Sound and vision blog

10 posts from December 2017

25 December 2017

Recording of the week: a Christmas story

This week's selection comes from Stephen Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary & Creative Recordings. 

This seasonal offering comes from our African Writers Club collection and was recorded on 7 November 1966 in London on a Revox F36 tape machine. 'No Room at Solitaire' is a dramatization by Cosmo Pieterse of a short story by Richard Rive. It updates the nativity tale to Christmas Eve in northern Transvaal (now Limpopo), South Africa, in the era of apartheid. Contains strong language.

A Christmas story (C134/98)


Entabeni - Limpopo, South Africa by FyreMael via / CC BY

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22 December 2017

National Life Stories Podcast 4: Christmas Podding

Cathy Courtney, Project Director on the National Life Stories oral history projects Artists’ Lives and Architects’ Lives, chatted to David Govier for our fourth National Life Stories podcast. The conversation starts with why Cathy got into oral history, and moves on to discuss why oral historians ask about Christmas.

Along the way you will hear extracts from the following interviews:

Neil Hufton interviewed by Cos Michael, Food: From Source to Salespoint, 2006 (C821/195)

George Messenger interviewed by George Ewart Evans, 1956 (T1419W)

Bill Adcocks interviewed by Rachel Cutler, An Oral History of British Athletics, 2010 (C790/48)

Christopher Butler interviewed by Andrea Hertz, History of Parliament Oral History Project, 2016 (C1503/142)

Michael Rothenstein interviewed by Mel Gooding, Artists’ Lives, 1990 (C466/02)

John Watts interviewed by Cos Michael, Food: From Source to Salespoint, 2006 (C821/190)

Nigel Bell interviewed by Paul Merchant, An Oral History of British Science (C1379/91)

Eric Ash interviewed by Tom Lean, An Oral History of British Science (C1379/92)

Cedric Battye interviewed by Jan Sanderson, Unheard Voices: Interviews with Deafened People, 2008 (C1345/12)

Eva Jiricna interviewed by Niamh Dillon, Architects’ Lives, 2015 (C467/127)

National Life Stories Podcast 4 - Christmas

You can find out more about National Life Stories at our website. Search for 'Christmas' at British Library Sounds  to find over 1,350 Christmas memories, songs and broadcasts!

21 December 2017

Fabulous Flutes


When a collector’s interest covers a very specific area of recording they often amass something valuable and comprehensive over a lifetime of acquisition.  One such collector is Christopher Steward whose collection of recordings on shellac discs of flute and piccolo recordings seems second to none.  I am delighted to have negotiated for this important and large collection to come to the British Library, even more so as Mr Steward generously decided to donate it.  It is a veritable history of the flute on record.

Christopher Steward studied at Trinity College completing his studies with William Bennett.  A former member of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and BBC Northern Orchestra, he also taught at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

The treasures of the collection include many very early discs by artists born in the middle of the nineteenth century – Léon Fontbonne (1859-1940), Albert Fransella (1865-1935), Adolphe Hennebains (1862-1914) and Edward de Jong born in 1837 when Brahms was only four years old.  Not only are there representations of the great flautists of the past, but Mr Steward also collected recordings by uncredited flute and piccolo players, many from the first two decades of the twentieth century.

A small representation of discs from Mr Steward’s collection have been posted online here on Robert Bigio’s Flute Pages.  I have chosen to present some below that do not appear on these pages.

Because it is Christmas and we are gearing up for the holiday mood we start with Léon Jacquemont, a flautist with the Garde Républicaine.  This is a recording of him playing a delightful showpiece for piccolo, La Tourterelle (The Turtle Dove) Op. 119 by Eugène Damaré recorded around 1909 for the rarely seen Aérophone label.

Jacquemont Aérophone 1047

In the Menuet from Bizet’s L’Arlesienne suite No. 2, the harp accompaniment had to be played on the piano in order for it to register through the acoustic horn, but the Lamoureux Orchestra join in on this disc from 1st March 1910 to support their principal flautist Pierre Deschamps (1874-1922).

Deschamps 030540


Léon Fontbonne (1859-1940) became first flautist and piccolo player with the Garde Républicaine, a position he held for twenty five years.  Here he is with a great virtuoso showpiece recorded 116 years ago in 1901, Carnaval de Venise Op. 2 by Matheus André Reichert, a work published in 1872.

