THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

6 posts from April 2021

26 April 2021

Recording of the Week: The world’s rarest traditional musical instrument?

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

Musicians playing the biram
Buduma musicians playing the biram, 1967. Photo courtesy of Guy Immega.

The focus of this week’s recording is unusual in a few different ways. It’s a recording of the biram, made in the city of N'guigmi in Niger, probably in the mid- to late-80s. The biram is a large boat-shaped arched harp played by the Buduma people, traditionally fishermen and cattle-herders on the shores and islands of Lake Chad. While similar harps are fairly common in Central Africa, the biram is the only one of its type in West Africa, and may have even evolved from an instrument of the Ancient Egyptians1.

Here is just an excerpt; the full (22 min. 23 sec.) recording can be listened to in British Library Reading Rooms at C617/3 S1 C1.

Buduma songs (BL REF C617/3 S1 C1)

For most instruments, the relationship between object and operator is simple – one instrument has one player. The biram is not quite so simple. In fact, it has two players, both making a completely different sound. One musician, the master, holds the neck of the harp and plucks the melody on its five strings. The other musician, usually a pupil, holds its body and drums a rhythm on the instrument’s skin soundboard and wooden trough. The combination of the deep thrum of the strings and the sharp clack of the body means that often the biram doesn’t sound like a harp at all, but more akin to the ngoni bass-lute of the Malian Bamana people. The biram is both a string instrument and a percussion instrument, literally depending on where you sit.

Musicians playing the biram
Buduma musicians playing the biram, 1967. Photo courtesy of Guy Immega.

Since this recording was made, however, the biram very nearly became extinct. As Lake Niger shrinks and its shores recede, the Buduma people are dispersing and their traditional culture and music are being lost. By the early 2000s, there was just one biram player left, a man named Boukar Tar. With no young Buduma musicians interested in learning the instrument, it seemed as if it would die with him. However, in 2002, Tar was approached by Mamane Barka, a Toubou musician already famous as a player of the gurumi lute. Tar taught Barka all he knew in the four years before his death on the condition that Barka would show the biram around the world. And he did: he performed the biram across Europe and the US2 and released the instrument’s very first album3. Barka himself died in 2018, but not before teaching the art of playing and making the biram to several students – this fantastic instrument has been pulled from the brink, although its future remains in the balance. Only time will tell if the biram will continue to recover.

Footnotes:

1 Immega, Guy (2012). Ancient Egypt’s Lost Legacy: The Buduma Culture of Lake Chad. Self-published: Vancouver.
2 Including a performance at the WOMAD festival in 2008, which can be heard at C203/1515.
3 Introducing Mamane Barka, World Music Network, 2009.

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23 April 2021

Clearing the noise surrounding copyright

For World Copyright Day, Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer Kirsten Newell examines some of the copyright law surrounding sound recordings and its implications for rights clearance on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project.

The UOSH project aims to provide public access to hundreds-of-thousands of the nation’s most at-risk recordings. By working with contributors to clear their copyright, UOSH strives to promote open access to these incredible recordings whilst protecting and respecting the rights of the artists.

Copyright is complex and often misunderstood. Put simply, copyright is the owner’s legal right to create copies of their creative work and share it with the public. Under UK law, any time you create a work that originates from you, and you have exercised some skill and judgement in creating it, you hold a copyright over that work.

The UOSH project has a dedicated Rights Clearance team, committed to clearing the different layers of copyright in our recordings. A common misconception is that copyright only extends to the artistic works within a recording, such as a recorded song or monologue. However, recordings can contain multiple copyrighted works. A recorded song might consist of a musical right to a melody, a literary right to the lyrics, a performance right for the speaker or musician and the master right to the actual recording. These separate works might have different owners and often their copyright lasts for different durations.

Copyright Symbol – Image taken from CC ImagesCopyright symbol - Image taken from CC images

It is often assumed that sound effects are always in the public domain, meaning that no copyright applies, because they don’t contain another copyrighted work. However, since sound recordings give rise to their own copyright, the subject matter of a recording is irrelevant; a right exists in the recording itself. Copyright law recognises the skill that goes into collecting and editing these sounds. Audio engineers spend hours working on their recordings, to ensure the highest possible sound quality. It makes sense that their work is recognised with a copyright.

Listen to a football crowd C521/3 C1

British Library sound recordist, Nigel Bewley’s recording captures the ambience of the old West Ham FC stadium at Upton Park. Since made in the course of his employment, the copyright sits with the British Library.

