Sound and vision blog

5 posts from April 2016

30 April 2016

The Poetry Periscope Project

If you walk these days through the British Library Piazza, you will spot a striking yellow tube standing near the front entrance. It brings to mind yellow submarines and periscopes. Step closer and you will learn it is in fact a ‘Poetry Periscope’, inviting you to press one of its buttons – do so and you will be rewarded with the recording of one of 30 European poems in either its original language or in English. Developed as a sound installation by Czech organization Piana na ulici and Czech Centre London, in collaboration with the British Library and The Poetry Society, The Poetry Periscope is a part of the European Literature Festival 2016 taking place at the British Library and other UK venues. 

'The Poetry Periscope is not only about poetry. It is also (about giving) an example of how an individual can contribute to a public space to please people', says project creator Ondřej Kobza.

Pp_newsletter blog


Poetry Periscope Project_ blog

The British Library Piazza will host the Poetry Periscope for four weeks (27 April – 19 May), and you can join us on Tuesday 3 May (18.30–19.30) for the official launch. It’s a free event with poet and broadcaster Ian McMillan and live readings of poems from across Europe, read by UK poets Richard Scott, Gabriel Akamo and Charlotte Higgins with special guest readings by Michal Habaj (Slovakia).

Ondřej Buddeus (Czech Republic):

I am thirty-five I am thirty-five. I am very happy.

I have an intelligent and faithful wife

after ten years of a nice relationship

I got married. That was five years ago.

I have no children, mortgage, empathy,

nor other debts. I have an education, a fine sense

for the arts, and natural self-confidence.

I ain’t bothered. I am very happy.

I would now like to give thanks

to my wife, to God and the state. Thank you.

I am thirty-six. I am very happy.

(Translated from Czech by Tereza Novická; poem is due to be published in 2016.)

The Poetry Periscope (known also as the Poetry Jukebox) has been developed in the Czech Republic by “Piána na ulici” (Pianos on the Street), a Prague-based organisation focusing on public space interventions. The first Periscope was installed in March 2015 in Prague and since then Poetry Periscopes have been installed all over the world – from Kiev to New York – and now it has arrived in the UK. Don’t miss your chance to encounter the richness and diversity of European poetry before the Periscope sets off on tour to a number of festivals and venues around the country, including Brighton, Birmingham, Ledbury and Durham. Written by Katerina Siegelova, Czech Centre London & European Literature Festival

27 April 2016

The Story of the Tiger Hunt

The Story of the Tiger Hunt' was part of a short-lived series of educational records for children, produced between 1919-1921 by the Emerson Phonograph Company under license from the Talking Book Corporation of New York. The majority of these records had an animal theme and were presented as colourful, die cut illustrations with a small record attached to the centre. The disc contained a short story or rhyme while the back of the cardboard carrier contained further information about the featured animal and a transcript of the record. The entire package was placed directly on the turntable when played.

Tiger on turntable

The series was announced in the May 1919 issue of Talking Machine World and proudly stated that these animal records "have an educational value that can hardly be overestimated." Clarity was of the utmost importance so only voice actors with the very best diction were used:

"Elocutionists of note and merit make these talking records, so that the child's ear is attuned to perfection of sound from infancy".

Almost a century later, the clear style of delivery from the un-named actor can still be heard beneath the crackle of time. The "educational value" of 'The Story of the Tiger Hunt' is hard to understand however, yet encapsulates the attitudes towards this species at the turn of the 20th century.

The Story of the Tiger Hunt, Talking Book Corporation 1919

Crouched in tall jungle grass,
Above the rocky pass,
Lashing his snaky tail
The Tiger guards his trail.

The distant hunters come - 
Hark to the tom-tom's drum!
What mighty beasts they ride
With tough and leather hide!
Who trumpets there I wonder?
The elephants deep thunder!

Close to his lair they go,
Beware! He crouches low;
Hear his fierce purring growl!
List how the natives howl!
Ready with gun and spear!
Strike, when The Stripes appear!
Look out! The monster springs!
Quick! Fire! Each rifle rings!
Hear that victorious cry!
Ah! See him fall and die!

