Experience a new sound installation, 'Breathe in, Breathe out', in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library. The project looks at the positive effects of sound on well-being and relaxation. It is the first in a series of new initiatives in the Treasures Gallery, exploring innovative ways of working and engaging with diverse audiences. It runs until Sunday, 26 November 2023. The gallery is free to enter.
We have installed an open-walled structure with dimmed lighting and comfy seating, which provides a cosy space for visitors to relax and unwind. A calming, dreamlike soundscape plays on an endless loop. The mix blends spoken word, music, wildlife, and environmental sounds. All the sounds are drawn from the Library's collection.
A visitor looks at the 'Breathe in, Breathe out' tracklist—photo by Simon Leach Design.
Relaxation starts with conscious breathing. The title 'Breathe in, Breathe out' encourages listeners to take a deep breath and focus on the present moment. Nature sounds transport us to peaceful places, offering tranquillity amidst daily distractions. Dreams and dreamscapes also feature, highlighting the importance of rest and recovery. Research shows that we activate different parts of the brain when we listen to music. The impact of sound on our bodies is significant, particularly when it comes to our emotions, memories, and movement. It influences our breathing, heart rate, and mood.
The soundscape is mixed for 8-channel playback, creating an immersive surround-sound experience. The mix juxtaposes calming sounds with hints of suspense. Key elements include 'Jetsun Mila' by Éliane Radigue, inspired by the 11th-century Tibetan yogi and poet Milarepa. There are poems by Langston Hughes, W. S. Graham, and Caroline Bergvall. The music covers a broad spectrum of gentle tones, including the delicate notes of water bowls performed by Tomoko Sauvage and the eerie sounds of 'Iká' by Skull Mask, played by Gosha Shtasel, who created the mix and is one of the British Library's sound engineers. You can explore the entire tracklist on one of the display walls.
Two women fill out feedback forms—photo by Eva del Rey.
Curating this mix has been an enjoyable experience, as sound and well-being are topics of particular interest to me. We wanted to provide a serene space for visitors to pause and recharge. We also sought to improve how sound is showcased in the Treasures Gallery, pushing the limits of our traditional displays. Surround sound offers an immersive sensory journey that has transformed the gallery space. Listening together cultivates a sense of relaxation, and connection, enhancing our general well-being. Each listener brings their unique perspective and emotions, yet we find common ground in the soothing embrace of sound.
Feedback is encouraged. Responses so far tell us that listeners feel captivated, as if they were part of a movie, with most finding it soothing and some even finding it stirring. It is an effortless and refreshing experience. The display highlights the power of sound to create a peaceful escape and a transformative experience for all who engage with it.
The British Library holds over 6.5 million recordings, ranging from spoken word to music, wildlife and environmental sounds. You can learn more about our sound collections on our Sounds subject web page and at British Library Sounds online.
This post was written by Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings.