Sound and vision blog

6 posts from February 2020

24 February 2020

Recording of the week: Elgar's Introduction and Allegro

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

This is an extract of a recording of Introduction and Allegro by Edward Elgar from 1940. Like many recordings in the Stuart Pollard Collection, it is an off air recording of a performance by Arturo Toscanini and NBC Symphony Orchestra. The piece is well known but that is not what made it get stuck in my head. Even from the first couple of seconds I recognised it and it triggered memories from my earlier life as a musician. I had not listened to the piece in nine years but it instantly felt so familiar again, hearing it in this new context, as part of this collection.

This piece featured prominently in my life during my final school year when I was 17–18 years old. This was a year of lots of change and stress but the constant in my life was my involvement with the local music trust and especially the chamber orchestra. We rehearsed Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro almost every week during that year and played it in several concerts in the UK and then Finland. The piece became so familiar to me that I formed a love-hate relationship with it. It was one of the most challenging pieces I had played at that point in my career. Despite the intense training at the music trust, I still felt insecure with particularly challenging parts of the piece such as passages in which semiquavers were passed intricately between both violin sections. I especially remember some delicate moments regarding those semiquaver passages at the Temppeliaukion Church (Rock Church) towards the end of our tour in Finland.

The Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki, Finland. Copyright  Matthew Duncan. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

A particular memory comes to mind when hearing this piece. I had innocently turned up to the first rehearsal of the year with my viola but on arrival I was told ‘wrong instrument’ and was shocked to find that without knowing it I had been appointed as principal second violin. I had to play the conductor’s violin on that day and the sudden change of plan made finding the concentration to sight read the Elgar very difficult. Being principal second violin added new pressures such as responsibility for starting the fugue. This became one of my least favourite parts of the piece and I was often very stressed by it because of the challenge of setting a good foundation for this part of the piece and for stopping everyone from rushing. Memories of my experience with Introduction and Allegro were triggered instantly on hearing the recording in the Stuart Pollard Collection but they intensified on hearing the fugue so that is why I selected an excerpt of the fugue to share this week.

Fuge excerpt from Elgar Introduction and Allegro C353-61_S2_C1

Having changed careers by gaining work experience and studying to become an archivist over the past three years, my time as a musician can start to feel distant. I had a great commitment to music so it can feel strange to no longer have such close connections with it. However, working at the British Library is a positive experience because discovering pieces like Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro in the collections of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project enables me to link what I am doing now to the childhood hobby that gradually took over my life.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news. UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

18 February 2020

National Life Stories Goodison Fellowship 2020-2021: Suzanne Joinson

"Cycling every day, about three and a half miles along the front to Grand Parade where the art school was, and I used to, if I was late, I used to hitch on to the back of a lorry, sounds terribly dangerous … I used to somehow hang on to the back and get right along the front in about five minutes."

-- Juliet Pannett on attending art school in Brighton in 1928

It is possible to tell so much from a voice: the tone, accent and emphasis. The artist Juliet Pannett’s recording from 1991 is both nostalgic and immediate. The tonal quality of her speech evokes another era, and her laughter is full of life. As we listen to her recalling details – like hitching on lorries along Brighton seafront – we connect to her memory and see her classroom or art studio vividly in our mind for an instant. Listening in is a privilege; it’s like being trusted with a secret or engaging in a magical form of time-travel.

Juliet Pannett on attending art school in Brighton in 1928 (C466/09)

As the National Life Stories Goodison Fellow 2020-21, I will explore the audio archives of three creative women connected to Sussex: Juliet Pannett, archived under Artists’ Lives and Ann Sutton and Barbara Mullins from Crafts Lives. Not household names by any means, but they all achieved significant professional success and I believe that in quiet, unsung ways, they have each left an impressive, potentially subversive artistic legacy that resonates today.

Photograph of Graffham, West SussexGraffham, West Sussex. Copyright David Spicer, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.

On the surface, weaver Barbara Mullins lived a quiet life in the village of Graffham, West Sussex. With Gwen Mullins, her mother, she offered spinning, weaving, pottery and classes in dyeing using Sussex plants. In her interview she discusses their trip to Santa Fe, running out of money, and returning home to deliver workshops. Their cottage industry developed into the Gwen Mullins Trust, offering an apprentice scheme and financial support for craft makers. This paved the way for a government-funded body, the Crafts Council, which eventually replaced the Trust.

Listening, a number of strands become clear: the importance of international travel to Barbara and Gwen to these women who lived a seemingly very ‘English’ and provincial life; the collaborative, creative and possibly co-dependent relationship between mother and daughter; the endless navigation between creativity and money that necessarily exists in an artist’s life; and the importance of legacy.

