Sound and vision blog

4 posts from February 2016

24 February 2016

'Hear Make Heard': Central Saint Martins students' take on sound

Central St Martins display

In January this year, my colleague Stephen Cleary and I, hosted two sessions to introduce the Sound Archive to a group of our Knowledge Quarter neighbours: students from Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London, all studying the Foundation Diploma in Graphic and Communication Design, which is run by Lucy Alexander and Tim Meara.

The agenda of the day included a display selection of collection items and a listening session. The idea was to inspire a creative design response to the Library’s audio collections.

The British Library Sound Archive contains 6.5 million audio recordings from all over the world, on around 42 different physical formats. These cover the entire range of recorded sound, from every kind of music to drama and literature, oral history and wildlife and environmental sounds, stretching back more than 100 years, to the beginning of sound recording.  As you can imagine, there is plenty to choose from for a show-and-tell. 

The most popular showcased items proved to be:

  • Roamin' in the Gloamin' by Harry Lauder (1870-1950), a blue celluloid cylinder, first released as a black celluloid cylinder in 1911, when Lauder was reportedly the highest-paid performer in the world.
  • The first luminescent phonograph cylinder record, The Ghosts of Effingham by Michael Esposito and Carl Michael von Hausswolff (2010), which comes with an mp3 download.
  • Trevor Jackson's Format (2015), a boxed set 'album' comprised of 12 tracks each in different media format: 12" vinyl; 10" vinyl; 7" vinyl; CD; MiniCD; cassette; USB; VHS; MiniDisc; DAT; 8-track cartridge; and 10" open reel tape.

Two weeks later, we were invited to view an exhibition of the 120 finished publications that resulted from the students' visit. It was presented at the Lethaby Gallery at Central Saint Martins, Granary Square. The Gallery was crowded but we managed to take a few pictures to give an idea of the students’ admirable achievements.

With thanks to Lucy and Tim at Central Saint Martins, and to the students for their bright and stimulating response.

Central St Martins_worksCentral Saint Martins students' works 

Central St Martins display_

At the British Library

Find more about the British Library's Drama and Literature Recordings and keep up with our activities on @BL_DramaSound

Read about the British Library's Sound Archive preservation programme to digitise the nation's rare and unique sound recordings at Save Our Sounds programme #SaveOurSounds.

18 February 2016

The World of Paul Slickey: John Osborne's musical flop

1LS0003279_documentation_webOne of the Library’s audio engineers recently transferred a rare 1959 recording of a musical rehearsal of John Osborne’s play The World of Paul Slickey.

The play, subtitled A Comedy of Manners, was a satire on Fleet Street gossip columnists. The production was directed by Osborne himself, with music by Christopher Whelen, choreography by Kenneth MacMillan and set design by Hugh Casson.

Paul Slickey premiered at the Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth, 14 April 1959, and moved to the Palace Theatre in London on 5 May. Both critics and public detested it. The reviews were a mixture of indignation and anger.

Milton Shulman from the Evening Standard wrote:

       The first night audience at The World of Paul Slickey, by John Osborne, at the Palace, seemed to be about equally divided between those who loathed it politely and those who hated it audibly....the most raucous note of displeasure heard in the West End since the war.

Janet Hamilton-Smith’s review headline for The Times was ‘Extraordinarily Dull World of Paul Slickey’.

Thirty years later, Osborne wrote in his memoirs, ‘I must be the only playwright this century to have been pursued up a London street by an angry mob’.

He also said that the only thing he regretted about the whole affair was rejecting Sean Connery for the role of Slickey:

        I made a monumental misjudgement by dismissing Sean Connery, who turned up one morning looking like my prejudiced idea of a Rank contract actor. It was a lamentable touch of Royal Court snobbery.

Listen to Dennis Lotis singing 'I'm just a guy called Paul Slickey' (excerpt)

The World of Paul Slickey rec

The World of Paul Slickeyweb

If you wish to know more about the play and its reception, the British Library is your one-stop source, where you can access the recordings, and also consult the play’s manuscript, the autobiography of John Osborne and the press reviews of the play.

Audio recordings: BL ref. 1LS0003278-79, 1LL0014340

Manuscripts: Lord Chamberlain plays collection – play-script: BL ref. 1959/15 and Lord Chamberlain - correspondence BL ref. 1959/1836

John Osborne’s memoirs: Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography: volume II, 1955-196, Chapter 14 ‘A Night to Remember’: BL ref. YK.1993.a.1176.

Press reviews: British Library Newsroom (on microfilms) and onsite Electronic Resources & Journals

Find out more about the British Library's Sound Archive and our Save Our Sounds programme #SaveOurSounds

Stay tuned with the British Library's Drama and Literature Recordings on @BL_DramaSound

15 February 2016

To game, or not to game: that is the question

For the fourth year running, the British Library has joined forces with GameCity to give budding videogame design students the opportunity to create interactive digital media inspired by our collections. The theme for this year's competition is Shakespeare, which coincides with the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death in 1616. Open to all UK-based Higher Education students, Shakespeare Off the Map presents an amazing opportunity to get creative with British Library content. Illustrations, engravings, maps and a varied selection of sounds have been pulled together by curators based around the following topics:

Castles - scenes of ghosts and murder in Shakespeare

Castles appear in several of Shakespeare's best known tragedies, from the battlements of Elsinore in Hamlet to the Scottish strongholds of Macbeth.

Boydell Hamlet
Hamlet, Horatio and the Ghost by Henry Fuseli.
From: A Collection of Prints, from pictures painted for the purpose of illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakspeare [sic], by the Artists of Great Britain. Published: London 1803. Shelfmark: Tab.599.c

Sounds in this topic have been selected to help students create atmospheric soundtracks to bring their games to life. Focusing on the soundscapes surrounding these scenes of murder and vengeance, rather than the castles themselves, these recordings include brooding weather and eerie wildlife sounds that can be used to create the desired ambiance. A 1909 recording of Macbeth's famous dagger speech has also been made available.

