Sound and vision blog

5 posts from July 2021

23 July 2021

Persian choral album surfaces after four decades in limbo

Choral Music from Persia CD coverCD cover courtesy of Persian Dutch Network

Guest blog by Pejman Akbarzadeh

In 1973, the Empress of Persia, Farah Pahlavi, commissioned the choral conductor Evlin Baghcheban to establish a conservatory of music for orphaned children. In this school, Baghcheban organised a choral group called the Farah Choir. The group gave regular concerts throughout the country and in the autumn of 1978 went to Austria to record their debut album. A number of fascinating Persian folk songs were recorded in Vienna, with a plan to release them in Tehran. However, the victory of the Islamic Revolution disrupted all plans, the choir was dissolved, and its conductor went into exile. 

The master tapes of the 1978 recording session remained silent at Baghcheban's house for decades. The name of the choral group 'Farah' was a reference to the name of the former queen of Persia, so releasing an album under her name was out of question in post-revolutionary Iran. However, shortly after the death of Baghcheban the tapes were transferred to Holland, where they were restored and released by the Persian Dutch Network.

This recording has a key historical value for Persian choral music. It features the first attempt, by Ruben Gregorian (1915-1991), to arrange Persian folk songs for a Western-style choir. Gregorian published the scores of his arrangements in Tehran in 1948, but recordings of his work were not previously available internationally. In his arrangements, he tried to be as faithful as possible to the original melodies, with no intention of changing or developing any part. The rest of the songs in the Farah Choir's recording were arranged by one of the next generation of Persian composers, Samin Baghcheban (1925-2008), husband of Evlin. His style is very different, showing more interest in the use of folk melodies as a starting idea, then developed using various compositional methods. He uses imitation and drone in his arrangements as well.

The British magazine Songlines has featured a four-star review for the recording and Empress Farah has expressed delight that the 1978 recording has been preserved and become available after four decades. The album "Choral Music from Persia" plays a crucial role to raise public awareness of a little known genre in music.

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19 July 2021

Recording of the week: Louis Moholo-Moholo’s first encounters with jazz

This week’s selection comes from Charmaine Wong, Digital Learning Manager for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

This week we take a look at an interview with legendary jazz drummer, Louis Moholo-Moholo.

Drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo performingSouth African drummer and free jazz musician Louis Moholo-Moholo during a concert at the House of World Cultures (Berlin, germany). Photo by Thielker / ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Born in Cape Town, 1940, Moholo-Moholo has had an illustrious jazz career spanning over 50 years. He is known for his influential band, The Blue Notes, formed with Chris McGregor, Johnny Dyani, Nikele Moyake, Mongezi Feza and Dudu Pukwana in 1960s Cape Town. Leaving South Africa to tour Europe in 1964, the sextet was characterised by their experimental and creative approach to the genre, establishing themselves as one of the most important free jazz bands of the time.

Forming a band like this under an apartheid government had its challenges, not least because Blue Notes was an interracial band during a time of segregationist policies. Also, the state of emergency imposed by the government in 1960 limited the number of people in gatherings to four. As a sextet, this was risky – and Moholo-Moholo has stated in past interviews that he would sometimes play behind a curtain when the band met.

Extract of Louis Moholo-Moholo interviewed by Denys Baptiste [BL REF C122/376]

Read the transcript for the interview.

In this extract, Moholo-Moholo provides insight into his formative musical education. His early encounters of rhythm came from running his ruler against a fence on his way home from school. The influence came from BBC Radio, playing from the naval base in Cape Town, featuring American greats such as Charlie Parker, Sid Catlett, Ted Heath and Duke Ellington. Although jazz had reached South Africa in the early 20th century, the local scene was dominated by local media controlled by the white minority.

Who could have imagined that a ruler and BBC Radio would help unlock the raw talent of Louis Moholo-Moholo?

