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369 posts categorized "Contemporary Britain"

19 April 2021

Recording of the week: 'It is a great thing nettle beer'

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This week's selection comes from Dr. Sue Davies, Project Manager for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

One thing I love about the sound archive is that by listening I discover things that I wasn’t looking for. This recording on nettle beer comes from a particularly rich source of diverting information. The Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture contains hundreds of recordings made by linguists researching accents and dialects. These conversations capture all sorts of incidental stories about the interviewee’s childhood, education, work and family life. In this clip Olive Metcalf talks about making her own nettle beer. She was interviewed by Patricia M. Morris in 1981 in the Kirkstall area of Leeds, West Yorkshire.

Excerpt of dialect recording in Leeds West Yorkshire [BL REF C1829/598]

Download transcript of interview

Stinging nettles grow in abundance across Britain and the young leaves have long been eaten as an early spring tonic. I can understand why some nettle recipes have fallen out of fashion but nettle beer is genuinely tasty. It is reminiscent of ginger beer and indeed some recipes include ginger.

Nettles
A bag of nettles tops ready to be washed and boiled © Sue Davies

Thick gloves are essential to avoid getting stung when collecting the nettles but that is the trickiest part. Once you have a bagful of young nettle tops making the beer is straightforward and there are plenty of instructions online. The basic recipe requires the nettles to be cleaned then boiled for 15 minutes. The nettles go a beautiful green and the water a rather sinister inky colour. The sugar is dissolved into the strained liquid. When it is lukewarm the yeast is added and the mixture left for a few days. It can be drunk within 24 hours or left for a week.

Nettle beer
Nettle beer ready for drinking © Sue Davies

Here are some alternative recipes sourced online:

How to make nettle beer home brew. Step by step recipe 
Maude Grieve’s 1930s recipe: Traditional 1930’s Stinging Nettle Beer Recipe
Pascal Baudar's recipe: How to make nettle beer

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

05 April 2021

Recording of the week: An interview with Ravi Shankar

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

In 2017, the Mike Sparrow Collection (C1248) was the first audio collection to be preserved as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. Mike Sparrow (1948 - 2005) was a radio producer and presenter for BBC Radio London (UK) in the 1970s and 1980s, and his collection includes music, reviews, current affairs features and interviews from shows he worked on. One of my favourite recordings is of Mike Sparrow interviewing Indian sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar (1920 – 2012), in the 1970s.

Based on the details accompanying the collection and from clues within the audio, it is likely this recording was made in early 1978, shortly before Ravi Shankar’s performance on 20 January at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.), in the same year. In this blog I will share some short excerpts from the recording.

Ravi Shankar playing sitar
Ravi Shankar performing at Woodstock Festival in 1969, image sourced via Wikimedia Commons and licensed by CC-SA 4.0.

Ravi Shankar is known across the world for his teaching and performance work, and for sharing North Indian classical music with a range of audiences. In the interview he gives fascinating glimpses into this work, his well-documented association with other famous musicians (including George Harrison and Yehudi Menuhin) as well as discussing how best to define and appreciate different types of classical music.

In this first excerpt from the interview, Ravi Shankar explains what a raga is.

Ravi Shankar defines raga (excerpt 1)

The sitar (a stringed instrument used Indian classical music) presents particular physical challenges due to the length of the fretboard and the method of playing, which, as Ravi Shankar mentions in the interview, results in cut fingers and callouses. In the second excerpt he describes the years of study required to develop the necessary technical and improvisational skills for performances.

Ravi Shankar describes his musical training (excerpt 2)

Throughout the interview Ravi Shankar talks about his desire to bring Indian classical music to new audiences, and reflects on the positive effects of his association with the rock and roll world, including performing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 (California, U.S.A.) and Woodstock in 1969 (New York, U.S.A.), where the image in this blog was taken. While performances such as these made it possible to reach younger listeners, he also expressed concern about the drinking, smoking and drug taking that took place at such festivals, activities that he thought might undermine the appreciation and enjoyment of the music.

This partially accounts for Ravi Shankar’s subsequent move away from the rock and roll music scene and when Mike Sparrow asks for further clarification, the discussion moves on to what is meant by the term 'classical music'. Their conversation can be heard in the following excerpt from the interview:

Ravi Shankar discusses types of classical music (excerpt 3)

Interview transcript

Later in the interview this theme is explored further in terms of how Western audiences react to their first encounters with classical Indian music and vice versa. Ravi Shankar talks specifically about the greater emphasis on melody and rhythm in Indian classical music, and how this can be disconcerting for listeners who are accustomed to harmony, modulation and dynamics being more central.

