Sound and vision blog

4 posts from September 2014

23 September 2014

Listening to the radio

We are delighted to be organising a short series of classic BBC radio drama listening events, in partnership with listening event specialists In the Dark, Bournemouth University's Centre for Media History and the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) at the University of Westminster. At these free events, held at the British Library’s Foyle Suite, listeners can enjoy some outstanding archival recordings in a group setting, including Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Louis MacNiece’s The Dark Tower and David Jones’s In Parenthesis. Each event will be followed by discussions on their continuing relevance and significance for a contemporary audience.

These listening events are part of the British Library's contribution to the UNESCO World Day for Audiovisual Heritage for 2014. Annually on 27 October, audiovisual archives from around the world put on activities that highlight the vulnerability of the audiovisual heritage and celebrate the work of those heritage institutions that work to protect it.


These are the five programmes we will be presenting (please note that all events will begin at 17:15 sharp).

The March of the ’45 (1956)

The March of the ‘45 written by D.G. Bridson and produced by D.G. Bridson and Gordon Gildard was originally broadcast in 1936. Bridson's influential verse drama described the unsuccessful attempt by 'Bonny Prince Charlie' to take the British crown. From his landing in Scotland in 1745 where he rallied the clans to his cause, the 'Young Pretender' marched successfully south into England before turning back to eventual defeat at the Battle of Culloden. At moments in the programme there are voices from the north of England in the 1930s as a way of giving the Jacobite uprising political relevance. Perhaps more than any other example, 'The March of the '45' established the radio feature as a creative genre with distinct characteristics; verse narrative, acted sequences and music to tell a story based on historical fact.

When: Thu 2 Oct 2014, 17.15-19.45 (doors open at 17:00)

Where: Foyle Suite, Centre for Conservation

Price: Free  Book here


In Parenthesis (1955)

In Parenthesis was written by David Jones and produced by Douglas Cleverdon with music by Elisabeth Poston. The cast includes Richard Burton as Private Ball and Dai Greatcoat. David Jones's epic poem about the First World War, In Parenthesis, was published in 1937 to extraordinary critical acclaim; T.S.Eliot called it 'a work of genius' and for W.H. Auden it was 'a masterpiece'. The feature follows Private John Ball as he crosses the channel with his English and Welsh comrades on their way to battle. There are passages which describe the everyday life of soldiers, including the intimacy of male friendship, and others which use myth and legend to reflect more generally on war. The classic radio feature ingredients are all present with verse narration, music, striking sound effects and acting. This is one of the more literary radio features and is full of references to literature, the Bible and Welsh legend. The original broadcast was in 1946 in the very early days of the Third Programme (launched less than two months before).

When: Thu 16 Oct 2014, 17.15-19.45 (doors open at 17:00)

Where: Foyle Suite, Centre for Conservation

Price: Free  Book here


The Rescue (1943)

The Rescue, Edward Sackville-West’s 1943 radio dramatisation of part of Homer’s Odyssey with music by Benjamin Britten, appears to be the first substantial treatment of Homeric epic on BBC Radio, and also the most enduring (with six further productions to 1988). The collaboration of Sackville-West and Britten on this work resulted a distinctive exploration of the dramatic potential of radio. Further, the close association of words and music suggest a reflective awareness of The Rescue’s relationship with ancient epic performance, especially through the character of the bard Phemius. The narrative both resonates with the contemporary international situation and argues for the humanising potential of aesthetic experience.

When: Thu 30 Oct 2014, 17.15-19.45 (doors open at 17:00)

Where: Foyle Suite, Centre for Conservation

Price: Free  Book here


The Dark Tower (1946)

The Dark Tower is one of the most acclaimed creative works written and produced for BBC Radio. The poet, classicist and BBC writer and producer Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) wrote it in the spring and summer of 1945, at the close of the Second World War, and it was first broadcast on 21 January 1946, with many subsequent revivals. Alongside MacNeice's words, an exciting score by Benjamin Britten provided another dimension to the aural experience. The location of the piece in its historical moment is crucial for its interpretation.

