THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

72 posts categorized "Save our Sounds"

08 October 2018

Recording of the week: from the days of the demo tape

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

When you work in a sound archive it’s not uncommon to find yourself drawn into a listening experience which is both immersive and enriching. For me, one of these moments arrived with a demo tape from the Serious Speakout collection (taken from the name of a London-based  promotion company active during the 1990s).

At the end of the recording I scrutinize the inlay. Who is behind this band? What is their story? I realize that, in a collection of over 700 demo tapes, this is the only all-female band I have come across. I manage to contact one of them on Facebook. After twenty two years they kindly agree to gather together again and recount their past. A Skype call doesn’t feel right. Three weeks later I fly to Bologna to meet them: Daniela Cattivelli, Silvia Fanti, Filomena Forleo, Olivia Bignardi, Flavia D’angelantonio, Margareth Kammerer. Respectively, saxophone, accordion, piano, clarinet, bass, and vocals of ‘Fastilio’.

Fastilio 1Fastilio, soon after forming, rehearsing at the occupied School of Arts, Music and Theatre - University of Bologna. Photo by Nanni Angeli 

Formed in late 1991, the story behind this experimental band is one of genuine curiosity for sound and its potential, playfulness within rigour and commitment, and risk taking. All six were enrolled at the University of Bologna’s School of Arts, Music and Theatre, which was at the time under student occupation. They met when they joined, with little musical knowledge, Laboratorio di Musica e Immagine. This was a fourteen member group with a strong socialising energy, working on collective improvisation and composition to create music for silent films.

After a year and a half they decided to try and rehearse on their own to express themselves more freely, curious to see what type of sound would come from such a diverse group of people, with both different backgrounds and creative ideas. They called themselves ‘Fastilio’ from the Italian ‘Fastidio’, meaning nuisance. Although lacking in experience, their plans were both influenced and inspired by the thriving scene of the time: concerts of experimental music, festivals featuring musicians from the Rock in Opposition movement and the Canterbury Scene, and seminars with composer and improvisor Fred Frith.   

They had been rehearsing for around four months when their first concert opportunity cropped up in February 1992. Their bass player had only picked up her bass for the first time a few months earlier, and yet the festival they were invited to featured musicians like Robert Fripp and Michael Nyman. Fastilio were offered joint billing with experimental violinist Jon Rose on opening night. Amid hesitation and excitement, short in repertoire and training, they eventually accepted. And there they were on stage with Jon Rose who, seeing how nervous they were, made shoulder muscles stretching a part of the performance. This first concert was a breakthrough; it taught them to be brave.

Fastilio 2Flyer First concert. Photo by Francesca Ponzini

Over the next five years of their existence, this band of girls in their mid-20s, committed themselves to sound. Each with different skill levels and musical personalities, Fastilio put into music their wishes of sonority, through reciprocal listening, improvising, experimenting, composing and, essentially, choreographing sound. Fastilio define their music as ‘twisted’, because of the changes in perspectives, the circularity of themes and the odd succession of harmonic and contrasting sounds.

Gradually they found themselves opening concerts for renowned musicians like Steve Coleman, performed in international festivals, jammed in cultural centres throughout Europe, and collaborated with different artists in anarchist houses in the Slavic countryside.  

The following excerpts are from a live gig recorded in Imola, September 1993

Fastilio demo tape excerpts (BL shelfmark C728/117)

Follow @lcavorsi, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news. Many thanks go to the members of Fastilio for their help with this piece.

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02 October 2018

Sound, stories and new perspectives: site-specific curated sound tours of the British Library

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Have you ever wandered around the British Library in St Pancras and been intrigued the art, architecture and spaces? Perhaps you’ve enjoyed an exhibition at the Library and wondered how it may have inspired other visitors? Have you ever wanted to hear more voices from the many narrators in the sound collections? Want to make the most of Black History Month 2018?

Then lucky you – we have the perfect way for you to spend 40 minutes of your time this October!

As part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project and inspired by the Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition four talented young scholars have been exploring the British Library oral history collections to highlight voices from Caribbean migrants. The sound tour guides will lead tours through the St Pancras building – playing excerpts from the sound recordings in key locations to shed new light on the architecture and artwork on display.

