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13 April 2018

T.M. Johnstone’s Modern South Arabian recordings: collaborative cataloguing and ‘footprints’ of biocultural change in Southern Arabia

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Audio cataloguer Dr Alice Rudge writes:

Thomas Muir Johnstone made many recordings during his research trips to the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s, some of which are of endangered and unwritten languages. The British Library now houses these open reel and cassette tapes, which were acquired from Durham University Library in 1995. The collection is archived within the World and Traditional Music collection with the reference C733. As part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, these tapes have now been digitised and are being catalogued. The cataloguing of the tapes in this collection containing Modern South Arabian languages was made possible through a collaborative process, which revealed not only the content of the tapes, but also the webs of intertwining stories and lives that they document. 

Abdul Qadr
T.M. Johstone sits with Abdul Qadr, the head of education in Dhofar at the time. He admired Johnstone for his beautiful Arabic handwriting (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Johnstone had a talent for languages from an early age, learning to speak Polish as a schoolboy, before settling on Arabic (in particular the Gulf dialects) as the language to which he would devote much of his career. However, his work was also invaluable for the documentation and description of Modern South Arabian languages, in particular Mehri, Shehret and Harsusi. He often worked long-term with particular speakers such as ‘Ali Musallam, who in fact spent many months living in London so that Johnstone could continue to work with him. In 1967, Johnstone was also part of a joint civilian and army expedition to the island of Soqotra. Johnstone was the group’s linguist, and accompanying him were also archaeologists, geologists, and botanists (the trip is documented in Doe 1992).  

Map
Map showing the distribution of Modern South Arabian languages in Yemen and Oman. Cartography by Ulrich Seeger. Used with kind permission from the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian team.

The Modern South Arabian languages Harsusi, Mehri, Shehret, Hobyot, Bathari, and Soqotri are distinct from Arabic. They are spoken in Yemen (including the island of Soqotra) and Oman, as well as elsewhere in the Gulf. Whereas Arabic is from the Northern branch of the Afro-asiatic language family, Modern South Arabian languages are from the Southern branch. Each of these languages are endangered, and are undergoing rapid change in response to urbanisation and the ever-increasing use of the dominant contact language, Arabic, in younger generations. This process of language loss was already happening during Johnstone’s fieldwork, and is continuing now. Modern South Arabian languages are also purely oral languages, with no formal script, making the sound archive’s preservation of these recordings vital for documenting the languages as they were spoken by individuals at that moment in time. As they are unwritten languages, recordings are the only documents.

When beginning to catalogue the recordings containing Modern South Arabian languages, the language barrier impeded us from making them accessible, as to us the content was often unidentifiable. In order to give due care and attention to the cataloguing of this significant and at-risk collection of recordings, we were therefore fortunate to be able to call on the expertise of Prof. Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris.

Prof. Janet Watson is Leadership Chair for Language at Leeds University. She works on the documentation of Modern South Arabian languages, alongside Arabic dialectology, phonology, and morphology. She is also a fellow of the British Academy. Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri is a speaker of Mehri, and also understands Harsusi and Shehret. Based in Oman, he collaborates closely with Janet, and has co-published papers with her. Dr Miranda Morris, St Andrews University, has been doing extensive fieldwork in Southern Arabia (including Soqotra) for many years, and has researched and published comprehensively on oral literature and on the ethnobotany of the area. She also worked closely with Johnstone in the past, as he was the supervisor for her PhD at SOAS. They all collaborate on the Leverhulme Trust-funded Modern South Arabian languages project, a three-year community-based project which aims to document the Modern South Arabian languages spoken in Yemen and Oman.

Not only were Janet, Abdullah and Miranda able to contribute their expertise towards our cataloguing work, providing us with information on the languages used in the recordings, the content of the recordings, and in some cases the names of the speakers, they were also able to illuminate a profound sense of the time and place in which the recordings were made through their extensive background knowledge – and to situate this within the current context of rapid language and environmental change in the area.

