THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

10 posts from October 2018

31 October 2018

Ghosts in the collections

It’s Halloween, so what better time to delve into our oral history collections in search of accounts of the eldritch, mysterious and paranormal? In a branch of history often focused on the details and routines of everyday life it’s interesting to note the number of supernatural experiences that crop up in an average life story interview – especially when we consider that interviewees are rarely, if ever, asked directly for this sort of story. Accounts of spooky legends or personal encounters with the supernatural find their way into everything from descriptions of family dynamics in the Artists' Lives collection to accounts of rural postal routes in An Oral History of the Post Office. I selected four of my favourite ghostly clips I encountered during my time as an Unlocking our Sound Heritage volunteer at the British Library.

Nationalarchivesghost576Ghostly sighting? National Archives

John Carey, the literary critic and Oxford professor, interviewed as part of the Authors' Lives collection, describes an average day as a student at St Johns College. Stating that he would often study in the college library ‘a lovely library… [although] half of it [was] haunted’ he recalls the university legend of the ghost and a fully-fledged (albeit tongue-in-cheek) encounter with it.

John Carey and the St Johns College ghost (C1276/49/07)

If Carey seems sceptical as to whether or not his tale is true. Susanna Richmond (Artists' Lives) has no such doubts. She remembers in detail the haunted house her father grew up in which attracted the attention of Society for Psychical Research (‘[Arthur] Conan Doyle would come and sit in the garden hoping to see the fun!’) and which none of her family doubted they shared with The Grey Lady.

Susanna Richmond and The Grey Lady (C466/295/01)

In a more whimsical brush with the other side Clifford Mewett was a telegram boy in the Post Office in the mid-60s when he met a helpful ghost on a Kentish country lane who gave him directions to the house he was trying to find.

Clifford Mewett and the postal ghost (C1007/24/05)

And organic farmer William Best describes family legends of ghosts passed to him from his mother who lived in the ‘seriously haunted’ village of Wing and points out that it wasn’t so long ago that the mystical and spooky was part and parcel of English life.

William Best and rural legends (C821/197/01)

Best’s account of his mother experiences highlights an interesting point about ghost stories and their larger context within oral history. In the UK we don’t, generally, tell and retell stories, family events or local legends to anywhere near the extent that people in other countries do, but we make an exception for unexplainable experiences. The stories of headless horsemen and disembodied footsteps that Best’s mother passes down are revealing, not because they are convincing, but because she thought it was important to pass them down. What’s more they provide an insight into her rural community and its collective mind-set that might otherwise have been lost. Ghost stories then may be of particular interest to the student of oral history as a rare example of a strong, sustained oral tradition coming out of a culture where, generally speaking, these traditions are weak.

The cultural importance of ghost stories as oral tradition and our familiarity with them as spoken narratives may also explain why, in spite of a healthy modern scepticism, and never being asked directly for a tale of terror, interviewees giving accounts of their lives stray again and again to the supernatural. The clips here are only a small sample, and many more first-hand accounts of phantom artist models, premonitory visions and boarding house poltergeists lie buried in the BL collections for those brave enough to unearth them…

Anna Savory volunteered with the British Library as part of the Heritage Lottery Funded project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. The interview with Clifford Mewett was digitised as part of the project and, along with the interviews with John Carey and William Best, can be listened to at the British Library. The interview with Susanna Richmond can be listened to online at BL Sounds.

30 October 2018

The words we live by

British Library Volunteer, Dr Amy Evans Bauer, writes:

The Library’s Evolving English WordBank holds many imperatives, sage warnings and pick-me-ups. These reveal a strong relationship between idiomatic language and our behaviour, even our emotional responses, which is passed down through generations via spoken codes of conduct. While reflecting on this, I created a prose poem that envisages life with an altogether different set of instructions and reassurances. If you like riddles or puzzles, you may quickly spot the provenance of each rebellious little unit! I wish you all a stubbornly contrary day.

Idiom Undone

Shoot the messenger. Count your chickens. But me buts. It’s over ’til the fat lady sings. Look a gift horse in the mouth. Bet on it.

Look at me like that. Forget. Mention it. Stress. Dilly-dally on the way. This is the length of a piece of string.

People in glass houses throw stones. Look. Home, Jane and spare the horses. TOUCH. Be late. Delay. Despair.

Ever do that again. Show me up. Shit where you eat. Stay up late. Leave your vegetables. Leave the table. Come back. You worry. You dare.

At all. In my house. In my name. If I can help it. That I heard. That I know. That you’d know. NOW. For you. Again. In a month of Sundays.

