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279 posts categorized "Recording of the week"

06 July 2020

Recording of the week: Barbara Kruger in conversation

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This week's selection comes from Dr Eva del Rey, Curator of Drama and Literature Recordings and Digital Performance.

Barbara Kruger, ‘You Are Not Yourself’, 1981
Barbara Kruger, ‘You Are Not Yourself’, 1981 © Image: callejero / VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Listen to a recording of visual artist Barbara Kruger in conversation with the art historian Griselda Pollock at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), London,1991.

Barbara Kruger ICA London 1991

Barbara Kruger is best known for her found photographs in black-and-white, overlaid with eye-catching text, displayed on billboards, banners, bumper stickers, postcards and the likes. Her work addresses social issues, gender representation, violence against women, misogyny, power politics and the pitfalls of capitalism and consumerism. She deconstructs commonly held assumptions with forthright eloquence, bold humour and open-ended meaning:

‘I shop therefore I am’.

‘Your body is a battleground’

‘It’s a small world but not if you have to clean it’

In addition to her photographic and collage work she makes large-scale immersive installations covering all areas of the exhibition space. She also creates works on film and video.

Kruger has exhibited both outdoors in public spaces and indoors in galleries and museums. Some of her more recent creations include the design of the cover of the New York Magazine pre-election issue (2016 USA elections), published on the 31st October, showing a closely cropped image of Donald Trump’s face overlaid with the word 'LOSER'; an installation entitled Untitled (Skate) at the Coleman Skate Park in New York in 2017; and in 2018, a large-scale mural painted in the colours of the Argentinian flag covering an abandoned grain silo in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires, Untitled (No Puedes Vivir Sin Nosotras / You Can’t Live Without Us).

Barbara Kruger started making art in the 1970s leaving behind a successful career as a graphic designer for magazines such as Mademoiselle. She first exhibited in London at the ICA in 1983. Later in 2014, she had a large solo exhibition Untitled (Titled) at the Modern Art Oxford Gallery, and her next show, set to open at the Art Institute of Chicago this November 2020, Thinking of You. I Mean Me. I Mean You, is expected at the Hayward Gallery in London, in 2021. This will be her biggest exhibition in 20 years, featuring four decades of her work.

In this 1991 recording at the ICA she talks about the importance of making art that is accessible to everyone and why she challenges being called a feminist conceptual artist:

‘I’ve never felt myself defined or defined myself as a maverick girl, feminist artist, and nobody was searching for women artists to take up, you know. Perhaps they are beginning to do it now in NY, but we made our presence known and forced the issue. No one was looking for us, in fact they were looking the other way’ (20:59).

This recording is part of the ICA collection C95, available online on British Library Sounds. It is made up of 889 sound recordings of talks and discussions with prominent writers, artists and filmmakers, which took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, between 1982 and 1993.

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

30 June 2020

The Santals, Scandinavian missionaries, and salvage ethnomusicology: an encounter of three worlds

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Since 2015, Christian Poske has conducted his PhD research on the Bengal recordings of the Arnold Bake Collection. A Collaborative Doctoral Scholarship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, situated his PhD within two institutions: the British Library Sound Archive and SOAS, University of London. He conducted his fieldwork in Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Bangladesh from April to October 2017, revisiting the locations of Arnold Bake’s fieldwork. Christian's fieldwork investigated the aims and methods of Bake’s research in the early 1930s and studied the continuity and change in the devotional and folk music and dance documented by Bake. Christian is completing his PhD in Music this year at SOAS and in addition to his research has been engaged as a cataloguer for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project. He currently works as Bengali Cataloguer at the Department of Asian and African Collections at the British Library.

The audio recordings from the Christian Poske Collection have recently been catalogued and will be available for on-site listening at the British Library when the Reading Rooms re-open. For now, those interested can access the descriptions of the recordings by browsing the Sound and Moving Image catalogue for catalogue entries under collection number C1795. This blog post written by Christian Poske is an insightful introduction to the collection through his fieldwork in Jharkhand and West Bengal.