In 1919, tiger hunting was still a popular form of big game hunting in south Asia. Hunts were carried out on foot, with horses and on the back of elephants, as referenced in the second verse of the tiger hunt rhyme. Tigers were also a common occurrence, with an estimated 40,000 or so individuals existing in India alone. The general consensus was that the hunting of and killing of these majestic animals was still an acceptable and prestigious activity, and that this resource was seemingly limitless. By the 1970s however, numbers had plummeted to just under 2000 individuals. This dramatic decline kick-started  a conservation plan which began with a well-overdue national ban on tiger hunting.

Tiger Front

'The Story of the Tiger Hunt', as well as illustrating the attitudes of the time, leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions. The piece appears to contain recordings of a roaring tiger and trumpeting elephant, yet where did these recordings come from? They almost certainly were not recorded in the wilds of India so captive animals must have been used. But who recorded these animals and where? Or are these merely the work of talented foley artists working at the Emerson Phonograph Company? For now, these answers elude us. 

24 April 2016

The 1916 Easter Rising: Sound and Memory

The Easter Rising, which began on 24th April 1916 and lasted for six days, is remembered both positively and negatively as the revolt which gave rise to the Irish Republic and modern Irish Republicanism. It saw some hundreds of nationalists and socialists attempt through armed insurrection to secure an Irish Republic separate from the British Empire. 2016 sees the 100th anniversary of the Rising.

T117Like other centenarian commemorations, several notable anniversaries have preceded them and by chance during preservation digitisation this year, I came across a radio documentary in the British Library’s collections, broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 21st April 1966 and recorded to tape, off-air, featuring a compilation of stories and insights of the survivors and associates of the rising, narrated by Robin Holmes for the occasion of the 50th anniversary.

The broadcast opens with the same declaration as the rising began - the Proclamation of the Irish Republic - from the text as read by Patrick Pearse from the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin: ‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland…’

Proclamation of the Irish Republic (extract)

The Rising is explained through such personalities as Pearse, James Connolly, Tom Clarke and Constance Markiewicz. They represent an amazing contrast of characters, described as nationalists, socialists, trade unionists, and suffragists, but united by ‘purity of intent’ in freeing Ireland.

The general impression conveyed through the recording is a heroic though poorly planned attempt, lacking weapons, coordination and almost any military strategy. The Irish celebrations of 1966 attempted to cement the struggle as a myth of origin for Ireland. The positive echoes this received in Britain via the broadcast of the documentary on the BBC are interesting when looked at historically. The memory of terrorism and violence had gone by 1966: it was acceptable for both Ireland and Britain to view the uprising as a heroic foundation for Ireland; Ireland having large national celebrations.

The change was with the beginning of the Troubles in 1969. Thereafter Irish Republicanism became associated with violence, sectarianism and terrorism. It was from the fires of the Rising that the Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army, and Irish Republican Brotherhood formed as the Irish Republican Army and with the enduring desire for a unified Irish Republic. This is how the majority in Britain connected these events after 1969, as did many in the Irish establishment and therefore wanted no connection with them, even going as far as cancelling the 60th celebrations.

This recording stands as a point between the changing narratives, and silence, of British and Irish memories of the Rising, and can be used to understand the reasons for these shifts. What happened on Easter 1916 and how it has shaped Irish development is not a case of plain facts but how it has been remembered and interpreted and by who changes the narrative and will continue to change with new generations and interpretations.

John Berry, Preservation Assistant, Sound & Vision Technical Services


18 April 2016

Shakespeare and the Nightingale

The works of Shakespeare contain many references to the sounds of the natural world, whether that be the ominous notes of a Raven in Henry VI or the "tu-whit, to-who" of a Tawny Owl in Love's Labour's Lost

One bird that appears in several of Shakespeare's plays and poems is the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). A source of inspiration for writers and poets across the ages, this small, plain-looking bird is best known for its exquisite voice that can often be heard just as other birds are starting to fall silent for the night. The Nightingale was once a common summer visitor to the British countryside, so it's likely that its beautiful song would have been a familiar sound to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the fairy queen Titania commands her subjects to sing her to sleep before commencing their nocturnal duties. The fairies call on the Philomel, a colloquial name for the Nightingale, to use his sweet tunes to send their queen to sleep:

Philomel, with melody
Sing in our sweet lullaby;
Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Never harm,
Nor spell nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So good night, with lullaby.

