THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

46 posts categorized "Digitisation"

31 October 2016

Why do people sound funny in old recordings?

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One of the pleasures of listening to old sound recordings is the ability they give us to peek through the glass at another time. Re-experiencing another moment in time, in real time, is immersive and gives us an intimate sense of what life on the other side of the glass was like. Can we take this at face value though? Does our modern perspective affect what we perceive on the other side? I had the opportunity to test this recently, in a wonderfully maintained 1947 Voice-o-graph disc recording booth, located in the Songbyrd Café in Washington DC.

 

The voice-o-graph recording booth


Before magnetic tape recording technology came of age in the mid-1940s, very few people had the means to make a sound recording of their own, and nothing more than a gramophone to play one on. Disc recording booths appeared in the 1930s, and were commonly found wherever people might have free time & spare money, such as fairgrounds, piers and railway stations. During World War II they were often used to send audio letters to and from armed forces personnel, providing an innovative morale boost to separated families and friends.

The British Library has several such discs, some of which appeared in the recent BBC Radio 4 programme Keepsake For My Lover. Listening to them, there’s often a stiffness or formality which we frequently attribute to the times they were made in. Is that a fair reflection though? While I was fascinated by the technology, I was just as keen to understand the experience of the person making the recording, to peek through from the other side of the glass.

I decided to make a recording for my daughter, who hates being praised, and also has no particular interest in discs or recording (or this blog post, probably). By the time she’s old enough to be curious about the disc, I reckoned, she might also be willing to hear a kind word from her dad, especially if he’s not in the same room at the time. I turned up at the booth with a couple of friends who were as curious as I was about the process, but I was reluctant to let them in the booth with me, and a bit nervous about telling them so. One suggested filming me from outside the booth, which didn’t altogether calm me down, plus I hadn’t actually prepared anything, other than a lullaby I used to sing to her when she was a baby (and, incidentally, was itself learned from an old British Library sound recording, here, from 30 seconds in).  

  How to make a recording

The booth itself was very warm, the machine noisy as it readies itself to record you, and a giant black cloud of my own expectation hung over me. I had three minutes to fill, with no pause button, and no second chance if I mucked it up. I sang & then mumbled, with no clear idea if I was too loud or too quiet, too near or too far away from the microphone, desperately hoping that no-one could hear me while I poured my heart out. At the end I was literally shaking.

I could have prepared better I suppose, but didn’t want simply to read something out, and the rhythm of the preceding morning hadn’t allowed a moment of quiet contemplation before piling into the booth. All of which, I suspect, would be typical of anyone making this kind of recording back in the day. What I ended up with then, is a recording sounding just like it was made in the 1940s: reticent, a bit shy, sincere. As the radio programme and my experience made clear, it’s not that the people being recorded have changed, so much as the context and technology of sound recording. Life on the other side of the glass isn’t so different after all, it’s just the glass that makes it look that way.

13 September 2016

Restoring the first recording of computer music

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Jack Copeland and Jason Long
Fig. 1: Jack Copeland and Jason Long

Jack Copeland FRS NZ and Jason Long write: 

A key problem facing audio archivists is how to establish the correct pitch of a historical recording. Without some independent means of knowing how the original sounded, it can be very difficult—or even impossible—to tell whether an archived recording is playing at the right pitch. An important case in point is the earliest known recording of computer-generated music. In 1951, a BBC outside broadcast unit in Manchester used a portable acetate disc cutter to capture three melodies played by a primeval computer. This gigantic computer filled much of the ground floor of Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory.

Today, all that remains of the recording session is a 12-inch single-sided acetate disc, cut by the BBC's technician while the computer played. The computer itself was scrapped long ago, so the archived recording is our only window on that historic soundscape. What a disappointment it was, therefore, to discover that the pitches were not accurate: the recording gave at best only a rough impression of how the computer sounded. But with some electronic detective work it proved possible to restore the recording—with the result that the true sound of this ancestral computer can be heard once again, for the first time in more than half a century.

Frank Cooper's original 'acetate' disc (Photo courtesy of Chris Burton)
Fig. 2: The original 'acetate' disc was saved by Manchester University engineer Frank Cooper (Photo courtesy of Chris Burton)

Alan Turing's pioneering work, in the late 1940s, on transforming the computer into a musical instrument has largely been overlooked: it's an urban myth of the music world that the first computer-generated musical notes were heard in 1957, at Bell Labs in America.1 The recent Oxford Handbook of Computer Music staked out a counterclaim, saying that the first computer to play notes was located in Sydney, Australia.2  However, the Sydney computer was not operational until the end of 1950, whereas computer-generated notes were emerging from a loudspeaker in Turing's computing lab as early as the autumn of 1948.

The Manchester computer had a special instruction that caused the loudspeaker—Turing called it the 'hooter'—to emit a short pulse of sound, lasting a tiny fraction of a second. Turing said this sounded like 'something between a tap, a click, and a thump'. Executing the instruction over and over again resulted in this 'click' being produced repeatedly, on every fourth tick of the computer's internal clock: tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click. Repeating the instruction enough times like this caused the human ear to hear not discrete clicks but a steady note, in fact the note C6, two octaves above middle C.

Turing realized that if the 'hoot' instruction were repeated not simply over and over again, but in different patterns, then the ear would hear different musical notes: for example, the repeated pattern tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick produced the note of C5 (an octave above middle C), while repeating the different pattern tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick produced the note of F4, four notes above above middle C—and so on. It was a wonderful discovery.

Turing was not very interested in programming the computer to play conventional pieces of music: he used the different notes to indicate what was going on in the computer—one note for 'job finished', others for 'digits overflowing in memory', 'error when transferring data from the magnetic drum', and so on. Running one of Turing's programs must have been a noisy business, with different musical notes and rhythms of clicks enabling the user to 'listen in' (as he put it) to what the computer was doing. He left it to someone else, though, to program the first complete piece of music.

A young schoolteacher named Christopher Strachey got hold of a copy of Turing's Programmers' Handbook for Manchester Electronic Computer Mark II (the Mark II computer had replaced the prototype Mark I, which also played notes, early in 1951).3 This was in fact the world’s first computer programming manual. Strachey, a talented pianist, studied the Handbook and appreciated the potential of Turing's terse directions on how to program musical notes. Soon to become one of Britain's top computer scientists, Strachey turned up at Turing's Manchester lab with what was at the time the longest computer program ever to be attempted. Turing knew the precocious Strachey well enough to let him use the computer for a night. 'Turing came in and gave me a typical high-speed, high-pitched description of how to use the machine', Strachey recounted; and then Turing departed, leaving him alone at the computer's console until the following morning.4

Christopher Strachey, 1973
Fig. 3: Christopher Strachey sunbathing in the garden of his cottage 'The Mud House' in 1973, two years before his untimely death. (Photo courtesy of the Bodleian Library and Camphill Village Trust)

'I sat in front of this enormous machine', Strachey said, 'with four or five rows of twenty switches and things, in a room that felt like the control room of a battle-ship.'5 It was the first of a lifetime of all-night programming sessions. In the morning, to onlookers' astonishment the computer raucously hooted out the National Anthem. Turing, his usual monosyllabic self, said enthusiastically 'Good show'. Strachey could hardly have thought of a better way to get attention: a few weeks later he received a letter offering him a job at the computing lab.6

The BBC recording, made some time later the same year, included not only the National Anthem but also an endearing, if rather brash, rendition of the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep as well as a reedy and wooden performance of Glenn Miller’s famous hit In the Mood. There are unsettled questions about the authorship of the three routines that played these recorded melodies. In the wake of Strachey's tour de force a number of people in the lab started writing music programs: even the routine that played the National Anthem in the recording may have been a retouched version of Strachey's original.

It was a challenge to write routines that would keep the computer tolerably in tune, since the Mark II could only approximate the true pitch of many notes: for instance the true pitch of G3 is 196 Hertz but the closest frequency that the Mark II could generate was well off the note at 198.41 Hertz. We found there was enough information in Turing's wonderfully pithy Programmers' Handbook to enable us to calculate all the audible frequencies that the Mark II could produce. However, when we ran a frequency analysis of the 1951 BBC recording (using the British Library's digital preservation copy, tape ref. H3942) we found that the frequencies were shifted. The effect of these shifts is so severe that the sounds in the recording often bear only a very loose relationship to the sounds that the computer would have actually produced. So distant was the recording from the original that many of the recorded frequencies were actually ones that it was impossible for the Mark II to play.