The restudy of historical sound recordings often gives unexpected results. During my research on the cylinder recordings of the Dutch musicologist Arnold Bake (1899-1963) at the British Library Sound Archive, I came across a number of sparsely documented recordings made at a Christian mission for the Santals, a South Asian aboriginal people centred in the Indian state of Jharkhand today. When I conducted my fieldwork in 2017, I found out that one of the church songs recorded by Bake is still popular among converts in the region.

'Recently, I had the opportunity to start recording Santal music… To really get in touch with the Santals, I have turned to the currently most important authority in this field, Dr Bodding... However, he is a missionary, and as he helped me along, we arrived at a huge boarding school for Santals. But it looks worse than it is. The mission has the policy to change as little as possible. Language, music and customs are, if anyhow possible, retained. All melodies used in the church are pure Santal melodies, although the words were made Christian... The music as such is quite unlike Hindu music, and their whole musical sense is very different. They love polyphony a lot when they get to hear it. I have recorded a sample (which hardly has any scientific value) how the Santal singing master of the school edited a song with four voices without actually ever having a European education, he does not speak a word of English, for example. The boys sing it with passion, which you could never expect from the Hindus…'
(Arnold Bake, letter to Erich M. v. Hornbostel, 15.4.1931, Berlin Phonogram Archive)

With these words, Bake explained his fieldwork at the Kairabani mission to Erich M. v. Hornbostel (1877-1935), the director of the Berlin Phonogram Archive. The Norwegian missionary Paul Olaf Bodding (1865-1938) of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches had arranged Bake’s visit to Kairabani.

1. Kairabani Church 1926
'The new Kairabani Church at the consecration, 1926' (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen/ International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

In the letter to Hornbostel, Bake referred to the church song 'Boge gupi do' ('The Good Shepherd') that had been composed by the Norwegian missionary Lars Olsen Skrefsrud (1840-1910) around 1886 (Gausal 1935: 70). Skrefsrud, one of the founders of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches, settled in India to make sustained efforts to convert the Santals from animist belief to Christianity. He learned Santali language from 1867 onwards and published the first comprehensive grammar of the language a few years later (1873), which introduced a romanisation system providing the language with the first standard script that is still used by converts today, with minor amendments made by Bodding.

Skrefsrud group photo
From left to right: Missionaries H. P. Børresen, H. J. Muston, L. O. Skrefsrud, with Santali hunting priest, chiefs (with turbans), hunters, and musicians (Santal Parganas, 1874) (Photographs of the Danmission, Copenhagen / International Mission Photography Archive, USC Digital Library)

Bake recorded solo and choral renditions of the song 'Boge gupi do', which is based on a traditional Santali melody, as he correctly noted. However, the choral version had not been arranged by the Santali choir leader of the Kairabani mission, but by an organist of the Santal Mission of the Northern Churches (Rạṛ Puthi 1929: preface).

'Boge gupi do' performed by male singer, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/1641)

'Boge gupi do' performed by male choir, Kairabani, March 1931 (C52/2128)

Arnold Bake’s views on the Santals and their music and dance were influenced by colonial ethnographic clichés of aboriginal peoples that he replicated in his correspondence and publications (Bake 1936-37: 68), where he portrayed the Santals as a natural and pleasure-loving people, fond of music, dance, and drinking, and overall in a half-civilised state. One month after his visit to Kairabani, he filmed Santali dances at a Hindu festival in the village Kankalitola near Santiniketan. In a letter to his relatives, he described what he had seen in Kankalitola as 'a real nature dance':

'I am so curious what you will think of the films from Kankalitola that we left behind in Calcutta last week to reproduce. It was the typical male and female dances. You will see, I think, why the missionaries are against this dancing, it is very sensuous, yet it has great charm… And so entirely unaffected, a real nature dance.' (Arnold Bake, letter to his mother-in-law, 20.5.1931, Mss Eur F191/8, 191)

In Kairabani, he photographed Santali pupils playing their instruments at the mission, but he seems to have been dissatisfied with the sober ambience of the premises. To also have a picture of a Santali musician in a natural environment, he probably arranged a photo with one of the musicians outside:

Santali flute player by pond
Santali flute player by a pond, photograph by Arnold Bake (Kairabani mission, March 1931)

In this period, Hornbostel and other comparative musicologists collected recordings from musicologists and ethnographers worldwide at the Berlin Phonogram Archive 'to save what can be saved' of the traditional musics of the world threatened by the spread of Western culture (Hornbostel 1904-5: 97). Such recordings were expected to be made in surroundings free from European cultural influences. Therefore, Hornbostel marked all of Bake’s recordings from the mission as “worthless” (Ziegler 2006: 101-2), notwithstanding whether these featured traditional Santali or Christian songs. The reason for Hornbostel’s drastic measure was his suspicion that exposure to western church music had affected the Santals’ renditions of their own traditional songs. In his reply to Bake, he only hinted at his reservations:

'I am already very excited about the recordings and hope that you will have more opportunity for interesting recordings... of the Santals. In general: the more you record, the better, provided that the music is not europeanised yet.'
(Erich M. v. Hornbostel, letter to Arnold Bake, 5.7.1931, BPA)

When I began to evaluate Bake’s recordings at the British Library Sound Archive in 2015, I could not distinguish traditional from Christian songs among the Kairabani recordings due to my lack of knowledge of Santali language. Through my fieldwork, I was able to find out more. In Jharkhand, I visited the Kairabani mission school that still exists today. Here, I met the Santali language teacher Ignatius Besra, who helped me with the evaluation of the recordings at his home in Dumka. As he recognised the song 'Boge gupi do' (C52/2128), he rushed from the desk in the living room to another room to bring the church song book Sereń Puthi. He showed me the lyrics and said it was a 'hit' still popular among converts today. When I left, he gave me his copy on the way. I visited the Kairabani mission for the last time the following day and asked a schoolteacher to sing the song for me:

'Boge gupi do' performed by Nalini B. Hansdak Kairabani, May 2017 (C1795/11)

Mansaram Murmu, a doctoral researcher from Visva-Bharati University, translated it for me in Santiniketan two months later:

            Boge gupi do / A good shepherd -
            Ac’ren bhiḍhiko, boeha, / for his sheep, brothers,
            Ạḍiy’ jotonko; / he cares a lot.
            Sahre jaegate / Towards a good place,
            phạria dak’ jharanatey’ / to a spring of clean water,
            Ạyur idiko. / he leads them.

            Mit’ bhiḍiy’ at’len khan, / When a sheep gets lost -
            Ạuri ńame dhạbic’ doe / until he retrieves it,
            Gupi pańjaye. / he searches it.
            Uni ńamkate / When he has found it,
            Tarenrey’ ladeye / he carries it on his shoulder
            Rạskạ monte. / gladly.

            Ac’ak’ oṛak’te / At his home,
            Seṭerkate do boeha / when he has arrived, brothers,
            Peṛae jarwako, / he invites its kin,
            Onkoe metako / and tells them,
            Rạskạk’pe iń tuluc’, / Rejoice with me,
            Bhidin ńamkede. / I have found the lost sheep.

            Tạruc’e hec’len khan /When the tiger comes
            Ṭheṅga epelkate doe / he brandishes the stick
            Teṅgo darame; / and saves them. .
            Ac’ren bhiḍiko / His sheep,
            Maraṅ mũhim khongey’ / from huge danger
            Aḍ bańcaoko. / he saves them.

            Bhiḍi ńutumte / For the sheep,
            Boge gupi do boeha, / a good shepherd, brothers,
            Jiwiy’ alaea; / sacrifices his life.
            Jisui nonkaket’, / Jesus does like this
            Bańcao akat’bonae, / he has saved you
            Soetan tạrup’ khon. / from the grasp of the devil-tiger.

            Sereń Puthi (2015: 168)

Carrying out fieldwork with Bake’s recordings showed me the advantages of reconnecting cultural heritage communities with historical sound recordings that are insufficiently documented. Apart from the ethical imperative of making recordings from the colonial period accessible in countries of origin again, community engagement often brings valuable information to light that makes it possible to enhance the archival documentation of recordings, which ultimately makes the material more meaningful to everyone.

This blog is derived from my PhD research “Continuity and Change: A Restudy of Arnold Adriaan Bake’s research on the devotional and folk music and dance of Bengal 1925-1956”, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, Award No. 1664039.

