Sound and vision blog

5 posts from May 2014

28 May 2014

Diverse lives in science online

 Dr Paul Merchant, interviewer for An Oral History of British Science, writes:

Interviewee Mah Hussain-Gambles (left) as a child in Islamabad, role-playing Star Trek. 

Today five new life story interviews appear on the Oral History of British Science section of British Library Sounds: metallurgist Harry Bhadeshia, computational chemist Saiful Islam, pharmacologist and entrepreneur Mah Hussain-Gambles, food scientist Charlotte Armah and electronics engineer Jo Shien Ng.  All were interviewed for the project Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science – a collaboration between National Life Stories at the British Library and The Royal Society.  Inspiring Scientists has recorded the life stories of ten British scientists with minority ethnic heritage.  Interviewees range from Professors to PhD students and the focus on science is wide, covering academia, big industry and individual entrepreneurship.  Short films, also produced by National Life Stories at the British Library, will be released from today by The Royal Society:

In the following clip from his life story interview, Harry Bhadeshia tells the story of the development of the world’s strongest armour – Super Bainite:

Professor Harry Bhadeshia

Today’s five new interviews add to the collection of over 100 life story interviews with scientists recorded in recent years by National Life Stories at the British Library.  The full collection can be explored on the British Library website Voices of Science.


Dr Paul Merchant
An Oral History of British Science
National Life Stories

23 May 2014

How about a bit of PR for RP?

Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator for Sociolinguistics writes:

This month we've uploaded linguistic descriptions of conversations about local speech in Cambridge (one with two young hip-hop artists and one with regulars at a pub), Ely, Peterborough and Wisbech. Together they constitute the set of BBC Voices Recordings made by BBC Radio Cambridge. The descriptions list the participants' responses to a set of prompt words and, in the case of Ely, also include a detailed description of the phonology and grammar of the speakers.

Unlike previous dialect surveys, the Voices project intentionally targeted speakers from a wide variety of backgrounds and these five recordings from Cambridgeshire represent a particularly diverse set of speaker groups. In Wisbech you can hear localised pronunciation features such as yod-dropping on commuters ['kuhmooters'] and stupid ['stoopid'] and dialect words such as docky [= packed lunch]. Two young Cambridge musicians provide examples of multi-ethnic urban youth slang such as spar [= friend], safe [= great, excellent] and crisp biscuit [= attractive], while elsewhere in Cambridge we hear evidence of polari expressions in bona capella [= nice hat] and I'm gonna get me riah [= hair] done. There's also insight in Peterborough into the code-switching that's typical of bilingual British Asians in forms like khabbu [= left-handed] and the list of pairs used to distinguish between paternal and maternal grandmother such as dadi and nani.

The Voices archive also includes a number of speakers of Received Pronunciation (RP) - the middle-class, geographically neutral accent of England and, to a lesser extent, other parts of the British Isles. Contrary to much recent popular and media opinion RP is neither out of date nor disappearing and has in fact always encompassed a range of speech types. The Voices data set includes examples of upper-class RP in recordings with an aristocratic family in Ingatestone and members of the Arnesby Hunt. RP as manifested in the Armed Forces is captured in Worston, while typical middle-class RP is represented by a group of female golfers in Sevenoaks and a recording with three generations of a long-established family of Devon landowners in Newton St Cyres. Or you can explore Public School RP by comparing former boarding school female friends in Clapham with young students here in Ely.

In common with all accents RP is changing. The recording in Ely, for instance, shows clear evidence of change on one feature - the pronunciation of the <t> sound between vowels.  As young speakers of British English it's not surprising to hear several examples of glottal stops, but pronunciations with a <d> sound occur pretty frequently too - the word little, for instance, occurs both with a glottal stop and with <d>. Although a pronunciation with <d> is  perhaps more readily associated with speech in the USA, it's actually a long-established feature of  RP and other British accents and the presence of both alternatives here shows how adolescent speakers fluctuate between a more 'conservative' <d> and  the innovative variant with a glottal stop.

20 May 2014

Sonic migrations: natural sounds on the international exhibition scene

The British Library is home to one of the largest and most important collections of wildlife and environmental sounds in the world. Coming in at over 160,000 recordings that cover all animal groups and biogeographical regions, the archive has served the needs of researchers for more than 40 years, both at home and further afield.

The collection is more than just a source of data for academics though. For curators and exhibition teams it has been, and continues to be, an Aladdin's cave of audio treasures that have the ability to
breathe life into inanimate objects and enhance the visitor experience.

A variety of chirps, clicks, hums and whistles can currently be heard around the upper ground floor of the British Library, as visitors to the Beautiful Science exhibition explore the voices of 100 species, from birds to amphibians,that have been specially added to the OneZoom Tree of
Life installation.