Say never. Give up. I know whether I’m coming or going. I knew that. I could tell. Well I. Before seen. Used. Worn. Ending story. Land.

BALL GAMES. Way. Brainer. More. Worry, be happy. Offence. Taken. Tread on the grass. Enough. More. EXIT. 

Amy’s most recent chapbook of sound poems is PASS PORT (Shearsman, 2018).

Follow us @VoicesofEnglish

29 October 2018

Recording of the week: a high fidelity direct recording

This week's selection comes from audio engineer Robert Cowlin.

Instantaneous lacquer discs frequently contain unique or rare recordings and, due to the instability of their sound carrying layer, are a preservation priority at the British Library Sound Archive. Also known as acetate discs, they generally consist of a metal substrate coated in a lacquer of cellulose nitrate which is modulated by a cutting stylus. The process is still in use today, comprising the first step in the manufacture of vinyl records. Many of the lacquers in the British Library’s collection were cut ‘on demand’ – direct to disc from radio broadcasts for patrons by independent cutters, such as W. H. Troutbeck of Twickenham. Today’s disc contains excerpts from “Visions of Saint Godric”, by Peter Crossley-Holland, cut on 17 October 1959.

Troutbeck

Cellulose nitrate degrades continuously over time, as it reacts with water vapour and oxygen, resulting in the eventual shrinkage of the lacquer layer. As the metal substrate cannot shrink, the lacquer cracks and flakes off resulting in the inevitable and irreversible loss of the sound carrying layer, hence their preservation priority status.

Lacquers from the 1950s onwards can be played like any other microgroove disc, with a lightweight elliptical or line contact pickup tracking at around 1.5 grams. Coarse groove lacquers also exist, so playback parameters may need to be modified to accommodate a wider groove. Test with a microgroove stylus first though.

This disc was cleaned in an ultrasonic bath using a solution of 1 parts photographic wetting agent to 70 parts deionised water. Like shellac discs, lacquers should not be cleaned with alcohol. Some instantaneous discs were coated with gelatine rather than cellulose nitrate. Gelatine reacts badly when exposed to water. I always perform a patch test on a non-modulated area before cleaning. Apart from digitising, one should avoid playing lacquer discs due to their fragility.

The disc in question is in very good condition considering its age, with no signs of delamination and only minor scuffing, it retains its deep shine when held to the light. Apart from some pops and intermittent surface noise, the sound quality is excellent. I’ve chosen a short passage that highlights the format’s ability to convey low-level detail – listen out for the audience!

Excerpt from Visions of Saint Godric by Peter Crossley-Holland (BL shelfmark 1LS0001183)

I’m giving a presentation on signal extraction from lacquer discs at this year’s British & Irish Sound Archives conference at the National Library of Wales on 17 November. More information about the conference can be found at http://www.bisa-web.org/next-event

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

22 October 2018

Recording of the week: West Africa Lagos Digital Edition

This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Visitors to the Ake Arts and Book Festival to be held in Lagos, Nigeria, from 25-28 October 2018 will be able to see a new digital edition of the British Library's West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition. Held in 2015-16 at the British Library in London, the exhibition focused on literature, written and oral, and music from West African countries, helping to '[explode] the myth of the dark continent' (Nigerian Watch).

Some of the many recordings from the Library's collections used in the exhibition will be included in the digital edition. This one features Josiah Jesse Ransome-Kuti, grandfather of Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo Kuti, singing a hymn in Yoruba. The hymn is called ‘Jesu olugbala ni mo f’ori fun ẹ’ (I give myself to Jesus the Saviour).

Jesu olugbala ni mo f’ori fun ẹ, performed by J. J. Ransome-Kuti [Zonophone 3394. BL Reference T8357W]

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More about the piece and other representation of the Ransome-Kuti 'dynasty' as displayed in the exhibition can be seen at https://www.bl.uk/west-africa/articles/the-ransome-kuti-dynasty.

Follow @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news. 

17 October 2018

Religious unbelief in the life of Professor Sir Fred Holliday

Over half of respondents in the most recent British Social Attitudes survey indicated that they have ‘no religion’. All evidence suggests that the majority of this group are also either atheist or agnostic. We are able to say, then, that religious unbelief affects a very significant proportion of British people, but what else can we say about it? Religious Unbelief is little studied and not well understood, a situation that the £2.3m Understanding Unbelief project at the University of Kent seeks to change.

