Sound and vision blog

242 posts categorized "Arts, literature & performance"

25 April 2022

Recording of the week: Everybody has something to offer

This week’s selection comes from Jonathan Benaim, Audio Cataloguing Coordinator.

Taken from the British Library’s Oral History of Jazz in Britain collection, this recording is from an interview with guitarist Ernest Ranglin. In this particular excerpt, prompted by interviewer Val Wilmer, he reflects on the notion of competitiveness between musicians.

Ernest Ranglin on competition in jazz [BL REF C122/198-199] 

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In place of competition, Ernest Ranglin sees a collaborative process, valuing the contribution made by different players. The synergy of collaboration can be perceived in the interaction between interviewer and interviewee too. Their rapport is tangible and it makes for an expansive exchange.

International Jazz Day is celebrated on 30 April. Established by UNESCO, it advocates for the positive influence of jazz, including its capacity to cultivate peace, unity, co-operation and dialogue. The description of solidarity that Ernest Ranglin gives, and the camaraderie of the speakers, neatly illustrates that ethos.

A black and white photograph of guitarist Ernest Ranglin taken on Tottenham Court Road, London.Ernest Ranglin, Tottenham Court Road, London, 17 May 1993. Photograph by Val Wilmer.

With thanks to Val Wilmer for kind permission to use her photograph in this article.

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

19 April 2022

Juliet Pannett

National Life Stories Goodison Fellow Suzanne Joinson writes about her research into the artist Juliet Pannett.

Black and white photo of Juliet Pannett holding a koalaJuliet Pannett, courtesy of Denis Pannett

As part of my National Life Stories (NLS) Goodison Fellowship, I have been delving into the oral histories of three Sussex-based artists: Ann Sutton and Barbara Mullins from Crafts Lives and Juliet Pannett from Artists’ Lives. If a biography is ‘a matter of joining holes together,’ as Carole Angier writes, then listening to the interviews often feels like experiencing the tension of the weave. The interplay of storytelling, hesitation and unfolding memory is immersive.

All three artists have had a profound impact on the cultural landscape of the South of England and beyond. Yet their reputations remain relatively marginal, although this is now changing for Ann Sutton.

In this blogpost I take the subject of Juliet Pannett, MBE, and look at how her self-defined life relates to her artistic legacy, particularly through the lens of her being regionally situated in Sussex. Whereas Ann Sutton is an avant-garde, experimental artist, and Mullins was in the vanguard of a resurgence of traditional materials and approaches, Pannett was in many ways the most ‘establishment’ of the three.

Pannett was 80 years old when Janet Grenier interviewed her in 1991 at Pannett’s home in Angmering. Her interview reveals an amusing, polished storyteller. The vowels signify a certain class and are evocative of a different era. Born in 1911 and died in 2005, she established an impressive career as a portrait artist and parliamentary painter. In her oral history interview she says with pride, ‘I could write to anyone I liked and almost everyone said yes.’ [Juliet Pannett interviewed by Janet Grenier C466/09/03, 00:03:11] The National Portrait Gallery houses 21 of her paintings and her subjects range from the Queen to Jean Cocteau. As a parliamentary artist she covered historic moments such as Churchill’s last appearance in the Commons and the Profumo affair. She was a member of The Society of Graphic Artists and Pastel Society and a fellow of The Royal Society of Arts. Later in life she ran courses in Sussex with her son, Denis, and the rose bowl Juliet Pannett Prize of the West Sussex Art Award bears her name today.

In the interview she talks frankly about establishing herself in the art world. She speaks of the complexities of combining family life with working for The London Illustrated News and of the efforts required to increase her reputation as a portrait artist. As I listen to the hesitations and digressions, as well as the anecdotes, I catch hints of an undertow of struggle in her life. A picture emerges of a genteel English family keeping up appearances despite a gambling cad of a father and a mother forced to take in paying guests.

Because the NLS interviewing methodology moves slowly and chronologically forwards, the unravelling of a ‘life story’ is extremely full. We follow Pannett’s scholarship at the Brighton School of Art. We hear of the Master, Louis Genet, and his techniques and approaches. We can almost feel the crunch of pencil sharpenings under shoes and smell white spirit in the studios. Pannett’s training was both formal and provincial. She had to complete a year of drawing before being allowed to touch a paint brush. No trips to Rome for her, and she admits that most girls in the class were filling the time before marriage. But her seriousness and ambition are evident all the way through. ‘I wanted to be a really good draughtsman,’ she says.

Most fascinating to the contemporary ear is how she established her career. Sending work to editors, pitching, being accepted in the illustration world as a female artist and her precociousness. Before finishing art school, she sent some work to The Cricketer and she then followed up with Sussex County Magazine:

‘I loved walking on the downs and sketching the old shepherds and country people and I thought well they might be interested, so I took them to show Arthur Beckett the publisher in Eastbourne and he said oh yes, good ideas we’ll have a series of Sussex types and I did thirty or forty and it was great fun, and it gave me an excuse to talk to the old shepherds.’ [Juliet Pannett interviewed by Janet Grenier C466/09/01, 00:25:55]

She tells it in a breezy fashion but receiving a professional commission at such a young age is impressive. It is possible to see how consistently hard she worked and the challenges of combining a career with family life. Her narrative shows us the continual navigation and integration of her family – her son Denis in particular, but also her sister the artist Phoebe Somers – with her working life.

The geographical locations that Pannett talks about are very local to me and so I can see the South of England through her eyes. Hove seafront, Brighton. Clambering on the beach at ‘Black Rocks’, now Brighton Marina. Years later she moved back to Sussex and bought a house in the village of Angmering. She considered herself a Sussex person and the imprint of her work can be found in the county if you look. It is in the archives of Worthing Museum, or captured in ephemera relating to prior exhibitions in Croydon Civic Hall, or in Hove Town Hall.

Black and white portrait photograph of Juliet Pannett as a young womanJuliet Pannett, courtesy of Denis Pannett

As I continue to work through the interviews, I am interested in exploring questions around why these female artists who operated outside of metropolitan hubs have slipped attention. Is it a correlation to living in the regions? I am also looking at how lives and life stories can be ‘written’ alongside oral interviews in alternative ways. The NLS interviews provide a central spine: the story in the subjects’ own words as experienced in that particular moment. Alongside that, like satellites, are catalogues and exhibition ephemera, educational and trust foundations. There are also more nebulous legacies such as the long-term impact on teaching, textbooks, and influence on generations of students or attendees at workshops. There is archival documentation of meetings and a wide matrix of cultural materials that contribute to an ongoing legacy.

Pannett died aged 94 after a lifetime as a professional artist and it is clear that most obituaries draw on the NLS interviews. The NLS ‘life-story’ oral history methodology depicts holistic histories that are fluid. The web of materials linked to Pannett’s output show us a professional working mother and a determined character person. She had much to prove, and when she was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen achieved a formal recognition that was important to her. The NLS interviews allow her career achievements to be examined as part of a wider picture. Most crucially, the integration of the domestic and personal life with the cultivation of a career and the creation of art.

When we look at an entire life-version, rather than individual isolated events, exhibitions, or achievements, we can see the unfolding of significant creative energy. Through a collation of memory and ephemera, my research suggests that peripheral forms of life stories – lives told in the margins of British art history – can be re-evaluated in a contemporary light, particularly within the context of a re-thinking of cultural agency and the impact of non-metropolitan areas. As we rethink our creative and cultural-geographical centres, moving outwards from cities to regions, it’s worth working in archives such as the NLS project to find a rich tapestry of stories that provide alternatives to the mainstream.

Suzanne Joinson is an award-winning writer and academic. Her novels A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar and The Photographer's Wife are published internationally by Bloomsbury. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Chichester and writes regularly for a range of publications including the New York Times, Guardian and others. She has a strong interest in oral history and the stories found in landscapes and places. Suzanne previously wrote for the Sound and Vision Blog in February 2020.

14 April 2022

Between the Orange Tree and the Lime

Between the Orange Tree and the Lime (2017) is a short film by artist Duncan Whitley, dedicated to the memory of flamenco singer and tabernero José Pérez Blanco, also known as Pepe Peregil. The film forms part of the Duncan Whitley Collection [BL REF C1338], which documents Seville’s Easter Week processions and is available in British Library Reading Rooms.

For two years there were no Easter processions on the streets of Seville due to the global pandemic. In this blog post, Duncan Whitley marks the renewal of the tradition with some words on his short film:

I was introduced to Pepe Peregil in 2010, thanks to friends in one of Seville’s brass bands who insisted I meet him. Peregil was one of Seville's eminent saeteros (singers of the saeta, a type of flamenco song). He was also known to many people as the affable owner of a bar called Quitapesares, located in Seville’s city centre. I interviewed Peregil in 2010 and the following year he invited me to join him in the Plaza del Museo, where he sang as the penitentiary Easter procession El Museo returned to its chapel. I recorded Peregil singing saetas at an incredibly intimate distance, so much so that I could vividly hear the sounds of his breath through my microphone.

The film Between the Orange Tree and the Lime transports viewers into the Plaza del Museo, Seville, on the night of Lunes Santo (the Monday after Palm Sunday). The film is a poetic meditation on presence and absence through flamenco song in Seville's Semana Santa. It focuses on the saeta, derived from the Latin word sagitta meaning arrow, a flamenco poem or prayer sung acapella to the effigies of Christ or the Virgin Mary as they are carried in procession during Easter Week.

The film’s title1, takes the opening lines of a saeta sung by Pepe Peregil in the Plaza del Museo, where he sang each year without fail from 1967 through to 2011: “Between the orange tree and the lime, is my Virgin of the Museum”. Peregil passed away in 2012 and so this film also captures his last public saetas.

Pepe Peregil singing a saeta

Pepe Peregil singing a saeta in the Plaza del Museo in Seville. Duncan Whitley, 2011

I have been studying the soundscapes of Seville’s Holy Week through my field recording practice since 2006. A fascination for the vernacular world of acoustic communication in Seville’s major fiesta, embracing music, voice and other mechanical sound-making eventually led me to focus on recording the saetas flamencas. At the time there weren’t many published recordings of saetas performed live in the street, beyond those recorded in Jerez de la Frontera in 1993 and published in Saetas: Cante de la Semana Santa Andaluza (BL REF 1CD0111003).

There are however many studio recordings of saetas. Many are performed by the great singers of cante jondo (a vocal style in flamenco) in the 1920's such as La Niña de los Peines, Tomás Pavón or Manuel Vallejo. The controlled environment of the recording studio preserves and magnifies the quality of the voice but what we don’t hear, is the saeta in context: the acoustics of the narrow streets, the murmurs of the public, the screaming of the swifts overhead at dusk. I became interested in the challenge of trying to capture quality sound recordings of contemporary saetas sung in their live, public and religious context: in the streets of Seville or from balconies, addressed to the images of Christ or the Virgin depicted in mourning.

Transcription and translation of the saeta:

Se hinque de Rodillas [Fall to your knees!]
La Giralda2 si hace falta [Even the Giralda finds herself obliged]
Y se vista de mantilla [And she dresses in mourning]
Cuando por su vera pasa [When the Last Breath of Seville]
La Expiración de Sevilla [Passes by her side]

The saeta featured in this extract from the film was written for Pepe Peregil by Pascual González, a singer, composer and poet mainly associated with sevillanas (a lively form of flamenco song and dance from Seville). Peregil’s son, José Juan, tells me that Peregil asked Pascual González to write him a saeta whilst they stood on a balcony in the Plaza del Museo one Lunes Santo, awaiting the arrival of the effigy of Christ of the Last Breath. Remarkably, González improvised these lyrics moments before the arrival of the procession, and stood behind Peregil reading him the lines as he sang, as there was not enough time for Peregil to memorise the words.

Following Peregil’s death in January 2012 I returned to Seville during Easter Week, with the intention of recording in the Plaza del Museo but the processions of Holy Monday were cancelled due to heavy rain. I returned to the plaza again in Easter 2013, and this time opted to wait beneath a balcony at the entrance to the square from which Pilár Velázquez Martínez, artistic name Pili del Castillo, and Peregil sang alongside each other for many years. I had recently interviewed Pili, so I knew she would sing to the effigies of El Museo but she hadn’t told me that she had specially prepared her own saeta to the Virgin of the Waters (colloquially known as the Virgin of the Museum) in dedication to her friend Pepe Peregil.

This saeta, an emotional farewell of sorts, references the absence of Peregil in the plaza:

Madre Mía de las Aguas [My Mother of the Waters]
Tienes la cara divina [Your face is divine]
Pero es tanta tu hermosura [But such is your beauty]
Que no la quiebra la pena [That sadness doesn't break it]
Ni el llanto te desfigura [Nor does crying disfigure you]

Si al llegar a tu capilla [If upon arriving at your chapel]
Notas que te falta algo [You notice that you're missing something]
No llores tú Madre Mía [Don't cry Mother of mine]
Que Peregil desde el cielo [That Peregil from the sky]
Seguro que te está cantando [Is surely singing to you]

Between the Orange Tree and the Lime was first screened in 2017 at the Whitechapel Gallery (London), at the EMASESA (Seville) with the Association of Friends of Peregil, and the Consejo de Hermandades y Cofradías de Sevilla (the governing organisation of Seville’s processional brotherhoods) in an event in honour of Pili del Castillo. Special thanks to Simon Day for working with me as camera operator 2011-2013, and to José Juan Medina for assisting with research.

 

Footnotes:

1. The 'lime' in the title refers to the white, rendered surfaces of the walls of buildings typical of Seville’s historic centre. Orange trees would be in blossom during Easter week and so the title builds a sensory evocation of the Virgin of the Museum carried into the plaza.

2. The Giralda is the iconic tower of Seville’s cathedral. The mantilla is a black lace veil, typically worn over a high comb. It is traditionally worn by women during the Easter Week processions in Andalucia, especially on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. 

31 January 2022

Recording of the week: On the meditative practice of drawing

This week’s selection comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Sound and Vision Reference Specialist. 

Having been to live drawing classes myself over the last few months, I started to appreciate and master this art I have for long time forgotten (perhaps, neglected).

In this compilation of short extracts from life story oral history interviews recorded by National Life Stories for the Artists' Lives project, various artists talk about different aspects of the art of drawing, from the very idea behind the process to the materials used in the creative process, to the basic question: what is drawing?

Drawing requires a structure, it is a conversational relationship with the paper; but drawing is also energy. Similar to sculpture, it is an intellectual as well as physical process: the whole of the body is involved in the making.

Black brush strokes on a white backgroundPhoto by Sheldon Liu on Unsplash

Among the compilation, the most fascinating part for me is the third excerpt where Deanna Petherbridge talks of drawing as ‘an artistic equivalent of this absolute economy of means’. She recalls her experience of drawing lemon trees on a Greek island, and the materials she used. In her words, pen and ink, black and white were used to make ‘thin and controlled lines’; ultimately, they served the purpose of economy, the ‘imaginative use of the minimal’.

Deanna Petherbridge describes her drawing style [BL REF C466/152]

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Thus the material is an integral part of the practice, it shapes and defines what we create; the meaning of the artistic work is also hidden in the tools we use. Also to me this is true: charcoal is for bold quick statements, pencil to polish and adorn smaller details.

In my experience, drawing is an art that doesn’t require much thinking: the pencil explores the paper, almost resembling a meditative practice where the eyes get better at seeing, not simply looking. The challenge for me comes when trying to draw human presence – not drawing the person, but a human body in its pure form.

I ask myself, what is the minimum (perhaps the kind of minimum that Deanna talks about?) required to give my drawings a meaning, a poetic side, a touch of reality? Drawing could be an idea we have in mind: in the process of learning, the most difficult thing is to slow down.

Deanna Petherbridge was interviewed by Linda Sandino in 2002 for Artists’ Lives, an ongoing National Life Stories project which has been interviewing British artists since 1990. A selection of full interviews from the collection is available to listen to on British Library Sounds, and audio extracts are presented alongside contextualising essays on the Voices of art website.

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

12 January 2022

Voices of British theatre design: Explore the world of theatre behind the scenes

Listen to theatre practitioners speak about their lives and work, their favourite productions, professional networks and the design process from scale model to stage set.

