THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

230 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

21 September 2018

Open House 2018 – Alexandra Road Estate, Camden

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‘It looks inevitable, but it is a long process of trial and error’.
Architect Neave Brown on the Alexandra Road Estate

Tony Hunt Alexandra Road

This weekend London opens its doors to a range of fascinating buildings; many of which are usually closed to the public. They span a range of architectural styles and time periods – from grand public buildings to small residential spaces. Open House, established in 1992, encourages people to explore and interact with London’s architecture – and it is wonderful to see how it has grown in popularity. One of the highlights is the Alexandra Road Estate. It was built during the golden age of Camden Council’s architects department in the 1970s. Encouraged by Borough Architect Sidney Cook, the design by architect Neave Brown eschewed high-rise for high density using a horizontal street pattern. Concrete was used for both the structure and the form. Working as part of the team were a talented group of young architects: Benson and Forsyth, Eldred Evans and David Shalev. It was awarded Grade II* listed status in 1993. Neave Brown received the commission as a young architect after having designed small residential blocks in Camden, in his recording he recalls ‘it was the most astonishing brief ever’. Listen to his extract here:

Neave Brown on the Alexandra Road Estate (C467/113/13)

Architects’ Lives offers another way to explore some of the highlights of Open House. It has unique recordings with the creators of these buildings and gives a chance to explore the genesis of some of London’s landmarks. We now hold recordings with the architect – Neave Brown, but also the structural engineer, Tony Hunt, and the services engineer, Max Fordham. Together they form a rich tapestry of the context of the project. In this extract, Tony Hunt describes how the three of them, who had first worked together on housing in Winscombe Street in Camden, came together as a young team and responded to the challenge of the site which ran alongside a railway track:

Tony Hunt on the Alexandra Road Estate (C467/135/12)

Tony Hunt Alexandra Road 2

Blog by Niamh Dillon, Architects' Lives Project Interviewer. Architects' Lives was established in 1995 to document the life and work of British architects and their associates over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. Neave Brown's complete interview can be listened to online at BL Sounds. Both photographs in this blog post were taken by Pat Hunt, the second shows Tony Hunt and Richard Clack on site at Alexandra Road in the 1970s.

19 September 2018

Seeing sound: What is a spectrogram?

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Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage writes:

In this digital age, most of us are familiar with audio waveforms, the ‘wavy’ images that represent the dynamic course of a particular sound recording. Waveforms are in fact a type of graph, with time on the X axis and amplitude (or loudness) on the Y.

Waveform exampleFigure 1: a waveform represents a sound recording by showing amplitude over time

Waveforms are very useful for conveying basic information about a recording e.g. where the loud bits are, where the quiet bits are, and how dynamic the recording is. If you were listening to an interview, a waveform can clearly show you where someone is speaking. Unfortunately, waveforms cannot tell us much about the pitch, frequency, or harmonic content of a recording. For that we can use a different visual representation of sound… say hello to the spectrogram!

How to read a spectrogram

Spectrograms keep time on the X axis but place frequency on the Y axis. Amplitude is also represented as a sort of heat map or scale of colour saturation. Spectrograms were originally produced as black and white diagrams on paper by a device called a sound spectrograph, whereas nowadays they are created by software and can be any range of colours imaginable!

Wave form v spectragramFigure 2: waveform and spectrogram of the same recording. An oscillating low frequency buzz dominates the waveform, only the spectrogram reveals where the bird is calling

Spectrograms map out sound in a similar way to a musical score, only mapping frequency rather than musical notes. Seeing frequency energy distributed over time in this way allows us to clearly distinguish each of the sound elements in a recording, and their harmonic structure. This is especially useful in acoustic studies when analysing sounds such as bird song and musical instruments. So not only do these graphs look really cool, but they can tell us a lot about the sound without even listening.

Spectrogram example (whooper swan)Figure 3: a spectrogram showing the harmonically rich calls of whooper swans

Whooper Swan calls recorded by John Corbett (BL shelfmark WS1734 C5)

In the above example, we can see the calls of a Whooper Swan represented in a spectrogram. The fundamental frequency of the calls is at about 750Hz, which is the frequency with the most energy (usually the lowest frequency of a sound), and gives the sound its perceived pitch. Above that are the harmonics - additional, quieter frequencies that give the sound its ‘colour’ and make up a sort of sonic signature – a Whooper Swan singing a perfect ‘G’ note will have a very different harmonic structure to a piano playing that same note. This information could be used to analyse bird songs and calls in different locations, or to understand the vocabulary of a species.