This recording comes from the Oral History of Jazz in Britain Collection digitised by the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. It can be found alongside treasures from the sound archive, featured on our brand new website, History of Recorded Sound. Visit the site to discover more.

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

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

05 July 2021

‘Violence, shock, life’: the sounds of Pierre Boulez’s formative years

Pierre Boulez (1968)Pierre Boulez (1968)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Dr Caroline Potter

Pierre Boulez was one of the most important musicians of the 20th and early 21st centuries. His own music is often considered forbiddingly cerebral, not least because musicologists have tended to focus on its construction, but I contend that the French literary and broader intellectual context was at least as important to the composer as musical techniques such as serialism. My research project, generously supported in 2020-21 by a British Library Edison Fellowship, uncovers the crucial impact of this context on Boulez, enhancing our understanding of his work and leading towards a more visceral, emotional response to his work.

Boulez’s reputation as the ‘angry young man’ of European modern music followed him for the rest of his long life. He was angry because music mattered hugely to him. Of course, this anger sprang from his rejection of the conservative French musical culture of his youth, from a desire to wipe the slate clean after the horrors of World War II, and surely also from his rejection of senior male role models, including his father who wanted him to train as an engineer. But, more profoundly, this violence and anger has striking parallels in Parisian artistic culture of the 1930s and 40s, and specifically from artists broadly connected with surrealism.

Antonin Artaud 1926Antonin Artaud (1926)

 One of the most important figures in Boulez’s artistic evolution was Antonin Artaud (1897-1948). He is best known today for writings including The Theatre and its Double, but for Boulez, Artaud was not primarily a cultural theoretician, but a performing artist whose work only truly existed live. It was Paule Thévenin, Artaud’s friend and later his literary executor, who introduced Artaud’s work to Boulez (she later also edited a collection of Boulez’s writings). Artaud’s final public performance took place at the Galerie Loeb in Paris in July 1947, where he read some of his texts surrounded by an exhibition of his drawings. This was an intimate space; ‘Boulez and his friends had to sit in front of the first row of chairs, and they found themselves almost ‘under’ the voice of Artaud when he was reading.’[1] Being within spitting distance of Artaud, still a charismatic performer despite his much reduced physical condition, was an experience that Boulez never forgot. Towards the end of his life, he recalled that Artaud’s performance ‘made an impression on me because what initially seemed to make no sense suddenly made sense very strongly.’[2]

Few Artaud recordings survive: there are copies of Aliénation et la magie noire (1946) and Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) in the British Library. In Pour en finir… Artaud pushes his voice to its very limits;

Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) extract

through the extremes of expression, register and dynamics, he sought to transcend the limitations of human utterances. Listening to Artaud’s vocal performance alongside the final movement of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata played by Maurizio Pollini, with its aggressive performance directions such as ‘pulvériser le son’, shows that they both inhabit a sound world where no holds are barred.

Boulez Piano Sonata No.2 extract

In the 1920s, Artaud was briefly associated with André Breton, the self-appointed leader of the surrealist movement. The French surrealist circle was a pluridisciplinary environment whose members had wide-ranging artistic and intellectual interests. Often these coexisted in one publication, as in the reviews Documents and Minotaure, whose pages provide a complete portrait of contemporary surrealism, from psychoanalytical studies of delirium to images provoking new ideas through incongruous juxtapositions. And Breton himself frequently combined photography, autobiography and fiction in a single publication; he also had a strong interest in ethnography and amassed an impressive collection of non-Western and esoteric objects.

One obvious connection between Breton’s stories – one that was particularly resonant for Boulez – is the recycling of the last phrase of his novella Nadja (1928), ‘La beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas’ (Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be). At the end of ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, a short story published in Minotaure in 1934, we read this extension: ‘La beauté convulsive sera érotique-voilée, explosante-fixe, magique-circonstancielle ou ne sera pas’ (Convulsive beauty will be erotic-veiled, exploding-fixed, magic-circumstantial or it will not be).[3] Convulsive beauty is a physical shock, an instant unmediated reaction which has the power to reunite supposed opposites. It provokes profound sensations instantaneously which according to Breton, ‘could not come to us via ordinary logical paths.’

