THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

87 posts categorized "Digitisation"

06 October 2020

What if your home had ears?

Add comment

We have all spent much more time at home since coronavirus abruptly changed our daily lives this spring. Perhaps, like me, you’ve paid more attention to the sounds within your house - the whistle of the kettle, the clack of the keyboard, the grumble of bored children, the chirp of birds outside. I’ve also been contemplating how we occupy our domestic space: who cooks and washes up, where do children play, which creatures live in and near our home and how has this changed within our own lifetimes? For the new British Library web resource, If Homes Had Ears we have delved into the vast treasures of the Library’s Sound Archive to explore the sonic landscape of the home. Key to this resource are the voices and memories of people speaking about home life over the last 140 years. We invite you to open your ears, draw back the curtains, and listen, discuss and reflect upon what makes a home.

If Homes Had Ears is grouped into five areas found in most homes: the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room and the garden. There are three discursive and thought-provoking articles for each space, and the web resource features over 70 fascinating audio clips to intrigue the listener. We hope the sound clips we will be a springboard for reflection and discussion and will provoke the listener to think of their own experiences.

Homepage for If Homes Had Ears showing articles list
Homepage for If Homes Had Ears showing articles list

No web resource on the home can ever cover all types of experience, but we have worked hard to try and ensure a variety of voices and sounds from different UK regions and nations, and stories from people who have migrated to the UK. We have included examples of different social-economic situations, ethnic backgrounds, cultures, genders and time periods. The oldest recording is a 1911 edition of the popular song ‘When Father Papered the Parlour’, but we also explore the memories of a Welsh seamstress recalling her childhood in the 1880s. The most recent material was recorded in spring 2020 on memories of gardening.

I love this clip of Marjorie Atkinson describing the scullery in her family’s home in the North East of England in the 1920s:

Marjorie Atkinson describes the scullery

Download Transcript – Marjorie Atkinson on the scullery in her childhood home

What would children today make of the scullery in Marjorie’s home? In contrast, what might be the reaction of listeners from older generations to sisters Yasmin and Lana speaking in 2015 about sharing a bedroom?

Yasmin and Lana on sharing a bedroom

Download Transcript – Yasmin and Lana Coe describe sharing a bedroom

In this extract Immunologist Dr Donald Palmer recalls the front room of his family’s home in London, a space of great importance to his parents who had migrated from Jamaica in the 1960s:

Donald Palmer describes the front room

Download Transcript – Donald Palmer describes the front room

For each room we have created a short montage of audio clips, brilliantly animated by students from the London College of Communication, who have responded to these audio soundscapes creatively and with sensitivity. Here is Jachym’s animation of the sounds of the kitchen:

Download Transcript – The Kitchen

There is plenty of family friendly material (my children have been singing ‘Beans, beans good for the heart’ for weeks!), but we have not shied away from difficult topics too – as the home is not always a place of happy memories. In this extract Tricia Thorpe describes an incident when she was resident in a psychiatric unit as a teenager in the 1980s:

Tricia Thorpe describes an incident in the psychiatric unit

Download Transcript – Tricia Thorpe's experience of living in High Royds Psychiatric Hospital

There are also clips discussing menstruation, abortion, aging, family structures in the LGTBQ communities and funeral rites. Where we feature this more challenging content, this is flagged in both the introduction to the clips and the audio item descriptions, so that listeners (and their teachers or caregivers) can decide whether listening is appropriate.

This resource has been over two years in the making and is part of the 5 year Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. It has been a true collaboration led by Mary Stewart (Oral History), Holly Gilbert (Digital and Multimedia Collections), Harriet Roden and Charmaine Wong (both from the Learning Team) with invaluable input from Megan Steinberg (former Learning Assistant), Chandan Mahal (Learning Projects Manager) and latterly Yrja Thorsdottir (Learning Team). Enormous thanks to colleagues from all across the Sound Archive for content suggestions and the support of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Intellectual Property Team, Web and Learning Teams. The greatest thanks, as always, must go to the speakers, sound recordists, performers and musicians – as without them there would no sounds in our archive to unlock.

Blogpost by Mary Stewart, Curator of Oral History.

24 September 2020

Young for Eternity: Unlocking Our Sound Heritage preserves the Subways’ Glastonbury demo

Add comment

Written by Nina Webb-Bourne, Communications Intern for UOSH.

On 28 March I was supposed to be going to the O2 Forum in Kentish Town to see the Subways, an English rock band, with my sister. However, all live music was effectively cancelled as we entered into a national lockdown five days before. The evening would have been both a celebration of seeing a favourite band live, and the recent news that I had been hired by the British Library. Little did we know, I would quietly start my position as the communications intern for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project still in lockdown, two months later.

In a happy coincidence I soon learned about the inclusion of a rare Subways demo in the Glastonbury New Bands Competition collection (C1238). In fact, the band was first to win a competition giving unsigned bands the chance to perform on stage at the festival. You can read more about the history of the Emerging Talent Competition in this blog by Karoline Engelhardt, which marked the 50th anniversary of ‘Pilton Pop, Blues and Folk Festival’ on 19 September.

SubwaysAbove: A photo of the Subways’ Charlotte Cooper and Billy Lunn playing bass and guitar on the Other Stage at Glastonbury Festival in 2004. © STUNPHOTO

For five years, unsigned bands sent in physical applications with a short biography and a demo CD containing their best tracks. The competition soon moved online, but in the brief period beforehand it generated a large number of boxes of ephemeral material related to the entries, and close to 5,000 CDs. The local library in Glastonbury was a likely candidate for storing the collection but it was neither able to process the stock or house it.

However, the organisers sought a permanent home for the collection and were able to connect with the British Library’s Popular Music department for this purpose. The Glastonbury New Bands Competition collection would go on to be identified as a valuable treasure trove of youth culture, and deemed a worthy beneficiary of UOSH’s National Lottery Heritage funded effort to preserve and provide access to some of the UK’s rarest and most at-risk sound recordings.

Listen to 1 AM

British Library ref. C1238/2540, (p) 2006 The Echo Label Limited (a BMG company)

In light of the significance of this collection and the serendipity of my working on a project involving the Subways, I was excited to be able to interview lead singer and front man Billy Lunn. Billy plays guitar for the band alongside Charlotte Cooper (co-lead, bass and backing vocals) and Josh Morgan (drums). I talked to him about the journey from being an unsigned act to traveling the world with his bandmates, and what it means to know their Glastonbury demo now resides in the UK’s national library.

In 2004, Billy Lunn was working in a hotel, collecting dirty laundry from rooms. He was also writing and recording lots of music for his band, the Subways. To pay his parents back for purchasing his 8-track mixer, he also recorded tracks for other local bands in the kitchen of his parent’s council house in Welwyn Garden City. By chance he found out about Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent Competition. Billy explains:

‘I’d mixed this other band’s tracks and handed them their finished demo. I asked where they were going to send it, offering the details of some really supportive promoters we’d come across. They said “Thanks, but we’re actually just going to send this to Michael Eavis. He’s running this unsigned bands competition, and if you win, he’ll put you on the Other Stage at Glastonbury.”

‘A month later, I received a phone call from a man called Wes White, saying he loves the songs, and that he thinks we should make our way up to Pilton to play for Michael at his working men’s club.’

White was part of the jury that helped choose the finalists for the Emerging Talent Competition from 2004-07. However, he had been involved with the festival since its earliest days. His mother, Hilary White, had worked at the Festival Office in Glastonbury town and helped to formalise the process behind the competition.

From the moment the office’s address had got out, she had fielded a barrage of speculative CDs and cassettes coming in. Initially she had listened to these demos on her own. She would pass them on to whichever stage booker she deemed appropriate, though slots were often difficult to find between the bookings for established artists. Eventually Hilary White managed to get bookers for the main stage to agree to host one unsigned band each, with the overall winner going on to play on the Other Stage.

CharlotteAbove: A photo of Charlotte Cooper facing the crowd at Glastonbury Festival, as she plays her bass guitar. © STUNPHOTO

When the conventions of the competition were confirmed, Wes White joined a panel of judges at the live finals, including Michael and Emily Eavis, Martin Elbourne (who booked the Pyramid Stage), Malcolm Haynes (Dance Village and Jazz/World Stage), BBC Radio One presenter Huw Stephens, and producer Philippa Marshfield, among others. White speaks about his time as a judge fondly:

‘We were very proud of the number of unsigned performers we found slots for across the festival, beyond just the winning artists, and of the achievements that some of “our acts” have gone on to.’

He remembers the Subways performance in Pilton. In particular he recalls ‘their energy and straightforward, no-messing approach’ which helped them to stand out. The band managed to squeeze six songs into a tight twenty-minute set. Most importantly for White, they let the music speak for itself. Billy recollects that the band were packing their instruments away when Michael Eavis strolled straight over to them to offer them the Other Stage slot.

Listen to City Pavement

British Library ref. C1238/2540, (p) 2006 The Echo Label Limited (a BMG company)

The prospect of playing live on the Other Sage at Glastonbury elicited the usual pre-gig nerves, but it did not daunt the band. They were 18 or 19 at the time, relishing the chance to make some noise, and still riding on a high from beating the competition in Pilton. They also knew they had nothing to lose. Surprisingly, the gig itself remains a hazy blur to Billy, Charlotte and Josh. Billy says:

‘I can vividly remember standing side-of-stage before showtime, and also walking into the arms of our manager after finishing the set. The gig itself was probably a little too much excitement for my consciousness to keep hold of. One day, maybe, hopefully, the show will come flooding back. Every electric second of it.’

BillyAbove: A photo of Billy Lunn twisting mid-air as he plays his guitar to the crowd on the Other Stage in 2004. ©. STUNPHOTO

Playing at Glastonbury had an immediate effect on the band. They decided to quit their jobs, having determined that winning the competition proved them they should devote their lives to making music. Following their appearance on the Other Stage, they began work booking their first UK tour. At the close of the tour they were signed by Warner Records. Their debut album, Young for Eternity, was released in July 2005.

The Subways have recently marked the 15th anniversary of Young for Eternity with a special edition release of the record and a tour rescheduled for next year. They have also recorded Rock & Roll Queen in 20 different languages for fans all over the globe. Billy reflects on the journey from his parents’ kitchen to touring and performing Young for Eternity now:

‘We’ve been asked many times over the last decade whether we’re sick of playing songs from Young for Eternity - especially Rock & Roll Queen – and our answer is always the same; never! Performing on stages all over the world is absolutely the most enjoyable part of all of this. No matter how many times we play the songs from Young for Eternity, as long as they create an atmosphere of joy and togetherness, we’ll play them with the urgency and vivacity as if it’s the first time.’

Listen to Rock & Roll Queen

British Library ref. C1238/2540, (p) 2006 The Echo Label Limited (a BMG company)

A part of this journey and a unique artefact of the band’s personal history has now been preserved and digitised by UOSH for the British Library’s sound archive. There was only ever one version of the CD made which was submitted to the Glastonbury New Bands Competition collection, (C1238/2540). It was essentially a ‘best of’ compilation of all the demos that the band had recorded up to that point.

Billy feels thankful to have taken part in the competition in the first place, and to have gone on to have the chance to support their heroes on stage at such an early age. Turning his mind to the value of the UOSH project at British Library, and our safekeeping of this sole version of their demo, he says:

‘The prospect of preserving cultural artefacts is something for which I show unending support. I am passionate about the history of rock music. I always feel unworthy of any such devotion of focus to my own works or narrative, but I ultimately feel remarkably happy that some semblance of our story is being safely preserved for those who may harbour even the vaguest of interest in it.’

Listen to I'm In Love

British Library ref. C1238/2540, (p) 2006 The Echo Label Limited (a BMG company)

JoshAbove: A photo of Josh Morgan playing the drums at Glastonbury on The Other Stage in 2004. © STUNPHOTO

Alongside Billy Lunn, Wes White, who is a librarian himself, expresses his ‘relief, delight and pride’ that this snapshot of underground music at that time is now part of the historical record. By October the collection will be fully preserved, and will be made available to the public soon.

I am grateful to Billy and Wes for agreeing to be interviewed for this piece, and Ben Hamilton-Kirby and BMG for helping us to share these recordings. Thanks to the many members of the UOSH project who have worked on this vast and fascinating collection, including but not limited to; Karoline, Kirsten, George, Lucia, Greg, Gosha, Karl and Tom.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage, @BL_PopMusic, and @soundarchive for all the latest news

UOSH Banner

 



21 September 2020

Recording of the week: My family and other tapes

Add comment

This week’s selection comes from Nick Morgan, classical Audio Project Cataloguer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

The British violinist Derek Collier (1927-2008) enjoyed a long and successful career as an orchestral leader, soloist, broadcaster and teacher. He recorded four commercial LPs but left a much larger legacy of broadcast and private recordings, which his daughter kindly donated to the British Library in 2011 (in 2012, Sound Archive curator Jonathan Summers wrote about them in this blog). Some months ago, I was assigned the Derek Collier collection to catalogue for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage – and I felt like Gerald Durrell, magically transported back to youthful years spent with a menagerie of soon to be extinct specimens.

Philips magnetic tape boxPhilips magnetic tape box

Philips tape boxes of the 1960s (left) and 1970s (right) from the Derek Collier Collection

Only, this isn’t Corfu and they’re not pelicans, seagulls, scorpions or tortoises – they’re tapes. One problem with tapes is that they all look a bit the same. Some have pretty boxes and some have funky spools, yes, but most don’t tell you very much about themselves. Unless, that is, you’ve spent your formative years working with them. Starting as a radio producer more than three decades ago, I learned the Tao of tape hands-on at a Studer or a Telefunken, herding take-up spools and snipping raw takes with chinagraph pencil, razor blade and splicing sticky.

So it was a nostalgia trip to be reunited with these long-lost friends thanks to Derek Collier. Collier broadcast extensively for the BBC over nearly half a century, and his collection contains all the kinds of tapes used in radio production, and more. There are rehearsal tapes, including one with the Black American conductor Dean Dixon – very short, sadly (Jonathan Summers also wrote about Dixon in this blog). There are session tapes: a sequence of pieces recorded in the studio, with false starts, mistakes, retakes and ‘patches’, from which a ‘studio manager’ (engineer) and producer spliced together the best bits – it’s rare to be able to compare unedited recordings with edited versions, but the Derek Collier Collection makes it possible. There are ‘insert’ tapes, containing just the edited music for a broadcast, to which spoken presentation was added either in a studio or live on air – the collection even includes one insert tape for a programme which was never transmitted.

