Sound and vision blog

6 posts from June 2015

26 June 2015

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!

Over the next three months, the British Library, the National Trust and the National Trust for Scotland are encouraging everyone to get themselves down to the seaside and record their favourite coastal sounds. This could be anything from gentle waves lapping onto a sandy Devon beach to the amusement arcades of Brighton Pier.

These sonic memories will be shared through the Sounds of our Shores channel, created specifically for this project by audioBoom, as well as an interactive coastal soundmap hosted by the library.

One of the outcomes of the project, once the initial crowdsourcing element has come to a close on the 21st September, will be a musical work composed by musician and producer Martyn Ware. Founder member of both Heaven 17 and the Human League, Martyn describes what the sounds of the British coastline mean to him:

It’s a very important thing to me that sound is an under-appreciated sense that we have. When we go anywhere; when we go to the cinema, when we’re walking around a park, when we’re walking across a bridge, over a river - we tend to think that everything we do is visual, or the way we remember things is visual. In fact that is not the case. I discovered this when we were doing a 3D sound project on the Millennium Bridge in London - every time we switched the soundscape on people used to take more photographs.  

This relates to the coast as well because I think that the sounds of the coast are probably more important than how the coast looks when you go to the sea. The sea is the sea and it’s very nice to look at. It’s meditative, the sound of the sea is an amazing thing, as are the sounds of people being happy. Generally when people are by water they tend to be happier because it is a relaxing experience. But think for a moment about the sounds of the seaside: of course you’ve got the sea, but also the sounds of people laughing, children playing, people singing, trams if it were Blackpool.  Certainly seabirds too, various kinds depending on how remote your location is, but definitely seagulls all the time. And you have people swimming, people possibly splashing in the water. There are various ways that these sounds are amplified according to where you are, according to whether you’re on an open stretch, on a spit, or if it is very, very quiet. The sea would hit ,something like the Dorset Coast which can be very shingly for instance, and when the sea hits that, it makes an entirely different sound to when it hits a shallow piece of beach like at Cleethorpes where I used to go as a boy.  


Martyn Ware recording the sounds of Brighton beach (courtesy of Tim Stubbings)

The sound that I love most about the the sea is that roar, the roar when it’s stormy.  It’s beautiful.  I also love the tiny little splashes when the sea hits rocks or rockpools.  I like recording tiny little sounds, maybe of crabs walking around on rocks, but I like the giant sounds too of course, the giant waves.  But really what the seaside symbolises to me is relaxation, enjoyment and a sense of well -being really.  I’ve always been very fond of being close to the sea. 

The seaside has many forms and I urge everyone to think about sound. Just put that at the front of your mind when you next go to the seaside: think about how important sound is to your experience.  Imagine there was no sound.  Just do it as an experiment. Hopefully my artwork will encourage you to think about the beauty and complexity and the nuance of your experience when you are at the seaside. 

Sounds of our Shores runs from 21st June to 21st September 2015. Full details on how to take part can be found here.

23 June 2015

Classical Music of the Jazz Age

Current Edison Fellow Paul Bevan writes about the influence of jazz on classical composers working in the period between the Wars.

George Gershwin is perhaps the name that most often springs to mind when a fusion of classical music and jazz is mentioned. However, important as his music is, and despite its ground breaking nature at the time of composition, Gershwin is not one of the composers explored in my current research project as Edison Visiting Fellow at the British Library. Two other composers whose music might fall into the same category as Gershwin, i.e. music composed for the symphony orchestra by popular music composers, are Dana Suesse (once known as “Girl Gershwin”) and James P. Johnson.

James P Johnson

Johnson is often cited as having been the first performer to have recorded a piece for jazz piano in 1921 and he was to compose his Harlem Symphony, a work of real note, the following decade in 1932. These three composers are the major exponents of what might best be described as “symphonic jazz.” Symphonic jazz is not the focus of this project which has specifically set out to explore the music of classical composers, during the interwar years, who used elements of jazz in their compositions. These include some of the most famous names of early twentieth-century music: Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Martinů and Milhaud as well as some equally important but less well-known names, such as Erwin Schulhoff and George Antheil.

