THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

113 posts categorized "Wildlife sounds"

27 February 2017

Recording of the week: Sparkie Williams the talking budgerigar

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

Sparkie Williams was a prize-winning talking budgerigar, renowned for his impressive vocabulary of over 500 words, sayings and rhymes. In 1958 he was crowned top bird in the BBC's International Cage Word Contest which turned him into an overnight star. His success led him to be the face (or should that be beak?) of an ad campaign for leading bird seed producer Capern and so impressed Parlophone that they offered him a record deal.

His owner, Mrs Mattie Williams, employed an almost military approach to Sparkie's oral development, dedicating several hours a day to teaching her beloved budgie to speak. Her Geordie accent can clearly be heard in Sparkie's delivery of the rhyme at the end of this recording.

Excerpts from Philip Marsden introduces Sparkie Williams_Parlophone 1958

SarkiethebudgieSparkie Williams (courtesy of the Great North Museum: Hanock)

After his death in 1962, Sparkie was stuffed and donated to the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle where he is currently on display.

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

09 December 2016

British Composer Awards 2016

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On Tuesday 6th December the 2016 British Composer Awards ceremony took place at the British Film Institute in London. This annual event recognises the achievements of composers working in musical fields as diverse as jazz, choral and orchestral composition.

Though each area is fascinating in itself, our eyes were firmly fixed on the category of Sonic Art where composer and artist Claudia Molitor was nominated for her major audio work, Sonorama. Conceived as an audio companion for the train journey between London St Pancras and Margate, Molitor drew extensively on the resources of the British Library's sound archive during both the research and composition process. From cheeky music hall songs to tranquil woodland soundscapes, Molitor skillfully combined archival sound recordings with interviews, readings and original compositions to create a rich  soundtrack that vividly brought to life the social history of the otherwise silent landscape experienced by passengers from the train window.

All Aboard for Margate_Florrie Forde

Sonorama opens with 'All Aboard for Margate' sung by Florrie Forde and published c.1905 by the Sterling Record Company

Each track related to a specific  point or area along the train line and covered topics including visio-centricity, Roman history and hop-picking. The historian David Hendy  helped inform the project and artists such as flautist Jan Hendrickse, poet Lemn Sissay, Saxophonist Evan Parker and writer Charlotte Higgins lent their talents to the mix. 

Sonorama was an enjoyable and highly rewarding project to work on. It is a brilliant example of the creative reuse of archival sound recordings by contemporary composers and so we send a huge congratulations to Claudia for this fantastic achievement!

Claudia Molitor

Claudia Molitor, British Composer Awards 2016 Sonic Art winner for Sonorama (photo by Mark Allan)

Visit Sonorama.org.uk for more information about the project, including information on how you can access the audio work.

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Sonorama was curated and produced by Electra in partnership with Turner Contemporary and the British Library, with funding and support from Arts Council England, Southeastern Rail, Kent County Council Arts Investment Fund, Hornby, University of Kent. The Sonorama catalogue is published by Uniformbooks.

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.

03 November 2016

Environments: Irv Teibel and the psychoacoustic record

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Earlier in the year the Irv Teibel Archive generously donated a complete set of the hugely influential environments LP series to the British Library. This collection of environmental field recordings, released over a 10 year period from 1969 - 1979, represents the work of Irv Teibel, the ambient and new age music pioneer whose record label Syntonic Research Inc brought the sounds of nature to a public that was becoming increasingly interested in the natural world. In this special post, Creative Director of Syntonic Research and the Irv Teibel Archive, Jonathan Een Newton, writes about the work and legacy of one of the leading figures from the environmental sound movement.

If you’ve ever drowned out your co-workers’ chatter with rainy sounds, or fallen asleep to a loop of the ocean, you owe your peace of mind, in large part, to field recordist Irv Teibel. His environments series, released on eleven albums from 1969 to 1979, helped introduce popular culture to the utility of natural sound.

Gentle Rain in a Pine Forest

Irv was born in 1938 in Buffalo, New York and studied art in New York and California before becoming a public information specialist for the US Army. While stationed in Germany in the early 1960s, he began experimenting with electronic music at a local radio station. After his service, he found his way to New York City where he photographed and designed layouts for magazines Popular Photographer and Car and Driver

His fascination with natural sound was piqued while on a field recording trip for Tony Conrad and Beverly Grant’s film Coming Attractions. Playing back his ocean recordings the next day, Irv became excited by their potential to mask noise and positively affect mood. He soon threw his creative energy into producing a record designed to be "useful.” In late 1969, he released environments 1, which he assembled with his friend Lou Gerstman, a Bell Labs neuropsychologist.