Forests, woodlands and A Midsummer Night's Dream

The forests and woodlands of Shakespeare range from the sinister to the fantastical. A Midsummer Night's Dream is set within a magical woodland full of fairy enchantment while Macbeth sees Birnham Wood come alive as Malcolm's soldiers disguise themselves with felled branches as they approach Macbeth's castle.

A midsummer nights Dream
Scenes from Shakespeare for the Young. Illustrated by H. Sidney … Preface by E. L. Blanchard. 1885. 1871.e.4

Sounds selected for this topic range from cawing crows in a blustery winter woodland to a cacophony of beautiful birdsong on a summer day.

The Tempest

The Tempest was one of the last of Shakespeare's plays. Written between 1611-12, the play begins on board a ship caught in the midst of a terrible storm.  Battered by the elements, the ship is destroyed and those on board washed ashore a mystical island inhabited by the magician Prospero, his daughter Miranda, the salve Caliban and the spirit Ariel. 

The play was in part inspired by an actual shipwreck that happened off the coast of Bermuda in 1609. At the time the Burmuda islands were the most feared places on Earth for seafarers. Stories abounded about the islands being inhabited by devils and these supernatural rumours provided ample inspiration for Shakespeare.

Tempest island
 Map of Bermuda as published in Gerhard Mercator and Jodocus Hondius’ world atlas of 1633. Maps K.Top 123

Sounds chosen for The Tempest focus on two aspects of the story - the sea with its turbulent nature and the magical interior of the island. Rainforest atmospheres were selected for those students wishing to set their games inland while bad weather and stormy seas were picked out for those wanting to create an ocean setting.

Full details for students wishing to take part in the competition can find information on how to get started on the dedicated Shakespeare Off the Map pages on the GameCity website. It will be fascinating to see how the student teams incorporate these sounds into their games and we look forward to sharing the results with you later in the year.

The British Library's upcoming exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts opens 15th April 2016

04 February 2016

War, propaganda and Skye terriers - The Francis Chagrin collection of sound recordings

Alexis Bennett is an Edison Fellow at the British Library Sound Archive, and is currently completing his PhD in music at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is also Associate Lecturer. He is also a composer and performer.  Here he writes about his research on composer Francis Chagrin.

Each donation to the Sound Archive at the British Library carries with it a certain air of mystery, especially if the format on which it is recorded has made reproduction difficult without specialist help. This was certainly the case for the materials donated by the family of the composer Francis Chagrin (1905-1972). Nearly all of the 484 recordings contained in the collection are lacquer discs of session recordings conducted by Chagrin. There are also some BBC shellac discs from his days working for the BBC French Service.

Francis Chagrin was Romanian by birth, but settled in London via Paris. His recordings were discovered in a garage by his family and donated to the British Library in 2006. Many of these discs are from the war period, during which he worked in London for the BBC French Service, a branch of what is now the BBC World Service that broadcast to occupied France. It is a fascinating trove of propaganda announcements, jingles, and other items, all set to music by Chagrin. They have arresting titles, which in themselves might give a sense of the kind of items that were being broadcast to the French: ‘Ne va pas en Allemagne’ is a sombre chant set to a dark orchestral accompaniment, and ‘Ça ira’ adapts an old revolutionary song.

When the discs were donated to the Sound Archive, they were digitized by the specialist staff so that researchers like me can listen to them repeatedly without damaging the originals. I am currently undertaking the task of cataloguing these recordings and aligning them on the British Library cataloguing system with the manuscripts and other special materials on Chagrin (these include scores, letters, cue-sheets, etc).

Chagrin78Research into the Chagrin materials can shed light on some of the ways that the composer borrowed from his own back catalogue. Early in his career, and soon after he settled in London, he scored a documentary called Five Faces (Alexander Shaw, 1937). It examined different groups of people living on the Malay Peninsula. Trawling through the BBC discs, (some of which are made from shellac, not lacquer) I found a French Service jingle that reuses the opening musical material from that film. The score for the film, and by implication for the material used in this jingle, is also held at the British Library. To the left is an image of the shellac disc and you can hear it in the attached file.

Five Faces BBC French Service

There are some recordings that do not originate from Chagrin’s French Service work, notably a broadcast recording of his Prelude and Fugue for orchestra (1947), which was performed at the Proms (then still called the Promenade Concerts); and a good representative sample of some of his film music, much of it now somewhat obscure, like his score for the rare documentary The Bridge (J. D. Chambers, 1946), which examined postwar reconstruction in Bosnia. This is an interesting case in point, in view of my cataloguing work, since by cross-referencing the sound recording of this film score and the manuscript for his concert work Yougoslav Sketches, it can be ascertained that the latter is simply an adaptation of the former. I’m not the first to make this particular connection (the musicologist Philip Lane worked on a CD recording of some of this music in 2005), but it is exciting to be collecting together all these materials at the British Library and cataloguing them in such as way that general readers and listeners can understand these links between paper sources and sound recordings easily.

Other, possibly more well-known, music can be found among these recordings, like cues from Chagrin’s score for the Disney film Greyfriars Bobby (Don Chaffey, 1961), which dramatizes the tale of the eponymous Edinburgh dog, a Skye terrier who allegedly slept by the graveside of his favourite human, Jock. This music shows Chagrin’s light-hearted side, but his skill and craftsmanship shows through (he studied with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in Paris).

You can read a detailed examination of the Chagrin archive in my forthcoming article for a special edition of Journal of Film Music, due Summer 2016:

Edison Fellowships are awarded annually by the British Library and funded by the Saga Trust.