Alan Turing (right) at the console of the Mark II computer
Fig. 4: Turing (right) at the console of the Mark II computer (Courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science)

Naturally we wished to uncover the true sound of the computer. These 'impossible pitches' in the recording proved to be the key to doing so: our computer-assisted analysis of the differences in frequency—between the impossible pitches and the actual pitches that the computer would have played—revealed that the recorded music was in fact playing at an incorrect speed. This was most likely the result of the mobile recorder's turntable running too fast while the acetate disc was being cut: achieving speed constancy was always a problem with the BBC's standard mobile recording equipment at that time.7 So when the disc was played back at the standard speed of 78 rpm, the frequencies were systematically shifted.

We were able to calculate exactly how much the recording had to be speeded up in order to reproduce the original sound of the computer.8 We also filtered out extraneous noise from the recording; and using pitch-correction software we removed the effects of a troublesome wobble in the speed of the recording (most likely introduced by the disc-cutting process). It was a beautiful moment when we first heard the true sound of Turing's computer.

Here is the complete recording of our restoration:

Authors

Jack CopelandJack Copeland is Distinguished Professor in Arts at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His recent biography Turing, Pioneer of the Information Age contains more information about Strachey and the Manchester computer music (Oxford University Press, paperback edn. 2014).

Jason Long

Jason Long is a New Zealand composer and performer, focusing on musical robotics and electro-acoustic music. He has carried out musical research at the University of Canterbury, the Victoria University of Wellington, Tokyo University of the Arts, and the Utrecht Higher School of the Arts.

References

1 See, for example, Chadabe, J. 'The Electronic Century, Part III: Computers and Analog Synthesizers', Electronic Musician, 2001, www.emusician.com/tutorials/electronic_century3.

2 Australian composer Paul Doornbusch writing in R. T. Dean, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music, Oxford University Press, 2009; see pp. 558, 584.

3 A. M. Turing, Programmers' Handbook for Manchester Electronic Computer Mark II, Computing Machine Laboratory, University of Manchester (no date, circa 1950); a digital facsimile is in The Turing Archive for the History of Computing, www.AlanTuring.net/programmers_handbook. Turing's Mark I/Mark II terminology was eventually superseded when the engineering company that was contracted to build and market the Mark II, Ferranti, called it the Ferranti Mark I.

4 Christopher Strachey interviewed by Nancy Foy in 'The Word Games of the Night Bird', Computing Europe, 15 August 1974, pp. 10-11.

5 Strachey in 'The Word Games of the Night Bird', p. 11.

6 Letter from M. H. A. Newman to Strachey, 2 October 1951 (in the Christopher Strachey Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford, folder A39).

7 BBC Recording Training Manual, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1950.

8 We describe in detail how we did this in our article 'Turing and the history of computer music', in J. Floyd and A. Bokulich, eds, Philosophical Explorations of the Legacy of Alan Turing, Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, Springer Verlag, 2017.

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.

27 July 2016

Murdered But Not Silenced: A unique recording of pianist Marion Roberts (1901-1927)

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Nick Morgan was a Sheffield University / British Library Concordat PhD student in 2006-09, studying the National Gramophonic Society, a British record label in active production from 1924 to 1931.  Here he relates the extraordinary story of Chicago pianist Marion Roberts.

                                                                                    Chicago Gramophone Society 50016-P [W 91729] label [NM, cropped]

Chicago Gramophone Society disc 50016-P, first side
Sets were meant to be numbered, and signed by Marion Roberts,
but after her untimely death were left unmarked
[photo: Nick Morgan]

Eighty-nine years ago, a sensational story flashed across front pages in France and the United States. Early on the 23rd of April 1927, in the Forest of Rambouillet, south-west of Paris, a quarry worker discovered a car stopped by the side of a road. In it he found a man, in the throes of death and holding a pistol, and a woman, apparently killed by her companion’s shots. Their papers named them as Americans: Julian Meredith, aged 30, of Buffalo, and Marion Roberts, aged 26, of Oak Park, Illinois – hailed weeks previously as ‘according to many the finest pianist in Chicago.’ Two days before sailing for France, Roberts had made her only recording: César Franck’s Prélude, choral et fugue. I was recently able to buy a copy of this little-known set, which I have donated to the British Library. I am grateful to the Library for allowing me to share its new digital transfer via this blog post, and to tell the story of Marion Roberts.

