Sound and vision blog

6 posts from October 2014

27 October 2014

Qatar Digital Library portal launched

A new online portal in English and Arabic which provides access to previously undigitised British Library archive materials relating to Persian Gulf history and Arabic science, was launched by the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership last week on 22 October.

The new portal, Qatar Digital Libraryhosted by the Qatar National Library, provides contextual material to help make the best use of the 500,000 digitised pages available. This includes 475,000 pages from the India Office Records and 25,000 pages of medieval  Arabic manuscripts.

Sowt Musicians
Photo credit: Rolf Kilius

Available on this portal are around 200 titles of traditional music from the Gulf region. These are from The British Library's Middle Eastern music collection and consist mainly of 78 rpm shellac discs from the 1930s to 1960s. The vast majority of these discs are from labels such as Gramophone/HMV (UK), Columbia (USA), Baidaphon (Lebanon) and Odeon (Germany). Many discs were recorded by agents from the recording companies in the fast-developing urban areas of the Gulf region. Thus these recordings mainly represent a (then) new urban culture, which was important in nation-building, cultural exchange and in crossing of social and tribal borders.

Rural musical genres were also recorded, though to a much lesser degree. The following articles explain the circumstances around these recordings:

Dusty Streets and Hot Music in Baghdad: Iraqi Maqam Music and Chalgi Ensembles

Sing, Play and Be Merry: The Unique Ṣawt Music of the Arabian Peninsula

To complement these historical, commercial recordings (mainly shellac discs and older fieldwork recordings from the Gulf region) traditional music performances were filmed in Oman, Qatar and Kuwait during field work trips as part of the partnership programme. These videos are also available on the Qatar Digital Library Portal. You can read more about this research in the following article:

Modernity meets Tradition: Reflections on Traditional Music in Qatar

For updates on the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership and the Qatar National Library, follow us @BLQatar!

Article written by Rolf Killius, Curator of Oral and Musical Cultures, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership.

24 October 2014

Inspired by Flickr: Earth

A couple of weeks ago we featured the first in a four part series of sound pieces, created by French sound artist and composer Stéphane Marin, which have been inspired by the British Library's online collection of over one million 17th, 18th & 19th Century images. Focusing on the four classical elements of air, earth, fire and water, we launched the series with a field recording-based piece inspired by meteorological charts included in the 1886 monograph 'Our Knowledge of the Earth: general geography and regional studies'. This week, we move from air to earth.

Part 2 - Inspired by Earth

"Almost always the word 'hard' is the opportunity of a force (...)

It's a word that cannot go quietly into things. "

G. Bachelard - Earth and Reveries of Will.

At all times the Earth shook.

Whether one is scared about the earth giving way under our feet,

It releasing sheaves of fire, lava flows,

Or the sky over our heads collapsing,

Always the Earth trembled.


At all times the Earth shook.

Whether the Spider, the Cosmic Dragon-Snake or the Giant Catfish are wrestling,

Whether the Divine Anger strikes us with stupor,

Or whether a simple tectonic breathing hiccups the surface of Mother Earth:

At all times the earth shook ...


And we (all) tremble with her ...

or not!?.

"Wait, from afar the hardest warns that which is hard .

Woe - absent hammer prepares to strike! "

Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, (12)

The Quaker

Rhythmic fear, hiccupping, syncopated;

Dynamic fear that in its excess becomes communicative;

Alarming fear to stay protected!


Being fearful, scared, or terrorized, is one thing.

Remain transfixed, petrified or numbed ... is another ...


Faced with any threats,

Even prey to our scariest Demons

Keep in mind the Gnome's lesson

This lesson about sur-vival

"remain mobile ...

communicate! "

A bunny in its hutch.

The image that inspired  Marin comes from the 1893 publication 'Our Earth and its Story: a popular treatise on physical geography vol 2' by Dr Robert Brown. The first volume, published a few years earlier in 1888, had been received with great acclaim and Brown was specifically praised in The Spectator for his "highly successful method of polularising science". The Brian Cox of his day, perhaps.

The image itself shows the strength of the Tökai earthquake that hit southeastern Japan on the 23rd December 1854, measured by monitoring sea level fluctuations off the coast of California. The earthquake was the first of three major quakes to strike Japan between 1854-1855, a series that was to become known as the Ansei Great Earthquakes. But what is the source of rumbling heard in Marin's piece 'The Quaker'? Is it seismic activity or something else? I'll leave it to you to decide.


