THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

Introduction

Discover more about the British Library's 6 million sound recordings and the access we provide to thousands of moving images. Comments and feedback are welcomed. Read more

30 November 2017

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

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.

27 November 2017

Recording of the week: pond life

This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds.

Have you ever wondered what a pond sounds like? Most of us will have spent some time dipping for tadpoles, watching insects glide across the surface or looking out for flashes of colour as fish move beneath the water, but our interactions with ponds are usually visual. For some people though, the promise of what's going on sonically is just too hard to resist.

Most wildlife sound recordists will have a hydrophone somewhere in their arsenal and are only too happy to investigate this otherwise silent world. While visiting a smallholding in north Wales, Peter Toll's curiosity was piqued by a little pond that had been carefully created to give life to as many creatures as possible. In his accompanying notes, Peter remarked: 

"It looked so still and tranquil above the surface, until I lowered my hydrophones and was truly amazed by what sounds I could hear below the surface."

What Peter heard was an ecosystem brimming with life. The sounds of newts, invertebrates and oxygenating plants came together to create a vibrant aquatic soundscape, as can be heard in the following excerpt. As the old adage goes, looks can definitely be deceiving. 

Pond atmosphere recorded by Peter Toll in Llandrindod Wells, Wales on 30 Sept 2011 (BL ref 212534) 

Underwater-1529206_1920

A selection of underwater sounds from the archive was put together for a special programme broadcast by NTS Radio in October 2017. To find out more and listen again please click here.

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

24 November 2017

“And we saw the thing had done a computation” - Geoff Tootill, 1922 – 2017

Tom Lean, project interviewer for the National Life Stories collection An Oral History of British Science, remembers interviewing Geoff Tootill, electrical engineer and computer designer, who died last month.

  GCTca1950-will-be-M0002 croppedGeoff Tootill, c. 1950

Geoff Tootill was the very last survivor of the team which designed and built the world's first modern computer - the 1948 “Manchester Baby.” In 2009 he was also my very first interviewee for an Oral History of British Science, and over 18 hours of answering my novice questions with patience and dry humour, he influenced the way I've approached interviewing scientists ever since.

I'd never really thought before about just how far back into the past we can reach with oral history interviews. Yet there I was in 2009, talking to somebody about their experiences back in the 1940s. Decades years before I was born, Geoff was an electronics engineer doing secret wartime work on airborne radar at the secret Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Malvern.

I was impressed at Geoff's ability to recall the technical details of his work and the sophistication of the radar systems he and his colleagues developed with the primitive electronics of the day. Yet it wasn't all high pressure secret work - as a member of the TRE's Flying Rockets Concert Party, Geoff also built the electric systems for stage shows, and I realised that scientist's social lives often have an element of the technical about them.

Geoff Tootill - TRE's Flying Rockets concert party (C1379-02)

With the war over, Geoff went to the University of Manchester to help former TRE colleagues Tom Kilburn and Freddy Williams build the world's first stored program computer. The Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine, better known today as the “Manchester Baby,” weighed a ton and was far from small. However, its fundamental architecture is still at work in the computer, tablet or smartphone you're reading this on.

021I-C1379X0002XX-0001M1Geoff Tootill, 2005 (reproduced by permission of the Manchester Evening News and Oldham Advertiser)

I spent hours talking to Geoff about building Baby, and the thing that has stuck with me most is how modestly understated he was about his involvement with this world changing development. It helped me realise that historic moments often only look that way with the benefit of hindsight. In the 1940s Geoff and his colleagues had little idea that computers would change the world, anticipating their major uses would be for weather forecasting and atomic energy calculations. The process of actually building the machine was a long process of iterative technical work before one day in early summer 1948 they, “saw the thing had done a computation.”

Geoff Tootill - building the Manchester Baby (C1379-02)

An Oral History of British Science is a national collection of interviews with over 100 leading UK scientists and engineers, telling the stories of some of the most remarkable scientific and engineering discoveries of the past century as well as the personal stories of each individual. You can find out about interviewees and listen to extracts at Voices of Science and you can listen to full-length interviews at British Library Sounds.

