THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

6 posts from February 2019

15 February 2019

Andrea Levy

We’re sad to hear of the death of novelist Andrea Levy who passed away yesterday, aged 62.

Andrea grew up in north London, the daughter of Jamaican-born Winston and Amy Levy. She attended Highbury Hill Grammar School before studying textile design at Middlesex Polytechnic. After working as a costume assistant at The Royal Opera House and the BBC she began to attend a writers’ class at City Lit and published her first novel, Every Light in the House Burnin’, in 1994. Today she is best known for the award-winning Small Island and The Long Song.

In 2014, Andrea agreed to make a recording for Authors’ Lives which will be made available to listeners in the weeks to come. She was at that time living with the knowledge that she had a life-limiting illness.

With typical courage and eloquence, she ended her Authors’ Lives recording by reflecting on mortality, and the impact she hoped her books might have had in the world:

‘Everybody dies, and everybody knows they’re going to die. But while other people have it in the back of their heads, I have it here, right in front of my face: I see it and I know it.

But in the meantime I’m fit and well and I’m loving life. There’s a certain freedom that comes from knowing that this is the time you’ve got, and every minute is going to be dedicated to what you want to do because you really don’t have long. If you can go day by day, there’s some sort of release in it.

[Living with cancer] is a process of forgetting and never forgetting that you have to do at one and the same time: I never forget, but I just get on with it. I’ve had a very good life, I’ve loved it. I’ve worked hard and produced some good work I think, and the confidence I have now is because of writing: because I was able to quietly, in my own time and my own way, to show my worth.

I hope my books have a life beyond me. I hope I made a contribution to something, to the end of racism and the coming equality. I hope that the life that I’ve lived goes some way to make things easier. That’s the only posterity.’

Sarah O’Reilly, Interviewer, Authors’ Lives

11 February 2019

Recording of the week: the endingidi and the erhu – two types of the spike tube fiddle

This week's selection comes from Tom Miles, Metadata Coordinator for Europeana Sounds.

The Hornbostel-Sachs classification system is a way of grouping types of musical instruments by structure and the way in which sound is produced, rather than the culture from which the instruments are made. This system reflects the classification of the animal kingdom by skeletal structure, rather than by size or behaviour. This means that similar types of musical instruments can be found in very different parts of the world and playing different styles of music.

The two instruments featured here are both spike tube fiddles. That is to say, the string bearer passes right through the resonator of the instrument. In this case, the resonator is a tube, at right angles to the spike.

One instrument is the endingidi (or ndingidi) from Uganda. The other is the erhu, a two stringed instrument from China.

SidebysideTwo types of spike tube fiddle (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz - Ethnologisches Museum, CC-BY-SA-NC-ND)

Our recording of the week is an unidentified song for erhu and voice, recorded by Colin Huehns during a field trip to Xinxiang, China, in 1994.

Unidentified song for erhu and voice (C485/79)

There are quite a few other examples of both instruments on Europeana here. In addition, you can see the erhu played in this photograph of “Female Musicians and singers of Foo-Chow” taken around 1910, provided on Europeana by the Världskulturmuseet (CC BY-NC-ND). It’s played rather like a cello, but the bow is held with the palm facing upwards rather than downwards.

91609_SMVK_VKM_fotografi_1302757

Over 1000 recordings of music from Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as well as China, can be found in the Colin Huehns Asia collection on British Library Sounds.

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

08 February 2019

Where our laws are drafted: 150 years of the Office of Parliamentary Counsel

On 8 February 1869 the Board of the Treasury met to discuss “the drafting or preparing of Bills introduced into Parliament on the part of Her Majesty’s Government.” The Treasury minute goes on to note “the advantage of bringing all important Government Bills under the view of one person,” and being “pleased to direct that the office as proposed shall be constituted to be called the “Office of the Parliamentary Counsel”.

The Office of Parliamentary Counsel has grown from one man and his assistant in 1869 to consist of a staff of 60, including some 50 experienced barristers and solicitors. Led by Elizabeth Gardiner, the team’s job is to assist government departments in preparing Bills.

