Sound and vision blog

4 posts from September 2013

25 September 2013

British Bird of the Month: Lapwing

After a few months away, British Bird of the Month heads into autumn with a stunning little wader. About the height of a pencil case ruler, the Lapwing, Vanellus vanellus is instantly recognisable thanks to its upsweeping black crest and petrol-coloured plumage. Flocks can be seen across the British Isles throughout the year, favouring farmland, wetland and meadows during the breeding season and pasture and ploughed fields during the winter months.


As Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey point out in ‘Birds Britannica’ (Chatto & Windus, 2005) the Lapwing probably has more surviving vernacular names than any other British bird species. Green Plover, Peewit, Chewit, Pee-wee, Teewhuppo and Peasiewheep are just a few examples. Most are inspired by the classic “peewit” call which is usually given in flight.

"Peewit" call recorded on Skokholm Island by Lawrence Shove, May 1965

The spring song is a much more elaborate affair, combining wheezing notes with the throbbing hum of whirring wings. A particularly vivid description of the Lapwing’s display flight can be found in Kenneth Richmond’s ‘Birds in Britain’ (Odhams Press Limited, 1962).

“In early spring its crazy, tumbling flight over the territory is a joy to watch as the bird sweeps drunkenly up and down, so low at times that it threatens to dash its brains out on the bare earth, lurching up at the last moment and filling the air with its wild crying”.

The following recording, made in Herefordshire, England in 1974 by Victor C. Lewis captures this combination of the aural and the mechanical.

Lapwing display song

As with many farmland birds, such as the Skylark and Corn Bunting, the Lapwing has struggled to adapt to modern agricultural practices and the species has suffered steep population declines in recent years. Organisations such as the RSPB are working to counteract these declines through better habitat management, the lobbying of government and encouraging nature-friendly farming so that this wading bird remains a signature sight and sound of the British countryside.

(Image courtesy of Electrographica)

19 September 2013

London Calling

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Clapham, Marylebone, Hackney and Southall: the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC London. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a series of prompt words and, in the case of Hackney, Clapham and Marylebone, also include a summary of the grammar and phonology of the speakers.

It would be impossible in such a small set of recordings to present a comprehensive picture of the enormous diversity of English spoken in the UK's largest and most diverse city, but this sample at least hints at the extraordinary variety of voices. Discussions in Clapham reveal continued middle-class disdain for words like toilet, lounge and couch, suggesting that the notion of U and non-U speech popularised by Nancy Mitford in Noblesse Oblige and satirised by John Betjeman in How To Get On In Society remains relevant today. We hear contrasting views of 'traditional' London features like rhyming slang, which although considered embarrassing and old-fashioned by some, survives nonetheless in established, widely used terms like brassic ['brassic lint' = 'skint'] and taters ['taters (i.e. 'potatoes') in the mould' = 'cold']. Perhaps more significantly, there's evidence in more recent coinages like got the zig ['Sigmund Freud' = 'annoyed'] and Hank ['Hank Marvin' = 'starving'] of enduring enthusiasm for the sheer creative fun of rhyming slang.

Current influences are evident in the recording with British Asians in Southall, where young speakers provide glimpses of contemporary slang with butters [= 'ugly'], tick [= 'attractive' as in he's tick, man] and rinced [= 'tired'], while the affectionate forms of address mama-ji and mummy-ji capture blends formed by adding the Hindi-Urdu honorific suffix <-ji> to English variants for 'mother'. Equally intriguing are instances of English-Punjabi code-switching when choosing between food shopping or kappre [= 'clothes'] shopping or when pacifying someone whose gussa [= 'anger'] level's too high.

We only scratch the surface of London English here, but even a brief selection of terms of approval that occur spontaneously in these conversations reveals subtle sociolinguistic distinctions and confirms that London English is frightfully cool (Clapham), the business (Marylebone), sick (Southall), possibly even (with a little nod to Del Boy) lovely jubbly (Southall).

18 September 2013

Tracing the Origins of Human Speech

Dr Jacob Dunn is Lecturer in Human Biology at the University of Cambridge and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Universidad Veracruzana, Mexico. His research interests lie in the areas of primatology and evolutionary biology, encompassing and integrating the fields of morphology, behavioural ecology, molecular ecology and eco-physiology. He recently made use of the Library's extensive collection of wildlife recordings.

