THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

228 posts categorized "Arts, literature & performance"

23 July 2021

Persian choral album surfaces after four decades in limbo

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Choral Music from Persia CD coverCD cover courtesy of Persian Dutch Network

Guest blog by Pejman Akbarzadeh

In 1973, the Empress of Persia, Farah Pahlavi, commissioned the choral conductor Evlin Baghcheban to establish a conservatory of music for orphaned children. In this school, Baghcheban organised a choral group called the Farah Choir. The group gave regular concerts throughout the country and in the autumn of 1978 went to Austria to record their debut album. A number of fascinating Persian folk songs were recorded in Vienna, with a plan to release them in Tehran. However, the victory of the Islamic Revolution disrupted all plans, the choir was dissolved, and its conductor went into exile. 

The master tapes of the 1978 recording session remained silent at Baghcheban's house for decades. The name of the choral group 'Farah' was a reference to the name of the former queen of Persia, so releasing an album under her name was out of question in post-revolutionary Iran. However, shortly after the death of Baghcheban the tapes were transferred to Holland, where they were restored and released by the Persian Dutch Network.

This recording has a key historical value for Persian choral music. It features the first attempt, by Ruben Gregorian (1915-1991), to arrange Persian folk songs for a Western-style choir. Gregorian published the scores of his arrangements in Tehran in 1948, but recordings of his work were not previously available internationally. In his arrangements, he tried to be as faithful as possible to the original melodies, with no intention of changing or developing any part. The rest of the songs in the Farah Choir's recording were arranged by one of the next generation of Persian composers, Samin Baghcheban (1925-2008), husband of Evlin. His style is very different, showing more interest in the use of folk melodies as a starting idea, then developed using various compositional methods. He uses imitation and drone in his arrangements as well.

The British magazine Songlines has featured a four-star review for the recording and Empress Farah has expressed delight that the 1978 recording has been preserved and become available after four decades. The album "Choral Music from Persia" plays a crucial role to raise public awareness of a little known genre in music.

For all the latest news follow @BL_Classical

 

 

05 July 2021

‘Violence, shock, life’: the sounds of Pierre Boulez’s formative years

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Pierre Boulez (1968)Pierre Boulez (1968)

Guest blog by Edison Fellow Dr Caroline Potter

Pierre Boulez was one of the most important musicians of the 20th and early 21st centuries. His own music is often considered forbiddingly cerebral, not least because musicologists have tended to focus on its construction, but I contend that the French literary and broader intellectual context was at least as important to the composer as musical techniques such as serialism. My research project, generously supported in 2020-21 by a British Library Edison Fellowship, uncovers the crucial impact of this context on Boulez, enhancing our understanding of his work and leading towards a more visceral, emotional response to his work.

Boulez’s reputation as the ‘angry young man’ of European modern music followed him for the rest of his long life. He was angry because music mattered hugely to him. Of course, this anger sprang from his rejection of the conservative French musical culture of his youth, from a desire to wipe the slate clean after the horrors of World War II, and surely also from his rejection of senior male role models, including his father who wanted him to train as an engineer. But, more profoundly, this violence and anger has striking parallels in Parisian artistic culture of the 1930s and 40s, and specifically from artists broadly connected with surrealism.

Antonin Artaud 1926Antonin Artaud (1926)

 One of the most important figures in Boulez’s artistic evolution was Antonin Artaud (1897-1948). He is best known today for writings including The Theatre and its Double, but for Boulez, Artaud was not primarily a cultural theoretician, but a performing artist whose work only truly existed live. It was Paule Thévenin, Artaud’s friend and later his literary executor, who introduced Artaud’s work to Boulez (she later also edited a collection of Boulez’s writings). Artaud’s final public performance took place at the Galerie Loeb in Paris in July 1947, where he read some of his texts surrounded by an exhibition of his drawings. This was an intimate space; ‘Boulez and his friends had to sit in front of the first row of chairs, and they found themselves almost ‘under’ the voice of Artaud when he was reading.’[1] Being within spitting distance of Artaud, still a charismatic performer despite his much reduced physical condition, was an experience that Boulez never forgot. Towards the end of his life, he recalled that Artaud’s performance ‘made an impression on me because what initially seemed to make no sense suddenly made sense very strongly.’[2]

