Sound and vision blog

14 posts from February 2010

09 February 2010

Recording of the Week: Ugandan legendary harp player Temutewo Mukasa

Mukasa was still serving King Mutesa when Klaus Wachsmann, then curator of the new Uganda Museum began making his recorded survey of Uganda’s traditional music on one of the first ‘portable’ disc recorders. This was in 1949. The recording was made at the Mengo Lubiri palace in Kampala, Uganda, which was stormed in 1966 by Prime Minister Milton Obote. The King went into exile, and his musicians fled, taking their instruments with them. They did not play their repertoire again until 1987 when the heir, Ronald Mutebi, was invited back to Uganda and it became clear that the BaGanda people would be allowed to revive their kingdom.

Wachsmann 'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item was recorded at Mengo, Kampala, Uganda. It is selected from the Klaus Wachsmann Uganda Collection by Dr Janet Topp Fargion, curator of World & Traditional Music at the British Library Sound Archive.

The "foremost pioneering scholar in African music", Klaus Wachsmann (1907-1984) made roughly 1,500 unique recordings of indigenous music in pre-independent, pre-Amin era Uganda, most of which have never been published before.  Further information on the Wachsmann collection.

08 February 2010

Ian and Johnny

Trailer for the forthcoming BFI restoration of Accident

Death makes strange bedfellows. The obituaries columns are marking the deaths of Ian Carmichael and Johnny Dankworth, rightly praising each for their contributions to art and culture. Yet though there is no obvious connection between the two, they do share a paradoxical relationship to British film - what you might call invisible significance. Ian Carmichael was perhaps the pre-eminent actor on British films of the 1950s, an iconic figure, and yet one who barely turns up in the film histories and has generated almost nil scholarly attention. Johnny Dankworth, arguably Britain's best-known jazz musician, scored several of the most important British films of the 1960s, yet who would think to cite him as a key figure in that decade's cinema?

Dankworth's overlooked contribution occurred to me while watching Joseph Losey's Accident (1967) a couple of weeks ago, the first time I'd seen it in years. The film is a cold, forensic study of adultery and obsession amongst Oxford dons who wound one another with words said and unsaid. But what struck me was the absolute righrness of the jazz soundtrack. Its cool, unworldly tones counterpoint the action (and inaction) of the film to perfection. You could not imagine the film working with any other kind of score, and you realise just how crucial jazz soundtracks were to those British films of the 1960s with pretensions - and just how many of those soundtracks were supplied by Dankworth. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), The Criminal (1960, Losey again), The Servant (1963, and Losey again - Dankworth's most distinctive film score and the one which got him many subsequent commissions), Darling (1965), Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966), Modesty Blaise (1966, a Losey misfire), The Magus (1968), and more. The sounds of Sixties films are as iconical and of their period as their visuals, and Johnny Dankworth supplied many of them. It is certainly hard to imagine how Joseph Losey's best films would have worked without him.

Ian Carmichael was the antithesis of cool, but by being cast against type by the Boulting brothers he became the everyman figure of British 1950s films. The Boulting films ushered in the satire boom by taking on British institutions and pillorying them one by one: industry and the unions in I'm All Right, Jack (1959), academia in Lucky Jim (1957), the legal profession in Brothers in Law (1957), the army in Private's Progress (1956), and religion in Heavens Above! (1963). Others used him in films with a similar acid touch - Sidney Gilliat satirising politics in Left, Right and Centre (1959) and Robert Hamer's exposition of oneupmaship in School for Scoundrels (1960). Carmichael's what-ho, anyone-for-tennis persona seemed a throwback to the 20s and 30s (and one which gained him renewed popularity on TV in later years with The World of Wodehouse and Lord Peter Wimsey), but the Boultings saw that his guilelessness confronted by hypocrisy would yield comic, satiric dividends. Nowhere is this most effectively done what in I'm All Right Jack, where Carmichael is used as the stooge of both industry bosses and unions before he bursts into rage at the film's climax, denouncing all sides for their blind self-interest. His paroxysm of rage and call to anarchy as he throws to the crowd the money that had been given to him as a bribe is startling, even unnerving to witness. Just what have we done to bring this nice Liberal young man to this?

Perhaps there was something a little too cosy about Ian Carmichael to make critics warm to him, but as the embodiment of reason in a maddening world (a persona he developed before the Boultings found him - see the 1955 satire on television, Simon and Laura) his performances adroitly reflect the dilemma of a nation caught between its past and present and not knowing which way to turn.

Still the most insightful book on British cinema in the post-war period, and one which notes at several points Carmichael's key contribution, is Raymond Durgnat's A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence (1970). The key text on jazz in film, with all of Dankworth's credits, is David Meeker's Jazz in the Movies (1981) - now available as a superb fully searchable online resource from the Library of Congress.