Creative uses for spectrograms

Clearly spectrograms can tell us a lot about the acoustic elements of a sound, but they are not just used for scientific studies. Audio editing is most often performed with waveforms as it's easier to make cuts or process a selected time range. When editing software uses spectrograms however, it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities! With this spectral editing, we are able to look into the microscopic details of a sound and apply processes to very specific time and frequency ranges. For example, an obtrusive footstep, or car alarm could be identified and removed from a recording, just like ‘photoshopping’ sound!

Spectral repair exampleFigure 4: a recording of a robin singing was ruined by a dog barking and some low end noise – a spectrogram reveals the unwanted noises and allows the recordist to remove them.

Spectral repair BEFORE

Spectral repair AFTER

Musicians can also use spectral editing to compose and generate sounds that could not be made any other way. Patterns and shapes can be ‘drawn’ into spectrograms and played back as frequency content. In some cases, detailed graphic images can be hidden within spectrograms. Aphex Twin used this technique to hide an image of a face within the second track of his ‘Windowlicker’ EP (1999).

Aphex Face

You can find some more examples of images hidden in the spectral content of popular songs here: https://twistedsifter.com/2013/01/hidden-images-embedded-into-songs-spectrographs/

So now you know what spectrograms are, how to read them, and some of their many scientific, creative, and bizarre uses. Keep an eye out for our #SpectrogramSunday @BLSoundHeritage tweets, starting this weekend!

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14 September 2018

Mary Jane Long

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MJ Long, who died recently, was one of the key architects of the British Library. Together with her husband, Colin St. John Wilson – known as Sandy – she spent much of her career working on the development and construction of the project. Born in the United States, she studied for a Masters degree at Yale – during an era when British architects such as Richard Rogers, Norman Foster and Eldred Evans were also at Yale. She came to Europe on a study trip in the early 1960s and began working with Colin St. John Wilson shortly afterwards. Alongside her early work on the British Library – which initially was going to be in Bloomsbury – she worked on artists’ studios for Frank Auerbach, Peter Blake and R.B. Kitaj. The latter was commissioned to create a tapestry for the foyer in the British Library.

BL MJ LONG PIC

These two extracts were taken from an interview she made in 1997-98. In the first, she discusses the change of location from Bloomsbury to its current one in the Euston Road and the implications of this to both the design and the construction process. She also references the necessary collaboration of the key architects working in the practice at the time, and how architecture of this scale is rarely the hand of one person.

MJ Long describes the move from Bloomsbury to Euston (C467/26/11)

In the second, she reflects on the elements which influenced the design, and addresses challenges from those who argued that the project was so long in its gestation that the initial design originated in a different time and context.

MJ Long reflects on the design of the British Library (C467/26/09)

Blog by Niamh Dillon, Architects' Lives Project Interviewer. Architects' Lives was established in 1995 to document the life and work of British architects and their associates over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. MJ Long was interviewed by Jill Lever for Architects' Lives in 1997-98 and her full interview can be listened to online at BL Sounds.

11 September 2018

Stephen Farthing's memories of 9/11

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Cathy Courtney, Project Director and interviewer for Artists' Lives writes about her interview with Stephen Farthing and his memories of 9/11.

Painter Stephen Farthing was recorded for National Life Stories’ oral history project, Artists’ Lives. Because the recordings are life stories, they set each person’s career within a biographical account and capture a great variety of material, often of broad social history significance.

Stephen_FarthingStephen Farthing (Sourced from Wikipedia)

Here, Stephen recalls being in Manhattan on September 11 2001, the day New York’s World Trade Towers were hit by the two planes hijacked by terrorists, causing the towers to collapse with terrible loss of life.

Stephen’s account captures the shock of the attack but also an initial reflex attempt to carry on with the business of the day as if nothing had happened. It contrasts with the way many people worldwide watched the news unfold. Through extracts from the recording, one senses the need for those nearby to take time to understand what had happened.

In September 2001, Stephen was Executive Director of the New York Academy of Art. On September 11, he and a colleague were using rooms in a bank (MBNA) on New York’s 57th street to interview candidates for a job at the Academy.

Stephen Farthing describes the day of September 11 2001 (C466/298/37)

A later extract captures the first gathering of the New York Academy of Art students after the attack.

Stephen Farthing describes the first gathering of students after 9/11 (C466/298/36)

A local detail from Stephen’s recording illustrates how Manhattan was changed by the 9/11 attacks and the later financial crisis.

Stephen Farthing describes New York City after 9/11 (C466/298/37)

This recording is from Stephen Farthing's interview in the Artists' Lives collection. Artists' Lives is an ongoing National Life Stories project to document the lives of individuals involved in British art, including painters, sculptors, curators, dealers and critics. Full life story interviews from the collection can be listened to online at British Library Sounds.

10 September 2018

Recording of the week: 'English atheist'

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This week's selection comes from Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer.