When: Thu 13 Nov 2014, 17.15-19.45 (doors open at 17:00)

Where: Foyle Suite, Centre for Conservation

Price: Free  Book here


Under Milk Wood (1954)

The Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) conceived of Under Milk Wood, which he subtitled A Play for Voices, as a piece for performance on radio, although it has also had a vigorous performance life on stage, television and film. In this centenary year of his birth, the play has been much revived. The very first radio production of Under Milk Wood was an immediate success, winning the Prix Italia as well as a rapturous reception both in the press and amongst the 244 listeners individually surveyed by the BBC. Douglas Cleverdon, who had nurtured it during its long gestation, produced it for the Features Department with an all-Welsh cast and it was broadcast on the Third Programme on 25 January 1954. This 94-minute version was repeated several times, and the Home Service broadcast a shortened version later in the same year. 60-minute versions were made for overseas networks and the play was translated into at least eight languages for radio productions across Europe and beyond.

When: Thu 27 Nov 2014, 17.15-19.45 (doors open at 17:00)

Where: Foyle Suite, Centre for Conservation

Price: Free  Book here


There is background information on each of the programme at Bournemouth University’s Public Listenings site. We hope that these will be the first in an ongoing series of listening events to be held at the British Library. Look out – or listen out – for news of these in 2015.

16 September 2014

On the Trail of the Polar Bear

Few animals are more synonymous with the Arctic Circle than the Polar Bear. Along with icebergs and intrepid explorers, the Polar Bear is one of the most iconic symbols of the frozen lands of our planet’s most northern extremes.

While researching potential sound recordings for the library’s upcoming polar exhibition, ‘Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage’, the Polar Bear obviously came to mind. One of the main themes of the exhibition examines why European explorers have been so drawn to the Arctic, in particular the legendary Sir John Franklin and his ill-fated crew, who disappeared while trying to seek out the fabled Northwest Passage. Explorers are not the only group to have been attracted to this harsh landscape; filmmakers and sound recordists have also been enchanted by the mysteries of the Arctic.

An oral history interview with wildlife sound recordist, Patrick Sellar, recounts an expedition in 1981 to Spitzbergen where he was charged, by no other than David Attenborough, to track down a number of Arctic species in preparation for an incoming BBC film crew.  Equipped with a small boat and armed with his checklist, our fearless recordist set about locating various species. Ice Polygons, Ivory Gull, the Little Auk, all were gradually ticked off the list. All except for one. The Polar Bear.

Patrick Sellar_Spitzbergen and the elusive Polar Bear

Polar Bear
Image from 'Greenland, the adjacent seas, and the North-West Passage to the Pacific Ocean, illustrated in a voyage to Davis's Strait, during the summer of 1817' by Bernard O'Reilly (London, 1818)

Despite his best efforts, Patrick was unable to catch up with the elusive Polar Bear. As with countless others who came before him, the Arctic refused on this occasion to give up its treasures.

The British Library’s exhibition ‘Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage’ opens on 14th November and runs until 29th March. Free entry.


08 September 2014

Archiving WOMAD 2014

The British Library’s relationship with WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance) is nearly as long as the festival's existence, recording performances for archival purposes since 1985. The first recording in the WOMAD Collection, C203/1, was of the Chinese sheng and flute players, the Guo Brothers, who had recently arrived in London to study at the Guildhall School of Music and were just beginning to create a name for themselves in this country. It was made on Ampex 456 ‘Grand Master’ tape at half-track stereo and in the recordists' notes, strong winds were reported as interfering with the quality of the recording.

1985 flyer from Steve Sherman

Since 1985 and each year, with the exception of three, a small team of staff from the British Library record as many of the performances as possible, including workshops and interviews. This summer, between 24 and 27 July, six members of staff attended the festival equipped with portable digital recorders and recorded ninety-one performances, covering 95% of the festival. These recordings have recently been catalogued and processed and are searchable on our catalogue. They can be listened to free of charge through our listening service on-site at the British Library in King's Cross in London and in Boston Spa, Yorkshire. 

The British Library holds a significant number of early UK appearances by artists who, since performing at WOMAD, have made great inroads on the international music scene; artists such as Baaba Maal, first recorded by the British Library at WOMAD in 1991, Thomas Mapfumo, first recorded in 1990 and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, first recorded in 1985, to cite only a few. In total we hold around 2,100 hours of audio (you would need close to 3 months of non-stop listening to listen to it all!) of performances at WOMAD, held on different physical formats such as open reel tape, DAT, CD-R and digital audio files; all are stored in our basements and backed up digitally for preservation and access.

Womad advert

The British Library holds five million recordings on over one million items dating back to the 1890s and possibly earlier. The sound collections have their origin in 1906, when the British Museum began collecting metal masters from the Gramophone Company. Recording performances at WOMAD is one example of the many ways in which the British Library actively develops its sound collections although the majority of material is acquired through donations, purchases or loans.

Steven Dryden, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist, was a member of the WOMAD team this year. In this paragraph he relays his highlight of the festival: experiencing the live sound of DakhaBrakha, made possible thanks to Dash Arts, the creative agency which brought the group to the United Kingdom.

My highlight of WOMAD 2014 has to be ‘Ethno Chaos’ founders DakhaBrakha - brooding, shamanic ‘noisescapes’ from Ukraine. The Siam Tent filled to capacity throughout the four piece set, the atmosphere building and building with each song. The sound is eclectic, in the truest sense of the word; there is a traditional folk element but also, dance, hip-hop and tribal rhythms. The songs often build to terrifyingly claustrophobic dins, but remain rhythmic and chant like - just as the ‘Ethno Chaos’ tag might suggest, there is a lot of beauty in this chaos. One couldn’t help but reflect on everything that has happened in the Ukraine in the last year. Perhaps DakhaBrakha are capturing the zeitgeist of a generation of Ukrainians? The performance is swamped with pride, Ukrainian flags are featured on stage and amongst the audience. But there is something more here, the sound of the four piece is defiant and confident, totally uncompromising between the past and the future sounds of the Ukraine. This band sucks you in to their world of noise and forces you to contemplate, all while moving your feet.

Listen to an excerpt from DakhaBrakha's performance

Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World and Traditional Music, attended WOMAD festival for the first time.

Bernie Krause's talk at the Society of Sound Stage was an inspiring complement to the numerous musical performances I recorded at WOMAD: The Good Ones, Monsieur Doumani, Aar Maanta, Siyaya, Amjad Ali Khan, Mulatu Astatke, Kobo Town, Magnolia Sisters, amongst others. In his talk, the bio-acoustician and founder of Wild Sanctuary, an organization dedicated to recording and archiving natural soundscapes, invited the audience to reflect on the origins of music by suggesting structural relationships between what he identifies as the three layers of the soundscape - the geophony ('non-biological sound that occurs in the natural world'), biophony ('all of the sounds that animals create collectively in a natural wild environment') and the anthrophony ('all the human noise we create'). Using spectograms and audio recordings from his personal archive and recordings of the BayAka Pigmies made by Louis Sarno, his points were made audible.

Listen to an excerpt from Bernie Krause's talk

Andy Linehan, Curator of Pop Music, first attended WOMAD festival in 1985.

As ever, it is difficult to pick out the highlights of WOMAD – there is so much to see, hear, taste and enjoy even though we are working - but Manu Dibango has long been a personal favourite on record so it was great to see him live and Richard Thompson’s late-night set reminded me what a great guitarist and songwriter he is. Ibibio Sound Machine played a storming set on Saturday afternoon and Youssou N’Dour was as classy as ever that evening. Sunday brought my favourite band of the weekend – Les Ambassadeurs, the reformed band led by Salif Keita who revisited their 1970s blend of afrobeat, funk, jazz and soul in an all-too short 75 minutes of aural pleasure.  And in a contrast of style the final performance of the weekend was a blistering set by Public Service Broadcasting (probably the first band to have played both the British Library Entrance Hall and Womad) who enthralled a packed Siam tent and drew proceedings to a close. It didn’t rain either.

Listen to an excerpt from Public Service Broadcasting's performance

Get in touch to listen to performances from WOMAD on-site at the British Library and listen online to sounds from World & Traditional Music and Pop Music online! See you next year for WOMAD 2015!

02 September 2014

Syriac Liturgical Music - From the Mountains of the Servants of God

The British Library has recently acquired field recordings made in two Syriac Orthodox monasteries in south-eastern Turkey by film-maker Nathaniel Daudrich and ethnographer George Richards. These recordings of Syriac Liturgical chant, searchable on our catalogue under collection number C1658 and available on Sounds, were made in 2011 and document one of the oldest existing forms of song, similar to the Western tradition of plainsong. In this guest blog post, we hear from the recordists themselves about the importance of these recordings and the process of making them.

Very few recordings of the liturgy of the Syriac Orthodox Church (a branch of Christianity established at Antioch, in modern Turkey, and which split from Rome and Constantinople in AD 451) have been made in situ in the remote monasteries of southern Turkey. These recordings may prove to be rarer still, in that they capture the essence of the Syriac language (a branch of the Semitic family of languages that also includes Arabic and Hebrew), the speakers of which were once in abundance across the Middle East, but who have now dwindled to a near-forgotten minority. The part of Turkey where these recordings were made is still called Tur Abdin - the Mountains of the Servants of God - but the two monasteries, Deyrulzafaran and Mor Gabriel, are among the very last islands of the Syriac people in Turkey.

A chapel at the Monastery of Deyruzafaran. Photo credit: Nathaniel Daudrich

In 2011, we travelled from Istanbul to Diyarbakir, a large Kurdish city in south-eastern Turkey. The Arab Spring was spreading through the countries to the south, and the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish separatists was rumbling on. From Diyarbakir, we drove at night-time with a Kurdish farmer to Deyrulzafaran, the Saffron Monastery, in the mountains behind Mardin. There, we were welcomed by a monk, wrapped in a black cloak, and taken by moonlight through the courtyards to a small dormitory room.

We were woken the next morning by the bell for prayer. The sun had cast a warm glow over the yellow stone of the monastery, from which it takes its name, and we were led sleepily by a young orphan boy to the chapel. Inside, the walls were whitewashed, with a few embroidered drapes, and sunlight pouring in through a window behind our heads. Clouds of incense tickled our noses. We took a pew among some old men, tanned and flat-capped. The orphan-boy joined another in an alcove on one side of the chapel, while a tall farmer and a priest, wearing black robes, a long black beard and a white-and-black skull-cap, stood in the alcove on other side.  

Then, the boys began to sing. They stopped, the two men replied with deeper voices, and then passed the song back to the boys, and so on, back and forth. As they sang on, into the chapel flowed a trickle of orphans, wiping sleep from their eyes, and farmers, brushing straw from their shoulders, and businessmen on their way to work, leaving briefcases at the chapel door. The boys and the younger men, or those with higher voices, joined the orphans; the older and bigger men joined the priest and the farmer. Soon, the alcoves were overflowing. As the service went on, the singers’ voices grew stronger - then, at the very peak, as we stood, half-asleep, hungry, and squinting through the sunlight and the incense, the chapel seemed filled with song.

Listen to an excerpt from Deyrulzafaran

These recordings represent an early step in the development of choral music from monophonic chanting, a single voice making one note at a time, to polyphonic, where different voices sing different notes in harmony. They demonstrate the call-and-response technique, a device that grew out of the structure of human speech, and which spurred on the development of more complex choral music.

It is intriguing to encounter, in these recordings, so early a step in the development of choral music preserved through time, like a living fossil. This is almost certainly the effect of the religious context of this musical tradition: the sanctity of the liturgy has inhibited any change. Without this preservatory effect, Syriac Orthodox chant would have evolved centuries ago and what we hear on the recordings would have been lost in time, cast aside like a snake sloughing its old skin.                      

Belfries in the Monastery of Mor Gabriel. Photo credit: Nathaniel Daudrich

As significant as these recordings are in understanding the development of choral music, they are also an important reflection of the cultural and historical context in which they have been preserved. Traditions hold that the Syriac people - speakers of the Syriac language - are descended from the ancient Assyrian empire. Acknowledging the influence of early Jewish sacral music, the Hellenistic music, and, later, neighbouring Arabic song, Syriac Orthodox chant is descended, in spirit at least, from the song-poems of the ancient Assyrians.  

Listen to an excerpt from Mor Gabriel

These recordings thus contend to be one of the oldest forms of music in the world: and in them we hear, perhaps, the strains of an ancient bard, singing to the glory of the court of Puzur-Ashur, King of Assyria, two thousand years before Christ.

You can listen to the full recordings on Sounds and read more about the expedition undertaken by George Richards and Nathaniel Daudrich. Follow George Richards on Twitter to receive updates on the project.