Environments-26

Cover image of environments 1 (courtesy of the Irv Teibel Archive)

Over the next decade, the series found surprising mainstream success and was even licensed to Atlantic Records for distribution. The thought of a major label releasing a record with just a single 30 minute track per side and without the involvement of a known artist is unimaginable today. Irv eventually released most of the series on cassette and some on CD while he experimented with other projects like video environments, and continued to run a mail order business from his house until his death in 2010.

Environments has often been lumped together with the new age music genre it helped inspire, most likely because of the way it was marketed. But talk to almost any sound artist of a certain age and they’ll tell you that these recordings were hugely influential and helped pave the way for the flood of environmental releases that proliferated in the 1980s and 90s and continues today as Spotify playlists and white noise apps. Like me, many younger listeners have picked up an environments LP in a local record store bin precisely because of the colourful quotes and distinctive Bauhaus-inspired design. But in the end, it is the meticulously constructed soundscapes, which include everything from the classic “Psychologically Ultimate Seashore” to the porto-ambient “Tintinnabulation,” that keep us loyal fans of Irv’s work. 

Teibel-Photo 001

In the Syntonic Research office at the top of the Flatiron Building, Manhattan, NY (courtesy of the Irv Teibel Archive)

What continues to surprise me as I've worked on this project over the past two years is environments' diverse admirers. I’ve connected with musicians working in metal (Earth), noise (Prurient), and electronic music (Matmos) who all cite Irv Teibel and the environments series as an influence. Even pop musician Henry Gross told me he used environments to help write his hit single “Shannon.” There are also pages of comments I'm still sorting throughfrom students and teachers to army captains and correctional officers of every age—collected via the feedback cards inserted into each record sleeve.

Syntonic_logo_4

Snowman in the field, a self-portrait that Irv often included on stationary and feedback cards (courtesy of the Irv Teibel Archive) 

We’re excited to be working on a number of projects to showcase Irv's work including a recently-launched website featuring his writing, photography, and of course, recordings. We're also in the early stages of creating a mobile app to re-imagine environments for the twenty-first century.

Wind in the Trees

We’re thrilled that the British Library’s exceptional sound archive now has a full set of environments. I hope you’ll take some time to listen to this seminal series of creative field recordings and discover your own favourite (mine is "Dusk in the Okefenokee Swamp"). Thanks for caring and keep in touch.

Jonathan Een Newton

10 October 2016

Recording of the Week: Please don't call me a koala bear

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

If somebody were to ask “what does a Koala sound like”, what would you say? It’s difficult to even hazard a guess as these cuddly, tree-loving marsupials are so unlike any other animals. Found only in Australia, they belong to the same class of mammals as kangaroos, wallabies, possums and wombats and, contrary to popular culture, are not related to bears at all!

Australia-1068578_1920

With a cuteness factor that's off the chart, it comes as a bit of shock when they open their little mouths and produce this – a low, grating bellow more suited to a braying donkey with a sore throat.

The natural world is always full of surprises!

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

 

28 September 2016

Anna Pavlova and the Swans of Abbotsbury

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When it comes to dancing legends, the Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova (1881-1931) is up there with the best of them. Her unique style, infinite charm and forward-thinking attitude towards ballet cemented her place in the annals of classical dance.  

As with many ballerinas, swans played an important part in Pavlova’s repertoire. One of her most revered performances was The Dying Swan, a solo set to Saint-Saëns' Le Cygne and choreographed, at her request, by Michel Fokine. The piece was first performed by Pavlova in St Petersburg in 1905 and quickly became known as her signature role.

  Anna Pavlova The Dying Swan_Library of Congress

Photograph of Anna Pavlova in The Dying Swan, n.d., no photographer (retrieved from the Library of Congress)

Saint-Saëns' sombre composition symbolises the final moments of a dying swan, a scenario which lent itself well to ballet. Pavlova’s expressive technique, coupled with Fokine’s experimental nature, produced a dance that was full of emotion. As the dance critic André Levinson reported:

“Arms folded, on tiptoe, she dreamily and slowly circles the stage. By even, gliding motions of the hands, returning to the background from whence she emerged, she seems to strive toward the horizon, as though a moment more and she will fly—exploring the confines of space with her soul. The tension gradually relaxes and she sinks to earth, arms waving faintly as in pain. Then faltering with irregular steps toward the edge of the stage—leg bones quiver like the strings of a harp—by one swift forward-gliding motion of the right foot to earth, she sinks on the left knee—the aerial creature struggling against earthly bonds; and there, transfixed by pain, she dies.”