She was born in 1901 to middle-class parents in a prosperous Chicago suburb. A star pupil at the city’s American Conservatory of Music, she studied composition with Adolf Weidig (1867-1931) and piano with Louise Robyn (1878-1949). For Weidig, Marion and her older sister Stella had ‘the biggest talent of them all’. Stella Roberts (1899-1988) would become a respected music teacher; Marion’s talent for the piano led her overseas, to study at Alfred Cortot’s Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, from which she graduated in the summer of 1926 with the high grade of ‘mention très bien’. While in Paris she also met Julian Meredith, a married war veteran who was studying singing privately. He divorced, and they were engaged, but some time after graduating Marion fell ill (a euphemism, perhaps) and returned home to convalesce.

Roberts was commonly called ‘a pupil of Cortot’, though I haven’t been able to find evidence that she received tuition from him outside the Ecole Normale. Still, it’s surely significant that Franck’s Prélude, choral et fugue was closely associated with Cortot. Back home, and now recovered, in 1927 she recorded it for the Chicago Gramophone Society, founded the year before. At that time, ‘gramophone societies’ were common in Britain but not in the USA. Chicago’s, as its unusual name suggests (the standard American term for a record player was ‘phonograph’), aimed to emulate British models, specifically the National Gramophonic Society (N.G.S.), the subject of my PhD research at the University of Sheffield. An offshoot of The Gramophone magazine, the N.G.S. had been producing records by subscription since late 1924, issuing complete classical works, mainly chamber music, for which commercial companies saw no market.

In February 1927, the Chicago Gramophone Society announced its own first issue with the proud claim, ‘This is, as far as we know, the first attempt to issue privately in this country any records that are made for the express purpose of suiting the taste of the record collector and connoisseur.’ The Society’s archive has disappeared, so I don’t know on what terms Roberts was engaged and how much she was paid, but it’s my guess that she was invited to propose a work new to disc, and selected the Franck. The Prélude, choral et fugue, filling four 12-inch (30 cm) sides, was recorded on the 11th of April 1927 by the Columbia Company, which pressed 200 sets for the Society’s members.

Two days later, Marion Roberts sailed from New York for Le Havre (also on board was Wanda Landowska), where she was met on the 22nd of April by Meredith. He whisked her back to Paris in his car and introduced her to his landlady, who thought the couple seemed very much in love. But the staff of a restaurant outside Paris, where they drove that same afternoon, sensed tension between them. Roberts refused to eat and only drank coffee, after which they drove into the dusk. She was not seen alive again. Later, the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune relayed a fellow-passenger’s rumour that Roberts had had an affair on the Atlantic crossing. The paper suggested that this, coupled with Meredith’s reported inability to “settle down”, made her break off their engagement. On Meredith’s body was the ring he had previously presented to her.

Does Roberts’ recording have any interest beyond its rarity and tragic circumstances? I firmly believe it does. A contemporary notice called her interpretation of Franck ‘moving and impressive in both conception and execution’, and ‘the work of one who had an insight into composer and composition and the capacity of finding expression for her understanding.’

Jonathan Summers is Curator of Classical Music at the British Library Sound Archive and a historian of piano playing:

It is difficult to listen to this recording without having in mind the tragedy that befell the pianist.  There is no doubt that this is a committed, emotional performance of artistic integrity.  Roberts manages the structure of this extended work very well and underpins the bass throughout; in this she is certainly helped by the high quality of Columbia’s recorded sound.  Her performance stands up very well to the famous 1929 recording by Alfred Cortot and while his may be a little more rhythmically fluid, Roberts invests hers with more of a sense of urgency. During the chorale, you will hear two offstage noises. It is probable that this second and final take was issued, despite the distracting noises, because Roberts’ execution of the top notes of the spread chords, where the left hand crosses over the right, is completely accurate.  Roberts’ recording may have been the impetus for three further recordings within four years.  After Chicago’s pioneering 1927 set, French Columbia recorded Blanche Selva in January 1929, three months before Cortot’s set for HMV.  In July 1931 French Columbia issued another recording, this time by Marcel Maas.  Roberts took 17 minutes and 30 seconds on four 78 rpm sides, but Maas, in a performance of religious nobility, takes 21 minutes and requires five sides, as did Selva.