Few Artaud recordings survive: there are copies of Aliénation et la magie noire (1946) and Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) in the British Library. In Pour en finir… Artaud pushes his voice to its very limits;

Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) extract

through the extremes of expression, register and dynamics, he sought to transcend the limitations of human utterances. Listening to Artaud’s vocal performance alongside the final movement of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata played by Maurizio Pollini, with its aggressive performance directions such as ‘pulvériser le son’, shows that they both inhabit a sound world where no holds are barred.

Boulez Piano Sonata No.2 extract

In the 1920s, Artaud was briefly associated with André Breton, the self-appointed leader of the surrealist movement. The French surrealist circle was a pluridisciplinary environment whose members had wide-ranging artistic and intellectual interests. Often these coexisted in one publication, as in the reviews Documents and Minotaure, whose pages provide a complete portrait of contemporary surrealism, from psychoanalytical studies of delirium to images provoking new ideas through incongruous juxtapositions. And Breton himself frequently combined photography, autobiography and fiction in a single publication; he also had a strong interest in ethnography and amassed an impressive collection of non-Western and esoteric objects.

One obvious connection between Breton’s stories – one that was particularly resonant for Boulez – is the recycling of the last phrase of his novella Nadja (1928), ‘La beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas’ (Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be). At the end of ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, a short story published in Minotaure in 1934, we read this extension: ‘La beauté convulsive sera érotique-voilée, explosante-fixe, magique-circonstancielle ou ne sera pas’ (Convulsive beauty will be erotic-veiled, exploding-fixed, magic-circumstantial or it will not be).[3] Convulsive beauty is a physical shock, an instant unmediated reaction which has the power to reunite supposed opposites. It provokes profound sensations instantaneously which according to Breton, ‘could not come to us via ordinary logical paths.’

‘La beauté sera convulsive’ is illustrated by a photo by Man Ray captioned ‘explosante-fixe’: a female dancer wearing a full skirt and sleeves, perhaps a flamenco dancer in a trance, captured in a freeze frame with her arms, sleeves and skirt suspended in mid-whirling motion. This fleeting instant captured on film exemplifies ‘convulsive beauty.’ Images, it is suggested, are superior to words as conduits of convulsive beauty, provoking as they do an instant, unmediated reaction. And moving beyond Breton, I contend that music has an even stronger power to convey convulsive beauty. Music can only exist in time and in sound; its action on our senses is literally ‘moving.’ Unlike Breton, the Belgian composer André Souris, a friend and early supporter of Boulez, understood the unique power of music; he believed that ‘the language of music was more apt than any other to faithfully relay the deepest feelings’ and that music was ‘perhaps the medium most suited to surrealist expression.’[4]

The impact of surrealism on Boulez has been underplayed: most obviously, he used a Breton fragment, …explosante-fixe…, as the title of several related works in the 1970s-90s, and this fusion of apparent opposites – explosion and stasis – is a highly apt metaphor for his music. A recording of an early version conducted by Boulez at the Proms on 17 August 1973, when compared with later versions, shows that its musical identity remained remarkably stable. This extract was recycled in later iterations of …explosante-fixe…, including the offshoot Mémoriale (1985).

Explosante Fixe (1973) extract

In a letter to Souris written in 1947, Boulez wrote that his music was about ‘violence, shock, life’ and he believed ‘this is what is most lacking, it seems to me, in every work by the serial “school”.’[5] In the work of Artaud and Breton, Boulez discovered the ‘violence, shock, life’ which is the defining characteristic of his first compositions.

[1] Sarah Barbedette, ‘Différentes façons d’être voyant’ in Barbedette (ed.) Pierre Boulez [exhibition catalogue]. Paris: Actes Sud, 2015: pp. 23-37, at p. 25: ‘Boulez et ses amis doivent s’asseoir devant le premier rang de chaises, et c’est presque « sous » la voix d’Antonin Artaud qu’ils se trouvent lorsque celui-ci profère ses poèmes.’

[2] François Meïmoun, Pierre Boulez: La Naissance d’un compositeur. Paris: Aedam musicae, 2010, p. 59: ‘[…] ce qui n’avait initialement aucun sens prenait d’un coup un sens, et un sens très fort.’

[3] André Breton, ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, in Minotaure, 5 (May 1934): pp. 8-16, at p. 16.

[4] Cited in Robert Wangermée, André Souris et le complexe d’Orphée. Entre surréalisme et musique sérielle, Liège, Mardaga (1995), p. 6; ‘la matière musicale était plus propre qu’aucune autre à épouser fidèlement les mouvements intérieurs […] [la musique constituait ‘peut-être le moyen le plus conforme aux démonstrations surréalistes.’

[5] Wangermée (1995), p. 272; ‘Boulez disait ensuite ce qu’apportait sa propre musique: la violence, le choc, la vie. “C’est ce qui manque le plus, me semble-t-il, à toutes les œuvres de ‘l’école’ atonale”, ajoutait-il.’

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21 June 2021

Recording of the week: Carol Ann Duffy reads ‘Mrs Midas’

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This week's selection comes from Dr Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings and Digital Performance.

I have been listening to Carol Ann Duffy reading her poem ‘Mrs Midas’ at an English PEN event held in London in 1994.

King Midas is known in Greek mythology for his ability to turn everything he touches into gold. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem is set in modern times and is written from the perspective of the King’s wife, Mrs Midas. The story starts with a perplexed Mrs Midas at their home where there is something odd going on with the King. Through a sequence of incidents at dinner time the King makes a confession. On seeing the food and homeware turned into gold Mrs Midas recounts:

___________________________________ I made him sit
on the other side of the room and keep his hands to himself.
I locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone.
The toilet I didn’t mind. I couldn’t believe my ears:
how he’d had a wish. Look, we all have wishes; granted.
But who has wishes granted? Him. Do you know about gold?
It feeds no one; aurum, soft, untarnishable; slakes
no thirst.

Listen to the recording to find out what happens next.

'Mrs Midas' [BL REF C125/347 C7]

Read poem transcript

‘Mrs Midas’ is part of Duffy’s collection The World’s Wife, published by Picador and Anvil Press Poetry in 1999. Each poem engages with a mythological or historical male figure. The poems are always written from a female perspective and in monologue form. Several of these women are spouses. The collection provides a revised outlook on familiar narratives but all of them place women centre stage.

There are five years between Duffy’s reading at PEN and the publication of The World’s Wife, yet the poem did not change. There are four other poems from this collection in the recording, ‘Mrs Tiresias’, ‘Mrs Aesop’, ‘Queen Kong’ and ‘Mrs Darwin’.

The English PEN collection consists of literary talks and readings hosted and recorded by PEN between 1953 and 2006. It also includes the International Writers Day events, recorded by the British Library. Most of the events took place either in London or different parts of the UK.

This collection has been preserved by the Library’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project. It includes a total of 1184 recordings from over 400 tapes, which are now accessible in the Library’s Reading Rooms. In due course, from early 2021, you will be able to listen to up to 325 English PEN recordings online.

Since I am still working from home in London, I have included this picture of King Midas from a children’s book my mother gave me as a child growing up in Spain. This was my first encounter with the King Midas story. The story feels more complete now with the addition of Mrs Midas’ views.

Illustration of King Midas
Illustration of King Midas from the book 'El rey Midas. Mis cuentos favoritos' published by Editorial Vasco Americana, 1967

English PEN is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year (1921-2021). To mark this important occasion they are running Common Currency, a year-long programme of events, residencies and workshops, which includes a three-day festival at the Southbank Centre, London, 24-26 September 2021.

To tie in with PEN’s centenary I will be featuring more recordings from the collection in the coming months.

