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35 posts categorized "Sound recording history"

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

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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.

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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.

Find more about the British Library's Drama and Literature Recordings and keep up with our activities on @BL_DramaSound.

13 September 2016

Restoring the first recording of computer music

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Jack Copeland and Jason Long
Fig. 1: Jack Copeland and Jason Long

Jack Copeland FRS NZ and Jason Long write: 

A key problem facing audio archivists is how to establish the correct pitch of a historical recording. Without some independent means of knowing how the original sounded, it can be very difficult—or even impossible—to tell whether an archived recording is playing at the right pitch. An important case in point is the earliest known recording of computer-generated music. In 1951, a BBC outside broadcast unit in Manchester used a portable acetate disc cutter to capture three melodies played by a primeval computer. This gigantic computer filled much of the ground floor of Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory.

Today, all that remains of the recording session is a 12-inch single-sided acetate disc, cut by the BBC's technician while the computer played. The computer itself was scrapped long ago, so the archived recording is our only window on that historic soundscape. What a disappointment it was, therefore, to discover that the pitches were not accurate: the recording gave at best only a rough impression of how the computer sounded. But with some electronic detective work it proved possible to restore the recording—with the result that the true sound of this ancestral computer can be heard once again, for the first time in more than half a century.

Frank Cooper's original 'acetate' disc (Photo courtesy of Chris Burton)
Fig. 2: The original 'acetate' disc was saved by Manchester University engineer Frank Cooper (Photo courtesy of Chris Burton)

Alan Turing's pioneering work, in the late 1940s, on transforming the computer into a musical instrument has largely been overlooked: it's an urban myth of the music world that the first computer-generated musical notes were heard in 1957, at Bell Labs in America.1 The recent Oxford Handbook of Computer Music staked out a counterclaim, saying that the first computer to play notes was located in Sydney, Australia.2  However, the Sydney computer was not operational until the end of 1950, whereas computer-generated notes were emerging from a loudspeaker in Turing's computing lab as early as the autumn of 1948.

The Manchester computer had a special instruction that caused the loudspeaker—Turing called it the 'hooter'—to emit a short pulse of sound, lasting a tiny fraction of a second. Turing said this sounded like 'something between a tap, a click, and a thump'. Executing the instruction over and over again resulted in this 'click' being produced repeatedly, on every fourth tick of the computer's internal clock: tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click. Repeating the instruction enough times like this caused the human ear to hear not discrete clicks but a steady note, in fact the note C6, two octaves above middle C.

Turing realized that if the 'hoot' instruction were repeated not simply over and over again, but in different patterns, then the ear would hear different musical notes: for example, the repeated pattern tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick produced the note of C5 (an octave above middle C), while repeating the different pattern tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick click, tick tick tick tick produced the note of F4, four notes above above middle C—and so on. It was a wonderful discovery.

Turing was not very interested in programming the computer to play conventional pieces of music: he used the different notes to indicate what was going on in the computer—one note for 'job finished', others for 'digits overflowing in memory', 'error when transferring data from the magnetic drum', and so on. Running one of Turing's programs must have been a noisy business, with different musical notes and rhythms of clicks enabling the user to 'listen in' (as he put it) to what the computer was doing. He left it to someone else, though, to program the first complete piece of music.

A young schoolteacher named Christopher Strachey got hold of a copy of Turing's Programmers' Handbook for Manchester Electronic Computer Mark II (the Mark II computer had replaced the prototype Mark I, which also played notes, early in 1951).3 This was in fact the world’s first computer programming manual. Strachey, a talented pianist, studied the Handbook and appreciated the potential of Turing's terse directions on how to program musical notes. Soon to become one of Britain's top computer scientists, Strachey turned up at Turing's Manchester lab with what was at the time the longest computer program ever to be attempted. Turing knew the precocious Strachey well enough to let him use the computer for a night. 'Turing came in and gave me a typical high-speed, high-pitched description of how to use the machine', Strachey recounted; and then Turing departed, leaving him alone at the computer's console until the following morning.4