Voices of British theatre design is a new British Library website featuring over 50 audio clips from National Life Stories recordings. Interviewees include set and costume designers, scenic artists, directors and actors. The audio clips are presented within a series of 12 articles written by theatre practitioners. In every article, authors and interviewees draw on their technical knowledge and creative practices to reveal what happens behind the scenes, while weaving in personal reflections on the profession itself.

The website is divided into five themes: costume design, the design process, directors and designers, scale models, and set design. There are vivid descriptions of stage scenery, techniques for model making, the use of 3D design technology, and how to manage what the audience sees (and doesn’t see) from their seat. Contributors to the website also address wider questions on roles and relationships in theatre, and how to get started. What is theatre design education like? How reliable is the job market, and how has this changed over the years? What is it like to interpret a script, collaborate with directors, and engage with actors during costume fittings?

To celebrate the launch we’ve picked three clips highlighting different design elements that are explored on the website: model making, stage scenery, and costume design. Interestingly, in each case the interviewee mentions how their work impacted others involved in the production process. Scroll down to hear extracts from life story recordings with Lis Evans, Jocelyn Herbert, and Billy Meall.

Lis Evans talks about making, painting, and clothing miniature figures for her models

Assorted figures in a box, used for theatre design models
Assorted figures. Courtesy Lis Evans. Image not licensed for reuse.

Lis Evans (born 1965) is Head of Design at the New Vic Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent. In this clip she describes how she creates model figures from scratch using a variety of materials. The use of figures is an essential element of both her design process and how she presents the design to others.

This audio clip features in Peter Farley’s article, Communicating design: Creating a world.

Lis Evans on making figures for models (C1173/15)

Download Lis Evans transcript

The New Vic Theatre is ‘a theatre in the round’, where the stage is completely surrounded by the audience. Evans became Head of Design in 1991 and has designed over 120 productions during her time in this role.

Lis Evans was recorded by National Life Stories for An Oral History of British Theatre Design in sessions between 2006–2007. The interviewer was Elizabeth Wright. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Listen to the full interview on BL Sounds.

Jocelyn Herbert shares a surprising fact about Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal

Painted drawing by Jocelyn Herbert for Baal, showing an interior scene
Set drawing by Jocelyn Herbert for Baal by Bertolt Brecht (world premiere, Phoenix Theatre, 1963). Drawing © Estate of Jocelyn Herbert, from the Jocelyn Herbert Archive, housed in the National Theatre Archive. Image not licensed for reuse.

In this clip from her 1992 recording with Cathy Courtney, theatre designer Jocelyn Herbert (1917–2003) sets the scene for the world premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s play Baal. Brecht (1898–1956) was a German playwright and poet. He established the Berliner Ensemble theatre company with actor and director Helene Weigel, his wife, in 1949 in East Berlin.

This audio clip features in Roma Patel’s article, Stage design: 2D to 3D.

Jocelyn Herbert on projections for Baal (C465/13)

Download Jocelyn Herbert transcript

The play, Baal, was not performed until after Brecht’s death, and the first performance was not even produced by the Berliner Ensemble. It was in fact first staged at the Phoenix Theatre in London, in 1963. Jocelyn Herbert designed the play, and it was directed by Bill Gaskill (William Gaskill, 1930–2016) with actor Peter O’Toole in the title role.

Herbert talks about her preparatory drawings and models – Brecht’s script ‘lit up your imagination’ – and the technical process of designing projections for the stage using 1960s technology. She mentions working with Richard Pilbrow, who was the lighting designer for Baal, and his team to produce and install the projections. Herbert’s drawings for Baal can be seen in her archive at the National Theatre Archive.

Between 1985 and 1993 Jocelyn Herbert was interviewed by Cathy Courtney. The recordings are archived at the British Library and can be accessed on BL Sounds. Written summaries of the recordings can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.

Billy Meall’s costume design for Shakespeare’s Richard III

Paul Jesson as Richard III, wearing a costume made by Billy Meall
Paul Jesson playing Richard III, wearing a costume made by Billy Meall. The costume featured a pebble in the boot to create a limp, and a glove with sewed up fingers. Projections in the background. Everyman Theatre. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Billy Meall. Image not licensed for reuse.

Theatre designer Billy Meall (born 1947) describes the terrifying costume he created for Shakespeare’s Richard III. The costume featured a shrunken hand, armour with a spiked hump, and a painful boot that caused the actor Paul Jesson to drag his leg around the stage. Paul Jesson (born 1946) is an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

This audio clip features in the article On actors and costume design, by actor Eric Potts.

Billy-meall-designing-the-costume-for-richard-iii

Download Billy Meall transcript

In another clip, Meall talks about learning the craft from a costume supervisor called Cathy Alger, who he worked with at the Liverpool Playhouse at the start of his career. He was resident designer at the Liverpool Playhouse until 1998, after which the management of the Playhouse was merged with the Everyman Theatre.

Billy Meall was recorded by National Life Stories for An Oral History of British Theatre Design in 2006. The interviewer was Elizabeth Wright. A written summary of the full interview can be word searched on the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. Listen to the full interview on BL Sounds.

Voices of British theatre design was produced by Cathy Courtney, Camille Johnston, Mary Stewart, and Elizabeth Wright. We would like to thank article authors, interviewees, and image donors, who are fully credited on the 'About the project' page. National Life Stories is very grateful to The Linbury Trust for making this website possible.

Blog by Camille Johnston, Voices of British theatre design Web Co-ordinator & Oral History Assistant Archivist, National Life Stories at the British Library.

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

21 December 2021

Ian Rawes and the London Sound Survey

By Steve Cleary, Lead Curator, Literary and Creative Recordings.

In October this year many of us at the British Library were distressed to hear of the death of Ian Rawes. Best known to the wider world for his field recording project London Sound Survey, Ian once worked at the Library. He was here for a period of 13 years, leaving in 2014.

Sound and Vision Acquisitions Officer Ian Macaskill remembers Ian from the early days:

In earlier times, when some of us were based in the British Library building in Micawber Street, Ian worked as a Sound Archive Vaultkeeper. He was unfailingly hard-working and helpful to all. A great loss.

After he left, Ian returned as a researcher, working in the Reading Rooms on projects such as his 2016 book of 'forgotten sound-words' Honk, Conk and Squacket. Ian was well-liked among his former colleagues and would often join some of us for a pint in the Boot or the Skinners Arms on a Friday night, after work had finished and the Reading Rooms had closed.

The London Sound Survey is a web resource presenting over 2,000 recordings of everyday life in London and beyond. Most were made by Ian between 2008 and 2020. Some guest recordists are also featured, including Richard Beard, with a selection of his Hackney wildlife recordings. The site also includes many related articles on the theme of urban sound.

Ian used a variety of techniques to make his recordings. I recall him demonstrating his headworn binaural microphones. To the casual observer, these looked much like headphones, and didn't attract public attention. These were used to make stereo recordings in many different urban environments. Here is one from 2010, made at an anti-capitalist protest encampment by St Paul's Cathedral. And here is another, featuring the gentlemen who stand outside the restaurants in Brick Lane trying to drum up custom.

Discretion was advisable in certain settings, but other kinds of recordings, such as these environmental recordings made along the Kent and Essex sides of the Thames Estuary used a more traditional field recording approach. The now-disappeared sound of the Coryton Oil Refinery siren served as a moment of reflection during Ian's memorial service.

Some highlights from the collection - among them the memorably titled 'Cigarette Ponce' - were issued on vinyl on the Vitelli label under the title 'These Are the Good Times'. The collection itself is archived permanently at London Metropolitan Archives

Ian's second published LP Thames was issued by the Persistence of Sound label. This contained a mixture of industrial and environmental recordings, from the inner workings of Tower Bridge to the sounds of the Essex shore. There are plans for the label to release some of Ian's last recordings on a new LP in 2022.

Online tributes to Ian included a very well-informed piece by Tony Herrington in The Wire and another from Susannah Butter in the Evening Standard, and there were many comments on both public and professional forums from those who had worked with Ian and/or known him personally. All testified to his generous, affable nature and healthy sense of humour. Ian was great company and was never in the slightest pompous or pretentious about his work. He will be very much missed.