One of the major aims at the outset of the project was to use historical recordings to compare styles of playing from different periods and to explore regional variants by country. However, it was soon discovered that there was one serious obstacle to this – namely, that the sample of existing recordings for any one composition in this repertoire is far too small to make any meaningful comparison. The few notable exceptions to this, for example, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and his Violin Sonata no. 2, have proved to be rich sources of material, but due to the quantitative limitations described above, the research was forced to take a natural turn towards a broad exploration of repertoire.

The repertoire in question has often been shunned by jazz enthusiasts as being failed attempts by classical composers to write successfully in the jazz idiom and is also an area often ignored by those in the classical music world who have thought it to be in some way lightweight, unsophisticated or even corny. Neither of these views does justice to the rich and diverse repertoire that the use of jazz has spawned in classical music, a phenomenon that may best be compared to the way folk music has been used, not just in modern times in the music of Bartok and Kodaly, but also in previous centuries with, for example, the chamber music of Haydn and Beethoven.

The music of the American, George Antheil, self-styled “Bad Boy of Music”, and his use of jazz as a central compositional element in some of his works, notably his Jazz Symphony of 1925, is a good example of the type of music studied in this project. As with so many young composers of the time, Antheil was greatly influenced by Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s early contributions to this genre can be seen in his Ragtime for 11 Instruments and The Soldier’s Tale (both of 1918). These pieces were composed at the start of a period of worldwide dissemination of jazz following WWI. However, they were written at a time when Stravinsky had not even heard ragtime and were composed with reference only to sheet music. 1918 was also well before the term “The Jazz Age” was coined, with the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story collection of that name in 1922. The “Jazz Age” is often said to have ended with the coming of the Great Depression although in reality it can be seen to have continued for much longer and was far more widespread than is often acknowledged. Indeed, in some parts of the world it was only at this time that jazz was becoming popular. This has led me to the devising of a new term, “The Universal Jazz Age,” a broad term covering trends in music, fashion, art, photography, architecture etc., that refers to a period which was both more widespread and longer lasting than the “Jazz Age” has often been seen to be. The reach of this popular cultural phenomenon in the 1930s and 1940s could be found as far afield as Shanghai, Bombay, Rio and Mexico City and important work in this area has been done by, amongst others, Naresh Fernandes in his Taj Mahal Foxtrot and Andrew F. Jones in Yellow Music.

Ragtime, the tango, the foxtrot and the waltz are perhaps the most frequently seen forms of dance music adopted in compositions by classical composers at the time in question. However, some of these are often not thought of as typical “jazz” genres at all, and the question might be asked why they were so prominent. The answer lies firmly in their inclusion as part of the repertoire of the dance halls, the type of venue where jazz was most frequently heard worldwide.

The composition of classical music inspired by jazz grew at much the same time as the worldwide spread of jazz itself following WWI. Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano rolls were not made until 1916, the first “jazz” recordings were recorded only the following year and J. P. Johnsons piano solo Carolina Shout was not recorded until 1921.

112px-Schulhoff_Mayerova_1931By this time, one of the central figures explored in this project, Erwin Schulhoff, had already composed his first piano pieces inspired by jazz, Fünf Pittoresken (1919), which were dedicated to his close friend, the artist George Grosz. Schulhoff used jazz in his compositions in a distorted and grotesque manner in much the same way as Grosz (a jazz fan himself) was doing in his artistic representations of Berlin nightlife; both doing so as part of the phenomenon of Berlin Dada. 

