Sound and vision blog

4 posts from May 2012

28 May 2012

Recording of the week: Frog in your Throat?

Cheryl Tipp, Wildlife Sounds Curator, writes:

About the size of a regular tea cup, the American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana) is considered a giant among its North American cousins. Its voice is equally impressive, consisting of a deep, resonating bellow that sounds a bit like “jug of rum”. This species has a tendency to consume anything that’s put in front of it, so even a jug of rum could be an option if times were really hard.

These recordings were made on 13th April 1947 and feature on disc four of the 1948 sound book ‘Voices of the Night.’

'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the British Library Sounds website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners. This recording is part of Early Wildlife Recordings

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

21 May 2012

Recording of the week: Australian Dawn Chorus

Mark Peter Wright, supported by the Wildlife Sound Trust, writes:

The sound of a dawn chorus has inspired many a poet, musician and painter over the years, not to mention nature enthusiasts, walkers and travellers alike.  As International Dawn Chorus Day has just passed (May 6th) we thought it relevant to post one of our dawn chorus recordings from the Environment and Nature collection.

This sequence of recordings dates back to 1989 and was made by David Lumsdaine in Australia. Documenting the sounds of the Cambewarra area in New South Wales from 0400-0540 (first light to sunrise), the change in light and heat can be heard to greatly effect the acoustic environment. Birdsong is much more audible during these hours of the day due to a relative drop in background noise (both natural and man-made), in addition to the mentioned rise in temperature and weather elements such as wind being less prevalent. As a result birdsong during a dawn chorus may carry up to 20 times as well as it would at noon. In temperate countries a dawn chorus will occur from springtime to summer as birds attempt to defend territories or attract a mate.


This recording is in three sections and features a wealth of birds and song. From Kookaburras, to Fan-tailed Cuckoos, Friarbirds to Satin Bowerbirds and the soft humming of the Eastern Whipbird, these songs demonstrate the shear variety of species in the area and should hopefully transport you to hotter climates than what we are currently experiencing in London!

Be sure to listen to the other Cambewarra recordings in this series and experience the full range of acoustic activity through day and night.

'Recording of the Week' highlights gems from the British Library Sounds website, chosen by British Library experts or recommended by listeners.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons / Kellie Meek)

17 May 2012

How men love


What a wonderful image this is. It features in the British Library's new Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands exhibition, on the relationship between British writers and British landscape, but in truth it stands alone. It shows, from left to right, Lord Howard de Walden (author and philanthropist), the drama critic William Archer, J.M. Barrie, G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. They are dressed as cowboys, having paused for a while  during the making of a film, later entitled How Men Love. The director was the playwright and theatre producer Harley Granville-Barker, the year 1914.

There's so much to see. Firstly there's the sheer oddity of seeing members of the British (and Irish) literary pantheon dressed as cowboys. There's the collision of cultures, British and American (the idea of the Wild West brought to Britain first by Buffalo Bill Cody's shows and then by the early cinema). There's the coming together of (supposedly) low and (equally supposedly) high culture in the marriage of cinema and literature. It's an image that tells of a point where intellectualism met mass culture (so acutely documented by John Carey in The Intellectuals and the Masses), and found itself confronted by a new world where it no longer understood the rules of the game. The joke, they hoped, was on the cinema, but the joke ended up being on them. I could even read it as a metaphor for our slowly emerging plans to introduce moving images into the august temple to the written word that is the British Library.

