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53 posts categorized "Digitisation"

22 June 2018

Tracking down Tamás

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By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Tamas Vasary 1Tamás Vásáry at the Hotel Gellert restaurant (photo by Jonathan Summers)

Save our Sounds is the British Library’s programme to preserve the nation’s sound heritage.  Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, many collections will be digitised and made available to the public online through the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

One such is the collection of Hungarian pianist Tamás Vásáry who donated his tape archive of private and broadcast recordings to the British Library Sound Archive in 1994.  Internationally renowned as an interpreter of Chopin and Liszt, at that time he lived in London, so when the project needed to clear rights for his donation I wrote to him at the London address I had on file.  Having received no reply and it being twenty-four years since the donation, I checked the internet for an agent or contact details.  Nothing was to be found, so I asked an elderly Hungarian friend if she knew him as she was a contemporary in Budapest (she being born in 1928, he in 1933).  She did not, but thought she may have a friend who did.  The friend did not either, but reported that Vásáry had moved back to Budapest many years ago.

What to do next?  I asked pianist Leslie Howard if he knew Vásáry from the time he was living in London.  No, but he thought pianist Murray McLaclan knew him.  I emailed Mr McLaclan who did not, but he thought that pianist Peter Frankl definitely knew him.  Mr Frankl responded in the affirmative and, because I had not realised that Mr Frankl was living in London, I asked if I could interview him on his long career for the British Library.  Mr Frankl has known Mr Vásáry for more than 50 years and it was at my interview with him that he offered to talk to Mr Vásáry, because he is not on email and still tours a great deal as a conductor.  Mr Frankl visited Budapest in April and met with Mr Vásáry who kindly gave his permission and signed the relevant forms.

Mr Frankl gave me Mr Vásáry’s mobile phone number and I called to ask if I could interview him for the British Library.  He happily accepted and I went to Budapest a few weeks ago and met him.  

JS CorinthiaJonathan Summers in Budapest

As a child my local record shop stocked the best classical records including many on the Deutsche Grammophon label so I grew up listening to most of Chopin’s works played by Mr Vásáry.

DG LP-page-001editVásáry at the height of his career in 1965 (1LP0175910 BL collections)

Jamie Owen, Intellectual Property Rights Co-ordinator writes:

We are very excited indeed to have made contact with Tamás Vásáry. The collection that Mr Vásáry donated to the British Library in 1994 represents the first, under the ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project, to have  been both digitally preserved and to have agreements in place for a number of his recordings to be made publicly accessible once the project's website goes live next spring.

The British Library, in conjunction with ten partner organisations across the UK is aiming, through the Heritage Lottery funded  ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project, to digitally preserve over half a million of the UK’s most important and at-risk audio recordings. We are hoping to make 100,000 of these recordings available through a website hosted by the British Library. More information on the project can be found here.

Here is an extract from Vásáry’s collection.  It is of his debut at the Proms on 25th July 1961 when he played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat with the London Symphony Orchestra and John Pritchard.  The fourth movement is one of the shortest in the entire piano concerto repertoire at only four minutes.  The London audience was impressed and the applause continued for more than two minutes.

Vasary Liszt Concerto extract (C615/6)

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical

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05 June 2018

London dialect in pop music

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Spoken English writes:

The mixed reception among my children and their peers to Arctic Monkeys’ sixth studio album, Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino, is, I suspect, the equivalent of my Kid A moment. I’m probably not qualified to contribute to the debate on the album’s artistic merit, but the continued evolution in Alex Turner’s singing style struck me as linguistically significant in that he now reveals much less of his Sheffield identity.

As noted in a previous blog post it is pretty rare in mainstream pop music to detect a regional accent, but Turner was at one time a notable exception. However, in a British context, perhaps not surprisingly, London has arguably featured more prominently than elsewhere in British popular music culture from music hall (Gus Elen singing oh it really is a wery pretty garden in ‘If It Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses in Between’ [1931]), through musical theatre (Stanley Holloway singing wiv a little bit of bloomin' luck in ‘My Fair Lady’ [1964]) to contemporary pop, rock and hip hop.