Composer Ervín Schulhoff (1894–1942) and dancer Milča Mayerová (1901-1977), ca 1931

“Classical Music of the Jazz Age,” fits into a wider project which follows the spread of jazz around the world, focussing on East Asia and the Universal Jazz Age. The project seeks to show how jazz, a music with its roots in America, following WWI, spread rapidly around the world, in each place taking on a life of its own. By the 1930s, as part of the Universal Jazz Age (a broad cultural phenomenon which included art, literature and fashion) jazz had become a many-faceted jewel reflected in the mirrors of numerous cultures worldwide. 


Dr Paul Bevan is a Research Associate in the Department of Languages and Cultures of China and Inner Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. His book: A Modern Miscellany: Shanghai Cartoon Artists, Shao Xunmei’s Circle and the Travels of Jack Chen, 1926-1938 will be published by Brill later in 2015.

22 June 2015

Sounds of our Shores

From the crashing of waves to the sound of children’s laughter floating on the air. The shrill of a victorious arcade machine to the wall of noise from a seabird colony; these are the sounds of our shores.

As the National Trust celebrates the 50th year of its Neptune Coastline Campaign and the 775 miles of coastline it looks after, the charity is joining forces with the British Library, the National Trust for Scotland and audioBoom Ltd to celebrate every inch of the coastline by creating the UK’s first ever coastal soundmap. 

Over the next three months, the project is encouraging everyone to grab their smartphones or digital recorders and head out to capture sounds from along our much-loved coastline; from the bustling beaches of Cornwall to the remote cliffs of the Scottish islands, or the urban humdrum of the Thames Estuary. 

Beam Engine Houses_Cornwall

Beam Engine Houses, Bollatack, Cornwall (David Noton)

These sounds play a powerful part in shaping our memories of days spent on the coast. They have a wonderful way of connecting us to our favourite places. For some it might be the sounds of a fishing village passed through on a favourite seaside stroll or the comfort of a whistling kettle from inside a beach hut, ready to warm you up after a valiant swim in the still biting sea. 

Waves on rocky beach, recorded in Durness, Scotland by Richard Margoschis


Staithes, North Yorkshire (Joe Cornish) 

Wind in yacht rigging, recorded in Largs Harbour, Scotland by Richard Beard

Whatever it is, once you’ve found the sounds that perfectly capture your idea of the coast, you can upload them to the sound map via the audioBoom ‘sounds of our shores’ channel. Tag the location of the recording, add a picture and jot down a few words describing the sound and what it means to you. We’d love to hear your stories about favourite coastal sounds that remind you of your seaside experiences.

If you're looking for inspiration, listen to some of the British Library's own coastal sounds, such as this collection of waves - from our website you can access thousands of recordings, from music and spoken word to wildlife and environmental sounds, which are held in our national sound archive. Find out more about the nation's 6.5 million recordings, and the efforts to digitise it, on our Save our Sounds campaign page.

For those who would like some more guidance on sound recording, keep an eye on the Sounds of our Shores website. As well as being able to hear what other people have been recording, you can also check out a list of ‘top tips’ - including a new use for that odd sock you’re about to throw out!

The project will run until 21 September so there is plenty of time to upload your sounds.  We’ll be picking out our favourites throughout the project so make sure you share yours with us on social media using #shoresounds.

12 June 2015

The presence of 'girls' in labs

Nobel Prize-winning scientists Sir Tim Hunt has provoked outrage this week by suggesting the presence of ‘girls’ in labs was disruptive to science, primarily because of the emotional entanglements they caused.  These remarks ignore substantial evidence both in contemporary science and its history of teams of men and women working together successfully, and of collaborative couples who worked together or in closely related fields.  These have been well documented by the Oral History of British Science project.

Both John Charnley and Dennis Higton, who worked on early jet aircraft at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough recalled the contributions to aeronautical research and their careers made by Frances Bradfield, Beatrice Shilling and Chrystelle  Fougère.