Indeed, environmental and language loss tend to go hand in hand – with the most linguistically diverse parts of the world tending to also be the most ecologically diverse. When the landscape changes, the language we have to describe it also disappears. The Modern South Arabian languages which Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda speak and work on are rich in evocative metaphors and similies that are connected to the particular landscape of the area. For example, if a man is described as axahēh sīmar ‘he looks like a mar tree’, he is compared to the Boscial Arabica tree, a tree of the desert and drier mountains that looks like an ‘opened umbrella’. In other words, he is characterised by his ‘height, uprightness, slenderness and a shock of hair’ (Morris, p.c., Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95).

In some cases, particular words used to describe the environment are ‘grammaticalised’ – changing from having a meaning as words on their own, to also taking on a grammatical function. For example, in Mehri, the word śaff (śɛf in Shehret) means ‘animal track’, or ‘footprint’. This word, however, has also been historically grammaticalised – and is now used as the particle śaf, having the sense of ‘it transpired’, ‘as it happened’, ‘really’ (Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95). This particle is a kind of metaphorical extension of the noun śaff (‘footprint, animal track’) that now resonates beyond its original, literal meaning, to encode a sense of surprise, or revelation, that something has turned out to be as it has - just like an animal’s footprints reveal an indisputable trace of what or who has passed by. As Janet and Abdullah put it ‘from sight someone might believe that they are following a camel from one herd, but on close examination of tracks [śaff] discover they are tracking a camel from a different herd’ (Watson & al-Mahri 2017:95). Just like tracks reveal someone or something’s true identity or nature, therefore, the particle śaf describes this sense of revelation and surprise that transpires from new information or evidence.

Camel track
A photo of a camel track, taken by Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri, and used with kind permission.

 

Camels
A photo taken by Johnstone of camels in the Negd. They are desert camels, so they have thin delicate legs, unlike mountain camels who have thicker legs and more splayed feet (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

This experience of ‘revelation’ was reflected in our own process of cataloguing the collection – where tapes that we thought to be one thing turned out to be another, as their true identity was unlocked and thus revealed by Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda. Some of the tapes were unlabelled, others had been placed in the wrong boxes. Our collaborative work was thus fundamental to ensure these sound recordings are preserved for the future with meaning, not catalogued as ‘unidentified’ or ‘unnamed’ and consequently remaining almost invisible in the Library’s catalogue.

One recording was found by Abdullah and Miranda to be of someone speaking in Hobyot – a language we weren’t previously aware was represented in the collection, but are now able to catalogue accordingly. Another recording in Harsusi was rich in ethnobotanical detail. However, as well as doing the essential work of identifying things like language, speakers, and content, Janet, Miranda, and Abdullah were able to unlock something of the time and place that the recordings were made, and in fact, a common theme of some of the stories in the collection was this very experience of revelation, of something turning out to be something else.

Below are three Soqotri stories, translated and interpreted by Dr Miranda Morris:

[C733/8] ‘Story of two thieves’. The two thieves want to learn about thieving from each other. One has a ‘sword’, the other has some ‘honey’. They each don’t know what the other is doing. The thief with the sword offers for the other to buy it, but the other says he doesn’t have money, only honey. They exchange items – only for the man who thought he would receive a fine sword to find it was only a date palm frond, and the man who was given the honey to find he had been given sticks of excrement. They both laughed and said ‘we’re as bad as each other’.

[C733/3] ‘Story of the fisherman from Momi’. The fisherman is looked after by a lady vulture. He feeds her fish and she looks after the house. He goes out and meets some people who ask him to come out with them – he says he can’t because of his ‘old lady’ back home. They say OK – we’ll come to you. He lights a fire and cooks fish for them. He ends up travelling with them for 2 weeks, and gets lost in a foreign country. He finds another boat, lands in another country, and has to live by begging. A man offers him to come and look after his goats, even though he says he doesn’t know anything about goats. He tells him to look after the camels and date palms – but he doesn’t know how to do that either. Finally he says it doesn’t matter, I’ll look after you and give you clothes and food until you die. That night the fisherman dreamed of home and his old life. A witch appears to him in his sleep, and tells him to go to where the sharks are feeding at dusk - you’ll see the sharks with their mouths open waiting to feed. She tells him to cover his face and wade amongst them. He finds the sharks, does as she says, and in the morning finds himself in his own country… In his house, he finds a woman instead of the vulture…

