Sound and vision blog

9 posts from November 2014

28 November 2014

Rare Noël Coward recording rediscovered

The British Library Centre for Conservation contains a number of transfer studios in which a small but dedicated band of audio engineers are employed to convert at-risk analogue formats to high-resolution wav files, wav files being the Library's archival medium of choice for audio material.

Veteran audio engineer Tony Harris has the daunting job of processing the 'Bishop Sound' collection: hundreds of reels of tape and more than 3000 fragile lacquer discs that have been in the collection for several decades.


Audio engineer Tony Harris cleans lacquer discs from the Bishop Sound collection, prior to digitization.

It is a long time since the collection was paid any serious attention, and the received wisdom was that the recorded contents consisted solely of sound effects for theatre and film, probably made in the 1940s and 50s.

While this is true - there are literally hundreds of discs, tapes and even 3" tape loops of short sound effects - we were unaware that the collection also included a fascinating series of recordings related to post-war British drama. 

There are several excerpts from the BBC Radio Home Service programme The Critics, for example, in which Malcolm Muggeridge and others review the post-war arts scene.

Perhaps the jewel in the crown so far though is a live location recording of Noël Coward recorded speaking to the audience at the Lyric Theatre, 22 July 1947, following the first London performance of his play Peace in Our Time, an alternate reality story set in a Britain which had lost the Second World War. (The play is getting a rare revival next year to mark 70 years from the end of the war.)

Coward disc

Noël Coward lacquer disc produced by Bishop Sound. The inscription suggests the playwright may have commissioned it personally. 

In his diary for that night Coward wrote:

First night Peace in Our Time: I haven't heard such an enthusiastic noise in the theatre for many a year. After this cosy little triumph, Binkie gave a party, which was lovely. Got home late but happy. It is a bloody good play.

Click the link below to hear for yourself this 'enthusiastic noise', and Coward's typically elegant speech of thanks.

Listen to Noel Coward's speech at the Lyric

Recording used with permission of the Noël Coward Estate.

26 November 2014

Oral history for Disability History Month

Hearing Concern oral history 25-2-9   32UK Disability History Month is an annual event which takes places between 22 November and 22 December. The 'Disability Voices' collection on British Library Sounds includes interviews from a number of partnership oral history collections archived at the British Library. The interviews available come from partnership projects with Scope ('Speaking for Ourselves: An Oral History of People with Cerebral Palsy'), Hearing Link ('Unheard Voices: Interviews With Deafened People'), The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) ('Oral Histories of Disabled People's Experiences of Education'), and also a selection of interviews with Paralympians from the British Library funded oral history collection 'Oral History of British Athletics', a rolling programme of life story interviews with British athletes which started in 1996.

In the following extract Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson talks about the social model of disability and trying to change people's attitudes to disabled people.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson on the social model of disability  

Interviews recorded for Speaking for Ourselves, Unheard Voices and Oral Histories of Disabled People's Experiences of Education were all funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and were peer projects, which involved training volunteer interviews to interview others within their community. The Unheard Voices project also interviewed family members. In the following extract Tony Rugg talks about the value of the project as a research resource but also for the family members of deafened people.

Tony Rugg talks about the Unheard Voices project 

Image: Unheard Voices project volunteers at a training day at the British Library. Photo by Chris McGlashon.


25 November 2014

The eCreative “Sound Connections” pilot nears completion

Guest blog by Tom Miles, British Library's project manager on Europeana Creative.

 The Europeana Creative project - which began in February 2013, with the purpose of encouraging creative professionals to reuse content on Europeana – is about to complete its second year. The five pilots that the project has developed are now either completed or reaching completion. The themes of the pilots are Natural History Education, History Education, Tourism, Social Networks and Design.

BL Sound and Vision has been involved in the Social Networks pilot: “Sound Connections”. Working with its project partners, Netherlands Institute of Sound & Vision (NISV), HistoryPin, Platoniq and Ontotext, the pilot is an opportunity for users to enrich audio recordings with their own knowledge and content. 