Sir John Charnley

Dennis Higton talks about working with Miss Shilling

Sir John Charnley discusses Miss Fougere

Geoff Toothill, part of the team that built the Manchester ‘baby’, the world’s first stored program computer, noted how the project benefitted from the arrival of Ida Fitzgerald as the ‘wireman’.

Geoff Tootill talks about the arrival of Ida Fitzgerald

In his interview civil engineer Peter Head commented that in his experience mixed teams were more effective than those made up of only men.

Peter Head talks about mixed offices

Materials scientist Julia King recalled the practical jokes that she and her fellow PhD students played on each other, in-between getting on with their research.

Julia King recalls the practical jokes that she used to play during her PhD

The Oral History of British Science collection also contains interviews with scientists who married colleagues who worked on related research areas including Ann Dowling, Julia Slingo, Ann Wintle, Janet Thomson, Jo Shien Ng and  Dick Grove.  After marrying fellow geographer Jean Clark and starting a family, Grove adapted his own research agenda to collaborate with his wife and accommodate their children in fieldwork expeditions.

Dick Grove: picnic fieldwork

After his wife died, Grove edited a new edition of her book The Little Ice Age and continued to publish research that drew on their shared research interests.

By Sally Horrocks

Voices of Science is a growing web resource featuring audio and video extracts from the British Libray's oral history of science collections.  The website provides links to full unedited interviews and transcripts available to users worldwide via British Library Sounds

10 June 2015

Listening Project booth comes to the British Library

Holly Gilbert writes:

Being immersed in the BBC Listening Project collection at the British Library for the last three years has felt a bit like embarking on a compelling and often emotional journey around the UK without ever needing to leave my desk.

The Listening Project is a collection of 40-minute conversations between two people who have decided to take the time to talk about something of their choice that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to discuss.

The topics include a fascinating range of unusual lifestyles or jobs, such as living with wolves, being a polar explorer, performing as a drag queen, working as a soul midwife and being involved in the peace movement. There are inspiring and moving accounts of surviving sickness and trauma as well as living with terminal illness, disability and mental illness. Family experiences such as love, partnership, pregnancy, birth, divorce, death, adoption and infertility all feature in the collection, including what it’s like to have an arranged marriage, to be a single parent, to come out and to survive domestic abuse.

The Listening Project recording bubble at the British Library

Widening the scope of the project beyond national borders, people share their experiences of moving to the UK from other countries including Poland, Iraq, Jamaica, Afghanistan and Uganda. There are also personal accounts of historical events such as the Second World War, the Northern Ireland Troubles, the Holocaust, the 1974 Miners’ Strike and the Nagasaki atom bomb.

A conversation that particularly haunts me is the one in which Tricia describes to her friend Carol the experience of spending some of her teenage years and most of her twenties in the terrifying psychiatric hospital High Royds near Leeds in the 1980s.

Her description of the imposing Victorian architecture and incomprehensible mental health system which she did her best to resist is unforgettable and extremely powerful, as is her subsequent release, recovery and experience of returning to and photographing the building when it was closing down in 2003 which was for her a kind of healing process. It is a privilege to hear the story of this part of Tricia’s life as described by her and to be able to archive it in the British Library, making it accessible in perpetuity.

I sometimes wonder what researchers in 100 years’ time will make of the experiences and preoccupations of the people who have shared their stories as part of the Listening Project and of the wider society that these small insights into their lives reflect.

The recordings cover the length and breadth of the UK, from the South West of England to the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of Scotland, from East Anglia through Wales and over to Northern Ireland. The youngest speaker is 7 year old Felix talking to his brother Kit about being siblings in the twenty-first century and the oldest is 101 year old Muriel talking to her son Julian about her memories of the First World War.

With more than 650 searchable recordings available to listen to worldwide on the British Library Sounds website there is almost no limit to where you might be transported and what you might learn from someone else’s experience of life. So I invite you to join me, open your ears and mind and begin your own journey via the conversations of others.