Under S.16 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, copyright infringement occurs when someone commits a restricted act (such as copying or issuing copies of a work) without the owner’s consent, taking a substantial part of the work from which it is directly or indirectly derived from. But what counts as a ‘substantial’ part of a work?

In the case of Hawkes & Son v Paramount Film Service (1934), the authors of the Colonel Bogey March brought an infringement action against Paramount Film Service for including 20 seconds of the 4-minute song in their newsreel. The court concluded that the length of the segment should not be the only factor when determining whether a ‘substantial’ part of the song had been included. In one Judge’s words, since ‘anyone hearing it would know that it was the march, it is clearly a substantial, a vital, and an essential part which is being reproduced.’ For this reason, both the quantitative and qualitative merits of a segment from a copyrighted work must be considered before it is shared online.

Listen to Colonel Bogey 1CYL0000719

The ‘substantial’ part of Colonel Bogey, considered in the case. The song entered the public domain in 2015, 70 years after the death of the composer F. J. Rickets, as is the copyright duration for musical works. This means the song is now free to use, edit, adapt and reproduce.

However, there are a handful of defences, known as exceptions, which serve to justify certain uses of copyrighted material. When promoting our copyrighted recordings online for UOSH, we often rely on the Fair Dealing exception of Criticism, Review, Quotation and News Reporting. This defence allows people to take quotations from copyrighted material for the purpose of review or otherwise, provided the extract is no longer than necessary. The leading case for this defence is Hubbard v Vosper (1971) in which the Church of Scientology brought an action against Cyril Vosper, for publishing a book criticising Scientology. Vosper’s book borrowed heavily from the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church. However, it was held in this instance that since the extracts needed to be included for Vosper to make his criticisms and comments, the fair dealing exception could apply.

During the case, one Judge commented on the subjective nature of the fair dealing test, arguing ‘it is impossible to define what is “fair dealing”, it must be a question of degree’. Although the case set out many of the factors that help determine fair dealing, such as the purpose, amount and use of the reproduced work, UK law on fair dealing requires that the UOSH team assess releasing recordings under this fair dealing exception on a case-by-case basis.

Listen to Freed C1238/2558 BD2

Don't be afraid to be in love with me

You know I never do anything to hurt you, baby

Don't pull away from this good love with me

You're gonna have the time of your life if you let it, baby

I've been so understanding...

An extract from Dr Meaker’s song ‘Freed’, from our Glastonbury Festival New Bands Competition collection. Since this work is copyrighted, we have relied on the Fair Dealing exception to include a segment here. ©Dr Meaker

Copyright law is constantly evolving to best strike a balance between the rights and interests of the authors and those of the users. Having looked at some of the case law, and the precedent they set, we can better understand the laws and protocols we have in place to respect the rights that artists have over their work. Since it was made in the course of my employment, all literary rights in this article reserved to ©British Library!

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The contents of this article should not be construed as legal advice and we disclaim any liability in relation to its use.

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19 April 2021

Recording of the week: 'It is a great thing nettle beer'

This week's selection comes from Dr. Sue Davies, Project Manager for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

One thing I love about the sound archive is that by listening I discover things that I wasn’t looking for. This recording on nettle beer comes from a particularly rich source of diverting information. The Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture contains hundreds of recordings made by linguists researching accents and dialects. These conversations capture all sorts of incidental stories about the interviewee’s childhood, education, work and family life. In this clip Olive Metcalf talks about making her own nettle beer. She was interviewed by Patricia M. Morris in 1981 in the Kirkstall area of Leeds, West Yorkshire.

Excerpt of dialect recording in Leeds West Yorkshire [BL REF C1829/598]

Download transcript of interview

Stinging nettles grow in abundance across Britain and the young leaves have long been eaten as an early spring tonic. I can understand why some nettle recipes have fallen out of fashion but nettle beer is genuinely tasty. It is reminiscent of ginger beer and indeed some recipes include ginger.

Nettles
A bag of nettles tops ready to be washed and boiled © Sue Davies

Thick gloves are essential to avoid getting stung when collecting the nettles but that is the trickiest part. Once you have a bagful of young nettle tops making the beer is straightforward and there are plenty of instructions online. The basic recipe requires the nettles to be cleaned then boiled for 15 minutes. The nettles go a beautiful green and the water a rather sinister inky colour. The sugar is dissolved into the strained liquid. When it is lukewarm the yeast is added and the mixture left for a few days. It can be drunk within 24 hours or left for a week.

