Sound and vision blog

167 posts categorized "Interviews"

03 April 2023

Recording of the week: The sound designer: the theatre as an experimental stage

Photograph of an actor on stage

Photograph of an actor on stage. Photograph by Antonio Molinari on Unsplash.

In this 2004 interview from British Library collection ‘Theatre Archive Project’ (C1142/350), sound designer Ross Brown describes the process of sound creation in theatre.

Listen to Ross Brown

Download Ross Brown transcript

Sound design is, among many things, an art of illusion. It serves a purpose to recreate familiar sounds and convey emotions. The role of the theatre sound designer is to create a sound that can fit a certain venue. The designer imagines how the sound will fill the ambient space and how the audience will receive it within that space. Sounds create another dimension to what happens on the stage.

Brown states that the role of the sound designer was not perceived as a separate entity until the modern day, when new equipment was introduced to create sounds in theatre. With the arrival of new technologies, playback became an integral part of the performance, almost similar to a cinematic experience. Naturalistic sounds could then be stretched and manipulated before being incorporated into the final products.

This new way of sampling sound needed to be marketed. In fact, this became a niche technical aspect of the staged performances. However, budget in theatre downplayed the sound designer as a professional role until very recently. Brown’s consideration made me think of the historic way of adding sound to a film as a separate track, with the final product merging two different mediums of communication (images and sounds).

Ross describes sound creation as a parallel narrative: an experimental discipline, which combines the ability to use these new technological tools with the final making of the performance or play. Some writers, Ross continues, raised objections to this new professional role of interpreting and shaping the musicality and rhythm of speech and interaction. Altogether, it was the whole experience of the audience that would be different with the sound actually abstracting from the script. Ideas could spark from attending rehearsals. An understanding of how the characters would interact with each other was an integral part of this new process of making sounds and creating the new pace of storytelling.

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

27 March 2023

Recording of the week: Peter Rickenback on being a fugitive in Europe

The British Library recently launched a new online learning resource, Voices of the Holocaust, as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. The new website features a curated selection of audio clips, pulled mainly from four collections of oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors held at the British Library’s sound archive. Alongside the interview extracts, the resource features biographies of the interviewees as well as historical context provided through themes and articles.

Many audio clips featured in the new Voices of the Holocaust learning resource speak to how difficult it was to escape Nazi-occupied countries and find a new home. In an interview with Herbert Levy, Peter Rickenback speaks about leaving Nazi Germany and spending several years travelling Europe and beyond, bouncing from job to job to evade immigration authorities returning him to Nazi Germany as an illegal immigrant.

Until 1941, official Nazi policy was to encourage Jewish people to emigrate, but they made it incredibly difficult and dangerous to do so. Throughout the 1930s, the Nazis enacted over 400 antisemitic laws that systematically impoverished and restricted the lives of Jewish people. The ‘Decree on the Registration of Jewish Property’ forced them to surrender their property to the state, and the ‘Reich Flight Tax’ taxed them heavily for attempting to emigrate. Numerous laws also prevented Jewish people from earning a living: in 1933 they were excluded from government roles, in 1936 Jewish teachers were banned from schools, and in 1938 the ‘Decree on the Exclusion of Jews from German Economic Life’ closed all Jewish-owned businesses. On top of this, other countries’ immigration policies were unforgiving. For a visa, some required immigrants to secure a sponsor, pay hefty fees, and queue up on a daily basis to retrieve multiple documents, all under threat of public harassment and abuse.

In the mid-1930s, Peter Rickenback’s family struggled financially under the conditions in Nazi Germany, and were not able to emigrate together. He was able to leave on his own after being offered a hotel catering job in Sweden on a training permit. After his permit expired, Peter and his family exhausted all of their resources keeping him out of Germany for several years. His father helped him to get a work permit for France where he had a series of hotel jobs. Whilst there, he met two English men who offered him a job and permanent residence in Britain. In this clip, he talks about his attempt to get to Britain and take up this opportunity.

Listen to Peter Rickenback discuss being a fugitive in Europe

Download Peter Rickenback transcript

Photo of Peter Rickenback - copyright USC Shoah Foundation

Above: Peter Rickenback. Photo copyright © USC Shoah Foundation.

As he describes, the laws changed before he arrived in Folkestone, making his paperwork insufficient and requiring him to return and apply for a visa. This sent him back to Boulogne, where he was warned he would be in danger, and from there he fled to Paris and then to the Netherlands with a forged work permit. After police caught up with him, Peter got a job on a boat to West Africa, which eventually returned to Hamburg. Once there, it was too dangerous for Peter to get off the boat, but the Gestapo gave permission for Peter’s family to board for an hour, where he was able to meet with his parents one last time. He was forcibly returned to the Netherlands, and during his time there, his father helped him to get an affidavit for entry into the United States. Peter appealed to the Jewish Aid Committee to get a transit visa to Britain, and received some help from his employer to pay for it. He arrived in Britain two weeks before the start of the war, and settled there. His sister was able to get to Britain on a domestic work permit, but his parents stayed in Germany and did not survive.

Peter’s story is one of many that reveal just how difficult it was for Jewish people to escape the Nazi regime for good. This collection item is featured in the new Voices of the Holocaust online resource, which includes 87 clips from oral history interviews with Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees, contextual articles, and biographies of the interviewees.

This week's post comes from Georgia Dack, Web Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

20 March 2023

Recording of the week: Hanns Alexander on being a Nazi hunter after World War Two

On 11 March 1946 Hanns Alexander arrested Rudolf Höss, a German SS officer who was the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz. Hanns, who was born in Berlin in 1917, fled Nazi persecution in the late 1930s because he was Jewish. He fled to England with his parents and siblings, and joined the British Army as soon as he could.

Photograph of Hanns Alexander

Image copyright: Courtesy of Alexander Family Archive.

In May 1945 Hanns was an interpreter at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he helped British army officials interrogate Nazis and their collaborators on their involvement in the Holocaust. Hanns then decided to become a Nazi hunter, using his skills to track down and arrest Nazis who had so far evaded capture.

Listen to Hanns Alexander

Download Hanns Alexander transcript

Audio copyright: British Library. Recorded and donated by Herbert Levy.

In this clip from an interview with Herbert Levy in 1996 (British Library reference: C958/03), Hanns describes how he and his colleagues searched for Rudolf for several months. They eventually found him by tracking letters that he and his wife were sending one another. Hanns recalls how Rudolf initially denied being the commandant of Auschwitz and instead claimed he was a gardener called Franz Lang. However, Rudolf’s wedding ring gave him away, because it had his and his wife’s initials, along with their wedding date.

Hanns tells Herbert that capturing Rudolf was one of his greatest victories. Learn more about Hanns and his life through the Voices of the Holocaust leaning resource.

This week’s post comes from Charlotte James, Web Content Developer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

16 March 2023

From vocal to visual, with family scraps

Artist Sophie Herxheimer, creator of the artwork for the British Library’s new Voices of the Holocaust website, reflects on her approach to contextualising and representing the voices of Holocaust survivors.

This collection of interviews with Holocaust survivors encompasses themes of war, suffering, imprisonment, exile and loss. But there are also things that made me laugh, many surprises, sharply conjured memories and images - and a lot of detailed insight about Britain, and its relationships with refugees and European politics, much of which still resonates today.

The British Library’s learning team approached me about the idea of creating a different way in to this dark chapter of history: something to replace the grainy photographs of hollow-eyed victims of atrocity that so often accompany this type of material.

We discussed how we could better reflect the dignity, courage and long term contributions of the people in these interviews, their often long and settled lives in the UK – their legacy as parents, workers, friends and neighbours, whose identities were not ossified in victim mode.

We thought of the liveliness of these extraordinary testimonies which help to shed light on who we all are, and what really happened, as well as the contribution these immigrants made to post war British culture.

Voices of the Holocaust graphic art - web banner

My father, aunt and grandparents arrived in London in November 1938 from Berlin, saved by an inventive job offer for my doctor grandfather, from the hastily set up Council for Academic Refugees (it’s still going!). The family spoke German at home in North London, but never spoke of Germany or the war years. Nor was our Jewishness referred to, we were head-down, assimilated, secular Londoners; on my mum’s side too, though her forebears were from a much earlier wave of immigrants from Russia.

My first step towards realising the commission was to listen. The next steadying thought I had was to devise a palette that would immediately suggest an atmosphere, and use colour to loosen any oppressive sense of worthiness, horror or ‘explanation’. I mixed gouaches based on the furnishings that I remembered from my paternal grandparents’ house. It had a strong middle European flavour, with its whiskery upholstery, heavy wooden furniture and fern green window frames. 

Coffee was a colour too. So was herring, paprika and beer. I painted paper in these shades and went through my collage scrap bags for period ephemera. (I hoard scraps, like any self-respecting child of a refugee.) I found pages from 1930s journals, family letters and postcards that I have in a beribboned bundle, some books written in German Gothic script that I’ve picked up on scourings of charity shops and cupboards.

I began to compile and cut out images for each themed banner, paying careful attention to the voices and their stories...

1. 'My dad was still shaving...'

Voices of the Holocaust graphic art - web banner incorporating illustration of man shaving

Henry Kuttner remembers the November Pogrom of 1938

Download Henry Kuttner transcript

2. 'Quite a big troop ship...'

Voices of the Holocaust graphic art - web banner incorporating troop ship image

Willy Field on being sent to Australia

Download Willy Field transcript

3. ‘You could smell - rotten cabbages - and beetroot...'

Voices of the Holocaust graphic art - web banner reflectiing ghetto living conditions

Edith Birkin on conditions in the Łódź Ghetto

Download Edith Birkin transcript

I was searching not only for particular images from the recordings but also for vocal tone and texture, e.g. hesitation, indignation, mirth, age, accent. These were all keys to the sensations I wanted to convey (texture is an essential tool when making work to be seen online). 

I like to fight the flatness of the screen with chunky textural heft. It’s another enlivening way to disrupt the surface and get beneath it. I composed the banners with reference to a mid-century graphic aesthetic - a lot of which was pioneered in the Bauhaus, during Germany’s short-lived, but eternally influential, Weimar period.

Using photocopied strips cut from family correspondence, with its fluent handwriting in varied scripts and gestures, as well as the soft ephemerality of its faded paper, added immediate authenticity, as well as offering structure to my collages. I used the writing to make the shapes of stripes, rays, squares and buildings.

I could cut figures from different pieces of found material, e.g. a ‘situations wanted’ page of The Times, 1939: “Educated Viennese Jewess seeks domestic work…” or a page from a child’s comic my father had grown up reading, which was seamless Nazi propaganda written into sentimental stories about ‘sacrifice’ and ‘the fatherland’. I also used scraps of printed wrapping papers if they seemed evocative, or had adjacent colours, or suggested period through pattern.

I hope by making these collages from largely discarded materials, to also echo in a small way the resourcefulness and practicality of the people in the recordings, who had to use whatever they could find, including imagination, to emerge from the horrors of war and persecution.

Sophie Herxheimer
March 2023

13 February 2023

Recording of the week: Setting up the Athena Project

In belated celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11), this week’s selection comes from Emmeline Ledgerwood, Voices of Science Web Coordinator.

In 2005 the Athena Swan Charter was launched to encourage higher education and research institutions to support the advancement of women working in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine). This accreditation scheme is now recognised across the globe as a framework for organisations in all sectors to demonstrate their efforts towards addressing gender equality in the workplace.

The charter was the brainchild of the Scientific Women’s Academic Network (SWAN), a grouping of women scientists from across the UK who had first come together as a result of the Athena project. The Athena Project was set up in 1999 and worked in partnership with universities and leading professional and learned science societies to make a difference to women’s careers in science. Its early work focused on developing mentoring, networks and career development programmes for women scientists, followed by surveys of career progression.

In 2011, Professor Dame Julia Higgins was interviewed by Thomas Lean for the National Life Stories collection ‘An Oral History of British Science’. The full recording and transcript are available online at BL Sounds.

Listen to Dame Julia Higgins

Download Julia Higgins interview transcript

Higgins is a polymer scientist and physicist who pioneered innovative methods to study the structure, organisation and movement of polymers. As a young woman she held research posts in France before joining the Chemical Engineering Department at Imperial College, London, in 1976. Over the course of her forty-year career there, culminating in her position as Principal of the Faculty of Engineering, she also served as Foreign Secretary and Vice-President of the Royal Society and Chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Photo of Julia Higgins in the lab with thermodynamics on the blackboard  1990

Above: Image supplied by Julia Higgins in 2011. 