The Listening Project Booth will be at the British Library in St Pancras on 10 and 11 June 2015 before touring all four corners of the United Kingdom.  Visit the Booth on the piazza to find out how you can record a conversation, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and archived by the British Library.

03 June 2015

Sound tracks: acoustic landscapes in the past and present

For the next two years, the British Library will be joining forces with archaeologists and sound artists from the University of York to investigate how sound has shaped the human experience in and around the Creswell Gorge area over the past 50,000 years. Creswell Crags, a series of small caves situated along a limestone gorge on the Derbyshire / Nottinghamshire border, is without doubt one of the most important early Prehistoric sites in Britain, demonstrating evidence of Neanderthal occupation, the oldest examples of Ice Age cave art and a more contemporary history of mining and quarrying activities. Using archaeology, palaeoecology, archival sound recordings, text and oral histories, Sound tracks will explore the sonic environment of the Creswell Crags landscape over time and create a series of auditory resources which will be of value to both the academic community and the wider public.

Robin hood cave_internal3

Robin Hood Cave, Creswell Crags (courtesy of the Creswell Heritage Trust)

Sound in archaeological interpretation is increasingly being recognised as an important resource but, for the most part, this is still restricted to the acoustics of individual structures. When the remit is broadened to take in the entire landscape however, things become much more exciting. By looking at both the structures themselves and the surrounding landscape, the ability to form a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between people and place over time is greatly enhanced. 

So what will we be doing over the course of this project? Here’s a quick breakdown of what we will be creating:

1. Sound collages for the Creswell Crags Museum and Visitor Centre. These pieces will help listeners connect with conditions that would have been encountered and created by hunting and gathering communities who occupied the Creswell Gorge area during the late Pleistocene.

2. Sound installations within the caves of Creswell Crags. These installations will use field recordings created during the project to explore different aspects of human occupation within the Gorge. Emphasis will be placed on the acoustic histories of caves, their role as shelter for different animals and their varied uses by people.

3. Sound art events using original compositions within the Gorge, exploring long-term changes in the Creswell soundscape.

4. An online legacy of content for all to access and use.

Sound recordings held at the British Library will be heavily drawn upon when composing the sound collages representing the Late Pleistocene environment. Our content has already been used in this way for the pilot study Sonic horizons of the Mesolithic, which presented the rich acoustic ecologies of the North Yorkshire Star Carr archaeological site and the contribution of human activities to the soundscape of this area. Oral history testimonies held by the Creswell Heritage Trust will also be used to get a better sense of the industrial history of the Creswell Gorge landscape.


(Courtesy of the Creswell Heritage Trust)

In addition to archival material, new recordings will be generated during the early months of the project. These will include experimental recordings exploring the acoustic properties of the Creswell caves and their relation to the outside world. The re-enactment of ancient activities such as flint-knapping, bone working and butchery techniques will be recorded, as well as readings of antiquarian texts that in some way relate to the area.

Dr Benjamin Elliot, research assistant for Sound tracks says:

"This project is a fantastic opportunity to explore the vast potential of sound for articulating complex themes in the long-term history of a very special landscape. We are all massively excited by the prospect of getting stuck into the practical, intellectual and creative challenges that this project presents - and producing some innovative and stimulating material which uses sound as both a subject material and a medium for critical discourse."

Professor Mark Edmonds from the University of York, adds:

"We're delighted to have the chance to put sound at the centre of research on this remarkable landscape. Exploring the acoustic ecology of the area provides us with a new way of thinking about the conditions our ancestors inhabited and the longer term biography of the Gorge itself. It also raises some fascinating practical, intellectual and creative challenges that we can't wait to get our teeth into. Keep your ears open!"

Sound tracks offers an exciting opportunity to place sound at the heart of analysing and interpreting the history of the Creswell Gorge area. It will facilitate a greater understanding of what life was like for our ancestors who, over the last 50,000 years, have left their imprint on this part of the world.

Sound tracks: acoustic landscapes in the past and present is a two-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust