THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

60 posts categorized "Digitisation"

29 October 2018

Recording of the week: a high fidelity direct recording

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This week's selection comes from audio engineer Robert Cowlin.

Instantaneous lacquer discs frequently contain unique or rare recordings and, due to the instability of their sound carrying layer, are a preservation priority at the British Library Sound Archive. Also known as acetate discs, they generally consist of a metal substrate coated in a lacquer of cellulose nitrate which is modulated by a cutting stylus. The process is still in use today, comprising the first step in the manufacture of vinyl records. Many of the lacquers in the British Library’s collection were cut ‘on demand’ – direct to disc from radio broadcasts for patrons by independent cutters, such as W. H. Troutbeck of Twickenham. Today’s disc contains excerpts from “Visions of Saint Godric”, by Peter Crossley-Holland, cut on 17 October 1959.

Troutbeck

Cellulose nitrate degrades continuously over time, as it reacts with water vapour and oxygen, resulting in the eventual shrinkage of the lacquer layer. As the metal substrate cannot shrink, the lacquer cracks and flakes off resulting in the inevitable and irreversible loss of the sound carrying layer, hence their preservation priority status.

Lacquers from the 1950s onwards can be played like any other microgroove disc, with a lightweight elliptical or line contact pickup tracking at around 1.5 grams. Coarse groove lacquers also exist, so playback parameters may need to be modified to accommodate a wider groove. Test with a microgroove stylus first though.

This disc was cleaned in an ultrasonic bath using a solution of 1 parts photographic wetting agent to 70 parts deionised water. Like shellac discs, lacquers should not be cleaned with alcohol. Some instantaneous discs were coated with gelatine rather than cellulose nitrate. Gelatine reacts badly when exposed to water. I always perform a patch test on a non-modulated area before cleaning. Apart from digitising, one should avoid playing lacquer discs due to their fragility.

The disc in question is in very good condition considering its age, with no signs of delamination and only minor scuffing, it retains its deep shine when held to the light. Apart from some pops and intermittent surface noise, the sound quality is excellent. I’ve chosen a short passage that highlights the format’s ability to convey low-level detail – listen out for the audience!

Excerpt from Visions of Saint Godric by Peter Crossley-Holland (BL shelfmark 1LS0001183)

I’m giving a presentation on signal extraction from lacquer discs at this year’s British & Irish Sound Archives conference at the National Library of Wales on 17 November. More information about the conference can be found at http://www.bisa-web.org/next-event

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

08 October 2018

Recording of the week: from the days of the demo tape

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

When you work in a sound archive it’s not uncommon to find yourself drawn into a listening experience which is both immersive and enriching. For me, one of these moments arrived with a demo tape from the Serious Speakout collection (taken from the name of a London-based  promotion company active during the 1990s).

At the end of the recording I scrutinize the inlay. Who is behind this band? What is their story? I realize that, in a collection of over 700 demo tapes, this is the only all-female band I have come across. I manage to contact one of them on Facebook. After twenty two years they kindly agree to gather together again and recount their past. A Skype call doesn’t feel right. Three weeks later I fly to Bologna to meet them: Daniela Cattivelli, Silvia Fanti, Filomena Forleo, Olivia Bignardi, Flavia D’angelantonio, Margareth Kammerer. Respectively, saxophone, accordion, piano, clarinet, bass, and vocals of ‘Fastilio’.

Fastilio 1Fastilio, soon after forming, rehearsing at the occupied School of Arts, Music and Theatre - University of Bologna. Photo by Nanni Angeli 

Formed in late 1991, the story behind this experimental band is one of genuine curiosity for sound and its potential, playfulness within rigour and commitment, and risk taking. All six were enrolled at the University of Bologna’s School of Arts, Music and Theatre, which was at the time under student occupation. They met when they joined, with little musical knowledge, Laboratorio di Musica e Immagine. This was a fourteen member group with a strong socialising energy, working on collective improvisation and composition to create music for silent films.

After a year and a half they decided to try and rehearse on their own to express themselves more freely, curious to see what type of sound would come from such a diverse group of people, with both different backgrounds and creative ideas. They called themselves ‘Fastilio’ from the Italian ‘Fastidio’, meaning nuisance. Although lacking in experience, their plans were both influenced and inspired by the thriving scene of the time: concerts of experimental music, festivals featuring musicians from the Rock in Opposition movement and the Canterbury Scene, and seminars with composer and improvisor Fred Frith.   

They had been rehearsing for around four months when their first concert opportunity cropped up in February 1992. Their bass player had only picked up her bass for the first time a few months earlier, and yet the festival they were invited to featured musicians like Robert Fripp and Michael Nyman. Fastilio were offered joint billing with experimental violinist Jon Rose on opening night. Amid hesitation and excitement, short in repertoire and training, they eventually accepted. And there they were on stage with Jon Rose who, seeing how nervous they were, made shoulder muscles stretching a part of the performance. This first concert was a breakthrough; it taught them to be brave.

Fastilio 2Flyer First concert. Photo by Francesca Ponzini

Over the next five years of their existence, this band of girls in their mid-20s, committed themselves to sound. Each with different skill levels and musical personalities, Fastilio put into music their wishes of sonority, through reciprocal listening, improvising, experimenting, composing and, essentially, choreographing sound. Fastilio define their music as ‘twisted’, because of the changes in perspectives, the circularity of themes and the odd succession of harmonic and contrasting sounds.

Gradually they found themselves opening concerts for renowned musicians like Steve Coleman, performed in international festivals, jammed in cultural centres throughout Europe, and collaborated with different artists in anarchist houses in the Slavic countryside.  

The following excerpts are from a live gig recorded in Imola, September 1993

Fastilio demo tape excerpts (BL shelfmark C728/117)

Follow @lcavorsi, @BLSoundHeritage and @soundarchive for all the latest news. Many thanks go to the members of Fastilio for their help with this piece.

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04 September 2018

Sir Francis Chichester talks to Lady Chichester from Gipsy Moth IV

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Dr Emma Greenwood, Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage, writes:

Sir Francis Chichester’s record-breaking circumnavigation of the globe in 1966-1967 is a legendary accomplishment in yachting and sporting history. When he sailed back into Plymouth Sir Francis was greeted by a fleet of small boats, thousands of fans and a hysterical press.

This huge public interest was largely owing to the Marconi Kestrel radio telephone installed on board the yacht Gipsy Moth IV which enabled Sir Francis to send weekly newspaper despatches throughout his voyage.

This same radio set, however, also allowed Sir Francis to communicate, very occasionally, with his wife Lady Chichester. One of these rare conversations took place on 19 November 1966 and, fortunately for us, it was recorded and has now been preserved as part of the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

The recording itself is of poor quality, but this only reflects listening conditions at the time. Lady Chichester was on board the cruise ship SS Oriana at the time, on route to a planned rendezvous in Sydney, and the radio signal was weak and subject to lots of interference. Questions had to be repeated, voices raised, and speech slowed down. There was also an operator on the line throughout, so there was no privacy between the couple.

Sir Francis and Lady Chichester talking before Sydney (C1604/01)

In spite of the circumstances, both Sir Francis and Lady Chichester sound remarkably composed. Much of the 14 minute conversation is taken up with the exchange of essential information relating to their respective positions, rates of progress, weather conditions and expected arrival times into Sydney. It is hard to believe that this was the first time they had spoken in nearly three months, or imagine the dangers Sir Francis had already faced in his voyage.

Nevertheless, the ability to communicate via radio telephone, was clearly of great importance to both parties. After the voyage, Lady Chichester stated, ‘the radio communication with Gipsy Moth IV was something really marvellous, and the men who worked it were wonderful people’ (‘A Wife’s Part in High Adventure’ in Sir Francis Chichester, Gipsy Moth Circles the World (Bello, 2012), p. 249).As for Sir Francis, being able to speak directly to Lady Chichester provided a much-needed psychological boost. He signs off “very glad to hear your voice and you have all my love, all my love, goodbye, goodbye”. Later, he wrote in his account of the voyage, ‘It was a joy to hear her, and to be able to talk directly to her. This cheered me up immensely’ (Gipsy Moth Circles the World, p.93).