National Life Stories is the UK's leading oral history fieldwork charity, based at the British library.

21 November 2017

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 3: Gay UK

For our third National Life Stories podcast Charlie Morgan spoke to Steven Dryden, Broadcast Recordings Curator at the British Library and co-curator of the exhibition Gay UK: Love Law and Liberty. Gay UK ran from June-September 2017 and marked 50 years since the 1967 Sexual Offences Act and 60 years since the Wolfenden Report. The exhibition was extremely popular and it just so happened that it contained a lot of oral histories!

Gay-liberation-front-manifesto-London-copyright-gay-liberation-frontGay Liberation Front Manifesto, London, 1971 (c) Gay Liberation Front 

In podcast you'll from interviews which discuss organizations like the Homosexual Law Reform Society and the Gay Liberation Front, as well experiences ranging from World War 2 to 1970s nightclubs. You'll also hear Steven's views on how he chose clips for the exhibition and how it felt to edit, or “hack to pieces", those same clips.

National Life Stories Podcast Episode 3: Gay UK

Clips in the episode are taken from the following interviews:

  • John Alcock, C456/003 Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project
  • Tony Dyson, C456/074 Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project
  • Maureen Duffy, C1276/03 Authors’ Lives
  • Mary McIntosh, C1420/11 Sisterhood & After: The Women’s Liberation Oral History Project
  • Jonathan Blake, C456/104 Hall-Carpenter Oral History Project

If you’d like to learn more check out our collection guide on Oral histories of sexuality, reproductive health and prostitution.

20 November 2017

Recording of the week: whistling Wigeon

This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds. 

Right about now, hundreds of thousands of birds will be en route to the UK, returning to wintering grounds that have provided their populations with food and shelter for millennia. The Wigeon is just one of the birds that will be making this journey. This medium-sized duck usually congregates around the British coastline but, despite the large numbers, you’re more likely to hear Wigeon before you see them. Males announce their presence with an excitable, high-pitched whistle which, teamed with their pretty plumage, helps bring some cheer to the most desolate winter landscape.

Wigeon whistles recorded in Northumberland, England in Jan 2012 by Simon Elliott (BL ref 199321)

Wigeon_BHL

Male and female Wigeon taken from British Gamebirds and Wildfowl, 1855 (courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Many more wildlife recordings can be found in the Environment and Nature section of British Library Sounds.

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

13 November 2017

Recording of the week: Ancient Evenings

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

It is now 10 years since the death of Norman Mailer, one of the best-known and most widely read US authors of the post-war period. This week's recording features Mailer in discussion with Melvyn Bragg at the ICA. London, in 1983. Mailer's epic novel of ancient Egypt, Ancient Evenings, had been published just a few days previously. Mailer discourses on the 'class system' of Ancient Egypt, among related subjects. It didn't pay to be poor in those days either, apparently.

Norman Mailer and Melvyn Bragg in conversation (C95/55)

ICA-flyer

This recording comes from a substantial collection of talks and discussions held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London between 1982-1993. 

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

09 November 2017

The unlikely musical family of Parlophone records: George Martin’s early years

Guest blogpost by Edison Fellow Myles Eastwood, a London-based producer and engineer who runs Eastwood Records, alongside co-founding FixTheMusic, an online platform for booking musicians.

When George Martin died in March 2016 aged 90, the headlines predominantly focused on his work as producer of The Beatles. The infamous “fifth Beatle” moniker was taken up by both The Guardian and The Telegraph, whilst The Economist celebrated “their humble servant”.[i] Martin’s input as musical and technical enabler for the so-called Fab Four is well documented, but his role also spread into pastoral and even paternal territory – Paul McCartney spoke of a “second father” figure – so it’s no wonder the band and their producer are treated as synonymous.[ii]

Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966

Beatles and George Martin in studio 1966 (Wikicommons)

