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13 October 2020

Making of: The Unearthed Odyssey

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Written by AWATE, Artist-in-Residence for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. 

In 2019-20, I was the Artist-in-Residence at the British Library Sound Archive for Unlocking Our Sound Heritage. I was tasked with creatively using the sounds (up to 7 million!) in order to showcase the recordings in the collections. I decided to focus on the topic of migration and over the course of several months, created a conceptual Afrofuturist album spanning three centuries called The Unearthed Odyssey.

Watch the full performance of The Unearthed Odyssey here

It’s the story of children on a spaceship being taught the history of Earth. Needing to find another planet, they have been sent out into the unknown for safety like so many people in the story of humanity. It takes place on the one day a year they are awoken for an audio lesson in human migration. The teacher takes the form of an artificial intelligence interface which uses hip-hop production techniques to explain migration using samples from the British Library sound archive.

I used recordings from the World and Traditional Music, Pop Music, Drama and Literature, Oral History, and Wildlife and Environmental departments. The scale and depth of the sound archive made me want to use parts from it all, rather than focusing on one collection, period or location. With more time, I would have used even more!

The narrative structure is laid out with the first song as an introduction. From there, there are three movements or acts. Act I: Original Home. Act II: The Journey. Act III: New Home. Within these acts, the musical style would change significantly, with the first compositions consisting entirely or mostly of layers utilising samples from one recording. As the piece progresses, more additional production and virtual instruments are introduced for a fuller and more modern sound.

Much of this is a step-by-step guide to how the piece was created. Many of the thought processes I had when producing this piece haven’t been included. I am probably still processing them now. For greater detail into the themes and ideas I worked with and was attempting to communicate, please watch the Q&A with Kieran Yates from the premiere.

AWATE 1Above: A screenshot of a Logic Pro X arrangement and sample editor windows showing parts of composition and waveform of sampled recording.

Part I: Listening

After researching the collections I wanted to use and downloading 66 recordings from the sound libraries and servers, the most important task at hand was listening to all of these potential samples! I had run through them all quickly in order to determine whether the audio quality was usable and how interesting they sounded but now had to go through them all - some being 20 seconds and others more than 3 hours.

For every audio file, there was a story and I used the British Library itself as well as online searches for greater context on the subjects in the recordings, the time, geography, politics and the archivists themselves. This was to have an understanding of what I was listening to. To centre my listening and to inform the direction of the new work that I would be turning these recordings into.

With that said, the most important part of the criteria in shortlisting and using these sounds in the first place was how dope they sounded. How cool or interesting they were. Whether they could be manipulated into another sound to evoke emotion with the use of effects. My purpose as the Artist-in-Residence was to entice people into the archive. Stories and context are important but first and foremost, I wanted to make amazing music.

AWATE 2Above: A screenshot of a list of the downloaded recordings labelled by catalogue number.

Part II: Chopping Samples and Beatmaking

The next step after deciding which sounds I would definitely be using would be the part I have always relished - chopping samples and placing them/triggering them. For the uninitiated, this is the audio equivalent of a collage - going through a magazine with a pair of scissors, cutting out bits you find interesting or that would work well together aesthetically or thematically and finding ways they can interact with each other on the page before sticking them down. Making art out of art. Using found material to express how you are feeling. The tools of necessity after public funding for arts has been cut and you cannot afford to play or learn an instrument.

For Unearthed, I used two broad techniques for this. One of them involved using the slice tool in my DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice, Logic Pro X, to cut the pieces of the recording I wanted to use and place them on the linear editing window to create loops or patterns based on the BPM (Beats Per Minute) that I had set the project to. This is a fairly straightforward way of placing samples and works well for using slightly longer chops or when you don’t want to go through the next process which is…

Using a sampler. On Logic, my favourite stock sampler is the ESX24. I would chop the parts of the recording I wanted to use, then drag the files into the editor window on the ESX, create a new group, drag them into there and in the groups tab, set the polyphony to one. This meant that the samples could now be triggered using my ‘qwerty’ keyboard or music keyboard via MIDI or drawn on the MIDI file. Setting the polyphony to one meant that each chop would interrupt the other so that no two could be played at the same time. Poly = many. Phono = sound. For this technique, I used my keyboard to create interesting new patterns using the chops and recorded them.

AWATE 3Above: A screenshot of the programme ESX24 and its editor window with imported samples. It features the list of samples and an image of piano keys. Doing this allows the samples to be triggered like keys on a piano.

With my samples placed on the arrangement window, I then build the rest of the tracks using drums, bass, piano, synth and experimental sounds. The extremely talented Gabrial Ryder came in to lend his talents on the keyboard and piano to add additional production on many of the tracks. Many of his parts were integral to the intro and second half of the piece. I used various plugins to create effects and unique sounds such as EQ, reverb, delay, chorus, flanger, bitcrusher, distortion, step editor and compressors. All of the instruments and plugins were stock Logic sounds that I manipulated into one of a kind textures.

Part III: Oral History

Having created eight distinct instrumental songs, the next step was to listen to the various recordings I had collected from the Oral History and Drama and Literature collections. I searched for stories from immigrants and children of immigrants to the UK and elsewhere. Specifically, I wanted anecdotes of people in their countries of origin before migrating, descriptions of the journeys they undertook as well as what it was like for them adapting or growing up in a new place and how they were treated or made to feel.

Listening to these stories was quite emotionally taxing. Some included people describing surviving severe abuse or fleeing the Holocaust and horrific wars, others describing feeling completely alienated in their new countries and some included all of these things. This listening process took longer than I had anticipated, simply because I needed to take the time to properly recover from hearing people talk about such things, even when they had an indefatigable spirit or sense of humour about it. Much of the subject matter, I could relate to or had a connection to through members of my family.

In Logic, I listened and extracted excerpts as loops to my hard drive as separate files labelled by keywords based on who was interviewed and what was mentioned. From there, I could attach colour labels to each recording based on whether I would use it or not. Within the Logic sessions for the beats, I placed the oral history samples and fine-tuned them using EQ, reverb and other tools as well as turning the beat down during some of the stories and cutting the beat out at certain points. I was effectively using the stories as the lyrics on the instrumentals.

AWATE 4Above: A screenshot of bounced audio samples from oral history interviews featuring the interviewee, keywords and colour label.

Part IV: Arrangement

At this point, I had eight songs done with the sample based instrumentals and interwoven spoken parts from the archive and it sounded great! I arranged the tracks based on their subject matter to fit the narrative of the first section after the intro being about the original home, second section being about the journey and third section about the new home. They were also arranged according to the richness and complexity of the music, especially in terms of additional sounds and virtual instruments in Logic. For the most part, after the introduction song, the first section features production taken solely from the archive with the piece progressing into more and more additional instrumentation, while keeping the sound archive samples as the main ingredient.

From here I had to construct the wider narrative with the spaceship premise that had been decided on but did not yet feature. For the voices of the children on the spaceship, I spoke to a group of children from immigrant families in south London a few weeks after taking them on a day trip to the British Library with some wonderful staff. I had a stereo dictaphone which I walked around with while asking them questions after setting the scene for them. Having training in Philosophy for Children with the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), I allowed them to interrogate their own thoughts and search for connections in what we were speaking about, listening to their own experiences.

In Logic, I chopped this conversation into the parts I wanted to use and arranged them in a window with the 8 finished tracks. Like the oral history samples, I applied processing tools to these samples to make them clearer and added a gated reverb to my voice. For me, the idea of the children today putting themselves into the shoes of futuristic travellers and having a conversation with the oral history parts was important as it reflected the same relationships the instruments and music samples were having.

The final addition were sound effects from the archive which I used to accentuate certain songs and transitions. These included wildlife recordings of birds and lions, the launching of a ship into the harbour, a boat in the ocean and real sounds of tanks and bombs from World War II. I feel these grounded the piece, bringing it back to Earth due to the inclusion of natural sounds that would stand out in such a futuristic narrative.

AWATE 5Above: A screenshot of the final arrangement window featuring the 8 tracks, voice over, children audio and sound effects.

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

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06 October 2020

What if your home had ears?

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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.

28 September 2020

Recording of the week: Discovering Sibelius

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This week's selection comes from Jonathan Summers, Curator of Classical Music Recordings.