In a BBC interview Gardiner remarked that, "what they used to say was that every Labour government legislated more than a Tory government but that every government legislated more than the previous one, of that colour.”

The experience of Patrick Macrory, director of Unilever, seems to corroborate that view. He worked as an assistant at the Parliamentary Counsel Office during the late 1940s under Granville Ram (known as the ‘Maestro’) and alongside Harold Kent who later became Treasury Solicitor.

Interview with Patrick Macrory, C408/005, Tape 1, Side 2, 00:23:18 – 00:24:31

In this excerpt from her 1988 interview for NLS Legal Lives, Baroness Hale explains how parliamentary draftsmen contribute to the work of the Law Commission on law reform.

Baroness_Brenda_Hale
University of Salford Press Office [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Interview with Baroness Hale, C736/008, Track 4, 00:17:29 – 00:20:52

Those currently working in the Office of Parliamentary Counsel are facing unprecedented challenges, drafting legislation to accommodate the constitutional novelty that is Brexit.

Blogpost by Emmeline Ledgerwood (@EmmeLedgerwood), AHRC collaborative doctoral student with the University of Leicester and the British Library Oral History department. Her PhD research is looking at governments’ attitudes to the management and funding of scientific research, 1970-2005. 

07 February 2019

The tale of the seven whistlers

By Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds.

The natural world is one of the cornerstone themes of British folkloric tradition. From familiar animals to mysterious creatures, our local tales and superstitions are full of references to nature.

For centuries birds, and especially their voices, have been a particularly strong focus of traditional beliefs. Depending on the community, the cry of a bird could mean anything from the approach of stormy weather to an untimely death.   

One tale which appears repeatedly in British and Irish folklore is the legend of the seven whistlers. Though occasionally linked to witches or other demonic entities, the seven whistlers were generally believed to be a group of mysterious birds, flying together at night, whose unearthly calls were considered a portent of impending disaster.

Coal miners were particularly susceptible to these supposed messengers of doom. In 1862, locals in the Northumbrian village of Hartley proclaimed to have heard the seven whistlers the night before a pit disaster which claimed the lives of 204 miners. Over a decade later, in 1874, the Coventry Herald reported on a mass walkout at the Bedworth collieries:

"On Monday morning, large numbers of the miners employed at some of the Bedworth collieries in North Warwickshire, giving way to a superstition which has long prevailed amongst their class, refused to descend the coal pits in which they are employed. The men are credulous enough to believe that certain nocturnal sounds, which are, doubtless, produced by flocks of night birds in their passage across the country, are harbingers of some impending colliery disaster. During Sunday night, it was stated that these sounds, which have been designated “the seven whistlers” had been distinctly heard in the neighbourhood of Bedworth, and the result was that the following morning, when work should have resumed, many of the men positively refused to descend the pits.”

Hartley pit disasterHartley Colliery Disaster: the dead are brought up to their families (L'llustration, 1862, p 101)

But what were these birds that had the power to strike such fear into the hearts of those who heard their melancholy cries? Almost all accounts point the finger at wading birds, though the exact species differs depending on the region. Some believed the culprits to be groups of curlew or whimbrel. For others it was the golden plover or lapwing. Though this selection may seem an arbitrary one, there is a common thread which links these species together; their shrill, whistling calls.

Curlew 'curlee' call, recorded on the Derbyshire / Staffordshire border by Alan Burbidge (BL ref 144681)

Whimbrel flight calls, recorded in the Scottish Highlands by Richard Margoschis (BL ref 43516) 

Lapwing 'peewit' call, recorded in Hampshire by Phil Riddett (BL ref 66907)

When listening to the lapwing’s plaintive ‘peewit’ or the curlew’s haunting ‘curlee’, it’s quite easy to see how these birds became entwined with the tale of the seven whistlers. Other birds were occasionally added to the mix, most notably wigeon and swifts, however the migratory nature of these species meant that the association was debunked by most believers. The sharp whistles of wigeon could only be heard during the winter months, while the piercing screams of swifts were a sound of spring and summer. This just didn’t tally with the timing of some local tragedies, whereas birds like the curlew & lapwing could be heard all year round.