A Midsummer Night's Dream ( 2:2 663-669)

Once asleep, the fairy king Oberon squeezes the juice of a magical flower onto Titania's closed eyelids that will make her fall in love with the first living thing she sees upon waking, which just so happens to be the donkey-headed Bottom. 

Oberon and Titania

Charles Mottram, 1807–1876, Oberon and Titania - "Midsummer Night's Dream", Act II, Scene II, Engraving, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund

In the Taming of the Shrew, the fortune-seeking Petruchio is determined to win over the strong-willed Kate by countering her insults with compliments:

I’ll attend her here
And woo her with some spirit when she comes.
Say that she rail; why then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.

Taming of the Shrew (2:1 1013-1016)


Taming of the Shrew, Katherine and Petruchio, graphic, J.D.L. Courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library

The Nightingale makes another appearance in Shakespeare's romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The morning after their secret marriage, Juliet tries to persuade Romeo not to leave by saying that the birdsong they heard came from a Nightingale and not a lark announcing the break of day:

Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate tree.
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

Romeo and Juliet (3:5 2098-2102) 

Romeo_Juliet poster

Poster advertising Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet. Signed J.L. Lith. Library of Congress.

Just as the writers of the past endeavored to celebrate the magnificent song of this little bird through the written word, so the sound recordists of today try to do the same with sound.  Here is just one of our many recordings of a singing Nightingale, recorded in an English forest in the early hours of an April morning in 2008 by Phil Riddett. A sweet lullaby indeed. 

Nightingale song recorded in Kent 2008 by Phil Riddett


The British Library's current exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts is a landmark exhibition on the performances that made an icon, charting Shakespeare’s constant reinvention across the centuries and is open until Tuesday 6th September 2016.

08 April 2016

Contemporary British performance: Natasha Davis interview

The British Library’s new Contemporary British Collections department has launched its own web page, illustrated with a banner image featuring artist Natasha Davis performing her show Internal Terrains at Chelsea Theatre, London 2013.

Natasha Davis Internal Terrains Chelsea Theatre 2013 blogInternal Terrains, Chelsea Theatre 2013. Video available to view at the British Library.

The show was videoed for the Library’s live theatre recordings archive as part of the Chelsea Theatre’s sixth Sacred season of live art and contemporary performance.

Natasha Davis is a Croatian-born British artist based in London. Her work addresses issues of identity, cultural memory, migration and body through performance. She also works with archive materials, creating installations and engaging with audiences by organizing workshops on the theme of personal stories.

To provide some context to the image Natasha has kindly let us use for our website, I asked her some questions last November 2015 via email about the show, her work and her thoughts on performance.

1) Could you please say something about Internal Terrains?

Internal Terrains explores identity and situations in life when identity may be at stake or be seriously challenged for different reasons. It is structured around the decades of life and looks at the past, present and the ways we might perceive the future. It puts personal histories in a political and historical context and focuses more specifically on stories around migration.

The performance uses film, installations, original sound and text. As is usual in my work, the objects and installations I create are ‘interdisciplinary’. Each one is an independent, often mixed-media work of art, which adds to the layers of meaning of the performance.

In addition, there is a continuous soundscape created in collaboration with composer Bob Karper, 
who has made original music and sound for all my performances so far. The sound relates on a deep level to the subjects explored and the materials used to make installations and objects, and occasionally overlaps with sonic effects created by me live on stage.

2) How does Internal Terrains relate to your previous trilogy of solo works?

The trilogy of Rupture, Asphyxia and Suspended investigated the impact of the trauma of enforced migration on the body and memory. Rupture was about the nature and materiality of endurance against the decay of the body and decay of the land, in this case due to a civil war. I conducted research for Asphyxia, the second part of the trilogy, in South America at high altitude where it was literally difficult to breathe. I experimented with stretching the boundaries of what a body can do under such conditions to explore metaphorically the situations in life when we feel out of breath. The final piece in the trilogy, Suspended, was focused on the state of being in between or out of balance as a fertile place and made the audience share the performance space with me. All three pieces examine how migratory identity is shaped and preserved and ask: If dust ever settles on the past, does grass grow over it?