[C733/1] ‘Story of the man and the jiniyya’. A man left Momi [on the Eastern tip of Soqotra]. He is going to see the Sultan in Hadiboh [the capital]. He goes to the home of the representative of the Sultan. He goes to Kam – where the Sultan’s palace is. He meets him at a famous Christ thorn tree called Gidehem. On the way, a woman he meets seems to know him [this is very common of jiniyya] – they go on together, they lie down to sleep – she says how will we cover ourselves – they use his waist cloth. Underneath, he is naked except for his knives. He says ‘come a bit closer’. He sees her ‘tifr’ [this is the one long fingernail which marks out someone as a jiniyya]. Then he knew that she was a jiniyya. He says ‘go away! I know you!’. He grabs his knives and stick and sleeps elsewhere and then runs away. She chased him all the way home to a house that wasn’t his, where he wakes up a sleeping man. He couldn’t explain himself as he was too stunned. The jiniyya says ‘that man has been rude and he will do no good and he will die’. Then he was dead...

Beach
A photo taken by Johnstone of the beach at Duqm, Oman, now a large development (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

In these Soqotri stories, the ‘sword’, the ‘honey’ the ‘vulture’ and the ‘woman’ all undergo a process of 'revelation', and turn out to be something other than was first thought. Here, a date palm frond, sticks of excrement, a human wife, and a jiniyya. Similarly, Miranda also writes that much Soqotri poetry (which the T.M. Johnstone collection also contains) makes use of a poetic device she translates as 'veiled language', from Soqotri di-ḥarf 'concealed', and di-xīlīyə 'placed beneath'. This is where the true intention of the poet is 'intelligble only to people of superior wit and insight' or to those who 'share some secret knowledge with the poet' (Morris 2013:239). A further parallel, therefore, with the 'revealing' of information in the stories, where things also transpired to be something other than was first thought.

As well as being able to describe the content of the stories to us, Miranda was able to provide us with great detail about the context of the stories and the speakers. The jiniyya was ‘revealed’ as not what the man thought, but also ‘revealed’ was the history of the place Gidehem, mentioned in the story. Miranda told of how the place is named after the famous tree of the same name. Thieves’ hands would be hung in this tree after they had been cut off as a punishment for thieving. The hands would first be boiled in shark oil, then hung up for all to see. Though this no longer happens, the place is still called Gidehem, after the tree.

In another recording from Soqotra, the speaker talks about mekoli (shamanic healers in Soqotra). He talks about how mekoli can help to ‘wash away’ your sickness, by pointing out which woman has done witchcraft on you. He then describes the process by which an accused women would be tried for being a witch: she would have a millstone tied to her neck and then be thrown overboard from a dugout canoe. If she sank, she was innocent. If she floated, she was a witch and sent on the next boat to Sur (in Oman). Miranda was able to translate the speaker talking about these past practices – and also to share her memories of her Soqotri friends recounting their older relatives talking about how this practice came to be abolished.

Children
A photo taken by Johnstone of children on the beach in Oman. One of the children wears a silver earring, suggesting that his mother may have lost a lot of children. The earring attracts witches away from the child, and so keeps him safe (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Working with Janet, Abdullah, and Miranda was therefore invaluable for revealing the 'footprints' not only of the content of the recordings, but also the landscape they grew from – the environmental landscape and the cultural landscape that Johnstone and the speakers he recorded were immersed in, alongside other British colonial activities taking place in Aden. Recording and preserving this knowledge accurately is an essential part of the preservation work we are engaged with in the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. To use Miranda’s words:

‘many of the traditional uses described have undergone modification or have already been lost. One result of recent development on the islands [of Soqotra] is that certain traditions or procedures are now seen as unsuitable or ‘backward’ and at odds with the more conservative views of modern Islam. Other uses and customs are seen as representing a time of desperation and poverty which many would prefer to forget. In this way, the recent rapid changes affecting the islands threaten to obliterate expertise and knowledge that have passed down the generations over hundreds of years’