Christopher Strachey, 1973
Fig. 3: Christopher Strachey sunbathing in the garden of his cottage 'The Mud House' in 1973, two years before his untimely death. (Photo courtesy of the Bodleian Library and Camphill Village Trust)

'I sat in front of this enormous machine', Strachey said, 'with four or five rows of twenty switches and things, in a room that felt like the control room of a battle-ship.'5 It was the first of a lifetime of all-night programming sessions. In the morning, to onlookers' astonishment the computer raucously hooted out the National Anthem. Turing, his usual monosyllabic self, said enthusiastically 'Good show'. Strachey could hardly have thought of a better way to get attention: a few weeks later he received a letter offering him a job at the computing lab.6

The BBC recording, made some time later the same year, included not only the National Anthem but also an endearing, if rather brash, rendition of the nursery rhyme Baa Baa Black Sheep as well as a reedy and wooden performance of Glenn Miller’s famous hit In the Mood. There are unsettled questions about the authorship of the three routines that played these recorded melodies. In the wake of Strachey's tour de force a number of people in the lab started writing music programs: even the routine that played the National Anthem in the recording may have been a retouched version of Strachey's original.

It was a challenge to write routines that would keep the computer tolerably in tune, since the Mark II could only approximate the true pitch of many notes: for instance the true pitch of G3 is 196 Hertz but the closest frequency that the Mark II could generate was well off the note at 198.41 Hertz. We found there was enough information in Turing's wonderfully pithy Programmers' Handbook to enable us to calculate all the audible frequencies that the Mark II could produce. However, when we ran a frequency analysis of the 1951 BBC recording (using the British Library's digital preservation copy, tape ref. H3942) we found that the frequencies were shifted. The effect of these shifts is so severe that the sounds in the recording often bear only a very loose relationship to the sounds that the computer would have actually produced. So distant was the recording from the original that many of the recorded frequencies were actually ones that it was impossible for the Mark II to play.

Alan Turing (right) at the console of the Mark II computer
Fig. 4: Turing (right) at the console of the Mark II computer (Courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science)

Naturally we wished to uncover the true sound of the computer. These 'impossible pitches' in the recording proved to be the key to doing so: our computer-assisted analysis of the differences in frequency—between the impossible pitches and the actual pitches that the computer would have played—revealed that the recorded music was in fact playing at an incorrect speed. This was most likely the result of the mobile recorder's turntable running too fast while the acetate disc was being cut: achieving speed constancy was always a problem with the BBC's standard mobile recording equipment at that time.7 So when the disc was played back at the standard speed of 78 rpm, the frequencies were systematically shifted.

We were able to calculate exactly how much the recording had to be speeded up in order to reproduce the original sound of the computer.8 We also filtered out extraneous noise from the recording; and using pitch-correction software we removed the effects of a troublesome wobble in the speed of the recording (most likely introduced by the disc-cutting process). It was a beautiful moment when we first heard the true sound of Turing's computer.

Here is the complete recording of our restoration:

Authors

Jack CopelandJack Copeland is Distinguished Professor in Arts at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His recent biography Turing, Pioneer of the Information Age contains more information about Strachey and the Manchester computer music (Oxford University Press, paperback edn. 2014).

Jason Long

Jason Long is a New Zealand composer and performer, focusing on musical robotics and electro-acoustic music. He has carried out musical research at the University of Canterbury, the Victoria University of Wellington, Tokyo University of the Arts, and the Utrecht Higher School of the Arts.

References

1 See, for example, Chadabe, J. 'The Electronic Century, Part III: Computers and Analog Synthesizers', Electronic Musician, 2001, www.emusician.com/tutorials/electronic_century3.

2 Australian composer Paul Doornbusch writing in R. T. Dean, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music, Oxford University Press, 2009; see pp. 558, 584.