Following many collaborations with street art companies (Allegro Barbaro / Le Phun / Osmosis Cie / 2ème Groupe d'Intervention / Décor Sonore) on projects performed in the six corners of the French hexagon, and in international festivals held in cities such as Suwon, Beirut, Poznan, Grätz, Valladolid, Manchester and Saarbrüken, Stéphane Marin created Espaces Sonores in 2008, a company dedicated to contextual sound creation and sound art. His work includes An Umbrella for 2 - audio walks to be shared by two people under an umbrella which was created for the Saint Charles train station in Marseille (Lieux Publics - Street Arts Creation National Center) and the streets and underpasses of Singapore (Singapore Arts Festival - National Arts Council), Elementaire - an ecological soundscape for relaxing sound naps ; ÉcoutesS d'EspaceS / EspaceS D'écouteS sound walks, sessions of yoga for your ears and finally contributions to events that help others rediscover the pleasures of phonography  (Mingalabar ! - Arte Radio - Paris / L'Oreille Nomade #1 - Myanmar - Kinokophonography @ New York Public Library for Performing Arts).





10 October 2014

Inspired by Flickr: Air

Earlier in the year, we invited individuals working with sound to compose a short audio piece inspired by one of the million 17th, 18th and 19th Century images released by the British Library onto Flickr Commons. The challenge was taken up by a number of artists, who found inspiration in images related to geology, science fiction, exploration and mechanics.

French sound artist and composer Stéphane Marin (aka Espaces Sonores), rather than focus on one particular image, chose instead to create a series of compositions based around the theme of the four elements - air, earth, fire and water. Air is the subject of the first instalment in this series and takes its inspiration from an image published in the 1886 monograph 'Our Knowledge of the Earth: general geography and regional studies' by the German geographer and naturalist, Alfred Kirchoff.

Part 1 - Inspired by Air

Reverie has four areas, four arrows with which she ran in infinite space.

To force the secret of a true poet [...], a word is enough: "Tell me what's your ghost?

Is it the Gnome, the Salamander, the Mermaid or the Sylph? "

Gaston Bachelard - The Psychoanalysis of Fire

Discovered during my studies in philosophy, Gaston Bachelard never ceases to invigorate my mind, sharpen my listening attention, wake up my reveries ... He accompanies each of my creations, which always begin with the ever inspiring reading of his poetry and elementary psychoanalysis. Allow me to choose him to escort us all along this elementary sound quadrilogy.

While I was producing street art soundworks 'for', 'in' and 'with' public spaces, so many dust particles and rain drops, agitated by wind bursts, fell on to my computer screens, my microphone diaphragms and sound cards connections, not to mention the frequent sunburn....The "weather fluctuations" (in a pragmatic sense), also called "Elementary Forces of Nature" (in a more lyrical sense), are the incoercible factors which (dis-)orientate every day the work of the outdoor composer. But better to go with these forces, instead of fighting against them in vain.

These may be, beyond the pure fascination imposed by natural phenomena, some of the reasons which also forced me to open up a bit more, every day, my attention to elementary environmental sounds. To create, sometimes, enough transparency to let them be heard in their most naive and bare manifestations, but never without an inch of genuine or fictive drama.

1_AIR :

//////// inHALE...

The Poet breathes in the world:


"The bleat, the bark, bellow, and roar,

Are waves that beat on heaven's shore."

W. Blake,  Auguries of Innocence - The Pickering Manuscript

 exHALE ! //////// 

The Philosopher breathes out the poet :

"The wind, in its excess,

is the anger that is everywhere and nowhere,

that is born and reborn of itself,

which rotates and overturns. "

G. Bachelard - Air and Dreams:

An Essay on the Imagination of Movement

//////// inHALE...

Microphones breathe in the time of a space.

Raw energy, this excessive wind,

came banging at my window on a winter morning.

exHALE ! //////// 

Speakers breathe out the trace, the elemental ghost of that moment ...

Like any anger requires a breathing space to afford a lull. 

//////// inHALE...

This monograph invites us to gather all these swirling sources to two clear and distinct directions.


exHALE ! //////// 

As binaural stereo facilitates the drainage of ardent energy flow to brittle ear canals



Such a variety of visual content was included in Kirchoff's monograph, from images of wildlife and natural landscapes to maps and meteorological charts. For reasons known only to our artist however, it was the above image that caught his eye and inspired his mind.

Earth will be the subject of our next Inspired by Flickr elemental series, so keep an eye and an ear out for that! 