Working at home has allowed me to listen to a lot more music than I normally would. One advantage is the opportunity to get to know areas of classical music that are unfamiliar. For me, one of those was the symphonies of the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.

Robert Wilhelm Ekman's painting Lemminkäinen at the Fiery Lake
Lemminkäinen at the Fiery Lake, Robert Wilhelm Ekman, c. 1867

It is extraordinary to think that Sibelius as conductor could have recorded his own works in the stereo LP era as he did not die until 1957. However, he withdrew from life and stopped composing during the mid-1920s after completing his Seventh Symphony and a few other orchestral works.

The first complete recording of the Symphonies to be released was made in 1952-1953 by Sixten Ehrling and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, but more famous is the cycle recorded for Decca by Anthony Collins and the London Symphony Orchestra between 1952 and 1954. This mono set is still held to be one of the best interpretations on disc. Other complete sets I have enjoyed recently are those by Jukka-Pekka Saraste and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Many of the symphony cycles have other orchestral works as fillers such as Night Ride and Sunrise Op. 55, The Oceanides Op. 73, and the Lemminkäinen Suite Op. 22. Sibelius was a patriot, especially during the Russian occupation when his music became a rallying cry for his people with works such as the famous Finlandia. The Lemminkäinen Suite is based on Finnish folk legends (subtitled Four Legends from the Kalevala) and is a suite in four movements, the second of which is the famous Swan of Tuonela. The last movement is the thrilling Lemminkäinen’s Return Home.

Sir Thomas Beecham made a famous recording of the movement in October 1937, but he also performed the Suite at a Queen’s Hall concert on 27th February 1936. This Royal Philharmonic Society concert included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, Walton’s Viola Concerto with William Primrose as soloist, a Schubert Symphony and the Sibelius Suite. A recording of Lemminkäinen’s Return Home exists in the Kenneth Leech collection (C738) at the British Library.

Having died in 1957 Sibelius is still in copyright so here are three short extracts which show the drive, power and excitement Beecham could bring to a live performance, encouraging the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to play at their virtuoso best.

In the first extract, you can hear Beecham shout at the climax.

Lemminkainen's Return extract 1

The articulation of the strings and brass is particularly noticeable in this next extract.

Lemminkainen's Return extract 2

The final extract is of the closing pages of the work.

Lemminkainen's Return extract 3

 

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

24 September 2020

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

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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

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21 September 2020

Recording of the week: My family and other tapes

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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.

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19 September 2020

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

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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.

31 August 2020

Recording of the week: Kathy Stobart interviewed by Jen Wilson

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

In the late 1980s, Jen Wilson, pianist and founder of Jazz Heritage Wales, interviewed saxophonist and bandleader Kathy Stobart (1925 – 2014). Now part of the British Library collection Oral history of jazz in Britain (C122), the audio recording of this interview has recently been cleared for online release as part of Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

As Data Protection and Rights Clearance Officer, my job involves contacting rights holders and their representatives, in recordings such as this one, to request permission. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to learn more about the voices in the recordings, and as in the case of the Oral history of jazz in Britain collection, discover the rich history of jazz music making in the UK.

Kathy Stobart playing the saxophone
Kathy Stobart, photographed by Derek Gabriel for Jazz Heritage Wales

Born on 1 April, 1925 in South Shields, England, Florence Kathleen Stobart was the daughter of a pianist and a police officer. In her interview she describes a musical upbringing, and a talent for memorising piano pieces. Her early performance career included singing, dancing and impersonating artists such as Gracie Fields, but it was as a saxophonist and later bandleader that she became best known.

In this excerpt from the interview she describes her induction into life as a working jazz musician.

Kathy Stobart on her early experiences playing jazz

Kathy was only a teenager when her career began, and as a musician she travelled up and down the United Kingdom even touring abroad, working with musicians such as Denis Rose, Ted Heath, Jimmy Skidmore, Art Pepper, Peanuts Hucko, Vic Lewis, Humphrey Lyttleton, just to name a few.