Further Reading:

Rạṛ Puthi: Book of Melodies (Choral Book). 1929. Dumka: The Santal Mission of the Northern Churches.

Sereń Puthi ["Book of Songs"]. 2015. Dumka: Dumka Diocesan Council (NELC).

Bake, Arnold A. 1936-7. ‘Indian Folk-Music’. Proceedings of the Musical Association 63: 65– 77.

Gausdal, Johannes. 1935. Contributions to Santal Hymnology. Bibliotheca Norvegiæ Sacræ 11. Bergen: Lunde.

Hornbostel, Erich Moritz von. 1904-5. ‘Die Probleme Der Vergleichenden Musikwissenschaft’. Zeitschrift Der Internationalen Musikgesellschaft 7: 85-97.

Skrefsrud, Lars Olsen. 1873. A Grammar of the Santhal Language. Calcutta: Calcutta School Book and Vernacular Literature Society.

Ziegler, Susanne. 2006. Die Wachszylinder Des Berliner Phonogramm-Archivs. Veröffentlichungen des Ethnologischen Museums Berlin. Berlin: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

29 June 2020

Recording of the week: A charm to ward off evil

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

Fairies dancing in a ring
Unknown author (unidentified "17th-century English chapbook") / Public domain

Staverton Bridge - Holy water (C604/19 C8)

In the 1970s, folk song collector Peter Kennedy taught at Dartington College of Arts in Totnes, Devon. He recorded folk group Staverton Bridge in 1974, when the band (made up of three former students from the college) played a concert at Foxhole school, in the grounds of Dartington Hall. Taking their name from one of Devon’s oldest bridges, Tish Stubbs, Sam Richards and Paul Wilson created a sound characterised by a mixture of vocal harmonies and acoustic instruments, including drum, guitar, recorder, concertina and field organ. The concert rambles freely across the highways and byways of the English folk song repertoire, featuring a lively mix of shanties, dance tunes, wassailing songs, ballads and madrigals. The featured recording, which is based on a poem by Robert Herrick, is introduced by Sam Richards who describes how he found the words, set to a tune by an anonymous composer, in a book in Ealing Public Library. The whole concert is charming in every sense of the word, but this piece has an atmospheric magic of its own.

Holy water come and bring;

Cast in salt for seasoning

Set the brush for sprinkling

Sacred spittle bring ye hither

Meal and now it mix together

Add a little oil to either

Give the tapers here their light

Ring the saints bell to affright

Far from hence the evil sprite

UOSH

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

22 June 2020

Recording of the week: Underwater sounds from Cromer Pier

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This week's recording of the week comes from Emma Burman, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

Having spent many a childhood holiday on Cromer Pier in Norfolk, you’d think I would know the sounds of the area well. However, having never been adventurous enough to fully submerge myself in the freezing East Coast waters, I was unaware of the beauty of its underwater sounds until now.

Cromer Pier
Courtesy of BurlyBullet via Pixabay

This Underwater recording from Cromer Pier captures the entrancing rhythm of the waves as they flow between the pillars of the pier. The sound of the swirling water moving weathered stones is almost orchestral, like a delicate percussion section, with tinkling xylophones.

Underwater recording from Cromer Pier

The ability to capture these underwater sounds is possible thanks to a device called a hydrophone. The modern hydrophone’s development can be traced back to the First World War, as scientists were developing methods to sense and reveal the bearing of enemy submarines. By the end of the war, Britain had thirty eight hydrophone officers and 200 qualified listeners. The hydrophone continued to be the sole method for submarines to detect targets while submerged until the introduction of the active sonar in the early 1920s.

Modern day recordists still use hydrophones to document and learn more about the underwater world. Sadly, through this research, they have identified that recordings are often ‘polluted’ by the sounds of human noise, which has now become a recognised global problem. Shipping noise has been shown to cause chronic stress in certain species of whales, construction noise has forced porpoises to leave feeding grounds and naval sonar can cause mass stranding of beaked whales.

One of the parts that stands out so much about this recording is the clash between the calm swirl of the natural waters and the metallic creaking of the Cromer Pier. To my ears, the pier didn’t seem like a ‘polluting’ sound in this musical underwater rendition. Nonetheless, this recording does highlight the question of how much our human lives impact upon the watery world below.

