THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

85 posts categorized "Soundscapes"

13 September 2018

Listening to mammals with the Batek

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Coleridge Research Fellow Dr Alice Rudge writes:

The Batek are hunting and gathering people who dwell in the lowland rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia. During my fieldwork with them, I played  some recordings of mammal sounds which are held at the Library. Batek people have extremely detailed ecological knowledge of the rainforest, and this is reflected in their in-depth understanding of its soundscape. I therefore played them these recordings with the idea that hearing these sounds might inspire people to give additional vocabulary or information about these sounds, based on their extensive knowledge.

You can listen to the recordings below:

Siamang duet recorded on Sumatra by Ashley Banwell (BL ref 62323)

White-handed Gibbon calls recorded in Malaysia by Reg Kersley (BL ref 06512)

Clouded Leopard calls recorded in Thailand by John Moore (BL ref 128288)

Binturong calls recorded in Thailand by John Moore (BL ref 61103)

Not only were people aware of what the animals were doing in the recordings I played, but they also accompanied this with cultural information, as well as talking about the emotions that hearing the sounds evoked.

For example, people said that the siamang and white-handed gibbon in the recordings are all running away from predators. In addition, they pointed out that in the siamang recording, the low sounds are the males, but the higher sounds are the females. 

In response to the siamang and white-handed gibbon in particular, people also exclaimed that they felt haʔip ­- an intense feeling of longing, yearning, love, or desire, which is often felt in response to things that are considered beautiful.

Photo credit: cuatrok77 on Visual hunt /  CC BY-SA
Siamang; Symphalangus syndactylus


The beauty of these mammal sounds is reflected in people’s musical instrument playing. The siamang is a favourite sound to recreate on the mouth harp, and the white-handed gibbon is a favourite sound to recreate on the flute. 

However, as well as feeling haʔip,  the white-handed gibbon recording also prompted people to tell the story of the gibbon, including the gruesome part at the end where evil cannibals cook and eat their mother-in-law, which resulted in everyone falling about laughing.

manfredrichter at Pixabay
White-handed gibbon; Hylobates lar

People recognised the sound of the clouded leopard as the yah bintaŋ - yah means ‘tiger’ in Batek, and bintaŋ (or bintang) is the Malay word for ‘stars’, referring to the pattern of its fur.

Photo credit: bobdole369 on Visualhunt /  CC BY-NC-SA
Clouded leopard; Neofelis nebulosa

In the binturong recording, they said that the female binturong is ‘trying to attract male binturongs to mate with’ (ʔoʔ ʔajak tmkal ʔom cycəy).

Photo credit: <a href="https://visualhunt.com/author/e39fc3">jinterwas</a> on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/re/f48d28">Visualhunt</a> / <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/"> CC BY</a>
Binturong; Arctictis binturong

As is also the case for recordings of birds, using wildlife recordings of mammals in the field can therefore be useful for anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, or others who may be interested to find out more about how these sounds are experienced!

The Alice Rudge Collection of Batek recordings is currently being deposited and catalogued, and will be held under the shelfmark C1773.

09 July 2018

Recording of the week: exploding seed pods

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

The soaring temperatures of summer can have explosive results, especially if you happen to be standing near a gorse bush. This thorny, evergreen shrub produces an unmistakable sea of bright, yellow flowers from January to June. As the flowers begin to fade, a mass of black seed pods emerge to take their place. Slowly but surely, the heat of the summer sun dries out these downy carriers until the structures burst open, expelling the tiny seeds enclosed within. The force of this explosion produces a sharp, popping sound, as can be heard in the following example recorded on the Isle of Wight by Richard Beard.

Exploding seed pods (BL ref 212269)

24921214482_051c505a74_bGorse seed pods (Photo credit: Starr Environmental on VisualHunt / CC BY)

This recording was chosen in memory of the field recordist Richard Beard (1953-2018) whose work in the wildlife section helped process hundreds of unpublished collections for more than a decade. Richard also contributed many thousands of his own recordings to the British Library, some of which can be heard in the Weather and Water collections on British Library Sounds. An oral history interview with Richard, conducted in 2013, can be found here.