I've written about the production of How Men in Love in detail on my Bioscope blog (on early and silent cinema). So, briefly, the film was part of an experiment in stage presentation by J.M. Barrie, who was intrigued by the inter-relationship between film and theatre. He set up an event in July 1914 entitled 'The Cinema Supper', to which many of London's great and good were invited, and in the middle of it staged a argument between Shaw, de Walden, Chesterton and Archer, the later three ending up chasing Shaw off-stage while bearing swords. The second part of the entertainment was to be a cowboy film, into which the men would have been transported from their live presence on the stage. Chesterton writes about its production - which took place the following day - in his autobiography:

We went down to the waste land in Essex and found our Wild West equipment. But considerable indignation was felt against William Archer; who, with true Scottish foresight, arrived there first and put on the best pair of trousers … We … were rolled in barrels, roped over fake precipices and eventually turned loose in a field to lasso wild ponies, which were so tame that they ran after us instead of our running after them, and nosed in our pockets for pieces of sugar. Whatever may be the strain on credulity, it is also a fact that we all got on the same motor-bicycle; the wheels of which were spun round under us to produce the illusion of hurtling like a thunderbolt down the mountain-pass. When the rest finally vanished over the cliffs, clinging to the rope, they left me behind as a necessary weight to secure it; and Granville-Barker kept on calling out to me to Register Self-Sacrifice and Register Resignation, which I did with such wild and sweeping gestures as occurred to me; not, I am proud to say, without general applause. And all this time Barrie, with his little figure behind his large pipe, was standing about in an impenetrable manner; and nothing could extract from him the faintest indication of why we were being put through these ordeals.

The full stage-and-film fantasy was never completed, because some of those featured in the Cinema Supper (including prime minister Herbert Asquith) objected to having been filmed without their permission. Chesteron says that the cowboy film was never shown, but two years later it was screened, as part of a war hospital charity event at the London Coliseum on 10 June 1916, where it was given the glorious title How Men Love. How glorious it would be if it still survived, but alas the last record we have of it still existing was in 1941. But maybe, in some attic or basement somewhere...

Writing Britain has more to lure you in than just this one image. It is a poetically-composed analysis of how place influences art, and it is full of surprising and imaginative choices of publication to illustrate its thesis. The exhibition also makes quite interesting use of film, with Pathé newsreel footage projected onto wavy white cloths and accompanied by a haunting soundscape giving a suitably atmospheric background to the section of the influence of wetlands and the seaside.

Writing Britain runs from 11 May until 25 September 2012, and there are booking details, events information, a mapping game and exhibition blog on the website.

02 May 2012

The Test Records of Ludwig Koch

Cheryl Tipp, Wildlife Sounds Curator, writes:

A recent visit to the British Library basements revealed a collection of 30 single-sided test records relating to Ludwig Koch’s 1936 publication ‘Songs of Wild Birds’. This sound book was Koch’s first publication after arriving in the UK from his native Germany and comprised two double-sided 78rpm discs accompanied by an illustrated textbook written by the esteemed ornithologist Max Nicholson.


In the spring of 1936, Koch and a team of engineers used the H.M.V mobile recording van to gather together recordings of common British species that had been identified as essential content for the publication. The task was by no means simple, with Koch and his team often dissatisfied by their recording results. The main problem was that Koch could not audition his recordings in the field. In his autobiography, ‘Memoirs of a Birdman’, Koch wrote:

“At that time recording on wax was undoubtedly the best method…….for my special work however, it had the disadvantage that I could not play back and listen to the result of my recording; and how often was I disappointed when a half-processed shellac disc was played back!”

Despite many challenges, the task was completed by the start of June 1936 and the selection process could begin. Koch had amassed a healthy collection of recordings, several hundred in total, and now it fell to him to choose the material for the final records.

“In a tiny recording studio at the premises of E.M.I in Abbey Road I had endless sessions with the five technicians, Frank Chown, W. Dickson, Edward Towen, H.S. Hack, and C.J. Anderson. It was mid-July before the records for the book could be played to Huxley, Nicholson and Witherby. How delighted they were to hear for the first time the recorded voices of British song-birds!”

‘Songs of Wild Birds’ was a great success, receiving much praise from both the press and public, and helped establish Ludwig Koch as the leading light in wildlife sound recording.

The recordings mentioned above can be found in the Early Wildlife Recordings collection under miscellaneous.