In a partnership with the Understanding Unbelief project, National Life Stories at the British Library is examining some of its collections of oral history recordings, with unbelief firmly in mind. What do interviewees – recorded in projects with no particular focus on religion – say about their lack of religious belief? This blog reports on one discovery: the presence of unbelief in an interview with Professor Sir Fred Holliday, recorded in a number of sessions between 2009 and 2011, part of the collection ‘An Oral History of the Water Industry’.

Fred Holliday [1935-2016] was a marine biologist who served as founding Chairman of Northumbrian Water, Vice-Chancellor and Warden of the University of Durham, Director of Shell and of British Rail. His obituaries tend to comment on his interest in science as a child, usually mentioning the decomposing snake under his mother’s bed. None that I have seen refer to his equally longstanding interest in and engagement with religion, strongly present in his British Library interview. In this interview he explains that from “about the age of twelve” he became closely involved with the family of the local Methodist minister (“they more or less adopted me [...] I learnt so much from him”) and that, because of this, he began to “announce hymns in the chapel, even try my best at a sermon”. The interviewer asks how he felt about giving these sermons, and Holliday’s reply stresses that he treated them as intellectual projects and as performances:

Fred Holliday on writing sermons (C1364/5)

FredHollidayRiverDec1960Sir Fred Holliday on the River Dee in Scotland as a young researcher, December 1960

In this clip, Holliday is keen to explain that in writing and giving the sermons, he was driven not by religious belief of his own (or even a valuing of religious belief in general), but by the enjoyment of cerebral work (“I did enjoy taking a really tough, tough Old Testament passage and – what I now know to call an exegesis – [laughs] and really unpicking it”) and the enjoyment of being looked at and listened to (“I liked attention I guess”). Nevertheless, he was clearly a Christian unbeliever (rather than, say, a nonreligious unbeliever); his unbelief was experienced through engagement with Christianity.

As the interview moves forward, Holliday confirms that he was not affected “in any [laughs] spiritual or religious sense” by the experiences in the chapel and that he differed from the Minister who “had a very, very strong inner faith” and from members of the “working class” congregation who were imagined (by himself and the Minister) as simply ‘having’ “belief”:

Fred Holliday on belief and on his scientific training (C1364/5)

In line with observations in Lois Lee’s Recognising the Non-religious (2015), we might note that while Holliday sees the (religious) worldview of others as a source of psychological comfort, he does not seem to see his own “science training” and its associated worldview as offering him anything analogous.

Holliday took his own “belief or lack of it” forward in a life that included more sermon-giving: “I’ve preached in the Church of Scotland and I’ve preached, God help me, in York Minster and Durham Cathedral since”. As Warden of the University of Durham, he interacted with the then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, who he says “agreed with me” on aspects of Christian non-belief but who “outraged the congregation at Durham cathedral, and he did what Mr Homer had told me never do: he attacked the widows and orphans, not willingly and knowingly but he was less willing to compromise than I was”. Holliday himself continued – at least until this first interview session in 2009 – to want to describe publically the shape of his Christian unbelief while not “upsetting” his audiences:

Fred Holliday on his belief in "Einstein’s god" (C1364/5)

FredHollidaybinocularsSir Fred Holliday

At this point in the interview, he expressed his opposition to the form of unbelief promoted by fellow biologist Richard Dawkins: “read his work, know it, sympathise with a lot of it, but why oh why does he become so evangelical in this atheism”. Two years later, in 2011, when he recorded the final interview session, his position may have shifted. A period of treatment for “quite an aggressive cancer”, involving hospitalisation, seems to have made him question the value of preserving conventional religious faith in others – an experience that runs counter to what is widely held to be the case, that personal crisis encourages religious belief (though this assumption is challenged in writing by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and others, as well as in emerging findings of research led by Christel Manning):

Fred Holliday reflects on his approach to religion (C1364/5)

Holliday’s generosity in giving up precious time to record a final interview session has afforded a relatively rare direct view of personal change over time. He shares the particular sights and sounds that unsettled a long-held combination of personal unbelief and valuing of religion. His reflections are detailed and multi-layered, but he certainly seems to have come to question the golden rule of his mentor: “don’t undermine the peace of mind of the widows and orphans”.

This blog is by Dr Paul Merchant, Oral History Interviewer, National Life Stories, The British Library. Alison Gilmour interviewed Sir Fred Holliday for An Oral History of the Water Industry. The complete interview can be listened to on BL Sounds.

16 October 2018

Black History Month - The Gold Coast Police Band

JZ 282 label

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

For Black History month in previous years I have highlighted the career and work of classical musicians such as Dean Dixon and Cullen Maiden.  While considering people for this year’s blog, I received a donation which included a fascinating disc.  The performers are The Gold Coast Police Band.