CurlewIllustration of a curlew taken from British Ornithology; being the history, with a coloured representation of every known species of British birds, George Graves, 1811

Despite being considered envoys of calamity, birds linked to the seven whistlers don’t appear to have suffered any negative repercussions. They weren’t persecuted or hunted down. But neither were they revered. They were simply listened to.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, superstitions such as these were more prevalent in rural communities with strong ties to the natural world. Though many people, especially those in towns and cities, scoffed at the idea of birds as omens of death and disaster, a Daily Telegraph comment from 1874 reminded readers to look to themselves before casting aspersions on the beliefs of others. Which is a lesson to us all.

"Sensible people should, of course, hold all such absurdities in contempt; but how many ostensibly sensible people are there who entertain the most peculiar ideas concerning Friday, and spilling the salt, and crossing the knives and walking under a ladder? It is natural to laugh at the superstitions of other folks, and to abide very earnestly by our own."

Follow @CherylTipp for all the latest wildlife & environmental news from the British Library.

06 February 2019

Hommage à Michel Legrand

Demoiselles LP cover(1LP0242247 BL collections)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Michel Legrand, who died a few weeks ago, was a prolific composer for the screen.  He won Academy Awards for Summer of '42 and music for Barbra Streisand's Yentl and penned the great hit Windmills of your mind for the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. One of my all-time favourite film scores is his baroque inspired theme and variations for two pianos and orchestra that he wrote for Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between in 1971.  Recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and coupled with the Symphonic Suite from Les Parapluies de Cherbourg this 1979 LP has long been a collector’s item.  Two copies reside in the British Library’s Sound Archive as does the CD version which was only released in Japan.

Legrand earned his first Academy Award nomination in 1964 for his score to Les Parapluies de Cherbourg notable for the dialogue being entirely sung throughout the film.  The film was extremely popular and won the Palm d’Or at Cannes so writer/director Jacques Demy teamed up again with Legrand in 1967 and tried the same formula with Les Demoiselles de Rochefort starring real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac. 

In 2015 I acquired a small collection from choreographer Domy Reiter-Soffer who had worked on the film Les Demoiselles de Rochefort and had been given a tape of the studio recording.  Students of film scores may be interested to know that it includes the count-offs of the musicians and spoken cue numbers.  Some backing tracks also appear without the vocals. 

The piano solos are probably Legrand himself and it is good to hear them without the overlaid vocals.  This one has a click track introduction as it appears that Legrand is overdubbing the piano to give a fuller sound.

No. 10 piano with click track

Here is it with the vocal recorded on top.

No. 9 piano with vocal

Here is another orchestra only track ‘Our Affair’, followed by the vocal overlay.

No. 8 orchestra only

No. 8 with vocal

The soundtrack issue of the time (also donated by Mr Reiter-Soffer) was on two LPs and lists the singers whose voices were used on the recording to which the actors mimed on film. One of them is Legrand's sister, Christiane singing the role of Judith.  While certainly not the LP master, the tape is more of a working product giving an insight into the process that went into making a musical film in France in the 1960s.

List of singers(1LP0242247 BL collections)

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

04 February 2019

Recording of the week: life in a rock pool

This week's selection comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds.

Life in a rock pool is not for the faint-hearted. These miniature ecosystems, found in the intertidal zone, have evolved to endure extreme condition fluctuations caused by the daily movements of the tide. From full submersion to being left high and dry for hours at a time, the inhabitants of this changeable environment need to be resilient in order to survive. 

As with other marine gastropods, the Common Limpet (Patella vulgata) has mastered the art of rock pool life. The following recording, made by Peter Toll on Bantham Beach in Devon, captures the rasping sound of these conical molluscs feeding on algae attached to the rocky surface.

Rock pool atmosphere recorded in Devon, England by Peter Toll (BL reference 212536)

Bay-1357248_1920

Two underwater microphones, known as hydrophones, were used to listen in on the sounds of this otherwise silent world. To listen to more underwater recordings, head on over to the Environment & Nature section of British Library Sounds.

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