So, for the above recording of the Nuthatch, it's possible to find the recording on "Sound Connections" and add your own comments, photographs, links to Wikipedia and other articles, relevant links on Europeana, etc. 

There are four themes to explore: Birdlife, Aviation, cityscapes for London and cityscapes for Amsterdam.

 You can browse the site either by text or by exploring the map. Most of the recordings originate from the countries of the content providers - the Netherlands and the U.K. The pilot aims to breathe life into online content, so that more information is added to them by users with different perspectives and areas of knowledge. 

The project partners are still in the process of refining "Sound Connections", which is on track for its official launch in January 2015.

21 November 2014

Jolly chuffed to spend a very hockey sticks weekend in Dulwich village

 Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

Last weekend I went to Dulwich to watch my daughter play hockey, which gave me the opportunity of exploring Dulwich village for the first time. The highlight of a thoroughly pleasant stroll was stumbling across a rather intriguing use of the word chuffed [= ‘pleased’] – a term used by millions of speakers of British English on a regular basis. Chalked up on a blackboard inside a wonderful artisan baker’s was a sign thanking customers for nominating the proprietors for a local trade award (I hope they win: the bacon bap I had was delicious). The sign declared that the owners were very chuffed to be nominated; an expression that immediately struck me as slightly odd - do people actually say very chuffed? Isn’t very somehow just too mainstream to combine with a word like chuffed? Aren’t more colloquial intensifiers like really, pretty and so or vernacular forms such as dead chuffed, proper chuffed and well chuffed more natural?

Very chuffed

A quick glance at several authoritative reference works seems to confirm my hunch. The entry for chuffed in the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition) includes six citations - the earliest from 1957 - and two examples each of chuffed, pretty chuffed and dead chuffed.  The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2014) agrees with the OED's dating and also includes the following observation:

originally northern English dialect […], adopted by military, then wider society […] often qualified by intensifiers DEAD, REAL, WELL

Both dictionaries include the antonym dischuffed – presumably formed by analogy with pleased/displeased rather than happy/unhappy – and the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (2014) provides further support for Partridge stating that chuffed:

probably originates in northern English dialect […] and is still most frequently heard in the North and Midlands [...] embellished forms are ‘dead chuffed’, ‘chuffed pink’ and ‘chuffed to arseholes’

In 2004/5 the BBC Voices survey investigated the words we use for 40 everyday concepts, including the notion PLEASED. Researchers in the British Library’s Voices of the UK project are currently compiling an inventory of the terms captured in the study and have thus far catalogued over 100 variants for PLEASED. Apart from pleased itself, chuffed was by far the most common response and certainly seems to have been taken up enthusiastically outside its northern and midland heartland, but as far as I’m aware we haven’t encountered many – if indeed any – examples of very chuffed. Plenty of contributors supplied dead chuffed, well chuffed, chuffed to bits, chuffed to naffy break (also in Partridge) and even chuffed to buggery, but not very chuffed. And yet, by extraordinary coincidence this week a contestant on the BBC quiz show Only Connect said he had been very chuffed with his team's performance in the previous round. I dunno - you wait for ages for a very chuffed and all of a sudden two come along at once.

If you'd like to hear any of the numerous  variants for PLEASED just listen to one of the 300 BBC Voices Recordings. From thrilled, delighted, tickled pink, cock-a-hoop and on cloud nine to made-up, thrimmed, over the moon, baktalo (Anglo-Romani for ‘happy/lucky’) and stoked each gives subtle clues to a speaker’s geographic background, age, ethnicity and/or social status.

My daughter’s team lost by the way, although in scoring her first goal of the season I suspect she was chuffed and dischuffed in equal measure, but – all things considered –  probably not very chuffed.