It used to be that many organisations in the UK had bands made up of employees.  It was a wonderful way of promoting a community spirit, a striving for excellence dependent on each individual’s hard work and commitment producing an end result of combined quality.  The Metropolitan Police Force had divisional bands, then a main band of officers drawn from the divisions.  Its demise due to cuts happened around 1997 and only a choir now remains.  One of the most famous bands from a motor works is Foden’s Motor Works Band (still extant), a large collection of whose discs recorded from 1914 to 1963 I acquired for the British Library in 2003.

The Gold Coast Police Band was formed 1917 in Ghana.  The first recruits were retired army bandsmen from the West African Frontier Force who had studied at Kneller Hall, the Royal Military School of Music in Whitton.  From 1926 to 1941 the first European bandmaster, Mr G. T. March, was in charge and in 1943 his place was taken by Thomas Stenning.  Enlisted in the 7th Dragoon Guards in 1905, Stenning went to France with the 6th Dragoon Guards in August 1914 and was granted a regular commission in the Royal West Kent Regiment in 1917.  He resigned from this in order to study at Kneller Hall to be trained as an Army bandmaster.  From 1923 to 1936 Stenning was bandmaster to the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own) stationed in India.  From there he went to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst as bandmaster.  It was in 1943 that he took up his post with the Gold Coast Police Band.  The bandsmen were all locally enlisted African men whose sole qualification upon enlistment was ‘a liking for music.’ 

The-Band-of-the-Gold-Coast-Police-at-the-Police-Depot-Accra-Gold-Coast (2)The Gold Coast Police Band at the police depot in Accra, Ghana (courtesy of Marlborough Rare Books)

The band of thirty-five African men arrived in London by air from Accra on Wednesday 7th May 1947 for a four month tour, departing the end of August.  Two days later they were rehearsing at Hounslow before setting off on the tour.  During their stay they played in many of the London parks including, Greenwich, Victoria, Hyde and Regent’s as well as Horse Guards Parade.  On 18th May the band performed at Jephson Gardens Pavilion, Leamington Spa and on the 24th May were back in London where they led the procession from the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields to the Cenotaph for the Empire Day ceremony.  A visit to Nottingham due earlier in May was postponed until the 27th from whence they travelled to Bath for a week of performances during the first week of June.  The highlight of the tour occurred on 10th June when the band played at a Buckingham Palace Presentation Party for 5,000 guests alternating with the Band of the Coldstream Guards.  Around this time a visit to Hendon was filmed by the newsreel cameras for Colonial Cinemagazine No. 9. 

Unfortunately the film is not in colour but the newspapers described the uniforms as scarlet and navy blue with white blouses.  The band wore black shorts braided with red and had matching black caps with red tassels and wore puttees on their feet.

It was in June that the band made the first of their HMV recordings in London for sale in West Africa.  The company began recording in Accra and Lagos in 1937 and these recordings were issued with the JZ prefix.  It appears that they had made one recording in West Africa for HMV which was issued as JZ 94 accompanying J. R. Roberts in songs from The Downfall of Zachariah Fee, a pantomime by Sir Arnold Hodson, Governor of the Gold Coast Colony (and previously the Falkland Islands).

On the 20th June 1947 they recorded six sides and, just before their departure on the 29th August, six more.  As these recordings were made for the West African market they were mainly of traditional songs, with some sides conducted by Sergeant Isaac Annam.  One side was recorded with a vocal trio sung in Fanti, but there is also a disc of marches and one of Rockin’ in Rhythm by Duke Ellington.  The first recording to be made was the one classical title, the Overture to Poet and Peasant by Franz von Suppé.  The instrumental playing is of a high standard, particularly the precision of the opening quietly played brass chords.

Poet and Peasant Overture

Two years later the Daily Mirror reported that compared to pre-war trade, dealers were now selling as many as three times the number of gramophones and four times the number of records in West Africa.  In big demand were the Gold Coast Police Band’s recordings of Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ in Rhythm and an African dance number, Everybody Likes Saturday Night.  

On 6th July the band broadcast on the BBC Home Service for a half hour programme and in the middle of the month travelled north where they were billeted at Crash Camp, Sandy Lane, Gosforth for performances in Newcastle.  On 16th July they lunched with the Lord Mayor of Newcastle and took afternoon tea with the Chief Constable.  A dance in their honour was given  at Albion Assembly Rooms, North Shields where a local dance band was hired to provide entertainment.  The next day, afternoon and evening performances at Exhibition Park were given before leaving for Edinburgh and an appearance at Pittencrief Park, Dunfermline on 22nd July.  The Band then headed south for a week at Warrior Square Gardens, Hastings and further performances in London and, one would hope, some time off to explore the city before their return to Accra at the end of August.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

15 October 2018

Recording of the week: Montserrat Volcano Observatory

This week's selection comes from Emme Ledgerwood, Collaborative Doctoral Award student with the British Library's Oral History department and Leicester University.

