THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

2 posts categorized "Artist in Residence"

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