Mike Sparrow’s final question concerns Ravi Shankar’s (then) upcoming performance at the Royal Albert Hall (London, U.K.). What might audiences expect? He responds by explaining that he often does not decide on the ragas until shortly before the performance, although avoids starting with a long one in case of latecomers, who might otherwise face waiting outside for up to 45 minutes!

It would not have been possible to share this interview without the kind assistance of Ravi Shankar’s estate, Mike Sparrow’s executor and the BBC. Many recordings of Ravi Shankar’s performances can be accessed at the British Library, as well as his autobiography and other publications describing his life and work. More details on all of this can be found searching British Library catalogues.

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

01 April 2021

Guy Brett: Ideas in Motion

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One of the more delicate questions we ask our interviewees in a life story interview is how they feel about death. When I posed this question to art writer Guy Brett (1942 – 2021) in 2008, he gave an answer which succinctly encapsulated our own collaborative endeavour in that moment: ‘I believe in human memory. If nobody remembers you, then you’ve gone, but if people remember you, you live on in some form or another […] that is the afterlife’.

Guy had recently returned from a writing residency in New Zealand and was fascinated by Maori culture and their value system. He lingered on the ideas behind Maori attitudes to life informed by their belief in ancestor worship. The Maori people, Guy explained, are conscious all the time of the genealogy of their families and those who are no longer alive: their ancestors have a present quality and are always being invoked, so their sense of the past remains ever present.

At the end of recording Guy’s life story for ‘Art World Professionals’ as part of 'Artists' Lives' [shelf-mark C466-270], I told him that National Life Stories had made a life story recording with his own father, the architect, town planner and writer, Lionel Brett (Lord Esher), for the ‘Architect’s Lives’ archive [shelf-mark C467/14], a decade earlier. Guy found the discovery of his father’s narration of his own life journey profoundly moving. As a thinker, Guy insisted on the clear understanding of the beginnings of things: ‘it’s like a seed’, he said, ‘tracing back to where things originate’. Perhaps this perspective was why the intergenerational exchange of father to son through life story testimony became such a moving moment; through Lionel Brett’s reflections, Guy returned to his own beginnings.

Black and white photo of Guy Brett in front of an art work which is a series of written questions each beginning with 'Is Art?'Guy Brett at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 1975, with part of Lea Lublin’s Question on Art

The Bretts enjoyed tremendous privilege, but they were acutely aware of their sense of responsibility outside themselves. Even though father and son pursued radically different paths in their lives, their recordings testify to a mutual devotion to public service. Guy took the freedoms he inherited and used them deliberately, responsibly: he dedicated his life to championing the work of marginalised artists and worked tirelessly to reorient the art world’s gaze to the innovations and contributions of artists from the Southern Hemisphere.

Sometimes Guy’s concerns meant turning his back on the art world altogether. About his 1986 book, Through our Own Eyes: Popular Art and Modern History, he confesses that ‘my interest in those popular forms were connected not with disillusionment, but a disappointment, with the professional art world […] I wanted to use my writing to make an intervention in the political process through art. It wasn’t to do with any particular political movement. The theme of the book was lived experience—the strange connection between an untutored practice or language dealing with overwhelmingly powerful social experiences’.

In order to pursue the causes in which he ardently believed, Guy had to operate independently. and it was perhaps due to his early life that he had the inner confidence to operate outside of the academy or institution, to shun dominant ideology. In this audio clip, Guy Brett explains how his response to art and artists were in opposition to the forces and mechanics of the art world at large.

Guy Brett on defending artists not recognised by the mainstream (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on defending artists not recognised by the mainstream transcript

Guy’s deliberate choice of ‘unjust’ in his description of neglected artists is significant: justice becomes a kind of leitmotif of Guy’s recording and lies at the heart of his personal motivation. From an early age, he identified his commitment to social justice—but the art world, as he emphatically reminds us, is a very unjust place. In his autobiography, Our Selves Unknown, Lionel Brett described his son as belonging to ‘the generation of Marcusean alienation’—that is, a generation of young people eager to break out of the ‘one dimensionality’ of a culture that meant that people found themselves in the commodities they purchased, not the ideas they thought. Looking at Guy Brett’s lifework, it becomes clear that his choices were informed by political convictions that, in his own words, ‘permeate your whole consciousness: it’s simply the pursuit of some idea of freedom, freedom from oppression’. Guy’s younger brother, the Chilean-based Human Rights activist, Sebastian Brett, observes that ‘the alienation of which my father wrote attracted us both to what in those days was optimistically called ‘The Third World’ […] we romantically identified with its liberation movements, and barely a few years later, with the movement of solidarity with victims of the military repression that swept the continent in the 1970s.’

Black and white photo of four men sitting on the floor mailing a news bulletinGuy Brett (centre) with (from left to right) Paul Keeler, Sergio de Camargo, Christopher Walker and David Medalla mailing the Signals news bulletin from Cornwall Gardens in 1964. © Clay Perry

Guy’s understanding of the social and cultural forces that shape our contemporary moment illuminates his excitement for the promise of a more inclusive, multi-cultural, and cosmopolitan London that was in its infancy as Guy came of age. From his earliest days in professional life, Guy aligned himself with a completely international notion of art and art practice that would undermine an art history predicated on a colonial gaze. He wanted to capture what, in his words, was the ‘extraordinary diversity, which is multi-racial, multi-national, multi-genre, and ebbs and flows with the comings and goings of artists themselves’.

Guy Brett on cultural interchange and national ideology (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on cultural interchange and national ideology transcript

In collaboration with Philippine artist David Medalla and Paul Keeler, Guy helped set up the radical and short-lived Signals Gallery in 1964. This space provided a platform to a host of Brazilian artists—among them, Lygia Clark, Mira Schendel, Sergio Camargo—as well as Venezuelan artists Jesus Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez. While London museums and galleries promoted British formal abstraction and embraced American-oriented material culture, Guy was busy writing about bubble machines made by David Medalla. Generally perceived at the time as mad experiments, these temporal sculptures were, for Guy, a ludic riposte to the new forms in British sculpture: whatever forms the bubble machine made immediately evaporated—thus contradicting the notion of a permanent piece of sculpture. In this next audio clip, Guy articulates his response to seeing kinetic artwork produced by the Greek artist, Takis, for the first time. Guy’s spoken expression captures the sense of quizzical intrigue and excitement with which he received these new forms of art. When the rest of the world caught up several decades later, Guy curated Takis’s retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2019.

Black and white photo of Guy Brett standing upright and holding a magnet towards Takis who is also standing uprightGuy Brett holding a magnet with Greek artist Takis, circa 1964 © Clay Perry

Guy Brett's response to sculpture of Greek artist Takis and his use of magnetism in art (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett’s response to sculpture of Greek artist Takis and his use of magnetism in art transcript

Guy’s receptive sensibility meant that his writing existed in a symbiotic relationship to the artwork he sought to explain. In his recording, Guy describes the process of identification he felt with certain artists when he responded to their work. He explains how Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica’s attitude made so much sense to him that it became ingrained in his own way of looking at things. Guy’s sometimes humourous, always poignant, recounting of organising Oiticica’s groundbreaking 1969 exhibition, the ‘Whitechapel Experience’, in the face of mounting establishment opposition, reminds us of the battles fought by this generation who innovated radical new propositions in art. The panoply of experiences on offer—the staged beach experience; human-sized nesting boxes; and a billiard table that invited the participation of local youths—was a far cry from the self-contained art objects usually on quiet display.

Guy’s lifelong commitment to the path less travelled took courage: an autodidact with no formal training, he enjoyed a curiosity uninhibited by convention. His writing about art drew not on academic jargon but on pre-verbal feelings stimulated by his engagement with both the work and the maker. He cherished intellectual freedom and made unexpected connections between cultures and disciplines—from the lived experience to the interplay of science and mystical philosophy; in his words, ‘All I have learnt about art I learnt from artists and knowing artists and talking with artists and looking at what they did and my own reading’.

Guy Brett on writing and the purpose of art criticism (C466/270)

Download Guy Brett on writing and the purpose of art criticism transcript

In keeping with his interest in Maori custom, Guy Brett’s presence will continue to be felt, not only through his finely-wrought prose and quietly radical sensibility, but also through his words as captured by his life story recording, which still have much to teach us if we make the time to listen. The gently probing, deliberately paced and stripped back audio recordings in the National Life Stories archive offer an antidote of resonant, lived reflection: they create a vital space, amongst the digital noise of our twenty-first century lives, for profoundly felt, movingly candid responses to the human condition.

Written by Hester R. Westley.

Hester R. Westley interviewed Guy Brett for the National Life Stories Project Artists’ Lives in 2007-2008. The full life story interview is available for researchers at the British Library and can be found by searching C466/270 at sami.bl.uk The interview with Lionel Brett (Lord Esher) can be listened to online at BL Sounds.

08 March 2021

Recording of the week: Mohamed Choukri at the ICA

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This week's selection comes from Steve Cleary, Lead Curator of Literary and Creative Recordings.

Tangier  Morocco - photo by Brett Hodnett
Tangier, Morocco by Brett Hodnett – used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA-2.0

Today’s selection features the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri (1935-2003), recorded at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London, 22 September 1992.

Choukri’s first volume of autobiography, published in English as For Bread Alone, tells the story of a harsh and poverty-stricken upbringing in Tangier. Choukri was in fact illiterate until the age of 20. Two further volumes, Streetwise and Faces, continued the story.

Choukri is also known for his personal accounts of friendships with Paul Bowles, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams – all foreign-born writers who resided for varying durations in Tangier.

In this excerpt, Choukri talks (in Arabic) about his motivation for being a writer.

Listen to Mohamed Choukri at the ICA

The live English translation is provided by Owen MacMillan.

Download English-language transcript

This recording excerpt comes from our ICA Talks collection, which comprises recordings of more than 800 talks and discussions held at the ICA, London, during the period 1982-1993. These events featured leading writers, artists and filmmakers. Almost all of the recordings are available to listen to online.

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

23 February 2021

250,000 sounds preserved by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

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By Katerina Webb-Bourne, Communications Intern for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Time is running out to preserve some of our most endangered sound recordings. The Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) project is now four years into an ambitious, National Lottery Heritage Funded five-year project to safeguard at-risk recordings.

Despite the challenges of another lockdown, the resilience and perseverance of the UOSH team has paid off. While navigating national restrictions we have reached a key milestone to save our sounds. 250,000 recordings from across the UK are now safely preserved in our sound archive.

You will soon be able to dip into our collections on our new Sounds website and enjoy sound heritage as diverse as folklore from the Isle of Man to Uyghur music with the electric guitar. The sound items we have preserved also come from ten partner hubs located around the UK, who have contributed over 35,000 recordings of their own and are helping to manage collections from 59 organisations spread throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The UOSH team has adapted to current conditions to continue to provide access to sounds that inspire us and audio we can all enjoy in difficult times. Our Learning and Engagement teams and ten hub partners have launched sound websites, workshops, and a number of creative listening sessions for everyone.

To celebrate all these impressive achievements we want to share the 250,000th sound to be preserved by the UOSH project with you. In this recording you can hear Maeve and Dick discussing how one goes about making ‘Pig Lug’, a Yorkshire dish from the coastal town of Filey similar to a pie or pastry containing currants.

Grab a pen and some paper, and listen closely for the recipe:

Listen to Maeve and Dick

Maeve: aye but now then what about pig lug [= ‘type of pie with currants’] have I tae [= ‘to’] tell thee how tae mack [= ‘to make’] it and then if thou ever gets a wife thou knowest thou can tell her how tae mack it
Dick: aye why
Maeve: have I tae tell thee why dost thou think thou could tell me better Dick
Dick: I daen’t [= daePRESNEG (dae = ‘to do’)] know I daen’t know how tae mack it
Maeve: I know you you mack you mack pastry fost [= ‘first’] though knowest how tae mack pastry Dick
Dick: yes mm
Maeve: you get a bit o’ saim [= ‘lard’] and a bit o’ flour and a bit o’ salt put in and then you mix it in thou knowest and then you get a drop o’ watter [= ‘water’] and mix it tiv [= ‘to’ + vowel] a nice you know a nice movable consistency they call it these days
Dick: aye
Maeve: anyway you get that in
Dick: paste [= ‘dough, esp. pie crust’] aye
Maeve: paste aye and then you roll it out Dick then you put a bit of old blather [= ‘batter/pancake mixture’] on it butter margarine … (aside) go on tae them buns lass … (continues) and then you put some sugar on and then you put it wiv [= ‘with’ + vowel] a few currants your Joan daesn’t [= daePRESNEG (dae = ‘to do’)] like a lot o’ currants course she hae [= ‘to have’] tae she has tae heve [= ‘to have’] her own way like sae [= ‘so’] we put ’em we put ’em as though they were birds flying i’ t’ air thou knowest now and again
Dick: aye
Maeve: but thou likest uh raisins best daesn’t thou
Dick: I dae [= ‘to do’] I like raisins
Maeve: aye well next time we mack em Dick we’ll put raisins in ne’er [= ‘never’] mind about what she likes
Joan: no no no we shan’t cause I daen’t like it
Dick: thou’ll hae tae mack a special ‘un for me then wi’ nowt [= ‘nothing’] but raisins in it
Maeve: aye that’ll be better then I rolls it up and I puts it on a baking sheet thou knowest Dick puts a bit mair [= ‘more’] sugar on top and a drop o’ milk and by thou should see what a shining paste they heve when they come out o’ th’ oven
Dick: oh aye
Maeve: oh they’re grand I know there’s ya [= ‘one’] fella comes tiv our house and if you daen’t put em out o’ road [= ‘out of the way’] there’s nane [= ‘none’] for you he’ll eat lot
Dick: aye that Griffiths fella
Maeve: aye

An illustrated map of Yorkshire with Filey pictured on the coastAbove: An illustrated map of Yorkshire, featuring Filey on the coast between Scarborough and Bridlington. 

Our team enjoyed listening to Maeve and Dick revel in the comforts of baking at home, and it resonated with those of us who picked up new skills during in lockdown. We also found familiar joy in hearing them debate one other about the perfect amount of currants to include in their favourite dish. Perhaps it is time for all aspiring bakers to rediscover an old favourite like Pig Lug?

This recording featuring food from Filey was captured by John Widdowson and is part of the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture (C1829). The collection is a diverse and absorbing treasure trove of sound recordings from the former Institute of Dialect and Folk Life Studies (IDFLS), part of the University of Leeds from October 1964 to September 1983. It also contains dialect-related recordings made prior to the establishment of the Institute, as well as many sounds recordings made for the Survey of English Dialects (SED), the first ever comprehensive, nationwide survey of vernacular speech in England. The collection was donated to us in 2019 for digitisation as part of the UOSH project.

Over 300 examples of dialect are represented in the SED, forming an important and moving record of life in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries. These sound recordings provide us with a window to a vanishing world at a point where many (though not all) the old ways were dying out.

It also provides us with a timely reminder of the vital work we are carrying out and spurs us on to keep preserving sounds, as there is lots more work to do. Look out for new websites exploring the History of Recorded Sound and the speeches of famous orators on Speaking Out in the coming months.

Thank you to Jonnie Robinson, Charlotte Wardley and Andrew Ormsby for your contributions to this article, and the Leeds University Dialect and Heritage project for giving us permission to use this recording.

Congratulations are due to every member of the UOSH team at the British Library and partner hubs for all that has been achieved over the past year.

Follow project updates @BLSoundHeritage on Twitter and Instagram.

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22 February 2021

Recording of the week: Breathe in

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

Born in 1885 in a small town in the Free State province of South Africa, Tromp Van Diggelen had an unfortunate childhood. He suffered from various respiratory-related illnesses, such as pneumonia.

Supported by his teacher at school, Tromp started studying the functionality of human body which eventually led him to discover that simple circular breathing exercises would improve physical strength and build up body resistance.

Instead of investing in long days of training at the gym, he realised good breathing techniques could in fact help him add a few inches to his chest, thus building up physical endurance. He would later become known as 'The Man with the Perfect Chest'.

This focus on functional strength allowed him much more freedom to finally participate alongside other children in sport competitions.

He understood that muscle flexibility was improved by blood flow, and simple breathing exercises might improve the muscular tone, leaving us with a healthier and stronger appearance. This knowledge is at the core of 'A Lesson in Correct Breathing', released by Columbia.

Colombia disc label

Breathing Made Easy

Download Transcript for Breathing Made Easy

In the recording you hear real intakes, while following Tromp’s clear instructions on how to expand the chest and then release the breath.

These talking demonstrations based on practical and simple advice are sequences that are easy to follow and repeat, accessible to anyone. Ultimately, they show us how much a correct breathing technique can improve the quality of our life as a whole.

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

18 February 2021

Remote oral history interviewing at the British Library during the Covid-19 pandemic

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Soon after the first lockdown in March 2020 the British Library oral history team suspended all face to face oral history interviews. Cut off from our established workflows and working from home we were faced with the same question as everyone else, what now?

Led by Oral History Archivist Charlie Morgan, in April 2020 we issued some guidance on ‘Remote oral history interviewing during Covid-19’, kindly hosted by the Oral History Society (updated editions have followed). The guidance argued that for the majority of projects remote interviews would likely never be as good as in-person interviews – from a technical, ethical and practical perspective – and that interviewers should think twice before immediately shifting to online remote interviewing. We recommended delaying interviews that might not be urgent, and raised a number of ethical and legal issues, not the least of which was whether an interview in the midst of a global pandemic might add extra trauma and pressure for certain interviewees (and interviewers) struggling to cope.

As lockdown eased over the summer we developed new risk assessment guidelines, policies and check-lists to help interviewers safely prepare for socially-distanced in-person interviews. Led by Assistant Archivist Camille Johnston, we published ‘Recording oral history interviews in person during the COVID-19 pandemic’ and this formed the basis for a new BL/National Life Stories policy on in-person interviewing.

But no sooner had in-person interviews restarted than they were curtailed by the second and now third lockdowns, forcing us to revisit our earlier decision about remote interviews. This was especially the case for several of National Life Stories newest projects, including ‘An Oral History of Farming, Land Management and Conservation in Post-War Britain’ (generously funded by the Arcadia Trust).

Back in March 2020 the oral history community was relatively unfamiliar with remote interviewing, but since then we and others around the world have been experimenting with a host of technical options. Our own experiments, alongside Oral History Society trainers, focussed on the options we had suggested in our ‘Remote oral history interviewing during Covid-19’ guidance, and resulted in a series of how-to videos on the Oral History Society’s YouTube channel. Some options record video, some don’t. Audio quality and costs both vary. Issues like poor broadband and ‘Zoom fatigue’ persist. Unlike in-person interviewing there remains no single ‘best practice’ approach to remote recording.

Aerial photo of a desk with a laptop, keyboard and mouse shown next to a USB microphoneRemote recording set up. Image: Liz Wright.

For our own projects we settled on using a podcasting programme Zencastr (now Zencastr Classic) which, for reasonable cost, delivers high quality uncompressed wav recordings through a ‘double-ender’ recording where all audio is recorded locally. This means that both the interviewer and the interviewee will each be recorded as they sound, and not as you would hear their voice after it has been compressed through, for example, Zoom, Teams or a telephone call. Zencastr, like all US-based software services, is no longer fully compliant with UK-EU GDPR as a result of the withdrawal of the US-EU ‘Privacy Shield’. Every institution must now make its own risk-based decision about whether or not to use US-based software services on a case-by-case basis. In this instance the BL decided that use of Zencastr was an ‘acceptable risk’, as it was crucial for the continuation of our work during the pandemic, and the data would be stored on remote servers for a minimal time period before being deleted.

While a podcasting programme such as Zencastr records high quality audio it doesn’t have any video functionality. To allow greater rapport we decided to use a video conferencing programme (in our case Zoom) on mute at the same time so both the interviewer and the interviewee can see one another. Finally, as built-in computer microphones are generally of poor quality, we purchased multiple USB microphones for interviewers and also for interviewees, who receive their microphones by post and forward them on to the next interviewee the same way. There are many USB microphones to choose between, the best quality running into hundreds of pounds apiece. For its balance of quality, cost and ease of use we decided to use the Bumblebee microphone made by Neat. The added cost of the microphones and their transit has been balanced by savings in interviewer travel costs, especially when interviewees are far away requiring overnight stays.

We produced guidance for interviewees to help them set up the microphones, check that their computers had sufficient storage space, and join the Zencastr call. And then we began interviewing.

Paul Merchant, interviewer on the farming oral history project, was one of the first in the BL team to use the new kit and remarks, ‘although this method cannot reproduce the more subtle and intangible aspects of life story interviewing, it has allowed us to record very valuable material with existing and new interviewees, with archive-quality stereo audio.’

