THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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27 January 2020

Recording of the week: Trude Levi and Holocaust liberation

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This week's selection comes from Charlie Morgan, Oral History Archivist.

Today marks Holocaust Memorial Day, as well as the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp. The National Life Stories oral history project ‘Living Memory of the Jewish Community’ includes many Holocaust survivors describing their experience of Auschwitz and of liberation. In this recording of the week Oral History Archivist Charlie Morgan looks at the testimony of Trude Levi.

Trude Levi and her husband Franz, London, 1989. Courtesy of Trude Levi.
Trude Levi and her husband Franz, London, 1989. Courtesy of Trude Levi.

Gertrude Levi (1924-2012) was born in Szombathely, Hungary, the daughter of a Hungarian father and an Austrian mother. Her parents were Jewish, irreligious, and socialist; her father, a gynaecologist, would perform abortions without payment at a time when this could land you in prison. Trude describes Szombathely as “the most antisemitic town in Hungary”, and when Hungary joined the Axis Powers in 1940 life became increasingly difficult for the Levi family. Then in March 1944, fearful that Hungary would abandon the war effort, the German army invaded Hungary.

Prior to 1944 Hungary had passed antisemitic laws, deported thousands of Jews, and been an active ally of the Third Reich, but it was after the German invasion that a concerted attempt was made to implement a ‘Final Solution’. In July, when Trude was twenty, she and her parents were forced into a ghetto, then to a local concentration camp and finally were placed onto a cattle truck and transported out of the country. On 7 July 1944, they arrived at Auschwitz; Trude was immediately separated from her parents and never saw them again.

When it became clear the Allies would win the war, the Nazi regime committed itself to ensuring as little evidence of the Holocaust remained as possible. Trude, like tens of thousands of others, was placed on a death march to Riesa, a town in Saxony, and around her the war effort collapsed:

“Anyway, I didn't, I think I didn't want to die by that time, I mean, the, not that I wanted to die before, but I didn't care. But by that time I, I decided that I really would like to survive, because, I mean, the Russians were here, the Americans were here, you heard them, you knew that it was the end, and you saw the Germans fretting, and so you knew it was the end, so now that was the point where you felt, "Well, there is no point in dying any more. And we won. So, one should remain alive. But I couldn't go on, I couldn't walk on in spite of it, and I knew that I would be shot, but they didn't shoot me, they said, "Dies keine Kugel mehr wert" - "She's not worth a bullet any more", and so they left me on the road, next to the bridge.”

After dragging herself away from the road, Trude managed to hide in a barn before she was liberated by Allied troops. In this recording of the week Trude explains some of complexities of liberation; she was adamant that she would not return to Hungary, but “somehow we were still in Germany”. Furthermore, even though she had escaped from German troops “I wasn’t yet sure whether it was really the end,” and although smoking a cigar “was freedom… I think the real freedom came when I arrived in France, when I felt that I was out of Germany”.

"Everything was still unsure, everything was chaotic”

Trude Levi’s story of liberation is different to other survivors of Auschwitz, but her sentiments are common. While liberation is often presented as a singular, joyful moment it was in reality a lot more complicated and harder to pin to one specific point in time. Trude’s oral history is just one way in which Holocaust survivors have been able to express these experiences in their own words, and even after her death her testimony remains.

Trude Levi was interviewed by Gaby Glassman for Living Memory of the Jewish Community in 1989, and she is featured on the online web resource ‘Voices of the Holocaust’. Her full life story interview can be found on sami.bl.uk, and can be listened to in Reading Rooms at the British Library in St. Pancras or Boston Spa.

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

20 January 2020

Recording of the week: night in a várzea forest by boat

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

Rainforests are noisy places, even after dark. This recording was made in one of the Amazon’s many várzea or floodplain forests, in the dead of night, by wildlife sound recordist Ian Christopher Todd. Based in a boat in the middle of the Amazon River, our recordist found himself surrounded by a cacophony of sound.