05 February 2010

Seeing SeeSaw


I've been testing out SeeSaw, the newest kid on the IPTV block. It's an archive and catch-up service for television programming - currently BBC, Channel 4 (4oD) and Five programmes - and it's very good. Clearly laid out, easy to use, good quality image, smooth playing, helpful programme information, adverts at the start and middle of programmes none too obtrusive - a very polished offering. Before you rush off and follow the link, do note that it is in Beta mode only at present, and only available to test by invitation. But leave them your email, and you may get invited and start spreading the word for them, just like I'm doing.

So, where did SeeSaw come from? Well its history is one of the most interesting things about it. Cast your minds back to 2007 and word started to spread of an exciting new project being developed by BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4, with the curious title of Project Kangaroo. Kangaroo was going to be the future of television (or at least one of the futures of television). It would be an archive of television content on the Web, representing collectively the interests of the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and maybe others. However, the beautiful idea ran foul of the Competition Commission after complaints raised by those such as Sky who weren't part of the plans. The debate dragged on, Kangaroo chief Ashley Highfield (who had quit the BBC as Director of Future Media and Technology to take on this new project) left to join Microsoft, and eventually the Competition Commission announced (February 2009) that the project could not go ahead.


Part of the SeeSaw programme details page for Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness

However, money had already been spend on the technology, and in mid-2009 a broadcast technology company named Arqiva stepped in and bought up the Kangaroo technical infrastructure, to build their own readymade IPTV service. The result is SeeSaw (which had been considered as a name for the service during the Kangaroo period). As said, it's an impressive service. Programmes available include The Trials of Life, Shameless, The Ascent of Money, Around the World in 80 Days and Skins, categorised under Comedy, Drama, Factual, Lifestyle, Entertainment and Sport. Moreover there's a catch-up service for recent TV programming (again, BBC, 4oD and Five only), so I've just caught up with the first half of the excellent Tower Block of Commons which I'd managed to miss first time around.

However, SeeSaw faces an increasingly crowded market. We already have BBC iPlayer, ITV Player, 4oD and Demand Five for the main terrestrial channels. A similar aggregator site offering programming from BBC, ITV and Channel 4 was launched late last year by Microsoft (Ashley Highfield no less), MSN Video Player, which does much that SeeSaw does. Meanwhile, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five, British Telecom and TalkTalk have joined forces behind another 'project', Project Canvas. This isn't quite the same as Kangaroo (though would undoubtedly have had a close relationship with it). Canvas is about establishing common standards for IPTV so that web TV and broadcast TV can come together in one glorious package on your television. The result would be the next step on from Freeview (so that's be another set-top box you'll be needing to find space for). The third public consultation by the BBC Trust on Canvas has just ended. It has faced a lot of opposition from other broadcasters, particularly Sky, but a lot is now riding on it.

So what does this all mean for scholarly access to television content? As far as catch-up services like iPlayer and video-on-demand archive TV services like SeeSaw goes, it means that we have marvellously easy access to a rather small body of content which tends to be repeated from service to service. 4oD is taking us beyond recent and familiar programming to make available a large amount of archive content, and we're all waiting to send what the next moves will be from the BBC as it continues to develop its new archive strategy. Access is improving all the while (albeit streamed rather than content for downloading and re-use), but still huge amounts lie hidden, kept so by costs, rights issues, and just the sheer amount of content building up in the archives. Off-air recording services in UK universities working under licence through an exception in the Copyright Act mean that much recent television content is available to researchers on campus, but so much more remains out of sight. It's the hidden content that we need to concentrate on - the market is making the cream available very nicely indeed.

03 February 2010

The British Library's moving image collection

It's not generally known that the British Library has a moving image collection. We have books, manuscripts, newspapers, magazines, prints and drawings, sound recordings, music scores, patents and stamps- 150 million items overall - but you have to look quite hard to find the moving images. But they are there, and steps are being taken significantly to increase the Library's moving image presence, of which there will be more to read about as this blog progresses.

What do we have at the moment? It's around 40,000 titles, which is not insignificant in itself. The collection is almost entirely held by the British Library Sound Archive. The titles have been collected for their sound content, not surprisingly, and music predominates. The largest element of the collection is popular music videos. Thanks to an agreement with the Musicians' Union we have around 14,000 pop videos, dating from the late 1980s onwards - effectively the national collection.

Until 1999 the Sound Archive had an off-air recording programme, taking selected radio and television broadcasts from the UK terrestrial channels. The television component covers 1985-1999 and comprises some 9,000 titles. Again, the emphasis is on music - concerts, arts programming, awards shows and so on, though some documentaries and dramas of general interest were also recorded.

Then there is the film and video material which is unique to the Library. The Sound Archive has a strong oral history programme, and increasingly video is being used as well as, or instead of, audio to record such testimony. One major strand is Testimony: Video Interviews With Holocaust Survivors, over 170 interviews with survivors of the Holocaust recorded in collaboration with Yale University's Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.