Kings Library - courtesy clive sherlockKing's Library, St Pancras. Photo courtesy of Clive Sherlock.

The sound tour guides; Korantema Anyimadu, Amelia Francis, Ayomide Oluyemi and Shani Page-Muir, each give a tour based on their own research – focussing on a variety of themes including – ideas of ‘home’, arrival and reception in the UK, identity and politics, community organisation and mid-20th century awareness in Britain of life in the colonial empire.

Ayomide gives an insight into just one of the clips she selected and edited, from the life story interview with Donald Hinds, (b. 1934 in Jamaica) who, after his move to Britain, became a published author reflecting on the experiences of West Indian immigrants. Ayo commented, “I found it striking in this section of the interview that some of pieces of literature Hinds found significant growing up in Jamaica were books that we see as very 'British.' He also touched upon two important Jamaican figures, Marcus Garvey and Harold Moody, who immigrated to Britain in the earlier part of the twentieth century which highlights the role pre-Windrush migrants.”

Donald Hinds reflects on his favourite literature, and the books he read whilst at school (C1149/25)

During her Sound Tour, Ayo chose to play the audio by The King's Library. She explains, “George III's collection spanning almost four centuries and many forms of writing, feels like the core of the British Library to me. It's probably the British Library's most visible text collection to the visitor and it felt appropriate to hear Donald Hinds’ voice there – as he is well known as a writer.”

Designing and leading the sound tour was a new experience for Ayo, “Although talking about history is one of my favourite things and I was very excited at the idea of getting to create my own tour, at the start I was very nervous. Feeling more confident with practice tours, being trained in how to edit sound clips and learning about oral history have been wonderful skills to gain. I'm going to miss this project when it's completed!”

After spending 40 minutes on a tour we are confident that you will see the British Library building with fresh eyes and will want to revisit the excellent exhibition and find out more about Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Public tours are available for tours on:
Wednesday 10 October 2018 at 18.00
Saturday 13 October 2018 at 14.00; 15.00 and 16.00
Tours last approximately 40 minutes and are free of charge:
https://www.bl.uk/events/windrush-sound-tour

Written by the BL leads on this project: Mary Stewart, Oral History Curator & Chandan Mahal, Learning Projects Manager for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

19 September 2018

Seeing sound: What is a spectrogram?

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Greg Green, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage writes:

In this digital age, most of us are familiar with audio waveforms, the ‘wavy’ images that represent the dynamic course of a particular sound recording. Waveforms are in fact a type of graph, with time on the X axis and amplitude (or loudness) on the Y.

Waveform exampleFigure 1: a waveform represents a sound recording by showing amplitude over time

Waveforms are very useful for conveying basic information about a recording e.g. where the loud bits are, where the quiet bits are, and how dynamic the recording is. If you were listening to an interview, a waveform can clearly show you where someone is speaking. Unfortunately, waveforms cannot tell us much about the pitch, frequency, or harmonic content of a recording. For that we can use a different visual representation of sound… say hello to the spectrogram!

How to read a spectrogram

Spectrograms keep time on the X axis but place frequency on the Y axis. Amplitude is also represented as a sort of heat map or scale of colour saturation. Spectrograms were originally produced as black and white diagrams on paper by a device called a sound spectrograph, whereas nowadays they are created by software and can be any range of colours imaginable!

Wave form v spectragramFigure 2: waveform and spectrogram of the same recording. An oscillating low frequency buzz dominates the waveform, only the spectrogram reveals where the bird is calling

Spectrograms map out sound in a similar way to a musical score, only mapping frequency rather than musical notes. Seeing frequency energy distributed over time in this way allows us to clearly distinguish each of the sound elements in a recording, and their harmonic structure. This is especially useful in acoustic studies when analysing sounds such as bird song and musical instruments. So not only do these graphs look really cool, but they can tell us a lot about the sound without even listening.