John Marshall interviewed by Paul Merchant (C1828/23)

Download John Marshall interviewed by Paul Merchant Transcript

Paul explains that his interview technique has had to change – shorter and more precise questions tend to be needed – and feelings and emotions are more difficult to spot, especially with new interviewees whom he’s never met face to face. He has found remote interviewing sometimes lacks the emotional intimacy of in-person interviews, where the tiny signals and tells of body language and posture can often dictate a particular questioning line and are not easily seen and understood via Zoom. Asking ‘difficult’ questions becomes more challenging.

Photograph of an interviewee wearing headphones and looking at a computer screen while taking part in a remote oral history interviewRemote interview with John Marshall in Fife, Scotland, November 2020. Image: Rhona Marshall.

Liz Wright, who has also been recording remotely for another time-limited project, agrees with Paul about the difficulty of interpreting body language on-screen, and feels that the pace of an interview can be affected – especially when it comes to understanding different types of silence and how to respond to them. And practically the added technology can make interviewees initially more nervous and apprehensive, and it can take time for them to trust the process, bearing in mind that some of them may never have communicated via video call before. Despite these challenges the remote interviews, which have so far been continuations of recordings started in-person in the autumn, have recorded very interesting testimonies of high quality.

Paul, Liz, and the team have also had to develop new ways of ensuring all the interview documentation is shared and signed off: the pre-interview Participation Agreement and post-interview Recording Agreement. And our archival team have had to implement entirely new workflows for safely and securely transferring and storing audio files using a web-based file transfer service that allows for password protection (the paid-for premium service WeTransfer Pro).

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic there were questions about whether we were entering a ‘new normal’ for oral history, where remote interviewing would become the dominant approach. Our experience so far suggests otherwise and indicates there are still many aspects of the in-person interview that can’t be replicated at a distance, especially for in-depth interviews and with new interviewees. Yet it is still true that the world of oral history has changed dramatically in the last twelve months. It is now clear that high quality remote interviews suitable for archiving can be recorded, and this in itself opens up many possibilities to interview people who live far away or in other countries. Even once we can return to in-person interviewing, remote recordings will still be a part of our oral history toolkit.

Blog by British Library Oral History team, February 2021

15 February 2021

Recording of the week: the swimming songbird

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

The White-throated Dipper (Cinclus cinclus) is a bird that just loves water. Normally found alongside fast flowing rivers and streams, this little songbird has evolved to dive, swim and even walk underwater. Though it’s almost impossible to believe that a bird not much larger than a sparrow could survive in such precarious conditions, the dipper has a number of special adaptations that allow it to thrive. Strong legs help individuals brace themselves against the current while their feet are able to firmly grip slippery rocks and pebbles both above and below the surface. They also possess powerful, rounded wings that act much like flippers when swimming underwater.

Colour illustration of a White-throated DipperHand coloured woodblock print of a Dipper, produced by Alexander Francis Lydon for Volume 3 of A history of British Birds.

A lovely description of the Dipper's song can be found in A History of British Birds, a multi volume collection written by the parson-naturalist Reverend F. O. Morris and published by Groombridge & Sons between 1850-1857. Morris wrote:

‘The song of this interesting bird is melodious and lively, though short. It is to be heard in sunny weather at all seasons of the year – a sweet accompaniment to the murmuring music of the rippling trout-stream, which soothes the ear and the heart of the solitary fly-fisher, as he quietly wends his way along, at peace with all the world.’

This close proximity to water makes recording dippers notoriously difficult; all too often its song and calls are drowned out by the rapid current. Despite the challenges, the sound archive does have almost 100 recordings of the White-throated Dipper in its collection.

The following example was recorded near the River Vrynwy in Wales by wildlife sound recordist Richard Margoschis. A breeding pair used rocks in the middle of the fast-flowing river as their songposts and it’s from one of these that the male in this recording was captured delivering his song. Though certainly melodious and lively, the song appears to be much longer than described by Morris.

Dipper song, recorded in Powys, Wales on 16 March 1980 by Richard Margoschis (BL ref 10563)

This recording was digitised as part of the Library’s Unlocking our Sound Heritage project. Now in its fourth year, this UK-wide project aims to digitally preserve and provide public access to some of the nation’s most unique and at risk sound recordings. Thousands of wildlife recordings from all over the world have been digitised so far and you can keep up-to-date with the project’s progress by following @BLSoundHeritage.

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