Sound and vision blog

11 posts from August 2010

04 August 2010

Sounds wild: Chris Watson & Sir David Attenborough in conversation

Next week I’ll be taking part in a public discussion about rainforests and their sounds with Sir David Attenborough and Chris Watson. Watson’s wildlife sound recordings are perhaps best known through his work with Attenborough on BBC television series including The Life of Birds, The Life of Mammals, Life in the Undergrowth and Life in Cold Blood.

Sir David Attenborough

In the discussion, illustrated with tropical rainforest recordings used in Watson’s current "Whispering in the Leaves" installation, we’ll talk about the animals heard in the piece, experiences of filming and recording them, and the changing environment of the rainforest through the day. I’ll also talk about some of the rainforest recordings that I made for the British Library’s Rainforest Requiem CD.

Chris Watson: recording ants

The discussion accompanies the Whispering in the Leaves sound installation, in Kew Garden’s Palm House till 5 September. When I visited the installation recently, as if on cue a flock of Rose-ringed Parakeets screeched overhead as I approached the Palm House -- but these were actually wild birds, part of a growing breeding population of feral tropical parakeets that are regularly seen and heard over south London skies. Then as I entered the humid hot house and was enveloped in Watson’s recording of a chorus of howler monkeys, I found myself transported to the South America jungles. This is the next best thing to the enthralling experience of actually being in a rainforest – without leaving London.

"Calls of the Wild - Chris Watson and Sir David Attenborough in Conversation", produced by Sound And Music and Forma, takes place at 7.30pm on Tuesday 10th August, in the Royal Institution, London W1. Tickets are sold out but there is a waiting list. 

Richard Ranft

03 August 2010

Memory and migration


Mnemosyne, from

Memory is an entirely personal thing. What we call our memories are constructions of the brain which alter according to time and circumstance. They are not objective, and they do not correlate exactly with reality, as any court of law can demonstrate. One person's memories will never be precisely the memories of another person. Notions of collective or cultural memory are therefore nebulous concepts, more socio-philosophical than anything neural, yet they are powerful notions for all that because they demonstrate to us how we are connected to other people. They trigger a collective feeling, even while those who share in such memories will each see that which is recalled a little differently, in their own personal way.

This tension between the personal and the collective seems to lie at the heart of John Akomfrah’s remarkable film-essay Mnemosyne, which is on show at the BFI Southbank until 30 August. Originally presented at The Public in West Bromwich, the film gained such acclaim, from writers as varied as Ken Russell and Sukhdev Sandhu, that it has been brought to London. Anyone interested in the unique power of film to conjure up more than words can say should try and get there.

John Akomfrah is a co-founder of the Black Audio Film Collective, whose best-known work is the seminal Handsworth Songs (1986). Like that film Mnemosyne explores black experience in a real and an imagined Midlands territory. In Ancient Greek mythology Mnemosyne was the personification of memory, as well as the mother of the nine muses, and the film is divided up into nine sections, one per muse. Its visual style is extraordinary. It combines startlingly beautiful images of an unnamed far northern territory dominated by ice and snow, in which solitary figures stand with backs to camera, with archive film of the black community in the Midlands taken from the archives of the BBC, the Media Archive of Central England and Birmingham Cetral Library.

This is what is especially hanting about the film, the way in which it takes archive film originally produced for documentaries, news pieces, promotional films and such like, and turns it into something mysterious, real and quite unreal at the same time. The many images of snowbound streets and cars take on an extraordinary contemplative quality. The images do not speak alone for themselves, however. Akomfrah overlays his melange of present and past film with quotations from Milton, Beckett, Homer, Nietzsche, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Pound, Cummings and others. Sometimes these touch on themes of migration, or exile; often they are more elusive, and more personal to the filmmaker. Sometimes there is an obvious connection with the muse in question, such as the disco dancing for Terpsichore or the haunting use of Leontyne Price singing 'Motherless Child' for Polyhymnia (muse of choral poetry). At other times it is bitterly ironic, as in the use of Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech (delivered in Birmingham) placed under Thalia, the muse of laughter.

Mnemosyne is clearly 'about' the immigration of black and Asian communities to Britain and the hostile and alienating reception so many received. It is filled with great sorrow. But it also seems to be about the shifting nature of archive film itself, which signifies different things from those elements it originally meant to record (such as the film's factory scenes, snowbound traffic, canal journeys and interviews with little Englanders) as time moves on and perceptions alter. Mnemosyne shows that film, like our memories, is ever-changing, recording some sort of a historical reality but at the same time capturing something altogether more mysterious, forever open to interpretation.

02 August 2010

Recording of the Week: Stridulating Warbler?

Cheryl Tipp, curator of wildlife sounds at the British Library Sound Archive, writes:

You would be forgiven for thinking you were listening to the trilling of a stridulating insect. In fact you are listening to the incredible song of the Grasshopper Warbler. This remarkable summer migrant sings around 26 paired notes per second and can normally be heard in the UK from April to July before it returns to its African wintering grounds.

British-wildlife-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 was recorded by British sound recordist Lawrence Shove in the 1960s.  It was selected from the British wildlife recordings collection, a selection of over 600 nature recordings from around Britain.