Nearly twenty years ago, on the 4th of March 1999, an interviewer working for BBC Radio Thames Valley’s contribution to the enormous BBC Millennium Oral History Project – ‘The Century Speaks’ – visited a local school to interview an 11 year-old girl. She was one of the youngest interviewees among a UK ‘sample’ of over 5000. The opening question produced a response which clearly surprised the interviewer:

English atheist (C900/17576)

Interviewer: How would you describe your identity? By that I mean your national identity.

Interviewee: English. English atheist.

Interviewer: Ah. [...] You’ve said atheist very quickly; tell me about that.

Interviewee: Erm, I just like, I didn’t want to be any particular religion but I didn’t want like committing- commit myself into saying I didn’t believe there was anything there, so I decided to be an atheist.

Interviewer: So you…

Interviewee: Because being an atheist means you believe that there’s someone- something around or up there, but you don’t know what it is. And you don’t think it’s really God, but you don’t know.

Interviewer: Oh right, and do you, do you- what do your parents believe?

Interviewee: They’re the same, they’re atheists.

Interviewer: Do you think that you’re an atheist perhaps because they are?

Interviewee: Yeah, just been influenced by them, so...

Interviewer: Yes? Is that it, do you think?

Interviewee: Yeah.

Interviewer: Are any of your brothers believers?

Interviewee: No. They’re all atheists like us.

Interviewer: And do you feel that being an atheist actually is a sort of definition – it really does define you as something; it’s like a religion of a sort?

Interviewee: Yeah. It’s like on its own.

Interviewer: Tell me a bit more about it, how it defines you, being an atheist.

Interviewee: It’s just like: you don’t need to commit yourself into anything; you can just like say you’re an atheist when people ask you what religion you are. And then they don’t ask anymore. So that’s it really. [laughs] [C900/17576, 00:15-2:00]

The clip is engaging not just because the interviewee is charmingly open and positive. It is also because it seems to wake us up from a strange dream in which the only people who talk about atheism are rather senior, male intellectuals of one sort or another. Here, an eleven year-old girl speaks of a form of atheism that:

• is related to religion but not through opposition to it: “you can just like say you’re an atheist when people ask you what religion you are”
• is chosen (“I decided to be an atheist”) but happily acknowledged as the outcome of context – her position in a family of atheists (“yeah, just been influenced by them”)
• is regarded as a substantial position (“its like on its own”) without being claimed as superior to any other
• involves a denial of the existence of ‘God’ (“you don’t think it’s really God”) without in any way placing limits on what existence itself might consist of (“you believe that there’s someone- something around or up there”)

PM recording of the week image The Century Speaks leaflet part cover

The British Library holds all of ‘The Century Speaks’ interviews in a collection called ‘Millennium Memory Bank’ [MMB]. I found the interview with this young “English atheist” as part of a project – a new collaboration with the major Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent – exploring the nature of religious ‘unbelief’ in MMB and other oral history collections at the British Library. What will I uncover next?

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

07 September 2018

The MiniDisc revival starts here (maybe)

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Sony launched the first MiniDisc players and recorders in 1992. MiniDiscs were small (around 2¾" square) floppy-disk-style cartridges with an 80-minute recording capacity, intended to supplant the tape cassette format.

Some major-artist commercial albums were issued as pre-recorded MiniDiscs, and the Library has a few examples of these in its collection. In its heyday, however, at least in the UK,  the MiniDisc arguably found more favour as a recording medium, particularly among broadcasters (and oral historians). The Millennium Memory Bank project, for example, created by BBC local radio stations across England, together with Radio Scotland, Radio Ulster, Radio Wales and Radio Cymru - and held at the British Library - alone comprises more than 6000 MiniDiscs.

Sony ceased production of MiniDisc machines in 2013 so the format may be considered officially obsolete. For Paul Maclean, though, and his fellow H. P. Lovecraft appreciators in the Cthulhu Breakfast Club, who have just released their first 'MiniDisc Exclusive Release', the format is very much alive.

MiniDisc

I asked Paul to say a few words on the attraction of obsolete recording formats:

I've been by training and trade, an archaeologist and museum scientist. I’ve always had a 'backwards-looking curiosity' combined with a love of the technological. In more recent years my work has focused on the web and especially net-based audio such as podcasts - they are a wonderful and practical way to reach people around the world almost instantly - but at the same time I think something is lost by the lack of the physical: the particular, more direct connection between audience and creator that can exist with physical artefacts.

In 2017 I produced a wax cylinder recording of a podcast (through Poppy Records), which proved popular - likely due to the novelty of using some of the latest technology (Ambisonic high resolution digital recording) married to one of the earliest recording formats. The cylinders were manufactured for us by Paul Morris. However a wax cylinder meant a very short show: only 2 minutes!

