Sound and vision blog

8 posts from July 2012

30 July 2012

Recording of the week: Thunder over the Andaman Sea

Cheryl Tipp, Wildlife Sounds Curator, writes:

There is something mesmerizing about witnessing a thunderstorm out at sea, whether it be in person or through listening to a field recording. The combination of rolling thunder together with the ebb and flow of waves immediately stimulates the senses and, depending on the conditions, can infuse the listener with feelings ranging from calmness to exhilaration. This recording, made by Richard Beard at Tub Kaak on the west coast of Thailand, immediately transports the listener to the shoreline of the Andaman Sea, where lapping waves coexist with an almost constant rumble of thunder.

Krabi Province, Thailand

The Andaman Sea is a cerulean paradise encasing a network of islands that offer both visual and acoustic treats to any who visit. Many more recordings from this region, including the sounds of rainforests, flowing streams and a range of wildlife voices are archived at the British Library and can be accessed onsite.

'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 the newly published collection of Weather recordings.

(Image: lisasweet48 / Flickr)

29 July 2012

Pandaemonium and the Isles of Wonder


Pandaemonium is the Palace of All the Devils. Its building began c.1660. It will never be finished – it has to be transformed into Jerusalem. The building of Pandaemonium is the real history of Britain for the last three hundred years.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer behind ‘Isles of Wonder', the extraordinary and widely acclaimed opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympic Games, has revealed in a Guardian article that a major inspiration for the work was Humphrey Jennings’ Pandaemonium.  Of the creative process with director Danny Boyle he writes:

We shared the things we loved about Britain – the Industrial Revolution, the digital revolution, the NHS, pop music, children's literature, genius engineers. I bought Danny a copy of Humphrey Jennings's astonishing book Pandemonium for Christmas and soon everyone seemed to have it. The show's opening section ended up named "Pandemonium".

'Pandaemonium', as the BBC commentary noted on the night, was the name that John Milton gave to the capital of Hell in his epic poem 'Paradise Lost'. It is also the title of Humphrey Jennings’ posthumously published book which is a collection of nearly 400 contemporary texts dating 1660-1886 that, as the book’s subtitle puts it, illustrate ‘the coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers’.

Humphrey Jennings (1907-1950) is generally recognised to be among the greatest of all British documentary filmmakers. In films such as London Can Take It! (1940, co-directed with Harry Watt), Listen to Britain (1942, co-directed with Stewart McAllister), Fires Were Started (1943) and A Diary for Timothy (1946), Jennings documented the relevance of the British experience of war to history, art, society and culture. Often described as a poet among filmmakers, he applied a poet’s synthetic vision to the British condition at a time of national crisis. If you have not knowingly seen one of his films, you will have undoubtedly come across sequences from them, because they have been ceaselessly plundered by television for footage illustrating the impact of the war on Britain. For example, Andrew Marr’s piece on the history of London that featured as part of the BBC’s build-up programme ahead of the opening ceremony used several shots from London Can Take It!

That poet’s synthetic vision was also applied to Pandaemonium, a collection of texts (or Images, as Jennings described them) which he worked on between 1937 and his accidental death in 1950, without ever shaping the material into a finished manuscript or finding a publisher. It was not until 1985 that his daughter Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge (like Jennings a co-founder of the social investigation organisation Mass-Observation) edited a version of the work that was close as could be hoped to Jennings’ conception.

Pandaemonium comprises texts from poets, diarists, scientists, industrialists, politicians, novelists and social commentators who wittingly or unwittingly document the great changes wrought in British society by the industrial revolution. It begins with Milton’s description (written c.1660) of the building of Pandaemonium, and anyone who saw Boyle and Boyce’ vision of Glastonbury Tor, from which burst forth fire as the tree at its top was uprooted, ushering in the industrial revolution will recognise its inspiration in Milton’s opening words:

There stood a Hill not far whose grisly top
Belch’d fire and rowling smoak; the rest entire
Shon with a glossie scurff, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic Ore,
The work of Sulphur. Thither wing’d with speed
A numerous Brigad hastens. As when bands
Of Pioners with Spade and Pickaxe arm’d
Forerun the Royal Camp, to trench a Field,
Or cast a Rampart. Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erectd Spirit that fell
From heav’n, for eve’n his looks and thoughts
Were always downwards bent, admiring ore
The riches of Heav’ns pavements, trod’n Gold ...

