THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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39 posts categorized "Sound recording history"

27 July 2017

HMV experimental recordings 1914 and 1947

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As Curator of Classical Music it is always fascinating to find unpublished recordings of renowned artists, but equally exciting is the discovery of discs that were made as experiments in the evolution of recorded sound.

In November of last year Diana Sparkes, the daughter of Hubert Foss, donated some discs of her mother, Dora Stevens.  These are HMV experimental discs dated 19th May 1914 and written into the wax is ‘Experimental HE 9’.  The discs were not for publication, and as Dora was still a student at the time it is likely that the Gramophone Company chose her as a talented musician, suitable for the job.  Without access to the historical paperwork it is impossible to tell what experiments were taking place – possibly horn placement or groove spacing.  She sings a song Loving is so sweet by English composer Robert Coningsby Clarke (1879-1934), and you can hear her clear her throat during the piano introduction in this acoustic recording.  Later in her career, as wife of Hubert Foss, she had works written for and dedicated to her by Gordon Jacob and William Walton.

Loving is so sweet

A few weeks ago I managed to acquire two more fascinating HMV (by now EMI) experimental discs via an auction.  These are particularly interesting as they document one of the very first attempts, in April 1947, at using tape to disc transfer rather than direct cut disc.  Indeed, it might be the company’s very first experiment as the typed label is quite explicit.  The tape machine was probably either a liberated AEG-Magnetophon from Germany or a prototype of EMI’s own BTR1 which was developed at the end of 1947.  According to Reg Willard, who was an assistant to the Advanced Development Division, by October 1948 experiments in stereo were being made using the AEG-Magnetophon tape transport and EMI BTR 1 developed circuitry.

In addition, these April 1947 recordings are experiments with the new extended range frequency recording - “ER” as it appears on the label.  The first demonstration of this recording method was in 1944 to the Electrical Engineers but at that time it was probably a system (like Decca’s ‘ffrr’) for some sort of war work. It was not announced to the press until November 1947, so a certain number of recordings ready to exploit the method would have been kept in reserve from earlier that year.

EMI produced its own machine early in 1948. However, there was a shortage of tape at the time and the BASF stock purloined from the Germans had been so often cut and spliced that it was chiefly used only for transfer work rather than actual recordings.  No doubt EMI were aware of what was happening in the US at Columbia Records, who announced their long playing record – a revolution in sound reliant on tape – in June 1948 and local competition at Decca had already recorded Ernest Ansermet in 1946 conducting Stravinsky’s Petroushka using their own extended full frequency range recording system - ‘ffrr’- which had been developed to detect the engine sounds of German submarines. 

Experiments were not just being made with the recording technology - the cutting of the disc was also a crucial part of the process.  The run out grooves of the two discs recently acquired show that experiments were also being made with different lathes and cutters when transferring from tape – each disc being cut on a different type of machine.  In an effort to ascertain which set up would suit the new extended range recordings best, the extended range Blumlein cutter was probably fixed to the current lathe design, whilst probably an RCA cutter was attached to a 1920s lathe, providing no spiral groove at the centre of the disc.

So this recording from April 1947, one of the first efforts at cutting a disc from tape at EMI, comes from a crucial point in the evolution and history of recorded sound where various things overlap – the end of the 78rpm disc era, the first use of tape, experiments with extending the frequency range and the introduction of the LP.

GeraldMoore

Gerald Moore plays part of Schumann’s Papillons Op. 2.  Even through the surface noise of the shellac, immediately noticeable is the clarity of the piano tone and wide range of dynamics captured on the tape recording.

Schumann Papillons

In a future blog I will talk about an alternate take of one of EMI’s first issued ER recordings of conductor Nikolai Malko.

Thanks to Jolyon Hudson

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08 June 2017

Franck's Prelude, Chorale & Fugue revisited

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Original disc label (BL shelf mark 9CL0043737-9CL0043738)

A previous blog on murdered Chicago pianist Marion Roberts garnered a considerable amount of attention.  One reader supplied information from a local Chicago paper stating that Roberts was a composer and also a pupil of none other than the great pianist Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938).  She performed his works, opening one recital in 1925 with Godowsky’s recently published transcription of Bach’s Cello Suite in C minor.

In order to put Roberts’ recording of the Prelude Chorale and Fugue by Cesar Franck into context I listened to contemporary recordings of the work.  I was familiar with those by Alfred Cortot, Blanche Selva and Marcel Maas but had not heard the one by Yvonne Lévy.  While musically not in the same class as the Roberts recording, Lévy’s is still of interest and makes for fascinating comparative listening.  However, the comparisons don’t end there – both were young women whose only solo piano recording was of the Franck work and it is possible that both were murdered, in Lévy’s case by the Nazis.  Extensive research has not been able to confirm this as there were a number of people with the same name born around the same time in France.