Like most British acts the vast majority of London artists tend to adopt a more conventional ‘transatlantic’ pop voice when singing (listen to David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ [1981] or Adele’s ‘All I Ask’ [2015] and you’ll hear dance and ask sung with a short vowel, which contrasts with the long vowel they and other Londoners use when speaking spontaneously). Unlike most British dialects, though, there is a substantial back catalogue of pop music performed in an instantly recognisable London accent and a quick glance at one example per decade since the 1960s offers glimpses of typical elements of London pronunciation and insight into change over time.

1960s: ‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’ by the Small Faces [1968]: contains echoes of music hall Cockney; notable features include my pronounced like ‘me’, TH-fronting (with pronounced as ‘wiv’) and the vowel quality in nice (‘noyce’) in the opening line oh wouldn’t it be nice to get on with my neighbours

1970s: ‘Cool for Cats’ by Squeeze [1979] is crammed full of London cultural references; notable features include H-dropping and TH-fronting (Heathrow pronounced as ‘Eafrow’) and frequent T-glottaling (the substitution of a glottal stop for the <t> in ninety, got, get and at) in the line the Sweeney's doing ninety cause they've got the word to go they get a gang of villains in a shed up at Heathrow

1980s: ‘Rabbit’ by Chas & Dave [1981] combines music-hall humour and pub sing-along conventions in a style affectionately dubbed ‘rockney’; notable features include H-dropping (heart pronounced as ‘art’), yod-dropping (knew pronounced as ‘noo’) and an older dialectal pronunciation of off (rhyming with ‘morph’) in the line now you was just the kind of girl to break my heart in two I knew right off when I first clapped my eyes on you

1990s: ‘Parklife’ by Blur [1994] is a portrayal of contemporary London life in which Damon Albarn adopts a more markedly London accent in his singing style, unfairly dismissed by some commentators as ‘mockney’; notable features include my pronounced like ‘me’, a glottalised <p> sound in cup of tea, H-dropping and the distinctive vowel sound in house (‘aahse’) in the line, delivered by actor Phil Daniels, I put my trousers on have a cup of tea and I think about leaving the house

2000s: ‘Defeat You’ by N-Dubz [2006] is one of many 21st century songs that captures Multicultural London English (MLE), a distinctive blend of established London forms and features from British Asian, British Caribbean and non-native speaker varieties; ‘traditional’ Cockney features include T-glottaling and L-vocalisation (the substitution of an ‘oo’-like vowel for the <l> sound so that royalty sounds something like ‘roy-oo’y’) in the line you ain’t gonna see no royalty cheques; Caribbean English features are apparent in pronoun exchange (I for ‘me’) and word final consonant cluster reduction (vex for ‘vexed’) in the line you don’t wanna see I vex; while the invariant tag innit in the opening line listen to I innit is thought to have originated in British Asian speech communities.

2010s: The latest singer to excite my dialectologist’s ears is Croydon-born Whitgift and Brit School old boy, Loyle Carner. The single ‘No CD’ from his Mercury Award nominated debut album, Yesterday’s Gone [2017], is lyrically a fascinating mix of well-established Cockney, imported vernacular and extremely current slang that neatly reflects London’s vibrant cultural mix, delivered in an extremely authentic, contemporary accent that is relatively classless, socially and ethnically ambiguous and yet – geographically – unmistakeably London as is immediately apparent in the opening lines:

DD00006998 Loyle Carner NO CD

Loyle Carner Yesterday's Goneay ay oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

it's like oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

we saying oh please we ain't got no P's because we spent all our money on some old CDs

we got some old Jay Zs couple ODBs place ‘em up in perfect order

cause my OCD won't let me keep it I never speak it and keep it a secret

it be peak if any geezer would hear it and then repeat it

so we keep it keeping out of reach from all the eejits

if you need it best believe it you won't seek it

locked up in my room deep cocoon like you're digging in crates

already done with your digging so your digging is bait

Carner, L & R. Kleff. 2017. No CD. Loyle Carner ft. Rebel Kleff. Yesterday’s Gone. [LP]. UK: Universal, AMF 0007. BL Shelfmark: DD00006998

Loyle Carner Field DayNotable lexical items: geezer [= ‘chap/fellow’] is recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from 1885, but is, I suspect, nowadays most closely associated with speakers from London, while eejit [= ‘fool/idiot’], listed from 1853, is categorised as ‘Anglo-Irish dialect’; this celebration of established vernacular forms blends seamlessly with current urban slang forms like P [= ‘penny/pound’ i.e. ‘money’], peak [= ‘unpleasant’] and bait [= ‘obvious’], none of which has yet made it into the OED, but all three are recorded in Green’s Dictionary of Slang as 21st century British coinages and included in Wikipedia’s London slang glossary.