Night in a várzea forest recorded by Ian Christopher Todd (BL shelfmark 201326)

Giant Marine Toad

The rattling calls of Giant Marine Toads (Bufo marinus) can be heard alongside the calls of other amphibians. In the distance, unknown sounds emerge from the darkness beyond, creating a multi-layered soundscape. And, as with many recordings of this type, the more you listen the more you’ll hear.

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

30 December 2019

Recording of the week: Wax cylinder recordings of Nigerian music

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This week's selection comes from Dr Janet Topp Fargion, Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music.

Northcote Whitridge Thomas
Northcote Whitridge Thomas

The Library’s World and Traditional Music collections include some of the world’s earliest ethnographic recordings, made on wax cylinders. Amongst these is a collection of recordings made between 1909 and 1915 by the colonial anthropologist, Northcote Whitridge Thomas, during his work in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone. To learn more about the recordings and to engage researchers and original community members with the sounds, the Library has partnered with the ‘Museum Affordances’ project, funded by the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council and led by Paul Basu at SOAS University of London.

As part of the project, Samson Uchenna Eze, musicologist and lecturer in the Department of Music at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, chose some of Thomas' recordings to explore through transcription of the lyrics and music, and through engaging musicians in Nigeria to re-record them.

The song Igbo bu Igbo (Great Igbo) [NWT 417; C51/2277], is a call to Igbo people to remember their identity and ‘return to [their] truthful ways’. Prof. Eze writes: ‘In this song the female singer repeats the phrase [Great Igbo (all Igbo), come and hear the truth] several times and improvises in the internal variation section, calling on neighbouring villages to come and hear the truth’.

Listen to Igbo by Igbo (BL shelfmark C51/2277)

[Re:]Entanglements is the website of the Museum Affordances project. Prof. Eze has written a blog showcasing some of his work with the recordings.

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

20 December 2019

British Library Sports Word Of The Year 2019

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Jonnie Robinson, Lead Curator of Spoken English, writes:

This year marks the sixth annual British Library Sports Word of the Year (SWOTY) review. While I can’t claim it’s a major fixture on the annual awards circuit, six does, at least, have some sporting significance: six games in a tennis set; six pockets on a snooker table; and six cricket balls in an over (well until next year’s Hundred, that is). This annual review takes its inspiration from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY) and various Word of the Year nominations. Firstly, then, congratulations to Ben Stokes for winning SPOTY 2019, and to the equally magnificent Dina Asher-Smith for running him close (actually if they’d had to race there might well have been a different outcome!); and to they and climate emergency for emerging as Word(s) of the Year according to Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries respectively.

And so to the ten candidates for SWOTY 2019, selected from a personal scrapbook of words and phrases that caught my attention on broadcast and social media platforms and in the mainstream press during the last twelve months:

January (Marina Hyde reflecting on the European PGA decision to stage a prestigious golf tournament in Saudi Arabia, Guardian Sport): Understanding the wider issue of sportswashing ought not be beyond your ken, either.

ScrapbookApril (Tanya Aldred previewing the 2019 county cricket season, Guardian Sport): If you thought the tension of Dom Bess’s heave at Ciderabad last September couldn’t be beaten, just watch and wait.

May (Richard Barnes reviewing Tottenham Hotspur’s 2018-19 season, Guardian Sport): Biggest surprise: our ability to find a way in the Champions League against the odds. Very unSpursy.

June (Vic Marks reporting on England versus Afghanistan at ICC Cricket World Cup, Guardian Sport): This made it the six-iest match in World Cup history.

July (Athar Ali Khan analysing bar chart of England’s runs per over versus Bangladesh at ICC Cricket World Cup, Sky Sports): Look at those big overs in the middle Manhattans.

August (Phil Tufnell reflecting on fading light during England versus Australia Lord’s Test, BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra): It’s getting a bit Noah’s out here.

September (Paul Farbrace describing outgoing England coach Trevor Bayliss, BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra): He absolutely loves the game ... he's a cricket nuffy.

September (Jamie Jackson describing James Maddison’s performance for Leicester City against Manchester United, Guardian Sport): Maddison could be spied in the classic trequartista position.

October (Sean Ingle quoting Daryll Neita’s assessment of World Athletics 200m champion Dina Asher-Smith, Guardian Sport): She’s a G. You are doing bits, darling.

November (Gerard Meagher quoting Siya Kolisi’s comments on the impact of South Africa’s triumph at IRB Rugby World Cup, Guardian Sport): We appreciate all the support – people in the taverns, in the shebeens, farms, homeless people and people in the rural areas.

This year’s list namechecks five sports with one entry each for golf, athletics and rugby union; two for football; and five for cricket. The dominance of cricket can probably be attributed to England’s triumphant World Cup on home soil and to the fact it represents an extremely rich source of innovative and specialist terminology. As ever, the selection illustrates a range of linguistic phenomena and encompasses dialect, slang and jargon; it includes a loan word; and, for the first time, examples of the potential of morphological creativity. Of the ten nominations, seven straddle the blurred lines between sporting jargon (i.e. specialised vocabulary), dialect (i.e. localised variants) and slang (i.e. informal forms): sportswashing, Ciderabad, unSpursy, six-iest, Manhattan, nuffy and trequartista. The other three occupy a similarly undefined position on the dialect-slang continuum but are not restricted to sporting contexts: Noah’s, do bits and shebeen; they qualify, however, as they demonstrate how sporting discourse in the press and on broadcast and social media – especially interviews with athletes, live commentaries etc. – gives vernacular English a mainstream platform.

In the light of increased corporate sponsorship of sport and the expansion to new territories of prestigious international sporting events it’s not surprising that sportswashing [= ‘a strategy whereby a nation or corporation leverages sport to enhance its reputation’] has made the headlines this year. Sport frequently serves as a legitimate tool for soft diplomacy, but sportswashing – recorded in the MacMillan Dictionary from 2018 – describes a deliberate policy of harnessing sport’s popular appeal and wholesome image to deflect criticism from a regime or company’s corrupt or unethical behaviour.

From a British point of view we might justifiably consider nuffy [= ‘person with particular passion/obsession’] Australian dialect, but the Macquarie Dictionary categorises it as ‘colloquial’ and even includes cricket nuffy as one of its examples of typical usage. Likewise, shebeen [= ‘illicit drinking den (esp. in South African townships)’] is classified as South African English in the OED. Both forms demonstrate the ‘World Englishes’ dimension of cricket and rugby as sports predominantly played in Commonwealth countries, as does the initially puzzling Ciderabad [= ‘Somerset County Cricket ground, Taunton’]. This is a wonderful example of wordplay containing multiple layers of cultural reference and requires considerable knowledge of cricket to deconstruct and interpret. Firstly, one needs to know that Taunton and Somerset, in the heart of England’s West Country, are synonymous with cider production and consumption and, secondly, that cricket pitches there have recently been unusually receptive to spin bowling. Finally, one needs to be familiar with cricket in the subcontinent, where pitches – such as the Test ground at Hyderabad in India – are traditionally associated with dry, dusty conditions ideally suited to spin bowling. To capture all that implicit knowledge in a single word is pure genius.

