THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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3 posts categorized "Artist in Residence"

13 October 2020

Making of: The Unearthed Odyssey

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Written by AWATE, Artist-in-Residence for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. 

In 2019-20, I was the Artist-in-Residence at the British Library Sound Archive for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. I was tasked with creatively using the sounds (up to 7 million!) in order to showcase the recordings in the collections. I decided to focus on the topic of migration and over the course of several months, created a conceptual Afrofuturist album spanning three centuries called The Unearthed Odyssey.

Watch the full performance of The Unearthed Odyssey here

It’s the story of children on a spaceship being taught the history of Earth. Needing to find another planet, they have been sent out into the unknown for safety like so many people in the story of humanity. It takes place on the one day a year they are awoken for an audio lesson in human migration. The teacher takes the form of an artificial intelligence interface which uses hip-hop production techniques to explain migration using samples from the British Library sound archive.

I used recordings from the World and Traditional Music, Pop Music, Drama and Literature, Oral History, and Wildlife and Environmental departments. The scale and depth of the sound archive made me want to use parts from it all, rather than focusing on one collection, period or location. With more time, I would have used even more!

The narrative structure is laid out with the first song as an introduction. From there, there are three movements or acts. Act I: Original Home. Act II: The Journey. Act III: New Home. Within these acts, the musical style would change significantly, with the first compositions consisting entirely or mostly of layers utilising samples from one recording. As the piece progresses, more additional production and virtual instruments are introduced for a fuller and more modern sound.

Much of this is a step-by-step guide to how the piece was created. Many of the thought processes I had when producing this piece haven’t been included. I am probably still processing them now. For greater detail into the themes and ideas I worked with and was attempting to communicate, please watch the Q&A with Kieran Yates from the premiere.

AWATE 1Above: A screenshot of a Logic Pro X arrangement and sample editor windows showing parts of composition and waveform of sampled recording.

Part I: Listening

After researching the collections I wanted to use and downloading 66 recordings from the sound libraries and servers, the most important task at hand was listening to all of these potential samples! I had run through them all quickly in order to determine whether the audio quality was usable and how interesting they sounded but now had to go through them all - some being 20 seconds and others more than 3 hours.

For every audio file, there was a story and I used the British Library itself as well as online searches for greater context on the subjects in the recordings, the time, geography, politics and the archivists themselves. This was to have an understanding of what I was listening to. To centre my listening and to inform the direction of the new work that I would be turning these recordings into.

With that said, the most important part of the criteria in shortlisting and using these sounds in the first place was how dope they sounded. How cool or interesting they were. Whether they could be manipulated into another sound to evoke emotion with the use of effects. My purpose as the Artist-in-Residence was to entice people into the archive. Stories and context are important but first and foremost, I wanted to make amazing music.

AWATE 2Above: A screenshot of a list of the downloaded recordings labelled by catalogue number.

Part II: Chopping Samples and Beatmaking

The next step after deciding which sounds I would definitely be using would be the part I have always relished - chopping samples and placing them/triggering them. For the uninitiated, this is the audio equivalent of a collage - going through a magazine with a pair of scissors, cutting out bits you find interesting or that would work well together aesthetically or thematically and finding ways they can interact with each other on the page before sticking them down. Making art out of art. Using found material to express how you are feeling. The tools of necessity after public funding for arts has been cut and you cannot afford to play or learn an instrument.

For Unearthed, I used two broad techniques for this. One of them involved using the slice tool in my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice, Logic Pro X, to cut the pieces of the recording I wanted to use and place them on the linear editing window to create loops or patterns based on the BPM (Beats Per Minute) that I had set the project to. This is a fairly straightforward way of placing samples and works well for using slightly longer chops or when you don’t want to go through the next process which is…

Using a sampler. On Logic, my favourite stock sampler is the ESX24. I would chop the parts of the recording I wanted to use, then drag the files into the editor window on the ESX, create a new group, drag them into there and in the groups tab, set the polyphony to one. This meant that the samples could now be triggered using my ‘qwerty’ keyboard or music keyboard via MIDI or drawn on the MIDI file. Setting the polyphony to one meant that each chop would interrupt the other so that no two could be played at the same time. Poly = many. Phono = sound. For this technique, I used my keyboard to create interesting new patterns using the chops and recorded them.