Marion Roberts recording

César Franck Prélude, choral et fugue
Marion Roberts (piano)
Chicago Gramophone Society discs 50016-P, 50017-P
(matrix numbers W 91729 to 91732)

Finally, the Chicago Gramophone Society’s all too brief partnership with Roberts opens a window onto a strand of American recording history which, perhaps understandably, receives less attention from collectors, academics and the media than vernacular and commercial popular music. The Society was short-lived; after a second issue, two discs of songs by Hugo Wolf, Richard Strauss and John Alden Carpenter, little is known of its activities. Other American classical subscription labels followed, such as The Friends of Recorded Music, whose output I have recently catalogued, and Henry Cowell’s better-documented New Music Quarterly Recordings. They too, like Marion Roberts, can be celebrated and enjoyed as part of America’s musical heritage.

Steffano Marion Roberts Chicago Sunday Tribune, VolLXXXVI No17, Sunday 24 April 1927, Final Edition, p6

Acknowledgements

My thanks go to discographer Michael H. Gray, for ascertaining the recording’s date and take numbers (-2, -2, -1, -2); and to Professor Judith Tick, whose authoritative biography Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music, New York / Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, contains valuable information about Roberts, who was Crawford’s fellow-student.

 

03 June 2016

Peter Kennedy Archive

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As part of an AHRC Cultural Engagement project grant awarded to City University and partially funded by the National Folk Music Fund, ethnomusicologist Andrew Pace, has engaged in a project to catalogue thousands of paper and photographic files from Peter Kennedy’s collection of British and Irish folk music held at the British Library.

This month we have launched a unique website - www.peterkennedyarchive.org - in which listeners can retrace the chronology and geographical routes of Kennedy's extensive field recording activity. In the text below, Andrew describes the project and walks us through the website's main features.

PR0925
Peter Kennedy interviewing Edgar Button. Thebburton, Suffolk, 1956 [PR0925]

Peter Kennedy was one of the most prolific collectors of British and Irish folk music and customs from the 1950s up until his death in 2006. Working closely with other collectors of his generation, such as Alan Lomax, Sean O’Boyle and Hamish Henderson, he recorded hundreds of traditional performers ‘in the field’, including Margaret Barry, Fred Jordan, Paddy Tunney, Harry Cox, Frank and Francis McPeake and Jack Armstrong. In 2008 his collection came under the care of the World and Traditional Music section of the British Library.

I’ve been working on Peter’s sizeable collection periodically since 2010, cataloguing thousands of audio tapes and photographs of traditional performers and uploading some of this material to Sounds. In fact, just this month an additional 500 photographs and 70 audio recordings from Peter’s collection have been added to the existing collection available online. 

025I-MSMUS1771X1X-0201A0
Bob Copper, John Copper, Ron Copper and Jim Cooper photographed by Peter Kennedy in Rottingdean, Sussex, 1950s [025I-MSMUS1771X1X-0201A0]

However, Peter’s paper files, comprising song texts, scores, contracts, draft manuscripts and a large amount of correspondence between himself and performers, collectors, institutions and enquirers, hadn’t been catalogued. This is the task that I’ve been undertaking since January. All of these papers will be uploaded to the Library’s catalogue in due course.

Amongst these papers I discovered 31 reports written by Peter for the BBC’s ‘Folk Music and Dialect Recording Scheme’, a project on which he was working during the 1950s. Across 180 typewritten pages, Peter describes his daily itinerary recording traditional performers around the UK and Ireland between 1952 and 1962. Full of anecdotes and insightful information about the musicians he recorded - including confirmation of when and where he recorded them - these documents reveal a great deal about Peter’s fieldwork during this period.

I decided to use these reports as the basis for a new website which brings these narratives together with all of the audio recordings and photographs from Peter’s collection that have been digitised so far: www.peterkennedyarchive.org.