3 A. M. Turing, Programmers' Handbook for Manchester Electronic Computer Mark II, Computing Machine Laboratory, University of Manchester (no date, circa 1950); a digital facsimile is in The Turing Archive for the History of Computing, www.AlanTuring.net/programmers_handbook. Turing's Mark I/Mark II terminology was eventually superseded when the engineering company that was contracted to build and market the Mark II, Ferranti, called it the Ferranti Mark I.

4 Christopher Strachey interviewed by Nancy Foy in 'The Word Games of the Night Bird', Computing Europe, 15 August 1974, pp. 10-11.

5 Strachey in 'The Word Games of the Night Bird', p. 11.

6 Letter from M. H. A. Newman to Strachey, 2 October 1951 (in the Christopher Strachey Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford, folder A39).

7 BBC Recording Training Manual, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1950.

8 We describe in detail how we did this in our article 'Turing and the history of computer music', in J. Floyd and A. Bokulich, eds, Philosophical Explorations of the Legacy of Alan Turing, Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, Springer Verlag, 2017.

04 August 2016

Theatre of Sound. An interview with Aleks Kolkowski

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Theatre of Sound is a nine-minute video which highlights the creative re-use of archival sound recordings in the field of sound art and music composition. It also touches on the use of early audio recording technologies in contemporary performance. These topics are illustrated with video documentation of two projects developed by composer/musician and sound artist Aleks Kolkowski.

 

Sound and Music

With Larry Achiampong, Aleks Kolkowski is one of two Sound and Music-Embedded Programme composers-in-residence at the British Library Sound Archive. This is a twelve-month residency for composers and creative artists, sponsored by Sound and Music, a national charity for musicians, and funded by The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

Besides being a composer and a musician, Aleks Kolkowski is an expert on historical recording techniques. He makes audio recordings on wax cylinders and on acetate discs, and creates public performances using these techniques, in collaboration with poets, musicians and artists. Many of the recordings are available to listen to online through his website Phonographies.

Save Our Sounds

The Library has embarked on a preservation programme: Save our Sounds, which is a 15 year project to digitize and preserve as much as possible of the nation's rare and unique sound recordings, not just from the Library’s collections but also from partner collections across the UK.

It is an aim of the programme to raise understanding, usage and public enjoyment of audio heritage more generally. And in this respect, the work of Aleks Kolkowski at the British Library Sound Archive supports the programme, by exposing the history of sound recording in a performative way.

Aleks's work is helping to create awareness and interest among different generations of new audiences. He has also contributed to the Sound Archive by adding his own collection of recordings made at the Library's studio, which will eventually be available online through the British Library Sounds website.

Performance Documentation

I have been documenting the performances and other creative outputs of Aleks at the Library since February to produce this video which I presented in Copenhagen at the performance archives conference SIBMAS 2016.

In addition the video features archival recordings and documentation from the Bishop Sound Company collection of sound effects for theatre, which dates from the early 1940s till the end of 1960s. The sound effects were recorded direct onto lacquer discs and then pressed to 78 rpm shellac for hire or sale. There are more than 3000 discs and hundreds of open-reel tapes in the collection. Aleks will be re-using this material in one of his future projects.

It has been very positive and enjoyable for me and other Sound Archive colleagues to work with our two composers-in-residence Aleks and Larry. Artists challenge people to see collections differently. They revive interest in collections and create awareness in ways that can't be done from inside the archive. They also contribute to reaching new audiences, who perhaps would not have come into contact with the collections otherwise.

Find more about the British Library's Drama and Literature Recordings and keep up with our activities on @BL_DramaSound.

11 July 2016

Embedded Live

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Since autumn 2015, the British Library Sound Archive has hosted Aleks Kolkowski and Larry Achiampong as composers in residence through Sound & Music's Embedded Residency scheme. Larry and Aleks will be performing live on Tuesday 12 July at 18:30 as a way of showcasing their progress in the first half of the residency. You can book your free tickets here but space is limited!