This recording was made by Peter Toll in 2012 and forms part of the British Library's wildlife and environmental sounds collection.

Discover more sounds from beneath the waves on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

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

15 June 2020

Recording of the week: The Kankurang or how to enforce a lockdown

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

The Kankurang is a Mandinka masked figure from the Senegambia region, associated with male societies and more specifically with boys' initiation ceremonies. It is a protective figure and an enforcer of rules, but, as masked figures go, the Kankurang is also pretty scary. It is uncannily tall, entirely covered in strands of red bark, and faceless. As it roams the streets at night, it brandishes and strikes together two machete knives, letting out a blood-chilling, high-pitched cry from time to time.

image of Kankurang
Photo by Dorothy Voorhees, licensed under cc-by-sa-2.0 / cropped and desaturated from original

Only a few initiates know the identity of the person hiding inside the costume; and besides, it doesn’t matter much because, once the costume is donned, the man, as it were, disappears and the Kankurang takes his place.

The whole point of the Kankurang is that you do not want to run into it, because although its role in society is useful and ultimately positive, the Kankurang is dangerous. It often roams accompanied by a small group of stick-carrying young men, the Kankurang’s followers and helpers, who can administer punishment on its behalf, and many a person has been beaten just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

'When the mask roamed the streets at night, cooking fires were extinguished, lights were switched off, and women wouldn’t leave their homes” (De Jong 2001: 14).'

This frightening masked figure makes its appearance at liminal times, during the change of seasons, around the time of boys’ circumcision ceremonies. After an extended period away from home, the newly-circumcised boys return from the bush school to their families, where they undergo a period of enforced rest while they heal and get ready to re-enter society as adults. It is important that during this time the boys stay indoors, and the Kankurang is a very effective means of ensuring their lockdown. The temptation to sneak outside to play is easily vanquished when one hears the piercing cries of the Kankurang coming from the street.

From the late 20th century onwards, there has also been a new kind of secular Kankurang mask. Especially in urban environments, at Christmas time and other secular traditions during the dry season, it is not uncommon to see an almost playful Kankurang dancing in the street during broad daylight, with children watching on and laughing rather than running away in terror. However, in spite of this new, more benevolent masked figure, many bear witness to the fact that the real, sacred, dangerous Kankurang still exists. You may not find it in the cities and big towns, but out in the countryside and around the smaller villages, where the dark stillness of the night still hasn’t been conquered by electricity, its knives still clang menacingly.

This week’s recording is a rare aural document of the 'real' Kankurang, made in The Gambia by music researcher and producer Lucy Durán. What follows is the sound recording and her account of the circumstances surrounding the recording of this rather strange piece of audio.

Kankurango and bullroarer [extract] (BL REF C2/269 S1 C1) 

It was the spring of 1986 and I was on my way to Mali with journalist James Fox. We were staying in Brikama, in The Gambia, at the house of my friend Dembo Konte, a well-known kora player. It was late at night and we were sitting in Dembo’s courtyard, chatting. The boys of Brikama had just got back from the bush school after circumcision. At some point, I heard a strange clatter coming from the street outside the compound. I mentioned this to Dembo who, after listening for a second, changed his smile to a frown and almost froze. He then got up and urged us all to go inside and lock all doors and windows. Initially, I thought he was playing a trick on us, but I soon realised he really was scared, and so I got scared too because it seemed that whatever it was that was making those sounds (and it was getting closer) was genuinely dangerous. And so, not knowing what I was running from, I ran inside with the others, went to my room and hastily closed the window and locked it. I then realised that the thing was right outside my window. I could hear metallic noises, a whirring sound like that of a bullroarer,* and strange, high-pitched cries. My portable recorder was just there, so I picked it up and started recording, while Dembo kept signalling us to stay quiet and not make any noise. Only after it was gone I learnt from Dembo that the creature outside our house was the fearsome Kankurang.

*The eerie whirring sound, clearly audible on the recording, is produced by a bullroarer called ngarankulo, also associated with boys’ initiation ceremonies. It was probably operated by one of the Kankurang’s followers.

Many thanks to Lucy Durán for allowing us to share her recording and for all the background information provided. The Lucy Durán Collection has been digitised as part of the British Library's Unlocking our Sound Heritage project.