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24 May 2021

Recording of the week: On architecture and identity

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This week's selection comes from Giulia Baldorilli, Reference Specialist.

In these extracts from an oral history interview, architect Edward Jones talks about his approach to architecture, and what it means to build houses in both London and the rest of England. The interview was recorded in 2012 by the National Life Stories and is part of the Architect’s Lives collection.

Architecture is the living culture of a city life. We relate to the shapes of buildings and public spaces while we walk along the streets.

In trying to explain the gap between the design of buildings in the post-war period and the desires of people who would live in them, Edward reflects on a professional attitude that led to urban spaces being represented as miserable, inspiring a sort of urban blues.

A feeling of vulnerability from unsupervised spaces also arises from within the city’s voids: what is the relationship, or the lack of relationship with those spaces?

Traditional English house [BL REF C467/98]

Jones often gets asked what the best type of dwelling for the city would be, but in this interview, he shows how different urban histories led to different types of housing.

England has a very different architectural tradition to the Continent. Historically, England never experienced major land invasions so there wasn’t a need for walls or for intervening areas between the door and the street. London, Jones continues, never needed any defensive walls. Thus, the house-type building was the predominant housing solution that worked for England and flats only become more widely used in the 19th century.

Row of brick houses in London
Photo by Gonzalo Facello on Unsplash

In contrast, continental Europe adopted apartment blocks to house life in the cities. Paris or Brussels are architectural conglomerates with different levels of defence. Likewise, Glasgow has the same architectural structure. But not England.

Architecture as a reflection of a cliché: housing solutions become a representation of the ideal of a good life. Thus, the design of houses becomes part of the tradition, it reveals the relationship between spaces and the people who inhabit them.

Not only do houses create an identity, but cultural norms also play an important role in defining the geometry of cities across the country.

The celebration of private life in English culture is reflected in the strong residential character of London. The uniqueness of many of the green spaces in the city illustrates English cultural affection for the countryside. New York City doesn’t have that green character, Jones continues, but he still might prefer that urban arrangement as an experience of city life (although he admits he is probably an outsider to this).

The City's green spaces [BL REF C467/98]

Download Transcript for Edward Jones interview

Some distance is needed to observe the peculiarity of a city. Edward Jones reminds us that 'it might take the eyes of a foreigner to kind of see it'.

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

17 May 2021

Recording of the week: The first recording of a complete piano concerto

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This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Lockdown has given us the chance to listen to music while working from home and revisit well known recordings that we may not have had the opportunity to hear for a while. Recently I listened again to the first complete recording of a piano concerto – Beethoven’s famous 'Emperor', recorded for HMV in April 1922 by Frederic Lamond (1868-1948) with the Royal Albert Hall and conducted by Eugene Goossens.

photograph of Frederic Lamond
Frederic Lamond in 1898

Lamond was a pupil of the great Franz Liszt, studying with him in Weimar during the last few years of Liszt’s life. I actually wrote the notes for a CD reissue of this recording on the Biddulph label way back in 1998. What strikes me now is not so much the poor quality of the acoustic recording, but the rhythmic drive of the performance and particularly the orchestra; Goossens’s youthful energy is evident throughout the recording.

Eugene Goossens
Eugene Goossens

Eugene Goossens (1893-1962), born just down the road from the British Library in Camden Town, was not even thirty when the recording was made. He was from a family of Belgian musicians who began his musical life as a violinist. His grandfather conducted the first English performance of Wagner’s Tannhäuser in 1882 while Eugene gave the British premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in June 1921 with the composer present. Quite a feat for a novice conductor in this first year! Ten months later he made this recording.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no. 5, op. 73, E flat (Emperor) (BL REF 1CL0029360)

Lamond gives a majestic performance, full of power, virility, nobility and authority. The rudimentary recording process, whereby the players had to gather around a recording horn that collected the sound waves in the room, has managed to capture a good deal of detail without any use of electricity. One hundred years after the event, we can still enjoy the vitality and informed performance of the greatest musicians.