There is very little information on Lévy and she does not appear in the standard reference works.  Yvonne-Elisabeth Lévy was born in Paris on 24th July 1894.  From the age of fourteen she studied at the Paris Conservatoire in the preparatory class of Madame Chéné winning a troisième prix medal in 1908.  The following year she gained a premier prix.  Chéné, was a respected teacher of young students whose pupils include Blanche Selva, Marguerite Long and Jean Doyen.

Towards the end of 1911 Lévy was accepted into the piano class of one of the most famous professors at the Conservatoire, Isidor Philipp, gaining a deuxième prix in 1914 and a première prix the following year. 

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Résultais des concours de piano (femmes) Comoedia 28th June 1914

During the 1920s and 1930s she performed with violinist Edmond Bastide and the Bastide Quartet primarily programming modern French works.  At the Theatre Marigny in 1921 the Bastide Quartet performed the String Quartet by Ravel during the Festival de musique moderne française.  Later Lévy joined them in the Quintet in F minor by Franck and accompanied Bastide in the Violin Sonata by Lekeu leading a critic to describe her as an ‘excellente pianiste’.  In 1932 they broadcast the Franck Quintet but disappear from view around 1938.  An Yvonne Lévy died in Paris in 1977 and one hopes it is the same person.  If any reader has information on Lévy the pianist, please contact me jonathan.summers@bl.uk

The only other recording Lévy made, for the same label, was of the Piano Quartet in A major Op. 30 by Chausson with the Bastide Quartet. 

Nick Morgan, who had donated the Roberts recording to the British Library, also donated the Lévy recording which was published on the unusual Tri-Ergon label.  He supplies some information on the label here.

Shortly before the end of World War I, three German engineers invented a ‘sound on film’ system. Typically, early talkies used ‘sound on disc’ synchronised with the images. In the German system, sound waves were captured by an electrostatic ‘Kathodophon’, converted by a photoelectric transducer and written onto the film itself. Baptised ‘Tri-Ergon’ (‘Work of Three’), the system had a difficult birth amidst post-War inflation. The inventors found German and Swiss backers to launch the system in Europe, where it enjoyed some success. They also sold rights to an American entrepreneur, who waged prolonged commercial and courtroom campaigns against big US concerns such as Paramount and MGM – and lost.

Reportedly devised as a further money-spinner, ‘Tri-Ergon Photo-Electro-Records’ were made and sold in several European countries. Outwardly conventional, these 78s were mastered by transferring Tri-Ergon film strips onto wax at one hundredth speed, taking four hours per side. The quality was variable, but an ambitious catalogue was built up, mainly popular music plus a little folk, classical and speech. In France, Tri-Ergon’s talkie technology was unveiled in 1929, and adopted almost immediately by the great director René Clair. But the first locally recorded Tri-Ergon discs were apparently released only in 1932. Only two classical French Tri-Ergon sets are known, both with pianist Yvonne Lévy – a fascinating if flawed echo from an earlier age of technological innovation, competition and globalisation.

Lévy’s recording of the Franck Prelude, Chorale & Fugue can be heard here.

Yvonne Levy

25 May 2017

An Ode to Early Record Catalogues

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Thomas Henry is a collector of 78 rpm records based in Paris who has carried out extensive research on the history of sound recording through his blog Ceints de Bakélite and his interactive mapping project Disquaires de Paris. With a background in history and sociology of music from Paris École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, he is originally a vinyl collector who converted to shellac a decade ago after finding a bunch of mysterious Armenian 78 rpm records at Yerevan’s flea market.

A member of Paris Phono Museum, he also holds the Vice-Chair position of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives’ (IASA) discography committee. One of the aims of the committee is to create a network of partners who will collaboratively create a bibliography of discographies including information about all current, out-of-print and in progress discographies published worldwide in print and electronic formats. Digital versions of discographies, including those which have thus far only been available in print, will also be made available through this bibliography. You can access it and add to it through IASA’s webpage.

A discography is a comprehensive and detailed compilation of musical recordings, particularly those of a particular performer or composer. It is also very common to find discographies dedicated to a music style or a label. Behind a discography, there is the will to provide more information about a body of sound recordings. Discographies are often created by a researcher, a collector or an institution. Some of them are printed and published, some of them are just excel sheets on the computer of private collectors, but all of them are created with the same purpose: increasing knowledge about an artist or an orchestra, a composer, a label, a music style, etc. Record catalogues, key sources for this type of research, are printed documents produced by record companies that can be used as valuable tools by discographers and music aficionados. They offer less information than a discography about the sound recordings, but are full of interesting elements that complement and enhance them. 