Following many collaborations with street art companies (Allegro Barbaro / Le Phun / Osmosis Cie / 2ème Groupe d'Intervention / Décor Sonore) on projects performed in the six corners of the French hexagon, and in international festivals held in cities such as Suwon, Beirut, Poznan, Grätz, Valladolid, Manchester and Saarbrüken, Stéphane Marin created Espaces Sonores in 2008, a company dedicated to contextual sound creation and sound art. His work includes An Umbrella for 2 - audio walks to be shared by two people under an umbrella which was created for the Saint Charles train station in Marseille (Lieux Publics - Street Arts Creation National Center) and the streets and underpasses of Singapore (Singapore Arts Festival - National Arts Council), Elementaire - an ecological soundscape for relaxing sound naps ; ÉcoutesS d'EspaceS / EspaceS D'écouteS sound walks, sessions of yoga for your ears and finally contributions to events that help others rediscover the pleasures of phonography  (Mingalabar !Arte Radio - Paris / L'Oreille Nomade #1 - Myanmar - Kinokophonography @ New York Public Library for Performing Arts). 



07 October 2014

The Barbara Weinberger Police Interviews collection

Fiona Laird, National Life Stories intern, writes:

New recruits for London's Metropolitan Police
, photo courtesy of Paul Townsend under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

As a National Life Stories intern I have been cataloguing the Barbara Weinberger Police Interviews collection. This project consists of 69 interviews conducted by the social historian and writer Barbara Weinberger for her 1995 book The best police in the world: an oral history of English policing from the 1930s to the 1960s (Scolar Press; Aldershot, c1995). Weinberger interviewed police officers from sixteen different forces across England and Wales.

Covering the 1930s to the 1960s, Weinberger captures first-hand accounts of key changes in policing, such as the introduction of female officers, the 1960s Royal Commission, motorisation, and policing during the Second World War. Interviewees are encouraged by Weinberger to draw comparisons and distinctions between county and city police forces; police work before, during, and after the Second World War; and crime rates during their careers and at the time of interviewing in the 1990s.

As oral histories these interviews also provide an insight into the working and social lives of police officers during this period. The effect of being a Freemason on an officer’s promotion prospects, the vetting of fiancés before a policeman could marry, and the effect of the career on an officer and their families social and family life for example.

From detailed accounts of bombing in Coventry; through the social politics of being a rural policeman and Second World War undercover work resulting in treason charges; to accounts of the scandalous Sheffield Rhino Whip Affair, the Weinberger interviews have a lot to offer to researchers. Now that this valuable, varied, and fascinating collection is fully catalogued its details and transcripts can be much more easily be accessed through the British Library’s sound archive catalogue; search using the collection reference number C684.

I have no doubt that researchers will enjoy using this collection as much as I have enjoyed cataloguing it!

03 October 2014

It's all in the Howl

A few years ago, sound recordings of wolf howls were provided to Holly Root-Gutteridge, a PhD student at Nottingham Trent University who investigated whether wolves could be identified by their voices alone. For the opening of the British Library's exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination, we invited Holly to write a piece about her research into these hair-raising sounds.

“Listen to them – children of the night. What music they make.”

Words written to send a shiver down the spine, inspiring primeval terror in those that hear the wolves howling in the dark forest.  Bram Stoker wrote those words more than a hundred years ago for Count Dracula and there are few more famous or haunting sounds than the howl of a wolf. It is familiar from a thousand scary films and it is enough to conjure up nightmares. It is fear itself.


Cover artwork for the thirteenth edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1919)

Grey Wolf pack calling Algonquin Provincial Park Canada (Tom Cosburn_69787)

To the wolves themselves though, it has a very different meaning. To them, it is a jubilation, a song, even a choir raising their voices in joy at their togetherness.  Their howls are calls to each other, saying, “I am here, find me, come back to me” to a separated pack-mate, or meant to bind together a pack and raise their awareness of each other before they hunt. Even the pups raise their squeaky voices, faltering and breaking like choirboys on the brink of adulthood, to join their parents’ howl.

To me, there is a spine-tingling beauty in that howl. That was nevermore true than when I first heard them, standing on a mountain in Italy under a shadowy new moon. I listened and asked myself, “What information might be carried in a wolf’s howl?” After that night, I spent four years listening to and analysing howls for my PhD.