While investigating the rights for this recording, I corresponded with Kathy’s son Peter by email, and in these exchanges he described her life as ‘long and full of some pretty amazing events’, highlighting the WW2 years in particular. In his words:

At the beginning as a very young girl 14 I think… travelling with an all-girl cabaret band (but run by a bloke! Don Rico) down to London and round the time of the Blitz through to… returning to London, again during the war, but around 1943, to actually take a real step into the Jazz World, travelling to west-end and Soho clubs at night, playing at the Embassy Club… with the likes of Clark Gable, Glenn Miller, Bob Hope sitting in the audience…then travelling back to Ealing amongst the sometimes bombed streets etc.

Peter goes on to describe how Kathy became ‘a ‘proper’ respected working jazz musician’, who was ‘very often on the cover of Melody Maker hailed as a real star…not that Kath would ever show off about stuff like that… she wasn't like that at all.’ His emails and the interview reveal a modest and witty Kathy Stobart, as you can hear in the next excerpt, in which she matter-of-factly talks about forming her own band, something that was a rare achievement for a woman at the time.

Kathy Stobart on working as a female band leader

Kathy married Art Thompson, a fellow musician, in 1943, then later trumpeter Bert Courtley in 1951. Around the same time she was leading her own band, which included Bert, Derek Humble and Dill Jones. As Peter mentions above, being a female bandleader for an all-male band was highly unusual, and is testament to Kathy’s determination and enthusiasm to do what she loved, and do it well.

The interview provides valuable insight into Kathy Stobart’s life as a working musician, including scaling back professional work to have three children in the 1950s and 1960s - although she continued to perform and tour throughout this period.

Kathy Stobart on juggling work and children

Sadly Kathy’s husband Bert passed away in 1969, and the interview reflects on some of the more challenging aspects of the jazz world, which professional musicians such as Kathy and Bert faced.

In the 1970s, she created the Kathy Stobart Quintet, one of the original members being Harry Beckett (trumpet), who was also interviewed for the Oral history of jazz in Britain collection. During this time Kathy was also playing in Humphrey Lyttelton’s band, as well as teaching adult music classes at City Literary Institute in Holborn, London.

There isn’t really enough space in one blog to list all of her achievements (you can read more about them on her website), but it is worth mentioning that she was also a regular guest musician on BBC Radio 1’s Sounds of Jazz, a headliner at Britain's first women's jazz festival in 1982, and even taught Dame Judi Dench saxophone in preparation for a role in a TV play. She continued to perform and make guest appearances with bands until her early 80s, long after most people would be considering retirement and a well-earned rest!

Freedom Music
Cover of Jen Wilson's book Freedom Music

A trailblazer who inspired many people, Kathy was a key influence in fellow musician Jen Wilson’s life. Jen is a pianist and the founder of Jazz Heritage Wales, formerly known as the Women’s Jazz Archive, and has kindly shared her own perspective on the interview and how she met Kathy:

I first saw Kathy Stobart on stage with Humphrey Lyttelton’s Band at Swansea’s Brangwyn Hall in about 1957/8? She was not sitting on the side in a fancy frock waiting to be called to sing. She was standing in the front line blowing our socks off. I was about 13/14 and transfixed. My brother John was a drummer, but also owned a tenor sax on which I tried to play blues riffs. Now here was the real thing. I never forget that first impression.

In 1980 Ursula Masson with a MA in history, formed the Swansea Women’s History Group. Gail Allen and myself joined and we went on to tour photographic exhibitions and make video documentaries about women’s lives in Wales. In 1985 after finishing our video on Welsh women in the miner’s strike, Ursula said to me “you are a jazz musician, what is the story of jazz in Wales?” I said I didn’t know. She said “then find out.” I spent 18 months writing to archives and libraries asking for material on British women jazz musicians. I got the occasional letter saying “we don’t hold anything here”, or “if you find anything could you let us have it?” Then Swansea’s Glanmor Jazz Club booked Kathy Stobart to play with the Russ Jones house band. So I thought, if no archive or library had any stories about British women jazz musicians, I’d better start with Kathy if I want to know our history.

After the gig, I nervously approached her to ask if I could interview her. “Of course, love. Thank you for asking. Come to the B&B in the morning for a chat.” I borrowed the History Group’s Marantz broadcast quality tape recorder. That first chat took us to 1939; she had to drive off to her next gig. I transcribed it over the next week – I was a fast typist, trained at my school’s secretarial course. Enthralled and excited, I told Ursula and Gail “I think I have just started the Women’s Jazz Archive.” “About time” said Ursula.