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29 August 2018

In amongst the wildebeest

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Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds, writes:

In Disney’s The Lion King, the young cub Simba finds himself in the midst of a terrifying wildebeest stampede. Though our little hero survives the ordeal, a stampeding herd of wildebeest is certainly a force to reckon with.

Every year during the great migration, over one and a half million wildebeest leave the calving grounds of the Serengeti for the lush grazing pastures of the Maasai Mara. This journey from Tanzania to Kenya spans over 1,800 miles and is part of an endless cycle of movement that sees wildebeest, along with other animals such as zebra and gazelle, constantly on the move in search of fresh food and water. Though relatively sedate at times, it doesn’t take much to send this huge mass of bodies into a frenzied panic. All it needs is a whiff of danger.

Wildebeests-805391_1920

In 1988, French field recordist Claude Chappuis recorded a herd of stampeding Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) in the Maasai Mara. The accompanying recording notes make no mention of what caused the herd to take to their heels. Were they spooked by the presence of the recordist? Had a pride of lions or a solitary leopard been spotted nearby? And where was the recordist positioned while all of this was taking place? Was he in a nearby vehicle? Or on the ground? We assume that Chappuis and his equipment were safely out of harm's way, but with no contextual information to refer to, all we can rely on is our imagination. So sit back, close your eyes and picture the scene.

Stampeding Blue Wildebeest recorded by Claude Chappuis (W1CDR0000816 BD25)

This recording, along with tens of thousands of other wildlife examples, will soon be digitally preserved as part of the library’s Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

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21 August 2018

The Bernstein Centenary

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Leonard_Bernstein_-_1950s
Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s  (Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Leonard Bernstein was born 100 years ago this month.  During the second half of the twentieth century he was the one figure that brought classical music to the general public in a way never before attempted.  In the early 1950s he used the new medium of television to disseminate his passion for and knowledge of music to the widest possible audience.  Indeed, a whole generation of Americans grew up with a love and understanding of great music thanks to Bernstein.

Between 1954 and 1958 eight live broadcasts introduced by Alistair Cooke encompassed a broad range of music including classical, jazz, musical comedy and the art of conducting posing such questions as ‘What makes opera grand?’  The first programme on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is especially fascinating as Bernstein reveals the composer’s earlier ideas and sketches giving his own explanation for their deletion.  The opening page of the score is printed large on the studio floor with members of the orchestra standing on their appropriate staves.

However, it was Bernstein’s series of 53 televised Young People’s Concerts that opened up the wonders of music to a whole generation.  While the British Library has in the collections his later television appearances which were commercially produced (mainly by his record label at the time, Deutsche Grammophon), over previous years I have made an effort to obtain all of Bernstein’s early television material.

DVD box set
1DVD0010176 (BL Collections)

In 1959 the US State Department sponsored a tour of the New York Philharmonic which included 50 concerts in 17 countries.  Filmed records of the visits to Moscow, where Bernstein is seen with Shostakovich and Boris Pasternak, and Venice were available on DVD in Japan and can be seen at the British Library.  The tour ended on 10th October 1959 when Bernstein and his orchestra gave a concert at the Festival Hall in London, parts of which were recorded directly to tape from the live radio broadcast in excellent sound by a private individual, Dr. Schuler, whose son donated his collection to the British Library in 1999.  The Times review was headed ‘Like burnished copper – New York orchestra’s fine tone’ and referred to Bernstein as ‘that paragon of brilliance and versatility.’  Here is an excerpt from the Second Essay by Samuel Barber.

 Barber Second Essay 10101959 extract

Bernstein and the New Yorkers returned to London in February 1963 and Dr Schuler recorded the Symphony No. 7 in D minor by Dvorak and Elgar’s Cockaigne overture, an extract of which can be heard below.

Elgar Cockaigne 13021963 extract

A selection of Bernstein video materials at the British Library

Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts 1DVD0005845

Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts Volume 2 1DVD0010018

The Unanswered Question - Six talks at Harvard by Leonard Bernstein 1DVD0009993

Archive of American Television presents Leonard Bernstein Omnibus 1DVD0009994

The Love of Three Orchestras 1DVD0010180

Historic Television Specials Moscow; Venice; Berlin; The Creative Performer; Rhythm 1DVD0010176

The Joy of Sharing - The last date in Sapporo 1990 1DVD0010178

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical

17 August 2018

Recording wildlife in the dark

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Cheryl Tipp, Curator of Wildlife and Environmental Sounds, writes:

There are plenty of positives when it comes to digitising archival sound recordings. Long term preservation and improved access are top of the list, however the opportunity to easily explore thousands of freshly digitised files is a curator’s dream.

The library’s Unlocking our Sound Heritage project has digitised an impressive 18,000 wildlife recordings over the past 12 months and this has brought a range of interesting content to the surface. One of our recent favourites is a nocturnal recording of Golden Plovers in the highlands of Scotland. The recording is wonderfully atmospheric, with Red Grouse and Snipe adding to the moorland soundscape. Yet this isn't the only thing that caught our attention. The accompanying metadata, provided by the recordists Charles and Heather Myers, demonstrates the difficulties of recording wildlife in the dark, especially when you encounter unexplained sounds.

Though our Golden Plover recording is dominated by bird calls, it also contains the grazing sounds of an unidentified animal. Charles & Heather were both accomplished naturalists and could identify the songs and calls of British wildlife with ease. Non-vocal sounds however, such as movement or eating, could leave even the most talented individual stumped.

You may be thinking "But couldn't the recordists just take a peek in the direction of the sound?" The answer is, not easily. The recording was made on remote moorland in the dead of night. In addition, the microphones had been placed over 45 m away from the camper van where their recorder was being operated. The only thing left to the Myers' was the power of deduction, as can be seen in the following recording note:

"As I was unsighted it is all guess work. But one thing is certain: the birds were very close. There were Red Deer about so I assume the grazing sound was made by one of these (was it a swishing tail that caused the bump on the mics?) You can hear him stop grazing & trot away to the right (3 min. 13)" 

Golden Plovers with possible Red Deer grazing nearby, recorded on 28th April 1989 in the Scottish Highlands (BL ref 20173)

3281339831_76a8ca1a36_b Could a hungry Red Deer be the source of our unexplained grazing sound?

We'll never know whether the Myers' did record a Red Deer grazing on the moorland turf. Unidentified sounds are often part and parcel of the field recording process, so it's down to the recordist (or the curator!) to fill in the blanks. But, at the end of the day, that's all part of the fun.
 

Follow @CherylTipp for all the latest wildlife news.

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26 July 2018

The elusive Pathé cylinders of Mary Garden

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Garden as Melisande
Page from 1904 Pathé catalogue with Garden as Mélisande (BL collections)

By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Soprano Mary Garden was born in Aberdeen in 1874.  Her mother was only fourteen years of age when Mary, one of four daughters, was born.  The family went to America when Mary was nine years old, so her formative years were spent there.  Her musical talent was evident at an early age; she studied in Chicago, then Paris where she made her debut with the Opéra-Comique in 1900 in the title role of Louise by Charpentier.  An ambitious and dominant woman, she had an affair with composer André Messager, twenty years her senior, who conducted her performances of Louise.  Garden starred in two world premieres and took on many other roles during these years as well as having a role written specifically for her by Jules Massenet – his opera Chérubin.  Her performance in the title role of Richard Strauss’s Salomé in New York caused a sensation not least by her performing the Dance of the Seven Veils in a body stocking.  Garden’s career was mainly in Paris and the United States, her only appearance at Covent Garden in London taking place in the 1902-1903 season.