Fontbonne 39151

HennebainsAdolphe Hennebains (Pierre Petit [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Another fine French flautist, Adolphe Hennebains (1862-1914) can be heard in early recordings of chamber music on BL Sounds.  Here he plays a Chopin Nocturne arranged for flute by Paul Taffanel (1844-1908) – not the famous one in E flat Op. 9 No. 2 as one may suppose, but the beautiful F sharp major Nocturne Op. 15 No. 2.  The recording was made in the year of Taffanel’s death, 1908, and it is remarkable that even in this primitive acoustic recording with orchestral accompaniment Hennebains’ intake of breath can be heard during the opening phrases.

Hennebains 39200

A surprising disc from the collection appears on the Odeon label.  The flutist is George Ackroyd (1880-1960) who was principal flute with the Covent Garden Orchestra, but it was the violinist’s name that caught my eye – Albert Sammons (1886-1957), one of England’s greatest violinists, who went on to make the first recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto in October 1916 for Columbia.  Here they play an arrangement of Mendelssohn’s immortal Spring Song recorded around 1915 with W. Barker on harp.

Ackroyd Odeon 0788

BoehmTheobald Boehm (WikiCommons)

Edith Penville was an impressive player who died as recently as 1981, at the age of nearly one hundred.  This Homochord disc is a conflation of two works - part of the Variations sur un air Allemand Op. 22 by Theobald Boehm (1794-1881) preceded by part of a Faust Fantasie by Edward de Jong (1837-1920) who became the first flute with the original Hallé Orchestra in 1858.  Penville could have studied with him as she was born in the North of England and he worked in the Manchester and Derbyshire area.  De Jong himself recorded in 1907 and these recordings and more details about him can be found on this excellent blog. Penville’s impressive recording was made on 11th December 1923.

Penville H544

We end with an electrical recording.  Jacques van Lier (1881-1934) (not to be confused with the Dutch cellist of the same name) was principal flautist with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra from 1907 to his death in 1934.  He made two sides for HMV on 18th June 1931 in Czechoslovakia with accompanist Otto Schulhof who had accompanied many great soloists including Heifetz as a child prodigy, Pablo Casals, Fritz Kreisler, Bronislaw Huberman and Jan Kubelik.  Van Lier plays the flute solo from Gluck’s opera Alceste.

Van Lier AM3673

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20 December 2017

Two very small records


At the Wembley Empire Exhibition of 1924, one exhibit that caught the public eye was a dolls’ house, specially created for Queen Mary, which contained a fully-working miniature gramophone complete with six tiny records made by His Master's Voice.

Around 35,000 miniature discs were produced for sale as souvenirs, at sixpence each. Despite this far-from-limited edition, copies are hard to come by now, perhaps because they could so easily be lost or mislaid. The souvenir discs featured a 22-second rendering of ‘God Save the King’ by the popular Australian singer Peter Dawson. At just 34 mm (1 and 5/16th of an inch) in diameter, this is the smallest 78 rpm disc ever made.

A copy is currently on display in the British Library's free Entrance Hall exhibition LISTEN: 140 Years of Recorded Sound.

This is not the world's smallest playable record however. A contender for this coveted title arrived at the Library just a few weeks ago, courtesy of Michael Ridge.


This 1" diameter 33 rpm lathe-cut disc by GX Jupitter-Larsen and Zebra Mu (each contributes an 8-second piece) is cautiously described by issuing label Quagga Curious Sounds as 'likely to be one of the smallest lathe cut records ever released'! Sadly, the limited edition of 110 copies is already sold out.

19 December 2017

An Oral History of Oral History - where did it all start for you?

Charlie Morgan, Archive and Administrative Assistant for National Life Stories explores the Oral History of Oral History collection.

What happens when roles are reversed? When a doctor is the patient, when a chef gets served dinner, when an oral historian is the one who gets asked all the questions? Well that’s exactly what you get (minus the doctor and the chef) in one of our newest online collections, an Oral History of Oral History.

An Oral History of Oral History is a collection of life story interviews with the pioneers and leaders of oral history in the UK. The interviews were mostly conducted by Robert Wilkinson and cover the technological, organisational and methodological changes within the discipline since the 1950s. If you've ever had an interest in oral history but haven't really understood what it is or who the people are who practice it, this is the collection for you.

SoundArchive_22Feb08-000448Rob Perks with Paul Thompson and Jennifer Wingate as they prepare for their interview for an Oral History of Oral History (C1149/09)

Although everyone in the collection is well-established in their field, the benefit of the life story approach is that the interviews include everything from childhood to hobbies and not just career highlights. With that in mind, for this blog I went back to the start and tried to find out where it all began, how each person got involved with oral history in the first place.