Because the National Life Stories oral history methodology covers a life-span where possible, the interviews provide a birds’ eye view of how the local and domestic situation of a subject’s existence is intrinsically connected with the professional ‘output’ of their life. This, I believe, is pertinent to appreciating female artists, especially those living and working outside of metropolitan areas.

I will explore the archives to look at big questions: How does their work relate to geographical locations? What is the overlap between place, art, money, family, reputation and legacy? How did domestic and family situations contribute to their professional work? How does their self-narrative reflect their position within a cultural map of the south of England? And beyond, how are they now situated within national and global contexts?

Internationally acclaimed artist Ann Sutton talks with wry matter-of-factness about the reality of forging a career in the sixties. We follow her training, teaching jobs and commissions. It is moving to listen to her talk about the choices she made around birth control, opting not to have children and how her marriage intersected with her vocation. In this clip she talks about the potter Bernard Leach and her desire to challenge the status quo he represented:

Ann Sutton on Bernard Leach and breaking with tradition (C960/22)

From her studio in Arundel she conducted an impressive career and ran the Ann Sutton Foundation. Through this she supported talented graduates and pioneered a way of helping young artists transition to the commercial world. This approach that would later be taken up by art colleges directly.

My aim with this Fellowship is to delve deep into the National Life Stories archive to celebrate the unique contributions of these impressive artists. I want to map how their individual stories and works link to a bigger cultural picture and I hope to showcase how the National Life Stories project is a tremendously impressive, unique resource.

At some point in their oral history interviews all three women say ‘It’s been a good life’ or ‘It was a marvellous life’. I want to honour those marvellous lives, their work ethic and professionalism, and use my time as a Fellow to share with a wider audience the continuing creative and artistic legacies of Juliet Pannett, Barbara Mullins and Ann Sutton.

Suzanne Joinson is an award-winning writer and academic. Her novels A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar and The Photographer's Wife are published internationally by Bloomsbury. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Chichester and writes regularly for a range of publications including the New York Times, Guardian and others. She has a strong interest in oral history and the stories found in landscapes and places.

17 February 2020

Recording of the week: Where there's a whip there's a will

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

Many birds are a dab hand when it comes to singing their name and the Whip-poor-will (Antrostomus vociferous) is no exception. This nocturnal bird inhabits woodlands stretching from Canada to the southern United States and, due to its perfectly camouflaged plumage, is more likely to be heard than seen.

Whip-poor-will illustration 1921
Whip-poor-will illustration taken from Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music, 1921 (courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

This particular recording was made near the Canadian village of Kirkfield, Ontario in 2003 by Tom Cosburn.

Whip-poor-will - British Library reference 130412

Other birds with onomatopoeic tendencies can be found within the library’s online collection of wildlife and environmental sounds. And if you’re looking for somewhere to start, why not give the Cuckoo a try.

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

10 February 2020

Recording of the week: Ntozake Shange

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

Ntozake_Shange _Reid_Lecture _Women_Issues_Luncheon _Women's_Center _November_1978_Crisco_edit
Ntozake Shange, November 1978, by Barnard College; digitally restored by Chris Woodrich. CC BY-SA 3.0

This week’s selection features the American playwright and poet Ntozake Shange (1948-2018), recorded at the ICA, London, 14 March 1984. The interviewer is fellow playwright Michelene Wandor. 

Ntozake Shange and Michelene Wandor in conversation (1 hr. 2 min.)

In a wide-ranging talk, Shange discusses her most famous work, the award-winning theatre piece for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, and her then most recent novel Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo.

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

03 February 2020

Recording of the week: 'If Not, Not'

This week’s selection comes from Andrea Zarza Canova, Curator of World & Traditional Music.

Tapestry in entrance hall of British Library- If Not, Not

You may be familiar with the tapestry featured in this photograph if you visit the British Library every now and then. If its bright colours and mysterious symbolism haven't lured you in before, it’s a tapestry based on the painting If Not, Not (1975—1976), by the artist Ronald Brooks Kitaj RA (1932 – 2007), which hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. For me it has been a source of wonder and stimulus on countless wanders through the Library’s public areas, leaving me with many questions on what the man with the hearing aid in the lower left hand corner, the large, brick gatehouse in the upper left corner or the general atmosphere, which is both attractive and ghastly, might mean. It has felt like an endless source of ideas and stories when procrastinating away from my desk and it's led me to dig deeper and uncover more about R.B. Kitaj's life and remarkable work.

The tapestry rendition of If Not, Not was commissioned for the British Library by its architects MJ Long and Colin St. John Wilson, who were good friends of Kitaj’s. Kitaj painted their portrait The Architects, in August 1979, to celebrate the remodelling of his home by MJ Long. A book called Kitaj: The Architects, gathers diary entries and fragments of conversation from their sitting sessions.

