23 April 2018
Recording of the week: a continual symphony of sound
This week's selection comes from Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archive & Administrative Assistant.
Oral histories are often nostalgic; interviews tend to take place towards the end of an interviewees life and in many cases they are speaking about aspects of their life for the first time. In that respect Michael Rothenstein’s (C466/02) longing description of growing up in the Cotswolds is not unique. But the way he expresses the sights, sounds, and colours of his childhood, as well as the connections he makes to his artistic practice, make it particularly engrossing.
Michael Rothenstein was a printmaker, painter and art teacher whose work often incorporated aspects of nature and rural life – and it seems there’s a good reason for this. In this recording he speaks fondly of growing up in the Stroud Valley, describing it as a wild place with “a continual symphony of sound” where you could be almost deafened by “the birds, the sawing of the grasshoppers in the grass”. Not only is this a wonderfully vivid description, but for us who work in sound archives and are constantly advocating for the importance of sound it’s fantastic to hear someone frame their memories in this way. Still, Michael does talk about other senses too. Specifically he draws attention to the sites of nature and describes how in the summer “the air shivered with the cloud of butterflies… It was glittering, you cannot imagine how beautiful it was”.
Interviewed in 1990 at the age of 82, Michael laments the pace of change during his lifetime. For him “the fields have lost their voice” and the butterflies have “vanished”. Yet if the butterflies have vanished they certainly live on in Michael’s work. Many of his paintings contain butterflies and this interview helps us to understand where the inspiration for this came from. To quote Michael’s friend Peter Muller “they have flown out of the Paradise of your infancy”. A beautiful phrase in a beautiful recording. If you think you’ve heard all there is to hear on childhood memories, think again and give this a listen.
This recording is from Michael Rothenstein’s interview in the Artists Lives collection. Artists Lives is an ongoing National Life Stories project to document the lives of individuals involved in British art, including painters, sculptors, curators, dealers and critics. This extract was published on the CD 'Artists' Lives' in 1998 and you can access the full life story interview online at British Library Sounds.