Ian Rawes in a pub in Cambridge in 2017

Above: Ian in a pub in Cambridge in 2017. Photo: Steve Cleary.

29 November 2021

Recording of the Week: The musical pillars of a medieval Indian temple

This week's selection comes from Jim Hickson, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

In the British Library's sound archive collections, we have a lot of recordings of temple music – various types of song and music in dedication to any number of religions across the world, performed in a holy space.

Today’s Recording of the Week is temple music with a slight difference –music performed not only in a temple, but also on a temple.

Hampi030Some of the musical pillars of the Vittala Temple. Photo by Tom Vater’s travel companion Aroon Thaewchatturat.

The Shri Vijaya Vittala Temple sits among the breath-taking and sprawling ruins of the ancient city of Hampi, in Karnataka, India. Dedicated to Vittala, a manifestation of the god Vishnu and his avatar Krishna, the temple began construction sometime in the 15th or 16th centuries but was never finished – the city was destroyed in 1565.

The impressive temple is famous for many reasons, including a giant stone shrine in the shape of a chariot, which is pictured on the ₹50 note. It is also known for its 56 musical pillars.

Each of the temple’s eight main pillars are surrounded by seven smaller pillars. When these small pillars are struck with the hand or a wooden beater, they ring in a clear, bell-like tone. Not only that, but each pillar in a set is tuned to a different note, meaning that together they sound a scale on which music can be performed.

Vittala Temple C799/6 S1 C2 [BL REF]

The pillars are made from solid granite, with minute differences in size and shape to give them their clear and perfectly-tuned tones. Different pillars are also said to represent different instruments, some representing melody instruments such as the veena and some representing percussion such as the mridangam.

This recording – which can be found in the sound archive's catalogue, was made by Tom Vater in 1995, and it’s one of the clearest and most detailed recording of a ‘performance’ of the Vittala Temple pillars. While most other recordings demonstrate the sound of just one or two pillars, Vater’s captures the sound of several sets of notes, while insects and birds fill the soundscape behind.

The entirety of the ruined city of Hampi is a UNESCO Heritage Site, and in order to protect the temple and its pillars, it is no longer permitted to play the musical pillars. Vater’s recording gives a valuable insight into this fascinating monument of the medieval world as well as being an outstanding and intriguing document in its own right: where temple music meets 'architecturomusicology'!

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

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

18 November 2021

Introducing the Collections in Dialogue commission with Leeds Art Gallery and the British Library

Written by Jill McKnight, Artist-in-Residence.

I am an artist based in Leeds working across sculpture, writing, installation, drawing and print and I’ve been selected as the artist in residency for Collections in Dialogue, a co-commission project by the British Library and Leeds Art Gallery. The project brief particularly interested me because it focused on cultural identity which is one of my central artistic concerns, particularly the representation of working-class people in Northern England and lesser-heard voices that would otherwise be lost or overlooked. This opportunity has been incredibly timely, enabling me to develop these interests through researching the Library’s and Leeds Art Gallery’s digitised collections. My research will culminate in an exhibition of new artwork at Leeds Art Gallery next year.

I am exploring specific areas of the two collections; World & Traditional Music and Accents and Dialects collections in the British Library’s sound archive and Works on Paper at Leeds Art Gallery. As both collections are vast – 6.5 million recordings in the sound archive, and over 10,000 works on paper – I established key themes to direct my research. As an artist working in the city, I chose to explore how people in the Leeds region have represented themselves and others in the two collections. Where there are gaps in representation in one collection, particularly of people traditionally underrepresented in the arts, I plan to bring them into conversation with representations in the other collection through my work.

Following meetings with British Library Curators Jonnie Robinson and Andrea Zarza and the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team, I have been searching the Library’s Sound & Moving Image Catalogue to identify relevant recordings.

The Opie Collection of Children’s Games & Songs fascinates me because rhymes passed down by word of mouth tell collective stories about society. Rowland Kellet was a folklorist born in Leeds, who I learned about from this collection. Kellet collected children’s games, songs and jingles from across the UK, including variations of the same song in different parts of Leeds. Although many different versions of folk songs exist, each version is unique to the performer. These communal songs share a relationship with work songs and folk songs, which connect with Leeds’ industrial history.