There are ‘clean-feed’ tapes: sometimes, at pre-recorded broadcast concerts, a presenter was in the hall, announcing the music as if live, but a separate tape without the presenter’s voice was also recorded. There are listening copies: tapes sent to Derek Collier as a courtesy by producers. One small spool, often used for short BBC news reports and trails, has the standard BBC label I myself stuck on countless spools, standard coloured ‘leader’ I myself spliced onto countless tapes – yellow at the start and between items, red at the end – and with it a note on BBC letterhead I sent to countless contributors, listing three items Derek Collier had recorded for Steve Race’s Invitation to Music on Radio 4 but hadn’t managed to record off air.

spool of tape and letter from BBC
Complimentary BBC copy tape from the Derek Collier Collection

Talking of which, there are lots of off-air recordings – Derek Collier had a recorder at home and taped his broadcasts from the radio. But he also used it to record himself practising and rehearsing, bringing us closer to the starting point of his interpretations, before a piece was ready for the concert hall or the studio. And, as a bonus, there are examples of several of these types of tapes from his teacher Alfredo Campoli, complementing the collection donated in 1995 by Campoli’s widow.

C1475-185 frontC1475-185 back

Two items from 1966 LP DECCA ECLIPSE ECS 639, recorded by Alfredo Campoli in Japan, from the Derek Collier Collection

Derek Collier broadcast a lot of music by modern composers, so for copyright reasons it’s not possible to sample all the species in his tape zoo on this blog – but we can play an extract from a work which Collier premiered in the UK and which turns up several times in his collection. Boris Blacher’s Violin Concerto Op.28 was composed in 1948 and introduced to Britain by Collier in 1963. Among his tapes are an undated private practice recording of the solo part, an off-air tape of the premiere, and an unedited session recording from 1976, plus the edited broadcast recorded off air the following year. But from 1965, here’s the end of this exciting, vivacious Concerto in another broadcast performance by Derek Collier, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and none other than Dean Dixon:

Boris Blacher Violin Concerto Op.28 (end)

Derek Collier gave public solo recitals until shortly before his death in 2008, and he continued to record them, on cassettes, in the venues themselves, capturing the atmosphere and practices of the thriving musical life of Essex, where he’d retired. And he went on adding new types of tape, recording duplicates on different machines (for safety?), creatively copying ‘master’ cassettes to correct technical problems, recording rehearsals, and making mix-tapes of previous performances, seemingly as sample programmes for concert organizers or interpretation guides for new recital partners.

C1475-228
Compilation for 2004 programme rehearsal purposes, from the Derek Collier Collection

Making sense of this extended family of recordings has been an absorbing and rewarding task, and thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund it has been preserved for visitors to the British Library’s website and reading rooms to explore and enjoy in future.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage, @BL_Classical, @soundarchive for all the latest news.

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

19 September 2020

Glastonbury New Bands Competition Collection: Unlocking the dreams of unsigned bands

Add comment

By Karoline Engelhardt, UOSH Cataloguing Intern, and Andy Linehan, Curator of Popular Music.

On this day in 1970, as chance would have it a Saturday just like today, around one and a half thousand people assembled on the green fields at the rural Worthy Farm near the village of Pilton in South West England for what was then known as the Pilton Pop, Blues & Folk Festival. The event, organised by dairy farmer Michael Eavis, was not an instant success but laid a foundation for something that over the following decades would become the leading fixture of the British live music and festival scene.

Fifty years on, the Glastonbury Festival has evolved into arguably the world’s most popular music festival. Headlining one of the main stages has become an indicator that one has made it in the industry and getting to perform at Worthy Farm is now a dream many bands pursue.

The festival has a long history of supporting a diverse range of performing artists which is evident in its infrastructure. Along with the famous Pyramid Stage dozens of smaller stages are scattered all over the festival site which provide a platform to (relatively) unknown performers to showcase their talents to a wider audience.

In the early 2000’s Glastonbury took its support of aspiring bands and musicians to another level by calling out for unsigned acts to enter a competition which offered the chance to perform on one of the festival’s main stages. The Emerging Talent Competition, launched in 2004 as the Glastonbury Festival Unsigned Performers Competition, is still part of the annual festival today.

From 2010 onwards applications were processed online but up until 2009 emerging acts had to physically compile an application bundle consisting of an entry form, giving details about the performer and their music, a biography and a demo CD containing no less than two or three of their best songs. A selected team at Glastonbury would listen to the demos, shortlist their favourites and invite the successful candidates to perform in a final at Pilton Working Men’s Club.

Demos and documents on the shelves at the Library

Above: Demos and documents of the Glastonbury New Bands Competition collection stored at the British Library Sound Archive.

From 2004 to 2009, excluding the fallow year of 2006, thousands of applications found their way to Glastonbury. CDs, documents and additional items that were often added to the applications, such as band merch or press cuttings, started to fill a growing number of boxes stored at the festival offices. They could have stayed locked behind those office doors, never to be seen or heard again, but luckily the organisers understood the potential value of what they had in their possession. In search of a permanent home for the recordings they eventually got in touch with the Sound Archive at the British Library, whose Popular Music department was thrilled to acquire the collection.