Front page
Front page from 1904 Pathé catalogue (BL collections)

It was in 1902 that Claude Debussy selected her to sing the lead in his new opera Pélleas et Mélisande.  Two years later Garden made history by recording four discs for the Gramophone Company in Paris accompanied by Debussy at the piano.  These are the only sound recordings made by the great French composer.  However, during her visit to Britain around June 1903, Garden recorded six cylinders of Scottish songs for the English branch of the French label Pathé.  Two of these also appeared on disc at the time but the four remaining cylinders are of extreme rarity.  I was delighted to find that local collector Richard Copeman recently acquired one of these elusive four from a Scottish collector, as they have never been heard since their release in 1904.  I would be pleased to hear from anyone who knows of the whereabouts of any of the other three cylinders.  Although Mr Copeman had made a transfer of his cylinder, our engineer Rob Cowlin experimented with different sized styli until we got the best sound.  Thanks to Mr Copeman we can all now hear this major rarity.  Garden made three further cylinder recordings for Edison in 1905, discs for Columbia in 1912 and Victor in the late 1920s.  She retired from the opera stage in 1934 eventually returning to Scotland where she died at the age of 92 in 1967.

Robin Adair Mary Garden

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical

 

22 June 2018

Tracking down Tamás

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By Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music

Tamas Vasary 1Tamás Vásáry at the Hotel Gellert restaurant (photo by Jonathan Summers)

Save our Sounds is the British Library’s programme to preserve the nation’s sound heritage.  Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, many collections will be digitised and made available to the public online through the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

One such is the collection of Hungarian pianist Tamás Vásáry who donated his tape archive of private and broadcast recordings to the British Library Sound Archive in 1994.  Internationally renowned as an interpreter of Chopin and Liszt, at that time he lived in London, so when the project needed to clear rights for his donation I wrote to him at the London address I had on file.  Having received no reply and it being twenty-four years since the donation, I checked the internet for an agent or contact details.  Nothing was to be found, so I asked an elderly Hungarian friend if she knew him as she was a contemporary in Budapest (she being born in 1928, he in 1933).  She did not, but thought she may have a friend who did.  The friend did not either, but reported that Vásáry had moved back to Budapest many years ago.

What to do next?  I asked pianist Leslie Howard if he knew Vásáry from the time he was living in London.  No, but he thought pianist Murray McLaclan knew him.  I emailed Mr McLaclan who did not, but he thought that pianist Peter Frankl definitely knew him.  Mr Frankl responded in the affirmative and, because I had not realised that Mr Frankl was living in London, I asked if I could interview him on his long career for the British Library.  Mr Frankl has known Mr Vásáry for more than 50 years and it was at my interview with him that he offered to talk to Mr Vásáry, because he is not on email and still tours a great deal as a conductor.  Mr Frankl visited Budapest in April and met with Mr Vásáry who kindly gave his permission and signed the relevant forms.

Mr Frankl gave me Mr Vásáry’s mobile phone number and I called to ask if I could interview him for the British Library.  He happily accepted and I went to Budapest a few weeks ago and met him.  

JS CorinthiaJonathan Summers in Budapest

As a child my local record shop stocked the best classical records including many on the Deutsche Grammophon label so I grew up listening to most of Chopin’s works played by Mr Vásáry.

DG LP-page-001editVásáry at the height of his career in 1965 (1LP0175910 BL collections)

Jamie Owen, Intellectual Property Rights Co-ordinator writes:

We are very excited indeed to have made contact with Tamás Vásáry. The collection that Mr Vásáry donated to the British Library in 1994 represents the first, under the ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project, to have  been both digitally preserved and to have agreements in place for a number of his recordings to be made publicly accessible once the project's website goes live next spring.

The British Library, in conjunction with ten partner organisations across the UK is aiming, through the Heritage Lottery funded  ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’ project, to digitally preserve over half a million of the UK’s most important and at-risk audio recordings. We are hoping to make 100,000 of these recordings available through a website hosted by the British Library. More information on the project can be found here.

Here is an extract from Vásáry’s collection.  It is of his debut at the Proms on 25th July 1961 when he played Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E flat with the London Symphony Orchestra and John Pritchard.  The fourth movement is one of the shortest in the entire piano concerto repertoire at only four minutes.  The London audience was impressed and the applause continued for more than two minutes.

Vasary Liszt Concerto extract (C615/6)

For all the latest Classical news follow @BL_Classical

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