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

03 May 2018

The value of mixed media collections

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The sound archive is home to over 250,000 wildlife and environmental sound recordings. Over 100,000 of these document the vocalisations of birds, while the sounds of other animal groups, such as mammals and fish, along with a growing collection of soundscapes, make up the rest. The collection covers both terrestrial and aquatic life and represents biodiversity from all over the world. It’s an internationally important resource that is constantly evolving as new recordings are archived for posterity. In a way it can be seen as a living memory bank of the sounds of our planet. The collection doesn’t end there though. Alongside these recordings can sometimes be found other treasures that complement their sonic siblings.

Recording equipment can form an important addition to a sound collection, especially when linked to significant technological breakthroughs in sound recording history. The John Hooper collection  (WA 2009/018), for example, includes a number of early bat detectors and associated equipment, including the first commercially available portable detector, the Holgate Mk 4, which was used to create the first comprehensive collection of British bat recordings.

Cropped HolgateThe Holgate Mk 4 bat detector

Common Pipistrelles hunting at dusk along the river Thames, recorded by John Hooper (BL ref 00305)

Though his name is not as widely known as it should be, Hooper was a key figure in the early days of using sound to study bat biology and ecology in the UK. Through the painstaking analysis of his recordings, conducted using a homemade oscilloscope, Hooper revealed differences in ultrasonic calls that were species specific. These variations in frequency and structure meant that bats could finally be identified by sound alone, which is pretty handy when you're trying to monitor animals that prefer to fly around in the dark.

Hooper documented his analysis by taking photographs of the sound traces produced on his oscilloscope. These images were then annotated and kept in photo albums usually associated with holiday snaps or family memories. With a focus on London bats, his work also helped rebuild post-war distribution records across the capital, rediscovering at least 4 species which were previously thought to have died out. Hooper’s efforts are all the more incredible when you consider that he was only an “amateur”.  His work as an industrial chemist for British Petroleum paid the bills, yet it was an unwavering fascination with bats that became his life's passion.

IMG_0076John Hooper analysing bat recordings in his studio

Cropped photo albumCommon Pipistrelle ultrasonic calls visualised on Hooper's homemade oscilloscope 

John Hooper’s collection of recordings, bat detecting equipment, photographs and documentation was donated to the library in 2009. As well as its own intrinsic value as an historical and scientific resource, the collection also serves as a testament to the rich British tradition of the amateur naturalist and their priceless contributions to our understanding of the natural world. 

Another notable collection is that of EDH "Johnnie" Johnson (WA 2006/03), an ornithologist and sound recordist who spent over 30 years making recordings across Europe, north Africa and the Indian subcontinent. During his lifetime he formed part of several international expeditions to remote regions of the world, helping document the flora and fauna of these largely unexplored areas. Alongside Johnson's recordings can be found daily logs, slides, observational diagrams and hand drawn maps. The following illustration is just one example of Johnson's meticulous recording keeping.
IMG_0072Hand drawn map of Morocco's Jbel Grouz mountain indicating topography & species encountered during an excursion on 22nd January 1968

Johnson's field notes, amassed over the course of his many expeditions,  are both scientifically valuable and pleasingly anecdotal, as can be seen in this excerpt from a log describing a ringing expedition to Algeria in February 1968.

'Great Grey Shrikes (L. excubitor) were found to be common and noisy wherever there were palms. Numerous territorial disputes were constantly in progress and we often saw three birds together in such squabbles. We began to notice numbers of partly-eaten dates impaled on the spines of the lower parts of the palm fronds. At first we thought that they were the result of chance spiking when dates had fallen from above, but this was soon ruled out by the fact that the spikes were, in any case, mainly horizontal, or nearly so, and the dates were spiked very thoroughly, after the manner of a cocktail sausage. At one time we saw a single shrike carrying a date. The positions of the 'larders' coincided with the favourite perching sites of the birds, in the lower parts of the crown of palm trees.'