Nettle beer
Nettle beer ready for drinking © Sue Davies

Here are some alternative recipes sourced online:

How to make nettle beer home brew. Step by step recipe 
Maude Grieve’s 1930s recipe: Traditional 1930’s Stinging Nettle Beer Recipe
Pascal Baudar's recipe: How to make nettle beer

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12 April 2021

Recording of the week: how to avoid being puked on by a fulmar

This week’s section comes from Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds

It’s always advisable to keep your distance from wild birds, particularly during the breeding season. The main reason, of course, is to avoid causing any distress to the birds. Chicks are being born, predators are lurking and emotions are running high. So the last thing they need is to worry about pesky humans getting in the way.

Staying away from nesting birds is also a good idea from a self-preservation point of view. Now you may be thinking, ‘But what could they do to me? Start making those annoying alarm calls? Maybe try to fly at me? I can cope with that.’ These responses are true for many birds. But if you happen upon a pair of Northern Fulmars, you can expect something much worse. They will puke on you.

I’m happy to report that no puke was involved in the making of the following recording. Our recordist, Ian Christopher Todd, respectfully kept his distance and was rewarded with this tranquil scene. The cackling calls of nesting fulmars are joined by the gentle lapping of the North Sea and the gruff barks from a nearby Great Black-backed Gull.

Northern Fulmars in a Shetland cove recorded by Ian Christopher Todd on the Shetland Islands Scotland 11 June 2004 [BL REF 201315]

Northern Fulmar

Fulmars nest on steep cliff edges and so you probably won’t need to worry. But do keep this is mind when you next visit the British coastline. For if you get puked on by a fulmar it will be oily and smelly and nobody will want to sit next to you on the journey home.

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05 April 2021

Recording of the week: An interview with Ravi Shankar

This week's selection comes from Sarah Coggrave, Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In 2017, the Mike Sparrow Collection (C1248) was the first audio collection to be preserved as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Mike Sparrow (1948 - 2005) was a radio producer and presenter for BBC Radio London (UK) in the 1970s and 1980s, and his collection includes music, reviews, current affairs features and interviews from shows he worked on. One of my favourite recordings is of Mike Sparrow interviewing Indian sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar (1920 – 2012), in the 1970s.

Based on the details accompanying the collection and from clues within the audio, it is likely this recording was made in early 1978, shortly before Ravi Shankar’s performance on 20 January at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.), in the same year. In this blog I will share some short excerpts from the recording.

Ravi Shankar playing sitar
Ravi Shankar performing at Woodstock Festival in 1969, image sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Ravi Shankar is known across the world for his teaching and performance work, and for sharing North Indian classical music with a range of audiences. In the interview he gives fascinating glimpses into this work, his well-documented association with other famous musicians (including George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin) as well as discussing how best to define and appreciate different types of classical music.

In this first excerpt from the interview, Ravi Shankar explains what a raga is.

Ravi Shankar defines raga (excerpt 1)

The sitar (a stringed instrument used Indian classical music) presents particular physical challenges due to the length of the fretboard and the method of playing, which, as Ravi Shankar mentions in the interview, results in cut fingers and callouses. In the second excerpt he describes the years of study required to develop the necessary technical and improvisational skills for performances.

Ravi Shankar describes his musical training (excerpt 2)

Throughout the interview Ravi Shankar talks about his desire to bring Indian classical music to new audiences, and reflects on the positive effects of his association with the rock and roll world, including performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (California, U.S.A.) and Woodstock in 1969 (New York, U.S.A.), where the image in this blog was taken. While performances such as these made it possible to reach younger listeners, he also expressed concern about the drinking, smoking and drug taking that took place at such festivals, activities that he thought might undermine the appreciation and enjoyment of the music.

This partially accounts for Ravi Shankar’s subsequent move away from the rock and roll music scene and when Mike Sparrow asks for further clarification, the discussion moves on to what is meant by the term 'classical music'. Their conversation can be heard in the following excerpt from the interview:

Ravi Shankar discusses types of classical music (excerpt 3)

Interview transcript

Later in the interview this theme is explored further in terms of how Western audiences react to their first encounters with classical Indian music and vice versa. Ravi Shankar talks specifically about the greater emphasis on melody and rhythm in Indian classical music, and how this can be disconcerting for listeners who are accustomed to harmony, modulation and dynamics being more central.

