THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

9 posts categorized "Literature"

03 July 2017

Recording of the week: Wioletta Greg reads her poetry

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This week's selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary & Creative Recordings.

Polish poet and writer Wioletta Greg has attracted critical praise for her coming-of-age tale Swallowing Mercury, which was published in January this year by Portobello Books. For this week's 'Recording of the Week' we offer a unique recording of Wioletta reading her poetry, made by the British Library in 2012 at the poet's home on the Isle of Wight. The reading is in Polish, with English translations made and read by Marek Kazmierski. 

Wioletta Greg reading_C1340/79

Wioletta-Greg

This recording is part of Between Two Worlds: Poetry and Translation, an ongoing Arts Council-funded audio recording project conducted by the British Library in collaboration with the poet Amarjit Chandan.

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

20 June 2017

A conversation: celebrating the donation of the Hay Festival archive

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To celebrate their anniversary the Hay Festival, led by Director Peter Florence, has generously donated the archive of some 5000 audio recordings, 2000 video recordings, and many folders of correspondence. Here, Head of Contemporary British Collections Richard Price reflects on the Festival and its archive.

Digital-Audio-Tape

Thirty years ago, the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts began life as a conversation round a kitchen table. Actors Norman Florence and Rhoda Lewis were talking with their 23-year old son, Peter Florence, about the possibilities of live literature, of the extra life books can have when their authors are discussing them with a live audience. Was there room in the literary calendar for a new literature festival? They thought probably yes, and they thought right: thirty years later, from its modest beginnings in improvised spaces in the Welsh borders town of Hay-on-Wye, the Hay Festival is now one of the largest literary festivals in the UK.

You can go too far with the word ‘conversation’ – it has become a cliché of cultural criticism that a book is ‘in conversation’ with another earlier book, this painting ‘in dialogue’ with another. And is a reader really ‘in conversation’ with the book they are reading? -- this to my mind just slightly misrenders that mysterious relationship between a reader and literature.  Even interactive apps can’t really have a dialogue with their users, and a traditional book can’t really, either.  But that is one of the glories of a reader’s relationship with a book: the conversation is all in the reader’s head. One of the joys of reading is the peaceful stimulation of internal ‘voices’ which reading entails.

A festival is more clearly a two-way conversation -- or a series of ones . It is a gathering to share word and thought and enthusiasm, and to pass all that literate energy on, to learn through interchange (yes, authors do learn from their audiences – it’s not a one-way transaction); to inspire.  A festival is one of the few places where author and audience can actually meet and talk about the ideas a writer has dwelt with for many years, labouring to create their book. Members of the public will relish that opportunity (and the opportunity to meet other readers) but for many writers it is also a time when they can step out of their normal solitude and see at first hand the effect their writing has had on other people.

Over the years, the Festival has played host to almost every UK writer or public intellectual with a significant public profile. Writers featured in the archive are far too numerous to name but include Maya Angelou, Orhan Pamuk, Hanif Kureishi, Will Self, Karl Ove Knausgård, Dave Eggers, Ben Okri, George Szirtes, Germaine Greer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Carlos Fuentes, Laurent Binet, Ruth Rendell, Arnold Wesker, Margaret Atwood, Susan Sontag, Paul Muldoon, Doris Lessing, Edna O'Brien, Jackie Collins … and the list goes on.  Artists and musicians include Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Brian Eno, Billy Bragg, Grayson Perry, and Gilbert & George.

The Library holds many discrete collections of audio recordings of public and literary talks. These include talks recorded at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), the writers' organization PEN International, and the Royal Society of Literature. The Hay Festival collection, however, greatly exceeds in scale all of these collections put together.

Clearly, Hay is a major player in the literary part of the creative economy. Although the archive is bound to be used for the light it sheds on individual authors – and hundreds of authors have appeared at Hay - it is also likely to be a source for understanding how festivals can generate success and sales.