For many of the early practitioners, especially those with connections to the History Workshop movement or Ruskin College Oxford, there was a political dimension to oral history. In his interview, Alun Howkins describes how he initially went to Ruskin to study economics but on the advice of Raphael Samuel he switched to history. It was then that he began to interview poachers in Headington Quarry near to his home town Bicester. For Alun the entire goal of History Workshop had been “to give back the history of the poor to the poor” and with that in mind “it seemed perfectly logical that the way to do that was a tape recorder”.

Alun Howkins on switching to history at Ruskin (C1149/10/06)

Alun Howkins on interviewing poachers (C1149/10/07)

While for some there was an explicitly political impetus to oral history, for others it has been driven by much more practical purposes. Cynthia Brown first encountered oral history when she was completing her undergraduate dissertation and was looking for additional information on local funeral directors. She needed evidence, had exhausted the documentary sources and so, “which is so often the case with oral history”, decided an interview was the best way to get it.

Cynthia Brown on interviewing funeral directors (C1149/32/06)

Elizabeth Roberts is another oral historian who came to oral history more by chance than pre-planning, and she was initially very sceptical of the whole thing. After being instructed by John Marshall at the University of Lancaster to conduct some interviews, Elizabeth describes how she was “absolutely appalled” at the idea and “couldn’t think how on earth this was going to be valuable”. Luckily for us she gave it a go anyway.

Elizabeth Roberts on her first interviews (C1149/08/03)

As we’ve seen, many people first got involved with oral history on the recommendation of someone else in the field. For Alun Howkins it was Raphael Samuel, for Elizabeth Roberts it was John Marshall, and for Brian Harrison it was Paul Thompson. According to Brian, Paul and Thea Thompson “went around with their machines and made converts” and in him they definitely found one.

Brian Harrison on meeting Paul and Thea (C1149/24/02)

One great strength of the Oral History of Oral History project is that it covers multiple generations. So not only can we listen to Brian Harrison describe the influence Paul Thompson had on him, but we also get to hear from Paul himself. Paul's interview is especially valuable as it fills in a lot of the gaps. For example, many of the interviewees in this collection talk about conducting interviews long before they had heard of the term 'oral history' but Paul is able to tell us where it came from. We also get to hear a very un-catchy alternative term that was thankfully left behind.

Paul Thompson on the term 'oral history' (C1149/29/02)

These interviews and stories featured here are just a small selection of those in an Oral History of Oral History. There are many others in the collection, plus the original recordings of another pioneer of oral history, George Ewart Evans, but of course there are also many stories of being introduced to oral history that have never even been recorded. So if you’re an oral historian or if you work with oral history why not tweet us at @BL_OralHistory and let us know how you first got involved.

18 December 2017

Recording of the week: the Curlew's lament

This week's selection comes from Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision.

Around this time of year as winter takes it hold, and into spring that follows, a daytime walk around one of Britain’s more remote coastal estuaries and mudflats, or over inland moorlands and heathlands will likely bring about an encounter with a Curlew, the largest of all waders. Its soulful voice carries far across flat and rolling landscapes, adding a magical and haunting feel to wild places. And in early English folklore, it was a harbinger of death, or for the poet WB Yeats, it spoke of a love lost:

"O Curlew, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the water in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind"

  Curlews lament

This particular Curlew recording was made in southern England as long ago as 1937 by the pioneer bird sound recordist, Ludwig Koch (1881-1974). It comprises several takes that illustrate the bird’s varied notes. The recording was used for many years to introduce The Naturalist radio programme, broadcast by the BBC Home Service.

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16 December 2017

Christmas carols from Turing's computer

Following the viral response on the internet to Jack Copeland and Jason Long's 2016 blog concerning their restoration of the world's earliest surviving computer music recording, the pair's follow up is in two parts: (1) they explain how they resurrected the authentic sound of Turing's long since dismantled Manchester computer, by reconstructing two Christmas carols that the computer played in a BBC Radio broadcast in December 1951, and (2) they examine and clarify the competing international claims to the title of World's First Computer Music.

Jack Copeland FRS NZ and Jason Long write:

Listeners to BBC radio heard an utterly new sound in 1951 — a computer playing music. Among its Christmas fare the BBC broadcast two melodies that, although instantly recognizable, sounded like nothing else on earth. They were Jingle Bells and Good King Wenceslas, played by the mammoth Ferranti Mark I computer that stood in Alan Turing's Computing Machine Laboratory, in Manchester.

According to Ferranti’s marketing supremo, Vivian Bowden, it was "the most expensive and most elaborate method of playing a tune that has ever been devised". Bowden may have kicked himself for predicting, at this seminal moment, that computer-generated music had no future.  