Le Cygne_Camile Saint-Saens

(Performed by the violinist Albert Spalding, 1914, Blue Amberol 28185, British Library reference 1CYL0001658) 

In preparation for the role, the ballerina apparently spent time observing the movements of swans found in the parks of her native St Petersburg. This desire to draw inspiration directly from nature was something that Pavlova carried with her throughout her career.

After performing with leading companies such as the Imperial Russian Ballet (Mariinsky Ballet) and Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Pavlova decided to form her own ballet company. The move gave the ballerina complete control over her performances as well as the freedom to choreograph and tour without restriction.

While preparing for her production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Pavlova turned once again to the natural world. The ballerina and her dancers travelled to the small Dorsetshire village of Abbotsbury to visit the only managed colony of Mute Swans in the world. First mentioned in the written record towards the end of the 14th Century, Abbotsbury Swannery is believed to have been formed by Benedictine monks three centuries earlier. With up to 1500 individuals descending on the swannery during the breeding season, the location was the perfect spot for Pavlova and her troupe to come and watch the comings and goings of these graceful birds.

Abbotsbury Swannery was the focus of Keeper of the Swans, a BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast on 17th March 1969which featured an in-depth interview with Fred Lexster, the man tasked with caring for the swans. Following in the footsteps of his ancestors, Lexster had been the swannery's official swanherd for over 50 years and had many a tale to tell. When quizzed about famous visitors, Lexster spoke of encounters with luminaries such as Sir Thomas Lipton, George Bernard Shaw, Augustus John and, of course, Anna Pavlova:

Anna Pavlova visit

Pavlova tragically died in 1931, at just 49 years of age, yet her legacy as one of the most captivating and influential ballerinas lives on to this day. Soon after the Second World War, members of the Continental Ballet came to the swannery to perform a piece from Swan Lake in memory of the legendary Pavlova. Lexster had been instrumental in securing the visit so, when the necessary publicity had been concluded, the company's director, Molly Lake, invited the old swanherd to dance with her swans:

Fred Lexster dancing with the ballerinas

When the pioneering wildlife sound recordist Ludwig Koch came to Abbotsbury to record the vocalisations of the Mute Swan, he too was struck by their courtship dance:

“I left Abbotsbury towards the end of May with an unforgettable memory of two swans dancing round and round in the Fleet estuary. Their grace is unique among creatures, and I can understand the immortal Pavlova’s fondness for watching swans at Abbotsbury.”

Despite performing the piece over 4,000 times around the world, very little footage of Pavlova dancing The Dying Swan survives. In the brief segment that remains however, one can perhaps see traces of the swans that so fascinated this most fascinating of ballerinas.

23 September 2016

Europeana Sounds second editathon!

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As part of our Europeana Sounds project we will be holding our second wildlife sounds editathon at the British Library between 10am and 4pm on Saturday the 8th October.  Join us on a sound safari, as we explore the sound holdings on African wildlife.

Sound safari

Europeana Sounds is a three year European funded project, coordinated by the British Library. As part of the project we are aggregating over half a million audio recordings into Europeana and have been working on licensing and enrichment and participation, which includes smaller crowdsourcing projects.

The editathon enables participants to work with our African and British Wildlife sounds collections to expand Wikipedia and enrich existing pages. Whether you’re a fan of editing Wikipedia, have a passion for sounds, or would like to know more about our collections, come along and spend the day with the Europeana Sounds team. There will be Wikimedians available throughout the day for hands on training so if you’ve never edited before, now would be an ideal time to come and learn how it’s done. If you have previous experience of editing, bring your headphones and listen to some of our wonderful collection whilst improving Wikipedia.

The full event details are available on our project website, and the sign up page can be found here. We just need you to your laptop, headphones and enthusiasm and we’ll provide the rest (including lunch!).

Workshop Programme:

10.00-10.30 Arrival and welcome coffee. Log on and computer checks.

10.30-10.45 Introduction to the British Library and an introduction to Europeana Sounds.

10.45-11.00 Introductions to British Library Sounds and Wildlife collection from curator Cheryl Tipp

11.00-11.15 Introduction to Wikimedia

11.15-12.45 Hands on session editing Wikipedia and training available throughout.

12.45-13.00 Recap and sharing

13.00-14.00 Lunch

14.00-15.45 Edits continue

15.45-16.00 Recap of the day and work done

16.00 End!

If you have any further questions or would like to know more please contact Laura Miles: laura.miles@bl.uk