Our normal shows tend to run over an hour. Having both a love of obsolete audio formats and fond memories of Sony’s short-lived but superbly engineered MiniDisc system, the MiniDisc format seemed a logical next step.

Denon-replicator

Over the past few years I’ve collected a number of MD players and was also lucky enough to acquire a Denon DN-045R MD replicator (above) which allows me to produce pristine new MD recordings in quantity. The last Sony MiniDisc machine may have left the factory in 2013 but the format still has its loyal fans (of which I am one).

These days the typical audio I produce is distributed online in high resolution AAC format - it’s efficient and effective, but so are millions of other web audio files in an ocean of new content every day - but sometime’s what’s old is new again. Perhaps one day Sony may release a new version of the format (with less draconian DRM), in the same way vinyl has made a revival. One can but hope!

05 September 2018

Behind the Scenes of the Man Booker: a National Life Stories film

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Sarah O'Reilly, oral history interviewer for Author's Lives writes about 50 years of the Man Booker Prize and a new film. produced by National Life Stories.  

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize, the leading literary award that rewards ‘fiction at its finest’.

Here at National Life Stories, we thought it would be a good moment to delve into our Oral History collections to see what we could find out about the history of the Man Booker, as revealed by the past administrators, winners, shortlisted authors and judges who we’ve recorded for the BL’s Sound Archive.

Booker advert resizedPublicity poster for the 1980 Booker Prize (Credit: Booker Prize Archive)

The early Man Booker was dogged by controversies. In 1972, winner John Berger announced he would be donating half his prize money to The Black Panthers. Two years later, judge Elizabeth Jane Howard fought successfully to have a book written by her husband Kinglsey Amis included on the shortlist. And two years after that, the winner was decided on a coin toss, because the judges couldn’t agree amongst themselves...

David Storey win the 1976 Man Booker Prize (C408/024)

Award resizedDavid Storey wins the 1976 Man Booker Prize (Credit: Marc Henrie)

It was only in the 1980s that the prize began to achieve international fame, helped first by the battle between William Golding and Anthony Burgess for the 1980 Booker, and then by Salman Rushdie who won the following year with ‘Midnight’s Children’. Fifteen years later, Salman Rushdie was one of a number of writers to leave congratulatory answerphone messages for Graham Swift, who was awarded the Man Booker in 1996 for his novel ‘Last Orders’:

Answerphone messages for Graham Swift, 1996

To hear these, and many other stories about the history of the Man Booker, watch this film.

04 September 2018

Sir Francis Chichester talks to Lady Chichester from Gipsy Moth IV

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Dr Emma Greenwood, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage, writes:

Sir Francis Chichester’s record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe in 1966-1967 is a legendary accomplishment in yachting and sporting history. When he sailed back into Plymouth Sir Francis was greeted by a fleet of small boats, thousands of fans and a hysterical press.

This huge public interest was largely owing to the Marconi Kestrel radio telephone installed on board the yacht Gipsy Moth IV which enabled Sir Francis to send weekly newspaper despatches throughout his voyage.

This same radio set, however, also allowed Sir Francis to communicate, very occasionally, with his wife Lady Chichester. One of these rare conversations took place on 19 November 1966 and, fortunately for us, it was recorded and has now been preserved as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

The recording itself is of poor quality, but this only reflects listening conditions at the time. Lady Chichester was on board the cruise ship SS Oriana at the time, on route to a planned rendezvous in Sydney, and the radio signal was weak and subject to lots of interference. Questions had to be repeated, voices raised, and speech slowed down. There was also an operator on the line throughout, so there was no privacy between the couple.

Sir Francis and Lady Chichester talking before Sydney (C1604/01)

In spite of the circumstances, both Sir Francis and Lady Chichester sound remarkably composed. Much of the 14 minute conversation is taken up with the exchange of essential information relating to their respective positions, rates of progress, weather conditions and expected arrival times into Sydney. It is hard to believe that this was the first time they had spoken in nearly three months, or imagine the dangers Sir Francis had already faced in his voyage.

Nevertheless, the ability to communicate via radio telephone, was clearly of great importance to both parties. After the voyage, Lady Chichester stated, ‘the radio communication with Gipsy Moth IV was something really marvellous, and the men who worked it were wonderful people’ (‘A Wife’s Part in High Adventure’ in Sir Francis Chichester, Gipsy Moth Circles the World (Bello, 2012), p. 249).As for Sir Francis, being able to speak directly to Lady Chichester provided a much-needed psychological boost. He signs off “very glad to hear your voice and you have all my love, all my love, goodbye, goodbye”. Later, he wrote in his account of the voyage, ‘It was a joy to hear her, and to be able to talk directly to her. This cheered me up immensely’ (Gipsy Moth Circles the World, p.93).

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