Tala howling in field 2
Tala (UK Wolf Conservation Trust)

I wanted to see whether wolves, like humans, had voices specific to themselves, so that each individual could be identified by their howl alone. There is huge interest in knowing how many wolves there are in an area, if they are the same wolves from year to year and whether they associate with the same pack-mates. It is important to know this because wolves have a profound effect on their environment. They prey on deer and elk, and so control their numbers; they scare off other smaller predators; and they even accidentally provision other species like ravens by tearing up carcasses so that they can feed too. Governments and farmers invest in protection schemes to keep their livestock safe and the cost of predation can be high. Therefore, knowing population size is essential to being able to assess the wolves’ effect.

For my results to have any statistical significance, I needed a lot of howls from as many individuals as possible. For my thesis, I analysed over 700 solo howls and collected many more. I recorded wolf howls in the wild and in zoos. I tracked down other people’s recordings through sound libraries like that of the British Library and Macaulay Library, through direct contact with other researchers, and even through TV production companies. The British Library was the first one I visited and recordings obtained from the archive were accompanied by field notes. My favourite notes however, came from the Macaulay Library and were penned by William W.H. Gunn, a naturalist and wildlife sound enthusiast active in the 1960s. It described how he was so determined to keep recording a wolf howling that he stood in a leaking canoe until it sank. At the end, he was left holding his microphone above his head to keep it dry and still recording. The lapping of the waves can still be heard on the recording. Another recording was from a TV documentary, which featured Timothy Dalton howling to wild Arctic wolves. When a slim and elegant female replied to him, I had a Bond girl in my collection.

Grey Wolf adult male Algonquin Provincial Park Canada (Tom Cosburn_69790)

Torak howling 7 pat melton
Torak (Pat Melton)

My analysis focused on the qualities of the howl. There are two essential components to sound – the note played, known as the frequency, and how loud it is played, known as the amplitude. In humans, we can easily hear these differences and have no problem distinguishing Timothy Dalton’s ‘Bond, James Bond’ from Sean Connery’s delivery of the same line. The study focused on whether we could do the same with wolf howls, distinguishing individuals from one another.

Nuka howling 2012 Jason Siddall (1)
Nuka (Jason Siddall)

Until recently, most attention has been paid to the frequency, with amplitude considered to be of less use. My study used both qualities and my team developed a computer code that could extract both from recordings. It would turn a spectrogram into a series of numbers I could then group using special classification analysis called Discriminant Function Analysis or DFA for short. This DFA groups data by the biggest differences between each sample, so if you have fifteen red balls and fifteen blue balls, it will use colour as the most important variable for grouping rather than shape and correctly divide the balls by it. However, if you have ten red balls, five red cubes, five blue balls and ten blue cubes, DFA will sort it by shape, so all the balls together, and then by colour, only then splitting red and blue. So you may still end up with two groups of the right shapes, but they will be a mix of colours. This is a very simple example of how it works – I used twenty-seven variables to do the same analysis with howls.

For the classification to work, the largest differences needed to be between individuals, not between individual howls. The characteristics that defined the voice needed to be stable and distinguishable. If a wolf howled slightly differently every time, as if singing a different tune but still had the same voice in essence, the DFA would still be able to separate individuals. My results showed that wolves did indeed have their own voice, distinctive to them. In fact, the analysis worked so well that I could distinguish between the wolves with up to 100% accuracy. Furthermore, like Connery and Dalton, there appeared to be geographic differences in how they sounded, with North American wolf howls quite distinct from European wolves.

So that spine-tingling howl carries more than fear on the air, it carries the identity of the howling wolf to all that know to listen.

Oh, and Hollywood may need to change those famous howls, as too often film soundtracks are haunted by an American Grey Wolf in London.


Full details  can be found in Root-Gutteridge, H. (2013). Improving Individual Identification of Wolves (Canis lupus) using the Fundamental Frequency and Amplitude of their Howls: A New Survey Method. Ph.D. Thesis. Nottingham Trent University: U.K.

Many thanks to the UK Wolf Conservation Trust for supplying images used in this post.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination opens today and runs until 20th January 2015.

Gothic was also the theme for this year's Off The Map student videogame design competition, details of which can be found here.


01 October 2014

Happy birthday compact disc!



The CD was launched in Japan on 1st October 1982. Sony, Philips and other makers launched CDs and CD players in Britain during the Spring of 1983.

The British Library owns a Sony CDP 101 (pictured above), which is widely believed to the first ever compact disc player. This is one of the many audio playback and recording devices in the Library's collection, a large number of which can be viewed online.