“I think great science comes from this natural curiosity”

This recording for #EarthScienceWeek comes from Stephen Sparks, a volcanologist who describes how the Montserrat Volcano Observatory advised the government of Monserrat during the eruption of the island’s volcano in 1995. In this clip he reflects on the relationship between science, policy and decision-making, and the value of curiosity-driven science when providing scientific advice.

Stephen Sparks: the social benefits of volcanography (C1379/89) 

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This clip is featured on the Voices of Science website. The website draws clips from the National Life Stories Oral History of British Science project which includes over 100 life story interviews with scientists and engineers.

Follow @EmmeLedgerwood , @BL_OralHistory and @soundarchive for all the latest news.

08 October 2018

Recording of the week: from the days of the demo tape

This week's selection comes from Lucia Cavorsi, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

When you work in a sound archive it’s not uncommon to find yourself drawn into a listening experience which is both immersive and enriching. For me, one of these moments arrived with a demo tape from the Serious Speakout collection (taken from the name of a London-based  promotion company active during the 1990s).

At the end of the recording I scrutinize the inlay. Who is behind this band? What is their story? I realize that, in a collection of over 700 demo tapes, this is the only all-female band I have come across. I manage to contact one of them on Facebook. After twenty two years they kindly agree to gather together again and recount their past. A Skype call doesn’t feel right. Three weeks later I fly to Bologna to meet them: Daniela Cattivelli, Silvia Fanti, Filomena Forleo, Olivia Bignardi, Flavia D’angelantonio, Margareth Kammerer. Respectively, saxophone, accordion, piano, clarinet, bass, and vocals of ‘Fastilio’.

Fastilio 1Fastilio, soon after forming, rehearsing at the occupied School of Arts, Music and Theatre - University of Bologna. Photo by Nanni Angeli 

Formed in late 1991, the story behind this experimental band is one of genuine curiosity for sound and its potential, playfulness within rigour and commitment, and risk taking. All six were enrolled at the University of Bologna’s School of Arts, Music and Theatre, which was at the time under student occupation. They met when they joined, with little musical knowledge, Laboratorio di Musica e Immagine. This was a fourteen member group with a strong socialising energy, working on collective improvisation and composition to create music for silent films.

After a year and a half they decided to try and rehearse on their own to express themselves more freely, curious to see what type of sound would come from such a diverse group of people, with both different backgrounds and creative ideas. They called themselves ‘Fastilio’ from the Italian ‘Fastidio’, meaning nuisance. Although lacking in experience, their plans were both influenced and inspired by the thriving scene of the time: concerts of experimental music, festivals featuring musicians from the Rock in Opposition movement and the Canterbury Scene, and seminars with composer and improvisor Fred Frith.   

They had been rehearsing for around four months when their first concert opportunity cropped up in February 1992. Their bass player had only picked up her bass for the first time a few months earlier, and yet the festival they were invited to featured musicians like Robert Fripp and Michael Nyman. Fastilio were offered joint billing with experimental violinist Jon Rose on opening night. Amid hesitation and excitement, short in repertoire and training, they eventually accepted. And there they were on stage with Jon Rose who, seeing how nervous they were, made shoulder muscles stretching a part of the performance. This first concert was a breakthrough; it taught them to be brave.

Fastilio 2Flyer First concert. Photo by Francesca Ponzini

Over the next five years of their existence, this band of girls in their mid-20s, committed themselves to sound. Each with different skill levels and musical personalities, Fastilio put into music their wishes of sonority, through reciprocal listening, improvising, experimenting, composing and, essentially, choreographing sound. Fastilio define their music as ‘twisted’, because of the changes in perspectives, the circularity of themes and the odd succession of harmonic and contrasting sounds.

Gradually they found themselves opening concerts for renowned musicians like Steve Coleman, performed in international festivals, jammed in cultural centres throughout Europe, and collaborated with different artists in anarchist houses in the Slavic countryside.  

The following excerpts are from a live gig recorded in Imola, September 1993

Fastilio demo tape excerpts (BL shelfmark C728/117)

Follow @lcavorsi, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news. Many thanks go to the members of Fastilio for their help with this piece.

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