Can you tell us about your research into the evolution of human speech?

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in animal behaviour. I have carried out research in a range of related fields, including ecology, physiology and genetics, and have spent several years carrying out fieldwork in rainforests in Peru and Mexico. However, over the last year or so I have become interested in a new area of research, which I am really excited about, examining communication systems in humans and other primates.

In collaboration with Professor Leslie Knapp from the University of Utah and Professor Tecumseh Fitch from the University of Vienna, I am currently studying vocal communication in primates in order to gain insight into the evolution of human speech. Speech is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of our species. Yet, our understanding of the evolution of this quintessentially human trait is far from complete. As most anatomical traits associated with speech are soft tissues, which do not fossilise, it is difficult to establish when, how and why speech evolved in the human lineage. By applying the “comparative model” advocated by Charles Darwin (comparing homologous and analogous structures across a wide range of different species to draw general inferences about the evolution of traits), we use data on the anatomy and acoustics of living primates to shed light on the evolution of vocal communication in our extinct ancestors [1].

Currently, the research is largely focused on howler monkeys, perhaps for obvious reasons - they are the loudest terrestrial animal and vocal communication is clearly a very important component of their natural behaviour. They also have a remarkable vocal anatomy, with a greatly enlarged and specialized hyoid bone (the only bone in the vocal tract), which forms a resonating chamber and serves to amplify their loud calls.

Dunn_howler monkey

What insights can be gained from studying the vocalisations of non-human primates?

People study the vocalisations of primates for a whole host of different reasons. Some researchers are interested in what vocal communication can tell us about animal cognition. For example, a classic study on vervet monkeys by Robert Seyfarth et al., as far back as 1980 [2], demonstrated that some primates use semantic communication (i.e. the ability to use signs to refer to objects in the external world). You could think of this as monkeys using different ´words´ for specific things in their environment (in this case predators). More recently, studies have shown that some species may even use some form of syntax, stringing these ´words´ together to form ´proto-sentences´ [3]. People seem to be fascinated by the calls that animals make and what they might ´mean´.

Other researchers, are interested in the ´non-linguistic´ underlying information that may be contained within primate vocalisations (both human and non-human primates). For example, the pitch (or ´fundamental frequency´) of a call has long been thought to provide a cue to body size. So bigger individuals should have a deeper voice as they generally have longer vocal folds. However, research has shown that this relationship does not necessarily hold across all species and individuals as the larynx and vocal folds may grow independently of body size (think of what happens to human males at adolescence). Vocal tract resonances (or ´formant frequencies´) may be more constrained by body size, as they depend upon the size of the vocal tract, not the vocal folds. However, there is an incredible range of adaptations in the animal kingdom geared towards lowering the fundamental and formant frequencies, and exaggerating body size, such as the hyoid bone of the howler monkey, the long nose of the elephant seal and proboscis monkey, and the descended larynx of several deer species [4].

In humans, this is a very active area of research. We have known for a long time that women generally find men with deeper voices more attractive (the so called ¨Barry White effect¨) and men find women with higher pitched voices more attractive. However, voice pitch is also related to labor market success and leadership [5, 6], trustworthiness and dominance [7], and many other traits. There is even evidence that men may be able to detect ovulation in women from changes in the pitch of their voice [8]. I am currently working on a project related to this field with Professor Benedict Jones of the University of Glasgow.

How did you hear about the British Library’s collection of wildlife sounds?

I was searching for howler monkey vocalisations online and was lucky to happen across the collection. A few days later at a project meeting I was asked whether I had checked to see whether anything was available at museums. Fortunately, I was ready for the question and knew that the Wildlife Sounds collection held a substantial number of recordings.

You recently visited our Listening & Viewing Service – what did you listen to?

I listened to 49 recordings of howler monkeys, of which 15 were used for my research. The Service then did a fantastic job of transcribing the tapes, reels and CDs that I had listened to onto a CD, which they sent to me through the post a week or two later. 

Unidentified Howler Monkey (recorded by Richard Beard 1'20")

Black Howler Monkey chorus (recorded by Richard Ranft 2'01")

How will these recordings help further your research?