AWATE 3Above: A screenshot of the programme ESX24 and its editor window with imported samples. It features the list of samples and an image of piano keys. Doing this allows the samples to be triggered like keys on a piano.

With my samples placed on the arrangement window, I then build the rest of the tracks using drums, bass, piano, synth and experimental sounds. The extremely talented Gabrial Ryder came in to lend his talents on the keyboard and piano to add additional production on many of the tracks. Many of his parts were integral to the intro and second half of the piece. I used various plugins to create effects and unique sounds such as EQ, reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, bitcrusher, distortion, step editor and compressors. All of the instruments and plugins were stock Logic sounds that I manipulated into one of a kind textures.

Part III: Oral History

Having created eight distinct instrumental songs, the next step was to listen to the various recordings I had collected from the Oral History and Drama and Literature collections. I searched for stories from immigrants and children of immigrants to the UK and elsewhere. Specifically, I wanted anecdotes of people in their countries of origin before migrating, descriptions of the journeys they undertook as well as what it was like for them adapting or growing up in a new place and how they were treated or made to feel.

Listening to these stories was quite emotionally taxing. Some included people describing surviving severe abuse or fleeing the Holocaust and horrific wars, others describing feeling completely alienated in their new countries and some included all of these things. This listening process took longer than I had anticipated, simply because I needed to take the time to properly recover from hearing people talk about such things, even when they had an indefatigable spirit or sense of humour about it. Much of the subject matter, I could relate to or had a connection to through members of my family.

In Logic, I listened and extracted excerpts as loops to my hard drive as separate files labelled by keywords based on who was interviewed and what was mentioned. From there, I could attach colour labels to each recording based on whether I would use it or not. Within the Logic sessions for the beats, I placed the oral history samples and fine-tuned them using EQ, reverb and other tools as well as turning the beat down during some of the stories and cutting the beat out at certain points. I was effectively using the stories as the lyrics on the instrumentals.

AWATE 4Above: A screenshot of bounced audio samples from oral history interviews featuring the interviewee, keywords and colour label.

Part IV: Arrangement

At this point, I had eight songs done with the sample based instrumentals and interwoven spoken parts from the archive and it sounded great! I arranged the tracks based on their subject matter to fit the narrative of the first section after the intro being about the original home, second section being about the journey and third section about the new home. They were also arranged according to the richness and complexity of the music, especially in terms of additional sounds and virtual instruments in Logic. For the most part, after the introduction song, the first section features production taken solely from the archive with the piece progressing into more and more additional instrumentation, while keeping the sound archive samples as the main ingredient.

From here I had to construct the wider narrative with the spaceship premise that had been decided on but did not yet feature. For the voices of the children on the spaceship, I spoke to a group of children from immigrant families in south London a few weeks after taking them on a day trip to the British Library with some wonderful staff. I had a stereo dictaphone which I walked around with while asking them questions after setting the scene for them. Having training in Philosophy for Children with the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), I allowed them to interrogate their own thoughts and search for connections in what we were speaking about, listening to their own experiences.

In Logic, I chopped this conversation into the parts I wanted to use and arranged them in a window with the 8 finished tracks. Like the oral history samples, I applied processing tools to these samples to make them clearer and added a gated reverb to my voice. For me, the idea of the children today putting themselves into the shoes of futuristic travellers and having a conversation with the oral history parts was important as it reflected the same relationships the instruments and music samples were having.

The final addition were sound effects from the archive which I used to accentuate certain songs and transitions. These included wildlife recordings of birds and lions, the launching of a ship into the harbour, a boat in the ocean and real sounds of tanks and bombs from World War II. I feel these grounded the piece, bringing it back to Earth due to the inclusion of natural sounds that would stand out in such a futuristic narrative.

AWATE 5Above: A screenshot of the final arrangement window featuring the 8 tracks, voice over, children audio and sound effects.

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

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19 December 2019

AWATE: Finding Gems and Sharing Them

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AWATE joined the British Library this summer as Artist-in-Residence for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, the British Library’s major project to digitally preserve and widely share the nation’s rare and at-risk sounds. During his five-month residency, AWATE will use the extensive sound archive to weave together a long-form genre-bending musical piece exploring the subject of diaspora and human migration. In this blog, AWATE writes about a live sampling event he participated in at the Library in November.

AWATE (left), WondRWomN (centre), and The Last Skeptik (right) photographed together during the live sampling event on 22 November.
AWATE (left), WondRWomN (centre), and The Last Skeptik (right) photographed together during the live sampling event on 22 November.

There is just so much to listen to. So many amazing stories, pieces of music and other recordings that the British Library sound archive has in its possession. When I find something based on keywords, location, date or category, it’s not enough to simply listen. With access to the rest of the Library and the internet at my fingertips, the fascinating tales that form the context for each of these recordings are added to, thread by thread.

When I was invited to present a Late as part of the Library’s Season of Sound, I had an idea for the format - a taster session displaying some hip-hop production skills - but I needed a recording to centre it around. Wanting to salute the working class arts spaces that were so prevalent in British cities during the first half of the twentieth century, I spent some time researching local music halls. Just in north London, they were seemingly on every high street, many of them having now been converted into pubs, churches, offices or demolished and replaced with luxury apartments that our communities so desperately need.

After searching through the Sound and Moving image catalogue (www.cadensa.bl.uk) and listening to dozens of music hall songs from roughly a century ago (the earliest from 1898), I stumbled upon one that stood out. Many of the songs were witty, comedic, well-orchestrated and thematically strong but this one in particular seemed to be extremely topical and featured a striking vocal performance.

Screenshot of the British Library's internal catalogue search tool.
Screenshot of the British Library's Sound and Moving Image Catalogue www.cadensa.bl.uk

The song, ‘Everybody Loves Me’ by Ellaline Terriss was composed by Guy Jones for a 1907 musical comedy play called ‘The Gay Gordons’. The play was based on a book written by Ms. Terriss’ husband, the notable writer, actor and producer, Seymour Hicks. They were basically the turn of the century version of Jay-Z and Beyonce, in terms of fame. Ellaline Terriss even had an episode of This Is Your Life about her in 1962 and her father, William, was a famous actor in the late 1800s. He was infamously murdered by an envious colleague outside the Adelphi Theatre in 1897 and William Terriss’ ghost has supposedly haunted the Adelphi, as well as Covent Garden tube station, ever since. This is just one example of the kind of magic that is conjured by each item in the sound archive.

After a whimsical instrumental version of the chorus and a militaristic fanfare, Ms. Terriss introduces herself in an assertive falsetto, singing, “I’m a popular chap in London, and I’m always in request”. The songs paints the picture of an adored and rich fellow without a care in the world, attending various social events and receiving praise from every stranger that passes. The chorus, which is in an even higher register, is sung in a tip-toeing delivery for the first two bars, starts off with, “Everybody loves me up in London. Everybody’s very fond of me”. When heard, you have to laugh.

Picture of Ellaline Terriss, the voice of the event and well known artist of her day. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Picture of Ellaline Terriss, the voice of the event and well known artist of her day. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For the event, titled ‘Everybody Loves Me: A Live Hip-Hop Sampling’, I invited fellow rapper/producers, WondRWomN and The Last Skeptik to make a backing track, using elements from the 1908 recording. In the entrance hall of the British Library, we used music production software on our laptops to chop the sample and find ways to incorporate it into a beat. As Skeptik noted, “It’s like ‘’Ready Steady Cook’ with music.”