Martin’s discography beyond The Beatles also received some attention, though perhaps not as much as it deserves. Many of his obituaries celebrated the comedy and children’s records Martin produced for Parlophone in the late 1950s and early 1960s, several of which still hold up to contemporary ears, but beyond that his early Parlophone releases have not made it into mainstream cultural memory. Chris King’s review of a six-CD box set release of Martin’s work epitomises this pattern of reception:

While the concept of paying tribute to one of music's most illustrious producers is commendable, the truth is that his mainstream output during the 1960s eclipses the rest of his work, thus rendering the other CDs all but redundant. Perhaps a box set concentrating solely on Martin's 1960s pop productions might have proved the better option.[iii]

It is these earlier, ‘eclipsed’ records on Parlophone that have been the focus of my Edison Fellowship at the British Library. They are many and varied in musical style, often twee and quaint by modern standards, but they also say a lot about Martin’s formative years as a producer, and more broadly the musical landscape of postwar Britain.

Martin joined the German-British record label Parlophone in 1950 under the tutelage of Oscar Preuss, whose recording Parlophone logocareer was typical of his generation. Joining the Berlin-based International Talking Machine Company in 1904 aged 15, Preuss toured the world recording musicians from across Europe, as well as Brazil, Mexico and a number of Asian countries. Perceval Graves’ 1928 interview with him centres on his “log-book, [...] a complete chronicle of recording on Four Continents”, with Preuss recalling “long and tiring journeys, sometimes over miles of desert”, including one trip to Aleppo where wax disc shortages led to a two-week wait for the missing cases to reappear on camel-back.[iv]

Preuss’ attitude towards Arabic music is both uncomfortably colonial and endearing, with one Egyptian singer, a cotton magnate, thanking him for their sessions by gifting Preuss a rug that he hangs at home in South East London. Other projects are remarkably prescient of scenes from psychedelic recording sessions of the mid-1960s: “The amount of raw spirits, cocaine and other drugs absorbed by artistes and their entourage throughout sessions lasting from early evening till two and three o’clock in the morning [...] rather alarmed me until I got used to it!”[v] Yet Preuss’ description of musical devices, instrumentation and improvisation, alongside the pragmatic concerns of capturing the material on a limited medium (“their songs are customarily of an interminable length [...], a prompter is inevitable”), convey a sensitive listener who was, as Christopher Stone puts it, “a leisurely, rather cynically genial man, whom you recognise instantly as a master of his craft and a devil for work.”[vi]

Preuss retired in 1955, shortly before his death in 1958, and was succeeded by the 29-year-old Martin as head of Parlophone. The label was one of several EMI subsidiaries alongside HMV and Columbia. In his 1979 autobiography Martin bemoans Parlophone’s marginalised status in the organisation, held back by reluctant management staff and a limited budget. The label showcased a huge variety of music at this time including jazz, classical and various folk traditions, and when Martin began signing acts the label’s output diversified further still. Joy Nichols’ rendition of “Little Red Monkey” from 1953, sung alongside Jimmy Edwards and Dick Bentley, typifies Martin’s novelty output, a clip of which can be heard below.

1CS0075275 Little Red Monkey (excerpt)

More rare is the instrumental version performed by Frank Chacksfield, whose orchestras were middle-of-the-road powerhouses that churned out numerous light music releases during this period. This release features the composer himself, Jack Jordan, on the clavioline, an electronic keyboard instrument with a distinctly reedy sound.

9CS0010019 Little Red Monkey instrumental (excerpt)

Though Martin later claimed his ambition was to find an equivalent to Cliff Richard, an artist whose sales hugely bolstered EMI’s Columbia in the late 1950s, the route taken by the producer was somewhat circuitous. He tried his hand at “do it yourself” records in 1956, a proto-karaoke series of backing tracks performed by Ron Goodwin’s “Parlophone Pops Orchestra” and aimed at amateur singers,[vii] and when he began signing up comedians and variety acts such as Flanders and Swann it was difficult to predict which records would sell. “Mock Mozart”, for example, was a novelty release by actor Peter Ustinov, who sang the harmonies of a miniature opera parody by overdubbing his own voice and bouncing down takes between two tape machines. Martin spent hours coaxing him through the process, yet the record only sold a few hundred copies.[viii]

1CS0075217 Mock Mozart (excerpt)

Martin also supervised a number of classical sessions when he joined Parlophone. Artists included pianists such as Sidney Harrison and George Chavchavadze, as well as the London Baroque Ensemble, whose rendition of the last movement of Mozart’s Serenata notturna, K. 239 conducted by Karl Haas can be heard below.