Notable grammatical constructions: alongside lexical markers, Carner uses non-standard grammatical forms such as ain’t [= ‘have PRESENT NEGATIVE’] which he combines with no to form a double negative (we ain’t got no P’s). Although the use of ain’t as an invariant negative for both ‘be’ and ‘have’, and indeed multiple negation, exist in numerous varieties of English around the world, they are both clearly productive markers of present-day London dialect as confirmed by the analogous construction (you ain’t never seen no royalty cheques) in ‘Defeat You’ noted above. Carner also adopts a narrative device, quotative be like (it's like oh please we ain't got no P's), that is extremely common among young English speakers worldwide as a means of introducing reported speech and a phenomenon that has received considerable attention among academic linguists.

Notable pronunciation features: in common with many of the singers included here, Carner exhibits L-vocalisation (old pronounced like ‘oh-ood’ and couple pronounced like ‘cupp-oo’) and consistently uses T-glottaling in word final position (ain’t, spent, got, keep it, speak it, secret, hear it, repeat it, need it, believe it, seek it, bait).

While none of these features individually is unique to London English, the combination is typical of many young Londoners and shows how the British Library’s sound archives – spoken voice and music alike – are a wonderful linguistic resource. Our Unlocking our Sound Heritage project and investment in new technology in collaboration with the music industry to enable us to receive music in digital formats means even more London music will be available to linguists and other researchers now and in the future. Let’s hope, like Loyle Carner fans last weekend, they end up having a field day.

04 June 2018

Recording of the week: the orchestral power of embroidery machines

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This week's selection comes from Lucia Cavorsi, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Serious/Speakout was a UK promotion company to which artists submitted their demo tapes when seeking performance opportunities during the 1990s.

This particular recording features an excerpt of Concerto for Percussion and Embroidery Machine. It world premiered at Warwick Festival in 1991 and was composed and performed by musician Matthew Griffiths, the now CEO of Youth Music.

Matthew Griffiths

Fascinated by the idea of making art out of daily life objects (especially the traditionally gender specific ones), I contacted Matthew and asked him to tell me more about it.

So here’s the story: Matthew graduated as a solo percussionist in 1989. The then Artistic Director of the Warwick Festival, Richard Phillips, introduced him to Robert Hornby, the Director of Bryant & Tucker. This was an embroidery company in Leamington Spa that produced badges for companies using, at the time, state of the art computerised embroidery machines which were very loud and very rhythmic. After the enthralling visit to the factory, Robert Hornby commissioned the percussionist to compose a new work for the Warwick Festival and Matthew suggested creating a composition utilising the sounds of the machines.

The theme of the 1991 Festival was Prokofiev, so the Bryant & Tucker machines were programmed to create a unique badge portraying ‘Peter and the Wolf ‘ as a memento for the audience to take away after the performance. To do this, the machines had to run for about thirty minutes creating a variety of cross rhythms, juddering sounds and ‘white noise’ as they created the badge. The sounds were notated and the musician and the programmer worked together to focus on the sounds that were musically most interesting. These were then incorporated into the computer programme for the badge production. This became the orchestral accompaniment with Matthew playing live percussion over the top as the concerto soloist. The multi-percussion set up included a marimba, vibraphone, timbales, cymbals and bells and it was played in front of the one massive embroidery machine in the factory before a sold out audience.

Excerpt of Concerto for Percussion and embroidery machine (C728/684)

The performance only happened once.

The idea subsequently won an award from ABSA (Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts) for the most innovative sponsorship by a small business.

This recording is part of the Serious Speakout Demo Tapes collection (C728) which has been digitally preserved as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

Follow @lcavorsi, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news. Many thanks to Matthew Griffiths for his assistance with this piece.

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.

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Cleaning a shellac disc before digitisation in the British Library’s sound studios

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

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

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

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

Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision

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

31 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.