Items such as those accompanying Johnson's recordings can help contexualise a collection, providing clues which allow us to retrace the footsteps, and thereby the experiences, of recordists who are no longer here to tell their stories.

Wildlife sound recordists are almost always absent from their recordings. No words of encouragement or praise for their recording subjects are required in order to achieve the best results. Silence and stealth is the name of the game here.  The flip side of this is that, unless the recordings contain spoken announcements, we know very little about the recordists themselves, other than their names. That's where photographs come in. A number of photographs of EDH Johnson were found in his collection, including the fabulous example below. Being able to put a face to a name isn't a necessity, but it certainly helps bring a collection to life. 

EDHJohnson_WA0603_imageEDH Johnson recording in the field 

There can be no doubt that sound collections are just as valuable as any other collection type. Though so much can be learnt from the audio alone, other ephemera such as equipment, field notes, photographs and letters bring with them stories that can help curators, and subsequently researchers, gain greater insight into not just the history and methodology associated with field recording, but also the people who made these recordings in the first place. 

Follow @CherylTipp  for all the latest news on wildlife and environmental sounds at the British Library.

16 April 2018

Recording of the week: a windy delivery

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

It's not only letters, local newspapers and pizza flyers that pop through our letterboxes. Sometimes the wind can get through too. This can be heard to great effect in the following recording, made on a blustery January day in 2007 at the home of sound recordist Richard Beard.

Letterbox-1926493_1920

If you fancy listening to the gentle patter of rain or a spot of rumbling thunder, why not pay a visit to the Weather collection on British Library Sounds. Best bring a brolly though.

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

27 November 2017

Recording of the week: pond life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underwater-1529206_1920

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

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

12 October 2017

LISTEN: 140 Years of Recorded Sound

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Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound is the Library's new free exhibition in the Entrance Hall Gallery until 13 May 2018.

This exhibition also inaugurates the Library’s Season of Sound which, includes happy hour listening sessions, a series of talks and late-night shows.

What would you find?

  Gallery_blog

100 Sounds

In the exhibition space we present 100 sounds from the archive, amounting to nearly seven hours of playing time, dating from 1889 to 2017 and covering music, drama, oral history, wildlife, environmental sounds, accents and dialects, and radio.

Many of the selections are rare and unpublished and they can be accessed from any of the exhibition’s listening pods, which have been designed for a secluded and prolonged listening experience.

Hand-out_blog

 Some of my favourites…

  • Radio drama: a musical excerpt from an off-air recording of a radio play by Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin - The People in the Park made in 1963. This is an example of a radio drama which was not saved by the BBC and which the British Library has preserved from an off-air recording. The chosen musical excerpt is representative of the humour and the strong feminist message of the piece.
  • Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan live at WOMAD recorded by the British Library in 1985. The Library has 2500 hours of recordings made at the WOMAD Festival by a team of volunteer staff from 1985 till the present.
  • Brendan Behan singing ‘The Old Triangle’ in 1954 from his play The Quare Fellow. This is a private recording donated by the Theatre Royal in Stratford East.
  • An excerpt from an oral history interview with chef Cyrus Todiwala, interviewed by Niamh Dillon in 2008, recalling his reaction to first encountering Indian restaurant menus when he arrived in the UK from India in the 1990s.
  • A wildlife recording of a Turkish soundscape at dusk made by biologist and field recordist Eloisa Matheu in 2010.
  • Hugh Davies performing his composition ‘Salad’ on a variety of egg and tomato slicers in 1978.

Also… the voice of Florence Nightingale; James Joyce reading from Ulysses; the voice of Brahms; Maya Angelou live in Lewisham; the earliest recording of British vernacular speech; bird mimicry; whale songs; …

‘Mystery tracks’

To put you in the zone we have installed five ‘mystery tracks’ at the very front of the exhibition space. If you are curious to know the ‘when’, ‘where’ and the ‘who’ of the mystery tracks, the details are revealed in a hand-out available elsewhere in the space.