These recordings form part of a larger database of primate vocalisations, which we will use to analyse similarities and differences among species. These data complement data on morphology, vocal anatomy, behaviour, genetics and physiology, which will help us to gain a more comprehensive picture of primate communication systems.



Dr Jacob Dunn:

Professor Leslie Knapp:

Professor Tecumseh Fitch:

Professor Benedict Jones:


1. Fitch, W. T. (2000). The evolution of speech : a comparative review. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 6613, 258–267.

2.  Seyfarth, R. M., Cheney, D. L., and Marler, P. (1980). Monkey responses to three different alarm calls: evidence of predator classification and semantic communication. Science 210, 801–803.

3.  Ouattara, K., Lemasson, A., and Zuberbu, K. (2009). Campbell ’ s monkeys concatenate vocalizations into context-specific call sequences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1–6.

4.  Frey, R., and Gebler, A. (2010). Mechanisms and evolution of roaring-like vocalization in mammals. In Handbook of Mammalian Vocalisations, S. Brudzynski, ed. (Elsevier), pp. 439–450.

5. Mayew, W. J., Parsons, C. a., and Venkatachalam, M. (2013). Voice pitch and the labor market success of male chief executive officers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 1–6. Available at: [Accessed April 17, 2013].

6.  Klofstad, C. a, Anderson, R. C., and Peters, S. (2012). Sounds like a winner: voice pitch influences perception of leadership capacity in both men and women. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society 279, 2698–704. Available at: [Accessed January 30, 2013].

7. Vukovic, J., Jones, B. C., Feinberg, D. R., Debruine, L. M., Smith, F. G., Welling, L. L. M., and Little, A. C. (2011). Variation in perceptions of physical dominance and trustworthiness predicts individual differences in the effect of relationship context on women’s preferences for masculine pitch in men's voices. British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953) 102, 37–48. Available at: [Accessed March 1, 2013].

8. Haselton, M. G., and Gildersleeve, K. (2011). Can Men Detect Ovulation? Current Directions in Psychological Science 20, 87–92. Available at: [Accessed February 7, 2013].

09 September 2013

Tessa Elieff: witness, documentarian, provocateur

Tessa Elieff is an Australian sound artist, archivist and curator - currently living in Canberra and working at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA). As an artist, she explores methods in electroacoustic composition using sonic processing, phonography and surround sound, presenting her work under pseudonym, Tattered Kaylor. Her live performance draws on concepts of the Acousmonium as developed by Francois Bayle (1974), with her favoured tools for sculpting sounds including architectural cavities (manmade and natural), sonic/spatial memory, concrete, steel, stone and controlled systems of diffusion. she recently spent three weeks working in the British Library's Sound and Vision department as part of an ongoing staff exchange programme with the NFSA.

I grew up on a property outside of Adelaide in South Australia. While it wasn’t far from the city it was remote and so naturally – as a curious kid you go hunting for your interests. We lived next to a forest (my parents are still there) and I would go for walks – into the trees, up to the dam, to find a space to think and listen. Kangaroos, snakes, echidnas, bluetongue lizards and bull ants that give a bite far worse than a bee sting were common stance and instilled in me a healthy respect for them and their habitats.

I won’t say that we lived a hard life but living in such a setting the unwieldy dominance of nature is always present. The fact that through the eyes of the elements your mortality is no different to every living thing around you becomes blindingly obvious and reminds you that you are part of a bigger tale. A walk into the forest will present you with both little deaths and new life’s that contribute to this story, irrespective of whether or not you are there to act as witness.

And that’s how it began really, with me taking my place as witness to the purpose around me. The practice of recording the environment didn’t commence until I was 20. Up until then I worked with pre-recorded sounds in non-conventional ways but that’s another story for another time.

I moved to the city and I kept my place, be it in a forest in South Australia or in an urban nightscape of Melbourne. For these reasons I think some people feel conflicted about my work. I am not a, ‘purist’, in that I do not work exclusively with unprocessed field recordings of natural sounds. I am a contradiction in a sense – a bit of a dilemma as posed by a contemporary sound artist. I record sounds of nature and the sounds of machine. I am in awe of nature’s critters and of humankind’s mechanical beasts. I worry about global warming and the costs our constant hunger for more technology and industry will inflict on nature yet I use equipment that is born of these developments. I consider myself both futurist and acoustic ecologist, an oxymoron that is a product of my surroundings and of my generation.