Two entries reveal a similar kind of linguistic playfulness, but rather than exploiting a phonological association, unSpursy and six-iest require imaginative grammatical manipulation. For many years, Tottenham Hotspur – nicknamed Spurs – have played attractive football but ultimately failed to win trophies, despite frequently coming agonisingly close. As a result many football fans, including Tottenham’s own supporters, have adopted the word Spursy [= ‘the tendency to falter when within reach of success’], such that it has attracted the attention of Collins Dictionary. As an adjective, Spursy adheres to normal English rules of derivation so additional forms can be generated. In this year’s Guardian I’ve spotted the noun Spursiness – note the adherence to English orthography in the substitution of a medial <i> for the adjectival suffix <y> – and, here, unSpursy, with its cheeky nod to the non-conformist conventions of e-publishing whereby a capital letter (denoting the underlying proper noun, Spurs) appears word-medially. On the other hand, six-iest [= ‘match with the highest total number of boundary sixes’] is a nonce-formation based on the number six with an unconventional superlative suffix added. The inspiration here is, I suspect, similar idiosyncratic sporting superlatives – to British English speakers anyway – such as US English winningest [= ‘individual athlete/team with the most victories’], but with the additional appeal of a phonological similarity with sexiest, capturing the notion that a game featuring such a high number of risky shots must be the most exciting and glamorous.

The term Manhattan appears to be widely used among cricket statisticians and commentators, and thus probably constitutes cricketing jargon. Modern sports analysis relishes a data visualisation tool and cricket has embraced this technological development enthusiastically. The wagon wheel [= ‘visual representation of direction of batsman’s run-scoring shots’] has been around for some time, but until this year’s ICC World Cup I was completely unaware of the Manhattan [= ‘bar chart showing rate of progress by runs per over’] and its counterpart, the worm [= ‘line chart showing rate of progress by runs per over’]. I’d be intrigued to know if either term is used by mathematicians more broadly.

Manhattan
Due to the prominent role played by the British in codifying football, English dominates much of its associated specialist terminology so it’s rare for non-English words to enter football jargon, hence the inclusion here of the Italian loan word trequartista [= ‘attacking midfielder, playmaker’]. The greater presence in recent years of European footballers and coaches in the UK has meant an increased appetite for European tactics and, hence, the vocabulary to describe these innovations. In addition to trequartista, Guardian articles have this year featured the words rondo [= ‘training drill in which players seek to keep possession of the ball in an enclosed space’], regista [= ‘deep-lying midfield playmaker’] and raumdeuter [= ‘player who reads (and exploits) tight spaces’], from Spanish, Italian and German respectively. All three appear in numerous online glossaries of football and – more importantly – in spontaneous conversations about the game among English fans.

Finally, we turn to two slang terms: Noah’s and do bits. The former confirms our enduring enthusiasm for rhyming slang – Noah’s is, underlyingly, Noah’s ark [= ‘dark’], but the conventions of rhyming slang dictate that the rhyming element (ark) is omitted. Green's Dictionary of Slang records Noah’s [= ‘lark, prank’] from 1891; [= ‘park’] from 1924; and (in Australian English) [= ‘shark’] from 1963, but has no record in this sense, while the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2006) records Noah’s ark [= ‘dark’] from 1934 – coincidentally including a citation from 1992 in a cricketing context. The endlessly productive and light-hearted nature of rhyming slang explains its continued appeal. The quote from Daryll Neita, by contrast, is a fantastic example of current British urban slang: do bits [= ‘to do well, to succeed’] is first recorded by Green in 2017 – Dary’lls use of G [= ‘term of praise’] in the same breath, by the way, is also cited from 1991.

All of this year’s entries are captured in The British Library’s Contemporary British collections, making the Library an incomparable resource for anyone interested in monitoring vernacular language. And so to the winner: well … my head tells me it should be sportswashing as I sense sports governing bodies should respond to calls for greater social responsibility, but hey – it’s Christmas – so I’m going with Ciderabad. Because it’s brilliant.

CIDERABADFollow Spoken English collections at https://twitter.com/VoicesofEnglish

 

24 October 2019

Private Montford's army record

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Those of you who visited last year's British Library exhibition 'Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound' will remember a small display of one-of-a-kind voice-recording discs originally made by the public in coin-operated automatic booths.