Turing (standing) at the Ferranti Mark I console (Courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science)
Alan Turing (right) at the console of the Ferranti Mark I. Photo courtesy of the University of Manchester School of Computer Science

Seemingly nothing remained of the computer's short Christmas concert, apart from Bowden's brief description in his 1953 book Faster Than Thought. We realized, though, that we had everything needed to recreate the computer's historic performance of these carols, thanks to our recent research into other music played by the Ferranti computer.

Previously we restored a 1951 BBC recording of the Ferranti playing three pieces of music. One of the engineers present at that long-ago recording session, Frank Cooper, had squirrelled away a BBC disc, and this is believed to be the earliest surviving recording of computer-generated music. The three pieces on the disc were God Save the King, Baa Baa Black Sheep, and In the Mood.

The performances on Cooper's disc contained between them a total of 152 individual computer-generated notes. By manually chopping up the audio, we created a palette of notes of various pitches and durations. These could then be rearranged to form new melodies. It was musical Lego: endless new structures could be produced from these basic building blocks. The process of recreating the carols was not always straightforward, however. Sometimes the notes we needed were missing from the palette, since they did not appear in the three reference pieces. Missing notes had to be manufactured, first by calculating the closest frequency that the Ferranti computer could generate — it wasn't always able to hit a note exactly — and then shifting the frequency of one of the specimens in the palette to achieve a match (while trying, moreover, to keep the specimen's spectral signature the same, so as to maintain a natural sound). Another problem was duration: sometimes a note needed to be shorter or longer than the specimen in the palette, so we either pared the specimen down, or pieced together copies of it by hand.

We had to re-score each carol to fit the computer's needs, especially in terms of key and complexity; and our scores mirrored the three reference pieces in length and tempo. Then we selected notes from the palette and pieced them together to fit the scores. Some handcrafting was required to create a realistic performance. For instance, a fake-sounding "machine gun effect" was liable to set in if the score required the same note to be repeated several times, so we achieved a natural sound by piecing together different specimens of the same note, taken from different places in the restored recording. Every time we stitched a new note into the melody, we cross-faded manually: fading out one element while fading in the next gave the optimum sound quality when piecing the notes together.

Slowly, the computer's gutsy renditions of the carols reappeared. Play them and enjoy! But beware of occasional dud notes. Because the computer chugged along at a sedate 4 kilohertz or so, hitting the right frequency was not always possible. It's a charming feature of this early music — even if it does in places make your ears cringe.

At about this time, other primeval mammoth computers were also starting to find their voices. Bowden mentions that the Whirlwind computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology played Bach fugues at Christmas time — 'much more highbrow' than the Ferranti's carols, he said.  

The pilot model of Turing's ACE in London, 1952
The pilot model of Turing's ACE in London in 1952. © Crown Copyright and reproduced with permission of the National Physical Laboratory

In London, too, the pilot model of Turing's Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) played Bach, possibly earlier than Whirlwind, using a loudspeaker set into its control panel. The pilot model ACE first came to life in May 1950, and by about February 1952 it was also "composing" — in a sense — its own music, using some special equipment designed by engineer David Clayden. The rising arpeggios of ACE's atonal music "gradually became more complex and faster, like a developing  

David Clayden
David Clayden. Photo courtesy of The Turing Archive for the History of Computing

fugue", until they "dissolved into coloured noise as the complexity went beyond human understanding", explained Donald Davies.[1] (Davies, originally Turing's assistant, was a driving force in the ACE project after Turing went to Manchester.)

For a long time, the history of early computer music was muddled. Reference works such as The Oxford Handbook of Computer Music stated that “the first computer to play music” was the Australian CSIRAC (pronounced "sigh-rack"). However, recent research has shown that this was most definitely not so.[2] We discovered that a predecessor of the Ferranti computer also played musical notes in Turing's Manchester Computing Machine Laboratory. This was the university-built prototype on which the Ferranti Mark I was based (and it was itself an enhanced version of Manchester's primordial "Baby" computer). Turing called it the "pilot machine", not to be confused with the pilot model of his ACE in London. The Manchester pilot machine was operational in April 1949, well ahead of the Sydney CSIRAC, which was partially operational in late 1950 — several months after Manchester's note-playing pilot machine had been switched off for the last time, in fact. 

CSIRAC and its creator Trevor Pearcey in Sydney in about 1952. A CSIRO image

Unlike CSIRAC, though, the Manchester pilot machine seems never to have played a conventional melody. Turing used the synthetic musical notes as aural indicators of what was going on with the machine, like the beeps and bongs of today's mobile devices — whereas CSIRAC played honest-to-goodness tunes. It turns out, though, that CSIRAC can't even claim the distinction of being the first computer to play conventional music.

Our research has shown that an American computer called BINAC was making music before CSIRAC ran so much as a test program. BINAC, built by the Eckert-Mauchly Computer Corporation in Philadelphia, was the forerunner of the famous Eckert-Mauchly UNIVAC — the Ferranti Mark I and the UNIVAC were the first electronic computers to hit the market, both in 1951. 

BINAC. Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum
BINAC played music in Philadelphia in the summer of 1949. Photo courtesy of the Computer History Museum

When BINAC was completed, in August 1949, Pres Eckert and John Mauchly threw a party for the programmers and engineers. This featured a musical offering from BINAC itself. One eyewitness — a partying engineer named Herman Lukoff — described the event: “Someone had discovered that, by programming the right number of cycles, a predictable tone could be produced. So BINAC was outfitted with a loudspeaker … and tunes were played for the first time by program control.” 

The programmer responsible for creating BINAC's music-playing program — the first in the world, so far as we know — was Betty Snyder, later Betty Holberton. Recalling her intensive work programming BINAC, Holberton said: “I was on the machine 16 hours [with] 8 hours off and I slept in the ladies' room.” 

Betty Snyder. U.S. Army photo
Betty Snyder. U. S. Army photo 

And the title of the first music played by a computer? "Everybody was going to come to the party at the end of creating the BINAC", Holberton remembered; "Well, I thought I'd do something special for them ... an interpretive routine that would play music. All I could get out of that machine was an octave, so I played For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow."[3]

Our timeline for the origins of computer music places BINAC in the limelight, in mid 1949. The Sydney CSIRAC played its first tune a year or two later, and the Bach-playing ACE in London may have preceded it. In Manchester, the Ferranti computer performed its first melody in 1951, when Christopher Strachey wrote a program that blared out God Save the King (see our blog 'Restoring the first recording of computer music'). But as to the starting point of it all, the very first experimental computer-generated musical note was probably heard in Turing's Manchester laboratory.


[1] Davies, D. "Very Early Computer Music", Resurrection: The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society, vol. 10 (1994), pp. 19-21:

[2] See Copeland, B. J., and Long, J. "Turing and the History of Computer Music", in Floyd, J., Bokulich, A. eds Philosophical Explorations of the Legacy of Alan Turing, Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science, 2017.

[3] Frances Elizabeth "Betty" Holberton in interview with Kathy Kleiman, part of "Oral Histories of the ENIAC Programmers", ©1997, by Kathryn Kleiman and the ENIAC Programmers Project, Quoted by permission.

The authors

Jack Copeland

Jack Copeland is Distinguished Professor in Arts at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His recent book The Turing Guide is a comprehensive and easy-to-understand guide to Turing and his work, and it contains further information about the Manchester computer and its music (Oxford University Press, 2017, pbk).

Jason LongJason Long is a New Zealand composer and performer, focusing on musical robotics and electro-acoustic music. He has carried out musical research at the University of Canterbury, the Victoria University of Wellington, Tokyo University of the Arts, and the Utrecht Higher School of the Arts.


11 December 2017

Recording of the week: Cyril Blake and his Jigs Club Band

This week's selection comes from Andy Linehan, Curator of Popular Music Recordings.

Cyril Blake was a Trinidadian jazz trumpeter who moved to Europe and eventually settled in London in the 1930s. After playing with many well-known musicians in various house bands he became a bandleader and appeared regularly at the Afro-Caribbean Jigs Club, in Soho, London where this live performance was broadcast 76 years ago on December 12th 1941.

The Jigs Club Band’s line-up included Blake’s fellow-Trinidadian Lauderic Caton who is renowned as a pioneer of the electric guitar in the UK and who gave lessons to Nigerian bandleader Ambrose Campbell and a young Hank Marvin, later of The Shadows, amongst others.

Blake himself went on to form the backing band for many hugely popular recordings on the Parlophone label by calypso singer Lord Kitchener, and returned to Trinidad to lead a number of bands before his death in 1951.

Originally issued on Regal Zonophone MR 3597, this recording, Cyril's Blues, appears with two others from the same performance on the British Library compilation CD  Black British Swing, Topic TSCD781.

Cyril's Blues performed by Cyril Blake and his Jigs Club Band - excerpt

Cyril Blake_edit

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