Embedded is a Sound and Music creative development programme funded by The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the PRS for Music Foundation which places composers from a range of disciplines into extended relationships with leading national organisations.

The 12 month residency is an ideal duration for the British Library Sound Archive to host artists, allowing them to engage with the rhythm of the archive, far from the immediacy with which the digital domain has accustomed us to consuming music. In an archive, the journey a listener takes with a sound recording – often on an analogue carrier – can be as long and circuitous as the initial route taken to make the recording.

In their collaborative live performance, Larry and Aleks will draw upon their respective explorations of the sound collections whilst also demonstrating historic sound recording formats, such as wax cylinders, 78rpm, acetate and vinyl records on phonographs and gramophones in combination with contemporary beat making machines and electro-acoustic manipulations.

 

2R3D6671
The artists have seen what takes place 'behind the scenes' during their residency at the sound archive

 

During the residency, Aleks Kolkowski has been focussing on early cylinder recordings and the Bishop Collection, which gathers the sound effects made for theatre by the Bishop Sound and Electrical Company which operated in Soho during the the 1940s and ‘50s. Kolkowski’s work engages with Save our Sounds, the Library's programme to preserve the nation's sound heritage by playfully employing analogue technology and obsolete formats in a contemporary setting. His impressions about creating work within the sound archive give us some insight into what sorts of sounds and artefacts he has been exposed to:

I was prepared for the vastness of the sound collections and familiar with some of the categories but there are always plenty of surprises, many brought to light by the curators. The quantity of home recordings, for instance, dating back to the early 1900s on cylinders is very impressive and are a delight to listen too, as are the domestic open reel magnetic tapes and acetate discs from the 1950s such as the A.W.E. Perkins Collection. To listen to these voices and sounds from the past is to experience social history brought alive. I am also very taken with the large collection of broken records that brings out both the audio archaeologist and the hands-on experimenter in me. I would love to spend time piecing these rare recordings back together and rescuing their sounds, or playfully rearranging them in the style of Milan Knízák’s Broken Music.

Larry Achiampong, an artist with a background in visual arts, has been developing a new body of work stemming from two previous projects, which explore his Ghanaian heritage. ‘Meh Mogya’, which means 'my blood' in Twi, a Ghanaian language, and ‘More Mogya’, meaning ‘more blood’, are the origin for his current exploration of field recordings from wider West Africa. He was particularly inspired by the selection of music present in the recent British Library exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song and will be re-mixing excerpts in his performance. As part of his residency, Larry participated in Ghana Beats, one of the ‘Late at the British Library’ events alongside artists such as Yaaba Funk and Volta 45.

 

2R3D6901
The Swiss-made "Mikiphone", patented in 1924, is the smallest talking machine ever placed on the market and is part of the sound archive's artefact collection

 

Beyond Embedded, the sound archive is committed to supporting the creation of new work by artists, composers, academics, record labels, and curators. Through annual opportunities such as the Edison Fellowship or one-off commissions, we guide listeners through our collections and enable new research and creative practices, such as with Hidden Traces. This installation functions as an audio map of the Kings Cross area, layering interviews with local residents and archival recordings from King’s Cross Voices interviews to create a narrated journey that reveals how the area has changed. Realised by choreographer and urbanist Gabriele Reuter and sound designer Mattef Kuhlmey, it was commissioned by The Place and supported by the British Library.

The British Library Sound Archive has been pivotal to various artistic productions since its origins in 1955 as the British Institute of Recorded Sound, including Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. In 1983, Martin Scorsese discussed ideas for the musical soundtrack of his film with musician Peter Gabriel, who recently described how the National Sound Archive was crucial to the creation of this soundtrack –

In my research for Passion, many people mentioned the wonderful resources in the NSA (National Sound Archive) and in particular introduced me to Lucy Duran, who both understood what I was hoping to achieve and made lots of great suggestions. Scorsese had asked for a new type of score that was neither ancient nor modern, that was not a pastiche but had clear references to the region, traditions and atmospheres, but was in itself a living thing. 