Spectrogram example (whooper swan)Figure 3: a spectrogram showing the harmonically rich calls of whooper swans

Whooper Swan calls recorded by John Corbett (BL shelfmark WS1734 C5)

In the above example, we can see the calls of a Whooper Swan represented in a spectrogram. The fundamental frequency of the calls is at about 750Hz, which is the frequency with the most energy (usually the lowest frequency of a sound), and gives the sound its perceived pitch. Above that are the harmonics - additional, quieter frequencies that give the sound its ‘colour’ and make up a sort of sonic signature – a Whooper Swan singing a perfect ‘G’ note will have a very different harmonic structure to a piano playing that same note. This information could be used to analyse bird songs and calls in different locations, or to understand the vocabulary of a species.

Creative uses for spectrograms

Clearly spectrograms can tell us a lot about the acoustic elements of a sound, but they are not just used for scientific studies. Audio editing is most often performed with waveforms as it's easier to make cuts or process a selected time range. When editing software uses spectrograms however, it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities! With this spectral editing, we are able to look into the microscopic details of a sound and apply processes to very specific time and frequency ranges. For example, an obtrusive footstep, or car alarm could be identified and removed from a recording, just like ‘photoshopping’ sound!

Spectral repair exampleFigure 4: a recording of a robin singing was ruined by a dog barking and some low end noise – a spectrogram reveals the unwanted noises and allows the recordist to remove them.

Spectral repair BEFORE

Spectral repair AFTER

Musicians can also use spectral editing to compose and generate sounds that could not be made any other way. Patterns and shapes can be ‘drawn’ into spectrograms and played back as frequency content. In some cases, detailed graphic images can be hidden within spectrograms. Aphex Twin used this technique to hide an image of a face within the second track of his ‘Windowlicker’ EP (1999).

Aphex Face

You can find some more examples of images hidden in the spectral content of popular songs here: https://twistedsifter.com/2013/01/hidden-images-embedded-into-songs-spectrographs/

So now you know what spectrograms are, how to read them, and some of their many scientific, creative, and bizarre uses. Keep an eye out for our #SpectrogramSunday @BLSoundHeritage tweets, starting this weekend!

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04 September 2018

Sir Francis Chichester talks to Lady Chichester from Gipsy Moth IV

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Dr Emma Greenwood, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage, writes:

Sir Francis Chichester’s record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe in 1966-1967 is a legendary accomplishment in yachting and sporting history. When he sailed back into Plymouth Sir Francis was greeted by a fleet of small boats, thousands of fans and a hysterical press.

This huge public interest was largely owing to the Marconi Kestrel radio telephone installed on board the yacht Gipsy Moth IV which enabled Sir Francis to send weekly newspaper despatches throughout his voyage.

This same radio set, however, also allowed Sir Francis to communicate, very occasionally, with his wife Lady Chichester. One of these rare conversations took place on 19 November 1966 and, fortunately for us, it was recorded and has now been preserved as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

The recording itself is of poor quality, but this only reflects listening conditions at the time. Lady Chichester was on board the cruise ship SS Oriana at the time, on route to a planned rendezvous in Sydney, and the radio signal was weak and subject to lots of interference. Questions had to be repeated, voices raised, and speech slowed down. There was also an operator on the line throughout, so there was no privacy between the couple.

Sir Francis and Lady Chichester talking before Sydney (C1604/01)

In spite of the circumstances, both Sir Francis and Lady Chichester sound remarkably composed. Much of the 14 minute conversation is taken up with the exchange of essential information relating to their respective positions, rates of progress, weather conditions and expected arrival times into Sydney. It is hard to believe that this was the first time they had spoken in nearly three months, or imagine the dangers Sir Francis had already faced in his voyage.

Nevertheless, the ability to communicate via radio telephone, was clearly of great importance to both parties. After the voyage, Lady Chichester stated, ‘the radio communication with Gipsy Moth IV was something really marvellous, and the men who worked it were wonderful people’ (‘A Wife’s Part in High Adventure’ in Sir Francis Chichester, Gipsy Moth Circles the World (Bello, 2012), p. 249).As for Sir Francis, being able to speak directly to Lady Chichester provided a much-needed psychological boost. He signs off “very glad to hear your voice and you have all my love, all my love, goodbye, goodbye”. Later, he wrote in his account of the voyage, ‘It was a joy to hear her, and to be able to talk directly to her. This cheered me up immensely’ (Gipsy Moth Circles the World, p.93).