Among these was a single 'Voices of the Forces' disc, loaned to us, like the other discs in this section, by the broadcaster Alan Dein.

The 'Voices of the Forces' scheme, which was inaugurated in April 1945, enabled members of the Forces to send messages home to their families. Each recording cost one shilling and ninepence, and the sender spoke into a microphone resembling a hand telephone, while the record was cut at a NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) club by a Sergeant recordist. The discs were 5" (12.5 cm) in diameter and played at 78 rpm, so were quite limited in duration.

Voices of the Forces disc
Until this year, the Library had no good examples of these discs (although there must still be many out there in private hands) so we were delighted to be contacted by Piran Montford, who offered as a donation an original 1945 disc featuring his father Adrian Raphael Montford (aka 'Monty'), complete with its original mailing envelope. Although the disc was damaged, our head audio engineer Robert Cowlin was able to digitize and restore the recording.

Adrian Montford, now aged 96, had not heard the recording since he was a young man. He didn’t remember the contents, but suspected he still retained a strong Australian accent (he was born in London, but raised in Melbourne, Australia, before he returned with his family to live in Sutton in 1938).

The disc was recorded in either North Africa or Palestine in September 1945 and was posted home to his mother in Sutton.

Voices of the Forces disc envelope
The son of the sculptor Paul Raphael Montford, Adrian studied at Sutton Art School and then entered the Royal Academy, London, to study painting, and later sculpture

After the war broke out, Adrian joined the Home Guard in Sutton. He was called up on his 18th birthday, and served the entire war as a Private in the East Surrey Regiment.

Adrian was injured by a mine in the first battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, and developed gas gangrene. He had penicillin injected directly into his leg, a very early use of the medicine. In an Evening Argus interview from 17 September 2006, Adrian described his war experiences as '...traumatic, but all wars are traumatic. I didn't expect to survive.'

The end of the war in 1945 found Adrian in Palestine. While in Palestine, he took two flights to Florence, Italy, to study the art there. It was around this time he made the postal record of his voice.

Listen to Adrian Montford in 1945

Adrian was retained in the army for at least a year after the outbreak of peace. He was moved to Greece (see photo below of him taking a break from directing traffic on Chalkida's Old Bridge near Athens). He ended up driving for a sergeant who patrolled the local brothels throwing out soldiers.

Adrian Montford resting from conducting traffic on Chalkida's Old Bridge  Greece  1945

After being demobbed, Adrian returned to study at the Royal Academy in London.  

In 1951, he was awarded a 1st Landseer Prize of £20 and silver medal for a composition in sculpture. His first attempt to win the Prix de Rome led to a Picture Post magazine cover photo of the sculpture being cast. He attempted again, and in 1954 won the Prix de Rome for Buddha’s Sermon on the Flower.

Adrian went to study at the British School in Rome for two years. He returned from Italy to London, riding his Lambretta scooter over the Alps. Upon his return, he applied for a driving licence. A period of teaching at Sutton Art School and at Folkestone Art School followed.

Adrian taught sculpture for over 30 years at St Martin’s School of Art, with colleagues such as Anthony Caro and David Annesley, under the headship of Frank Martin; at this time, it was the one of the most famous sculpture departments in the world.

In August 1962, he married Selma Hope Nankivell (1934-), an artist and art lecturer. She became involved in preserving Brighton’s heritage, and was granted an MBE for this in 2006. They moved to Brighton in July 1965 with a young family to a house with a large garden. His life passion has been gardening, planting many of the trees to be found in the street. They still live in the same house 54 years later in 2019.

Adrian came out of retirement to teach life drawing at the Royal College of Art, London, ca. 1990, for some years, and he appeared on ITV’s South Bank Show around the same time, and in an article in The Times of 5 February 1991. He exhibited at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition, continued to paint and make prints, and in later life, has been increasingly drawn to pottery.