For this blog post, Henry takes a closer look at some of the record catalogues made available online by the British Library and through their rich visual iconography, illustrates their use and history. Thomas Henry would like to thank Jonathan Ward and Suresh Chandvankar for their assistance in writing this piece.

An ode to early record catalogues

While listening to a fox-trot from the mid 1920's, a Beethoven sonata from the 1930's or a calypso from the early 50's, one might want to learn more about it. Of course some information will be available on the record's centre label but this information can be quite limited or not directly comprehensible. The name of a performer or an orchestra, title of a song, name and logo of a record company, short description ("fox-trot", "piano solo", "tenor with orchestra", "birds imitation" etc...), language and some obscure figures and letters can still lead us to wonder - When was this recorded? Who is the singer? What did he/she look like? Was he/she famous? What were people listening to at the time? And how did they listen to their records?

Finding answers to all these questions might take time or even turn into a lifelong quest for some obsessive researchers. Such research can be somewhat akin to detective work and clues can be found browsing photograph, newspaper, poster or sheet music collections available in libraries. Another fascinating, often underrated but incredibly useful item in this research is the record catalogue. 175 record catalogues have been digitized and made available on the British Library website. They are focussed on the British market and cover the "acoustic era" - from the late 19th century to the mid 1920's - before the microphone’s invention. One might see these catalogues as just a simple listing of records, but they are actually much more than that and in this post, I'll try to show why.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVOX1925XXX-0000V0
New His Master’s Voice Operatic Records, 1925

From the very beginning of the phonographic industry, all recording companies published catalogues listing their published output: wax cylinders and later on, records. In most cases, "general catalogues" were published every year and these were sometimes completed by "supplements", published on a monthly basis. In addition, some extra catalogues were also published for specific repertoires or special occasions. Created for a commercial use, these catalogues firstly give an overview of a record company's output at a given moment in time and illustrate how this output was categorised and marketed. Indications on the label's colours assigned to each musical style and its corresponding price range give us a clear picture of what it was like buying records in the past.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-ZONXX1913X14-0000V0
Zonophone Record Catalogue, 1913-14

The very first catalogues from the late 1890’s rarely mention the name of performers and composers; potential buyers were more interested in the name of a popular melody or an opera. Their content gets more precise over time and later catalogues, provide much more detail.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-EDIGX1898XXX-0000V0
Edison-Bell List of Records, 1898

These catalogues do not just consist of a monotone alphabetically ordered list of artists, they let us discover a very rich iconography - photographs, drawings, advertisements - complementary to the sounds themselves.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1913X09-0000V0
His Master’s Voice New Records, September 1913

Beyond their aesthetic dimension, these graphic elements provide interesting information on the ways in which  records and talking machines have been used over time. In addition, they often include technical tips on the best ways to play and store records, information that can be useful for people interested the history of sound recordings and talking machines.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-PATGX1910X11-0000V0
Complete Catalogue of Pathe Standards 10 Inch Double Sided Discs, 1911

These catalogues are also full of photographs and biographical elements about artists that can be hard to find anywhere else. They reflect consumers' tastes of the time, showing what the hits and who the big stars of the early 20th century were. This gives us some clues about the music our ancestors were listening to. No talking machine nor record collection from that time has survived in my family, so I can only speculate: were my great-grandparents fans of the French soprano Emma Calvé or the baritone Maurice Renaud? 

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRARX1904XXX-0000V0
Catalogue of “Red Label” Gramophone Records, February 1904

Or were they listening to marches by La Garde Républicaine and comic monologues by Parisian “Café-Concert” artists? Or were they actually lovers of rare or upbeat - yet popular - repertoires, such as animal imitations, whistling or hunting horn recordings?

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1910X08-0000V0
New Gramophone Records, August 1910

 At a time where phonographs and gramophones were still considered by many as amusing curiosities rather than a way to enjoy “serious” music, convincing famous artists to make recordings was also a way for record companies to legitimize the talking machine. From very early on, The Gramophone Company understood that and some of its older catalogues feature pages where some popular singers express their admiration for the Gramophone and its capacity to faithfully reproduce their voice.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVCX1915XXX-0000V0
His Master's Voice Celebrity Records, 1915

In the same vein, record companies also used their catalogues to promote some of their “sensational” or unusual recordings and demonstrate the superiority of their products. Lacking Lolcats at the time, lambs and dogs were preferred to create a buzz.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-HMVNX1913X09-0000V0
His Master’s Voice New Records, September 1913