(Morris & Miller 2004:3)

To return to our footprints metaphor: as Janet and Abdullah describe, many young speakers of Mehri will use the particle śaf in sentences to mean ‘it turned out that’ or 'it was revealed', but are unaware of the link between this word and the social importance of using footprints to track people and animals in the past. This unawareness is likely to be related to the environmental change caused by increasing urbanisation – you don’t use tracks or footprints to discover information when walking on solid asphalt (Ali Ahmad al-Mahri, quoted in Watson & al-Mahri 2017:96).

To help preserve this unique knowledge, therefore, we have been delighted to work with Prof. Janet Watson, Abdullah al-Mahri, and Dr Miranda Morris – and we will further extend this work on the sound recordings of Modern South Arabian languages contained in the the T.M. Johnstone collection by reconnecting them with the speech communities in Soqotra and Oman. This will continue the process of revealing hidden information through the sharing of expertise and knowledge.

Jibjat
Johnstone walks on the plane behind Jibjat in Oman, amongst Chirst thorn trees. This area is now all desert, with no trees (Morris p.c.). Image used with the kind permission of Durham University Library.

Thanks to Professor Janet Watson, Abdullah Musallam al-Mahri and Dr Miranda Morris for their enthusiasm and for adding their insights on the collection. Many thanks also go to curator of World and Traditional music Andrea Zarza Canova, and to members of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project team, for facilitating the research.

The T.M. Johnstone collection can be found by searching the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue with collection call number C733

Copies of Johnstone’s published lexicons can also be found at the British Library:

Mehri, 1987 [YC.1987.a.5434]

Shehret [Jibbali], 1981 [X.950.11437]

Harsusi, 1977 [X989.51585]

References:

Doe, B. 1992. Soqotra: island of tranquillity. London: IMMEL Publishing Ltd.

Miller, A.G. & Morris, M.J. 2004. Ethnoflora of the Soqotra Archipelago. Edinburgh: The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Morris, M.J. 2013. The use of 'veiled language' in Soqoṭri poetry. Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 43: pp. 239-244. 

Watson, J.C.E. & al-Mahri, A.M. 2017. Language and Nature in Dhofar. In Linguistic Studies in the Arabian Gulf. Edited by Simone Bettega and Fabio Gasparaini. Turino: Quaderni di RiCOGNIZIONI, pp. 87-103.

Related links:

Alice Rudge talking with Rowan Campbell and Andrew Booth about the project on the Linguistics at the Library podcast

British Academy podcast in which Prof. Janet Watson discusses the relationship between environmental and linguistic diversity

Friends of Soqotra charity

Deposits of Modern South Arabian linguistic materials can be found at the Endangered Languages Archive

Information on the major, international, community-based project that focusses on the documentation and ethnolinguistic analysis of Modern South Arabian languages, and is coordinated by Dr Janet Watson and funded by the Leverhulme Trust  

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage 

World and Traditional Music collection

British Library Sound Archive on NTS Radio

HLF-english_compact_black

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is a five year project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, that will digitally preserve some of the most vulnerable sound recordings in the UK and establish the ways for our audio heritage to be shared with a wide range of audiences now and in the future. 

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). Aside from Grainger's unpublished sound recordings, the British Library also holds manuscript scores of Grainger’s original compositions and arrangements (Add MS 50867-50887 and Add MS 50823), and a collection of concert programmes relating to performances of his music (MS Mus. 1812). A collection of Grainger’s hectographs is now also available at MS Mus. 1772.

30 November 2017

Is there such a thing as an “old” sound recording?

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Age is relative of course: Compared with Roman coins or Stonehenge, even the oldest sound recordings seem young. This matters when you are arguing for the means to preserve sound recordings, which are seen by some as being too modern to warrant the status of cultural heritage. With that in mind, we’ve just passed a small but interesting milestone.

Contemporary illustration of the recording of Israel In Egypt

The oldest surviving recording of a public musical performance dates back to 29 June 1888, made at the Handel Festival in Crystal Palace, London, held to celebrate the work of the composer who wrote for both King Georges I and II. It features an excerpt from Handel’s Israel in Egypt, performed by an orchestra and choir of literally thousands, and earlier this year was rightly added to the US National Recording Registry in recognition of its cultural, artistic and historical importance. Today, the original wax cylinder resides in the hugely important Edison National Historical Park collection.

The recording was made a little over 129 years after the death of Handel, and so must have seemed at the time like a performance of music from a distant, remote age. As of right now however, an even greater period of time has passed since the recording was made. In other words, the recording itself is now closer to Handel’s time than it is to ours. As more years, decades and centuries pass, it will come to seem more representative of Handel’s era than the era of the listener. Will this change our perception of its age?

Stonehenge was only 129 years old too, once. Part of its cultural value comes from its age, and its age is a by-product of having being preserved throughout its life. Sound recordings on many legacy formats are now critically endangered, due either to degradation, or to the obsolescence of replay equipment. Funding to digitise them isn’t easy to find, and is often contingent on making them available online, which is difficult or impossible when the life of copyright is longer than the shelf life of the physical artefact. The problem is not the duration of copyright; it’s our limited ability to recognise the long-term value and vulnerability of what we have.

We can’t care for old things if we don’t care for them when they are younger. Our sound heritage deserves the chance to grow truly old.

12 April 2017

By preserving our sound heritage now, in the future we can recreate the past

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Sound recordings freeze moments in time: music or theatrical performances, the words spoken by the famous or in everyday speech, or the sounds of our environment. When played back, they allow us to understand, to experience, to be immersed in - to relive - those moments.

Yet preserving sound recordings and making them accessible is a huge challenge, not least because sound recordings can rapidly decay and as technology marches forward, formats quickly become unplayable.

BLCK-SOUND12-small
Many thousands of archived magnetic tapes urgently need digitising

The British Library’s Save Our Sounds programme received a tremendous boost when in 2015 a £9.5 million grant was earmarked by the National Lottery. After months of preparation and assessment, prioritising the most significant at-risk sounds collections around the UK and building a network of 10 collaborating institutions, our ambitious project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is launched today.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage builds on the generous support of other donors and funders, meaning that the total project funding of £18.8 million is now in place. The funding enables the formation of the first ever UK-wide network of ten sound preservation centres. This network will now come together with the British Library to save almost half a million rare and unique recordings.

The funding allows the British Library to lead this major preservation and access project, sharing skills and supporting the ten centres across the UK in order to preserve their own unique and rare regional sounds and make them more accessible to the public.

The Library and its ten partners will invest in a schedule of public engagement activities, including well-being workshops, learning events for families, and tours, events and exhibitions. A vital element of the project will be a new website for listeners to explore a wide selection of recordings. This website is scheduled to go live in 2019.

BLCK-SOUND17-small
Cleaning a shellac disc before digitisation in the British Library’s sound studios

Dr Sue Davies, Project Manager at the British Library commented:

“This project has been a long time in development and, over the last 18 months, we have laid good foundations for the next five years. I am excited to be part of this HLF funded project which will make a huge difference to the care of and use of audio archives across the UK. I am particularly looking forward to working with the ten institutional partners, sharing our skills and making it easier for a wide range of people to engage with recorded sound.”

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, Headley Trust, the British Library Trust and the American Trust for the British Library and other kind donors.

The ten centres that will soon begin work on preserving their regional sounds are: National Museums Northern Ireland, Archives + with Manchester City Council, Norfolk Record Office, National Library of Scotland, University of Leicester, The Keep in Brighton with the University of Sussex, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, National Library of Wales, London Metropolitan Archives, and Bristol Culture.

Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision

More information: 
Save our Sounds
Unlocking our Sound Heritage press release 12/04/17
£9.5m boost from Heritage Lottery Fund for our Save our Sounds campaign
Save our Sounds: 15 years to save the UK’s sound collections

31 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:

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.

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.

 

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.