A contemporary witness of the music created at the beginning of the 21st century by unsigned bands and musicians in Britain and beyond, the Glastonbury New Bands Competition Collection (C1238) not only offers the opportunity to reflect on the current state of various music genres, but also provides a valuable representation of youth and DIY culture at the turn of the century, captured through the demo designs and song lyrics.

In the first three years of the competition contestants were offered to choose between four stages for which they wished to compete: the Dance Tent/ Dance Village, the Acoustic Stage, the World Stage/ Jazz World Stage and the New Tent/ John Peel Stage. This approach resulted in a refreshing mix of musical genres amongst the submissions. The overall winner would appear on the Other Stage, situated right behind the Pyramid Stage, following in the footsteps of established performers such as Iggy Pop, Massive Attack or the Chemical Brothers.

The Subways performing on the Other Stage at the Glastonbury Festival 2004

Above: The Subways performing on the Other Stage at the Glastonbury Festival 2004 following their win of the first competition. © STUNPHOTO

English rock band the Subways were the first to win the overall competition in 2004 and are only one example of an act that went on to establish themselves after entering. Amongst others, the collection includes some rare first attempts by Scouting for Girls, Liz Green, James Blunt, Smoke Fairies, Newton Faulkner, Wild Beasts and Ashok, a band featuring Florence Welch, subsequently of Florence + the Machine. Not all of these acts would emerge as winners or even get invited to the finals of the competition – which only confirms that determination and stamina go a long way. Many bands vanished after a few years, some never found fame but still enjoy performing together today. Other contestants found success pursuing other professions outside the music industry and this collection adds a piece to all of their biographies.

Listen to '1AM' by the Subways - the first track from the band's demo submitted to the competition in 2004

British Library ref. C1238/2540, (p) 2006 The Echo Label Limited (a BMG company).

Consisting of more than 4600 demos, the Glastonbury New Bands Competition Collection has been selected for the ambitious Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project (UOSH), which is part of the Save Our Sounds programme led by the British Library. Involving ten further hubs across the UK, UOSH aims to preserve nearly half a million unique and at-risk recordings and to make them accessible to the public. The project solely focuses on collections that have been stored on analogue recording formats. These are prone to two possible risk factors: the sound carriers are physically vulnerable; and the means to play them back are slowly becoming extinct.

Demo CD submitted by Ashok

Above: Demo submitted by Ashok featuring Florence Welch who went on to form Florence + the Machine. ‘Happy Slap’ is an early version of their debut single ‘Kiss with a Fist’.

In this particular case, CD players are still widely available and most PCs even have an inbuilt CD drive. However, the vast majority of the demos submitted to the Glastonbury competition were on CD-R. Different from mass-manufactured commercial CDs, the digital information on CD-Rs is burned into a layer of dye on the bottom side of the disc. The results of this procedure are strongly dependent on the device used for the burning process, the quality of the blank disc and the speed at which the information has been written into the dye. Furthermore, the dye simply fades away over time and exposure to daylight can speed up that process.

All of these aspects make this large collection particularly vulnerable and therefore call for a pressing need to digitise these recordings in order to eliminate the risk of losing their audio content forever. At the same time the UOSH rights clearance team is in contact with individual artists to make this collection as accessible as possible.

The Glastonbury New Bands Competition Collection will be fully preserved by the end of this month.

Key discovered in the collection

Above: Discovered amongst the collection documentation items: a contestant quite literally put the key to their dreams in the hands of the competition organisers.

Keep an eye out for Nina Webb-Bourne’s forthcoming blog, she will be sharing the story behind the winning demo submitted by the Subways to the Glastonbury Festival Unsigned Performers Competition in 2004, featuring an interview with the band’s lead singer Billy Lunn.

14 September 2020

Recording of the week: Another side of Laurence Binyon

Add comment

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

Portrait of Laurence Binyon
Portrait of Laurence Binyon - lithograph by Sir William Rothenstein, 1898. © The Trustees of the British Museum, released as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Poet and scholar Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) spent 40 years working for the British Museum as a leading authority on Chinese and Japanese art.

As a poet, he is best remembered for these lines from his WWI poem ‘For the Fallen’, which was first published in The Times of 21 September 1914:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

In 1914, Binyon himself, though over-age for military service, volunteered for the Red Cross, and served at the front as a medical orderly.

For this ‘recording of the week’ we present the poet reading a lesser-known work, ‘Pine Trees’, one of a group of four poems recorded for the Columbia Graphophone Company of Japan.

The original 10” 78 rpm disc, from which this is dubbed, is so rare that the sound archive does not actually hold its own copy. The date of recording is unknown.

Laurence Binyon reads 'Pine Trees'

Pine Trees

Down through the heart of the dim woods
The laden, jolting waggons come.
Tall pines, chained together,
They carry; stems straight and bare,
Now no more in their own solitudes
With proud heads to rock and hum;
Now at the will of men to fare
Away from their brethren, their forest friends
In the still woods; through wild weather
Alone to endure to the world's ends:
Soon to feel the power of the North
Careering over black waves' foam;
Soon to exchange the steady earth
For heaving decks; the scents of their home,
Honeyed wild-thyme, gorse and heather,
For the sting of the spray, the bitter air.

 

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

17 August 2020

Recording of the week: Ganapati, mythology and Koh-i-Noors: a poetry reading by Debjani Chatterjee

Add comment

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

To celebrate the first official South Asian Heritage Month in the U.K., running from July 18th to August 17th, we are sharing the beautiful poetry of Debjani Chatterjee (1952-), an Indian-born British award-winning poet, children's writer, storyteller, editor and translator.

Having joined the Library earlier this year as an Audio Project Cataloguer, the first recordings I began working on were from the vast and impressive Poetry Society collection. It comprises well over 400 items, including reel-to-reel tape, DAT, Betamax and compact cassette, which are being digitised as part of the sound archive’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. The Poetry Society collection includes a diverse range of poetry, prose and literary events recorded in London by the Poetry Society and the British Library, beginning in the late 60s and continuing up until the early 90s. It includes an array of wonderful poets, both famous and lesser known.

I was delighted to come across Debjani Chatterjee’s poetry whilst cataloguing her reading at a Poetry Society event held at the National Poetry Centre in April 1990. The event also featured Indian poet, Eunice De Souza. The poets conjure vivid and sensory worlds, depicting Indian and British culture, religion, mythology and wildlife, whilst skillfully addressing issues relating to feminism, identity, racism and environmentalism with wit and poignancy.

Ganesa on Parvati's lap
Ganesa on Parvati's lap. The young Ganesa, wearing a yellow ‘dhoti’ is seated in Parvati’s lap with his rat; Parvati, wearing a red ‘sari,’ sits on lotuses in a canopied throne.                                Shelfmark: Add.Or.1036. Artist/creator: Anon. Place and date of production: c.1770.              Credit: British Library.

'To the English Language' - Debjani Chatterjee (C15/428 C21)

Chatterjee was born in Delhi and grew up in India, Japan, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and Egypt, then moved to England in 1972. This poem ‘To the English Language’ cleverly portrays the perspective of an Indian immigrant making the UK their home and coming to terms with the contradictory emotions faced whilst asserting the importance of her place and voice, adeptly using the infamous ‘Koh-i-noor’ diamond as a metaphor. Chatterjee introduces the poem as “a journey to a language” and “a journey to a country”.

'Ganapati' - Debjani Chatterjee (C15/428 C25)

In Hindu mythology, Ganapati is the ‘elephant-headed god of wisdom’, also known as Ganesha or Gaṇeśa, amongst other titles. He is the son of Parvati, goddess of the mountains, and Shiva, god of destruction and the destroyer of evil. This poem is directed at Ganapati’s mother, Parvati, as depicted in the image. The poem refers to a tradition from Bengal, the home of Chatterjee’s ancestors, in which Ganapati is married to the banana tree. Chatterjee reveals earlier in the reading that she is particularly interested in elephants and she has written a large amount of prose and poems inspired by them.

'I Was That Woman' - Debjani Chatterjee (C15/428 C26)

This influential poem takes us on a journey, exploring various women, goddesses, heroines and characters from multiple countries, religions and cultures, both mythological and real. It includes Eve in the Garden of Eden, Sita, heroine of The Ramayana, Draupadi, heroine of The Mahabharata, Medusa and the Buddha’s aunt, to name just a few. I would encourage you to delve into Debjani Chatterjee’s poetry and explore the rest of the characters further. Debjani Chatterjee's website is a good starting point for understanding some of the references in the poem above.

The entirety of Debjani Chatterjee’s reading at this Poetry Society event (C15/428), along with the rest of the Poetry Society collection, will be available for on-site listening in Reading Rooms at the British Library. Other poets we recommend exploring in the C15 Poetry Society collection include Sujata Bhatt, Suniti Namjoshi, Iftikhar Arif and Saqi Farooqi. You may also be interested in the South Asian Literature Society event on C15/310.

Thank you to Debjani Chatterjee for kindly allowing us to share her poetry readings.

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

UOSH_Footer_2019_Magenta (004)

22 July 2020

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage preserves 200,000 endangered sounds

Add comment

Article written by: Nina Webb-Bourne

Thanks to the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) team's dedication to sound conservation, 200,000 of the nation’s most endangered recordings are now preserved for generations to come.

This major milestone has arrived at a significant moment. Along with our ten hub partners, we are now over half-way through a National Lottery Heritage Funded five-year project to restore and catalogue half a million rare and at-risk sounds. However, the vital work of curators, cataloguers and audio engineers around the nation was recently impeded by the challenges of lockdown life.

Despite these obstacles, or perhaps in spite of them, the UOSH team was spurred on to find that extra momentum and make this impressive breakthrough. Each and every hub across the nation played a part and contributed a substantial 20,000 recordings to the total. The audio heritage safeguarded and digitised by the project now includes recordings as varied as a survey of traditional Irish dialects by the National Museums Northern Ireland, and the British Library’s Glastonbury New Bands Competition collection.

To celebrate this achievement, we are sharing with you the striking sound of the Ecuadorian Yellow-billed Jacamar, the 200,000th recording to be catalogued and preserved in our archive. This recording was originally archived on audio CD and is one of over 5000 Ecuadorian bird sounds recorded by Niels Krabbe.

Listen to the Yellow-billed Jacamar

Yellow-billed Jacamar, Ecuador, 1994. Held in the Ecuador birds WA 2003/003 collection.

Illustration-of-Yellow-bill

 [Image: The Biodiversity Heritage Library]

Niels Krabbe is an ornithologist, bird conservationist, and skilled recordist. He has worked extensively in the Andes and has a developed a keen interest in the biodiversity of Ecuador, where he became the first person in 80 years to scientifically record an observation of endangered Yellow-eared Parrots. The collection held by the British Library also includes the calls of endangered and endemic species, such as the El Oro and White-necked Parakeets.

As a result of Niels Krabbe’s prolific and sustained work in the region, we have obtained a valuable treasure trove of recorded history, rich in breadth and depth, and one that showcases much of Ecuador’s bird life and natural environment. These sounds are also an authentic representation of that habitat. Krabbe prides himself on ‘preferring to get a good tape recording of a bird rather than a good look at it’.

A similar dedication to conservation has ensured the UOSH team's recent success in cataloguing its 200,000th sound. As we emerge from lockdown, there is a renewed focused on the task ahead as there are many more recordings at risk, and thousands more to digitise before the project is complete.

Follow project updates at @BLSoundHeritage on Twitter and Instagram.

18 June 2020

Arabic music record sleeves and what they can tell us

Add comment

Hazem Jamjoum joined the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project in April 2019 as Gulf History Audio Curator and Cataloguer. In this blog post he explores what record sleeves have helped him learn about the early 20th-century music industry in the Arab world.

For some decades, the British Library's sound archive routinely discarded shellac record sleeves. The sleeves were flimsy paper envelopes, not particularly suited for protecting the discs. Over time, the paper disintegrates into dust that lodges itself into the grooves on the discs and interferes with playback. To make matters worse, moving discs in and out of old crumbling sleeves without damaging the paper can be quite a delicate task. That said, the sleeves have much to offer researchers, which is why many archives such as the British Library's sound archive now keep the sleeves, and resources permitting, invest the time, effort and hard drive space to safeguard them as digital images. In this piece, I hope to share some of what I have learned by examining shellac record sleeves from the early twentieth century mashriq (Arab East) by focussing on the story of one particular company, Baidaphon.

Baidaphon was founded around 1906 by six cousins from the Syrian-Lebanese Baida family, with one group of brothers living in Beirut, and the other group, in Berlin. The centre labels printed on the company’s early records tell us a great deal, but it is the sleeves that the company begins to use after WWI that I aim to examine here. Baidaphon sleeves from the 1920s, some of which were accessioned into the British Library’s collection through a gift from Emile Cohen and Ezra Hakkak, seem to have been standardized with a revealing message to customers:

'In order to reduce the expense to our generous clients living in American, Australian and African regions, and to ensure timely delivery of goods, we ask that orders be henceforth sent directly to our Berlin shops at the following address: Pierre & Gabriel Baida - Berlin Mittelstraße 55.'

Shellac disc sleeve with Berlin showroom address
Fig 1. Baidaphon record sleeve from the 1920s instructing customers outside the Middle East how to order from Berlin.

Beyond informing us that the company’s Berlin showroom was no more than a ten-minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate, the note to the customers also gives us a sense that much of the company’s business was conducted through mail orders, and that a growing proportion of these orders came from the massive Greater Syrian (and other Arabic speaking) diasporas across the Americas, Australia and Africa. By the time of the Great Depression, Baidaphon was a company operating on a global scale.

At the end of the 1920s, Baidaphon signed the most vaunted of Egypt’s twentieth century singer-songwriters: Mohammad Abdelwahhab. This was a major milestone in the company’s competition with its larger rivals, so much so that it produced a special sleeve for recordings of Abdelwahhab’s songs. Printed at the bottom of the front face of these sleeves was a photograph of the young composer in a tuxedo and tarbūsh (fez), identifying him in Latin script as 'Prof. Mohamed Abdel Wahhab', with Arabic script at the top going into flowery prose that described him as an 'artistic genius' and 'musician to kings and princes'. The back of the sleeve had the now-familiar instructions to the tri-continental diaspora to send their orders to the company’s Berlin headquarters.

Within the same period, the company began producing records by Elie Baida, son of the Beirut-branch’s Jibril Baida. Elie was a musician in his own right, renowned for his mastery of the Baghdādi style of mawwāl, a virtuosic vocal performance, invariably performed a cappella or with minimal instrumental backing, and often serving as a sentimental introduction to a song. Elie was soon dubbed the 'king of the Baghdadi' and later moved to the United States, where he lived for several decades until his tragic death in 1977. The company produced a near-identical version of the special Abdelwahhab sleeve, with the photo of Elie in place of Abdelwahhab’s though without the florid encomium.

The company’s investment in such sleeves gives us a sense of their marketing strategy at the time. Beyond relying on brand recognition, the company had moved into highlighting the considerable celebrity of its recording artists, such as Abdelwahhab and Baida, to appeal to buyers and listeners.

Shellac disc sleeve featuring Elie Baida
Fig. 2 Baidaphon record sleeve from the 1920s specially designed to market records by Elie Baida.

Sleeves also have much to tell us about Baidaphon’s response to the Great Depression, and the death of one of the company’s founding shareholders, Pierre Baida. It appears that the company aimed at restructuring in such a way that parts of the company focussed on particularly lucrative geographic areas were reconstituted as new companies. The most important of these restructuring manoeuvres were those affecting its operations in Egypt, where the Egyptian branch of the company was repackaged in the 1930s as an entirely new label: Cairophon. Though quite minimalist in comparison with the Baidaphon sleeves of the same period, the earliest Cairophon sleeves mark the connection between the two companies quite clearly. With one side in Arabic and the other in French, the sleeves state the new company’s address as 34 Rue Mousky, which matches that of the Baidaphon Cairo showroom in the 1920s. Furthermore, the new sleeves clearly state that Cairophon belonged to the 'heirs of Pierre Baida and their partners.' The new partner in question was none other than the most recent addition to the company’s roster of recording artists: Mohammad Abdelwahhab.

Shellac disc sleeve for Cairophon label
Fig. 3: Early Cairophon sleeve.

Another shellac disc sleeve that joined the British Library collection through the Cohen and Hakkak gift helps us see yet another connection between Baidaphon and the expansion of the recording industry in the Arab world, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way. Likely dating from the late 1940s or early 1950s, this is a Cairophon sleeve with text exclusively in Arabic, except for the company’s new logo which features its name above a landscape sketch of the Giza pyramids and palm trees.

Cairophon record label shellac disc sleeve from Baghdad
Fig 4. Cairophon-Baghdad sleeve.

Above the logo, and underneath the company name in Arabic, are the words 'for Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Kuwait', a clear indication of the expansion of the company’s business throughout the Arabo-Persian Gulf region. The right and left columns of the busy sleeve feature images of a bicycle, a transistor radio set and a portable record player. The text on either side is an eclectic list of items sold by the producer of the sleeve, including record players and discs, dyes, washing machines, fans, batteries, and children’s bicycles. Centered on the bottom of the sleeve are the words:

’Āref Chamakchi
Baghdad, al-Rasheed Street 295/1
Telephone 7889

There is much to say about al-Rasheed Street, the Chakmakchi family and the role of both the street and the company in Iraqi musical life. For now, it suffices to say that the Chakmakchis’ electronics store in the middle of the most musically significant street in Baghdad soon added a recording studio to its operations, creating the label Chakmakchiphone which was unparalleled in recording, popularizing and preserving the maqām and rīfī repertoires of Iraq. Though the British Library collection includes nearly one hundred Chamakchiphone records, currently being catalogued and digitized under the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme, sadly not one of the company’s sleeves has made it into the collection.

One such undated sleeve in the collection of the Arab American National Museum shows that the phone number for Chakmakchiphone was the same as that of the electronics (and children’s bicycle) retailer appearing on the Cairophon sleeve, but that the company had taken over different storefronts along Rasheed Street for different aspects of its operations. It also shows that they had expanded these operations to Mosul. The Cairophon sleeve itself tells us that the Egyptian company contracted the Chakmakchis to operate as their agents in the Arabo-Persian Gulf, and suggests that this partnership was very likely an important moment in the development of the Iraqi recording industry given the centrality of Chakmakchiphone in that development.

Historians of recorded sound rightly lament the loss of primary source material resulting from the destruction of record company archives. The Odeon company headquarters, for instance, were destroyed in the 1944 Allied bombing of Berlin, and Baidaphon’s was burned down in the 1987 during civil war in Lebanon. In our thirst for any tidbit of information, such seemingly useless ephemera as disc packaging take on all the more importance as sources through which to reconstruct the histories of music production around the world. I hope I’ve managed to show some of the ways in which this is the case, and perhaps encouraged those who have such objects in their possession to photograph and share them, and perhaps consider donating them to a nearby library or archive.

This post was written by Hazem Jamjoum, Gulf History Audio Curator and Cataloguer for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Project (BLQF), which produces the Qatar Digital Library. Follow @BLQatar, @BL_WorldTrad and @soundarchive for all the latest news.