Adrian has been a keen gardener, and although now more frail, he still takes great pleasure in the beautiful garden he has created. The photo below, taken by his son Piran Montford, shows Adrian in his garden studio, surrounded by both his sculpture and plants.

Adrian Montford in his studio  2019 - photo by Piran Montford

With grateful thanks to Piran Montford for the biographical information incorporated in this piece, and to Robert Cowlin for making the digital transfer of the disc.

16 July 2019

Magnetic Tape Alert Project

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The Magnetic Tape Alert Project is an initiative of the Information for All Programme (IFAP) Working Group on Information Preservation.

Magnetic tape formats and replay equipment are dying out. Photo: Bernhard Graf, Vienna Phonogrammarchiv
Photo: Bernhard Graf, Vienna Phonogrammarchiv

 

Today’s knowledge of the linguistic and cultural diversity of humanity is widely based on magnetic tape recordings produced over the past 60 years. Magnetic audio and video tape formats are now obsolete, replay equipment in working condition is disappearing rapidly and the supply and service of spare parts is fading. As a result, the routine transfer of magnetic tape recordings is likely to cease around 2025. The only way to preserve these sounds and images in the long term, and to keep them accessible for future generations, is to digitize them and transfer to them to safe digital repositories.

While many professional memory institutions have already secured their audiovisual holdings, or have plans to do so in time, a great number of audio and video recordings are still in their original state, kept in small academic or cultural institutions, or in private hands.

With the Magnetic Tape Alert Project, the Information for All Programme (IFAP) of UNESCO, in cooperation with the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA), aims to alert stakeholders to the imminent risk of losing access to their audiovisual documents.

Part of this is to conduct a survey, focusing on unique recordings, to assess the scale of the risk. The information obtained through the survey will serve as a basis for future planning for the safeguarding of these irreplaceable original documents in the long-term. Information gathered will be used to compile a report that will be made publicly available.

For further information and to respond to the questionnaire, please go to the project website.

Deadline for completion: 30 September 2019

The project coordinator, Andrew Pace, can be contacted at: MTAP@iasa-web.org

IFAP logo IASA logo

11 March 2019

Recording of the week: Sora song

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

The Sora people, are one of the oldest communities known in India. They are mainly situated in the hilly border area of the east Indian states Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Sora live on the hill slopes just below the remaining forests and in the valleys relatively isolated from the surrounding communities. The Sora habitats are mainly surrounded by Hindu Telugu (south Indian) and Oriya (north Indian) communities. The language of the Sora belongs to the Austro-Asiatic (Mundabranch) language group. The centre of the Sora life within the traditional groups is their traditional belief system of ancestor worship.

Christianity, especially in the form of Baptism (brought in by North American missionaries) made a big impact on Sora villages in Orissa. Less than fifty percent of Sora describe themselves as Hindu, which means they regard their traditional belief system – ancestor worship – as being part of Hinduism. The most important spiritual experts are kudan (mainly women), kudan-boi (women) and kudan-mar (men). Using elaborate rituals, dance and music performances, these experts are able to communicate with the deceased.

All Sora traditional music forms are more or less related to the religious rituals as performed individually or at festivals. Ancestor festivals are celebrated either immediately after the death of one person or after a longer time for several people. Therefore the intricate ritualistic festival Gu-ahr, consisting mainly of funeral stone planting and buffalo sacrifices, is usually performed for all ancestors who died in the previous 13 years.

Vocal music is mainly unaccompanied and the majority of performers are women. For each song one singer leads and the other singers follow with a slight delay. The women sing in a guttural raspy voice and use slight melismatic effects. Sometimes singers are accompanied by the gogoray fiddle, the two-string lute jenjurangrai, or the tiriduy flute. All ancestor rituals require certain lengthy mantras to be performed before the medium falls into trance and is able to hold a dialogue with the deceased.

Sora singers
Lakamma and Masalamma, two Sora priestesses and singers by Rolf Killius. © Rolf Killius. Image not licensed for reuse.