These reports feature ‘hotspots’ placed over the names of the more than 650 musicians that Peter recorded during these trips. Clicking on the name of a performer reveals any sound recordings or photographs taken of them by Peter on that particular day that are available to view and listen to on Sounds. Additionally, links to entries in the British Library’s catalogue are provided for any related material that hasn’t yet been digitised, such as Peter’s tapes or BBC transcription discs.

What makes this website unique is the way it contextualises recordings and photographs of performers with Peter’s own notes about them. Whilst the British Library’s catalogue is useful as a search tool, it doesn’t reveal how a collection was formed and developed – and it doesn’t tell us very much about who created it. This new website gives us a better idea of what’s in this collection by refocusing attention on Peter as a recordist and reconstituting his material into a form that better resembles how he created it.

I hope www.peterkennedyarchive.org will prove useful to researchers and musicians alike and encourage more people to explore Peter’s collection at the British Library. As more of his field recordings are digitised and attached to the site, it should become an increasingly valuable resource

- Andrew Pace

Find out more about the work of the British Libary's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

 

24 April 2016

The 1916 Easter Rising: Sound and Memory

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The Easter Rising, which began on 24th April 1916 and lasted for six days, is remembered both positively and negatively as the revolt which gave rise to the Irish Republic and modern Irish Republicanism. It saw some hundreds of nationalists and socialists attempt through armed insurrection to secure an Irish Republic separate from the British Empire. 2016 sees the 100th anniversary of the Rising.

T117Like other centenarian commemorations, several notable anniversaries have preceded them and by chance during preservation digitisation this year, I came across a radio documentary in the British Library’s collections, broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 21st April 1966 and recorded to tape, off-air, featuring a compilation of stories and insights of the survivors and associates of the rising, narrated by Robin Holmes for the occasion of the 50th anniversary.

The broadcast opens with the same declaration as the rising began - the Proclamation of the Irish Republic - from the text as read by Patrick Pearse from the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin: ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland…’

Proclamation of the Irish Republic (extract)

The Rising is explained through such personalities as Pearse, James Connolly, Tom Clarke and Constance Markiewicz. They represent an amazing contrast of characters, described as nationalists, socialists, trade unionists, and suffragists, but united by ‘purity of intent’ in freeing Ireland.

The general impression conveyed through the recording is a heroic though poorly planned attempt, lacking weapons, coordination and almost any military strategy. The Irish celebrations of 1966 attempted to cement the struggle as a myth of origin for Ireland. The positive echoes this received in Britain via the broadcast of the documentary on the BBC are interesting when looked at historically. The memory of terrorism and violence had gone by 1966: it was acceptable for both Ireland and Britain to view the uprising as a heroic foundation for Ireland; Ireland having large national celebrations.

The change was with the beginning of the Troubles in 1969. Thereafter Irish Republicanism became associated with violence, sectarianism and terrorism. It was from the fires of the Rising that the Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army, and Irish Republican Brotherhood formed as the Irish Republican Army and with the enduring desire for a unified Irish Republic. This is how the majority in Britain connected these events after 1969, as did many in the Irish establishment and therefore wanted no connection with them, even going as far as cancelling the 60th celebrations.

This recording stands as a point between the changing narratives, and silence, of British and Irish memories of the Rising, and can be used to understand the reasons for these shifts. What happened on Easter 1916 and how it has shaped Irish development is not a case of plain facts but how it has been remembered and interpreted and by who changes the narrative and will continue to change with new generations and interpretations.

John Berry, Preservation Assistant, Sound & Vision Technical Services

 

18 February 2016

The World of Paul Slickey: John Osborne's musical flop

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1LS0003279_documentation_webOne of the Library’s audio engineers recently transferred a rare 1959 recording of a musical rehearsal of John Osborne’s play The World of Paul Slickey.

The play, subtitled A Comedy of Manners, was a satire on Fleet Street gossip columnists. The production was directed by Osborne himself, with music by Christopher Whelen, choreography by Kenneth MacMillan and set design by Hugh Casson.

Paul Slickey premiered at the Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth, 14 April 1959, and moved to the Palace Theatre in London on 5 May. Both critics and public detested it. The reviews were a mixture of indignation and anger.

Milton Shulman from the Evening Standard wrote:

       The first night audience at The World of Paul Slickey, by John Osborne, at the Palace, seemed to be about equally divided between those who loathed it politely and those who hated it audibly....the most raucous note of displeasure heard in the West End since the war.