‘La beauté sera convulsive’ is illustrated by a photo by Man Ray captioned ‘explosante-fixe’: a female dancer wearing a full skirt and sleeves, perhaps a flamenco dancer in a trance, captured in a freeze frame with her arms, sleeves and skirt suspended in mid-whirling motion. This fleeting instant captured on film exemplifies ‘convulsive beauty.’ Images, it is suggested, are superior to words as conduits of convulsive beauty, provoking as they do an instant, unmediated reaction. And moving beyond Breton, I contend that music has an even stronger power to convey convulsive beauty. Music can only exist in time and in sound; its action on our senses is literally ‘moving.’ Unlike Breton, the Belgian composer André Souris, a friend and early supporter of Boulez, understood the unique power of music; he believed that ‘the language of music was more apt than any other to faithfully relay the deepest feelings’ and that music was ‘perhaps the medium most suited to surrealist expression.’[4]

The impact of surrealism on Boulez has been underplayed: most obviously, he used a Breton fragment, …explosante-fixe…, as the title of several related works in the 1970s-90s, and this fusion of apparent opposites – explosion and stasis – is a highly apt metaphor for his music. A recording of an early version conducted by Boulez at the Proms on 17 August 1973, when compared with later versions, shows that its musical identity remained remarkably stable. This extract was recycled in later iterations of …explosante-fixe…, including the offshoot Mémoriale (1985).

Explosante Fixe (1973) extract

In a letter to Souris written in 1947, Boulez wrote that his music was about ‘violence, shock, life’ and he believed ‘this is what is most lacking, it seems to me, in every work by the serial “school”.’[5] In the work of Artaud and Breton, Boulez discovered the ‘violence, shock, life’ which is the defining characteristic of his first compositions.

[1] Sarah Barbedette, ‘Différentes façons d’être voyant’ in Barbedette (ed.) Pierre Boulez [exhibition catalogue]. Paris: Actes Sud, 2015: pp. 23-37, at p. 25: ‘Boulez et ses amis doivent s’asseoir devant le premier rang de chaises, et c’est presque « sous » la voix d’Antonin Artaud qu’ils se trouvent lorsque celui-ci profère ses poèmes.’

[2] François Meïmoun, Pierre Boulez: La Naissance d’un compositeur. Paris: Aedam musicae, 2010, p. 59: ‘[…] ce qui n’avait initialement aucun sens prenait d’un coup un sens, et un sens très fort.’

[3] André Breton, ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, in Minotaure, 5 (May 1934): pp. 8-16, at p. 16.

[4] Cited in Robert Wangermée, André Souris et le complexe d’Orphée. Entre surréalisme et musique sérielle, Liège, Mardaga (1995), p. 6; ‘la matière musicale était plus propre qu’aucune autre à épouser fidèlement les mouvements intérieurs […] [la musique constituait ‘peut-être le moyen le plus conforme aux démonstrations surréalistes.’

[5] Wangermée (1995), p. 272; ‘Boulez disait ensuite ce qu’apportait sa propre musique: la violence, le choc, la vie. “C’est ce qui manque le plus, me semble-t-il, à toutes les œuvres de ‘l’école’ atonale”, ajoutait-il.’

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Recording of the week: A hibernating dormouse

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

You'd be hard pressed to find anything cuter than a sleeping dormouse. This tiny little rodent can spend up to seven months of the year asleep, moving between a state of hibernation and torpor (deep sleep) before reawakening when the weather is warm enough.

Hibernating dormice

The following recording was made over 50 years in London by wildlife sound recordist Lawrence Shove. In it we can hear the rhythmic high-pitched calls of a dormouse fast asleep, oblivious to the activity around it.

