922-23, at the dawn of broadcast radio. The original diary is also on display in the space.

BoyWireless_B Boy Wireless sound installation by Aleks Kolkowski

Aleks Kolkowski_blogAleks Kolkowski at the British Library cutting souvenir voice recordings on the exhibition’s opening night.

Save Our Sounds

The Library’s sound archive is one of the biggest on the planet. It contains six and half million audio recordings from all over the world in over forty different formats. The preservation of recorded sound is at the heart of our work. In 2016 the Library launched the Save Our Sounds Programme to digitise the most vulnerable items in our collection and in other collections across the UK. Donations to support the programme are welcome.

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for more news.

06 September 2017

Peng Tings on my WhatsApp

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Rosy Hall is an ESRC-funded PhD student from Oxford University working with the BL's Spoken English collections. She writes:

If you’re a school teacher, or in fact if you know any British human aged under 18, you’ll also be aware that the best word to describe someone you fancy these days is peng. It used to be fit. Before that there was hot, cute, and gorgeous. But right now, it’s peng.

C1442 Peng: speaker b.1994

Um, a word me and my friends use a lot is peng. Um, it it it genuinely means like good-looking, and you can use it for people, like if you saw a boy or a girl that you thought was good-looking, a lot of my friends would say ah she’s peng or he’s peng. You can use it for food, you can use it for anything. Um, I I genuinely, I have no idea where it’s come from, but it’s it’s funny to see reactions of generations before mine to listen to it, cause when I said it, my grandma had absolutely no idea what it meant! {LG} And you do – yeah. That’s it really.

School-yard buzz-words pop up all the time – sometimes only fleetingly, while others stick around and enter our mainstream vocabulary (just think of how new cool seemed a few years ago – and even my Dad says minging now!). This process can’t be controlled – what does or doesn’t catch on depends on factors such as frequency of usage and power dynamics between speakers. An awareness of this is at play when Mean Girls’ character Regina George cruelly tells her schoolmate Gretchen: ‘Stop trying to make fetch happen. It’s not going to happen.’ But peng is definitely happening. And so, for that matter, is piff – another current favourite for ‘attractive,’ as explained by the speaker below. Tony Thorne’s 2014 Dictionary of Contemporary Slang dates this term to ‘mid-2000s.’

C1442 Piff: speaker b.1994

Um, well a slang word we use is piff, which is like, say like if you see someone who’s good-looking, or some – a girl that’s good-looking or a boy who’s good-looking it’s like ah, she’s piff! Like, or ah he’s so piff look at him sort of thing. Don’t know where it comes from cause we have quite a lot of words to describe people and how they look like peng, which also means the same thing. I don’t have a clue where it comes from, to be honest I think they’re quite stupid but they’re just really catchy and everybody uses them. So yeah that’s the slang we use. Piff! P. I. F. F.

Peng appears to have first become a part of spoken British English around 2004-5. It had a slow start in life; BBC Voices, a dialect project which surveyed over 1200 speakers in the UK, recorded only two instances of the word, both in young British Caribbean speakers in the East Midlands. It took off between 2005 and 2010, it seems, since peng was the single most popular vernacular word contributed by under-18s in the recording booths at the Evolving English exhibition in 2010-11. Cambridge Dictionaries included peng in their New Words blog in 2011. And its 2015 appearance in English grime artist Stormzy’s track ‘Know Me From’ (‘Peng tings on my WhatsApp and my iPhone too’) places it firmly at the core of the youth slang lexicon.

As suggested by the BBC Voices data, it’s likely that peng entered English by way of contact with speakers of Caribbean varieties. It may be related to Kushung peng, a word used in Jamaica for marijuana (as in Frankie Paul’s 1985 ‘Pass the Kushung Peng’). Of course, linguistic borrowing is nothing new, but is the way in which English has acquired a great many of its words – from Latin and French right through to German (rucksack), Yiddish (schmuck), and Hindi (pyjamas); very often this is related to English having been forced on others under colonial rule.

In more recent times, a new variety of English called Multicultural London English (MLE) has evolved at home, in diverse multilingual and multicultural environments, and peng is part of this picture. The exchange here is very much two-way; the same BBC Voices speakers who were early users of peng also use ‘brassic’ for broke or ‘lacking money’ – Cockney rhyming slang for skint (brassic lint).

Like it or loathe it, teens and tweens are our richest source of new coinages and language practices, and no doubt there'll be some new competition for peng in the playground this year as well as plenty of other new slang terms. Try testing your own knowledge in this BBC back-to-school slang quiz, and you can get up to speed with more young language on the Evolving English WordBank.

 

Continue the conversation with us @VoicesofEnglish

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.

Interviewer Eva de Rey

13 April 2017

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

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

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

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

Lois Keidan_image_Alex Eisenberg blogLois Keidan. Photograph by Alex Eisenberg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how did you get to co-found LADA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go to part two.

Interviewer Eva del Rey

28 February 2017

Moomins music

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Readers of a certain age may recall from 1980s tea-time TV the children's series The Moomins, a stop-motion animation treatment of the stories of the Moomintrolls, the family of small woodland beings created by Finnish writer-illustrator Tove Jansson. The original stories and picture-books were written and published in Swedish, and spanned the period 1945-1970. 

Moomins-first-edition-cover

Småtrollen och den stora översvämningen (The Little Trolls and the Great Flood) - the first Moomins book, from 1945.

The TV series shown in Britain was a Polish-Austrian-German production, made at the Se-ma-for studio in Łódź. For UK audiences, episodes were edited from their original longer format into five-minute chunks and given an English-language narration by veteran actor Richard Murdoch.

Another UK addition was a new theme tune and soundtrack, created by Graeme Miller and Steve Shill, who were, at the time, members of Impact Theatre Co-operative, a Leeds-based experimental theatre company whose influence on the contemporary performance scene is still felt today. Perhaps their best-known work is The Carrier Frequency from 1986, a collaboration with novelist Russell Hoban set in a post-nuclear world, and performed on a structure designed by Simon Vincenzi that rose from a two-foot deep pool of water. 

Moomins-music-products

The Moomins' music, a mixture of organic instruments and new electronic sounds, was issued this year in its most complete edition yet by Finders Keepers Records. Formats include cassette, CD and vinyl, plus two de luxe limited edition LPs. Examples of each have been acquired by the British Library for its sound archive (see image above).

Simon Sheridan, in his A-Z of Classic Children's Television, describes this music as 'some of the saddest ever to make its way onto kids' TV'.

In the same book Graeme Miller cites the mournful theme tune from The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (the 1960s French import that was a staple of BBC children's programming for three decades) and the electronic sound of Kraftwerk as primary musical influences.

The Finders Keepers editions are beautifully presented, with the CD and LP editions featuring the bonus of a long and detailed essay by Andy Votel on the history of the series as broadcast, the creation of the music, and the 10-year effort to make the complete soundtrack available for the first time.

04 August 2016

Theatre of Sound. An interview with Aleks Kolkowski

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

 

Sound and Music

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

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

Save Our Sounds

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

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

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

Performance Documentation

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

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

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

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