14 November 2014

Computer Memories of Alan Turing

Thomas Lean, interviewer for An Oral History of British  Science, writes:

This week the The Imitation Game, staring Benedict Cumberbatch as mathematician, logician, wartime codebreaker, and computer scientist Alan Turing, is released in British cinemas. Recognised as one of the fathers of computer science and artificial intelligence, Turing's mathematics research in the 1930s led him to the concept of the Universal Turing Machine, an idea which predicted the ability of stored program computers to perform any task they were programmed to do. He spent the Second World War working on ultra top secret code-breaking at Bletchley Park, devising the Turing-Welchman Bombe, to automate part of the process of decrypting German codes. Postwar he joined the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) where he designed one of the first stored program computers, the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE).

Frustrated in his efforts to get ACE built at the NPL, Turing joined the University of Manchester, which had recently completed the world's first operational electronic stored program computer. At Manchester he became deputy director of the computing laboratory in 1949 and worked on early software development and mathematical biology. In 1950 he introduced the famous idea of the Turing Test to define a standard by which a machine could be deemed intelligent. A brilliant but sometimes eccentric character, Turing has become one of the best known of the pioneers of computing. However, there are no know recordings of Alan Turing, his voice is lost to history, but several of his contemporaries were interviewed for An Oral History of British Science and recall working with him at Manchester. 

Geoff Tootill was one of the small team of electronic engineers who built the first stored program computer, at Manchester in 1948. In the following clip Geoff describes his surprise at having to correct some errors in what may have been Alan Turing's first computer program:

Geoff Tootill on working with Alan Turing

Listen at Voices of Science.


Tony Brooker joined the University of Manchester in 1951 to take over the day-to-day running of the computer user service from Turing. In the following clip discusses what it was like working with Turing at Manchester in the early 1950s.


Tony Brooker on working with Alan Turing


Dai Edwards with the expanded Manchester 'Baby' computer, June 1949. Courtesy Express Newspapers.

As a research student Dai Edwards helped users to run the Manchester Mark 1 compute, in this clip he recalls setting the machine up for Alan Turing and building up a good working relationship. 

Dai Edwards recalls helping Turing use the Manchester Mark 1

Listen at Voices of Science.


Turing's stream of ideas was tragically cut short. In 1952, at a time when homosexual acts were illegal in Britain, Turing was convicted of having a sexual relationship with another man. As a result he lost his security clearance and was chemically castrated by hormone injections, whose side effects caused him even further discomfort. In 1954 he died, poisoned by a cyanide laced apple, in a probable case of suicide. However, perhaps as a result of his early death, aged just 41, Turing sometimes feels like he belongs to a more distant age than he does, but through the recollections of his former colleagues we can see him as his contemporaries did. 

12 November 2014

Inspired by Flickr: Water

Over the course of 2014, sound artists, recordists, composers and designers have been beavering away in their studios, creating new compositions inspired by the British Library's collection of 1 million digitised images released onto Flickr Commons earlier in the year. The aptly named Inspired by Flickr offers contributors huge choice in the form of illustrations, photographs, diagrams, maps, book covers, musical scores and much more, all gathered from digitised books from the 17th, 18th and 19th Century.

Rather than submit one stand alone piece to the project, French sound artist and composer Stéphane Marin decided to create a quadrilogy of sound pieces inspired by images in this collection, based around the theme of the four classical elements. Air and Earth have already been showcased in previous blog posts and so now we turn to water. As with Marin's previous offerings in this series, the words of the French 20th Century philosopher Gaston Bachelard help bridge the gap between the 19th Century image and the 21st Century recording.

Part 3 - Inspired by Water


"The sleeping and silent water places,

 "singing lakes" in landscapes

(in the words of Claudel).

Close to it the poetic gravity deepens.

Water is living as a wide materialized silence.

It is beside the fountain that Pelléas whispers :

"There is always an extraordinary silence...

One would hear the water sleeping "(Act I).

It seems that to fully understand the silence,

our soul needs to see something that keeps silent (...)"

"Water and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter."

G. Bachelard

  Shan Village lake

The illustration in question is one of many found in the pages of the 19th Century book 'Amongst the Shans' by the prolific explorer Archibald Ross Colquhuon and depicts a typical Shan village scene. This visually rich landscape could have been interpreted sonically in an infinite number of ways; the water, trees, wooden boats, ducks, village activity could all have been brought to life through the medium of sound, yet Marin chose to refer back to a field recording made two years ago during a trip to Burma:

2012 : insomnia night

Listening to Inle Lake (Shan State - Burma)

The picture reminded me of this meditative night.