Common Dormouse calls during hibernation recorded in London England on 11 April 1966 (BL REF 104845)

Common Dormouse calls during hibernation, recorded in London, England on 11 April 1966 (BL REF 104845)

This recording is part of a much larger collection of British wildlife recorded by Shove during the 1960s and 1970s. The collection has recently been preserved through the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project and will soon be available online.

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

01 July 2021

The NHS at 73

A black and white photo of three people standing over a woman in a bedAnenurin Bevan, Minister of Health, on the first day of the National Health Service, 5 July 1948 at Park Hospital, Davyhulme, near Manchester. Courtesy of University of Liverpool/Wikimedia

On the 5th July 2021 the National Health Service reaches its 73rd Birthday. In a year where the NHS is still at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic, its importance resonates more than ever across the UK. It is timely and exciting then that a large collection of interviews is currently being deposited at the British Library from the University of Manchester’s 'NHS at 70' Project. Led by Professor Stephanie Snow and Dr Angela Whitecross, and involving a dynamic and committed team of staff and volunteers, initially the project was set up in 2017 to commemorate the 70th birthday of the NHS (funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund), recording first hand experiences, memories and reflections of NHS staff, patients and members of the public. The project has now gone far beyond that initial collecting remit, and through a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (part of the UKRI Covid-19 Urgency call) interviews have continued remotely as 'NHS Voices of Covid-19' in order to capture the voices of those at the forefront of the pandemic. All the interviews are now being archived at the British Library as ‘Voices of Our National Health Service’ and together they provide both a history of the health service and invaluable documentation of a period in which the NHS has faced unprecedented challenges.

The clips below are all selected from pre Covid-19 interviews. This is partly because interviews undertaken during the pandemic have not yet been deposited at the British Library (this will start in August 2021) but also because now, more than ever, it is important to reflect on the long history of the NHS and remember the many ways it has been an integral part of life in the UK for the past 73 years.

A number of interviews in the collection provide an insight into life before the formation of the NHS and the era of free health care. In this first clip, Megan Fox (interviewed in 2018) recalls her family's connections with ‘the father of the NHS’ Aneurin Bevan and the Tredegar Medical Aid Society; the society was used by Bevan as a model for the National Health Service.

Megan Fox (C1887/77) © University of Manchester

Megan Fox Transcript

In this next chosen clip, interviewee Janine McKnight-Cowan (interviewed in 2018) describes the reasons why even at a young age she wanted to become a nurse.

Janine McKnight-Cowan (C1887/164) © University of Manchester

Janine McKnight-Cowan Transcript

Many interviewees talk about the importance of migrants to the NHS workforce and Dr Punam Krishan’s interview from 2019 is no exception. Dr Krishan (interviewed in 2019) describes attending an exhibition at the Royal College of General Practitioners ‘Migrants who made the NHS’ (a 2018 exhibition to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the NHS) which focused on Doctors from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Dr Krishan expresses her pride in seeing her family doctor featured in the exhibition.

Dr Punam Krishan (C1887/53) © University of Manchester

Punam Krishan Transcript

In this final clip, Jill Watson (interviewed at the end of 2018) a peer flu vaccinator interviewed in 2018, talks (with somewhat spooky foresight) about what she thinks a large scale pandemic would mean for the NHS.

Jill Watson (C1887/166) © University of Manchester

Jill Watson Transcript

What became clear early on in cataloguing this collection is the pride that the UK has in its National Health Service, whether that be from staff or patients. Gratification and thanks for the NHS feature in practically all of the interviewees’ closing words. Hopefully, these clips give a taste of what is to come from the 'Voices of Our National Health Service' collection and demonstrate just some of the ways the NHS has impacted life in the UK over the last 73 years.

Blog by Hannah Tame, Oral History Cataloguer NHS Voices of Covid-19. With thanks to our colleagues at the University of Manchester.

Voices of Our National Health Service can be found by searching C1887 at the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.