Bottlenose Dolphin recorded by Dr Oliver Boisseau

Song Thrush recorded by Richard Savage

On the other side of London, at South Kensington's Victoria and Albert Museum, birdsong from the collection weaves its way around the artefacts on display in the museum's current exhibition William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain. The quintessential sounds of the British countryside merge with music from the time to create a multilayered atmosphere that is part natural, part human. Moving along to Richmond, an Amazonian rainforest soundscape, recorded and created by Richard Ranft, will soon take up residency in the Palm House of Kew Gardens, a few months after it featured as the soundtrack to their annual Orchid Festival.

Extract from Rainforest Requiem

The use of recordings from the collection is not restricted to the UK alone either. Across the pond, in a new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, a range of wildlife and environmental sounds from our collection are being used to complement the books, drawings and prints on display. 'Of Green Leaf, Bird & Flower: artists' books and the natural world' examines the intersections of artistic and scientific interest in the natural world from the sixteenth century to the present day and provided Elisabeth Fairman, Senior Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, with the perfect opportunity to source audio content from the British Library:

"The bird sounds and environmental recordings of the British countryside have enhanced our visitor’s experience of the exhibition beyond all expectations.  They are being asked to curate their own experience, choosing the tracks on the ipod based on their interest in particular birds or sounds.  We illustrated each track with a picture of the work in the exhibition so visitors can then go find the drawing or print as a bit of a treasure hunt.  Visitors seem thrilled by the opportunity." 

European robin_ba-orb-11411486-0015-pub
James Bolton, European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) with Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca L.), from the natural history cabinet of Anna Blackburne, ca. 1768, watercolor and gouache over graphite on parchment. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, in honor of Jane and Richard C. Levin, President of Yale University (1993–2013)

Robin recorded by Alan Burbidge

In 2012, a number of bird songs were featured in the exhibition 'Between Heaven & Earth: birds in ancient Egypt' at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago while a few years earlier, a selection of avian recordings were set alongside exhibits at the Delaware Museum of Natural History. Our sounds have helped visitors at the Science Museum of Minnesota examine the biological roots of music and have formed part of a travelling exhibition against animal cruelty in Syria.

In addition to natural sounds, the collection also contains a range of mechanical field recordings, from steam trains to watermills. Last year a few of our railway recordings helped bring to life the long silent engines on display at the National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone.

"This is really going to bring history alive for a lot of people who have never seen - let alone
heard - a train move before" Tim Dunn, Marketing Communications Officer, National Railway Museum of Sierra Leone

Steam age railway station

The evocative nature of sound lends itself extremely well to exhibitions dominated by paper-based artefacts. More than just an embellishment, sound offers a new level of stimulation and exploration for visitors, inviting them to interact with the exhibition environment on more than just a visual level.

Providing recordings for inclusion in external exhibitions helps us fulfil our commitment to move beyond these four walls and share our wonderful collections with listeners all over the world. Public
engagement is at the heart of what we do and the knowledge that our sounds may help educate, inspire or simply bring enjoyment to visitors is something we feel very proud of.

07 May 2014

Inspired by Flickr: Mark Lyken

Albert Bleunard's 19th Century scifi novel, Babylon Electrified, once again finds itself at the centre of our Inspired by Flickr series. The challenge, open to anyone working with sound, is to create a short audio piece inspired by one of the million images released by the British Library onto Flickr Commons. Our first contribution, from sound artist Jay-Dea Lopez, brought to life this tale of using electricity to awaken the ancient city of Babylon and we return once again to its pages with this response from multimedia artist Mark Lyken.

Lyken was drawn to an image of a glowing lantern which evoked memories of a field recording trip to a lighthouse in the Scottish Highlands.

My “Lantern Room” piece is based on this great image from page 228 of “Babylon Electrified” and on my own Lighthouse experience - in this case the Cromarty Lighthouse on the Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands. The Cromarty Lighthouse was decommissioned in 2005 and the lens, generators and all other equipment were removed.

I wanted to capture the oddly musical hum of those absent electrical transformers and generators that I imagined in the old battery room and the crackle of electricity that I heard in my minds eye when I first read the books title. It seemed fitting to use a modular synth, an instrument alive with electricity to generate these sounds. These sounds were layered on top of a recent recording taken inside the empty Lantern Room of the Lighthouse. 

To finish the piece off I came up with a recurring sound that I thought suggested the turning of the lens mechanism and periodic flash of light. I have no idea where a lighthouse figures into the Babylon Electrified story but interpreting the image alone gave me the chance (in my head anyway) to power up and light the Cromarty Lighthouse one last time.


Lantern Room

The impact of this simple illustration is twofold: as well as igniting a creative spark in the artist, it also triggered specific memories that ultimately influenced and shaped the final composition heard here. Lantern Room is a subtle response to an image that may well have been lost to the annals of time, together with many others, were it not for the work of our digital research team and the talents of artists like Lyken who have embraced this challenge wholeheartedly and are helping us demonstrate the creative potential of digital content.


Mark Lyken is a multimedia artist based in Glasgow, Scotland. He creates painting, sculpture, film and sound work. His recent work has been concerned with revealing the “musicality” of the environment and beauty within the ordinary. Of particular interest is the relationship between nature and technology and the ways in which digital existence may be reconciled with the “soul” of analogue mediums. Mark regularly collaborates with specialists from different research fields.

02 May 2014

Radio features of the BBC Transcription Service

David Noble is a University of Westminster graduate who has recently been cataloguing an important but little known collection of BBC Transcription Service radio features. He writes:

The Library has around 12,000 hours of BBC Transcription Service recordings issued on disc to subscribing radio stations around the world since World War II. Despite the relevance of broadcast media to a wide range of humanities and social science disciplines, the difficulty of discovering the specific subject content of larger audio collections and issues of access have resulted in the relative neglect of radio archives as primary research resources.

BBC Transcription Service promotional (ca 1960s) as reprinted in leaflet 'Sixty Years of Radio at its Best' (1991)The speech to text, automated subject tagging and speaker identification tools currently being developed by BBC Research and Development, among others, may in time allow researchers to explore the content of vast digital media collections in much the same way as search engines allow users to browse the internet.

But the experience of the BBC World Service Archive suggests that in bringing radio archives into the research arena there's currently still a vital role for more traditional curating and cataloguing processes – particularly in evaluating the key subject matter.

In preparing the early BBC Transcription Service radio features for this process I experienced this first hand and found that to fully appreciate the content of a collection such as this, the most effective and enjoyable means of discovery remains the one originally intended by the producers - listening.


The BBC Transcription Service began life as Colonial Radio Programmes Ltd under the stewardship of Malcolm Frost, who approached BBC Director General John Reith in 1931 with the idea of producing programmes at a central location and distributing them, on the lines of syndicated Newspaper articles, to Colonial broadcasting stations. Initially Reith was concerned that a Transcription Service could prejudice BBC plans for an Empire short-wave service.

BBC Director General John Reith's reply to M. A. Frost's 1931 proposal for a pre-recorded programme service for 'Colonial' broadcasting stationsBut the following year he established a department for the recording of programmes for overseas and Frost was invited to join the corporation with the aim expressed in a BBC memo as “The projection of the life, art and industry of the Mother Country”. Candidates for the fledgling service included “farming, shipping, the countryside, songs, pageants, plays and the more picturesque callings.”

Shortly after, works by acclaimed producers such as D. G. Bridson, Louis MacNeice, Charles Parker, Leonard Cottrell and Charles Chilton were also being featured, some owing their survival within the archives today to the judgment and perhaps foresight of the selectors.

Some highlights from the collection:

Station Belong You Me

The diversity of the collection is evident in Jim Leigh’s Station Belong You Me, which tells the fascinating story of Radio Rabaul in Papua New Guinea – the first station in the world to broadcast in Pidgin, the country’s lingua franca. First transmitted in 1966, it features original audio from the station, recordings of indigenous wildlife and analysis by Leigh, an Australian broadcast official and founder of the station. He describes it as a “radio experiment to bring a divided, primitive country together”, and as a vital way of preparing the people of Papua New Guinea for self-government. This programme therefore serves as an authentic document of traditional Papuan culture and language while also providing an insight into the mechanics of returning power to indigenous people in the wake of colonial rule. It’s also a curious reminder of the extent to which Western cultural attitudes have shifted since that time.

The Music Goes Round

Charles Chilton’s The Music Goes Round represents a different style of feature altogether. It explores the popular music of the 1930s, reflecting on the extent to which it represented the reality of the period and the impact of radio, talking film and the gramophone. Broadcast in 1965, the songs featured were, in Chilton’s words, “not the best music of the time” but more a reflection of the finance driven climate of the time and how this manifested itself in the style of musical output. As with much of his work, his chosen subject matter is examined in almost forensic detail in a programme illustrated with original gramophone records and songs specially arranged and performed by Alfred Ralston, conducting a 1930s style orchestra.

The Tibetan Lama

Tibetan LamaIn this feature Fredric Warburg recounts the unlikely but true story of his attempt to publish the Autobiography of a Tibetan Lama in 1955. The BBC Transcription Service catalogue sets the scene:

“Little has ever been revealed about the lamas, or priestly caste, of Tibet. Did they possess or could they acquire faculties unknown to Western man? What secrets did they know? It seemed that Lobsang Rampa would be able to tear aside the veil when he agreed to write his autobiography for a London publisher.”

Warburg was convinced that the book would be an enormous success. In this account, illustrated with the voices of some of those directly involved, he documents the way in which his initial optimism gradually turned to scepticism before finally the lama’s remarkable story was proven to be a charade. Lobsang Rampa was in fact Cyril Hoskins, a plumber’s son from Devon. The duped Warburg brilliantly recounts the story of the six weeks in which he believed he was about to make publishing history through to the breathtaking moment of Hoskins’ final exposure.

Information on how to access the BBC Transcription Service (aka BBC Radio International) and other BBC Radio collections can be viewed here.

David Noble