A photograph featuring The Last Skeptik explaining what he did with the sample.
A photograph featuring The Last Skeptik explaining what he did with the sample.

After an introduction that told the brief story of Ellaline Terriss and the song, the audience was treated to the full song, which is not available online or in the public sound archive. WondRWomN, The Last Skeptik and I proceeded to compose our beats, identifying sections to lift, such as the fanfare or vocals from the chorus. The fact that we were making such a racket in the foyer of one of the most famous national libraries in the world – usually a quiet space – was slightly strange, but the audience watched on as the sound switched from laptop to laptop every few minutes as we made progress.

Having different skill sets, the beats that we made were distinctly varied, with a difference in beats per minute (tempo) and feel despite the common main ingredient of the sample. WondRWomN created an early 2000s, Heatmakerz sounding piece that would have suited Cam’ron and The Diplomats perfectly. The Last Skeptik crafted an up-tempo, melodic, house style Kaytranada-ish beat that had everyone moving. I ended up making a mid-90s throwback New York boom-bap beat that I could hear M.O.P. rhyming over.

At the end of our forty minutes, we showcased the final results with explanations of our process and methodology. Before saying farewell, I made sure to plug Skeptik’s new album, ‘See You in the Next Life’ and the fantastic work WondRWomN does at her studio for young people, The Record Shop in Tottenham.

The entire event was fantastic, and the staff and Events team made our role as creatives much easier. Being known mostly as a rapper, it was great to test my production skills live and also bring to life something from 111 years ago that was hiding in the sound archive. My final piece, due to launch in March, will incorporate some of the techniques we displayed at the event and with time quickly running out, I must now return to making that!

AWATE using Logic Pro with an Akai MIDI controller.
AWATE using Logic Pro with an Akai MIDI controller.

More info

Learn more about AWATE and his residency at the Library

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is the British Library’s major National Lottery Heritage Fund supported project to catalogue, digitally preserve and share the nation’s rare and unique sounds.

Find out more about Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

17 October 2019

AWATE's Journey into the Past

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AWATE joined the British Library this summer as Artist-in-Residence for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage, the British Library’s major project to digitally preserve and widely share the nation’s rare and at-risk sounds. During his five-month residency, AWATE will use the extensive sound archive to weave together a long-form genre-bending musical piece exploring the subject of diaspora and human migration. In this blog, AWATE writes about his first introduction to the Library’s sound archive and Conservation Centre.

Image of AWATE stood in front of shelves of collection items in the British Library's basement archives.
AWATE stands in front of shelves of collection items in the British Library's basement archives.

Having grown up in Maiden Lane Estate, a mile away from the British Library, I would see the grand building that was completed in 1998 and marvel at the architecture, art and posters, as I went by on the bus. As a child reading was my sanctuary away from the traumas that came with being a refugee in London during the 1990s, and the added fact that this building was next door to the fictional portal to Hogwarts made it even more special.

The mobile library that would come to the edge of our estate got the young me more excited than seeing an ice cream van, and in secondary school, I was the student-library liaison for many years, which meant I would write a list of up to 10 books a month that the school would order for us. Young adult novels by William Nicholson or Jacqueline Wilson, collections of short stories and poems by Benjamin Zephaniah or African history by Cheikh Anta Diop; my school would order them all.

On my first day as ‘Artist in Residence’ at the British Library – as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project – I was given a tour of the basement and conservation areas and realised that this place wouldn’t need me to help fill their shelves!

Image of AWATE looking through boxes of cassettes and logs of music in the British Library's basements.
AWATE looking through boxes of cassettes and logs of music the British Library's basements.

The British Library’s Conservation Centre (BLCC) is a relatively new addition to the building, with state of the art studios amongst ancient sound equipment and recordings. One of the first things you encounter in the BLCC are two colourful, wood-panelled jukeboxes. Next to these are huge tape machines from the 1980s that would have been centrepieces of the top recording studios of their time. Further down the hallway, several gramophones with different designs line the walls beside a statue of Nipper, the dog famously used as the mascot of His Master’s Voice or HMV.