The quotation at the head of this post comes from notes Jennings wrote for an introduction to the work, and it confirms the influence Pandaemonium had on Danny Boyle and his creative team (not least in their sly critique of the corporately-sponsored Olympics themselves, with the Olympic rings being forged in the furnaces of the dark Satanic mills). Pandaemonium has been built, and continues to be built – the task is to transform it into Jerusalem. So Boyle and Boyce do not look for a return to that green and pleasant land portrayed at the start of ‘Isles of Wonder’. Instead they look with hopes toward what has and can still be built out of it, to fulfil the vision expressed in William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

Vision is the operative word. In his introduction (as reconstructed by Charles Madge), Jennings says that his Images, whose construction he likens to 'an unrolling film', illustrate ‘the Means of Vision and the Means of Production’. The Industrial Revolution he sees as the victory of Production over Vision, of materialism over poetry, which has failed to keep up with, or to master, the changes brought about by industrialisation:

It would take a large work on its own to show, in the great period of English poets 1570-1750, the desperate struggle that poets had to keep poetry’s head into the wind: to keep it facing life. But by 1750 the struggle – like that of the peasants – was over. In other words poetry has been expropriated.

Boyle and Boyce were inspired by Jennings, but they also sought to show how the argument has moved on since Jennings’ time, to show that there could be a greater balance between production and vision. ‘Isles of Wonder’ was divided into three main sections (with comic interludes featuring the Queen and Mr Bean). The first, 'Pandaemonium', showed the march of industrial society over the green and pleasant land, but also the changes in society that the process unwittingly led to – women’s suffrage, Jarrow marchers, the Empire Windrush, the Beatles. The second, ‘Second Star on the Right and Straight on Till Morning’ took children’s literature as its theme, pitting its villains (Cruella De Vil, Lord Voldemort) again the forces of collective good, represented by the NHS and a host of Mary Poppinses. It can also be seen as representing the revival of poetic sensibility and responsibility, the human urge towards the greater good, defeating the forces of Mammon. From thesis to antithesis to synthesis, and the third part, 'Frankie & June say …Thanks Tim' finds great hope in another revolution, the digital revolution (Tim being Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web). Here an interconnected society, themes from which we had seen prefigured in the earlier parts, overrides the forces that have divided it in the past, moving forward to – perhaps – Jerusalem.


Extract from Listen to Britain

Humphrey Jennings could never have conceived of such a spectacle as ‘Isles of Wonder’, but he might have understood the technique, not least with reference to his own documentary films. Listen to Britain (which could almost have been a subtitle for ‘Isles of Wonder’) is a portrait of national unity illustrated through the songs and sounds of a country at war. There is no narration, only images of the different corners of the land and different strata of society, bound together by effort and by sound (factories, Myra Hess playing piano at the National Gallery, variety entertainers Flanagan and Allen). Spare Time (1939), a film closest in conception to Jennings’ brief involvement with Mass-Observation, shows how Britain’s working class enjoys its leisure time, from pubs to wrestling matches, from allotments to marching kazoo bands. Such films succeed through a subtle association of ideas, one image illuminating the next by association. As with his films, so it was with the unrolling film of Images in Pandaemonium, and now with ‘Isles of Wonder’

If you're trying to celebrate a nation's identity, you have to take things that are familiar parts of the landscape and make them wonderful.

So writes Frank Cotterell Boyce, and they are words to explain the art of Humphrey Jennings as well. It is what a great documentary filmmaker can do: capture images of common stuff, and transmute them into something wonderful. To do so, it is necessary not just to photograph your subject well, or to edit with a satisfying rhythm. You must have a governing idea to give those images meaning. Humphrey Jennings wanted to see Jerusalem built once more; Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce have encouraged us all to dream of the same.

‘Isles of Wonder’ and the full  London 2012 opening ceremony were recorded by the British Library as part of its off-air television news service, Broadcast News, which we are planning to make available to onsite Library users from the end of September 2012. More news of this, and other moving image and sound services currently in development, will follow soon.

20 July 2012

Sound and moving image user survey

Luke McKernan, Moving Image curator at the British Librray, writes:

We're working away behind the scenes on assorted projects here at the British Library which have the overall aim of increasing the amount of moving image and sound content that we can make available to our users, and integrating this with everything else that the Library offers to researchers. It'll be good, when we get there.