The tapestry was woven on a bespoke loom at the Dovecot Tapestry Studio by the Edinburgh Weavers Company, it required 112 kilos of wool and 7000 hours to complete. Seven master weavers worked on different areas of the tapestry to create this impressive rendition measuring approximately 7 square metres. It was the largest tapestry to be woven in Britain in the 20th century. It was funded by the Arts Council of England Lottery Fund and others.

For Colin St. John Wilson, works of art were an integral part of the building’s design and not mere decoration: 'Tapestries and sculpture are absolutely part of the building, not afterthoughts or adornments to prettify it' (Independent). When the tapestry went on display in July 1997 (its original spot was on the opposite wall where the large exhibition poster currently hangs), its textural qualities not only contributed to the character of the space, serving as a contrast to the hard surfaces throughout the area, but also benefitted the space acoustically by absorbing the sound echoing and reflecting throughout the entrance hall.

In the following excerpt from a much longer interview, which is part of the National Life Story Collection: Architects' Lives, we can hear Colin St. John Wilson speak about some of the references woven into the tapestry's complex network of symbols. He also talks more broadly about the importance of visual imagery in public buildings and how the Library's readers might relate to the works on display.

Colin St. John Wilson on tapestry

This tapestry will be one of the many artworks featured in a series of site-specific tours which explore the Library’s public art collections through sound. Following David Toop's idea, as fleshed out in his book Sinister Resonance (2010), that it is possible to imagine a sound world within ‘mute things’, the tour guides have used sound recordings from the British Library Sound Archive to draw out or expand the stories within works by artists such as Barbara Hepworth, R.B. Kitaj, Eduardo Paolozzi or Antony Gormley. You can find more information on how to book yourself on to a tour on the British Library’s event page.

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

01 February 2020

Waves and resonances: Catherine Smith's adventures in the sound archive

The British Library has been very lucky to have Catherine Smith volunteering with our World and Traditional Music team over the last year. As part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, Catherine worked closely with various collections of sound recordings made on the African continent, classifying musical instruments featured in several of the recordings using an adaptation of the Hornbostel–Sachs classification system. More recently, Catherine curated and delivered sound tours responding to artworks on public display in the Library. These tours focused on the lives of three artists and how themes from their works draw on their associations with music, sea and landscape.

Looking forward to the second round of sound tours, which kick off on Tuesday 4th February, we sat down with Catherine to hear more about her volunteer work and explore the thinking behind her sound tour, Waves of Resonance.

Last year, you catalogued a recording of Nigerian hammer and anvil music, which turned out to be the 100,000th recording digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. Have you made other discoveries in the sound archive since?

I particularly enjoyed working on Peggy Harper’s Nigeria Collection, which contains that hammer and anvil recording. I’ve listened to an incredible range of material in the archive: from Vaughn Williams’ ethnographic wax cylinders to Hungarian-Romanian folk recordings. The British Library also has an extensive collection of recordings from WOMAD festival throughout the years which, as you can imagine, is infinitely long and eclectic.

I was also fascinated to find an interview with blues and boogie-woogie pianist and singer Champion Jack Dupree, where he is simultaneously accompanying himself on the piano beautifully.  It was great to be able to feature this in an article for the Library’s Sound and Vision blog as ‘Recording of the Week’.

I’ve also been fascinated by the Wildlife and Environmental collections, whether it be Alan Renton’s meticulous collection of lighthouse fog warning signals in Cornwall or a Bluethroat imitating reindeer bells in Lapland.

That blog on Champion Jack was an excellent read; he certainly led a remarkable life. As well as writing on sound archive collections, you contributed recordings to the autumn themed listening session we held in the Knowledge Centre. Could you tell us about some of these sounds?

I had a great time searching the archive for recordings which engaged with the theme of Autumn from as many cultures as I could find. I included recordings from Nigeria, Ghana, Thailand, Nepal and China. Perhaps the most amusing recording I found was from the Peter Kennedy Collection, where Joe Woods and his sister Winifred talk about their local traditions on the Isle of Man and the legends of ghosts and witches and sing traditional Halloween songs.

Shelfmark: C604/387  C11-12 ‘Hunt the Wren’ and ‘Hop-tu-naa’, available to listen to on British Library sounds.

You’ve not just been working with sounds, though; you’ve also been inventorising loose photographs in the World and Traditional Music Collections. Can you tell us more about this work?

Yes, that was a long but interesting task. I went through all of the files for the Unlocking our Sound Heritage World and Traditional Music Collections to check what photos were there and update the inventory. I took a while going over and checking everything to make sure it was accurate and consistent, but it was incredible to discover some stunning photography as well as some unusual finds. It all opened my eyes even more to the incredibly diverse range of collections in the sound archive.