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29 August 2018

In amongst the wildebeest

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Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds, writes:

In Disney’s The Lion King, the young cub Simba finds himself in the midst of a terrifying wildebeest stampede. Though our little hero survives the ordeal, a stampeding herd of wildebeest is certainly a force to reckon with.

Every year during the great migration, over one and a half million wildebeest leave the calving grounds of the Serengeti for the lush grazing pastures of the Maasai Mara. This journey from Tanzania to Kenya spans over 1,800 miles and is part of an endless cycle of movement that sees wildebeest, along with other animals such as zebra and gazelle, constantly on the move in search of fresh food and water. Though relatively sedate at times, it doesn’t take much to send this huge mass of bodies into a frenzied panic. All it needs is a whiff of danger.

Wildebeests-805391_1920

In 1988, French field recordist Claude Chappuis recorded a herd of stampeding Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) in the Maasai Mara. The accompanying recording notes make no mention of what caused the herd to take to their heels. Were they spooked by the presence of the recordist? Had a pride of lions or a solitary leopard been spotted nearby? And where was the recordist positioned while all of this was taking place? Was he in a nearby vehicle? Or on the ground? We assume that Chappuis and his equipment were safely out of harm's way, but with no contextual information to refer to, all we can rely on is our imagination. So sit back, close your eyes and picture the scene.

Stampeding Blue Wildebeest recorded by Claude Chappuis (W1CDR0000816 BD25)

This recording, along with tens of thousands of other wildlife examples, will soon be digitally preserved as part of the library’s Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

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17 August 2018

Recording wildlife in the dark

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Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds, writes:

There are plenty of positives when it comes to digitising archival sound recordings. Long term preservation and improved access are top of the list, however the opportunity to easily explore thousands of freshly digitised files is a curator’s dream.

The library’s Unlocking our Sound Heritage project has digitised an impressive 18,000 wildlife recordings over the past 12 months and this has brought a range of interesting content to the surface. One of our recent favourites is a nocturnal recording of Golden Plovers in the highlands of Scotland. The recording is wonderfully atmospheric, with Red Grouse and Snipe adding to the moorland soundscape. Yet this isn't the only thing that caught our attention. The accompanying metadata, provided by the recordists Charles and Heather Myers, demonstrates the difficulties of recording wildlife in the dark, especially when you encounter unexplained sounds.

Though our Golden Plover recording is dominated by bird calls, it also contains the grazing sounds of an unidentified animal. Charles & Heather were both accomplished naturalists and could identify the songs and calls of British wildlife with ease. Non-vocal sounds however, such as movement or eating, could leave even the most talented individual stumped.

You may be thinking "But couldn't the recordists just take a peek in the direction of the sound?" The answer is, not easily. The recording was made on remote moorland in the dead of night. In addition, the microphones had been placed over 45 m away from the camper van where their recorder was being operated. The only thing left to the Myers' was the power of deduction, as can be seen in the following recording note:

"As I was unsighted it is all guess work. But one thing is certain: the birds were very close. There were Red Deer about so I assume the grazing sound was made by one of these (was it a swishing tail that caused the bump on the mics?) You can hear him stop grazing & trot away to the right (3 min. 13)" 

Golden Plovers with possible Red Deer grazing nearby, recorded on 28th April 1989 in the Scottish Highlands (BL ref 20173)

3281339831_76a8ca1a36_b Could a hungry Red Deer be the source of our unexplained grazing sound?

We'll never know whether the Myers' did record a Red Deer grazing on the moorland turf. Unidentified sounds are often part and parcel of the field recording process, so it's down to the recordist (or the curator!) to fill in the blanks. But, at the end of the day, that's all part of the fun.
 

Follow @CherylTipp for all the latest wildlife news.

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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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15 June 2018

International research collaboration on South Asian audiovisual heritage

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In March this year the British Library began a new research project with the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology American Institute of Indian Studies (ARCE) in India, focused around our South Asian audiovisual heritage collections.

Funded through a grant from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the project is part of  the Rutherford Fund – a major UK Government investment launched in 2017 to promote international research collaboration.