025M-RKDATX0004XX-0100V0

Ethnomusicologist Rolf Killius made this recording of two Sora priestesses in January 2001, inside the mud-thatched house of Mr. Jageya in the village Soyala Guda in the Srikakulam district, Andhra Pradesh state, India. In the following paragraph, Killius provides us with some contextual information about this mesmerising recording –

Lakkama from the indigenous Sora community first sings solo. Later her co-priestess, Masalamma joins in. Joining means she follows her slightly delayed, just for a fraction of a second. This exciting style of vocal music is - to my knowledge - unique in Indian Music. Indeed the Sora community are unique. They live along the border of the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and the North Indian state Odisha. This is also the border where the south Indian meet the north Indian language speakers. More peculiar is the fact that these two women speak and sing in Sora, a language belonging to the Austro-Asiatic language group. The style remotely reminds oneself of the way in which in Karnatic Music, the art music of South India, the instrumentalist, usually the violin player, follows the singer. When I asked the two Sora priestesses to elaborate on their style, they couldn’t understand my question. For them this is the ‘typical’ Sora music style, practised since the time immemorial. This piece celebrates the green (unripe) mango festival. Similar songs trigger these priestesses to fall into trance and in this condition are able to speak with their long-gone ancestors.

You can listen to more recordings of the Sora in the Music in India collection on British Library Sounds.

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

 

29 October 2018

Recording of the week: a high fidelity direct recording

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This week's selection comes from audio engineer Robert Cowlin.

Instantaneous lacquer discs frequently contain unique or rare recordings and, due to the instability of their sound carrying layer, are a preservation priority at the British Library Sound Archive. Also known as acetate discs, they generally consist of a metal substrate coated in a lacquer of cellulose nitrate which is modulated by a cutting stylus. The process is still in use today, comprising the first step in the manufacture of vinyl records. Many of the lacquers in the British Library’s collection were cut ‘on demand’ – direct to disc from radio broadcasts for patrons by independent cutters, such as W. H. Troutbeck of Twickenham. Today’s disc contains excerpts from “Visions of Saint Godric”, by Peter Crossley-Holland, cut on 17 October 1959.

Photograph of a Troutbeck lacquer disc cut on 17 October 1959

Cellulose nitrate degrades continuously over time, as it reacts with water vapour and oxygen, resulting in the eventual shrinkage of the lacquer layer. As the metal substrate cannot shrink, the lacquer cracks and flakes off resulting in the inevitable and irreversible loss of the sound carrying layer, hence their preservation priority status.

Lacquers from the 1950s onwards can be played like any other microgroove disc, with a lightweight elliptical or line contact pickup tracking at around 1.5 grams. Coarse groove lacquers also exist, so playback parameters may need to be modified to accommodate a wider groove. Test with a microgroove stylus first though.

This disc was cleaned in an ultrasonic bath using a solution of 1 parts photographic wetting agent to 70 parts deionised water. Like shellac discs, lacquers should not be cleaned with alcohol. Some instantaneous discs were coated with gelatine rather than cellulose nitrate. Gelatine reacts badly when exposed to water. I always perform a patch test on a non-modulated area before cleaning. Apart from digitising, one should avoid playing lacquer discs due to their fragility.

The disc in question is in very good condition considering its age, with no signs of delamination and only minor scuffing, it retains its deep shine when held to the light. Apart from some pops and intermittent surface noise, the sound quality is excellent. I’ve chosen a short passage that highlights the format’s ability to convey low-level detail – listen out for the audience!

Excerpt from Visions of Saint Godric by Peter Crossley-Holland (BL shelfmark 1LS0001183)

I’m giving a presentation on signal extraction from lacquer discs at this year’s British & Irish Sound Archives conference at the National Library of Wales on 17 November. More information about the conference can be found at http://www.bisa-web.org/next-event

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