The soundtrack, which was further developed and released as the album Passion on his record label Real World Records in 1989, brought together Middle Eastern and North African traditions and included appearances by musicians like Baaba Maal, Jon Hassell, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Bill Cobham who were just becoming big names in the world music genre.

Peter Gabriel’s creative process for the soundtrack and album is captured in a compilation record entitled Passion – Sources, which was released shortly after Passion, also by Real World Records. This album includes the “sources of inspiration” – some of the recordings of traditional music he listened to at the National Sound Archive alongside location recordings made during the filming process. For Gabriel, the archive is still a relevant source of inspiration: “There is so much great stuff there, most of which you can’t reach by googling.”

The inexhaustibility of the archive makes it an ideal setting for creation, limited only by the time and patience it can take to search and listen through the sound recordings available. Through the Embedded residency the Sound Archive is able to support the creative process of contemporary artists, acknowledging the ways in which past works can be explicitly influential. The mobile process of creating original work is given new possibilities within the archive, a unique opportunity to work amongst one’s sources, and engage with them in greater depth. As the sound recordings in the archive are re-contextualised into new events and compositions, their meaning is extended and their historicity brought into the present.

27 April 2016

The Story of the Tiger Hunt

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The Story of the Tiger Hunt' was part of a short-lived series of educational records for children, produced between 1919-1921 by the Emerson Phonograph Company under license from the Talking Book Corporation of New York. The majority of these records had an animal theme and were presented as colourful, die cut illustrations with a small record attached to the centre. The disc contained a short story or rhyme while the back of the cardboard carrier contained further information about the featured animal and a transcript of the record. The entire package was placed directly on the turntable when played.

Tiger on turntable

The series was announced in the May 1919 issue of Talking Machine World and proudly stated that these animal records "have an educational value that can hardly be overestimated." Clarity was of the utmost importance so only voice actors with the very best diction were used:

"Elocutionists of note and merit make these talking records, so that the child's ear is attuned to perfection of sound from infancy".

Almost a century later, the clear style of delivery from the un-named actor can still be heard beneath the crackle of time. The "educational value" of 'The Story of the Tiger Hunt' is hard to understand however, yet encapsulates the attitudes towards this species at the turn of the 20th century.

The Story of the Tiger Hunt, Talking Book Corporation 1919

Crouched in tall jungle grass,
Above the rocky pass,
Lashing his snaky tail
The Tiger guards his trail.

The distant hunters come - 
Hark to the tom-tom's drum!
What mighty beasts they ride
With tough and leather hide!
Who trumpets there I wonder?
The elephants deep thunder!

Close to his lair they go,
Beware! He crouches low;
Hear his fierce purring growl!
List how the natives howl!
Ready with gun and spear!
Strike, when The Stripes appear!
Look out! The monster springs!
Quick! Fire! Each rifle rings!
Hear that victorious cry!
Ah! See him fall and die!

In 1919, tiger hunting was still a popular form of big game hunting in south Asia. Hunts were carried out on foot, with horses and on the back of elephants, as referenced in the second verse of the tiger hunt rhyme. Tigers were also a common occurrence, with an estimated 40,000 or so individuals existing in India alone. The general consensus was that the hunting of and killing of these majestic animals was still an acceptable and prestigious activity, and that this resource was seemingly limitless. By the 1970s however, numbers had plummeted to just under 2000 individuals. This dramatic decline kick-started  a conservation plan which began with a well-overdue national ban on tiger hunting.

Tiger Front

'The Story of the Tiger Hunt', as well as illustrating the attitudes of the time, leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. The piece appears to contain recordings of a roaring tiger and trumpeting elephant, yet where did these recordings come from? They almost certainly were not recorded in the wilds of India so captive animals must have been used. But who recorded these animals and where? Or are these merely the work of talented foley artists working at the Emerson Phonograph Company? For now, these answers elude us.