In this clip, Higgins describes how her own career progression by the mid-1990s gave her a level of influence in the higher education sector that she leveraged to improve the careers of other women in science. The result was the Athena project with its far-reaching legacy for women working in STEMM.

Browse the Voices of Science website to find extracts from interviews with many other women scientists interviewed for National Life Stories at the British Library.

 

06 February 2023

Recording of the week: Voices of Partition

This week’s post comes from Charlotte James, Web Content Developer for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

In August 1947, Gurbakhsh Singh Garcha learned about the Partition of India over his uncle’s radio. Gurbakhsh was a young boy living in a small village north of Delhi when officials announced that British India would be divided into India and Pakistan.

Photograph of Gurbakhsh Singh Garcha

On 14 August Pakistan was created, with Muhammad Ali Jinnah as the country’s first Governor-General. On 15 August India became an independent country and Jawaharlal Nehru became its first prime minister. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, under the guidance of Lord Louis Mountbatten (the last Viceroy to British India), demarcated the boundary lines for the two new countries.

Listen to Gurbakhsh Singh Garcha

Download Gurbakhsh Singh Garcha transcript

In this clip from an interview with Kavita Puri in 2017 (British Library reference: C1790/20), Gurbakhsh discusses how many people were worried about Partition and how they learned about it. When Kavita asks how villagers got their news, Gurbakhsh replies that they mostly learned things through posters and literature that political parties published and distributed. Gurbakhsh remembers that around 50 people gathered at his uncle’s house to listen to the Partition announcement because he was the only person in the village who owned a radio. He recalls people worrying about where the partition boundary would fall and on which side big cities, like Lahore, would end up. Today, with our constant access to the news, it is difficult to imagine 50 people gathering around one radio to hear such an important announcement.

Learn more about Partition and listen to other oral testimonies surrounding this historic event on the British Library’s Voices of Partition online learning resource.

Audio and Image copyright: BBC.

30 January 2023

Recording of the week: The role of the creator in improvised dance

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

Photograph of a dancer in motion, with a black background. Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash.

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash.

In this 1991 interview from the collection ‘ICA talks’ (C95/795), the renowned artist and dancer Trisha Brown considers the experience and exploration of gravity in her works, and discusses the role of gender in improvised partnering performances. 

Listen to Trisha Brown

Download Trisha Brown transcript

Years ago I used to practice contact improvisation, a movement technique and art dance style that originated in downtown New York in the late sixties.

The central idea of contact improvisation is around finding the body’s balance in relation to the partner by sharing weight and touch; forms and movements are thus created when the bodies meet, initiated and transformed by the music or simply by vocal instructions.

Movement awareness is intrinsically related to how much information we can gather from other people’s bodies, through the constant dialogic sharing of touch points. There are no rules, only bodies listening to each other in their search for a shared centre of gravity.

Trisha was one of these pioneering artists who explored the idea of what kind of movement can be improvised in a dance.1

An interesting point that Trisha considers is around the importance of physical strength and gender roles in this improvised dance: how much of the silent communication of movements is in fact created by the male partner?

Ultimately, it makes me wonder how much we are aware, in the process of making, of who is the final ‘creator’ of a performance.

---

[1] Nancy Stark Smith, 'Harvest: One history of contact improvisation', Contact Quarterly, The Place Issue, 32/2 (2006): https://contactquarterly.com/cq/unbound/view/harvest-a-history-of-ci#$.

27 January 2023

In the words of survivors: what was 'ordinary' about the Holocaust?

By Dr Madeline White, Curator of Oral History.

Holocaust Memorial Day graphic

Reflecting on the Holocaust Memorial Day 2023 theme of 'ordinary people', I wondered what – if anything – the word 'ordinary' meant to the people who survived the genocide. In a time that was by all accounts extra-ordinary, what value does the word 'ordinary' have in talking about it? Who do the survivors think of as 'ordinary people' in the context of their own persecution?

The British Library Sound Archive is home to more than 600 Holocaust oral testimonies. The word 'ordinary' appears with surprising frequency in them.

But interestingly, there is no consensus between them on who the 'ordinary people' are.

Some survivors identify themselves – and the Jewish people in general – as the 'ordinary people'. Ivan Cybula does so in the opening moments of his 1988 interview.

Ivan Cybula on his place of birth [BL REF C410/032]

Download Ivan Cybula transcript

For Ivan, there was nothing extraordinary about his family; they lived modest, working lives, in keeping with the lives led by many other Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The picture that Ivan paints of an 'ordinary' family in an 'ordinary' community that largely kept itself to itself sets the scene for what we know follows: a community that would be persecuted and ultimately murdered as a perceived anomaly, before Ivan had barely entered adulthood.

Other survivors draw a distinction between themselves and the non-Jewish people around them, but instead characterise non-Jewish people as 'ordinary' and themselves – or the notion of being Jewish – as some kind of other. Here, Eric Bluh talks about working in Bournemouth, England after the war. He describes his fractured relationship with an employer, who despite being Jewish themselves, did not think he lived up to the standards they expected of a Jew.

Eric Bluh on working in Bournemouth [BL REF C410/057]

Download Eric Bluh transcript

Eric describes himself as behaving ‘like an ordinary person without Jewish ways’ as a way of distinguishing himself from the Jewish stereotype, demonstrating in the process that the persistent ‘othering’ of Jewish people which had underscored the Holocaust continued into the post-war period, and beyond continental Europe..

Elsewhere, we hear survivors speak of their persecutors as 'ordinary people', making the same argument that scholars such as Christopher Browning and Hannah Arendt set out eloquently in their historical analyses: that genocides are not simply perpetrated by 'evil' people, but often ordinary people who under certain conditions are capable of making evil choices. By emphasising the ordinariness of their tormentors, the survivors challenge us to make sense of the extraordinariness of their actions. In the following clip, Naomi Blake describes the German soldiers who attempted to bury her alive as 'in normal circumstances law-abiding, good people, professional people':

Naomi Blake on digging a grave [BL REF C410/076]

Download Naomi Blake transcript

The outcome is not to absolve perpetrators of their responsibility or to underplay the severity of their crimes, but instead the opposite: to emphasise the extent to which their crimes lay beyond comprehension, yet firmly in the realm of the everyday possible.

The word 'ordinary' appears as an adjective to describe many other types of people and circumstances in survivor narratives. Heidi Fischer - who hid as a child in Hungary under Christian papers - describes sitting on a train listening to 'ordinary people - peasants and suchlike […] talking about the Jews […] in a very awfully derogative manner' (BL ref C410/088). In stark contrast, Alice Schwab speaks of 'the help, and the love, and the kindness, from ordinary people' she received after arriving in England in 1937 (BL ref C410/089).

In his 1989 interview, the interviewer asks Henry Kohn to describe 'an ordinary day' in the Czeldź ghetto (BL ref C410/002).

What does this tell us?

It tells us that the Holocaust was an event perpetrated and experienced by ordinary people. Though used in different contexts, the word almost always serves to emphasise the extremity of the situation, or the incomprehensibility of people's choices. After all, the word 'ordinary' only has meaning if the word 'extra-ordinary' can be used to describe something outside of its boundaries.

In speaking of the event in these terms, the survivors force us to see ourselves in their stories, at all stages and in all parts of the narrative. Believing ourselves to be 'ordinary people' is no longer a valid defence, a reason to believe that it couldn't happen to us or by us or under our watch. By describing those involved as ordinary - perpetrators, bystanders, and the persecuted alike - the survivors confront us with the possibility that, in fact, it could.

When asked whether he thought the history of the Holocaust ought to be shared, Michael Lee responded that the lessons must be learned precisely because of how ordinary those involved were:

Michael Lee describes experiencing antisemitism in Britain [BL REF C410/014]

Download Michael Lee transcript

Michael made these observations in an interview given in 1989. One might ask what he would think now about the parallels between the past and the present day, 34 years later.

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

Madeline White is the Curator of Oral History at the British Library. She holds an MA and PhD in Holocaust Studies from Royal Holloway, University of London, where she conducted extensive research into the history of archival collections of Holocaust testimony in Britain and Canada. 

 

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