Years later I managed to catch up again with Kathy. Mike (husband) and I drove down to Axmouth and a lovely welcome. She talked non-stop. Halfway she rushed to the kitchen to make a pile of tuna sandwiches, cake and tea. Then she gently eased us out of her house as she had to drive to London for a gig. A truly, lovely lady.

I was intrigued as to how this full-time jazz musician, married to a full-time trumpet player, could travel the UK and bring up three sons and produce that quality of music. Kathy simply said “my mum, we all need our mums.” She had to call in her mum as when Bert Courtley was instructed to look after the boys for a week, she had returned home from a tour to find a pile of soiled nappies out in the backyard.

I am enormously grateful to Peter and Jen for providing more context for the interview, and for archivist David Nathan at the National Jazz Archive, for helping with contacts for this recording and the collection.

You can read more about Kathy Stobart on her website and Jen Wilson’s also provides more information. Jazz Heritage Wales is based at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD).

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

08 June 2020

Recording of the week: Michiko Hirayama singing Scelsi

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

Between 1978 and 1994 the Institute of Contemporary Arts ran an annual series of contemporary music concerts called MusICA. Among the works programmed were those by Italian-born composer Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988). Little known and ostracised by music academic entourages of the time throughout his life - French composer Pierre Boulez branded him as an amateur - he became well known around the 1980s and is today considered one of the pioneering figures of minimalist and microtonal music.

Fascinated in the 1940s with the teaching of the Second Viennese school and its characteristic twelve-tone music, he shifted in the 1950s towards more radical and experimental avenues. His interest in mysticism and esoterism largely influenced him. Testament to this is a Zen symbol added to his signature on all of his scores. Oriental philosophies didn’t much influence his compositional methods, but rather provided concepts through which to compose music.

His main musical teaching was that the whole world depends on sound. The repetition of a single sound, in particular, is central to his ideas. He writes: ‘my music is not this, nor that, it’s not dodecaphony nor pointillism, it’s not minimalist either [...]. Notes are just wrappers […]. Sound is spherical, but we always tend to see it in terms of duration and frequency. That is not right. Every spherical element has a centre […]. We need to get to it. By hitting for a long time the same note, the note itself becomes bigger, it grows so much that its own harmony surfaces and enlarges within it’. A single sound loses then its status of one among equals with other notes in a piece, and becomes the essence of it, through the continuous elaboration of its frequency.

Scelsi's research determined, between 1952 and 1978, avant-garde compositional techniques which mainly involved improvisations both with piano and instruments producing quarters and octaves of tones, like the ondioline. His musical journeys were not only free of any constrictions, but also free from transcriptions (which he left to his collaborators, after recording his works on tape). The appreciation of the verticality of a sound, led him to further investigate musical timbre, and to appreciate the human voice as one of the most powerful instruments capable of breaking sonic structure.

Michiko Hirayama
Courtesy of Fondazione Isabella Scelsi

Among his closest collaborators was Michiko Hirayama (1923-2018), the Japanese singer historically associated with the performance of ‘Canti del Capricorno’, the 20-song cycle that Scelsi wrote specifically for her voice. The microtonal inflections in her technique while interpreting classical Japanese pieces had in fact soon captured him.

Scelsi officially wrote the cycle between 1962 and 1972. During an interview with musical artist Arturo Tallini though, Hirayama explains how it actually took her four decades to reach interpretative perfection of the cycle’s vocal part. Firstly, the manuscripts contained notes with just phonemes pencilled down to which she had to add her own improvisation and vocal experiments so as to become the instrument of the song itself rather than its interpreter, quite an open-ended task; secondly, she felt the intensity of both emotional and mental state required to make Scelsi’s work come to life was only achieved when she was 82. In 2005, towards the end of a performance of the entire cycle held in Berlin, she indeed found herself in a state of unconsciousness. Only then she considered ‘Canti del Capricorno’ finally completed.

C611/49 Scelsi No. 2

This is an extract from Michiko Hirayama’s performance of ‘Canti del Capricorno’, No. 2 performed at the ICA on 8 February 1981.

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