Further reading:

De Jong, Ferdinand. 2001. “Démasqué”, Etnofoor Vol. 14, No. 2: 7-22.
Weil, Peter M. 1971. “The masked figure and social control: the Mandinka case”, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 41, No. 4: 279-293.

UOSH

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.

Follow @BLSoundHeritage for all the latest news from the project.

01 June 2020

Recording of the week: Herrings' heads

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This week's selection comes from Harriet Roden, Digital Learning Content Developer for Unlocking our Sound Heritage.

Johnny Doughty was always singing songs about the sea and the shore. Born in 1903, he grew up in a fishing family in Brighton, Sussex. His grandmother took in washing, his uncle supplied the horses for the lifeboat.

Brighton Net Arches in the 1860s
Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove, CC BY-SA

The start of Johnny’s singing career was rocky, and striking a balance between the school choir and his love of the beach proved difficult. As a child, Johnny spent Sundays helping fishermen with their boating and his mother often had to fetch him in time to perform at the local church. On one occasion he forgot his boots and stockings. Although he attempted to march in with the rest of the choir in just his cassock, he got the sack instead.

Outside of school and home, he spent his time on the beach – the cockle and whelk stalls, the boats and St Margaret’s Net Arch by the Palace Pier. Here Johnny listened to the hum of songs from sailors and fishermen mending their nets.

One such song he learnt at the Arch was Herring’s Heads. A cumulative song with a simple harmony, Johnny himself describes the song as a ‘beer-shop song’. Each verse dissects the body of the fish and transforms each part into something new. First, the head is turned into ‘loaves of bread’, the eyes become ‘puddings and pies’ and the bellies ‘jams and jellies’. A version of each verse and chorus is repeated until the performers’ reach the herrings' tails.

Herring's heads (BL REF C1047/39)

Beyond the Arch, Johnny learned more songs through his time spent in both the Royal and Merchant navy and his years spent trawling the ocean for fish.

It wasn’t until he was in his early seventies that he was discovered by Mike Yates to record for Topic Records. Ever the performer, Johnny would take the time to entertain with funny asides and winks here-and-there, very often with a ‘pot’ of Guinness in one hand.

Discover more sea shanties and sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

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

25 May 2020

Recording of the week: Account from a Norfolk lifeboatman

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This week's recording of the week comes from Emma Burman, Learning and Engagement Coordinator.

The role of a lifeboatman has never been an easy one. Before the widespread introduction of modern day lifeboats, with electronic mapping and covered shelter, men responded to calls in open topped boats. These boats had very little shelter from the harsh sea wind and splash, they were slow, and had no navigation systems. As soon as the boat launched, the men would look at their watches, put the charts on their knees and use their parallel rules to work out the tides. These men could spend five or six hours exposed to the elements during a call out, limiting their physical and mental ability to carry out their work.

Photograph of lifeboat station
Lifeboat station where Brian Pegg worked © J Gaiger / Stringer via Getty Images

In 1857, when with the originally established 1804 lifeboat organisation fell into financial troubles, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution took over the Cromer lifeboat station in Norfolk. Brian Pegg began working for the Cromer lifeboat station in 1964, continuing until he was 59 years old. Like many lifeboatmen, it was a job he loved.

Nonetheless, Brian maintained a very strong awareness of the sea’s unstoppable and merciless nature and the respect one must show it. In 1999, Brian contributed his voice to the Millennium Memory Bank, and spoke about the distress of losing someone at sea. Throughout the recording, he discusses the impact that two particular tragedies had on him, as well as the impacts felt by the wider community along the coast.

Account from Norfolk lifeboatman (BL REF C900/11583)

Brian described his life as divided into three, his church, his family and his work for both the RNLI and in later life, the Salvation Army. He believed that if you can get those three parts of life to work together ‘you're on a high’, and if someone asked him to divide them up, it would be very hard.

This recording is from the Millennium Memory Bank Project, the largest recording project in the history of British radio. It ran from 1998-99, capturing the pulse of the century through the voices of thousands of people from all walks of life.

Discover more sounds from our shores on the British Library’s Coast website.

UOSH

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