Internal Terrains capitalizes on the concepts of repetitive returns to the past, the fragmentary nature of our memory and the feeling of being off balance, which were central to the trilogy, however this time the starting point is not the body of the performer but objects. I am interested in the mnemonic power of objects, the specific associations they bring to mind and what these may mean to a migrant. The whole set of Internal Terrains is an object: an installation, consisting of twenty cables spreading out of a dimmer, with a light bulb at the end of each cable, demarcating an imaginary home on stage. The objects hanging from chains in that setting reside in their own shadows, like our memories do, until I start interacting with them. If we also think of the objects as imaginary rooms in a home, they provide access to architectures of memory, in this case common to people who have had to cross borders and move between homes a lot in their lives.

The trilogy paid close attention to time and the temporal aspect of migration, while Internal Terrains, due to the nature of its exploration of home and belonging through objects, extended this to include space and made me consider mise-en-scène in new ways and perhaps more cinematically. This way of working asked for precise attention to the relationships evolving between the various layers, such as objects, sound, film and text, rather than the layers themselves describing, clarifying or adding to the material generated in and from the body.

Natasha Davis_Suspended 2010 blogSuspended, Chelsea Theatre 2010. Third solo show performed by the artist as part of her trilogy on body identity and migration. Video available to view at the British Library.

3) Your performances explore body, memory and identity. Do you have a view on how performance transmits cultural memory and identity?

As a site of resistance and a site from where one can speak out, performance can offer an empowering space for sharing memories. If the sharing and exchanges with the audience in the performance space are emphatic and meaningful, they can contribute to resolving painful memories – in the performer and the audience alike. I believe that performing (traumatic) memories can be a powerful way to reinsert the ability to take an active role in the process of the (re)construction of the self on the personal and collective level.

4) What does contemporary performance offer that other mediums may not?

In a recent article I wrote for Performance Research, with Yana Meerzon, amongst other things we talk about how, through a ‘theatrical encounter with an artist repeating and experiencing anew personal states of imbalance and displacement, an audience member, who may or may not have experienced such a condition themselves, can approximate the pain of the other’. If we think of the body as a site of memory and accept that embodied, autobiographical knowledge can be mapped through telling of the stories, such performative encounters can become communal acts that we can map and work through, individually and collectively, to gain better understanding of ourselves and each other.

Performance art as a form has often provided a home for marginalized women’s, queer, non-white and other underprivileged voices to stage their personal material that carries political and representational value. Through my practice I aim to contribute to the existing body of practical and critical work that offers this possibility by using performance art, practice-as-research and autobiographical material to speak as a migrant voice, as a person displaced by a civil war, who is living and making work about it at a time of unprecedented migration. In that way, through reflecting on current issues, performance material can - and I strive for this - offer a democratic space to engage actively, poetically, personally and politically with the current, complex political present.

5) What are you working on at the moment?

I am beginning to make a new multi-media cross-disciplinary performance Fifty Rooms about the spaces and times in life between breaking and repairing, about ageing and about being ‘infected’ – the latter could be with new ideas, with utopian dreams and resolutions or with a surge of newcomers in the space that otherwise 'belongs' to others. The performance will also explore ideas of home, belonging and in-between spaces within three categories: house-body-island. In this project, in addition to my regular key collaborators Bob Karper (sound), Lucy Cash (choreography) and Marty Langthorne (lighting), I will also work with a martial arts choreographer, a stem-cell scientist and a bio-identical hormones specialist. I am beginning to develop it in Melbourne in March with an Australian-based dramaturge Alyson Campbell and with support from the Arts Council and British Council. I am also planning to create an immersive sound and film installation to accompany this piece.

In the meantime I am presenting a series of talks and workshops in Canada in January (Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto) and in Prague in April. My latest performance Teeth Show is going to South Africa in February (Rhodes University, Grahamstown), Melbourne in March (VCA) and then Sydney (the Creative Practice Lab at UNSW).  Internal Terrains is going to Warwick University, Coventry in January and to Theatre Works, Melbourne as part of the biannual festival of live art in Melbourne. It’s busy, in a wonderful way!

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 and #SaveOurSounds.