As an object, each of these catalogues has its own history. If you look at them carefully, you’ll see that they have many stories to tell about their former owners and the period during which they were published. They might include personal hand-written notes by their former owners or references to the historical and political background, as illustrated by the following reference to the Russo-Japanese War.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRAMX1904XXX-0000V0
Catalogue of Twelve-inch Gramophone Monarch Records, March 1904

​Early recordings made in some regions of the world are less documented than those made in Western countries. In some cases, there is no longer an existing archive allowing us to discover more about an artist and the context in which he or she was recorded. For these types of records, the work of discographers becomes absolutely essential. Based on a systematic inventorisation and analysis of cylinder and record details - performers, title, language, label, genre, matrix and catalogue numbers - discographical research provides valuable elements to find out the date and the result of a recording session. Record catalogues are a key resource for discographers, as they feature dating and background information. Browsing these catalogues is often the first step in discographical research, even though some of them are very rare - in some cases much rarer than records themselves! The opposite also holds true: records listed in some catalogues might never turn up and  their presence in a catalogue remains the only evidence that they ever existed.


As a collector of 78 rpm records “from around the world” - some might call them “world music” or “ethnic” records - I cannot conclude this post without mentioning some beautiful examples from this area taken from the British Library’s catalogue collection. They let us discover some very early Indian, Persian, Arabic and Russian recordings made in 1899 by the Gramophone Company in London.

http://sounds.bl.uk/Sound-recording-history/Early-record-catalogues/029M-GRAGX1901XXX-0000V0
Gramophone Record Catalogue, 1899

 As part of the British Library’s Endangered Archive Program, a large collection of 1,408 Indian songs recorded on 78 rpm records were digitized and made accessible online in 2016. This unique material, focussed on the Odeon and Young India labels was sourced from private Indian collectors Suresh Chandvankar, Sunny Matthew and Narayan Mulan. Some very rare catalogues were also digitized, allowing us to enjoy their gorgeous illustrations and fascinating photographs while listening to some of the fabulous recordings available, such as this solo of Sundari, a double reed instrument, performed by Vithal More.

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Odeon Marathi October 1934 catalogue
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Young India Catalogues - Gujrathi, March 1941

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

19 May 2017

The Sound Recordings of Arnold Adriaan Bake at the British Library: A treasure trove of South Asian music

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This is the second blog from World and Traditional Music highlighting collections at the British Library  from India, as part of the 2017 UK-India Year of Culture

19th May 1899 is the birth date of Dutch ethnomusicologist Arnold Adriaan Bake [1899-1963].

Today the British Library is launching the first series of recordings from his collection of music from South Asia which has been a great resource for many academics across several disciplines. The British Library is actively engaged with a number of international academics and communities who are working with wax cylinder recordings from the Arnold Adriaan Bake archive to enhance the documentation for these recordings. They are being released in regional batches as research progresses.

The first batch includes recordings from Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh. These recordings have been the focus of PhD student Christian Poske's research, the author of this blog. 

Bake_1

Bauls at the Jaydev Kenduli festival, West Bengal, India, 15.1.1932.

(Still of film by Arnold Adriaan Bake, British Library, C52/FO/12)

 “Kees, Charley and I enjoyed the silence, and headed towards a small camp much closer to the way, where we had heard such nice flute playing. It was quite unreal. Some women and men, marvellous figures, sat in a circle, and a quite old man warmed a pair of long, thin hands above the small fire. Facing with his back to us, a man played on a bamboo flute, (…) completely detached from the outer world. It was splendid. We remained standing for quite some time and listened (…) The flute player stopped, and one of the others sang a song that was also very nice. To my great surprise, they agreed to come to the tent in the afternoon of the next day to record songs. I was very happy. It was the first really good thing that we had heard.” (Arnold A. Bake, Letter to his mother, 20.1.1932)

 

 C52_1757 Eman sādher bāgāne āmār

Listen: C52/1757, MP3 “Eman sādher bāgāne āmār” (engl. “In the garden of my desire”): Song performed by three Bauls, vocals with percussion accompaniment (Jaydev Kenduli, 15.1.1932, phonographic cylinder recording by Arnold Bake). This song belongs to the category of dehatattva (lit. ‘principles of the body’), the philosophy of the role and function of the human body, perceived as dwelling place of the divine, in attaining spiritual salvation. In its lyrics, aspects of human life are expressed through natural symbolism and personification: the six human sentiments of kāma (lust), krodha (anger), lābh (greed), mada (arrogance), moha (attachment), mātsarya (jealousy), known as ṣaḍṛpu (six enemies) in Indian philosophy, are described as six gardeners with corresponding character traits who influence human nature.

The Dutch ethnomusicologist Dr Arnold Adriaan Bake (1899-1963) was a pioneer in the study of South Asian music and dance. Initially trained in Western music, Bake was perhaps the first Western scholar to fully realise the wealth and diversity of South Asian music and dance traditions, which could be found not only in urban salons, theatres and concert-halls, but also in temples, monasteries, small towns and remote villages, across the sub-continent and at all levels of society. Taking advantage of the latest developments in audiovisual recording technology, and with the devoted help of his wife Corrie, he set about documenting this diversity - from Sri Lanka in the south to Nepal and Ladakh in the north - with unprecedented dedication and energy. The World and Traditional Music Collection of the British Library holds a unique anthology of material recorded by Bake. Its Bake collection spans not only many decades but also many formats of audio and visual material including wax cylinders, tefi-bands, open reel tapes and 16mm black and white and colour silent films, providing a complex and detailed document of music and ritual in South Asia from the 1930s to the late 1950s.

Bake_2
Arnold A. Bake recording women of the Mannan tribe, Kerala, 17.11.1933

(British Library, C52/FO/12)

            In the course of my AHRC-funded research at SOAS and the British Library Sound Archive, I am studying Bake’s fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh. In the last few months, I have evaluated his audio recordings and silent film recordings from these regions with the support of World and Traditional Music curators, Janet Topp Fargion and Isobel Clouter. Bake’s overseas correspondence, which is stored in the India Office Records and Private Papers collection of the British Library, provides much information about his fieldwork. Through an evaluation of these letters, new information related to Bake’s fieldwork and recordings has emerged so that previously uncatalogued recordings could be identified.

Bake_3
Arnold A. Bake with tabla and tanpura, Santiniketan, around 1926-27

(Bake collection, SOAS Music Department, SNK 55)

Presumably, Arnold Bake's interest in Indian music was sparked by the visit of the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) to the Netherlands in 1920. Having studied Sanskrit and other Asian languages in Leiden and Utrecht, Bake decided to complete his doctoral thesis, a translation of two chapters of the Saṅgīta Darpaṇa, a seventeenth-century treatise on Indian musicology, at Visva-Bharati, Tagore’s university in Santiniketan in West Bengal. While completing his thesis at the university, Bake also learned to sing Indian classical music and Rabindrasangit, the songs of Tagore, from 1925 to 1929. After his return to Europe, Bake held lectures on Indian music in Europe, providing practical demonstrations by singing Indian songs. Bake also sang some of Tagore’s songs at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin in 1930.

C52 2022-2 Nāi nāi bhay

Listen: C52/2022 (song 2), MP3 “Nāi nāi bhay” (engl. “Don’t be afraid”): Rabindrasangit, performed by Arnold A. Bake (Berlin, early 1930, phonographic cylinder recording by Georg Schünemann). Tagore originally wrote this song during one of his European journeys in Munich in September 1926, inspired by the struggles of Jatin Das and other leading figures of the Indian independence movement. The song praises the strength of the human spirit in the face of difficulties. In 1935, Bake published a transcription of the song in his book Chansons de Rabindranath Tagore: Vingt-Six Chants Transcripts.[1]

During his second stay in India from 1931 to 1934, Bake was again based in Santiniketan. From there, he made several recording trips to festivals in the vicinity to record folk and devotional music such as Santal music and dance, Baul music and Vaiṣṇava kīrtan. To reach the recording locations in the morning, Bake and his wife often had to travel overnight on bullock carts:

We took our two mattresses with us so that we had camping beds (…) - first straw, then two mattresses, then our bedding. It got cold quickly, so we wrapped up in the blankets nicely. Nevertheless, the cold still got us and we got out again in the middle of the night. (…) Around 6 am we climbed down from the cart and ran ourselves warm. At 7 am, Ganapati made tea somewhere by the side of the way, and at 8 am we started again and walked in front. It was around 10 am when we arrived in Kenduli (…)

(Bake, 20.1.1932)

Bake’s third fieldwork trip in South Asia was prolonged by the outbreak of the Second World War and took place between 1937 to 1946. His last fieldwork in South Asia took place in 1955-6, centering on Nepal. Bake also found the time to revisit Santiniketan for a few days, where he recorded Indira Devi Chaudhurani (1873-1960), the niece of Rabindranath Tagore, who had helped to establish the music department of Visva-Bharati University. Recorded when she was 82, her rendition of Tagore’s song “Katabār bhebechinu” has a striking intensity.

C52_NEP71-1 Katabār bhebechinu


Listen: C52/NEP/71 (song 1), MP3 “
Katabār bhebechinu” (engl. “How many times have I thought”): Rabindrasangit performed by Indira Devi Chaudhurani (Santiniketan, 8.3.1956, reel-to-reel recording by Arnold Bake). Tagore originally wrote this song in 1885, modelling its melody after the English folk song “Drink to me only with thine eyes”. The Bengali lyrics speak of surrender to the beloved one and are a fine example of how Tagore merged expressions of human and spiritual love in his compositions, inspired by the concept of bhakti (devotion) of Hindu Vaiṣṇavism. In 1961, Bake published a comparative musical analysis of both songs in his article “Tagore and Western Music”.[2]

Bake’s cylinder recordings of his fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bangladesh in 1931-34 are now available for listening online at British Library Sounds, where they can be listened to for enjoyment as well as for further exploration by ethnomusicologists. Many of Bake’s recordings from other South Asian regions still await further evaluation, and thus provide fertile ground for further research.

 

[1] Arnold A. Bake, ed., Chansons de Rabindranath Tagore: Vingt-Six Chants Transcripts, Bibliothèque musicale du Musée Guimet. (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1935).

[2] Arnold A. Bake, “Tagore and Western Music,” in A Centenary Volume: Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1961 (New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1961), 88–95.

 

Find out more about the work of the British Library's Sound Archive and the new Save our Sounds programme online.

Follow the British Library Sound Archive @soundarchive and the British Library's World and Traditional Music activities @BL_WorldTrad on Twitter.

18 January 2017

Music for a President

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The inauguration of the 45th President of the United States made me think of the music written by the great American composer John Philip Sousa. 

John_Philip_Sousa_cph.3b35816

John Philip Sousa in 1911 (Library of Congress)

Born in Washington in 1854, Sousa’s father was of Portuguese and Spanish origin and his mother was German.  Their son’s musical fame led him to became one of the few enshrined in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1976.

Sousa is famous for his patriotic marches, the most well-known being Stars and Stripes Forever, written in 1896 and made the official national march of the United States by an act of Congress in 1987.  Here is a recording performed by the Sousa Band more than a century ago in extremely good sound for 1909.  The fidelity of the piccolo solo is remarkable.

Stars & Stripes 1909

Hail to the Chief is the official Presidential anthem of the United States which is played at public appearances.  This was a song written around 1812 by a little known London theatre conductor James Sanderson to verses from Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake.  After being published in Philadelphia it was played firstly to honour George Washington and then at various occasions including the inauguration of the eighth president, Martin van Buren.

It was the 21st President, Chester Arthur, who requested a new musical work to be written specifically to be associated with the President of the United States because he did not like Hail to the Chief.  Sousa’s offering was Semper Fidelis (Latin for ‘Always Faithful’) written in 1888.  It is regarded as the official march of the United States Marine Corps and here they are playing it in 1909.

Semper Fidelis

These marches, along with The Liberty Bell and The Washington Post will keep Sousa’s name alive, but he also wrote a number of operettas – El Capitan having 112 performances on Broadway in 1896.  His march of the same name uses music form the score and is here performed by the Sousa Band.

John_Phillip_Sousa_-_De_Wolf_Hopper_-_El_Capitan

A poster for the original production of John Phillip Sousa's operetta El Capitan (1896), starring DeWolf Hopper (Library of Congress)

El Capitan

The reason so many early recordings of Sousa’s works exist is because the primitive acoustical recording process was best at reproducing the sound of loud performances - something an opera singer or a brass or military band could provide.  Indeed, some of the very earliest recordings are of bands.  Here is a London recording of Stars and Stripes Forever when it was hot off the press, made by the London Regimental Band 120 years ago somewhere between 1896 and 1900.  Certainly, it has a more primitive sound than Edison was later to achieve; the piccolo solo on this recording is barely audible.

Stars & Stripes 1896

1893sousaband

The Sousa Band at the St. Louis Exposition in 1893 - each member sporting a moustache

Sousa believed that the phonograph would put musicians out of work stating in 1906 that it would prevent music being made at home and that ‘they are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.’  For this reason he would not enter a recording studio although allowed his band to do so.  Therefore, he is not conducting these early performances.  However, he did conduct a few recordings and broadcasts later in life.

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical 

31 December 2016

Recording of the week: the first New Year's Eve radio message

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This special New Year's Eve selection comes from Paul Wilson, Curator of Radio.

On New Year’s Eve of 1922, just six weeks after the first official BBC radio broadcasts were aired, the first ever New Year’s message was transmitted, generating a mixture of awe and some wild speculation about what this new medium might mean for the future.

Leeds Mercury 1 Jan 1923

The Leeds Mercury, 1 January 1923

Whereas the Leeds Mercury was ‘bewildered’ at the thought that ‘hundreds’ of people might be listening, the Falkirk Herald predicted that by 1950 ‘men about town will be carrying a listening-in set in their waistcoat pocket’ and that ‘probably we shall be in touch with other worlds’.

Meanwhile, in Lincoln sixteen year old Alfred Taylor made a brief but more down-to-earth note of what he heard on 2ZY (the BBC's Manchester station) and 2LO (London) in his personal Wireless Log, along with the names of some neighbours who dropped by to ‘listen-in’ with him:

Alfred Taylor Radio Listening Log 1 Jan 1923

Alfred Taylor's Wireless Log entry for New Year's Eve, 1922

A decade later, producer Lance Sieveking was making a feature to mark the end of the BBC’s first decade but found there were virtually no surviving recordings with which to illustrate it. He therefore set about reconstructing some of the key radio moments of the 1920s by asking the original speakers to re-read from their original scripts. Today they give as accurate an impression of what the BBC sounded like in those first years as we will ever have.

This is one of them – a reconstruction of that first New Year’s Eve message broadcast from Marconi House on 31 December 1922. Now, as we move from a bewildering year into one which promises to be even stranger, the Reverend Fleming’s message seems as apt as ever: 

BBC First New Year's Eve Address 1922

Happy New Year from all of us here at the sound archive!

06 December 2016

Messiaen and the songs of wild birds

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This guest blog comes from Delphine Evans whose Master's thesis explored the manuscript notations of birdsong made by the French composer Olivier Messiaen during the 1950s, in relation to the early wildlife recordings that inspired them and to the musical compositions in which they feature.

This year, there has been something of a revival of interest in birdsong and natural soundscapes. In particular, a series of programmes devoted to birdsong  appeared on BBC Radio 3. This included a birdsong mixtape, new interpretations of birdsong-inspired music (perhaps most notably Pierre-Laurent Aimard's day-long performance of Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux at the Aldeburgh festival), and debate on the topic ‘Is birdsong music?’ Also of interest was the weekly birdsong segment on Radio 3’s Sunday Breakfast show, where the remarkable field recordings of different species of birds by Chris Watson were paired with excerpts of music from a variety of composers, from Ravel to Respighi.

The British Library’s sound archive is home to a unique collection of over 200,000 wildlife sound recordings from 1889 to the present day. Of all these, the work of Ludwig Koch (1881-1974) is remarkable in that it represents a pioneering attempt to document the natural sound world using recording technology.

During his lifetime, Koch devoted himself to collecting the sound phenomena he heard in the world around him. In 1889, as a child in his native Germany, he was given an early Edison phonograph which he used to make one of the first known recordings of birdsong: his pet Indian Sharma. When he arrived in England in 1936, Koch began to travel all over the British Isles, capturing birdsong and the sounds of natural environments on wax discs before transferring these to shellac. This was a long and laborious process, often requiring hours or even days of observation of a particular bird before beginning to record its voice. 

Koch’s first British recordings were published as Songs of Wild Birds in 1936, in partnership with the ornithologist E.M. Nicholson. This was followed by More Songs of Wild Birds in 1937. These unique collections combine textual descriptions of the songs and habitats of a variety of species, illustrations of the birds themselves and excerpts of their recorded songs and calls. Koch described Songs of Wild Birds as ‘the first sound-book of British birdsong’ – an early multimedia document that combines text, image and audio.

Songs of Wild Birds box set coverFront cover of Songs of Wild Birds (1936) by E.M. Nicholson and Ludwig Koch

What is remarkable about Koch’s recordings of birdsong is how skilfully he manages to isolate the songster within the recording, yet still captures elements of its surrounding environment - rather like a soloist performing to the backdrop of an orchestral accompaniment. This provides the listener with a clear sense of the habitat in which the featured bird lives: in other words, the recording presents a particular ‘soundscape’. These ‘backdrops’ comprise of many different sounds, from the songs of other neighbouring birds to the fortuitous sound of a passing aircraft.

Grey Heron calls with background birds (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

Curlew bubbling song with overhead aircraft (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

Koch’s recordings were a source of inspiration to another celebrated musical figure whose interest in birdsong is well known. Throughout his life, the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) notated birdsong and other natural sound phenomena. Like his German contemporary, Messiaen had also started to collect the songs of birds as a child – yet, as a musician and (later) composer, his preferred method was to write them down using musical notation. The earliest surviving examples of Messiaen’s autograph notations date from 1951: today, they belong to a collection of over 200 manuscripts that are housed in the archives of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris. These are the cahiers de notations des chants d’oiseaux – the composer’s pocket notebooks that he used to carry around with him and capture birdsong at every available opportunity.

[Recueil_Photographies_Portraits_de_Olivier_[...]Cande_Daniel_btv1b9083761jPortrait of Olivier Messiaen at the 1987 Festival D'Avignon by Daniel Cande (source: Gallica -Bibliothèque nationale de France digital library)

Interestingly enough for a musician who experimented with avant-garde techniques, Messiaen didn't choose to write down what he heard using a progressive form of notation, but instead preferred to use the more traditional stave. He does this in a highly personal and sensitive way, by adding textual descriptions of the quality of a bird’s song, onomatopoeia to evoke its calls (a tried-and-tested ornithologist’s method), and symbols that provide an additional layer of detail to the notations. All of this provides a remarkably thorough depiction of the sounds that he encountered.

Le Courlis Cendre scoreLe Courlis cendré, Catalogue d'oiseaux XIII, p.4. Leduc editions, © 1964

As well as notations made outdoors in the heart of nature, Messiaen’s notebooks also contain a great number of musical sketches that were made from recorded birdsong. These sources were ornithological collections that were commercially available on record – such as Ludwig Koch’s Songs of Wild Birds (1936) and Songs of British Birds (1953)!

Messiaen’s ability to replay time and again the sounds captured in these recordings (something that is obviously impossible with ‘live’ birdsong) doubtlessly enabled an astounding level of precision in his notations. The songs of several birds that feature in Koch’s recordings subsequently found their way into Messiaen’s compositions, as the latter turned to the notations he had made as a source of musical material. For instance, in the final piece of the great piano cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux of 1956-1958, entitled 'Le Courlis cendré', we can hear a direct 'quotation' of the curlew’s call that features on More Songs of Wild Birds:

Le Courlis Cendré (extract)

Olivier Messiaen. Messiaen: piano & organ music (2008). Decca 478 0353, British Library shelfmark 1SS0006222

Curlew calls recorded by Ludwig Koch (More Songs of Wild Birds, 1937)

As well as using bird songs and calls recorded by Koch as a source of musical ideas, it may well be that Messiaen was also inspired by the unique way in which his contemporary captured 'images in sound' of birds within their natural habitat. The notion of a 'soundscape', as pioneered by Koch in his work, finds a lasting legacy in Messiaen’s music. This great French composer similarly presents his listeners with a catalogue, or an inventory, of birds – not only of their songs, but also of the specific environments in which they live. In this sense, Messiaen’s birdsong pieces are like musical pictures: designed to document a particular scene almost as faithfully as the sound recordings from which they take their inspiration.

Delphine Evans is a pianist, musicologist and music educator. Her research is focused on birdsong and the natural sound world, and as a pianist she specialises in 20th Century French music. She has gained musical and academic experience in Canada and France, studying at the universities of Montreal and Paris-Sorbonne. She is currently based in Manchester where she teaches Music and French. 

11 November 2016

'Honk, Conk and Squacket'... anyone?

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Honk Conk and Squacket. Fabulous and Forgotten Sound-words from a Vanished Age of Listening is a compilation of sound-related words by researcher and sound recordist I. M. Rawes.

Honk Conk and Squacket

I. M. Rawes, aka Ian Rawes, is a former British Library Sound Archive colleague. He worked at the Library for years while building The London Sound Survey on the side. This is a unique online sound map documenting the sounds of everyday life in London. It includes urban field recordings made by the author, archival materials, photographs, illustrations and a related blog.

Honk Conk and Squacket  explores the sounds of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and their surrounding socio-cultural context through what is often - notably in regard to the Victorian, pre-recording, era - the only evidence remaining: written documentation.

For this the author has investigated a myriad of sources including patents, dictionaries, glossaries and out-of-copyright period illustrations from the British Library collections.

The book works as a virtual audio nostalgia trip, laced with charm, humour and insight. On a more melancholy note, it touches on the ephemeral nature of everyday sounds and their eventual disappearance. I would recommend it as playful shared reading for the inevitable procrastination of Christmas and a must-reference volume for accurate historical sound writing.

Some sample entries:

Honk: was naval slang meaning to drink in an impressive way, echoic of the noise that eventually results. Early 20C.

Conk: is a large conch-shell of the genus Strombus, imported and then fitted with a mouth-piece. In former times it was used by fishermen as a fog-horn, producing as it did a loud and distinctive note on being blown. Late 19C. Cornwall.

Squacket: to quack as a duck; to make any disagreeable sound with the mouth. Late 19C. Surrey, Sussex and Somerset.

Laist

 Laist: to listen. Late 19C. Suffolk

Talking trumpet

Talking-trumpet. Late 19C.

If you are interested in sound and would like to know more about the Library’s sound preservation programme to digitise the nation's rare and unique sound recordings check out our Save Our Sounds programme and #SaveOurSounds.

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