As part of this process, we want to know how researchers are using moving images and sound in research now (if they do so at all): what sources they use, what subject areas they are working in, and what sort of audiovisual services they would expect to see from the British Library. Have you made use of the Library's huge sound collections? Do you expect to find everything on YouTube? What do you think of an institution like the British Library engaging with moving images?

So we're launching a survey today, which we urge you to complete, whether you use either medium in your research a great deal or hardly at all, and whether you are a British Library user or not. It'll take no more than 5-10 minute to complete, it's on a single web page, and there's an invitation maybe to join us in testing some of the new tools and services we may be developing. And the results will be a huge help to us in determining the direction of our future services.

Do please fill out the survey, and tell others about it. It runs until the end of July.

17 July 2012

New collection of sport interviews

SportElspeth Millar, Oral History Archive Assistant, writes:

As part of the British Library’s Olympic celebrations we have made available a new online package of sixty-one oral history interviews documenting the lives and careers of British sportsmen and women throughout the twentieth century.  Recorded over the past twenty years, the recordings within the Sport package are drawn from a number of oral history collections archived at the British Library, and include interviews with track, field and road athletes, fencers, canoeists and swimmers. 

Many of those whose interviews are made available are household names (such as Sebastian Coe, Menzies Campbell, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Jacqui Agyepong, David Bedford, and Roger Black) whilst others are lesser-known or forgotten champions whom we hope will regain prominence through this new resource (such as marathon runner Jim Peters, racewalker Don Thompson, and relay sprinter Bill Roberts).  The collection also includes unique interviews with those involved in the coaching and teaching of sport, and those who witnessed historic sporting events such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  There are also memories of the first Paralympics/Olympic Games for the Disabled in 1952 at Stoke Mandeville, an interview with Colin Hancock, dentist to the British Olympic team at the Barcelona Games, and with gold and silversmith Stuart Devlin, who designed the 2000 Sydney Olympics gold coin series. 

The recordings are available worldwide and can be accessed at; we hope to add further interviews to the collection in the future.

16 July 2012

Recording of the week: Rainfall at Palenque

Cheryl Tipp, Wildlife Sounds Curator, writes:

The ruined city of Palenque is considered one of the most impressive and important Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico. Buried deep within the tropical jungle of Chiapas, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its stunning architecture and sculptural artwork.


This recording, made in October 2008 by Richard Beard, captures the sound of rain falling over the abandoned temple complex.

'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 the newly published collection of Weather recordings.

(Image: Tato Grasso / Wikimedia Commons)

09 July 2012

Recording of the week: RP vowels

It’s not clear what the purpose of this word list is, but it’s one of ten created by linguists at UCL, probably in the 1950s. It might be a prompt for phonetic transcription practice or possibly a pronunciation guide to English vowel sounds. In the 1980s UCL phonetician John Wells established his ‘lexical sets’ – a list of key words used by linguists to capture, describe and compare the pronunciation of English vowel sounds in a variety of accents. The first words in this list would be represented in Wells’ lexical sets as TRAPSQUARE and STRUT. The accent here reflects Received Pronunciation (RP) at the time of recording. The pronunciation of the second word chair is particularly interesting as it's a diphthong here (i.e. two vowel sounds). Many RP speakers now use a monophthong (single vowel sound) for words in the SQUARE set, like chair, bear, dare etc.

05 July 2012

03 July 2012


Cheryl Tipp, Wildlife Sounds Curator, writes:

Though best known for its outstanding collection of wildlife sound recordings, the British Library’s wildlife section also includes a growing number of environmental recordings from around the world. To highlight this emerging area of the archive, over 70 field recordings have been selected for inclusion in a new online collection that specially looks at the many sounds of weather. These recordings capture both the natural processes themselves and the effects they have on surrounding objects.


Thunderstorms, the gentle patter of rain, gusting winds and footsteps in snow are all represented here, taking in locations from the four corners of the globe. Examples include rainfall over Mayan ruins in Mexico, a distant thunderstorm in Zambia, sweeping wind across the Spanish plains and walking through snow in the south of England. All evoke particular atmospheres that are caused by the various meteorological processes taking place in the Earth’s lower atmosphere.

More examples will be added to the collection in due course, but this initial selection provides an acoustic window to the world of environmental field recording. Visit Weather to start exploring now.

(Image: Mark Peter Wright)