Testimony is also the name of a television company, headed by renowned film researcher and social historian Steve Humphries, which has produced a number of major series on British life in the twentieth-century, strongly based on oral testimony. From these we have all of the original interview footage for the series Labour of Love (1993) on parenting in Britain 1900-1950 and Forbidden Britain (1994), on the secret history of today's social issues.


The Sound Archive makes both audio and video recordings of theatre productions, with emphasis on experimental and fringe productions. Video highlights include video recordings made 1985-1995 of performances from the London International Festival of Theatre, Barclays New Stages and the ICA Theatre, and more recently digital video records of fringe theatre and live art at London venues such as Battersea Arts Centre and the Chelsea Theatre. Notably the Archive holds the complete rehearsal and performance video archive of theatre company Forced Entertainment.

The world and traditional music collection including some unique film and video recordings, notably the work of ethnomusicologists Rolf Killius (folk, devotional and ritual music in India) and Jean Jenkins (Arabic and African music).


Finally (and little perversely in view of its location within a Sound Archive) we are building up a collection of silent cinema on DVD, creating an access collection for films from the first thirty years of cinema (plus some modern attempts to keep silent film styles going) that does not exist elsewhere. There are around 300 titles collected so far, but the collection is growing.

So how do you find out what we have, and how do you see it? Finding out has, until recently, been quite tricky, but significant improvements are on the way. Step one is to go to the Sound Archive catalogue; step two, select Advanced Search; step three, then use the Format option (DVD video, DVD-R, Film, Laserdisc or Videotape) to limit your searches to moving image materials. It's a bit laborious, and much better is the Library's new integrated search service, still in Beta mode, called Search our Catalogue. This is bringing together searches for books, audio, websites and video, and is a development we're quite excited about. We'll be even more excited once we've got over the glitch which identifies all video content as being audio, but we're getting there.

To see what we've got, you need to make a booking through the Sound Archive's Listening & Viewing Service. Bookings need to be made in advance, and you'll need a Reader's pass. Viewings take place in carrels within the Rare Books & Music reading rooms.

That's where we are at present. There are pockets of moving image materials elsewhere in the Library, but they are just pockets. Where we're going to next must be the subject of another post.

02 February 2010

Recording of the Week: Bernard Shaw on Spoken English & Broken English

In this recording, the first of four sides made for Linguaphone in 1927, Shaw ponders the difficulties in accurately reproducing an individual human voice given the deficiencies of the playback technology of the time:

B Shaw disc

The original discs feature Shaw's signature scratched into the run-out grooves, as shown on the enlarged label image: Shaw 


The recording is a favourite of Tony Harris, a freelance audio engineer who digitised the Early Spoken Recordings collection on this website for the British Library, for the self-referential instructions given by Shaw on the correct playback speed of the gramophone disc: 

“If what you hear is very disappointing and you feel instinctively 'that must be a horrid man' ”, explains Shaw in his precise diction, “You may be quite sure the speed is wrong. Slow it down, until you feel that you are listening to an amiable old gentleman of seventy-one, with a rather pleasant Irish voice - then that is me”. 

“All the other people who you hear at the other speeds are imposters - ‘sham Shaw’ -phantoms who never existed!"

Early-spoken-word-recordings 'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the Archival Sound Recordings website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This week's item, part of the Linguaphone language series 'English Sounds', was selected from the Early spoken word recordings collection by Stephen Cleary, Curator of Drama & Literature recordings at the British Library Sound Archive.

01 February 2010

It begins with Muybridge


Welcome to the British Library's new Moving Image blog post series. It has three main objectives:

  • To talk about the British Library as a place for the study of moving images and the study of subjects through moving images
  • To discuss the Library's moving image holdings, moving image-related events at the Library, and resource developments
  • To cover developments in the moving image field which may impact upon the Library, particularly in the area of digital research

There will be more on just what moving images we have here, and how we intend to increase access and integration, in due course.

But the immediate reason for this post is to alert you to an event taking place at the Library this evening. The man who stopped time: Eadweard Muybridge – pioneer photographer, father of cinema and murderer is dedicated to the 19th-century sequence photographer, or chronophotographer, Eadweard Muybridge, whose work in capturing motion through series of photographs led the way to motion pictures.

The event will feature a talk by Brian Clegg, author of the recent biography of Muybridge, The Man Who Stopped Time, and some unique animations of Muybridge photographic sequences by Marek Pytel. Muybridge was not a filmmaker (though as early as 1880 he projected animated silhouettes taken from his photographic sequences through a device with the glorious name of the Zoöpraxiscope) but the sequences can be made to show movement, magically capturing the point at which still photography wills itself into motion. As for the murderer bit - well, yes, he did murder his wife's lover, only to be acquitted on grounds of justifiable homicide.

The event takes place on 1 February 2010 at the British Library Conference Centre, 18:30-20:00, and tickets cost £6 / £4 concessions. The event accompanies our major exhibition on 19th-century photography, Points of View, which runs until 7 March.