I was shown where and how recordings are digitally preserved in the BL’s system with tags and descriptions of the quality of the recordings before seeing the actual studios where they are digitised. After analogue formats are carefully assessed, sometimes needing sonic baths to remove microscopic specks of dust or a go around a tape cleaner which resembles a grandfather clock, the materials are ready for the complicated process of digitisation. This involves a puzzle of directions, as some reel-to-reel tapes are mismatched at various different speeds for a single recording. The analogue records being digitised, whether they’re vinyl, shellac or lacquer, sit on a turntable made sturdy by a large block of marble so that vibrations in the room or the nearby London Underground trains do not jog the needle.

During my tour of the second floor of the basement, where a considerable parts of the sound collections are held, I was amazed at every turn. As soon as you enter, you notice that the ceiling is covered in shiny metal rails that look like they belong in the Terry Gilliam classic, ‘Brazil’. These chutes are used to transport books from the basement to the reading rooms where people have requested specific titles. Past the ‘Shawshank Redemption’ looking gates, the vastness of the archives becomes evident. 

Image of AWATE standing beneath the cavernous ceiling of one the British Library basements, examining the conveyor system that transport books to the reading rooms.
AWATE stands beneath the cavernous ceiling of one the British Library basements, examining the conveyor system that transports books to the reading rooms.

From top to bottom, row after row, and in all directions there are seemingly endless shelves of artefacts. When looking closer, the variety of the objects is clear. CDs and cassette tapes, I know. Vinyl records, I know from my life as a rapper and music lover. But in addition, DAT tapes from the first WOMAD festival are stored beside reel-to-reel tape cases looking like giant wheels of mechanical cheese inside. Tapes of recordings from LBC and Capital Radio line the walls with words on them like ‘Royal Wedding 1981’ or ‘Pope Shooting’. The further I went; it was like stepping further back into time. At the push of a button, what I assumed were walls would move to reveal further rows of treasure.

Copper-coated cases containing gramophone matrices - or masters - held some of the earliest BBC Radio recordings available. Speeches by government ministers sat beside broadcasts from the Middle East. Gloves must be worn before handling any of these. I kept my gloves on as I was shown the oldest objects in the sound archive. Dating to the late 1890s, these wax cylinders with their beautifully designed labels from the Edison and Lambert companies’ document ethnographic research done in Oceania, West Africa and the music halls of London. The vivid colours of the wax cylinders made no sense to me, as they looked to have not faded at all in over 100 years with bright blues, reds, greens and pinks.

Image of AWATE chatting with Jowan from the British Library’s Acquisitions and Cataloguing team, while inspecting wax cylinders that 100 years old.
AWATE chats with Jowan from the British Library’s Acquisitions and Cataloguing team, while inspecting wax cylinders over 100 years old.

For days after my tour of the BLCC and basement of this great library, it was all I could think about. Seeing all these pieces of history in different formats from all over the world was overwhelming. The number of sound recordings in the sound archive reach almost 7 million and setting eyes on each of the physical originals would take far longer than my five-month residency would allow. In essence, all I had really seen was the outside of these artefacts, the cover and not the content. The history documented on them itself would take an eternity to experience. And there is more being added every day…

I began to ask myself questions about how long it would take to listen to all of the cylinders, records, tapes, wires and CDs in the basement? If someone lived down there for a lifetime, would they even make a dent in the amount of content stored on those devices?

Without the expertise of the incredibly knowledgeable and outgoing staff at the British Library, this project would be impossible, as I would be lost in the sheer amount of recordings in their possession. The curatorial teams have taken time out of their busy schedules to point me in the right direction for what I wish to accomplish. I still hope I don’t get lost, though.

 

Learn more about AWATE and his residency at the Library

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is the British Library’s major National Lottery Heritage Fund supported project to catalogue, digitally preserve and share the nation’s rare and unique sounds.

Find out more about Unlocking Our Sound Heritage