1LP0164908 Mozart K239 (excerpt)

It would be tempting to paint Martin as the classically-schooled practitioner whose trained hand turned whatever pop he produced to gold. A cursory survey of his classical credentials throws up familiar biographical milestones. After serving in the Royal Navy, Martin won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, following which he played oboe in various orchestras and worked at the BBC Music Library. He brought his compositional experience to numerous Beatles records, arranging string parts for tracks like “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby”, to the extent that some commentators have portrayed Martin as the literate Beatle, the one who realised ideas for the band members who could not read music.

Yet this would be a disservice to Martin’s eclecticism. Sidney Harrison was actually his senior and had recommended Martin years earlier to the Guildhall following a bout of written correspondence. In one letter Harrison advised Martin, who had sent him his own Chopin-inspired compositions, to “know his marine band and start arranging for them.”[ix] The London Baroque Ensemble was never quite as grand as its title implied, and Martin delighted in recounting the unassuming nature of the affair: having met eighteenth-century music aficionado Peter Ustinov at a party, musicologist and conductor Karl Haas “decided to form the London Baroque Society and invited Peter to be the President. Karl was the conductor, I was the secretary – and that was the London Baroque society”.[x] When the narrative of lofty classical producer was bolstered by classist connotations in relation to The Beatles, Martin was most at pains to set the record straight: “I’ve been cast in the role of schoolmaster, the toff, the better-educated, and they’ve been the urchins that I’ve shaped [...] It’s a load of poppycock, really, because our backgrounds were very similar. [...] I wasn’t taught music and they weren’t, we taught ourselves.”[xi]

What, then, might a suitable lynchpin be for understanding Martin’s career? Another Parlophone artist gets us a little closer. “My Lady Greensleeves” sung by Luton Girls Choir in 1950 is part of the prolific recorded output of a choir that began at the most local level (“The girls must live within five miles of Luton’s Town Hall”) and grew to international fame with appearances in front of the Royal Family, gracing iconic venues like St Paul’s Cathedral. The choir was run for several decades by the enthusiastic Arthur E. Davies, who wanted to revive the “dying art” of choral singing, and its membership ranged from schoolgirls to the age cap of 23. “Greensleeves” is of course the quintessential English folk song, and under Davies’ direction and an orchestra led by Ivor Novello Award-winning film music composer Philip Green, the choir achieved a rousing rendition.

Luton

1CS0075002 Greensleeves (excerpt)

This was part of the soundworld Martin inherited when he joined Parlophone. It is surely telling that the next time he encountered the tune he was hastily writing an arrangement to close “All You Need Is Love” for the Our World television special. “Write absolutely anything you like, George,” The Beatles asked him: “The mixture I came up with was culled from the ‘Marseillaise’, a Bach two-part invention, ‘Greensleeves’, and the little lick from ‘In the Mood’.” The broadcast went out in June 1967 to an estimated half a billion people. If Mozart, Chopin and other accepted greats were central to Martin’s canon then so too were the British traditions of folk song, community choirs and parochial classical societies. He may not have had a signature sound like other leading producers of his generation, say John Culshaw or Quincy Jones, but his eclecticism was a trademark of sorts.

Here I am positing the Englishness of Martin’s records not as some nebulous nationalistic quality, but rather a specific phonographic heritage unique to postwar Britain. It is rooted in a DIY mentality of re-purposing technology and circumventing corporate regulations. It draws on the sound worlds of revue, music hall and brass bands, as well as various non-Western music traditions, though always filtered through a Eurocentric lense inherited from mentor Preuss. These elements pervade British popular music of the 1960s as much as the loudly celebrated American strands of rock ’n’ roll, R&B and Tin Pan Alley, yet they receive considerably less scholarly attention. Music historians should dig here before signing off on George Martin’s inestimable contribution to recorded music.

With thanks to Joanna Hughes and Sonita Cox at the EMI Archive Trust, Mark Lewisohn and Kenneth Womack

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical

Images reproduced through Fair Use from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parlophone; http://www.infotextmanuscripts.org/webb/webb_luton_pageant.pdf; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Beatles_and_George_Martin_in_studio_1966.JPG 

[i]    Cf. Sweeting, A. “Sir George Martin Obituary”, The Guardian, 9 March 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/09/george-martin-obituary (accessed 21 August 2017); “Sir George Martin - Obituary”, The Telegraph, 18 March 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2016/03/18/sir-george-martin---obituary/ (accessed 21 August 2017); “Their Humble Servant”, The Economist, 19 March 2016; https://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21694967-jack-all-trades-behind-much-beatles-success-was-aged-90-obituary-george-martin (accessed 21 August 2017).

[ii]   McCartney, P. “Paul McCartney on George Martin”, 9 March 2016, Paul McCartney [website], https://www.paulmccartney.com/news-blogs/news/paul-mccartney-on-george-martin (all accessed 21 August 2017).

[iii]  King, C. “Produced By George Martin: 50 Years in Recording [review]”, Amazon [website], https://www.amazon.co.uk/Produced-George-Martin-YEARS-RECORDING/dp/B00005BCHH/ (accessed 10 August 2017).

[iv]  Preuss, O. C. “Round the Recording Studios / No. 1 - ‘Songs of Araby’”, The Gramophone, March 1928, 411-412.

[v]   Ibid., 412.

[vi]  Stone, C. “Our Masters and Mothers”, The Gramophone, December 1929, 293.

[vii] “Sing to these Records!”, New Musical Express, 12 October 1956, 6.

[viii] Martin, G. (1979) All You Need is Ears, London, 53-55.

[ix]  Lewisohn, M. “George Martin: A Sound Life”, Produced By George Martin: 50 Years in Recording [liner notes], May 2001, 4.

[x]   Martin, G. (1979) All You Need Is Ears, London, 39.

[xi]  Quoted in “George Martin obituary: The Beatles producer who made the Fab Four a worldwide success”, The Independent, 9 March 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/sir-george-martin-obituary-the-beatles-record-producer-who-made-the-fab-four-a-worldwide-success-a6920546.html (accessed 15 August 2017).

[xii] “Luton Girls Choir”, Luton Coronation Pageant Book, Luton, 24, http://www.infotextmanuscripts.org/webb/webb_luton_pageant.pdf (accessed 10th August 2017).

[xiii] Martin, G. (1979) All You Need Is Ears, London, 192.

06 November 2017

Recording of the week: watching Britain's nuclear bomb tests

This week's selection comes from Tom Lean, Project Interviewer for An Oral History of British Science.

On 8th November 1957, hundreds of British military and scientific personnel gathered at Christmas Island, a remote speck of land in the Pacific Ocean. They were there for Operation Grapple X, the first successful test of a British hydrogen bomb. At 1.8 megatons, the blast was about a hundred and forty times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and signified Britain's mastery of the secrets of thermonuclear power. Amongst the witnesses to the mushroom cloud rising above Christmas Island was a 35 year old technician named Frank Raynor. As he recalls, in perhaps something of an understatement, it was “quite impressive” to watch:

Frank Raynor_C1379/76

Grapple

The tests were also witnessed by Laurance Reed, a naval officer on HMS Warrior. He describes a shipboard atmosphere of excitement, anxiety and awe when the first bomb was dropped. 

Laurence Reed_C1503/37

The full interview with Frank Raynor can be found in the Oral History of British Science collection on British Library Sounds.

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