Janet Hamilton-Smith’s review headline for The Times was ‘Extraordinarily Dull World of Paul Slickey’.

Thirty years later, Osborne wrote in his memoirs, ‘I must be the only playwright this century to have been pursued up a London street by an angry mob’.

He also said that the only thing he regretted about the whole affair was rejecting Sean Connery for the role of Slickey:

        I made a monumental misjudgement by dismissing Sean Connery, who turned up one morning looking like my prejudiced idea of a Rank contract actor. It was a lamentable touch of Royal Court snobbery.

Listen to Dennis Lotis singing 'I'm just a guy called Paul Slickey' (excerpt)

The World of Paul Slickey rec

The World of Paul Slickeyweb

If you wish to know more about the play and its reception, the British Library is your one-stop source, where you can access the recordings, and also consult the play’s manuscript, the autobiography of John Osborne and the press reviews of the play.

Audio recordings: BL ref. 1LS0003278-79, 1LL0014340

Manuscripts: Lord Chamberlain plays collection – play-script: BL ref. 1959/15 and Lord Chamberlain - correspondence BL ref. 1959/1836

John Osborne’s memoirs: Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography: volume II, 1955-196, Chapter 14 ‘A Night to Remember’: BL ref. YK.1993.a.1176.

Press reviews: British Library Newsroom (on microfilms) and onsite Electronic Resources & Journals

Find out more about the British Library's Sound Archive and our Save Our Sounds programme #SaveOurSounds

Stay tuned with the British Library's Drama and Literature Recordings on @BL_DramaSound

23 October 2015

Africa Writes vox pops: What’s new about West African Literature?

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Africa Writes blog

Africa Writes vox pops is a new collection of 32 video interviews made at the Africa Writes festival 4-5 June, 2015. See BL reference C1705.

Africa Writes is an annual literature and book festival organized by the Royal African Society in partnership with the British Library. 

The interviews were filmed by the British Library in collaboration with Afrikult to produce a short film now on show at the British Library's new exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song co-curated by Marion Wallace and Janet Topp Fargion.

The collection comprises the raw unedited footage of 32 five-to-ten minute interviews, including set-ups, tests for focus, cutaway shots etc. Highlights can be viewed in the exhibition. The videos capture Africa Writes’ international audience of readers discussing contemporary trends in West African literature.

Participants were asked what is new and exciting about West African literature; how West African literature has changed since Chinua Achebe’s generation of writers; how West African literature connects with people's experiences in Africa and the diaspora today; what role do women play in West African literature; and how could West African literature be described in just three words. The results of the final question are expressed in the word cloud shown below.

Wordle 3__

The interviewees agreed unanimously that West African literature has contributed to their lives by helping them to shape their identities and to make sense of their experiences of migration, diaspora and transculturation. Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie topped the list of recommended authors.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is seen as great empowerer of women and an inspiration for the young. Women are considered more prominent in West African literature than ever, not just as characters, but as writers too.

The value of this collection goes beyond the subject of West African literature, delving into what literature means, how it resonates with its readers and how it has helped Africans to reclaim their own history and to engage with the diaspora.

Several interviewees touched on how social media helps to connect writers, publishers and audiences, making African literature more visible and internationally accessible.

The digital space has also helped to circumvent restrictions on publishing in languages besides the hegemonic English and French, providing opportunities to authors who write in West African languages. Furthermore it has expanded the possibilities for online publishing in general and for multilingual and multimedia e-publications such as the Valentine's Day Anthology 2015  of short stories, published by Ankara Press, which includes audio readings by the authors and can be downloaded for free.

When asked what would they like to see more of in the future interviewees' thematic concerns were heterogeneous, including topics and genres such as queer, different gender dynamics and disability stories, thrillers, crime fiction, romance, pop culture, traditional stories, science fiction and non-fiction.

If you haven't read much West African literature and don't know where to start this vox pops collection will set you up. And if you were already into West African literature it will probably help you to expand your reading list until the next Africa Writes festival in 2016. 

A big thanks to the 33 interviewees and Afrikult members: Zaahida Nalumoso, Henry Brefo and Marcelle Akita. And please come to the exhibition which is on until 16 February 2015.