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04 May 2021

'The most important thing is to hear the voice of the Earth': revisiting a Buddhist temple in Fukushima

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This week (29 April – 5 May) in Japan welcomes the arrival of a cluster of national holidays known as Golden Week. Today (4 May) is celebrated as Greenery Day or Midori-no-hi (みどりの日). This is a day that encourages the people of Japan to embrace the environment and take a moment to reconnect with the natural world.

Dokeiji Temple entrance
'May Peace Prevail On Earth' - An inscription written in both Japanese and English on a sekitō (石塔), a stone pagoda that welcomes visitors at the entrance of Dokeiji Temple, a Buddhist temple located in Minamisōma, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan.

'The most important thing is to hear the voice of the earth', says Tokuun Tanaka – head priest of Dokeiji Temple, an 800-year old Sōtō Zen temple situated in the Odaka district of Minamisōma, roughly 20km from the site of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on the north eastern coast of Japan. After the Tōhoku earthquake struck on 11 March 2011, the tsunami and nuclear disaster which followed devastated this region.

A 30km mandatory evacuation zone left many residents with no choice but to leave immediately. Their homes, their communities and their environment were all damaged irreparably. The evacuation order was lifted in 2016 but there remains a great deal of uncertainty as to the long-term effects of the radiation damage there, much of which is still present in the towns and villages surrounding Fukushima, as well as in the marine and forest environments. The forests occupy 75% of the fallout zone and are still considered too dangerous to begin the process of decontamination. What is certain is that it could take many years, if not generations, before the regenerative healing powers of nature begin to take effect.

Tokuun Tanaka - Buddha's Word [BL REF C1872/48/1]

With this humble song, titled Itsukushimi (慈しみ) - a word that can be interpreted as compassion, love and mercy - Tokuun brings together Buddhist scripture from the Sutta Nipata, an ancient text considered to be over 2500 years old, with the modern stylings of folk spirituals on his acoustic guitar. 'The singer-songwriter is Buddha' he tells me in a friendly, jovial tone whilst seated on the tatami floor of Dokeiji temple’s Butsu-dō (main hall). It is a song that Tokuun sings alone at night, surrounded by a gentle chorus of night crickets on this particular late summer evening of 5 September 2019.

I had the opportunity to visit Tokuun and make this recording whilst doing field work supported by the World and Traditional Music section of the British Library Sound Archive. The resulting recordings can now be browsed on the Sound and Moving Image catalogue as the Mat Eric Hart Japan Collection (C1872)

Slowly, the members of this temple community are returning, some after many years of having been displaced, but sadly there are also those who will never return. Every month, Tokuun welcomes visitors to Dokeiji Temple, inviting them to sing together with him this song of compassion, love and healing.

In Tokuun’s own words: 'Our way of life is being challenged. From growth to maturity, let us be part of the change. Let us take the right path without concern for profit or loss. It is time for the whole of humanity to evolve based on solidarity and harmony beyond self and society.'

Written by Mat Eric Hart

The Mat Eric Hart Japan Collection (C1872) explores contemporary practices and rituals of spiritual Japanese individuals and communities, and further aims to examine, from a sonic and artistic perspective, the relationship that exists between nature and spirituality within Japanese culture. The collection includes field recordings of both traditional, contemporary and classical Japanese and Ainu music, Buddhist chants, Shinto rituals, Shugendo and Yamabushi ceremonies. These recordings were made between August and November 2019 at various locations across Japan and her islands.

03 May 2021

Recording of the week: Anthony Daniels talks about C3PO and Star Wars

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This week's selection comes from Sarah Coggrave, Rights Clearance Officer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Tomorrow (May 4) is Star Wars Day, and what better way to celebrate than with a recording from the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project?

Shortly after the first Star Wars film Episode IV – A New Hope was released in 1977, some of the cast members were recorded speaking about their roles in the film for BBC Radio London. Audio recordings featuring actors Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Alec Guinness and Anthony Daniels are now part of the Mike Sparrow Collection (C1248), one of the British Library’s radio collections, which has been recently digitized and made accessible as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

Mike Sparrow (1948 – 2005) was a producer and presenter for BBC Radio London (U.K.) and his collection includes a range of recordings from his time working there, including music, interviews and topical shows.

A C3PO figurine from the Hasbro line of Star Wars toys
A C3PO figurine from the Hasbro line of Star Wars toys, posed against a black background. Image credit: Brendan Hunter, iStock Unreleased, Getty Images.

The recording in this blog post features actor Anthony Daniels (who played C3PO in the Star Wars films) talking about his famous character. Based on the information available, this interview was probably recorded either in late 1977 or 1978. In the recording, Anthony Daniels discusses his unique interpretation of the character, which differed considerably from what George Lucas (creator and director of the Star Wars films) originally had in mind. He also talks about how difficult it was to convey emotions while wearing a gold plated fibreglass suit, and about receiving fan mail addressed to C3PO!

Anthony Daniels talks about his Star Wars character C3PO [BL REF C1248/364/C4]

Download Transcript of Anthony Daniels talking about C3PO

It would not have been possible to share this recording within the kind permission of Anthony Daniels, the executor of Mike Sparrow’s estate and the BBC.

For Star Wars fans there are plenty of relevant resources in British Library collections including books, films and even musical scores, all of which can be searched for on the Library's main catalogues.

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26 April 2021

Recording of the Week: The world’s rarest traditional musical instrument?

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

Musicians playing the biram
Buduma musicians playing the biram, 1967. Photo courtesy of Guy Immega.

The focus of this week’s recording is unusual in a few different ways. It’s a recording of the biram, made in the city of N'guigmi in Niger, probably in the mid- to late-80s. The biram is a large boat-shaped arched harp played by the Buduma people, traditionally fishermen and cattle-herders on the shores and islands of Lake Chad. While similar harps are fairly common in Central Africa, the biram is the only one of its type in West Africa, and may have even evolved from an instrument of the Ancient Egyptians1.

Here is just an excerpt; the full (22 min. 23 sec.) recording can be listened to in British Library Reading Rooms at C617/3 S1 C1.

Buduma songs (BL REF C617/3 S1 C1)

For most instruments, the relationship between object and operator is simple – one instrument has one player. The biram is not quite so simple. In fact, it has two players, both making a completely different sound. One musician, the master, holds the neck of the harp and plucks the melody on its five strings. The other musician, usually a pupil, holds its body and drums a rhythm on the instrument’s skin soundboard and wooden trough. The combination of the deep thrum of the strings and the sharp clack of the body means that often the biram doesn’t sound like a harp at all, but more akin to the ngoni bass-lute of the Malian Bamana people. The biram is both a string instrument and a percussion instrument, literally depending on where you sit.

Musicians playing the biram
Buduma musicians playing the biram, 1967. Photo courtesy of Guy Immega.

Since this recording was made, however, the biram very nearly became extinct. As Lake Niger shrinks and its shores recede, the Buduma people are dispersing and their traditional culture and music are being lost. By the early 2000s, there was just one biram player left, a man named Boukar Tar. With no young Buduma musicians interested in learning the instrument, it seemed as if it would die with him. However, in 2002, Tar was approached by Mamane Barka, a Toubou musician already famous as a player of the gurumi lute. Tar taught Barka all he knew in the four years before his death on the condition that Barka would show the biram around the world. And he did: he performed the biram across Europe and the US2 and released the instrument’s very first album3. Barka himself died in 2018, but not before teaching the art of playing and making the biram to several students – this fantastic instrument has been pulled from the brink, although its future remains in the balance. Only time will tell if the biram will continue to recover.

Footnotes:

1 Immega, Guy (2012). Ancient Egypt’s Lost Legacy: The Buduma Culture of Lake Chad. Self-published: Vancouver.
2 Including a performance at the WOMAD festival in 2008, which can be heard at C203/1515.
3 Introducing Mamane Barka, World Music Network, 2009.

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