Have you come across any images that have struck you?

The most surprising photograph I found amongst the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage collections was probably this surreal picture of the Male Choir of the Moscow Choral Synagogue (aka. ‘The Moscow Jewish Choir’). It accompanies a recording of their concert from 1993 at the New West End Synagogue in St Petersburg Place, London. The concert was called 'Kindling the Night: a celebration of Russian Chazanut and Jewish music', and included an international selection from Yiddish folk songs to classical and liturgical repertoire.

The Moscow Jewish Choir's album cover for the ‘Golden Pages of Jewish Liturgical Music’
Photo of The Moscow Jewish Choir's album cover for the ‘Golden Pages of Jewish Liturgical Music’

The origin of the photo is unclear, but it looks like it might have been an album cover for the ‘Golden Pages of Jewish Liturgical Music’. Despite its bizarre Daliesque style, with their heads popping up out of the ground, funnily the choir was only established in 1990! 

Outside of UOSH, there is also a beautiful collection of photos that came with the John Brierley Botswana collection, and that led me to discover his wonderful sound recordings which are available to listen to on British Library Sounds.

Can you tell us about Waves of Resonance, the sound tour you curated as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage outreach programme? You develop many interesting connections between sound and a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, a bust of Virginia Woolf and others on your tour. How did you go about bringing these elements together?

I started with some background reading from David Toop’s book ‘Sinister Resonance’, following the brief that Andrea Zarza Canova, my manager and World and Traditional Music Curator at the Library, had created for this project. I was interested in the way he explored the haunting nature of sound and the sense of hidden sound that is within artwork, objects, writing and space.

The selection of artworks for the tour came about almost like a moment of serendipity, despite considerable hours researching the public artworks on display in the British Library. I was drawn to Hepworth’s sculpture as a piece of abstract art and recalled a connection to both the sea and Cornwall. I had already selected the bust of Virginia Woolf due to her many connections with music and sound but was delighted to realise that her links to the sea were also deeply rooted in the geography of Cornwall. This triggered an infinite discovery of connections between the two artists also drawing upon their musical and sound inspirations. The decision to then incorporate the Scottish artist Ian McKenzie Smith’s seascape became an obvious choice because it unravelled further connections to the sea and music. I really enjoyed selecting sound recordings to connect with the artworks. I use the sounds as a way in to discover more about the background of the artists, their work and inspiration, as well as changing the way you experience the artwork in the moment. For example, Ian McKenzie Smith was inspired by American colour-field painters, traditional Eastern artwork and Zen Buddhism, so I accompanied the painting with a meditative bagpipe drone composition by Yoshi Wada. Before playing that piece, I used a Shakuhachi flute imitating the sound and motion of waves breaking. They’re two very different pieces, but both were effective in bringing out different visual elements and themes contained in the painting.

I had the chance to attend one of your delightful tours last time round. There were strong themes of the sea, bodies of water, and wave motion present. What is it about these that fascinates you?

I spent most of my childhood holidays by the sea in Pembrokeshire and Cornwall and have always been drawn to the coast so I can relate to how the sea was so inspiring to the artists featured in my tour. I’m constantly fascinated by the latest discoveries within marine life, and like many people, I’m concerned about the damage to our oceans. While composing the final project for my Music BMus (Hons) degree at City, University of London. I became fixated with endless cinematography of coral reefs. This broadened out to editing footage and composing music for a film exploring various life cycles within the sea, from phytoplankton to whales. The project set out to explore the physicality and materiality of this habitat, but I used a strange combination of sounds to do so, including instruments and field recordings that I digitally manipulated into a textural composition. The imagined sound of a coral reef dying actually incorporated a combination of granular synthesis and hydrophone recordings, including some made in my very own bath!

What was the audience response like the first time you delivered your sound tour? Have you made any changes to it this time around?

People were incredibly engaged and responsive, which was encouraging. I had to really streamline it to fit all the interesting content into the half-hour slot, so I’ve removed some material and sounds from the original version of the tour. I tend to do a lot of research, and the tour could have been over twice as long. I’ve gotten more comfortable delivering it as I’ve gone along and the tours turn out a little different each time because everyone has their own response and areas of interest in relation to the works of art and recordings, so it’s really interesting to get different perspectives on the works. If I curate any more tours, I might have to be more careful about the placement of the artwork because the Hepworth sculpture is in front of the smoking area! I somehow didn’t realise that until I was doing my first run-through. I’ve probably left a few confused smokers wondering why a group of people were huddled around a sculpture communally listening to a Nigerian harvest dance.

Join Catherine and Jasmine Pierre for site-specific sound tours of the British Library and hear about the ideas behind some of the public art on display.

What you see is what you hear.