Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound is the Library's new free exhibition in the Entrance Hall Gallery until 13 May 2018.
This exhibition also inaugurates the Library’s Season of Sound which, includes happy hour listening sessions, a series of talks and late-night shows.
What would you find?
In the exhibition space we present 100 sounds from the archive, amounting to nearly seven hours of playing time, dating from 1889 to 2017 and covering music, drama, oral history, wildlife, environmental sounds, accents and dialects, and radio.
Many of the selections are rare and unpublished and they can be accessed from any of the exhibition’s listening pods, which have been designed for a secluded and prolonged listening experience.
Some of my favourites…
- Radio drama: a musical excerpt from an off-air recording of a radio play by Caryl Brahms and Ned Sherrin - The People in the Park made in 1963. This is an example of a radio drama which was not saved by the BBC and which the British Library has preserved from an off-air recording. The chosen musical excerpt is representative of the humour and the strong feminist message of the piece.
- Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan live at WOMAD recorded by the British Library in 1985. The Library has 2500 hours of recordings made at the WOMAD Festival by a team of volunteer staff from 1985 till the present.
- Brendan Behan singing ‘The Old Triangle’ in 1954 from his play The Quare Fellow. This is a private recording donated by the Theatre Royal in Stratford East.
- An excerpt from an oral history interview with chef Cyrus Todiwala, interviewed by Niamh Dillon in 2008, recalling his reaction to first encountering Indian restaurant menus when he arrived in the UK from India in the 1990s.
- A wildlife recording of a Turkish soundscape at dusk made by biologist and field recordist Eloisa Matheu in 2010.
- Hugh Davies performing his composition ‘Salad’ on a variety of egg and tomato slicers in 1978.
Also… the voice of Florence Nightingale; James Joyce reading from Ulysses; the voice of Brahms; Maya Angelou live in Lewisham; the earliest recording of British vernacular speech; bird mimicry; whale songs; …
To put you in the zone we have installed five ‘mystery tracks’ at the very front of the exhibition space. If you are curious to know the ‘when’, ‘where’ and the ‘who’ of the mystery tracks, the details are revealed in a hand-out available elsewhere in the space.
For reference there is a timeline listing key developments in the history of recorded sound (including radio), and illustrating how the effect of recordings and recording technologies has changed our relationship to sound over the years.
The British Library has a collection of rarely seen audio players and other artefacts. For this exhibition we have taken a few out of storage. Players include an Edison home phonograph from 1900 and a Nagra SN miniature tape recorder from 1970. The artefacts include a colourful selection of picture discs and the original nickel-plated stamper used to press a disc version of Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' in 1890.
Listen to Tennyson reciting 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'
Edison Diamond Disc phonograph (c.1919)
To illustrate how archival sounds can inspire new works in the 21st century, composer and sound artist Aleks Kolkowski has created a unique sound installation.
Boy Wireless was inspired by a diary kept by a sixteen-year old radio enthusiast, Alfred Taylor, writing in 1922-23, at the dawn of broadcast radio. The original diary is also on display in the space.
Boy Wireless sound installation by Aleks Kolkowski
Aleks Kolkowski at the British Library cutting souvenir voice recordings on the exhibition’s opening night.
Save Our Sounds
The Library’s sound archive is one of the biggest on the planet. It contains six and half million audio recordings from all over the world in over forty different formats. The preservation of recorded sound is at the heart of our work. In 2016 the Library launched the Save Our Sounds Programme to digitise the most vulnerable items in our collection and in other collections across the UK. Donations to support the programme are welcome.
Follow @BL_DramaSound and @soundarchive for more news.