In this post, Dr Sangeeta Dutta, ARCE Archivist, discusses the research fellowship she has been undertaking as part of the project, in the World and Traditional Music section of British Library Sound Archive.

 

IMG_E6537
Dr Sangeeta Dutta

The ‘International Fellowship in South Asian Audiovisual Heritage: Preservation, Research and Engagement’ is a collective endeavour, involving the exchange and sharing of resources of two audiovisual archives - the British Library Sound Archive and the Archives and Research Center for Ethnomusicology American Institute of Indian Studies (ARCE), India. It aims to facilitate the exchange of knowledge of archival practices and of collections, or information about collections, held in each location. A particular objective is to exchange historical recordings made in the first decades of the 20th Century on wax cylinders, and to make them accessible for users at both the archives.

In India, ARCE is one of the pioneers of audiovisual archiving. It was established in 1982, with a vision to bring together the recorded collections of music and oral traditions of South Asia. It has collections of field and published recordings, voluntarily deposited or donated by foreign and Indian scholars and institutions, which are preserved in climate controlled storage and made available for users in a well-equipped listening and viewing room. It has recording, transferring and audio and video archiving facilities, across different technologies and formats. It follows global standards of preservation in audio and video formats in the digital era.

Since I began my fellowship in March, I have had the opportunity to explore various South Asian collections, specially the recordings made in India, and to become familiar with the workflows of the British Library Sound Archive. This fellowship has also been instrumental in providing the opportunity to contribute to the Library’s major digitisation programme, the Save Our Sounds Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. As part of my contribution I have created collection preparation documents for 11 South Asian collections, which have been prioritised for digitisation.  

ARCE lab-3
M. Umashankar in the audio lab at ARCE

I have also been involved in the cataloguing process of both the field and published recordings in the World and Traditional Music section of British Library Sound Archive, creating catalogue entries, working with newly acquired collection items and dealing with born-digital collections. These experiences have been a brilliant learning opportunity for me as Rutherford Fellow. The project has also allowed me to compare, develop and share approaches towards making sound heritage accessible for wider dissemination.

During the Fellowship I have had the opportunity to attend various training courses, ranging from metadata creation to developing dissemination processes. Through these I have learnt something of the tools and practices that will be applicable at various stages of audiovisual archiving in future. The Fellowship has also made it possible for me to visit related institutions and exhibitions in and around London, and to meet scholars of various disciplines - archivists, museum curators, ethnomusicologists, etc. These meetings and discussions have immensely influenced my thought processes involving audiovisual archiving in relation to ethnomusicology.

Another component of the project has been the engagement of two Collections Assistants, one at the British Library Sound Archive (Christian Poske) the other at ARCE in India (Dr Divya Shrivastava). The assistants have contributed towards the preparation of the recordings shared between the two archives, exchanging knowledge around respective cataloguing formats, and developing a model for the classification and cataloguing of musical instruments. Both the Collections Assistants have had the opportunity to make short visits to the partner archives, thereby having hands on experience of archival processes in both institutions.  

IMG_6512
Dr Janet Topp Fargion (Lead, Curator of World and Traditional Music, centre) with Collections Assistants Christian Poske and Divya Shrivastava during her visit to the British Library  

One of the most useful outcomes of the sharing of recordings between our two audiovisual archives will be the wider level of dissemination, particularly where users cannot visit the actual site where the recordings are preserved. The project will make information and expert knowledge of ARCE collections available for the first time to British Library users and audiences in the UK. In India, on the other hand, where ARCE is one of the primary research centres for ethnomusicology, being able to provide access to British Library collections will be of great value to users – a mixture of Indian and international scholars.

Thus the Rutherford Fellowship has facilitated a substantial international collaboration between the British Library and the ARCE. This has enabled the Library to share resources preserved in London with the region of origin. At the same time detailed knowledge held at the ARCE, for example of particular instruments and instrument classification systems, will allow these resources to be more usefully described and discovered. We thank our funders for helping to create this new pathway for the circulation of knowledge among the institutions, building a bridge between the archives and their users. 

 

Follow @BL_WorldTrad@BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.