I hope that this raw field recording (the act of composition is in the way I have taken a "point of ear" of this sounding place) allows you to enter the materiality of this vast immobile water surface...


Not so...


Don't play loud...

Just listen with headphones!

Inle Lake Insomnia

Listening to this piece, with its steady animal chorus and traces of singing in the background, one can easily imagine listening to the village after dark. When looking at the landscape alone, daytime immediately comes to mind, yet look again while listening to its imaginary soundscape and it could easily be transformed into a moonlit night. Such is the power of sound.



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).


11 November 2014

The Long, Long Trail

BBC Radio 4 Extra this week re-broadcast a 53-year old radio feature considered by some to be the single most influential radio programme of the 20th Century - Charles Chilton's 1961 classic The Long, Long Trail. Drawn from the radio archive of the British Library, the programme which served as both inspiration and model for long-running stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War! can be heard for the rest of this month on the BBC iPlayer, along with an Archive on 4 retrospective on the programme and its enduring impact.

Radio Times, 27 December 1961
Radio Times, 27 December 1961 [Kind courtesy of Radio Times]

Chilton's study of the Great War was notable in its day for largely eschewing the bias of both offically sanctioned political accounts and selective publisher-mediated histories of the 'great and good'.

Instead, inspired by his own search for the truth about his father, who died at the Front aged only 19, he evoked the experiences of ordinary rank and file soldiers and the feelings of their families through the true songs of the trenches and homefront.

Just as soldiers on their way to the Front collectively confronted and managed their fear through spontaneous bursts of group song, Chilton articulated the disturbing narrative through the same musically light-hearted but lyrically chilling songs of futility.

Along with his researcher/scriptwriter wife Penny, Chilton found that the flippant, occasionally crude songs, delivered with cheery abandon by men on the way to being ‘burned, gassed and blinded’, could be a more effective way of conveying the madness of war - as in the inane mantra with which the troops replied to the question all men asked themselves on arriving at the trenches - what on earth are we doing here? The musical response:

 'We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here because we're here because we're here because we’re here....'

Radio Times, 27 December 1961
Radio Times promotion for the original Dec 1961 programme [Kind courtesy of Radio Times]

This combination of the absurd, the poignant and the tragic has no doubt also been key to the long-running success of stage adaptation Oh What a Lovely War!

The British Library recording of the original programme is accompanied on BBC iPlayer by an Archive on 4 retrospective narrated by long-time Chilton collaborator Roy Hudd, with contributions from Penny, Mary and David Chilton, and radio historian Professor Hugh Chignell.


Listen to Archive on 4 restrospective on The Long, Long Trail by Amber Barnfather & Roy Hudd

Listen to Charles Chilton's original 1961 Home Service feature The Long, Long Trail 

Listen to producer Charles Chilton talking about his early years at the BBC

The Charles Chilton Collection (C1186) documenting the producer’s recorded work from 1941 to 2004 can be explored by onsite British Library users through the Listening & Viewing Service.

07 November 2014

Film Screening: The Silk Road of Pop


The British Library and International Dunhuang Project will be hosting a free evening of music and film on 28 November 2014The London Uyghur Ensemble, a London-based group which plays traditional and popular music of the Central Asian Uyghurs, will open the evening with a live performance.

Following the performance, will be a screening of the award winning documentary The Silk Road of Popa portrait of the explosive pop music scene among the Uyghur community in China's Xinjiang Province. The Silk Road of Pop tells the story of Ay, a young Uyghur woman in China curious about the outside world who turns to music for answers and is drawn to musicians who mirror her struggles in their songs. The screening will be followed by a Q&A sessions with the film directors.


Friday 28 November 2014, 18:30 - 20:30

The British Library Conference Centre

96 Euston Road, London, NW1 2DB