Kellett comments on the timelessness of these songs in his interview with Iona Opie, saying, ‘There is no life, there’s no deaths of these songs. To me they are eternal. You can’t kill them because, because if you try to kill it you bring a different variant of it.’ I have been fortunate to view some of Kellet’s paper archives held at Leeds Central Library, and will be listening to folk songs performed by Kellet, recently catalogued as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

Leeds is a city that has thrived due to the diversity of its population. In recordings like 'Conversation in Leeds about accent, dialect and attitudes to language', part of BBC Voices, six interviewees from Moortown, Leeds, talk about their own accents, Yorkshire dialect and the Punjabi language – one interviewee recognises both regions as being rooted in common industrial identities, saying, ‘you could say they were twin cities basically, twin states Yorkshire and Punjab.’

In 'Leeds - Millennium Memory Bank' six teenagers from South Leeds talk about being proud of working-class, with one explaining, ‘Even when my dad gives me pocket money I don’t like it, because you know like I ending washing up for him or something, because I like earning money because then I know I’ve worked for it.’ This same work ethic in 1999 connects with lines from folk song The Maid’s Lament, performed by Mrs Johnstone and recorded in 1967, by Fred Hamer.

Excerpt of The Maid's Lament sung by Mrs Johnstone [BL REF C433/7]

At Leeds Art Gallery, I chose to focus on the works on paper collection due to its range – from sketches to finished compositions; watercolours to photography; large quantity and conservation considerations that have meant some works have never been on display.

Works of art on paper spread out across a wooden table.            Selection of works on paper that I viewed in person at Leeds Art Gallery © Jill McKnight

I met with Assistant Curator Laura Claveria to discuss key words and themes, including working-class culture, women, children and Leeds-related artists, from which Laura sent an initial longlist of relevant works from the collection. From this, I made a shortlist to view in person. It was fantastic to see the works up close, where intricacies and details conveying the hand of the artist often jump out more directly than in digital form.

Artist sitting at a wooden table consulting paper files and writing with pencil in notebook.                 Researching Edna Lumb’s artist file archive at Leeds Art Gallery © Jill McKnight

So far I have discovered a number of artists unknown to me, including Edna Lumb (1931-1992) and Effie Hummerston (1891-1982). Both artists were born and studied in Leeds and went on to capture some of the area’s male-dominated industrial landscapes in their paintings. Edna Lumb’s work achieved national recognition during her lifetime. This is reflected in the large amount of material in Lumb’s artist file. However, critics noted that it was the scientific community, rather than artistic, who more frequently celebrated the work due to its realist depiction of industrial technology.

Painting of Tingley Gas Works in the distant horizon above green fields.                Edna Lumb, Tingley Gas Works, oil on canvas, 1964. © Leeds Museums & Galleries.

Another fascinating part of the collection are works on paper by seven artists that were ideas for a mural scheme for Leeds Town Hall, a commission in 1920 led by Michael Sadler, which was also intended as a commemorative response to the First World War. Artists selected were local and national including Percy Hague Jowett, Jacob Kramer and Albert Rutherston. The mural designs took into account the architecture of the Town Hall, with features such as doorways represented by blank spaces. The majority of the works feature industrial or pastoral scenes of Leeds, including woollen mills, the canal and Kirkstall Abbey. Perhaps this is how the artists thought the people of Leeds would want their city represented, however the designs were heavily criticised and the murals were never realised, providing an insight into the politics of that time.

My first few weeks of research have unearthed an abundance of stories, which I am now responding to through initial sketches and writing of my own. This will further direct my ongoing research and inform my final proposal at the start of next year for the exhibition in spring.

Collections in Dialogue

Collections in Dialogue is a new artist co-commission project between Leeds Art Gallery and the British Library.

It is formed around the commissioning an artist based in the North of England to work with collections at both institutions as a catalyst to produce new work that creates a dialogue between them. Following a recruitment process, the commission was awarded to Jill McKnight in summer 2021. The work Jill creates will be exhibited at Leeds Art Gallery from March – October 2022 with some digital elements shown online.

Collections in Dialogue is part of the British Library’s growing culture programme in Leeds and the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project.

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