Researchers at the British Library will find the Hay archive a rich source in that regard, and they will also be able to use our other resources alongside the archive to get a fuller understanding of literary production. Fiction or poetry captured in a book has already been through all kinds of dialogue before it reaches the printed page. The writer’s real-life conversations with friends, family, other writers, his or her editor, mentors, school days teachers, new teachers, colleagues and even strangers past and present, all will have affected the production of a short story or a novel or a poem.

The Library’s Author’s Lives oral history programme (in partnership with National Life Stories) tries to capture the hidden life of the writer and their work. We interview acclaimed writers at length – the interviews take place over several days – taking them back through their lives in a way that can sharply elucidate the work they would later produce. In our contemporary manuscripts collections we acquire authors’ notebooks, diaries and letters to, again, build a richer picture of the writer and their world.

And then finally there it is: the finished published work, going out multiply to readers of all kinds. Our Legal Deposit collection of UK and Irish books, in which a copy of almost everything published in these territories is held at the British Library, helps preserve the immense creativity of these islands as represented in those literary traditions.

The Hay Festival archive will complement these collections by focussing on the continuing life of the book after its physical entity – Hay is about readings of the work itself and discussions of the feelings and ideas literature and other works conjure. The Hay archive bears witness to authors who have shaped the literary landscape of recent times – Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, James Kelman, and Beryl Bainbridge, to name just a few. Politics and science are also part of the Hay worldview, and so Jimmy Carter, Mary Warnock, Germaine Greer and Mo Mowlam are there – all figures who in their various ways are fundamental to an understanding of modern times, and, no doubt, to the continuing conversations of future generations.

28 February 2017

Moomins music

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

Moomins-first-edition-cover

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

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

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

Moomins-music-products

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

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

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

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

12 December 2016

Recording of the week: 'Winter' by Vita Sackville-West

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This week's seasonal selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary & Creative Recordings.

Listen to Vita Sackville-West reading 'Winter' from her book-length poem The Land, excerpted from a two-disc set published by the International Educational Society in 1931. Following the format of the book, each of the four 78 rpm sides is titled after one of the four seasons. The poem is in the traditional pastoral mode, taking the natural world and its rustic denizens as its subject. The print version had been published by Heinemann in 1926 and had won the following year's Hawthornden Prize for Imaginative Literature. In 1933 Sackville-West was to be awarded the prize a second time, for her Collected Poems.

Winter, from The Land by Vita Sackville-West

Winter-mood-113325_1920

All four parts of Sackville-West's "The Land" can be found in Early Spoken Word Recordings on British Library Sounds

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

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.

30 April 2016

The Poetry Periscope Project

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If you walk these days through the British Library Piazza, you will spot a striking yellow tube standing near the front entrance. It brings to mind yellow submarines and periscopes. Step closer and you will learn it is in fact a ‘Poetry Periscope’, inviting you to press one of its buttons – do so and you will be rewarded with the recording of one of 30 European poems in either its original language or in English. Developed as a sound installation by Czech organization Piana na ulici and Czech Centre London, in collaboration with the British Library and The Poetry Society, The Poetry Periscope is a part of the European Literature Festival 2016 taking place at the British Library and other UK venues. 

'The Poetry Periscope is not only about poetry. It is also (about giving) an example of how an individual can contribute to a public space to please people', says project creator Ondřej Kobza.

Pp_newsletter blog

 

Poetry Periscope Project_ blog

The British Library Piazza will host the Poetry Periscope for four weeks (27 April – 19 May), and you can join us on Tuesday 3 May (18.30–19.30) for the official launch. It’s a free event with poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan and live readings of poems from across Europe, read by UK poets Richard Scott, Gabriel Akamo and Charlotte Higgins with special guest readings by Michal Habaj (Slovakia).

Ondřej Buddeus (Czech Republic):

I am thirty-five I am thirty-five. I am very happy.

I have an intelligent and faithful wife

after ten years of a nice relationship

I got married. That was five years ago.

I have no children, mortgage, empathy,

nor other debts. I have an education, a fine sense

for the arts, and natural self-confidence.

I ain’t bothered. I am very happy.

I would now like to give thanks

to my wife, to God and the state. Thank you.

I am thirty-six. I am very happy.

(Translated from Czech by Tereza Novická; poem is due to be published in 2016.)