Mystery tracks 1blog 

Timeline

For reference there is a timeline listing key developments in the history of recorded sound (including radio), and illustrating how the effect of recordings and recording technologies has changed our relationship to sound over the years.

Listen timeline_blog

Artefacts

The British Library has a collection of rarely seen audio players and other artefacts. For this exhibition we have taken a few out of storage. Players include an Edison home phonograph from 1900 and a Nagra SN miniature tape recorder from 1970. The artefacts include a colourful selection of picture discs and the original nickel-plated stamper used to press a disc version of Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' in 1890.

Listen to Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'

Edison Diamond Disc phonograph_blogEdison Diamond Disc phonograph (c.1919)

Boy Wireless

To illustrate how archival sounds can inspire new works in the 21st century, composer and sound artist Aleks Kolkowski has created a unique sound installation.

Boy Wireless was inspired by a diary kept by a sixteen-year old radio enthusiast, Alfred Taylor, writing in 1922-23, at the dawn of broadcast radio. The original diary is also on display in the space.

BoyWireless_B Boy Wireless sound installation by Aleks Kolkowski

Aleks Kolkowski_blogAleks Kolkowski at the British Library cutting souvenir voice recordings on the exhibition’s opening night.

Save Our Sounds

The Library’s sound archive is one of the biggest on the planet. It contains six and half million audio recordings from all over the world in over forty different formats. The preservation of recorded sound is at the heart of our work. In 2016 the Library launched the Save Our Sounds Programme to digitise the most vulnerable items in our collection and in other collections across the UK. Donations to support the programme are welcome.

Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for more news.

26 September 2017

Sounds of London

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Pinar-Cevikayak-Yelmi

In this guest blog post Pınar Çevikayak Yelmi describes her recent audio recording projects.

Initiated in July 2017 during my research at the British Library, the London Soundsslike Project aimed to collect symbolic sounds of London. A list of the most characteristic sounds of London was informed by public participation - British Library staff and others responded to a questionnaire I circulated. Then I recorded a representative selection of these sounds and archived them on the Soundsslike platform. The London Soundsslike Project remains a dynamic crowd-sourced sound archive which is open to further contributions.

The London project is a sub-project of the Soundsslike Project which aims to raise public awareness of urban and cultural sounds and to create a global crowd-sourced sound archive. The Soundsslike Project was initiated to expand the Soundscape of Istanbul collection which was created during my doctoral research at Koç University, Istanbul. The Soundscape of Istanbul project approaches everyday traditions and daily urban life from a sonic perspective and aims to increase public awareness of cultural sounds, e,g. through public exhibitions.

Sound is part of our daily lives and our cultures, and is of great importance in terms of intangible cultural heritage. Sonic cultural heritage is twice endangered due to the physical characteristics of sound itself and the dynamic structure of intangible culture. Sounds that are not protected or archived get lost forever. In a dynamic city such as Istanbul, daily life and urban sounds change rapidly. Therefore, it is necessary and worthwhile to conserve cultural soundmarks of the city so as to sustain cultural identity and cultural memory. The Soundscape of Istanbul collection is now archived at Koç University’s library, on the Europeana Sounds platform and on the global database WorldCat. 

Here are some sound samples from the London Soundsslike Project, with accompanying images:

Big-Ben-Chimes

Big Ben Chimes

Tower-Bridge

Tower Bridge

Free-Evening-Standard-Man

Free Evening Standard Man

Ferry-Horn

Ferry Horn

14 August 2017

Recording of the week: the seabirds of Bempton Cliffs

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

If you find yourself in East Yorkshire during the summer holidays, be sure to pay a visit to the stunning seabird colonies at Bempton Cliffs. Every year nearly half a million seabirds congregate on the hard chalk cliff faces in order to breed. Numbers are at their highest between April and August, when Gannets, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Razorbills, Fulmars, Puffins and gulls jostle for the best positions along the precipitous ledges. This recording, made by Richard Margoschis in 1990, captures all the excitement of this busy community.

You can listen to more wildlife and environmental recordings in the Environment and Nature section of British Library Sounds.

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