Mike Sparrow’s final question concerns Ravi Shankar’s (then) upcoming performance at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.). What might audiences expect? He responds by explaining that he often does not decide on the ragas until shortly before the performance, although avoids starting with a long one in case of latecomers, who might otherwise face waiting outside for up to 45 minutes!

It would not have been possible to share this interview without the kind assistance of Ravi Shankar’s estate, Mike Sparrow’s executor and the BBC. Many recordings of Ravi Shankar’s performances can be accessed at the British Library, as well as his autobiography and other publications describing his life and work. More details on all of this can be found searching British Library catalogues.

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01 April 2021

Guy Brett: Ideas in Motion

One of the more delicate questions we ask our interviewees in a life story interview is how they feel about death. When I posed this question to art writer Guy Brett (1942 – 2021) in 2008, he gave an answer which succinctly encapsulated our own collaborative endeavour in that moment: ‘I believe in human memory. If nobody remembers you, then you’ve gone, but if people remember you, you live on in some form or another […] that is the afterlife’.

Guy had recently returned from a writing residency in New Zealand and was fascinated by Maori culture and their value system. He lingered on the ideas behind Maori attitudes to life informed by their belief in ancestor worship. The Maori people, Guy explained, are conscious all the time of the genealogy of their families and those who are no longer alive: their ancestors have a present quality and are always being invoked, so their sense of the past remains ever present.

At the end of recording Guy’s life story for ‘Art World Professionals’ as part of 'Artists' Lives' [shelf-mark C466-270], I told him that National Life Stories had made a life story recording with his own father, the architect, town planner and writer, Lionel Brett (Lord Esher), for the ‘Architect’s Lives’ archive [shelf-mark C467/14], a decade earlier. Guy found the discovery of his father’s narration of his own life journey profoundly moving. As a thinker, Guy insisted on the clear understanding of the beginnings of things: ‘it’s like a seed’, he said, ‘tracing back to where things originate’. Perhaps this perspective was why the intergenerational exchange of father to son through life story testimony became such a moving moment; through Lionel Brett’s reflections, Guy returned to his own beginnings.

Black and white photo of Guy Brett in front of an art work which is a series of written questions each beginning with 'Is Art?'Guy Brett at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 1975, with part of Lea Lublin’s Question on Art

The Bretts enjoyed tremendous privilege, but they were acutely aware of their sense of responsibility outside themselves. Even though father and son pursued radically different paths in their lives, their recordings testify to a mutual devotion to public service. Guy took the freedoms he inherited and used them deliberately, responsibly: he dedicated his life to championing the work of marginalised artists and worked tirelessly to reorient the art world’s gaze to the innovations and contributions of artists from the Southern Hemisphere.

Sometimes Guy’s concerns meant turning his back on the art world altogether. About his 1986 book, Through our Own Eyes: Popular Art and Modern History, he confesses that ‘my interest in those popular forms were connected not with disillusionment, but a disappointment, with the professional art world […] I wanted to use my writing to make an intervention in the political process through art. It wasn’t to do with any particular political movement. The theme of the book was lived experience—the strange connection between an untutored practice or language dealing with overwhelmingly powerful social experiences’.

In order to pursue the causes in which he ardently believed, Guy had to operate independently. and it was perhaps due to his early life that he had the inner confidence to operate outside of the academy or institution, to shun dominant ideology. In this audio clip, Guy Brett explains how his response to art and artists were in opposition to the forces and mechanics of the art world at large.

Guy Brett on defending artists not recognised by the mainstream (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on defending artists not recognised by the mainstream transcript

Guy’s deliberate choice of ‘unjust’ in his description of neglected artists is significant: justice becomes a kind of leitmotif of Guy’s recording and lies at the heart of his personal motivation. From an early age, he identified his commitment to social justice—but the art world, as he emphatically reminds us, is a very unjust place. In his autobiography, Our Selves Unknown, Lionel Brett described his son as belonging to ‘the generation of Marcusean alienation’—that is, a generation of young people eager to break out of the ‘one dimensionality’ of a culture that meant that people found themselves in the commodities they purchased, not the ideas they thought. Looking at Guy Brett’s lifework, it becomes clear that his choices were informed by political convictions that, in his own words, ‘permeate your whole consciousness: it’s simply the pursuit of some idea of freedom, freedom from oppression’. Guy’s younger brother, the Chilean-based Human Rights activist, Sebastian Brett, observes that ‘the alienation of which my father wrote attracted us both to what in those days was optimistically called ‘The Third World’ […] we romantically identified with its liberation movements, and barely a few years later, with the movement of solidarity with victims of the military repression that swept the continent in the 1970s.’

Black and white photo of four men sitting on the floor mailing a news bulletinGuy Brett (centre) with (from left to right) Paul Keeler, Sergio de Camargo, Christopher Walker and David Medalla mailing the Signals news bulletin from Cornwall Gardens in 1964. © Clay Perry

Guy’s understanding of the social and cultural forces that shape our contemporary moment illuminates his excitement for the promise of a more inclusive, multi-cultural, and cosmopolitan London that was in its infancy as Guy came of age. From his earliest days in professional life, Guy aligned himself with a completely international notion of art and art practice that would undermine an art history predicated on a colonial gaze. He wanted to capture what, in his words, was the ‘extraordinary diversity, which is multi-racial, multi-national, multi-genre, and ebbs and flows with the comings and goings of artists themselves’.

Guy Brett on cultural interchange and national ideology (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on cultural interchange and national ideology transcript

In collaboration with Philippine artist David Medalla and Paul Keeler, Guy helped set up the radical and short-lived Signals Gallery in 1964. This space provided a platform to a host of Brazilian artists—among them, Lygia Clark, Mira Schendel, Sergio Camargo—as well as Venezuelan artists Jesus Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez. While London museums and galleries promoted British formal abstraction and embraced American-oriented material culture, Guy was busy writing about bubble machines made by David Medalla. Generally perceived at the time as mad experiments, these temporal sculptures were, for Guy, a ludic riposte to the new forms in British sculpture: whatever forms the bubble machine made immediately evaporated—thus contradicting the notion of a permanent piece of sculpture. In this next audio clip, Guy articulates his response to seeing kinetic artwork produced by the Greek artist, Takis, for the first time. Guy’s spoken expression captures the sense of quizzical intrigue and excitement with which he received these new forms of art. When the rest of the world caught up several decades later, Guy curated Takis’s retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2019.

Black and white photo of Guy Brett standing upright and holding a magnet towards Takis who is also standing uprightGuy Brett holding a magnet with Greek artist Takis, circa 1964 © Clay Perry

Guy Brett's response to sculpture of Greek artist Takis and his use of magnetism in art (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett’s response to sculpture of Greek artist Takis and his use of magnetism in art transcript

Guy’s receptive sensibility meant that his writing existed in a symbiotic relationship to the artwork he sought to explain. In his recording, Guy describes the process of identification he felt with certain artists when he responded to their work. He explains how Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica’s attitude made so much sense to him that it became ingrained in his own way of looking at things. Guy’s sometimes humourous, always poignant, recounting of organising Oiticica’s groundbreaking 1969 exhibition, the ‘Whitechapel Experience’, in the face of mounting establishment opposition, reminds us of the battles fought by this generation who innovated radical new propositions in art. The panoply of experiences on offer—the staged beach experience; human-sized nesting boxes; and a billiard table that invited the participation of local youths—was a far cry from the self-contained art objects usually on quiet display.

Guy’s lifelong commitment to the path less travelled took courage: an autodidact with no formal training, he enjoyed a curiosity uninhibited by convention. His writing about art drew not on academic jargon but on pre-verbal feelings stimulated by his engagement with both the work and the maker. He cherished intellectual freedom and made unexpected connections between cultures and disciplines—from the lived experience to the interplay of science and mystical philosophy; in his words, ‘All I have learnt about art I learnt from artists and knowing artists and talking with artists and looking at what they did and my own reading’.

Guy Brett on writing and the purpose of art criticism (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on writing and the purpose of art criticism transcript

In keeping with his interest in Maori custom, Guy Brett’s presence will continue to be felt, not only through his finely-wrought prose and quietly radical sensibility, but also through his words as captured by his life story recording, which still have much to teach us if we make the time to listen. The gently probing, deliberately paced and stripped back audio recordings in the National Life Stories archive offer an antidote of resonant, lived reflection: they create a vital space, amongst the digital noise of our twenty-first century lives, for profoundly felt, movingly candid responses to the human condition.

Written by Hester R. Westley.

Hester R. Westley interviewed Guy Brett for the National Life Stories Project Artists’ Lives in 2007-2008. The full life story interview is available for researchers at the British Library and can be found by searching C466/270 at sami.bl.uk The interview with Lionel Brett (Lord Esher) can be listened to online at BL Sounds.