Volume (excerpt - 2'05")

The constant between my works would be the source of inspiration – the environment. There’s something inexplicably humble about a building or space that possesses a unique sonic atmosphere. It exists as an absolute; you can visit it as a destination. It simply is, regardless of your observations and it provokes you to choose whether or not you will hear it. In cities, I tend to be drawn to unacknowledged public spaces. Those that exist as a function to make possible an outcome such as drainways and ceiling spaces that house a building’s mechanical organs – they’re granted immunity to our aesthetic standardising of urban surroundings. In a sense, they are wild. Left to themselves they can develop into startling experiences should you chose to have them. In nature, unhoused by walls, the environments tend to spread further. The sense of being unseen amplifies and morphs into one of equality between yourself and that around you. That is when I gather my ‘Best’, sounds. 


I use my own surround recording techniques – a mix-mash of what I have researched, what I believe from my own experiences and what equipment I have available. The first piece I did in such a manner was an inner city six level stairwell in 2007. What was to be one recording developed into a three year project with the last session consisting of speakers emitting resonating tones on each level. Using the microphone’s leads and railings of the floor above, I was able to suspend the microphones in a singular line and mid-air, down the stairwell’s centre shaft. The final composition is a multichannel recording across a vertical plane; turned ninety degrees and translated into horizontal for surround composition.

I revisited the method of playback and record with the recent piece, ‘Taken to Booroomba’. The setting was atop of the rock mountain, Booroomba, at Namadji National Park, in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). I had been living in the ACT for 6 months or so and the two things I noticed on arrival are its abundance of crickets and its fleeting brutal thunderstorms. The composition that I created for playback atop of the mountain was specifically to react with these two elements and so I find myself standing on a rock mountain, watching a storm slowly approaching. My mortality felt very apparent and the crickets were wise enough to disappear. I recorded until the rain became hail and then moved everything under cover. The microphones took the rain very well. Next time I will wrap the mic stand and the T-bar in soft towel so as to absorb the harsh twang of the drops hitting the metal.

Taken to Booroomba (8'49")

In October of this year I will be heading to the coastline of North East England to work under the expertise of Chris Watson. The project is based on developing skills in location recording technique, particularly in three-dimensional sound recordings (surround). Each time Chris and I speak about the plans they grow a little further and it is these changing subtleties that allow the project to become a larger concept.

Our last conversation we began discussing the places for the recordings in relation to their history. The stories I read about England’s castles and islands sound fantastical to me, don’t forget, Australia did not have a ‘middle ages’, so to speak. The island was inhabited only by its indigenous population at this time. Colonisation commenced in late 18th century and the origins of Australia’s western culture and civilisation are to be found in the castles, churches and islands of England. Gathering sounds in these historic spaces will indubitably lead me to think about this leap in time and on entering them I often feel I am experiencing its history condensed, where one minute of listening coveys centuries of stories.

Sound is such a beautiful medium to work with. It’s physical yet ephemeral. To listen takes time. It’s an agreement of exchange between perceiver and sound – your time to listen in trade for the experience. Recording the world around me I believe I am illustrating its existence as both documentarian – whereby sounds are as true to life as possible – unprocessed and ‘pure’, and as provocateur whereby by my translation of the sounds act as catalyst to the perceiver’s imagination, enabling them to envision something outside of our everyday. On blending the two the lines can become blurred, between ‘What Is’ and ‘What may be’ only proving, just how wondrous the world around us really is.

Favourite Microphones: DPA 4060 (omnidirectional), Rode NT4 (stereo).

Favourite recording device: Sound Devices 788T


'Taken to Booroomba' is taken from the album 'Sombre nay Sated' (Stasisfield 2013)

'Volume' (excerpt) is taken from the album 'Selected Realities' (Moozak 2012)

Audio works from Tessa Elieff including Selected Realities (British Library call number 1DVD0009583) are archived at the British Library. For full details, please visit the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.