The Poetry Periscope (known also as the Poetry Jukebox) has been developed in the Czech Republic by “Piána na ulici” (Pianos on the Street), a Prague-based organisation focusing on public space interventions. The first Periscope was installed in March 2015 in Prague and since then Poetry Periscopes have been installed all over the world – from Kiev to New York – and now it has arrived in the UK. Don’t miss your chance to encounter the richness and diversity of European poetry before the Periscope sets off on tour to a number of festivals and venues around the country, including Brighton, Birmingham, Ledbury and Durham. Written by Katerina Siegelova, Czech Centre London & European Literature Festival

18 April 2016

Shakespeare and the Nightingale

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The works of Shakespeare contain many references to the sounds of the natural world, whether that be the ominous notes of a Raven in Henry VI or the "tu-whit, to-who" of a Tawny Owl in Love's Labour's Lost

One bird that appears in several of Shakespeare's plays and poems is the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). A source of inspiration for writers and poets across the ages, this small, plain-looking bird is best known for its exquisite voice that can often be heard just as other birds are starting to fall silent for the night. The Nightingale was once a common summer visitor to the British countryside, so it's likely that its beautiful song would have been a familiar sound to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the fairy queen Titania commands her subjects to sing her to sleep before commencing their nocturnal duties. The fairies call on the Philomel, a colloquial name for the Nightingale, to use his sweet tunes to send their queen to sleep:

Philomel, with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Never harm,
Nor spell nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So good night, with lullaby.

A Midsummer Night's Dream ( 2:2 663-669)

Once asleep, the fairy king Oberon squeezes the juice of a magical flower onto Titania's closed eyelids that will make her fall in love with the first living thing she sees upon waking, which just so happens to be the donkey-headed Bottom. 

Oberon and Titania

Charles Mottram, 1807–1876, Oberon and Titania - "Midsummer Night's Dream", Act II, Scene II, Engraving, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

In the Taming of the Shrew, the fortune-seeking Petruchio is determined to win over the strong-willed Kate by countering her insults with compliments:

I’ll attend her here
And woo her with some spirit when she comes.
Say that she rail; why then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.

Taming of the Shrew (2:1 1013-1016)

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Taming of the Shrew, Katherine and Petruchio, graphic, J.D.L. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

The Nightingale makes another appearance in Shakespeare's romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The morning after their secret marriage, Juliet tries to persuade Romeo not to leave by saying that the birdsong they heard came from a Nightingale and not a lark announcing the break of day:

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

Romeo and Juliet (3:5 2098-2102) 

Romeo_Juliet poster

Poster advertising Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet. Signed J.L. Lith. Library of Congress.

Just as the writers of the past endeavored to celebrate the magnificent song of this little bird through the written word, so the sound recordists of today try to do the same with sound.  Here is just one of our many recordings of a singing Nightingale, recorded in an English forest in the early hours of an April morning in 2008 by Phil Riddett. A sweet lullaby indeed. 

Nightingale song recorded in Kent 2008 by Phil Riddett

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The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016.

10 November 2015

Celebrating 80 years of talking books

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80-years-of-talking books

The gathering of famous literary characters pictured above - I think that's Hercule Poirot at the back there - took place at the British Library on 5 November. It was organized by the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) to highlight the 80th anniversary of the Talking Books service for people who are blind or partially sighted.  

The RNIB's Talking Books service provides 4,000 audio books every single day to people with sight loss.

In celebration of its 80th anniversary, the service will be provided entirely free for all blind and partially sighted people, starting today.  

The first talking books were issued on 24-rpm discs with Braille labels, under the series title 'Talking Books for the Blind'. 

The British Library holds a collection of around 200 or so of these. They were donated by the RNIB in 2009, long after the format had been discontinued.

The content ranges from Bible stories to classics like The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot and thrillers such as The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain.

However many of the sets are incomplete and many titles are not represented at all, including the very first: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Library is keen to expand the collection should the opportunity arise. If you have any of these discs please do get in touch.

And if you would like to know more about the history of talking books I can recommend this 2013 blog post by Matt Rubery: The First Audiobook.